A Travellerspoint blog

Spain

The Grand Tourer Hits Madrid

Royal palaces, epic (though recent) Cathedrals, crystal palaces not in London, (not so) cubist squares, angled buildings, NHL on the TV, a small river, where bulls come to die and lobsters come to be eaten and finally watching rugby in an Irish pub.

sunny 15 °C
View Iberia '09 on GregW's travel map.

Hopping off the train from Salamanca, the grand tour of Iberia continues (and eventually ends) in Madrid.

Madrid is the capital of Spain, and its largest city as well. In fact, Madrid is the third largest city Europe (behind London and Berlin) and fourth largest metropolitan area in Europe (behind London, Paris and Istanbul - though that’s only really half in Europe).

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Madrid is situated on the large central plain of Spain, and is situated at 667 metres above sea level (2188 ft). Not enough that I found myself puffing walking up and down stairs (as I did in Denver), but enough that I noticed that two pints was enough to give me a touch of the wobbles. I’m a cheap drunk in Madrid.

Since the middle ages, the symbol of the city has been a bear feasting on fruit from a strawberry tree, due to the prevalence of both bears and strawberry trees in the area. Other than this statue and various coats of arms, I didn’t see any bears when I was there. Perhaps they have moved out to the suburbs.

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Like Salamanca, Madrid is built around a main square (Plaza Mayor), though Madrid stretches out a lot farther from its central square than Salamanca does. Madrid is at the geographic centre of Spain, so I suppose that means that Plaza Mayor is the exact centre of the country.

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I’ve complained before about human statues, those “performers” that paint themselves grey and stand completely still, hoping that you’ll donate some money into their pot. Pointless, it’s always seemed to me. I saw a new twist on this in Madrid, with the headless statue. Basically, it is a human statue, but the person is wearing a really tall collar so you can’t see their head. Occasionally they will wave.

“Oh look, the headless person is waving! How can they wave if they have no head?”

If I was three, I would have probably been impressed. Of course, if I was three I probably wouldn’t have had any change to donate to a headless statue. I guess they are hoping for guilty parents to pay for the joy given to their children.

Spain has an interesting political history. Over the past 150 years, it went from a monarchy to a dictatorship to a republic to another dictatorship to finally a democratic constitutional monarchy. The current King of Spain is Juan Carlos I, and “officially” lives in the Royal Palace in Madrid, though it is really only used for state ceremonies. King Johnny-Charlie actually lives in a little place in the suburbs called the Palace of Zarzuela. The king is just another central city worker commuting in on the trains in the morning, I assume. Maybe he sees bears out there at his suburban palace.

Anyway, seeing as the Royal Palace wasn’t being used for any official functions at the time I was there, I was able to take a tour of the place. No photos allowed on the inside, but you can get a decent enough idea of the majesty of the place from the outside.

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Just to the south of the Royal Palace is the Cathedral de La Almudean. Construction was started on the Cathedral in 1879, but was abandoned after the Spanish Civil War. Construction was restarted in 1950, and finally completed in 1993. Cathedrals always seem to take a long time to build.

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Despite taking a long time to build, the Catholic church in Spain seems to be doing okay. As I was walking around, there was soft organ music playing throughout the church. It wasn’t from the massive organ, but rather was being pumped in out of the Bose speakers attached to columns throughout the church. Bitchin’ stereo system, Archbishop.

Not in use when I was there

Not in use when I was there

Out front they have a big statue of Pope John Paul II, who was pope when the cathedral was finished in 1993. Even in bronze, he seems more life-like than the current pope.

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After seeing the two main tourist sites, I took a wander around Madrid. Took in sites like the Plaza de Espana, Plaza de Oriente, Rose Garden, Puerta del Sol and points in between.

Yellow building in Sun

Yellow building in Sun


I shall run you through!

I shall run you through!


