But all trips have to start somewhere, and my sister, Anna, and I first endured a long flight from Cape Town, with a short connection in Dubai.
The Beginning …. and the Hot Seat
As posted (excitedly) all the way back in January, I managed to get an extra-special deal on our flight tickets thanks to the Emirates global sale.
The flight itself was smooth. We got fed a lot, we watched movies, we drank wine and we even had a free seat in our row, meaning that sleep almost looked like a possibility. Through some rather shady manoeuvring, Anna had a fabulous sleep stretched out on two-and-a-half of these seats. All I got was a neck cramp while trying to sleep in the tiniest corner. I don’t know how I got the wrong end of this deal.
We arrived in Dubai after 5am, only to hear that the weather outside was already over 30 degrees Celsius. This wasn’t much of an issue inside the airport, due to air conditioning and such. But you suddenly realised how very hot it must’ve been outside as soon as you got to the bathrooms. A certain scene from Under the Tuscan Sun comes to mind. I’ll cut it down a bit. Bear with me.
Patti: There’s hot water in the toilet bowl.
Frances: Oh, my God. That’s close to boiling. Oh, this is really bad, isn’t it?
Patti: Well, it’s not good. Unless you want to give your ass a facial.
Anyway, that was the situation.
Since this post has already gone down the toilet (quite literally), let me redeem it by stating that Dubai Airport is HUGE. There are loads of shops, cafes and even two large water features on either side of Terminal 3.
We had a short transfer time, so it was soon time to board the plane for our real destination: Madrid.
The Gate of the Sun
For someone as generally confused as I am, Madrid’s international airport is almost beyond comprehension.
We arrived and found out that we had to claim our baggage in a different terminal entirely. To do that, we had to catch the train between terminals.
In the airport’s defence, it really was a smooth process. I guess I’m just used to small airports.
Once that was sorted, we found our mum (who had flown in from London) and we hit our next stumbling block: how to get to the hotel?
We decided the metro was the best choice. Again, this was a painless process, if a little time consuming.
The best part though? Coming out of Sol metro station.
This was our first real glimpse of Spain, as we had been either up in the air or underground up until this point. And, then, all of a sudden, we were in the sun-drenched Plaza Puerta del Sol (which means “The Gate of the Sun”). Anyone who’s been to Madrid knows that this is the very centre of the city. I can’t think of a more appropriate visual introduction to Spain.
Due to some good Googling (and timing), we got a great deal for a hostel located right on the square. This one was called Hostal Puerta del Sol and it was fantastic. Breakfast was included in the price, as was 24-hour complimentary coffee and tea.
It was also here that we found out about a free walking tour run by Sandemans. We decided we would go on the first available tour on the morrow.
But then, once the bags were placed and we cleaned up a bit, the first major mission began: to find a Starbucks.
For some reason, South Africa STILL doesn’t have Starbucks. I don’t know why this madness is allowed. I feel truly deprived of the magnificent coffee I have from this cafe. This leads me on a desperate mission for a cuppa every time I set foot overseas.
This mission had many benefits, however, as we got to know the streets of central Madrid a little better and did some window shopping. The glorious coffee house was eventually found on Gran Via. And, oh, it was good.
We had dinner at a little disco diner off of Gran Via. A girl with luminous pink hair was our waitress and I remember temporarily rethinking my no-hair dye rule.
Wanderings and Shenanigans
After a fitful sleep (oh, the joys of being horizontal once more) and a quick breakfast, we were ready to head to Plaza Mayor for our free walking tour.
I’ve already given some details about this tour here, so I’ll focus on some of the things we learnt during those few hours.
1) Juan Carlos, the king of Spain, is viewed as a national hero, as he was instrumental in the downfall of dictatorship after Francisco Franco died. Carlos was voted as Spain’s favourite person of all time by the people of Spain themselves.
2) Before the modern reigning line of kings, there were six kings belonging to the Habsburg family. This family was on the more colourful side, as they kept in the family, if you know what I mean (a la Harry Potter’s purebloods or Game of Thrones’ Targaryens). The last of the line, Charles II, had all manner of ailments and disabilities, and, more to the point, was sterile. And so the Habsburg line died out.
