Leave it to us to try to see Madrid on the very day it SNOWS for the first time in 4 years. As I write this post, on the last day of our Spanish vacation, I am huddled under a hotel robe, nursing a bottle of fine Spanish ribera wine, watching fat snowflakes fall outside our window.
Not exactly the worst way to spend my last day of vacation, but not at all what I had in mind…
On Tuesday, we took a 2.5 hour train from Seville to Madrid, and when we arrived you would have thought we had crossed an actual border – the climate was totally changed. It was cold and windy, a full 30 degrees chillier than Seville, where I had been wearing sleeveless tops. I could tell we were winding down after 10 days of traveling, because it was all we could do to drag ourselves to a supermarket that evening to scrounge up some dinner. We made a feast of bread, pate, gazpacho from a bottle, a cold Spanish omelette, and some wine.
On Wednesday, I had planned a full day for us in Madrid, as it was supposed to be our only day in the city. (Key word – SUPPOSED to be.) My goals: markets, cafes, an old cinema, a glass palace, and if we had time – the Prado museum. Our first stop was the San Miguel market – charming but WHOA touristy, with prices to match. 3 tapas or 15 euro? Who are they kidding? I started to get the sense, which was reinforced throughout the day, that Madrid was a bit like NYC – faster-paced, more cosmopolitan and diverse, and with prices to match.
Then it was through the Plaza Mayor, to the San Fernando Market, which was MUCH more local and therefore, mostly closed at 11am. They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. Therefore, I must be insane to think that a market would be open before noon in Spain.
We wandered through the Centro, stopping in shops and at the Cine Dore, a teeny tiny independent movie theater that unfortunately was only chowing classic Spanish films, or we would have stayed for a viewing.
Then, in search of a great burger in Spain, we stopped in a local burger chain for lunch, where Keith pronounced the burger “very good” and I bemoaned feeling so full for the rest of the day.
We took a stroll though the Parque de El Retiro, or the Central Park of Madrid, to continue our NYC analogy.
I had seen photos of the Palacio de Cristal and found it so charming, I wanted to see it in person. It sits in the middle of the park like an enormous greenhouse, and all I could think was, “Can you IMAGINE getting married here?” I was thoroughly enchanted.
Up until this point, we had managed to not visit a single museum in Spain. I had wanted to see the MNAC and Picasso museums in Barcelona, but we just didn’t make it. Here we were, minutes from the Prado, and I couldn’t NOT go in – especially because the program I advise for visits the Prado, and I felt it was my duty as a good advisor to visit – on behalf of my students, of course! We saw some of the famous collection of Goya and El Greco, but there is something about museums that makes me very sleepy – not to mention the fact that the floors kill my feet and back.
When we left, we walked back to the hotel in pouring rain, but even so the Calle Gran Via, where our hotel was located, still looked beautiful.
Once the rain stopped, we ventured out again to the supermarket to gather another super-fancy hotel room meal, consisting of bread, roasted veggies, chicken fingers, chocolate, and cava, or Spanish sparkling wine. It’s ironic, at the beginning of our trip we were in hotels with mini kitchens, where we could have easily whipped up decent meals and stored things in the fridge – but we wanted to eat out. Now at the end of our trip, we are in hotels with naught but a mini fridge, and NOW we eat in. Must remember for future trips.
Thursday (today, our last full day of vacation) was supposed to be a day trip to Toledo. However, more rain was threatening, and quite frankly, we were pooped. I threw caution to the wind and didn’t set an alarm, and when we woke up around 9 to check the weather, we gave up and decided to stay in Madrid for the day. We ventured out for a few hours to 2 more markets – San Anton and Ildefonso, which were both a little like Chelsea Market / Smorgasburg in NYC, with lots of food options and inventive nouveau Spanish cuisine. LOTS of mushrooms.
This brings me to another observation about Madrid – the hipster culture is strong here. The indie shops we’ve passed, barbershops, and food options all hint strongly towards Williamsburg… or perhaps we just notice the similarities because they stand out to us as very American.
When we left the market after lunch, the weather took a turn for the worse and it began to full-on SLEET. We desperately made our way to a beer/wine store we had passed the day before, and like good former New Yorkers, stocked up on supplies to weather the storm. By the time we made it back to our hotel, my face was windburned and I was soaked through to the skin, hence my current state of curled up under a hotel robe, most of the way through that bottle of Spanish ribera wine I bought.
In the time I have been writing this post, I have watched the weather go from spitting rain to to big FAT snowflakes to a brilliant blue sky and now to clouds again. I am hoping to make it up to a rooftop terrace this evening, but only if the weather cooperates. And tomorrow we head home!
There’s so much to process and condense in my head from this trip – my expectations vs. reality, what I would do differently or exactly the same. No matter how much you travel, you learn a little more on every adventure, and the world continues to change at its own pace at the same time.
If I had visited Spain 10 years ago when I was studying abroad, it would have been a completely different experience thanks to the increased pace at which the world is changing, and the the increasingly closer connections between cultures around the world. When I traveled in Europe at 20, I had a phone that could barely T9 text; I set out with a paper map and the recommendations of my current hostel. My dear friend Emily and I traveled with our own plastic coffee cone and filters so we could feed our caffeine habit on the cheap, and I shopped local markets daily to stretch my euros as far as they could go. 10 years ago, France felt French and Italy was so wonderfully and chaotically Italian, and Switzerland was so blissfully odd that I didn’t know quite how to describe it.
But traveling in Europe at 30 feels distinctly different, in part because the world has changed and in part because I have. Now I planned my trip in a Google map, based on recommendations from trusted friends as well as total strangers on the interwebs. Instead of a paper map, I use my phone to navigate, and am always happy to find a spot with free wifi. I stayed in hotels chosen in large part on traveler reviews and availability on points and rewards, and judged the accommodation based on the quality of their in-room single-serve coffee-makers. I still search out those markets, but I also take cooking classes, and don’t shy away from more costly tasting menus. Spain, surprisingly, has not felt so unalterably Spanish, or at least not as much as I expected it to, in particular in Barcelona and to a lesser extent, Madrid. I think this is in part because I have only visited larger cities; and in part because metropolitan western cultures are condensing towards one another. And of course we cannot neglect the influence of a worldwide social media and news culture, which has ensured that I cannot escape for even one day the impact of nationalism on my home country or elsewhere, or the toll that terrorism has taken – most recently in London, just yesterday.
So, is my experience of the culture different because the culture has changed, or because I have, or a combination of both? I believe it’s both, but as I haven’t revisited any of those old haunts of my college days, I can’t be certain. What I can say for sure is that Europe feels different to me now than it did 10 years ago, and the place where I felt most at home on this trip was Granada, the smallest town on the itinerary. Note to self, for future trips.
And now, the sky has turned back to blue again, so I am of in search of a rooftop view of Madrid. Wish me luck!