Ornate Window at Police Station

Ornate Window at Police Station


Riding into the sunset at Puerta del Sol

Riding into the sunset at Puerta del Sol


Ramiro the first statue in Plaza de Oriente

Ramiro the first statue in Plaza de Oriente


Smells like flowers!

Smells like flowers!


I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden!

I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden!


Cross in the light

Cross in the light


Can you hear the people sing?  Statue near Principe Rio

Can you hear the people sing? Statue near Principe Rio


Building near Banco de Espana

Building near Banco de Espana


Birds bathing at Plaza de Espana

Birds bathing at Plaza de Espana


Balconies ad infinitum

Balconies ad infinitum

After lunch, I headed over to the other side of Madrid to check out the Parque de El Retiro. Known officially was the Parque del Buen Retiro (the park of the pleasant retreat), most folks just call it El Retiro. Three-hudred-fifty acres of green space, it is known as the “lungs of Madrid.” It includes the Monument to Alfonso XII overlooking the Retiro Pond and the Crystal Palace, inspired by the place of the same name in London.

Monument to King Alfonso XII at lake in Parque de El Retiro

Monument to King Alfonso XII at lake in Parque de El Retiro


Fountain near Alcala gate in Parque de El Retiro

Fountain near Alcala gate in Parque de El Retiro


Holding the crown at fountain near lake in Parque de El Retiro

Holding the crown at fountain near lake in Parque de El Retiro


Puerta de Alcala

Puerta de Alcala


Tables at snack bar in Parque de El Retiro

Tables at snack bar in Parque de El Retiro


Alcala Gates in Parque de El Retiro

Alcala Gates in Parque de El Retiro


Pond at Crystal Palace in Parque de El Retiro

Pond at Crystal Palace in Parque de El Retiro


Crystal Palace in Parque de El Retiro interior

Crystal Palace in Parque de El Retiro interior


Crystal Palace in Parque de El Retiro in sun

Crystal Palace in Parque de El Retiro in sun


Crystal Palace in Parque de El Retiro

Crystal Palace in Parque de El Retiro


Trees turning in Parque de El Retiro

Trees turning in Parque de El Retiro

There is also a statue by sculptor Ricardo Bellver called El Angel Caído, inspired from a passage in Paradise Lost by John Milton. The sculpture represents Lucifer falling from the heavens. It is claimed this is the only known public monument to the devil, though I somehow doubt it. Anyway, my camera was momentarily possessed by a demon of ill-focus, so my picture of the fountain is mucho fuzzy.

Fountain Glorieta del Angel Ciado in Parque de El Retiro

Fountain Glorieta del Angel Ciado in Parque de El Retiro

I did at least get this in focus close up of the dragons spewing water at the fountain.

Dragon Spewing at Fountain Glorieta del Angel Ciado in Parque de El Retiro

Dragon Spewing at Fountain Glorieta del Angel Ciado in Parque de El Retiro

That was a lot of wandering, so time for a break. Cervezas, Vinos and tapas sounds good.

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Streets in the central part of Madrid have decorative signs for their street names. In addition to the street name, they have a picture depicting the name of the street.

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I was staying at the Hotel Ingles, which was described as being a faded glory by some of the reviewers on hotel review sites. It’s really not that faded, nor glorious. Especially when compared to my hotel in Buenos Aires, the Hotel Reina. It had Marble stairways, stained glass windows, 25 foot ceilings and a wrought-iron elevator cage for the glory part. For the faded part, the elevator didn’t work and smelled of electrical smoke and the carpet in the lobby was threadbare. Now that is faded glory!

Back to Madrid (which incidentally reminded me a lot of Buenos Aires - though I suppose actually it is more the other way around - Buenos Aires is Madrid-like, as Madrid was built first). The hotel Ingles dates back to the 1880s (the specific year seems to be in doubt, even in the hotel’s own information. It is either 1882 or 1886). The rooms have been updated since then, though, and are clean though small hotel rooms. They do have high ceilings and cool wooden shutters on the windows. The hotel is central located, well priced, doesn’t have bed bugs and does have hot water, so that’s all that mattered to me.

