High school Spanish, please, please come back. I’m sorry I was such a jerk to you!
We stepped onto the tarmac at Madrid international to a bright and sunny sky and immediately turned our faces to the sun eager to catch up as much of its warmth as possible. Madrid was the beginning of the much anticipated hot and sunny chapter in our adventure and yet, I couldn’t wait to go home and nap. Maybe it’s the newness of traveling, or sleeping in a strange bed, but the night before we go to a new place I can’t seem to sleep. I wake up constantly thinking I’ll over sleep my alarm or repeatedly go over the details of my route in my head. Fortunately for me, I didn’t really have to use my tired brain to find our airbnb, getting from the airport proved to be a simple affair. The metro system is less complex than London and Bev is quickly becoming a super navigator! The Metro in Madrid is way cheaper too, a single ride ticket is €1.50, or they offer a ten ride pass for €10.00 and because our airbnb was a little out of the centre, we anticipated doing a lot of transiting so we picked up two and then two more we went through them so quickly!
Unlike London, I came to Madrid absolutely clueless about the city I didn’t do any research prior to coming here so I didn’t really know what to expect. No lonely planet or trip advisor would guide my travels here. Instead I would keep myself open to what the city had to offer and see what unfolds. Almost immediately Madrid pulled us into her easy pace of life. Amongst the winding cobbled streets residents would gather in plazas and markets where the bountiful fruit displays were bursting with ripeness or come together for an afternoon of chit chat over a cafe de leche at the cafeteria that seemed to be on every corner. The historic city seemed to draw you in, inspiring and rewarding explorations with squares and fountains that you ached to sit by.
Speaking of markets, this is the Mercado de San Miguel, the oldest market in Madrid. We went there and spent a €30 on fruit! That’s crazy expensive! It was really nice to walk around inside and enjoy the stands (No tocar!) but the little mom and pop stands that dot the city have way better prices, and better produce. The proximity to the Plaza Mayor is responsible for making this a tourist hub and a complete rip off.
Anyways, without knowing what to do or where to go we indulged in one of my favourite ways to travel: the aimless wander. Setting off from the city centre we walked in the medieval centre, which had intentionally been designed by sadistic predecessors to be extremely easy to get lost in. We ended up at the Palacio Royale, the stunningly large “home” of the Spanish Monarch (3500 rooms, seriously?) and contemplated touring the inside, but one of the best things about travel is the people you meet. A couple from New York there on their honeymoon, had asked us to take their photo and took ours in return (one of the best exchanges between travellers) they also gave us great advice about what to see and permission to skip the palace tour, it’s just alright Instead they pointed us in the direction of the Temple De Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple given to spain in the 1960’s. Experience a little bit of Ancient Egypt in Spain, it wouldn’t be the most peculiar thing I’ll have done, so sure, why not?
We learned something that day, most museums in Spain are closed on Mondays. So we worshipped from afar.
The palace itself is an impressive sight. Situated in front of the Catedral de la Almudena, the Catedral looks to the Palacio as a nod to the importance of the monarchy and the two buildings create a plaza where tourists meander and take photos. Across the street from this is a small hill intersected with a path that boasts (according to one local) the best free sunset you’ll find in Madrid. The sun set is framed between the two structures. Always an awe inspiring sight. This same local informed us emphatically “No one drinks sangria in Madrid, if they are drinking sangria, they are tourists. Also, skip the paella. It’s not REAL paella, real paella is in Valencia where the water is the secret ingredient to the best paella. That is where it originated and that is where it should be eaten.” He was very adamant about this and kind of scary so I dared not cross him and didn’t touch a bite of paella in all of Madrid.
Back in London we had made some new friends who were touring around Europe. They were on a fixed tour with a group so we went our separate ways but kept in touch via instagram. So when we posted our first photos of us in Madrid, who should contact us but the super funny Ariellah! She was in Madrid at the same time as us and what do you do when three chicas are in Madrid? Go dancing of course!
Ok. Not us. Are you kidding, shake my booty in the land of Enrique Iglesias? I’ll let the professionals do it. On the advice of the passionate local gentleman we dug out a Flamenco performance at Tablao Flamenco La Quimera. According to him there are two styles of Flamenco, the old and the new and the way to tell the difference is if the performance could be performed in a cave, as it should be. The large parties of dancers with their waving shawls and exaggerated movements are NOT flamenco (he had a lot of excellent opinions.) So we were very pleased when a small ensemble of people took the stage, three dancers, a singer, and the guitarist. The music started, the singer began her steady chant, the complex rhythm kept by all on stage when the first dancer took to the floor. Dressed in his red vest, black shirt, ascot, sleek pants and cool boots, the passion he emoted as he performed, his hand placed against his chest…it was dark and sexy, unlike anything I’ve seen before. All three of us were instantly absorbed, the girlish chatter ceased and we didn’t speak again until intermission.
I wish I understood what the singer was saying, but it didn’t matter the dancer’s performance said more than enough to inspire emotions. I had bought our tickets online through the restaurant. I went with the full meal deal. Literally. The performance included a meal and when we were finally able to pick our jaws up from the floor we filled our bellies with some of the most delicious food I’ve had in Spain. Salad, lamb, fries, chocolate. I could have been rolled on my side to get home the food was THAT good.
Meeting with Ariellah sparked the beginning of a new joy in travel- meeting with new friends. Prior to leaving Canada, we discussed meeting up with friends over in Europe as people began to plan their summer holidays, but seeing Ariellah in Madrid was the first time we had actually met with anyone. There was something in the familiarity of our shared experiences that comforted and uplifted when everything you’re experiencing is new and unfamiliar.
In Madrid Bev and I made the decision to spend some time separately doing different activities. We had spent over 14 consecutive days together and the need for independence was becoming painfully apparent. So we went our separate ways, she to the Reina Sofia and I ventured to find the Museo De Romantico and immerse myself in the past and to find a Starbucks. Hey, don’t underestimate your creature comforts.
As it would turn out, it was one of the best decisions we made! We returned home in the evening totally refreshed by our individual pursuits, to experience Europe without reference to someone else’s desires and pace. We had new topics for discussion at dinner and happily we shared our experiences from the day and the things we saw that got our creative mojo going.
Between gardens and shopping along Gran Via, Plaza Mayor and the bridal district, Bev and I really conquered Madrid. We had walked from one end to the other, explored the Crystal Palace and art museums, wandered among the foliage at the botanical gardens and spent solo time in coffee shops painting and reflecting on the journey so far. Madrid was the beginning of so much more than just sun and adventure, every moment was a learning experience. Learning about myself, about travel, about culture and the world. The importance of letting go and trusting. Prior to leaving I was never fully convinced I could solo travel as a petite female in a world that seemed full of danger. I was too afraid and my fear was fueled by those around me. Now I have navigated unfamiliar cities using transit systems (something I wasn’t allowed to do in childhood) ordering food, albeit awkwardly in a foreign languages, counted my pennies and made grown up decisions such as choosing to buy food over clothing and other frivolous pleasures. I ventured alone into to crowded places infamous for petty thievery, I have asked for help from strangers and listened to my instincts when the spidey sense tingled and I am still alive. And while I am not fully alone, that confidence grows and every experience expands my bubble a little more each day. I still use common sense, you don’t throw caution completely to the wind, but now I am less afraid of the strange unfamiliar world around me.
What about you? What teachings did travel offer you? Did you experience the fear and excitement of adventure as I did, were you able to let go and trust in yourself?