Tourist Info Desk

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Monday, November 8, 2010

The Iberian Adventure: Spain, Part II

[UPDATE: Pictures now available in my Picasa album!]

But first: Wow, has this been a long weekend.

On Saturday, we had Imkertag (beekeeping day), which was basically a conference of top beekeepers from Thueringen, Sachsen, and Sachsen-Anhalt, with a couple people from Berlin and Brandenburg, too. And I discovered on that day the German love of long, monotonous speeches. Pretty much the entire day was a series of presentation after presentation; about a third of the way in, my brain started shutting down--you know, maximum overload, where your brain simply can't process more new information and strikes in protest. I learned a few new things, but I spent a good bit of it reading my Kindle.

Sunday I went with Bethany to visit Victoria in Ilmenau. We ate Vietnamese food, shared pictures from our vacations, and munched on cookies. It's so nice to have a friend to go visit, even if it takes two hours on the train to get there...again, Kindle.

Today was a free day off class because it was the official opening ceremony of the Fachschule. And yet again, more long and painfully unintelligible speeches, from 10am to 4pm with just one hour break in the middle for lunch. I didn't last as long this time; I only made it through the first presentation (something about agriculture as relates to politics or something) before my brain saw what the second one was on (genetics and breeding) and went "Aw, hell no," and bailed. It was a long seven hours. I was there for the whole thing because I was supposed to be officially introduced, except the head of the school forgot to introduce me at the beginning and didn't get around to it until the closing remarks. The only redeeming feature was hanging out with the fun Hauswirtschaft ladies and drinking copious amounts of coffee.

Anyway. Back to the adventure!

Our plane to Madrid was delayed (of course), so we got in later than expected, but the kind tourist info lady at the airport got us back on track quickly. We took the Metro into the city center and strolled through the sundrenched streets to our hostel. The reception was pretty janky, but the rooms were brightly colored, with a tiny balcony looking out onto the pedestrian street.

Bethany and I were starving, so we immediately set off in the direction of our next stop, the Prado Museum, in search of some food. We found...nothing. Well, nothing affordable, at least; there were no cafes or sandwich shops that we could see. We ended up...I'm ashamed to say this, but we got take-out from Burger King and sat out in the sunshine in a park. I was surprised how delicious that hamburger was.

The Prado is like Spain's Louvre, except much smaller and containing mostly paintings by Spanish artists. We got an audioguide, but seriously, all of the paintings sort of blurred into each other. I did like some of the works by Goya, and it was fun to see the real Las Meninas instead of Picasso's wacko caricatures. After a few hours, we were both willing to be done, so we headed in the direction of El Parque del Retiro.

The park is one of those enormous, perfectly groomed, so-pretty-it's-fake parks that Europeans seem to love so much. We wandered down the tree-lined lanes as the sun wandered toward the horizon; finding a nice little lake, we bought some drinks, sat on the steps of an enormous monument and watched the sun go down over the water while I learned from Bethany about British royalty. Bethany has a great head for history and is a good storyteller, and I'm always up for a good story.

With darkness falling, we headed out of the park and up the Gran Via on our way back to our hostel, where we asked for directions to a good restaurant. They pointed us to a place that did little tapas things on toast (so yummy!) and gave us free glasses of sangria. We returned to the hostel for sleep, although Bethany was kept up by some obnoxious Americans who were prepping for a night out clubbing and, completely ignoring the fact that there were people in the room trying to sleep, kept the lights on and their voices up until they finally left around 1am. Gah, some Amis give us all a bad name.

As usual, Bethany popped out of bed way before me and had to convince me that being awake is actually a good thing. Our first task of the day was following RFS' self-guided walking tour through the city. We started in the Puerta del Sol, a large and beautiful public square that, at 10am, was almost completely empty. We headed into the streets and found ourselves in another wonderful pedestrian square, Plaza Mayor, where the cafes were just beginning to set their chairs out in the sun. Dropping by a market, we made our way onward until we stopped outside a church to witness a random parade.

There were men in uniform on horses, and women in traditional dresses, and people carrying gold and silver staffs and ornately decorated banners. We stood around gawping for a while, and a camera guy took some footage of us standing there looking mildly bemused, but no one we asked could tell us what was going on beyond, "it's some kind of religious procession." Yes, I can see that, thanks.

After a bit, they started singing and parading and such, so we followed along and split off from them at our original end destination: the royal palace. The audioguide took us through ornately furnished room after room, explaining to us in meticulous detail where each piece of furniture came from, who had designed and built it, and what artistic movement who had inspired it. Some of the rooms were very lovely, but as opulently beautiful as these palaces are, they have small windows and not much sunlight (can't be getting all weather-worn like those peasants!), and they feel like a circular maze, so that the rich and royalty just go around and around and eventually forget that the rest of the world isn't covered in silk and gold. Anyway, after glancing through the armory (look, another suit of armor! Wowee!) we bailed and headed to the cathedral right across the plaza.

The cathedral was singularly unimpressive from the outside--well, compared to many other cathedrals I've seen. Inside, the most impressive thing was the psychedelically beautiful rainbow ceiling, painted with fantastic colors in complex geometrical patterns. The underside of the dome had its four walls painted like the four elements, and the sunlight shining through the stained glass bathed the crucified Christ in rainbows. The only slight weirdness was one of the transepts, which was devoted to an enormous golden altar to Mary.

Since we were now quite hungry and it was well into the afternoon, we stopped by an overpriced, touristy cafe for lunch and then continued to our next stop, an Egyptian temple. When we arrived, it was closed, but the posted schedule said it would reopen in 45 minutes, so we enjoyed the view into the city and took a nap in the deliciously warm sunlight. An hour later, we managed to peel ourselves from our comfy spot and totter back to the temple, only to find we'd read the time wrong and the thing was actually closed for the rest of the day. Oh well.

We set off instead in search of our next goal: a chocolate shop recommended by a friend of mine. On the way, we stopped by the Corte Ingles department store, where Bethany gave me a heart attack by wandering off and losing me completely (this is like a 10-storey store, too). With no way to page her (the help desk refused), my cell battery dying, and no idea where she'd gone, I was just starting to formulate how to say, "Please help me, I think my friend's been kidnapped" in Spanish when we found each other again. Whew! By now, the streets that had been quiet and empty were starting to swell with people, so we took ourselves off again and eventually found the chocolate shop. There we enjoyed churros con chocolate, a yummy treat involving churros (strips of deep-fried dough) dipped in thick, pudding-like hot chocolate.

From there, we headed back to Puerta del Sol. That morning, it had been quiet, bright, and almost deserted; now, with the sun setting and the lights beginning to glow, it was filled with people, tourists and locals, listening to bands, taking pictures, chatting, enjoying the atmosphere. Bethany and I sat by a fountain to enjoy it, but after we were each approached by older gentlemen determined to converse with us, we decided to move on. We wandered looking for a restaurant for a bit, but my foot was aching, so we eventually took RFS's advice and found a tiny little tapas place that served gazpacho, which my grandpa had recommended, and we had a delicious dinner followed by gelato. It was getting late by then, and we had yet another early-morning flight the next day, so we took ourselves off to bed.

I have to say that I really loved Madrid. My impressions of Barcelona had been mixed, but somehow Madrid felt to me much smaller than it really is, and very open and welcoming. Maybe it was the warm weather, the cheerfully conversing crowds, the wonderful pedestrian streets and sidewalk cafes, and maybe it's because my great-grandmother's family was from Madrid. Whatever, I felt very comfortable there. I was impressed and surprised, and continued to be throughout the trip, by how much I loved and enjoyed almost all the cities we visited, and how sad I was to leave them.

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