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The hotel does have CNN. I caught this little nugget on CNN - a crack down on immigration to the UK. Hopefully they let me back in the country!

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The next day I headed north, for no particular reason other than I had spent most my time in South-central Madrid the day before.

Church near Tribunal station

Church near Tribunal station


Flats and Balconies along Calle de Almagro

Flats and Balconies along Calle de Almagro


Faces on building near Banco de Espana

Faces on building near Banco de Espana


Path and Trees on Paseo de la Castellana

Path and Trees on Paseo de la Castellana


Plaza Dr. Maranon

Plaza Dr. Maranon


Pink flats and balconies

Pink flats and balconies


White building on Paseo de la Castellana

White building on Paseo de la Castellana


Traffic in Plaza de Cibeles

Traffic in Plaza de Cibeles


Red Curvy Building at Ruben Dario

Red Curvy Building at Ruben Dario

That eventually took me to Nuevos Minsterios and Plaza de Pablo Picasso. Nuevos Minsterios is a large government complex that houses the headquarters of several ministries. Just north of it is a large metro and train station topped by a mall, and just north of that the Plaza de Pablo Picasso. For a plaza named after Picasso, it is not very cubist. It is just a shady, green square surrounded by big tall office blocks.

Arches at Nuevos Minsterios

Arches at Nuevos Minsterios


Pool at Nuevos Minsterios

Pool at Nuevos Minsterios


Steps at Nuevos Minsterios

Steps at Nuevos Minsterios


Funky Sculpture in Plaza de Pablo Picasso

Funky Sculpture in Plaza de Pablo Picasso


English going cheap at Plaza de Pablo Picasso

English going cheap at Plaza de Pablo Picasso

After lunching in the area, I headed just further north to see Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, the home of Real Madrid. Real Madrid is a football team in Madrid, playing in the Spanish league, and the team which houses superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka. Real Madrid has also been declared the most successful club of the 20th century by FIFA, having won a record thirty-one La Liga titles, seventeen Spanish Cups, a record nine European Cups and two UEFA Cups.

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Seems a little concrete-ish from the outside. Maybe it is nicer on the inside.

Up the street from the stadium is the Plaza de Castilla. Its just a big traffic circle with a monstrous metro, train and bus station, but it has these nifty diagonal buildings.

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From there, I took the metro back down to Sol station, near my hotel. Gotta love the metro in Madrid. 13 underground lines and 3 tram lines, it is one of the longest metro systems in the world. Its growth in the last twenty years has been dubbed the “Madrid miracle” and made Madrid the envy of many transit geeks the world over. Plus, it only costs €1 to get almost anywhere on the system except the furthest outer reaches.

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That evening, after 6 meals in a row of tapas, I decided to go for a full-grown meal, and hit a Mexican restaurant near my hotel. It was nice to see that all the Mexican stereotypes that one sees in North America, and no doubt makes Mexicans cringe, are alive and well in Spain as well. Sombreros and maracas, festive lights and waiters saying “Si, Senor” like Speedy Gonzales. Despite being a Mexican restaurant, I don’t recognise any dishes on the menu. I order something with the word pollo in the name. It was okay. The Mexican beer was cold.

After dinner, I took a wander around the area near my hotel.

Palace Hotel

Palace Hotel


Traffic circle and fountain

Traffic circle and fountain


Tio Pepe Sign in Puerta del Sol

Tio Pepe Sign in Puerta del Sol


Fountain in Paseo del Prado 2

Fountain in Paseo del Prado 2


Bench and Lights in Paseo del Prado

Bench and Lights in Paseo del Prado

Wandered out, I hit a bar. I randomly choose a place near my hotel, chosen mostly for the short distance back to my hotel. Seemed a typical, small, lounge.  Lots of comfy and hip grottoes and groups of young Madrid-ites hanging out, just gearing up for a long night out.  Trance and dance music playing over the sound system.  Waitresses that were stunning.  One of them looked like former 1980s Canadian VJ Erica Ehm.

