Wednesday, July 12

Going to Madrid, or how I spent two days writing an extremely long post

Warning: This is a long post


After not telling the other students about what we were doing all week, Dave and I left after 5:15 am last Thursday for Madrid. (Everyone else was going to Barcelona.) It's not that I didn't want to tell people; rather the deal, so that we could leave on Thursday, was that I couldn't tell anyone that I was taking the test, from class on Thursday, Wednesday night after our Airbus visit. Like I said, we got up really early to catch our train that left at 6:05 am. With packed duffel bags we escaped down the stairs and down the block to the Metro Station. Normally, most people wake up before 8 for breakfast.

The train we boarded was a sleeper train. The seats went down pretty much the whole way. I reclined hoping to get some sleep since it wouldn't be until 11pm that we'd be at where we were going.

Spain and Portugal have a different gauge railroad that the rest of Europe. Therefore, all the trains, except for the TGVs that go to Barcelona, only go to the border between Spain and France. Our train ran from Toulouse to Irun. The southwestern frontier of France and Spain is marked by a river. On the French side sits Hendaye; on the Spanish side, Irun. Their train stations are about 5 minutes apart. We jumped off at Hendaye to walk to the beach on the Atlantic.

After walking for more than half an hour past the railyard, city, and through a park next to the river we made it to the beach. After changing in a bathroom under the boardwalk, we emerged to the gray cloudy sky. The beach was about 50 yards down from the sidewalk to the water and mostly empty. Since it was a little chilly, we only went in the ocean enough to get the lower part of our legs wet.

I dug a hole. Looking down the beach 75 yards, some kids were building a big castle against the tide. We decided to out do them by constructing the Pyramids at Giza. It kind of worked out but they were each about 1 foot square and I don't think we got the angle right.

After an hour of being sandblasted, we collected our stuff and headed back to the bathroom to change. The lady was still sitting there. It's kind of wierd, but here in Europe, they have bathroom supervisors in places like public buildings, train stations, and parks. We then walked back to the train station because it's on the road that goes to Spain. After a couple of blocks, we made it to the bridge. We then ran like hell toward Spain before they could...just kidding, all the EU countries have open borders; going from France to Spain is about as difficult as going from Wisconsin to Illinois.

After arriving in Spain, we then walked around town looking for the train station. The part of Spain we were in is Basque Country so the signs were in 3 languages: Basque, Spanish, and French, in that order. The Spanish and French look like each other, but the Basque is completely different. Some of their letters are even different. Another difference I found is their Spainish accent in Spanish, the main thing that stands out is that they pronouce c's like how we pronounce th's. After wandering around, we went into a vertical mall and I asked a lady in Spanish how to get to the train station. At first I hadn't remembered that they do the 'th' thing so after realizing that, she told me that it's down the road, over a block, then turn left after the bridge.

We then dropped off our bags in a locker and went in seach of lunch, since we had only had a few pieces of bread on the train with cheese. We walked around the downtown. Most of the stores were closed. The siesta, duh. We eventually found a restaurant type place. We had hamburgers and fries. I was still adjusting to Spanish; I had to be careful since with four languages (English, French, German, and Spanish) floating around in my head, I couldn't be sure what'd come out. I think their accents sound funny, like they have lisps. She said "Gra-thee-es" for gracies.

Eventually, 5 approached so we had to head back to the stathion. A different combination of stores were open now. We found our train, some kind of express train headed for Madrid Atocha. Initially, I couldn't wait for another 5+ hour train ride, but, although, we were in second class, I thought it was nicer than any other train I had been on in Europe. The main difference I noticed is that the cars were shorter in length. The seats were comfortable and had enough leg space, which is usually, almost a problem although I'm somewhere between 6'3" and 6'4". Also, the cars had tv's and they played a movie.

On this satellite picture, we were in the corner of the ocean in the top center of the image. Madrid is roughly near the dot in the 'i' in Spain. As you can see, Spain is pretty dry with some green streaks. After going up into the mountains, I fell asleep so I don't really know what happened. I woke up about 2 hours later and we made a stop in Pamplona, famous for the Running of the Bulls, which is going on this week.

I awoke to see an entirely different landscape. The land was dry, with perhaps wheat growing. There are a lot of windmills in Spain; not the kind from Don Quixote, rather the wind power generating type. Sometimes the land would be flat, other times up and down, sometimes rocky, always mountains on the horizon.

The movie came on. It was "War of the Worlds", the new one with Tom Cruise. I'd never seen it before. Perhaps it was because I only saw it and didn't hear it, but I thought it was a rather average movie despite being directed by Spielberg. I thought the camera seemed to orbit the actors too much, also he put the actors in the background too much. I'll give him the benifit of the doubt because with sound, I bet it'd work better, also without sound I only had the video so it had my full attention. It was the first time I'd watched Tom Cruise in a movie in a couple of years. It seems like he can act with facial expressions from across the whole spectrum: happy, sad, serious, angry, and concerned.

