This is a blog featuring my personal stories of food, gardening, yachting, photography, travel and life.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Exploring Madrid

Went to bed with ear plugs last night because we had to keep the window open. There is no way to get any air into the room other than heat and that makes it too warm. But the noise from other rooms and from employees talking at the top of their lungs or even hollering at each other in the atrium out the window is amplified by the walls. I still managed to sleep 12 hours. I only woke up then when Leslie had removed the key to the room so she could slip out to go exploring.

Most people who know me know how rabidly anti-smoking I am. For years, when traveling I have just had to quietly deal with it since in most countries it hadn't been as taboo as in the United States. But now, it has become the law in most countries and  smoking is banned indoors. And now it is here in Spain as well. But there is still a very high percentage of smokers in general. The streets are littered with cigarette butts and you still see people smoking indoors near the entrance to a place or directly outside an entrance. I even had a guy walk over to where I was sitting on a low wall in a square next to the palace yesterday, sit right next to me and light up. I had to get up and walk away to sit somewhere else. I may have wondered about my action but, gee, couldn't he have walked a distance from me thinking maybe I might not approve of being around a smoker? That gives you some idea of the level of acceptance that still exists.

Today we hopped on the Metro (the subway system here) and took it three stops to the Atocha station to go to Museo de Prado, the art museum which must not be missed. We also hoped to get to the Thyssen and the Sofia Reina art museums as well. It was about a 15 minute walk from the subway to the Prado and we got there not too long after they opened.

We spent hours in the Prado looking at examples of the Spanish masters all well represented. Goya, Velasquez and others of that school along with artists of many other periods.

I particularly enjoyed watching several artists who were painting reproductions of the art on display. I was especially impressed with an artist who was reproducing Velasquez's masterpiece, The Assumption. In fact I liked the way the reproduction was looking better than the original.

We also managed to get tickets to a temporary exhibit from The Hermitage in St. Petersburg in Russia. About 180 pieces were represented. My favorite pieces were the Scythian gold pieces. So ornate and intricate. I'd never seen anything made of gold that looked so fine.

We left the Prado and walked across the street to Taberna de Dolores where we had 3 bocadillos, little sandwiches (boca means mouth). We ordered a jamon de pato (duck), a queso roquefort and a bacalao, or salted cod. We accompanied it with two canas, little beers. It was a delicious lunch. I should mention that Americans may be a little put out by the lack of friendly service at some Spanish restaurants. It is just their way it seems. Professional, yes, but they hardly acknowledge your existence beyond taking your order and delivering it.

Back to the Prado we went to take in another floor. You'd really need to spend more than a day here moving right along, no lingering, if you wanted to see the entire displayed collection. We couldn't manage it and we tried.

Leaving the Prado we headed down the boulevard with the intent to go to the Sofia Reina. We'd given up on getting to the Thyssen. There just wasn't time. But along the way we came across a tasty looking jamon restaurant called The Museo del Jamon. Jamons hung from every window and ceiling joist. We went up to the bar and ordered a jamon and queso plate, some patatas and we shared una cerveza media. On the way out the door we looked in the bakery case and an elephant ear (didn't catch the Spanish name) dipped in white and dark chocolate caught our eye.  "One to go, please!" and back out on the street we went.

Two doors down at Meson Romar, our eyes caught site of the squid, or bocadillo de calamares sandwich we were supposed to be heading for closer to the museum.  In we went and ordered one along with a cana beer. I kept eyeing these little nuggets of what I was sure was pork rinds called chicharrones. The server saw me looking and handed each of us a piece. Oh, my! Before we knew it a plate of them was sitting before us. Soft, yet crunchy, greasy and salty. Yes! We couldn't finish them so they went in a bag to take along. Oh and the calamari sandwich was really good, too. Deep fried calamari rings stuffed in a good sandwich roll. That's it. Simple but delicious!

Finally, we got to the Sofia Reina museum and stood in line for the free tickets that let you in from 7-9 pm. Again, we couldn't begin to cover the museum. We managed only the floor with contemporary art up to the end of WWII. Our main goal was to see Guernica, the powerful painting depicting Picasso's statement on the bombing of the city of Guernica in 1937 in which the Germans and Franco's forces specifically bombed civilian targets. This huge mural hung in the MOMA in New York until the late 1980's when, after Spain finally became a democracy, Picasso's will specifically stated it should be returned.

A big day and another tomorrow.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Getting to Madrid

So, here goes. This is the first in a series of blogs I will be posting in which I will share our insights and adventures during our recent 5 week trip, first to Spain and Portugal, then back over the pond to Toronto and the eastern Canadian cities, down into Vermont and across upstate New York. We'll be covering a lot of territory. Hope you enjoy it!

Our friend Fred picked us up at 7:45 and dropped us off at the Lakeway Value Inn, the closest pick up spot for us to catch the Airporter Shuttle to Seatac airport in Seattle. We have a 1:00 flight on Air France that will eventually get us to Madrid, Spain after a brief layover in Paris.

But let's back up a bit, to about a week before our adventure began. I have a few travel tips Regarding packing for an extended trip. We'll be gone a total of 5 weeks. How do you pack without overpacking for a trip of that length.

