The Real Madrid
Trip Start May 19, 2007
8Trip End May 26, 2007
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Spain better know as the home of the matador, for running with bulls, lunchtime siestas and the Real Madrid soccer team. That in a nutshell summed up my less than impressive knowledge base of Spain prior to this trip. The siesta and soccer parts sounded great but I was not convinced on the need to witness human skewering by a bull.
Part of my enjoyment when traveling is the planning phase. Deciding what to see, where to stay and what to eat and drink is fun - especially when the trip happens as planned. I like to be aware the culture before immersing into it. During my research of Spain, what I found most interesting, was the description of the typical Spanish lifestyle. Most people start work late (when compared to North America), can have 2-3 hour lunch breaks, finish work around 8, head out for appetizers ('tapas') and/or supper around 9-10 pm. This sounded like a really relaxing pace of life but I was slightly apprehensive as I pondered, "how could I survive with those restaurant hours?"
Madrid, Spain's capital, was the first stop for Yvonne and myself on our Spanish tour. Unfortunately we would only get to the central and southern parts of Spain on this trip as Spain is a large country. Northern Spain and Barcelona would have to wait until a future visit.
Upon arrival in Spain we were greeted by a silent yet stern looking customs officer who took my passport, inspected my picture and loudly stamped 'welcome to Spain' on a blank passport page. We were officially in Spain! Olé - now bring on the bulls.
Our first night involved immediate immersion into the Spanish scene as we walked the streets of Madrid and soaked up the local ambience. After dark, the streets of Madrid come alive as the mix of tourists and locals head out for beer and tapas or to wander in the cooling night. Our walkabout led us to Plaza Mayor, a large and beautiful plaza in central Madrid. The plaza's perimeter is lined by restaurants and bars. There was even a bar dedicated to bullfighting. On the walls of this 'bullfighting bar' were the heads of various 'toros' that had put up a good battle but still met their end at the hand of the matador in the bullring.
We settled in at an outdoor café for some tapas and drinks and watched the many people go by under the clear moonlight night. What a wonderful and memorable place for my first beer in Spain (always a memorable moment) - indeed a great start to the trip.
The next day, Sunday, was for exploring. It did not take long to realize that Madrid is truly a magnificent city. A favourite part of Madrid had to be the many grand boulevards, parks and plazas throughout the city. Most streets were majestically lined with blooming royal purple and red flowers and trees leading up to a spectacular water fountain centered by some beautiful statue. Ottawa, a great city itself, seemed a minnow in comparison to the splendour of Madrid - I was left asking why can't Ottawa even have one beautiful fountain?
While zooming around Madrid on the 'hop on, hop off' bus we hopped off at the 'El Rasto' flea market, which is one of Europe's largest. After more than two hours of walking, and walking and walking past hundreds of vendors, shoe stands, antique dealers, junk traders, tacky tourist stands and starving artists we gave up - it was too large to visit in a single afternoon - plus there was lots more to see and do.
This does not mean though we left empty handed, as it seemed that everything under the hot sun was available for sale. Yvonne picked up some stylish shoes and souvenirs while I acquired a hat to protect my head from the blistering Spanish mid-day sun.
The refined cultural event of the day was a visit to the Prado art museum. On Sunday it is free which mean a long line up. However the wait was worth it. Being one of the largest in Europe, it contains many famous artists and paintings, but of all the paintings I saw, there was one that clearly stuck out.
It was a painting done several hundred years ago by a Spaniard named Bosch or 'El Bosco'. This large three panel painting depicts the evolution of man from his past (with Adam and Eve), his current state with scenes of temptation and sin and finally the future describing where man is heading - which is basically down the gutter! It is hard to describe the many scenes on the painting but lets just say, you have to wonder what El Bosco was drinking back in the 1400's.
The highlight of our last day, Monday, in Madrid was the visit to the Royal Palace. Our tour took us through about 20 lavishly decorated rooms. From the throne room to the dining hall (seating over 100) and the various art halls, we received a glimpse of the riches of the Spanish royal family. However, the most unique item in the whole palace was not some rare painting or crown jewel but rather the men's urinals. Yes, the men's bathroom urinals. This was the first place I have ever seen to have a men's urinal with a lid. In fact this style of bathroom accessory are known as beer stein urinals - I just would not want to taste this special brew though.
The Spanish way involves a more relaxed pace of life. While wandering Madrid, I noticed that a large number of stores and businesses closed at midday for two to three hours to allow for a relaxing lunch and a small siesta. Given the choice myself, I would rather have an enjoyable meal and wine followed by a rest than going work. This also leads to later nights when the evenings are cooler and more pleasant than the typical midday heat.
The workday also ends later. At this time the bars would fill up with patrons looking for beer or Spanish wine with a serving or two of appetizers ('tapas'). Popular tapas includes seafood and the many types of cured ham. We ate at a popular tapas bar in Madrid called 'Maison de Jamon' (House of Ham) which contained (and no exaggeration here) hundreds and hundreds of legs of cured ham hanging from the wall and ceiling. At the deli counter there were many types of jamon for sale - sweet ham, salty ham, spicy ham and ham so cured it emitted a very strong pungent smell.
The streets remain active until the wee hours of the morning, even on week nights. It was common to see young children playing soccer in the street around midnight or hanging with their families near one of the many fountains. Searching for a restaurant often meant waiting until after 9pm until it opened for the evening meal.
The Spanish are passionate about their 'futball' (soccer). On Sunday evening, the main local team - Real Madrid - were playing a match and it was being shown at our local tapas bar. The tension in the bar was tight with a 1-1 score but Real Madrid then scored with a couple minutes to play grab victory and send these grown men into a frenzy of screams, hugs and kisses.
The Spanish way of life - even in the big city, seemed to be about enjoying life at a more relaxed pace and not getting too stressed out. That indeed sounds really good!
Where I stayed