Jean and Stephen at El Rastro

Europe — Day 3 of 14: Madrid, from Rastro to Prado

Our agenda for Sunday was pretty simple: visit the Rastro — a large flea market in central Madrid — and then take in a few other sights around the city, TBD.

We got up, showered, and walked to the Rastro, which was only about 10 minutes from our hotel. It was as I remembered it, and even bigger, perhaps. Booths were set up along both sides of a network of streets, with the main one being “Ribera de los Curtidores”. We strolled, stopped here and there to look at the merchandise, but mostly were people-watching. Items of pop culture were abundant — movie posters, T-shirts featuring the ever-popular Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Che Guevara, Michael Jackson, Bob Marley. Lots of jewelry and clothing. Swords, knives, hardware. Ceramics and carved wood figurines.

When I was in Madrid in ‘84, I purchased a couple of wineskins from El Rastro and gave them as gifts when I got home. This time I bought nothing, but Jean did buy a skirt with some cool European colors and designs.

We walked through various neighborhoods — some thriving, some not so much –and grabbed lunch at an outdoor cafe near the Atocha train station. We sat directly across from the new Reina Sofia Art Center, which is not terribly attractive from the outside, but it opened for the day while we sat and dined, so we saw an increasing flow of visitors arriving there. They were featuring an exhibit by Salvador Dalí, who never disappoints, so that would explain the buzz. But we had other plans, so we pushed on.

We walked up Calle Atocha in hopes of spotting my old building where I lived in 1984, but couldn’t spot it. I had forgotten to bring the actual street address — I think it was Atocha 81, but I would have to dig through some old boxes to make sure. At any rate, we cut across to the Prado Museum, found out when their hours are, and it turns out they had free admission starting around 5:30 that evening, so we decided to pursue some other activities and come back later when we could visit for free.

My international cellular service was only working intermittently, and Jean’s not at all, so we depended mostly on wi-fi to stay in touch with Allison during her last few days in Bilbao. This was Sunday, her last day to study before finals, and she had been battling a bad head cold and ear aches, so we were worried about her. We stopped into a Starbucks — yeah, I know, not very Spanish, but they do have decent bathrooms and free wifi with a purchase. So we bought a coffee and checked in with Allison, who let us know she was doing fine.

Stephen on the Teleferico
This cable car ride stretches across the western end of Madrid.

We decided to ride the Teleferico, which is a cable car ride that stretches across the western end of Madrid. That was a treat. Jean and Stephen enjoyed seeing the Parque del Oeste (the “Park of the West”) from an overhead view. Hot, dry, grassy, hilly terrain, but still laced with bike paths and running paths, and also with a few picnic tables that folks were actually using, if in the shade. There was an amusement park nearby, which I hadn’t remembered from 1984. So by the time we did the round-trip ride on Teleferico, and took the Metro back to the Prado, it was time to go in. The lines were very long, but we timed it right, getting into line as it was moving quickly into the museum, so our wait was fairly short.

We had only about 90 minutes in the Prado, so we focused mostly on the Spanish painters — Velasquez, Goya, El Greco, along with a few Rafaels and Rubens if I recall correctly. Even though we had only been up and about for six or seven hours, my “dogs” were already getting tired — the museum pace of standing, walking a few steps, then standing again, is definitely tiring on the feet and legs.

The Crystal Palace is one of many beautiful sights in Madrid's Retiro Park.
The Crystal Palace is one of many beautiful sights in Madrid’s Retiro Park.

After the Prado, we walked through the Parque del Retiro, which is a bit like Central Park in NYC though not as big. We saw roller bladers showing off their skills with fast slaloms, and we saw people with paddleboats on the main pond of the park. We also visited the house of glass.

At the Palacio de Comunicaciones
The building behind us used to be Madrid’s central post office. Yes, I messed with the lighting in Photoshop. A lot.

After a brief walk down the streets Alcala and Gran Via (major tourist route), we struck off down some side streets to the south, and found a quiet street with an outdoor cafe that looked good. We enjoyed some paella and white wine. This meal, again, started late and ended late, but not quite so late as our first night in Madrid, so we were able to get back to our hotel around 10:30 or 11 pm.

Summary of the day: Rastro, Teleferico, Prado, Retiro. And nearly all of it on foot. Not bad!

Europe — Day 2 of 14: Hello, Late-Night Madrid!

By the time we arrived in Paris, our 90-minute gap between flights had shrunk to 30.  And by the time all the passengers had exited the plane, it was down to about 5.  So we knew we would miss our connection. What’s worse, Charles de Gaulle airport was parking its arriving planes in a faraway lot, not at a gate.  That means we had to walk down a staircase to the ground, walk across a blacktop lot, and then get on a bus that drove slowly around the whole airport. It even stopped and waited for some taxiing planes to pass!

When we got inside, Air France apologized and said they were on their first day of a new computer system. The earliest available flight to Madrid would be in 5 hours. So we settled in for a lengthy wait in the terminal. At least they gave us each a voucher redeemable for a sandwich and a drink while we waited.