In our case it is a bit of an issue since the weather reports out of Europe have been none too favorable the last few weeks. Snow as far south as north Africa! Unseasonable weather everywhere and the week before our arrival there, Madrid has seen highs in the upper 60's, even low 70's and lows in the upper 20's. Yikes!

So, how do we pack, maintain our carry-ons only rule, so we don't look like so many tourists who travel with multiple suitcases or even just one great big one they will have to haul up and down hills, flights of hotel stairs and over cobblestones?

Due to the unpredictable weather, we planned to pack with the idea that we will  layer. Colder weather means more layers of clothing. When it warms up, off come some of the layers.

Second, we take travel type clothes. That means travel underwear, shirts, pants, clothing made of materials that don't wrinkle easily, that can be washed out in a hotel sink and that will dry overnight. REI and other companies that specialize in travel clothing sell these items. They are a bit pricey but the space you will save taking only 2-3 pairs of underwear instead of a week's worth or more will make your bag smaller and lighter (you need room for those special souvenirs you just have to buy). In today's world where airlines charge you extra for each bag or for bags you check, even for taking up space in the overhead bins, going light matters.

So the goal is one carry-on bag each plus a backpack which will also be carried on. Nothing to check, thank you. This saves money and while everyone else spends an hour or more waiting for their luggage, we are already out the door and on our way into town.

One more thing, as we learned on this trip, sometimes the airline will ignore its own policies and make you check your bag, usually as a result of a sold out flight or small aircraft. Be prepared for this by taking a couple of precautions.

First, keep your meds and personal hygiene items, as well as a change of underwear in your back pack. If you get separated from your luggage unexpectedly whether due to arbitrary airline rules or because the airline looses your luggage, be prepared to be without for a day or two.

Second, I keep my camera and iPad with me too. Expensive items like that are an attractive nuisance and can disappear from luggage when out of your possession. So don't leave any items that might tempt a less than honest airport or airline employee.


We arrived at Seatac fine and walked over to the Air France counter to check in. We'd been unable to do so on-line and wanted to check on where we were seated. We had been put in seats across the aisle from each other but got the seats changed. Air France seemed to be blaming Delta for the problem of checking in on line and Delta blamed Air France. It turns out Air France is leaving Seattle and Delta is taking over their slot. Their on-line reservation system is apparently having all sorts of problems.

So Air France flight 309/Delta flight 8401 began boarding at 1:00 and the Paris leg of our journey began.

It was one of the bumpiest, turbulent flights we've ever had but we arrived at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris. It was overcast and cold, but, hey, it's Paris! The final leg of our journey from Paris to Madrid was equally turbulent and we felt much calmer after touching down.

We had to walk halfway across the airport following the ground transportation signs until we came to the exit out to the curb. We asked and received directions for getting to the bus that would take us into the old part of Madrid and where our hotel is located. Hotel Rigente is really centrally located to all the most famous must-see sites. For 2 the bus took us less than a km from our hotel. A cab would have dropped us at the hotel but they charge about $50.

We managed a brief nap between a lot of hammering and drilling. Seems the hotel is in the midst of a remodel, then out on a walk up Calle de Arnal to the Palacios Real, the Royal Palace. Rick Steves, our long time travel guru, claims this palace ranks #3 behind Schoennbrunn in Vienna and Versailles outside Paris as the top palaces to visit in Europe. While it did have some stunning rooms, the throne room and the capilla to name my favorites and it has quite an armory, it is also looking pretty run down in some very obvious places. Plus, it lacks the beautiful gardens the other highly touted palaces have. I'm glad I saw it but it is a very distant #3 if you ask me.

Headed back in the direction of our hotel up Calle de Mayor, we took a scenic route through some picturesque little side streets stopping for several photo ops and a refueling stop at the San Miguel Market which was a wonderful, indoor, very classy tapas court. It was a bit pricey but we ordered a plate of tapas, a sangria and one of the famous vermouths on tap Madrid is known for.  Our first tapas in Spain! The tapas were skewers of peppers, olives, anchovies and sardines, pickles, pickled onions, you name it. Tapas can be pretty much anything. They just need to be small in size and served on a small plate. We walked on through the Plaza del Sol where things were definitely getting busy. Crowds had appeared where earlier in the day there were only a few folks walking about.

I was exhausted when we got here after two flights totaling nearly 12 hours, walking all over three airports and then a hike to get to our hotel. By this point in the day, my knees were fair done in and I just wanted to go back to the hotel. Leslie led me back and then took off to do a little shopping.

Many of the streets around here are pedestrian only and by about 5:30 they were crowded with folks out walking and shopping. Dinner in many parts of Europe doesn't really get rolling until about 9:00. A bit late for me.

We headed out for dinner about 7:30. Early, I know, but I'm not generally much of a night owl! That will change, as you will see, as the trip goes along. We went to Restaurante San Juan which is not more than 100 feet from our hotel and on Rick Steves list of cheap places to eat in this part of town. A three course meal for around 10. Leslie thought she was ordering beef steak for her main, but when it arrived I took one look and was beef all right. Beef liver! Which I like so I switched my pork medallions with her and everyone was happy. By the way, it was a lousy eatery. We left the place just as it started to get crowded--about 9:15.

Tomorrow we head over to The Prado and a couple of other art museums and our last full day in Madrid.