As a rule, I don’t listen to in-flight announcements. Nothing useful is ever communicated, and ignoring them makes me feel rebelliously superior to all the people frantically scrambling to remove their headphones so they can hear what the wind speed is at that particular location. The script is pretty standard: “We’re taking off – keep your seatbelt on; we’re cruising, so you can walk around, but keep your seatbelt on if you’re not walking around; here’s some turbulence so for the love of God keep your seatbelt on or you’ll definitely get turbulenced out of your seat and we’ll have to use the jaws of life to un-lodge you from the overhead compartment; here’s some pretzels on their way – get stoked; we’ve landed – keep your seatbelt on.”
But this flight, August 24th American Airlines 741 from PHL to Madrid, something was announced that changed the course of my life...forever.
Not really. It was though arrestingly significant.
On a whim I decided to join in the mass headphone removal and heard the following:
“Ladies and gentlemen this is your captain speaking. We’re headed west at the moment”
[...OK, maybe it’s just a wind tacking or something]
“...and we’ll be landing in Boston in a few hours.”
He added that it was Boston “In the United States,” just to crush the fleeting hope in some people of their being a Boston in Europe somewhere that they hadn’t heard of.
Prior to this I’d taken leftover Restavit pills I had leftover from Australia and missed dinner, then woke up swimming in a pool of my own drool. This was the state in which I was attempting to process and accept that we were headed not to Spain but to a location a mere a three hour drive from my Saratoga Springs apartment I’d left 14 hours earlier.
Evidently we had an ill passenger who needed medical attention. Instantly the passengers magically transformed into medical experts and after thoughtfully triaging the situation reached the consensus that “He probably could have made it to at least Portugal.”
We landed in Boston, ditched Patient Zero, refueled, and were off for transatlantic flight #2. All up the delay was four hours. Not the end of the world, and fortunately my friend meeting me at the airport was flexible. The pushback of schedule meant only that I arrived Thursday at 12:30 instead of 08:30, so sleep schedules didn’t get disrupted.
Raquel is a Spanish friend I met through a guy I Couchsurfed with in Texas a few years ago. We’ve always said it would be awesome for me to visit her part of the world, and a month and a half earlier the alignment of cheap flights and both of our calendars being free led me to seize the opportunity.
A faded cornflower blue August sky served as a backdrop for the tawny rolling hills we drove past on our way from the airport to Raquel’s parents’ house in the little town of Colmenar Viejo – 30 min north of Madrid. I let my hand drift out the window and push against the dry air. The clear sunshine was invigorating after the stale cabin air I’d been inhaling. Raquel and I hadn’t seen each other in two and a half years, so we had some catching up to do as I let the sun and conversation brush away my travel-weary delirium.
The smell of cooking paella wafted through their front gate as I unloaded my bags and walked up the driveway past olive trees to their stucco house. After introductions we sat down to a lunch feast of paella, gambas (shrimp), jamón (dry-cured ham), gazpacho, and garlic alioli. Thus began my week-long discovery of the exquisite euphoria that is Spanish cuisine appreciation. I’ll say no more on its allure now than to mention I gained 5lbs in that one week.
Doing my best not to be wholly distracted by the captivating spread of food, I started to learn a bit about my hosts. I’d listened to a learn-Spanish podcast for a few weeks and Raquel’s parents knew a few words in English, but beyond basic interactions we relied on Raquel to translate. Despite the language barrier I felt completely at ease; the whole family was exceptionally welcoming and laid back.
Showered and fed, I lost no time in seeing the sights with Raquel as my guide. At around 14:30 we loaded back up into the car and headed into Madrid to walk around. That and the next two days were a whirlwind of hitting up various POIs in Madrid on foot.
