June 9, 2012

Spain Part 2: Madrid

From Barcelona, my mom, Steve and I took a night train to Madrid. That sounds so romantic, and we were all looking forward to it, but it turned out to be so hilariously ghetto. We were booked into a 6-bed sleeper cabin – with two Russians – that I’m pretty sure rivaled most prison cells in terms of space and amenities.

It felt so good to be back in Madrid ten years after my study abroad program.

It was also neat to see Barcelona and Madrid back-to-back so that we could compare them. They’re both beautiful cities, but in different ways. Barcelona is tourism and Madrid is government. 

A few things have changed (like the iconic Tio Pepe billboard going missing!), but mostly Madrid is the same. We walked the city and saw all of my old favorite places like Plaza Mayor, Puerto del Sol, Gran Via, Palacio Real, Plaza de Cibeles, Plaza de Neptuno, Museo de Prado and Retiro. 

We also found some new hidden surprises like a 24-hour chocolate & churros restaurant and an old Hemingway hangout where the Spanish painter Francisco Goya used to wash dishes.

In my opinion, Madrid's best quality is the energy that flows through the city at night. Even at 11:00pm on a Wednesday, the streets are jam-packed with people.

After a day in the city, we rented a car and took to the countryside to visit some of the smaller towns around Madrid. Our first stop was Segovia, a classic little Spanish town that was one of my favorites when I studied abroad. Segovia has two sites that are unusual for its size: a Roman aqueduct and an Alcazar, or “royal palace”.

But the best part about Segovia is the quaint little Plaza Mayor that is flanked by the last Gothic church built in Spain. There’s a gazebo in the middle of the plaza that turns into the bustling town hang-out at night. The kids use it as a jungle gym...kicking soccer balls, playing tag and spinning yo-yos.

After spending the night in an old monastery in Segovia, we drove to Avila. The actual town center of Avila was disappointing because it’s not nearly as quaint as I remembered. The real reason to go to Avila is to see the perfectly preserved old city wall that completely surrounds the town. There are 88 towers and 9 gates that really make you feel like you're looking at a fairytale city.

Our final stop was a town that I had never been to before, Salamanca. It’s a university city that’s known for being an “architectural gem”. I couldn’t agree more! There is street after street of beautiful Renaissance-style buildings made of a certain kind of sandstone that glows when the sun sets on it. This glowing stone gives Salamanca the nickname “the golden city”. 

We were lucky to be in Salamanca on a Friday night when the streets were full and Plaza Mayor was packed.

A Spanish tradition that we observed every night in and around Madrid was the "paseo". After siesta and around the time of their late dinner, Spaniards come out in full force to walk the town. What a nice custom this is. We loved watching the little old couples who get decked out in their fanciest clothes. This was our favorite little couple...we watched them cruise Plaza Mayor 3 times.

There are also young families pushing baby strollers and old friends walking arm-in-arm.

Barcelona was wonderful, but it also felt full of tourists. In Madrid and its surrounding towns, I think we got to see the Spanish locals in their element.

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