So what does this hip, lounge bar in the middle of Spain have playing on the TV?  A replay of the National Hockey League’s game from the previous night of Ottawa vs. Philadelphia.  I was, needless to say, the only person in the entire bar that was watching the hockey. I thought that perhaps I had died and gone to heaven - after all I had a teenage crush serving me and hockey on the TV. Then I got the bill for the beer. €4.50 for a half-a-pint. Nope, I’m still on earth.

I headed back to my hotel and crawled into bed. Turns out my room overlooked a street that was a big night out for a Friday evening. The party kept going and going and going. Finally, at 6 AM the noise stopped and the revellers went home.

The next day, my final day in Madrid, I decided to go and see the river. It was on the banks the Manzanares River that the city of Madrid was founded by the Moors in the seventh century, so I figured it would be an important and mighty water route through the city.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

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The river is pretty tiny, actually. On it’s banks stands Estadio Vincent Calderon, the home to Madrid’s other football team, Athletico Madrid. The banks of the river were pretty busy the day I was there due to an international football match between Argentina and Spain.

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I was hungry after my walk down to the river and it was noon, so I decided to get some lunch. It was very hard to find open food. Saturday noon in Madrid is like 8 AM Sunday in London. Only joggers, young families and old people are up. There are no stores open. I guess that makes sense as party people were up until 6 AM. Everyone is still in bed from the night before.

I was cranky without my lunch. I took out my Madrid map and studied it. I hadn’t done much research on Madrid before coming, and basically had just focused my touring on the points of interest listed on the map. On arriving and first looking at the map, I’d picked out a few places on the map that seemed to be most interesting. Of those, only one place still remained unvisited on my grand tour of Madrid.

The Plaza de Toros las Ventas, or in English, the bull ring.

For me, the concept of bull fighting and Spain are inextricably linked, and the las Ventas bull ring is could be considered the spiritual home of bull fighting. (Personally, I’d lean more towards Seville or Toledo as being the spiritual home of bull fighting, though I really know nothing about bull fighting, so I have logical reason to say that. They just “feel” more bull-fighting-ish.)

Anyway, my feet were hurting, my stomach was grumbling, and the pull of seeing the bull ring was waning as the pull of a cold beer and warm meal in central Madrid grew. I spent a minute staring at my Madrid subway map and thinking about the two different routes I could take - one to the bull ring and one to Sol station.

Finally, the grand tourer in me snapped out of his languor and stepped to the fore. “Come on, Wesson. You didn’t come all this way to just sit around, drink and relax, did you?”

At this point, the vacationer in me meekly said, “a little rest wouldn’t be a bad idea.” He got shouted down by the grant tourer, though, and off me and all my personalities went to the bull ring.

The bullring was opened in 1931 after the previous bullring proved to have too few seats. The new bullring, built in the Neo-Mudéjar architectural movement that pays homage to the Moorish history of Iberia, holds 25,000 people. In addition to bullfighting, the bullring holds concerts, tennis and when I was there, a circus. I wonder if the elephants get spooked by all the ghostly bulls wandering the pitch of the bullring?

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Not only was the grand tourer in me satisfied by seeing the bullring, but the stomach in me was satisfied as well. For outside the grounds of the bullring, Madrid was hosting the Fiesta Gastronomica del Marisco de Galicia y Artesania en Madrid. My Spanish ain’t great, but I recognised enough words to piece together “Seafood Festival.” Oh yeah. €14.00 for three lobster tails. Right on!

