Due to the national, Spanish holiday on Thursday, December 8th (thank you Spain for celebrating Immaculate Conception Day of the Virgin Mary) and the puente on Friday (Spanish word for the day that you have off work that is in-between a holiday and the weekend), my Turkish friend Nazli and I hopped on the first bus to Madrid. This of course being our cheapest route at 53 EURO round trip, it was 8-hours both ways (and let me tell you folks, there is absolutely NOTHING between Barcelona and Madrid, except Zaragoza, so stick to coastal cities if you ever come for a visit). Laia and Nuria set their alarms and saw me off early Thursday morning, their biggest concerns being 1.) That I was for sure coming back, and 2.) That I wasn’t going to cut my hair. After reassuring them that I would be coming home Sunday evening with a head full of long brown hair, I was off!
* Californian for life – Nazli laughed at me when I arrived at the bus station with my perfectly packed, sufficiently SMALL rolly-luggage (apparently “real” travelers back everything in a backpack, especially if it’s only for four days). All the time, I was thinking when I left the house, “Mom would be so proud, look how much I have downsized!” Hey, for a Californian, I still think I did pretty darn well!
*First couch-surfing experience – For all of you who don’t know what couch-surfing is (it sounds a bit creepy at first), but there is a website in which people all over the world post profiles of themselves offering up their couches for travelers who are passing through their city. After you have taken advantage of the website and “couch-surfed” and you return to your home-town, you return the favor and offer up your couch to other travelers. The idea is less about opening up your home to strangers, but getting to know people from around the world. In our case, Nazli had “hosted” two girls over the summer from Northern-Italy who were passing through her home town in Turkey. One of these girls, Elena, just happens to be doing her master’s degree in Madrid, so she returned the favor to Nazli and let us crash on a mattress in the middle of her living room for 3 days. Not only do we save a ton of money on lodging, but Elena was a wonderful person to meet – laid-back, thoughtful, caring – and ironically only 3 days younger than me (Nazli is also a Pisces…go figure). The three of us are planning to travel together soon!
* Turkish Galore – when we took the first metro ride to Elena’s piso, I was so incredibly excited when I heard everyone speaking in Spanish (a very sexy, Madilenian Spanish might I add). Absolutely no Catalan and I was understanding everything – BLISS. I thought, “yay, I am going to hear this all weekend.” Not exactly. We spent a lot of the time meeting up with Nazli’s Turkish friends (who were all doing various things in the city) and yes, although I was in Madrid for 4 days, I heard Turkish 80% of the time, ha ha! Kind of like the same problem I have living in Catalonia and hearing Catalan 80% of the time. I didn’t know I would have such a hard time hearing Spanish in Spain!?!?! (note: LOVE my Turkish friends and their beautiful language, just found this whole “lack-of-hearing-the-spanish-language-while-living-in-Spain” problem, ironic). Also, funny story, we were eating at one of the few Turkish restaurants in Madrid (of course) and the owner comes over to talk to us. I am spacing-off as they are all speaking in Turkish when she suddenly reaches over, pinches my cheek and says, “Es Americana? Super guapa, eh?”
* Plaza de Sol – packed with holiday shoppers and full of Christmas spirit. I purchased a beautiful handmade, red, leather flower from a unique jewelry shop. Me and my Turks took a picture with our feet on Kilómetro Cero (the point where they say “all roads begin”) and in front of the statue of El Oso y El Madroño (The Bear and the Strawberry Tree), the symbol of Madrid. I heard somewhere that if you take a picture in front of it, it means you will return to Madrid…but I don’t remember my source of this information and I may be making it up. But, it sounds nice.
* Plaza Mayor – ate “Bocadillos de Calamares” (yes folks, a piece of bread with fried calamari in between) – extremely greasy and unappetizing after the second bite, but it is apparently something very Madrileño, so you have to at least try it. This was of course 2 hours after eating the churros…probably not the best timing. On a side note, Plaza Mayor has a fabulous outdoor Christmas market in December!
* Blanca Piloma (The White Pigeon) – famous tapas bar for still giving out free tapas with drink. The service wasn’t that great – the waiter sort of throws the tapas on the table and then rushes us into ordering. I barely got out “cerve…” when he says, “4 Cervezas, vale!” and walks away. But hey, it’s free and it’s famous, right?
* Parque del Retiro – (just found out right now that this means “Retirement Park” in Spanish, ha ha. And here I thought it was something eloquent). Giant park in the middle of the city, reminds me a lot of Central Park in NYC actually. We had a freezing cold picnic of baguettes, cream cheese, olives and juice.
* Plaza de Toros – the grand stadium where all the bull-fighting takes place. We missed the tour so we were taking pictures out front when we noticed this guy doing an interview for The World Travel Channel. Turns out he is Pascal Nouma, a famous French soccer player, who has been playing in Turkey for many years now and who is, apparently, oober famous in Turkey. My Turkish companions were elated. Nazli (the Journalism major) ended up getting the business card of one of the producers to discuss further the possibility of doing an internship in Istanbul. Karma!
* Las Tres Princesses – we were freezing cold and ducked into a cafe to grab a cup of coffee…we had no idea what was in store for us. When he saw us, the owner (Dioni, in Spanish…. Dennis, in English…. and Bacus, in Greek, as he explained to us in detail), was ecstatic and immediately deemed us “Las Tres Princess.” He brought us our coffees and was checking on us every 5 minutes. When he discovered we were two Turkas and an American, he went all out. Before you knew it he had popped open a bottle of wine and brought out cheese and crackers as we discussed Turkish culture and how to make sure los ladrones didn’t steal our purses in Madrid. Yup, more of that good karma.
*El Classico – The name given to any soccer game played during the year between Madrid and Barcelona, ARCHENEMIES… fight to the death! We braved a local pub in La Cava Baja (a great street in Madrid with fabulous bars and restaurants) and we unassumingly sat on the “Barca” side. Nazli and tried to show our Barca support without drawing too much attention to ourselves. We quietly slipped out of the pub hoping to be undetected by fuming Madrid fans when Barac won 3-1. BARCA FOR LIFE!
All in all, this was a fantastic trip! Madrid is definitely cold this time of year, but Christmas spirit was in the air. In total I spent the equivalent of $200 for everything. I love this kind of travel…simple, cheap, un-glamorous and unplanned. As for my thoughts on the city as a whole, although many argue that Madrid and its Madrillenos are a but more reserved and the city can be a bit dull, the true Españoles live here and that gorgeous Spanish language fills the air. A big contrast to Catalonian Barcelona with its extrañjeros, tourists and Catalan speakers. In all honesty, I fell in love with the city and may make Madrid my next grand adventure.