This is a good point at which to stop and mention a few things that have definitely changed since I visited Europe 29 years ago:

  1. The internet.  Each airport offered free wi-fi for periods ranging from 30 minutes to a few hours, if I recall correctly.  This was key as we wanted to stay in touch with Allison, who was in her last few days of study in Bilbao.  In 1984, nobody used the internet, nor email, except maybe military or scientific/academic people.
  2. The European Union (EU) and the Euro as currency. It was very handy to have Euros in our pocket when we arrived, and to continue using that same currency in Spain, Austria, Germany and France. It became much easier to make decisions about whether to take the subway, take a taxi, which restaurants were overpriced, etc.

Our flight from Paris to Madrid was quick and smooth, and we landed around 7:30 pm. We were able to retrieve our bags from the baggage claim and exit the airport without passing through customs. This surprised me, but then I later figured out it was another EU thing.  When you enter the EU, you get your passport stamped by that country where you entered, but any subsequent EU countries on the same trip don’t require it.  I must confess, I was a little disappointed.  I like to see the various countries stamped on my passport, like the baseball that Bugs Bunny threw around the world to demonstrate to Christopher Columbus that the world was round.  (It came back with stamps from various countries.)

Into Madrid

We took the subway from Madrid’s Barajas airport into downtown Madrid — another thing you couldn’t do in 1984 — and were delighted to find that Jean’s choice of hotel was superb indeed. The “Hostal Madrid” was just a few blocks from the Puerta del Sol, and also from the Plaza Mayor.  One of the best parts of town for strolling, restaurants, etc.  We actually got a room with a separate kitchen, though we didn’t end up using it.

The late-night nature of Spain was perfect for our situation, since it was after 9 pm by the time we got to the hotel and checked in.  Then we ventured out to walk the streets, starting with the Plaza Mayor.  It was exactly as I remembered it, with its statue of Phillip III, and its crazy street performers collecting money for dressing as a statue and standing perfectly still, or vendors selling feathery glow-sticks that you can toss in the air and watch them float down slowly, etc.  Stephen and I posed for a photo next to three nutty guys who were posing as severed heads on a table.  I think the Plaza Mayor made a big impression on Stephen, as it was the first big beautiful old European square or landmark that he had seen.

We chose a restaurant that was just a few blocks away, El Madroño.  We enjoyed a multi-course meal (platos combinados) in a cool, lively, bustling square.  Lots of diners, shoppers, partygoers kept walking by. Families with little kids, people walking their dogs, and just enjoying a stroll in general. This continued until nearly 11 pm.  After a busy day-and-a half with almost no sleep, this was just what we needed. And to top it off, the restaurant gives you a complimentary shot of their liqueur called “madroño”, a kind of cherry-sweet taste served in a chocolate cup that you can eat after you drink the shot.  The madroño is a tree (I guess it’s called “arbutus” in English) and it is part of the symbol of Madrid, which is “El oso y el madroño” — the bear and the tree.  See an image here:

For the remainder of the time we spent in Spain, we were looking for a T-shirt with that symbol, but couldn’t find one.  I might just have to create my own online.

At any rate, we went to bed that night very satisfied, and slept a good long time.

Joe leaving for Spain -- 1984

Europe — Day 1 of 14: Departure


Joe leaving for Spain -- 1984
At the YMCA in Manhattan, getting ready for my flight to Madrid in 1984.

Ever since we moved to Arlington in 2000, we’ve heard stories from our friends and neighbors about their family trips to other countries. Sometimes the destination was Costa Rica, sometimes faraway Tahiti or Australia. But the most favored destination was Europe — especially Italy.

Jean and I had often talked about bringing the kids to Europe one summer. After all, I had studied in Spain during my college years (1984) and Jean had traveled around Spain with a friend in 1989.

But we waited until the kids got a bit older, and by then they were getting great summer opportunities for high adventure trips — Allison with the Girl Scouts and Venture Crew, and Stephen with the Boy Scouts. Those trips often split up our family, since I accompanied Stephen on his hiking, sailing, and whitewater rafting trips, and Jean joined Allison for her sea kayaking, backpacking and other trips. And in fact, on one such trip, Jean and Allison visited a Girl scout chalet in Switzerland, then proceeded to tour Italy for several days afterward.

So we saw 2008 through 2012 pass this way; plenty of travel, plenty of adventure, but never together as an entire family.

Then a new opportunity arose: in summer 2013, Allison enrolled in a five-week academic program in Bilbao, Spain. Stephen had no Boy Scout trips pending, so we decided to book a trip to Europe, meet Allison in Spain at the end of her program, and then travel around Europe with her, as a family. Here are my reflections and descriptions from that trip.


Friday, July 26, 2013

We left Arlington by cab to Dulles Airport, where our Air France flight was to depart around 9:30 pm. The cabbie told us of his niece, who had studied in Spain, then did an internship in Madrid, and was then offered a job there. She was working there now, in fact, in the marketing dept. of a cosmetics company.

Our flight was delayed by about an hour, which was frustrating because we knew we had to make a tight connection the next day in Paris to catch a flight to Madrid. Still, there’s not much you can do about it, so we just hung out. The delay happened while we were seated on the plane. Normally I’d prefer to pass the time at the gate, but in this case it wasn’t bad because Air France has a super electronic console on the back of the seat in front of you, allowing you to watch movies or TV shows, listen to a variety of radio stations, play games, etc. So the time passed quickly and soon we were airborne. Not much to tell, except that Stephen was seated between Jean and me, and had very little room to stretch out or sleep. Now that he’s about 6’3″ he’s getting a taste of what it’s like to fly coach as a tall person. Not fun.