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Hands still covered in butter, I looked at my watch. It was still early afternoon, and my flight back to London wasn’t until nine in the evening, but even the grand tourer in me was too tired to continue. My thumb was still hurting from the spill I had taken in Sintra, I had a blister on the big toe of my right foot, my right achilles tendon felt like it was on fire and the instep on my left foot sent pulses of pain up my leg with every step. Because I had only planned a week in places I hadn’t been before, I had packed it full to the gills with activities. The only day “off” I had taken was on the Monday, and that day off included a tour of the area around Oriente station followed by a six hour train ride from Lisbon to Madrid.

The previously meek voice of the vacationer finally got his say.

“Let’s grab a beer and chill out until our flight.”

My personalities were all in agreement, so we grabbed the metro back to central Madrid where we had a few pints in an Irish pub, watching sports on the big screen, until it was time to collect our luggage and head out to the airport.

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After seven jam-packed days, I was ready to go home.

Posted by GregW 09:35 Archived in Spain Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Hola Salamanca!

Walking tour of Salamanca, Spain, UNESCO World Heritage Site... There seems to be a lot of those around.

sunny 15 °C
View Iberia '09 on GregW's travel map.

After a late night arrival in Salamanca, the next day I was off to explore.

Salamanca has a very long history, and much of the old town has been well preserved. UNESCO made the old city a world heritage site in 1988. The town is probably most famous for its University which was founded in the 12th century.

I did a rough circle of the city on my one day there, hitting all the highlights on my tourist map of the city, plus whatever I saw along the way.

It was a nice day, very sunny but a touch windy.

The town is centred around Plaza Mayor (Main Square). The buildings surround the square are Baroque dating from 1729 to 1755. The plaza was designed by the architect Alberto de Churriguera and finished by Andres Garcia de Quinones.

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Off to the east of the Plaza Mayor is Santa Clara Convent. No longer a convent, the building now hosts a museum with murals and paintings from the 13th to 16th centuries.

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Streets here are narrow and short and twisty, suddenly bursting out into open squares and park spaces, like a good medieval city should be.

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Plaza de Libertad

Plaza de Libertad


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Espoz y Mina Street

Espoz y Mina Street


Looking down Calle Consuelo at the Torre de Clavero

Looking down Calle Consuelo at the Torre de Clavero

Heading north from the Plaza Mayor, I eventually reached the Plaza de San Marcos and the Iglesia de San Macros, a small, round, Romanesque church at the Zamora gate to the city.

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Next I headed down the Paseo de Carmelitas, a wide boulevard with lots of green space with walking paths, trees, fountains and sculpture.

Gateway to Hospital Santisima Trinidad

Gateway to Hospital Santisima Trinidad


Spitting Boy Fountain in Paseo de Carmelitas

Spitting Boy Fountain in Paseo de Carmelitas

I cut in about halfway down the street at Campo de San Francisco, a green space that has the Vera Cruz church, Ursulas Convent and Monastery and the Palace of Monterrey bordering it.

Palacio de Monterrey Tower

Palacio de Monterrey Tower


Monastery of the Annunciation Doorway

Monastery of the Annunciation Doorway


Iglesia Vera Cruz bell tower

Iglesia Vera Cruz bell tower


Walking to church, entrance to Iglesia Vera Cruz

Walking to church, entrance to Iglesia Vera Cruz


Cross in Campo de San Francisco

Cross in Campo de San Francisco

From there, the tourist trail took me down Compania, a street jammed back with interesting sites.

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The Romanesque San Benito church is along the Compania right before you get to the imposing Universidad Pontificia. Established in 1104. During the middle ages the Benedictines who worshiped at this church battled for control of the city government with the worshippers of Saint Tome. Saint John of Sahagun mediated between the two groups, bringing peace to the city and in turn becoming patron saint of Salamanca.

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The Pontifical University of Salamanca, or in Spanish the Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca and known as the UPSA was founded in the 13th century as part of the main Salamanca University. The Spanish government dissolved of the University of Salamanca's faculties of Theology and Canon Law in 1854, closing the university. It was reopened in the 1940s.