Eventually at about 10:30 we arrived at Madrid. We walked out of the station to a giant intersection. We decided to walk to the hostel instead of taking the subway. I had my Frommers Europe book to be our guide and map. We went up the street a little way and happened across a Kebab place. I meant to have written about kebabs already, it's on my post list, so I won't say too much, but they're like a Turkish gyro. They're also Europe's fast food. Spanish kebab was interesting. Each kebab place is unique. The main difference in Spain is that they had some kind of salsa in it.

After eating, we then walked around following the map for an hour to get to the hostel. At one point, we were on the street a block over from it, then we continued on strait for a couple of blocks and curved around the wrong direction. On the bright side, we got to see the neighborhood. As it turned out, our hostel was in Madrid's gay neighborhood which was evident from the rainbow flags and butt-slaps outside of the context of a sporting event.

We eventually found the hostel and got buzzed in from the street. It was on the second floor, which is the 3rd for us Americans. We checked in and got our room. It was a two person room over the street and none of the rooms had locks, which defeated the purpose of getting a two person room. In Germany, when there were 10 of us together, 8 of us would be in an 8 person room so we could leave our luggage out and just lock the door. We were hoping to just leave our stuff and go during the day.

After a day of riding on trains we were ready for sleep. Another difference in Spain is that they eat dinner really late and then go out until late in the early morning. Between that and the fact that the epicenter of the neighborhood was the subway station, 1 1/2 blocks to the left from our window, the street was extremely noisy until 4 am, forcing us to close the shutters and windows.


I awoke in a sauna. After getting ready, and renting a rather sketchy locker, we were ready for the free continental breakfast: two pieces of white bread with imitation Nutella. Don't forget to wash your own dishes. We then headed out early, planning to hit up some museums and the palace.

We walked down the street to the Prado. It's the best art museum in Spain and one of the best in the world. We did it in about 2 hours, little did we know just how much art we would see. There is a big Picasso thing going on in some of the museums because it's the 125th anniversary of his birth and the 25th anniversary of Guernica returning to Spain from New York.

Some of the exhibition was in the Prado, but Guernica is in another museum, the Reina Sofia. It's kind of funny that it's in the other museum because the it is the modern art museum and it doesn't have anything famous except for Guernica. It's largely the only reason people go there and even the museum knows it. We then went there to see it. Guernica is a huge 12 feet tall and nearly 30 feet wide. Picasso painted it about Guernica, a basque town bombed by the Nazis in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930's. In a side room, they had his sketches and it was interesting to see how the different parts of the painting developed.

After viewing it three times, we headed out into the rest of the museum. Frommers says it isn't too good since it has the B art by famous Spanish artists like Dali, Picasso, Miro, and Gris. We didn't care, it's all crazy. After seeing more art we decided to head to lunch.

Going to Spain is quite different. The way they eat is nearly the opposite of France. The French eat a big, 2 hour lunch and a small dinner. In Spain, they nibble for lunch and eat dinner at 10 pm, at the earliest. Also they're big time into eggs (confirmed by the people who went to Barcelona). Dave and I ended up getting a unique lunch: steak, french fries, and a fried egg. Food is better priced in Spain than in France, it seemed like our meals were between 5 and 10 euros, whereas it's at least double that in France.

We then walked about Madrid. We headed up the street towards the old town to eventually see the palace. The buildings in Spain don't look very different from the buildings in France, but they have that Spanish look. Madrid is also a little different because the trend tends to be that a city usually has a river or body of water for an axis (Milwaukee, Chicago, Madison, London, Paris, DC, NY, Toulouse), but Madrid is just there. The closest river is small and down the hill from the city. Just like any other European city, it's got old buildings and those crazy tiny streets that wind around.

Eventually we made it to the palace. I spoke Spanish to the ticket guy and told me in English that the next tour in English was in 45 minutes. Dave and I decided to walk around a little. We found some shade across the street. We then experienced 'tapas', Spanish lunch. You get a drink and they periodically serve you little bits of food on little plates.

After a few minutes we headed back. The palace sits on the top of the steep side of the hill and next to the cathedral. The king and his family don't live in this palace but they come here for all of the state functions. It was big (2800 rooms) but not extremely huge, and the decorations in the interior were on the same level, I think, as Versailles. We got the guided tour, which was worth the extra euro. After the tour, we went to the royal armory and the royal pharmacy, which are part of the palace.

Then we headed north to the Gran Via, Spain's attempt at the Champs-Elysees. It is one of Madrid's main shopping areas and businesses. It was dinner time so we headed back to the hostel to cool down for an hour or two. For dinner we went to McDonald's. It was strange because I ordered in Spanish and the lady spoke English back to me. Also, although in Europe, they aren't too much into America right now, they sure keep the American stores and businesses packed. I noticed that in Germany, France, and Spain. On several occasions, I've seen stores that only sell American brands, and they like blue jeans. It seems like they don't like our politics, but they like us. Why, just this evening, in the laudrymat, the laudrymat guy was asking Dave in French about what the laudrymats are like in the U.S.