Day 1, Thursday:
Stopped first at the Temple of Debod – an ancient Egyptian temple that was gifted to Spain by Egypt, disassembled, and built again in Madrid. I’ll be honest with you, in my jetlagged state I was rather underwhelmed, but from there the tour picked up. Next was ‘Palacio Real’, or Royal Palace of Madrid. On our way there we wound through its adjoined gardens and were able to escape the beating sun for a bit before going to stand in line for tickets. On a tip from the couple in line in front of us, we learned that if we paid the 10€ entry fee we could jump the (~30 min) queue and go right in. We did, and to our delight either the fortune of the travel gods or Raquel’s disarming smile + whatever she said in Spanish got us in for free. Royal Palace features dizzyingly exquisite decoration. Each room we passed through seemed to have more ornate ceiling murals than the last; greater quantities of gold; more massive chandeliers.
Across the Palacio Real’s expansive courtyard is the Catedral de la Almudena – the significance of which I don’t know, but it is right pretty. It’s interior features a curious mashup of styles: from towering neo-gothic arches to contemporary, geometric, stained glass. In my opinion they could have done a better job with unifying the aesthetic, but on the whole not too shabby a piece of architecture.
I’d heard & read of the late dinner times in Spain, but it took getting there for me to understand 9 or 10PM is actually the time when everyone eats their last meal of the day. Following our culturally appropriate dinner of jamon, queso, and salad on the famous Gran Via (“Great Way”, AKA “Spanish Broadway”), Raquel and were just in time for 11PM salsa and bachata dancing. I know nothing of these dances other than the basic steps and a move or two, but the evening started with a lesson so I figured I could level up there sufficiently to hold my own for at least one-song intervals with a given partner. Beyond the counting of beats and an occasional word here and there I have no idea what the teachers were saying for the 30 minutes of lesson, but fortunately communication of dance concepts works fairly well visually, and I think I understood the general principles. After loosening up with a few instructed progressions and receiving an encouraging “muy bien!” from the teacher, I was feeling pretty confident. What I didn’t know was coming was partner-switching with each set of moves; Raquel flitted off to her next partner in the rotation and I frantically ran through my greeting script: “OK, ‘Ola, k tal? Me yamo Dan’; kiss on the right cheek first, then left. *whew* I think I got this.” I felt glaringly American with my fair complexion and Eddie Bauer shorts, but I made it through the complete round of partner introductions with only one “No habla español” necessary. About halfway through I did forget the last few moves of the sequence and – adrift in a sea of no one who spoke my language – was forced to fake it till I got Raquel back, but altogether I’d say the lesson was a success. The lesson ended, the lights dimmed, and the open-dance portion of the evening kicked off. I was good for a few songs before my body insisted on sleep to compensate for past 36 hours.
Day 2, Friday:
I kicked off Friday with a dusty run through a nearby network of trails. Hopping rock piles and clumps of tangled thatch, it occurred to me that this looked like awfully inviting habitat for snakes, so I ran faster and tried not to think too much about it. The sun was already hot but had yet to reach its midday intensity, and the air felt refreshing and cleansing.
Made it through my run with no snake attacks and back to a breakfast of “los manolitos” from the local pastry shop Manolo. A manolito can best be described as the veal of the croissant world: tiny golden crescent pastries incorporating the complementary textures of crunchy, chewy, and crispy into their delicate buttery lamination. Their most popular, and my favorite, are the white and dark chocolate -drizzled “dálmatas”.
DALMATIAN CROISSANTS – HOW DELIGHTFUL AN IMAGE IS THAT.
The manolitos and I could have happily spent the day together alone, eloped in Menorca, and lived happily ever after, but there was more of Madrid to see. We started Friday with a trip to the world famous Prado Museum. This was one of the aspects of the trip I was most looking forward to, and it did not disappoint: Rebrandt, Rafael, Goya, Brueghel, Durer – never have I been to a museum before where around nearly every corner was a piece I recognized from an art history textbook. My favorite works were Goya’s “Black Paintings” – staggeringly fantastic murals he painted for his own home that were later transferred from wall to canvas.