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Courtyard of Bibloteca Publico across from the Universidad Pontificia

Courtyard of Bibloteca Publico across from the Universidad Pontificia

After crossing the Plaza San Isidro, you enter the main campus of the University of Salamanca.

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Columns of School of Philosophy at University of Salamanca, across from the Salamanca Cathedral

Columns of School of Philosophy at University of Salamanca, across from the Salamanca Cathedral

After almost eight centuries in operation, the university of Salamanca is still going strong. In addition to a number of students from Spain, the university is a favourite of foreign students, especially those looking to study Spanish, and has over 2000 foreign students.

Being in operation in 1218 makes it around the ninth oldest university in the world, though like all these lists, there are all sorts of disputes. Firstly, while being granted a Royal Charter in 1218, there was a school at Salamanca dating back at least 100 years earlier. Plus, places like the University of Nanjing, in China were founded in 258 BCE, but only became a “university” in 1888. Some claim Salamanca is the oldest because it was the first to be granted a papal decree to be a university

Whether Salamanca is 1st, 8th, 9th, or 20th on the list of oldest continually operating universities, dating back 800 years makes it pretty old in anybody’s book, I would think.

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The Rectorado...

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Rectorado? Damn near killedorado! Hmm, that joke seems to work a lot better in English.

Sitting just a block away from the university is the twin cathedrals of Salamanca. The original cathedral was built in the 12th century, and is a Romanesque medieval cathedral. A new cathedral was built, co-joined to the older cathedral in spurts and fits from the 16th to the 18th century, picking up elements of Baroque, Renaissance classicalism and Gothic architectural along the way.

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South of the Cathedral is the Tormes river, across which an old Roman bridge dating back to the first century spans. It’s been updated along the way.

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The other side of the bridge is the south side of the river known as Arrabal. The area seemed nice, if a touch quiet (excluding the traffic streaming along the main roads). Climbing up in the park gives a nice view of the old part of Salamanca across the river.

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Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad

Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad


Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad through wooden art

Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad through wooden art


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I crossed back over the Enrique Estevan bridge, which lead up to the Church and Convent of San Estevan. The convent belongs to the Dominican Order. Reading from the information on my tourist map, is says that the convent shows “ global concept of a city of thought like Salamanca. The facade of the church of the convent is considered one of the best examples of Plateresque style. The cloustro de los Reyes or La Sala Capitular are just some of the attractive places we can admire inside.”

I love that. “some of the attractive places we can admire inside.” Can we? I looked around to see who the "we" was, but it was just me.

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Just up the street is the 15th century Torre del Clavero. The tower is all that remains of a mansion built by Francisco de Sotomayor.

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I then did a trip through the nearby Parque Huerta de los Jesuitas, which is a pleasant green space to the east of the old city. I had done a lot of walking, though, and was getting tired, so I returned to my hotel to rest up.

I had dinner at a nice little restaurant just off the Plaza Mayor. It was tapas, so I had three plates of items instead one big plate. I must admit dinner was a kind of solemn affair. I like good food, but when travelling alone I usually just grab a quick and cheap bite. Its not that I don’t want to splash out on a nice meal, its just that I feel both self-conscious and bored sitting in a restaurant by myself for an hour eating a nice meal. I wonder what other solo travellers do about meals?

After that, I looked for a place to grab a pint. Of course, I wound up in an Irish pub. Irish pubs are everywhere. I drank in an Irish pub in Ulaan Bator, Mongolia. This one was different than most Irish pubs in that it had mixed Irish pub and pirate theme. The typical Irish paraphernalia like Guiness advertisements, bookcases and stained-glass windows separating booths was joined up with cannons, guns, parrots and boxes of treasure. I am not sure why the meshed those two together.

“Arr, matey. Top o’ the morning to ya, ya scurvy-dog!”

The bar was mostly filled with locals watching a couple Spanish football league matches. I noticed that the Spanish people don’t seem to take any breaks between words. Itsoundsliketheyjustsayanentiresentenceasasinglewordwithmanysyllables. I wonder how they breathe?

