Europe 2010: Madrid – September 28 and 29

The slick new AVE train whisked us from Barcelona to Madrid in just under three hours. When Gregg did the same trip in 2005, the journey took well over five hours on an old, clattery train. We were served a four-course lunch that included wine or beer and even brandies (we just had the beer). The poached salmon was excellent as was the cheese and walnut salad. Luxury!

At times we reached speeds of 300 kmh! I don’t think I’ve ever been in a faster train, even in Japan.
The hotel in Madrid was sleek and modern and extraordinarily quiet and secluded. We couldn’t even hear a car horn from our room. Since we arrived around 7 pm, we just wandered around the neighborhood and had dinner at a brightly lit café that lacked soul but had a very friendly waiter and good wine. The dinner itself was bit the best we’ve had, but it was adequate—potato and the inevitable ham coquettes for Gregg and a mushroom omelet (at least four kinds of mushrooms) for me. We’ve discovered already that the Spanish love their ham and seem to put it in just about everything except maybe the desserts. Vegetarians beware!

Neither of us was feeling 100% the next morning. We thought we were coming down with colds and so decided to take it easy for the day. In the morning we took a taxi to the Prado and wandered among the masterpieces until lunchtime.

The Prado has a great many of the biggies – Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, Velasquez’s Las Meninas, Goya’s 6th of May, and a whack of Raphaels, Rubens, Durers, El Grecos, et al. The Prado is a very easy to handle museum. Although large, it is not as daunting as the Louvre and certainly not as crowded. Even with thick heads and sore throats, we navigated the rooms with ease. It’s always a thrill to stand in front of a painting that you’ve seen for years in books. There’s no doubt that the real thing is, well, the real thing! There’s no comparison to a reproduction.

Durer’s self portrait

We ate a surprisingly good and reasonable lunch in the modern cafeteria built onto the Prado. I’m quite amazed at the prices in Spain so far—certainly cheaper than France (which I thought was pretty reasonable anyway). For two large sandwiches, two cappuccinos, a bottle of water, and a large slab of cake, we paid 14 euros all inclusive. I don’t think we’d have gotten all that for $18 at home, particularly at a tourist attraction!

We wandered around the botanical gardens after lunch and I took pictures of an amazing assortment of dahlias. I’ve never seen such a variety of colors and sizes.



The botanical gardens also featured a stunning outdoor exhibition of photographs from 1896 to the present documenting seminal moments in Spanish history. Some of the shots were just amazing—dead bodies in the streets during the civil war, Franco riding a car with Nixon, the Beatles wearing matador hats, and on and on—100 photographs. I wished I could have read the commentary but my Spanish is just about nil.

The Beatles come to Madrid
We took a taxi back to the hotel and rested for the afternoon. Our colds didn’t develop; we think they may have been more allergies than colds as a result of the extremely dry air and considerable pollution.

Around 5, I took a walk from the hotel to check out the stalls in the Plaza Espana—lots of tacky jewelry, scarves, bags, etc. Of course I bought a necklace and two sets of earrings along with two scarves. The prices are very low.

Monumental Madrid from the Taxi
We took a taxi to the Reina Sofia which is the major modern art museum in Madrid and houses Picasso’s Guernica along with assorted works by Miro, Dali, etc. Guernica did not come to Spain until the 1980’s after the death of Franco. Now it has pride of place in a room on its own. The painting really is massive and far more powerful in real life than in reproduction. You can really feel how enraged Picasso felt as he painted it.
Guernica by Picasso

The Reina Sofia is a very well designed gallery that combines a modern area with the arched hallways and barred windows of an old hospital. In many of the rooms, a film representative of the period is playing. Most were silent era films which made following them a lot easier.

We strolled from the Reina Sofia up to the hub of Madrid – the Plaza del Sol where five years ago Gregg had his wallet stolen. Demonstrators from the “manifestation” streamed past wearing red and carrying placards—most saying “No!” It was September 29 – the national day of protest against the proposed government cuts. The city was to have shut down but we didn’t notice any difference except for taxis couldn’t take the direct route to the museum area because streets were blocked off for the demonstrators. As a result, taxi rides costs an  extra 2 euros or so, but not a big deal since the average taxi fare was around 5 or 6 euros. The speed, convenience and the chance to see something of Madrid made the slightly higher cost of taxis over the metro (1 euro each) well worth it.

Madrid after dark is cooking and intense. We had a drink and a tapas in an outdoor café and watched the world go by, then wandered some more to find another place for dinner Unfortunately, we grossly underestimated both our appetites and the size of the portions! We ordered four dishes and received enough food for an army (albeit at very reasonable prices). In France, portions are just enough and no more (sometimes even a bit on the light side). In Spain? Massive! And everything seems to be fried and wrapped in ham. The food is good but it’s not haute cuisine. It’s filling and definitely stodgy.
The next morning we were to pick up our rental car and drive to Cordoba (a long way!). I think the prospect of driving coupled with too much food too late at night and our slight colds resulted in both of us having a sleepless night. I know I wasn’t looking forward to navigating our way out of Madrid and Gregg was understandably not looking forward to hours and hours on the road.
When we finally struggled up at 7:30, I decided to see if we could cancel the car and take the train. Thank god for wireless internet in the room and cell phones. I called the rental car company (toll free!) and was able to cancel our entire car rental with no penalty (even though we were scheduled to pick up the car just two hours later). What a relief! I then checked the handy Rail Europe web site to find that the fast AVE trains connected Madrid and Cordoba in just over two hours and went every half hour. Also, we still had one journey left on our railpass .Well, this was a no brainer!
Feeling much more perky, we had our breakfast and set off for the train station. By lunchtime we were in Cordoba after an extremely fast (300 kmh) and pleasant journey that included lunch and hot towels. We’ve decided that we will take trains until we get to Lisbon and only rent a car for a few side trips from Lisbon.
By nixing the car, we’ll save getting on for $1000, even with adding back in the cost of trains. Since much of the time the car would have stayed parked in cities like Granada and Sevilla, it really doesn’t make sense.
And the view from the train is just fine!
Up next – Cordoba!