There was more we could have seen in the Prado, but after a few hours we both were starting to get jaded by masterpiece after exquisite masterpiece, so we duly exited through the gift shop and set out on foot for our next stop on the itinerary. El Retiro Park’s greenery, walking paths, and interspersed marble sculptures spread over 300 acres of Madrid, and in in the soothing shade of some sycamores there we enjoyed our picnic lunch. Lunch was the quintessentially Madrid cuisine of bocata de calamares, or a squid sandwich. I was skeptical, but the marriage of texture of crusty warm bread with tender fried calamari was strangely satisfying. That, or I was just so ravenously hungry after all that art appreciation that anything would have tasted good… After lunch we strolled around the park, making stops at the Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace), the large artificial lake in the north of the park where you can rent rowboats, and the Puerta de Felipe IV garden, which holds Madrid’s oldest tree – a 400 year old bald cyprus.
As luck would have it, I was visiting Raquel’s town of Colmenar Viejo (motto: “Me gusta”) during their annual summer fair, and Friday was the big official kickoff. Back from Madrid, we walked into town to watch with what seemed to be the majority of Colmenar’s 44,000 residents the procession of the Virgin Mary statuette from the church to the chapel (or vice versa...I can’t remember). Once the procession moved its stately way past the main square, streetlights went dark and we were treated to the best fireworks show I have ever seen. They were so close you could feel the clap of every explosion thunder its way through your body, and the scintillating kaleidoscope streams of light seemed to criss-cross fill up the entire sky from periphery to periphery. Wondering why I’d never been this titillatingly close to fireworks before, I later learned that Raquel’s father had to be taken to a hospital for ash falling in his eye (he was OK). Worth the risk I reckon. Yolo.
Following the tinged-with-danger excitement of the fireworks display, the crowd dispersed and we met up with Raquel’s friends for dinner. We arrived at 10PM with our reservation and the place was just getting going with the dinner crowd. I at this point in the trip was beginning to feel a bit deprived of fresh produce and so as my starter ordered a salad. Seeing my order, another Daniel – one of Raquel’s friends with us at dinner – got a disapproving look in his dark eyes, leaned his imposing frame in toward me, and with great seriousness boomed something emphatically in Spanish. His frown melted away and was replaced by a big grin as he let out a roaring laugh which the rest of the table joined in. “You did not come to Spain to eat salad” Raquel translated for me, giggling. ‘Dani’ gestured to the churrasco (skirt steak) platter in front of him, and I had to agree the man had a point. Balanced nutrition could wait until I had less tantalizing alternatives to try… Dani (whose birthday it was at midnight), had limited English, but by the end of the night we were legitimately best of mates. I was instructed to mention him as mi amigo should anything go down in Colmenar that night and that would keep me out of trouble. He also mentioned something about the mafia, which may or may not have been hyperbole, but regardless I was glad to have him as a friend.
After dinner, Raquel, my new best friend Dani, and the six or seven of her other friends that were with us parted ways to go get changed out of our classy attire and reconvene at a park in town. At around 2AM, beverages in tow – which we were allowed to imbibe in the street on this special occasion of the fair – we left the made our way back into town. Colmenar’s labyrinthine streets and narrow laneways mute sound, so after our walk there in eery silence on empty streets it was a surprise to suddenly emerge into the bumping party that was going on. Electronic music pulsed from a stage in one corner of the park, and a crowd of a few hundred flooded the lawn. Some people had on costumes...some people had on pajamas – it was a diverse group with the uniting goal of having a good time on an August night. I’ve been to a few parties that have an ineffable quality of welcoming good vibe, and this was one of them. It was surreal to be somewhere so off the tourist track for Madrid; the vast majority of people out were Colmenar locals, and I would be surprised I was one of more than a handful of non-Spaniards in attendance. At one point, one of the friends I’d made came running up to me, “There’s another American here!” I grinned at 1) This being that notable an occurrence, and 2) Their acting as if after three days that I was starved for native English speaker interaction. I was actually kind of enjoying being away from Americans for a while, but I did go over and introduce myself the girl. Found out that she was from Atlanta but had been living in Spain for 10 years, so even she was kinda a local.
