Day 1 Madrid
Day 1, 10/14-10/15/2005
Los Angeles (Burbank) to San Francisco to London to Madrid
Burbank-SFO-Not a bad flight. We sit in Economy Plus on United, thanks to Mom's United Premiere status. On arrival at SFO, we take the shuttle bus over to the International terminal. It's possible to walk, but then you have to go back through security again. We checked out the Red Carpet rooms in both T3 and International. Both are very nice and had free drinks, cheese, fruit and crackers, but we have no time to stay since our flight to LHR is boarding early.
For our trip SFO to LHR, we sit in Economy Plus again and fortunately get to board first. This is a good thing because the flight is full and most rolling bags do not fit wheels first inside the overhead bins; they have to go in sideways on the 777. We have seat-back video screens and watch "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" and "Batman Returns".
Our flight from LHR to MAD is delayed so we go on what turns out to be a long walk in a big circle around Heathrow to find the United Red Carpet room. Once we get there, they tell us not to wait because it would take us a long time to get to our next gate. They weren't kidding; we have to go through security again, and then get on a bus. Once on the bus, a woman's voice, in a lovely British accent comes on and tells us "the bus ride will take 5 minutes, and then you will have to walk for appoximately 20 minutes to your gate". There is no way could you do a tight connection in this airport. For some reason, they don't post the gates until they begin boarding, and then it's still a 15-20 min walk; there's no logic in that, is there? When we arrive at the gate we have to gate check the roll aboards due to BA's uber-restrictive carry on policy but we had no problems getting our luggage back as we exited the plane.
On arrival in Madrid, we walk out of customs and make an immediate left to find a cash machine just to the right of one of the money changing places.
Here's where the Travel Tyrant kicked in for the first time. I knew I wanted to buy our train tickets before we left the airport because I'd been told (by a Fodor's poster living in Madrid) there was a RENFE office there and I didn't want to have to waste time going to the train station in Madrid. I had looked at the map of the airport terminal online before we left and I knew it was just around the corner from where we stood.
My mother says, "I'll go look for the train office".
I say "no, wait with me (fearing she'd get lost, I don't know why), the office is right around the corner".
She says "How do you know? Are you sure?"
Ummm, why is she questioning the Travel Tyrant??
She doesn't believe me and off she goes while I wait in line for the cash machine. She's back in under a minute with the information that it indeed is there. Sigh, it's tough being right all the time.
The RENFE ticket seller does not speak English, so it was the first of what would become many conversations I had en Espanol. I'm proud of myself for not hesitating and not being embarrassed. I don't try to adopt the Castilian lisp however, it just feels too awkward. I'm too used to speaking Latin American accented Spanish. So, we easily buy our tickets from Madrid to Sevilla (66 euro each 2nd class) and from Cordoba back to Madrid (50 euro each) before we even leave the airport.
Then, we walk over to the Aerocity shuttle desk and ask how long it would be to get a shuttle. We were told at least 15 min so we decided to take a cab, thinking it would be worth it for the approx. 5 euro difference in cost, total. The trip was very quick, about 20 minutes door to door.
However, when we arrived, the cab driver tries to tell us there was a baggage surcharge in addition to the airport surcharge of 4.2 euro. There is no such thing and I refuse to pay it (later confirmed with the hotel's front desk). My mother starts getting upset, telling the guy "it's illegal!" and fearing for a scene similar to one we'd had at the Rome airport many years back (where the cabbie actually followed us into the airport terminal), I give the guy 20 euro and walk away. The meter read 14.6 euro so with the honest airport supplement of 4.2 (total, not each) it would have been 18.8. He'd wanted 25, but did not follow.
The 4 star Hotel Intur Palacio San Martin sits right on the Plaza San Martin, about 3 blocks from the Puerta Del Sol. I'd asked for a room with a view of the plaza, but unfortunately, all the rooms in the hotel were completely full and none were available. In fact, they didn't even have an open room for us when we arrived around 2:15.
My mother starts to get irritated, saying "I'm not going to be happy" and I say "Just relax" which she hates and increases her irritation. This has the potential to get ugly, but I try to maintain my calm. The hotel is full and not everyone can have a room with a view. As much of a control freak as I am, I understand this. They made no guarantees with the reservation except that they would have a room for us. Here is the downside to being the one in charge, it's your fault if the room sucks. To be fair to my mother, I think she was more upset my the deck clerk's cavalier attitude and lack of attention, than by the fact that we'd have no view.
This would become more evident as we traveled; with some exceptions, the concept of "guest first" or "the customer is always right" does not exist in Spain.
I'm easily embarrassed. I think this is because I'm an only child and never had to suffer the rigors of embarrassment at the hands of siblings. However, there's always been my mother. She is a person who dances to her own tune. Barely five feet tall, she commands a much larger presence. I don't think she intends to embarrass me (except maybe when she tells stories of my childhood in front of my friends), but she also doesn't care what anyone else thinks.
