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Entries in Spain (4)

Unwinding in Madrid

1047435-984676-thumbnail.jpgWith the constant running around the past couple months, we were ready to be in a culture that was slower paced and low stress. Madrid was a pretty good place to be in such a laid back atmosphere without the pressures of having to do and see it all, especially since both Jason and I had been to this city in our pasts.

Upon arriving to the city our first night, we were reminded of what a late night culture it was. In fact, sitting down to dinner at 11pm was completely the norm. Plaza Santa Ana, the square a half block from our hotel that is filled with tons of restaurants, was absolutely jammed with hundreds of people all dining at that late hour. We were amazed to see entire families out with young children, frolicking into all hours of the night. I was actually kind of embarrassed that these little kids had more late night stamina than us!

1047435-984678-thumbnail.jpgSince we were up much later in the evenings while in Madrid, we ended up sleeping in so much later then we normally do. By the time we ate breakfast and did our morning routines, our average day wouldn’t begin until about 1pm. Most afternoons basically consisted of choosing a different area to wander around and exploring it. We managed to check out and get lost in a good chunk of the town, spending 5-6 hours a day just walking aimlessly.

My favorite afternoon was spent in El Retiro Park, aka the “Central Park” of Madrid (it actually reminded me more of Golden Gate Park in SF). Our Sunday afternoon was so lovely, minus the botched picnic where bees attacked our bocadillos. It was wonderful to stroll through this massive park, taking in all the great sites as the Crystal Palace, the row boats in the Estanque Grande, and all the ornate fountains. We even brought our books so we could read in the shade of a tree. This perfect afternoon was followed up by a coffee in the Plaza Mayor, a great place to sit and watch the frenzy of the masses.

1047435-984705-thumbnail.jpgOverall, Madrid was a pretty uneventful city for us – not bad, but also not great. The food was very average, something I remember about Spanish cuisine -- we were however suckers for the churros con chocolate and sangria, and of course Jason loves all the pork! The siesta hour from 2-5pm became a complete nuisance, seeing as everything shuts down and leaves one with limited options of places to eat or shop. AND, the people weren’t as friendly as I remember, especially considering Jason was doing his best to communicate in Spanish. The strange thing is, my memory of the city from when I was here 10 years ago was so much more positive then my experience this time around – maybe age has jaded me!

We have however just arrived to Seville, and already from our afternoon of exploring the maze-like alleyways that criss-cross the city, like the vibe here! Hope that feeling continues. . .

I really do like Spain, but...

There are some things that I have few issues with. Here are the main ones:

656867-989009-thumbnail.jpgThe Work Ethic – Or should I say lack of. Here’s what I’m going to say about The Siesta: If it was a good idea, every country would do it. Sure, we would all like to take a big ‘ol nap in the middle of the afternoon from 2 to 5. But it’s just not conducive to business. Which is, I’m sure, a large reason why Spain is falling so far behind the rest of the European Union. What you end up with are retail stores and businesses that are only open for about 25 – 30 hours a week. They stroll in at 10, take off from 2 – 5ish, and then come back and work for a few more hours. IF they work on Saturday it's from 10 – 2.  The whole country shuts down on Sunday. And they take off the entire month of August.

656867-989025-thumbnail.jpgBread – It ain’t free. And nobody tells you that until it’s too late. We sat down at a place in Toledo, ordered, and the waiter promptly brought out a basket of bread. Naturally we assumed that since we had just ordered enough food to feed half of the impoverished nations we’ve now been to that it was included. It wasn’t. Each piece we ate out of the basket we were charged a euro for. Uncharacteristically, I actually challenged the waiter and said I wasn’t paying. I got the typical “stupid American” comment or whatever and we went on our way. Turns out that really IS how it’s done here at a lot of places. But not all. So you never know just how much bread to fill up on…

656867-989033-thumbnail.jpgView Tax – We decided to hit up a pretty touristy place in the main square of the cathedral in Sevilla for a nice dinner. It was horribly over priced, but it had such a nice view that we figured what the heck. We had our subpar meal and asked for ‘el cheque por favor”. When it came, everything was 30% more than it was supposed to be, which was already a lot. Turns out that if you sit outside you get charged the extra toll for the privilege of gazing out upon the square. While the entire menu was in English, that little tidbit was buried at the bottom of the back page in Spanish.

656867-989039-thumbnail.jpgNarrow Streets – Charming, yes , but only when they are not actually open to traffic. The streets here are so narrow that cars parked along them have to collapse their side mirrors so they don’t get sheared off. I’m a lot wider than a side mirror. (this is where my brother is inserting the fat joke of his choice I’m sure). So every time a car comes barreling down the street – and they don’t slow down just because it’s narrow and filled with pedestrians – there’s always the chance of losing an arm. I’ve been dying to take my contacts out and give my eyes a rest, but no way I can walk around here blind.