I really should have gone to this place...

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Mmmm, tarta de suelo... D'oh!

The next day, I checked out and bid "¡Adios!" to Salamanca and boarded a train to Madrid. The train was interesting, a small train of just 3 coaches, the interior of the cars were were white plastic, with blue fabric seats. It reminds me of a hospital from Sci-fi movies, but moving. Perhaps its design is based on a “hospital ship” from Star Wars or Aliens?

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As the train runs from Salamanca to Madrid, both situated on the central plains of Spain, we passed an number of rocky hills covered with sparse forests. It reminded me a lot of the novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” which probably speaks well about Hemmingway’s ability to describe landscapes as the novel does take place in the hills around Madrid.

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I sat back and watched the rocky, dry scenery pass by, waiting for the next part of the trip. Despite what they might have taught you in My Fair Lady, the central plains of Spain are quite dry.

Soon the rocky hills, patches of forest and endless plains gave way to low rise buildings, highways and office parks. The exterior of all cities now, almost indistinguishable from any other city.

This specific city, though, was Madrid.

Posted by GregW 14:30 Archived in Spain Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

From Portugal to Spain - Notes from the Rails

Taking the train from Portugal to Spain, and various items along the way.

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View Iberia '09 on GregW's travel map.

And that was it, after three days, my time in Portugal was over. A short trip to the country, but I'll have to come back. I never got to try the salt cod or have a glass of Port, so there is more to do in Portugal before my time on this earth is up.

I heard a lot of people speaking Portuguese during my time in Portugal. This is to be expected, of course. I don't think I've ever really heard Portuguese before. More correctly, I have probably heard people speaking Portuguese before, but it has never really registered. I've done lay-overs in Sao Paulo, where no doubt I heard numerous announcements in Portuguese, and I have friends with Portuguese background, so I may have heard it spoken by their parents and such. However, I've never really listened to it before.

What amazed me is that Portuguese sounded NOTHING like what I would have expected. Having seen it written, I expected it to sound like Spanish. It doesn't. Portuguese sounded to me liked Dutch people speaking alternating words in Russian and Spanish. Lots of harsh Russian sounds said with the slurred "sch" sound that Dutch people use, along with flowery Spanish sounding words. Very strange.

My time ended with a last glance at the International Fair grounds where Lisbon held Expo 1998. All those flags lined up along the basin, alphabetically arranged by Country.

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I was excited to get down to the Cs, where I looked up the tall flag pole dedicated to Canada.

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No flag! The only country where there wasn't a flag! I was crushed. However, the wind was very strong, and most of the flags were in tatters. I assume it wasn't an intentional slight, but rather more likely that the wind took away the Maple Leaf over the sea.

A couple workers were slowly working their way down the flags, taking down the tattered and faded flags and replacing them with new versions, so no doubt Canada's flag is flying high again. I just wonder how often they have to replace those flags, they way they whipped on those high, windy flag poles.

I left Portugal on the train, from Gare do Oriente (the Station of the West, literally). Oriente is one of the main transport hubs in Lisbon. It was designed by Santiago Calatrava for Expo '98, and sits right beside the grounds of the former world Expo. It is a very modern station, with lots of light and glass and swoopy curves inside, and an impressive glass platform roof (the term train shed seems inadequate here) like a medieval cathedral made of light.

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I had left my luggage in the lockers in the basement (floor -2 if you are looking for them) as I wondered around the grounds of the International Fair and went to see the Vasco Da Gama Tower (covered in a previous entry). Before claiming it, I popped into the toilets on the ground floor.

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Now, Oriente is a very busy commuter station. It handles 75 million passengers a year, and I was there at four in the afternoon on a weekday. Not quite rush hour yet, but still pretty busy. Therefore, I was amazed at what happened next.