3) The Church of San Gines is beautiful. It ALSO has a stuffed crocodile inside, which was supposedly squished by a falling tree as it advanced upon a significant religious figure (which I neglected to note down).
4) The famous tree-and-bear statue in Plaza Puerta del Sol is also the city’s symbol. There are numerous myths/explanations as to why this is so. Also, a rather nice liqueur is made from the berries of this tree (the Madrono tree).
As mentioned in the other post, Paula was an amazing guide. Those four random points are a very small sample of everything she told us.
During the break on the tour, we got our first taste of chocolate con churros from the famous Chocolateria San Gines. What is this, you ask? Delicious doughnut-like thingies (god, my descriptive powers go off the charts) that you dip in melted chocolate. Trust me, it’s good.
|Chocolate con churros.|
After the tour disbanded, we visited the Almudena Cathedral, which stands opposite the Royal Palace. Construction of the cathedral began in 1879 and it’s dedicated to the Virgin of Almudena, who is considered a patroness of the city.
Getting well and truly into the Spanish vibe, we had a siesta before heading off to the Temple de Debod.
This is, in fact, an Egyptian temple. It was rebuilt in Madrid as a sign of gratitude due to Spain’s involvement in saving the temples of Abu Simbel in the 60s.
We got to go inside, and you can even go to the temple’s upper level, although access is limited. The temple itself is situated within a pretty park, with a fantastic water feature.
|My sister and I sitting in front of the Temple de Debod.|
A dinner of bocadillos (Spanish sandwiches) later, we went out to join in on the Sandemans pub crawl. There was dancing (including an impressive shuffle), there was sangria, there was recklessness. It was an awesome night.
Kings, Art, Soccer and Sangria
The next day marked our last full day in Madrid, so we ensured that it was a busy one.
The first stop: Palacio Real (the aforementioned Royal Palace). This is the official residence of the royal family, although the modern-day royal family doesn’t live here. Go figure.
However, the palace is beautiful. A large courtyard precedes the actual palace, which is said to contain over 2500 rooms. Only the tiniest portion of this is open to the public.
But this tiny portion is enough to make you feel woefully poor. Each room is more decadent than the previous one, and each room has a theme. So there’s a yellow room, where all of the wallpaper and decorations are in different hues of the colour, or the porcelain room, where the wall embellishments are, well, made of porcelain. It was difficult not to linger in each room, as I was desperately trying to take it all in (and failing abysmally).
|Outside Palacio Real.|
After spending over two hours wandering around the palace, we headed back to the Mercado San Miguel, a rather fancy covered market where you can taste different sorts of tapas or just have a drink. We chose to revive our spirits with some coffee.
I was then dragged on a clothes shopping mission (dragged, I tell you – shopping is one of the things I despise most).
The reward of all of this was a visit to the Museo del Prado. Entry is free on some days between 6pm and 8pm, so this is what we went for. Although some of the museum’s sections are blocked off during this “free time”, we still had serious art appreciation overload by the end of the visit.
Among the over 7500 paintings in the museum you get to see some of Goya and Velazquez’s most famous works.
After a quick dinner, my sister and I headed out to watch a Euro Cup match with some of the people we had met on the walking tour. As the game featured Ireland and Spain, the crowds got quite emotional.
As I know little to nothing about the technical issues of sport, I sipped on sangria and just cheered along with the rest of the people.
The next morning, we packed our things and made our way to the bus station. It was time to head to Granada, a city of contradictions. Luckily, we were set to see Madrid again at the end of our holiday.
These are some of the things I will always remember from my time in Madrid.
1) The city is always busy. The locals simply don’t sleep (except for siesta time).
2) Socialising is at the forefront. Unlike other places I’ve been, the locals go out to eat and drink almost every night. And I love that.
3) The Plaza Puerta del Sol. Especially in the moonlight.
4) The general accepting attitude of everyone we met there.
5) Chocolate con churros. ‘Nuff said.
6) The fact that Madrid is the cleanest capital city I’ve ever been in. And that for all of its buildings, there are many gardens too.
7) Everything is within walking distance.
8) Best random story: Madrid is filled with street “performers”, some of which dress up as cartoon characters. We were told that a few weeks before our visit, there was an epic fistfight between Spongebob Squarepants and Dora the Explorer.