The Travel Tyrant in me appeared again when I gave her a lecture about not assuming someone speaks English. I live in fear of being the "Ugly American" when I travel. I learned this lesson the hard way (thanks to a snooty cop in Amsterdam) and learned it well. I think many tourists, especially Americans, tend to assume that the rest of the world speaks English, or at least should speak English. But that's like someone from France or Spain or Uzbekistan coming to the US and assuming we will speak their language. I gave her the information (lecture) to always ask first, "Do you speak English?" en Espanol. Besides knowing how to say "where is the bathroom?" those four words are probably the most important words to know in any foreign language. Those words imply you don't assume (and didn't your 7th grade teach tell you what it means to "assume"?). You would be surprised how many people answer with "no", or "a little". Quite a few times my mother would march up to someone in a store or a restaurant and just start talking in English. They would look at her in befuddlement. Como? I would then step in and say, "Hola! Como esta? Habla usted ingles?" and then speak to them in Spanish. It took her a couple of days to learn this, but she did, and I was proud of her in the end.
So, waiting for our room to be ready, we went for a walk, in search of a place to buy a SIM card for my old Motorola triband phone. Someone had recommended to me that I try the FNAC department store, and there we learn my phone was not unlocked as I'd thought (after a bit of my mom trying to speak to the clerks in English, hence the lecture above). We tried in vain to find a place to get it unlocked but it was not to be. We were told to find a "Locutorio", usually a place that sells phone cards and see if they could do it. They also said it would cost 10-15 Euro, so at that point I figured it just wasn't worth it.
Back to the hotel and into our room which was small, but average by European standards. I'd asked for a room with twin beds, and we got them, but pushed together to make a king. The room looks out onto a central atrium, no view to the street, so it's a little dark. The bathroom is nice with lots of amenities, good towels, and there's a safe in the closet. The TV has no channels in English, except for pay per view movies. The decor is nice and the room has high ceilings with lots of crown moldings. There's a desk and a small table and chair. It's fine and my mother is calm. We ask at the front desk if a room on the front becomes available the next day, can we move, and they say yes.
By this time it's about 3:30 PM and we're hungry. So, we go back out to the street to get a snack and we stop in at Casa Parrando Sidreria, a place that serves cider, around the corner from the hotel. I have a glass of sidra which is very refreshing and mom has a cheap and nasty glass of rioja. I ordered some boquerones (vinegar marinated anchovies) and we get a HUGE racion of them, along with olives and a couple of cornishon pickles. More than we could ever eat, though we certainly try. We also order some little red peppers stuffed with bacalao and then fried, which were too fishy for my taste. Total tab is 15 euro.
Next, we walk over to the Theissen museum to see if we can get in before it closes at 7 PM. I thought I remember reading it was free on Saturday PM. We get there around 6 PM (it was a long walk across town), and it's not free, (the Reina Sofia is) so it just wasn't worth it to go in only for an hour (failure #2 for the Travel Tyrant). Since we're close, we check out the Westin Palace Hotel where we will be staying on our final night. It's a lovely hotel and the rotunda in the center with its stained glass dome, is stunning. I snag a free International Herald Tribune (my favorite newspaper), figuring that I would be a guest there soon, right?
We walk back through the Plaza Mayor, all golden, terra-cotta, and beautiful in the late afternoon sun. The square is filled with people having drinks in the cafes which ring the plaza, and groups of young people camped out on the ground enjoying snacks they'd brought with them.
Someone had tied long strips of toilet paper to the subway (?) grates in the ground and the hot air was blowing them up, making a tunnel for small children to walk through. In one corner, a couple were surrounded by a crowd watching them dance flamenco.
Suddenly, we notice a vary large police presence coming into the square; at least a dozen police cars and trucks pull in and positioned themselves around the plaza, no sirens, no lights flashing. We couldn't tell if this was a common occurrence, or for a specific reason. As we exit though one of the high arched puertas to the plaza, we're accosted by Asian massage vendors who set up little plastic chairs by each gateway and then attack passers-by by offering massages. Some of the more aggressive female vendors go so far as to put their hands on our shoulders to give us a "sample". It's not really unnerving, as much as it is irritating. Though I really could have used a massage, I certainly wasn't going to have one there on the sidewalk sitting on a tiny, plastic child's chair.
As we continue our walk back to the hotel, I think to myself, "the city smells the same". It's interesting how those sensory memories come flooding back with just the right combination of odors; cologne, cigarettes, beer, jamon, and bus exhaust.
Back to the hotel to take a nap in the room. It's really hard to wake up, but we just had to force ourselves.
This time we set out walking with a destination; the Taverna de Cien Vinos (Calle Nuncio, 17, www.cienvinos.com ).
This is a really neat little place with over 100 wines by the glass and nueva-style tapas, which can be ordered at the bar, or sitting a the rough-hewn wooden tables. None of the glasses of wine appear to be over 3 or 4 euro. The waiter notices we are struggling to translate some of the items on the menu, and brings us one in English. Mom has a glass of Rosé, Cigales Dolcetandes, and I have a Rioja, La Vicanda Riva. We had a timbale of cous cous which sits atop a bed of carmelized onions and mushrooms and is topped with a slice of foie gras. Yummy! We also had a guacamole and shrimp "pie", odd but tasty. 12.5 euro
Next, we walk all over searching for another place to have tapas. Not that there is any shortage, to the contrary, we were overwhelmed by choice. We ended up at Valor (Postigo de San Martin, 7) for chocolate (the traditional Spanish thick, dipping kind) and churros around the corner from our hotel before dropping into bed, exhausted, at midnight.
Day 1-walked 7.7 miles