I don’t always mean to be the negative one. This really is a great country, and a lot of fun to relax in. As long as you’re not planning to get any work done it’s the place to be.

Granada and La Alhambra: Unexpected Delights

1047435-996414-thumbnail.jpgThe only thing we knew about the mid-size city of Granada were people basically came here to see the Alhambra, a medieval complex overlooking the town (often considered on par with the 7 wonders of the world.) Other than that, we had no clue what to expect of the place. Upon pulling up to the graffiti laden cinder block train station, with quirky looking characters hanging around, we thought we had made a big mistake. Like I used to sing in my elementary school chorus, “You can’t judge a book by its cover, there’s more to see then what meets the eye!”

AND, there really was a lot more to be seen in this town. The first thing that struck us was the lack of tourists relative to 1047435-996411-thumbnail.jpgin Seville and Madrid. It's no secret that in areas which cater to tourists you get shops filled with lots of junk, and of course over-priced restaurants with subpar food (since they’re not depending on repeat business.) We however found the food to be quite good in Granada with a local crowd filling a chunk of the scene– we definitely didn’t eat anything gourmet, but some simple tasty dishes.

The bar scene was also very cool, with many cozy little hubs scattered within the alleyways and side streets. Our first night in town we hung out at The New Yorker, sipping on gin and tonics, grooving to what I thought was good music (Jason of course thought was bad), and having a merry old time. Our second night was a little more interesting, when we decided that we were going to check out what looked to be a restaurant mid-way up the Alhambra, which is quite a hike to get to. Turns out it was a private wedding party.  Clearly the ladies seving tapas didn't pick up on this fact that we didn't belong, and happily served us little morsels of goodness.  We eventually ended up at a hookah bar that looked out onto the beautifully lit up Alhambra. This is when Jason proclaimed he could move to this town – he hasn’t said that about many places we’ve been.

656867-998251-thumbnail.jpgThe following day we continued to be enamored with the place after spending the whole afternoon at La Alhambra. The views gazing off this complex, which we climbed a good mile up-hill to reach, were incredible. The sprawling compound of the La Alhambra truly was a site to be held, filled with lush gardens, oozing water fountains, monstrous fortresses, ornate palaces and nice shady benches to sit and read our books. We spent almost 5 hours wandering around the area taking it all in. No doubt it's worth a trip to Granada, not only for the Alhambra, but also the town itself.

"Gaudi" Barcelona

656867-1003865-thumbnail.jpgThe first thing Jason said when looking at one of Antoni Gaudi's structures, was the origin of “gaudy” must come from this artist.  There is no denying that his style is ornate, bordering on over-the-top ostentatious. Barcelona is filled with structures, buildings, parks and cathedrals designed by the now deceased architect. To sum up his grandeur, the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, has been under construction for over 100 years and is scheduled to be complete 2026! Let’s just say had we realized the extent of “construction” that was still going on inside, we probably wouldn't have paid $20 to get in.

656867-1003870-thumbnail.jpgYesterday was another “Gaudi” filled day, wandering around Park Guell. The garden complex is filled with many unique constructs designed by Gaudi. The lower area is mobbed by people checking out the mosaic figures, fountains, and strange looking structures. Although that was all cool, the real treat was hiking to the top of the mountain, to take in the incredible view of Barcelona – we were really struck by what an enormous city this was.

656867-1003903-thumbnail.jpgExploring different parks seems to be what we’ve gravitated towards --today was yet another day wandering through the expansive Montjuic Park. Our goal of getting up to the castle turned into quite a mission. Eventually, a tram ride took us to the Montjuic Castle, a site I had visited 10 years ago while in Barcelona with some girlfriends. From here we had a 360 degree view of the city, including the entire coastline.

Of course, no time spent in a city would be complete without checking out the local dining scene. Yet again, Spain managed to disappoint in the culinary realm. First off, a lot can be forgiven if there’s a nice ambience. However, for some reason the Spaniards turn their lights up really bright, totally ruining any sort of mood-lighting potential. Next thing, the norm of having slot machines in restaurants is such a turn off – makes me feel like I’m in a cheap Vegas joint. Now, let’s talk about the intense rush of smoke that hits you upon opening the door to where you're supposed to enjoy culinary delights –- this is soooooo unappetizing. And last thing I promise, I’m so sick of bocadillos! If you’re after anything but food, Barcelona is right on, especially if you’re in search of something “Gaudi”. . .