I was in the toilet, standing at a urinal and doing what men do at urinals - taking care of business and staring straight ahead at the patch of wall directly in front of me. Out of my peripheral vision, though, I noticed the guy a couple urinals to my right was looking over at me. I took a quick glance over at him, and saw that he was involved in ... ummm... pleasuring himself. Right there, in the middle of a busy toilet in a busy train station in broad daylight (well, we were two stories underground - but it was broad daylight up there).

Upon me looking at him, he caught my eye and looked at me in a way to suggest that while he was having a good time, he would not be against a duet. I blushed and went back to staring at the wall ahead of me, trying to will myself to finish my biological functions as quickly as possible.

On leaving, the man was still there, still at full attention. He had now turned his attention to a man a few urinals away on his right, who was also trying his best to ignore him. As I washed my hands, the man who had been engaged in self-satisfaction zipped up and walked out of the toilet, obviously unable to attract the attention he wanted.

I finished washing and drying my hands, and I walked out of the toilet to see the self-lover standing by the door. As I exited, a commuter in a suit walked in the toilet, obviously in a hurry to quickly take a pee before grabbing his train. The stroker waited until the commuter had entered the toilet, and then followed him in.

Bold. I guess when one is dogging in a commuter train station, you might as well be bold.

The train I jumped on was the long distance train to Hendaye, known as the Sud-Express. The Sud-Express used to be a two-night sleeper train between Paris and Lisbon, but with the creation of the high-speed LGV Atlantique line, the train no longer goes direct to Paris. Instead, you get high-speed TGV to Hendaye, and then a slower train between Hendaye and Lisbon.

I wasn't going as far as Hendaye, just as far as Salamanca in Spain. It was still a 6 hour journey, though. When I got on the train, I was impressed to see that the seats were those old-fashioned six-seater compartments with a door and curtains for the windows, like in movies staring Clark Gable.

I settled in with the iPod on shuffle and started to read a book that my flat-mate had given me for my birthday - Kate Atkinson's "When Will There Be Good News?" It is a very good read. My only complaint is that books that involve train crashes with massive loss of life on page 149 should come with a warning of such, in the event that you don't want to be reading about train crashes whilest rumbling across the dark Portuguese countryside in a rickety, old train.

The train arrived in Salamanca at 2 minutes past midnight. The train station looked quite nice, but was deserted at that hour and all the shops were closed.

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From the train station, I had about a 15 minute walk to my hotel. I pulled out my printed Google map and headed along the route towards the centre of town.

One of the things I noticed when I was in Lisbon was that most of the windows have shutters on them, and this continued to be the fashion in Salamanca and later Madrid. Big, metal things that usually roll down on the outside of the window. They reminded me of the big, metal roll doors that shops often have on the front of them when they close up at night. I wasn't sure why they were there. If it was protection from burglars or rock-throwing kids, why did they even have them up on the top storeys of 15 storey apartment blocks?

In Lisbon it was just an idle curiosity. In Salamanca, walking along the deserted streets past midnight and seeing every window protected by a metal shutter and walls covered with graffiti, and you start to wonder if perhaps there is something you don't know about the neighbourhood you are walking through. Should I have body-armour or an armed escort for protection?

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Of course, it turns out to be nothing so sinister. I asked a friend who lived in Madrid, who said it was to block the sun. Most folks don't have curtains, and instead have shutters. In the hot summer, they close up the house during the day to keep the sun out, then open the shutters and windows at night to let in the cool breezes. Because I was there during chilly November, people weren't throwing open the windows at night.

I walked along the same route a few different times while in Salamanca, and even the sinister graffiti from that first night was not what it seemed. Rather than gang-tags, it was a quite well done mural of Alice in Wonderland.

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After a 15 minute walk, I arrived at my hotel, all body parts still intact. You know you are getting into late at your hotel when you walk into the lobby and they greet you by name, even though you’ve never been there before.

"Hello Mr. Wesson. Welcome to Salamanca."

Posted by GregW 12:00 Archived in Spain Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

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