From the park, a group of us migrated to another square where a band covered classic Spanish songs for a comparably-sized crowd. Strings of lights draped from a pole in the center of the scene and cast an electric blue glow over the scene. It was after 5AM at this point, but the revelers seemed as perky and composed as when they started. “Don’t these people ever sleep?” I started to wonder… Based on what Raquel’s friend Joanna told me: no, not really. There’s some restaurant that opens at 7AM that you’re supposed to go to, then bullfighting happens, then more eating, then, finally, siesta time Saturday afternoon. I may have the order of those events messed up, but the general gist was that my bailing at 6AM was way too early.
Regardless, my body was about ready to enter into power saving mode, so I informed Raquel of this and she graciously agreed to join me for the walk back to the Rodriguez residence – fortunate for me, because there’s not a chance in hell I would have been able to navigate the twisting cobblestone streets of “Colme” back. A few turns into the route back and the raucous rock concert sounds had faded to complete silence; no distant traffic...no humming crowds...just soft night sounds and stars crisp and distinct in the black sky. A tiny lizard scuttled away from my feet. By the time I collapsed into bed, the gray light of dawn was just starting to pick out the shapes of houses and the contour of the surrounding dry, rocky hills.
Saturday it was back at visiting Madrid POIs, but we were a bit slower to get moving in the morning – er...when we woke up – than the previous days. Madrid in August is hot, and since AC isn’t really a thing there I decided to forgo a run Saturday lest I be irreversibly awash with sweat for the next few hours. I still was anyway, and in most photos you’ll notice I’m glistening like a glazed Christmas ham from perspiration. What I did discover this trip is that linen is the bomb dot com for schweddy situations like this: it’s light, wicking, and stays looking socially acceptable when a cotton shirt would be plastered dark to the surface of your wet body.
I digress. Plaza de Cibeles (seat of the city council), Palacio de Correos (post office), Plaza Mayor (Madrid’s central square), and strolling along Calle de Alcalá (Madrid’s longest street) were all feature stops of the next few hours. Plaza Mayor is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a city: a massive cobblestone square bordered on all four sides with stately peaked-roof architecture. Warm reds and ochres and grays diffused the golden late summer light down on to the statues and tourists below. Out the sides you can see through towering arches where streets stretch their way out into the rest of the city. It had a magical quality...Diagon Alley came to mind.
La Latina was my favorite of the neighborhoods we visited. It’s the oldest part of Madrid, and comprises an exquisite richness of nightlife, tapas bars, and small shops. Down the beautifully curved Calle de Cuchilleros street we stopped by the world’s official oldest restaurant: Restaurante Sobrino de Botín. No we didn’t eat there, but we did get to stand outside and listen to some traditional Spanish music faintly making its way out onto the street from inside. From the rooftop bar of Ed Viajero we watched the hazy sun set before making a few more stops in Madrid and calling it a night: there was packing to be done.
The Pyrenees run between Spain and France and are about a five hour drive North from where I was staying. While Madrid is surrounded by mountains, they’re nothing compared with the scale and majesty of los Pirineos, so Sunday our goal was to road-trip to the little town of Broto and make that our basecamp for hiking the next day. As previously mentioned, the days I was in Madrid the temperature topped out between 91 and 97 degrees Fahrenheit, so Sunday it was a welcome respite to head north and escape to fresh alpine air. Driving past rocky beige hills punctuated by the greens of olive trees and golds of fields of sunflowers, we made stops in the historic villages of Patones de Arriba and Medinaceli. We stopped in Pantones to walk around, take photos of the town’s nearly exclusively black slate construction, and climb the hill to admire the view of the town, its aqueduct, and the valley beyond. Medinaceli was for lunch of cordero (lamb). Sitting out of the blindingly clear sun in the shade of our restaurant’s terrace, enjoying what may have been my favorite meal of the entire trip, with a gently invigorating breeze, I had a ‘pinch me’ moment of profound gratitude of actually being in Spain. As blissful as it was to languidly enjoy that setting, we had a hostel to get to, so we loaded back up in Raquel’s little diesel Nissan and hit the road again.
Broto essentially has one street, so finding our lodging – the quaint hostel A Borda Felices – didn’t present much of a challenge. Though both fairly exhausted after the day of travel, we took a walk around the village to check out some of its shops and restaurants before darkness fell.
Weather forecasts for our hike the next day varied from 40s with rain and possibly thunderstorms to 70s and sunny, so we were a bit unsure what kind of gear to pack. We ended up each throwing in a jacket and plenty of plastic bags and hoping for the best. As it turned out, the weather the next day for our hike of de Cola de Caballo in Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park could not have been more perfect. As we drove to go catch the shuttle to the trailhead, the sun was just rising and beginning to illuminate the breathtaking beauty of the valley. Here was far greener than Madrid, and swaths of forest stretched up faded purple limestone and granite cliffs. The air was a cool and energizing low 60s, but climbed to the low 70s by the time we were on the trail and moving.
Our hike was an 11 mile loop that took us first abruptly up 2300 feet of steady switchback climbing, then gently descended for the remainder of the trek. Most people hike to Cola de Caballo (the waterfall at the end of the valley) as an out-and-back, to avoid the elevation gain of doing it as a loop, so we had the southern trail almost entirely to ourselves. I could attempt to particularize the colors and views and features of Ordesa, but given that I schlepped my DSLR camera around the whole loop, I’ll put that effort to good use here in sharing what we experienced via pictures.
Back in Broto late that afternoon, Raquel and I did a bit of yoga by the river to loosen up, then showered and tracked down a supermarket for dinner ingredients. Our gloriously satisfying post-hike meal consisted of lettuce salad with garbanzos, hard-boiled eggs, salami, tomato, and olive oil.
Tuesday we had only to get back to Colmenar by nightfall, so we enjoyed a lazy morning of more sightseeing around Broto. I painted a small watercolor sketch along the Río Ara river in the shade of bridge. Broto was so quiet and unhurried – Spain’s Vermont, as it were – that it was hard to leave...fluffy white clouds climbed their stately way over the blue mountains ringing the town...chickens clucked softly in someone’s backyard...the river bubbled cheerfully past.
Eventually though we did pull ourselves away and drive our way south – back to the arid landscape of Colmenar in time to catch the sunset from a lookout above town. In the distance to the south I could make out Madrid’s four skyscrapers twinkling in the dusk. Hard to believe it had been less than a week that I’d seen so much of Spain that I had.
The next morning it was breakfast with the Rodrìguez’s, “packing” (which for return trips for me means shoving everything back in the bags in whatever arrangement is most convenient), and heading out for the airport. I said goodbye to the family, the dog Ares, and their pet tortoises, and rode with Raquel to MAD.
Once I’d gotten through security, slowly, like little pieces of lint, individual Americans began to cluster together in the airport until at my departure gate I was seated amongst this concentrated pocket of USA in the sunbathed faraway land of Spain. While stowing my carry on luggage I accidentally bumped into someone and reflexively said, “perdona.” Noting to myself that it was probably time to switch back into English communication I settled into my seat for the 8 hr 30 min flight ahead of me. The guy sitting two rows ahead of me had a goatee and was wearing camo Remington hat. I sighed. Back to the land of supersized fast-food and overweening patriotism.
One week wasn’t enough, but the richness of the experiences that unfolded in that short window is enough for me to reminisce about and let fuel plans for my next adventure. Summing up my first trip to Europe: me encanta!