After dinner we walked out and one of the streets that intersect at McDonald's corner was the street on which the streetwalkers work. Even though it was only about 7 pm, it seemed to be rush hour for them. We then walked around the city for a few hours and then called it an early evening. Luckily, the hostel guy turned on the AC in our room.


For the second day, we left right at the 10 am checkout time and rode the subway to the other train station to drop off our bags. Not much goes on in Spain until about noon time, and then things close up again until later in the afternoon so the sites are empty in the mornings, and Madrid isn't overly touristy. We then took the subway back to the other side of their big park, Parque del Buen Retiro. In the park there were some big monuments. I think the big one was to a king. It was about 11 and already quite hot so we decided to hit up the Museo Arqueologico Nacional.

We walked up and then around the building. One side is the national library and the other is the museum. We finally found the entrance and walked in. Security waved us through and then we turned a corner to the ticket area. The front desk was empty until an attendant ran over. The museum seemed surprized that customers had shown up at that time of day.

In Paris, they have a pass type thing that gets you into pretty much anywhere except the Eiffel Tower. When we went we got the 3 day pass for 36€. We definitely got the value out of it and it lets you jump the line. Madrid doesn't have anything like that; most of the museums cost 6€ for adults and 3€ for students. The palace is 8€, 9€ for the guided tour, every hour on the :20's in English. I used my International Student Card, which cost $25. I don't think I've gotten the value out of it yet, though. As for the museum prices, they were twice what Frommers said.

I bought the Frommers Europe book from a bookstore right before I left and it was the 2004 edition. I had just read it when we were travelling before, but I had never used it as an actual guide. Frommers left me dissapointed. The most important thing for us is stuff to do and a map. Frommers has a map of the downtown (with some errors, we found out) and a subway map, which is good. On the bad side, there is more info about hotels and restaurants (both range from 'very expensive' to 'moderately expensive' and they can probably buy stars) than there is about sites in the city. Perhaps it's written for more of the post-children crowd.

We traveled through Germany, Austria, and Switzerland with Rick Steve's, and his books are pretty good. He talks about the sites and has self-guided walking tours of the places, among other things. I used his Europe book to figure out which cities we should visit. For London, in two weeks, I bought the Lonely Planet book from a bookstore here in Toulouse, so I'll see how that goes. I think I'll probably be getting more of Steve's books in the future.

So, back to Madrid, we went through the museum and saw some cool stuff. They had a lot of artefacts from the Iberan Peninsula. It was arranged in chronological order, all the way from hundreds of thousands of years ago with ancient skulls, to the Egyptians and Romans, through Islam and Christianity in Spain. We then had lunch at a pizza place, up the street from the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. It was a private art collection that Spain bought in the 1980's. It has art spanning all genres and styles from the Middle Ages to the modern stuff, what ever they call it.

After going to the Louvre, the Prado, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza, I can confidently say that most, no, all art up to the end of the Renaissance depicts a Jesus scene, from Jesus on the cross to Mary and baby Jesus, and Jesus doing a miracle. I thought it was interesting that in the perhaps 5 paintings we saw of the flight to Egypt, all by German artists, Egypt looked green with forests and castles on hills.

After getting into the more modern times, it was pretty neat to see the painting styles unfold. I didn't really realize that at about the same time the Titanic went down, the artists were already making those whacky 'crazy colored shape' paintings. Well, anyway, after spending all afternoon in the museum, avoiding the heat and sun, I felt like my head was about to explode although the Museo T-B was probably the smallest of the 3 art museums we saw, with 700 works on display.

After going there, we walked around the city for one last time. As I said before, the city isn't based around a river, as how pretty much every other city in the world is. There is a large hill in the center of the town and it's easy to walk around the Madrid because the downtown is basically within a 1 mile radius. Also, Madrid is the nicest subway in Europe that I've been on. At 1 euro for a ride, it's cheaper than Toulouse's metro and the cars are huge, nearly the size of a normal train. That seems to be the trend in Spain, I hear that Barcelona's subway is even airconditioned.

After walking around for a while we had made it all the way over to the palace. We then went back to the train station to get dinner and wait an hour or two to leave. We checked out the Burger King in the station and it was 8 euros (nearly $10.50) for a whopper meal! As Americans, we could feel the presence of an large American corporation in the area, so we headed out and found a normal priced McDonalds again. Eventually, the time to depart rolled around and the track number flipped down on the big board.

For the first time in my life, I took a sleeper train. Leaving after 10:30, we'd awake in Hendaye at 8 the next morning. We found our cabin, three beds on a wall on the two sides and our beds were the bottom two, one on each side. One person was already in the room. This place made my room in Ogg look like luxury. Eventually all six people were assembled. Dave and I were laying on our beds to get out of the 2 x 6 foot floor space. There was an American lady on the top in her bed, and then there was a local Spanard, a Mexican, and an Argetinean lady standing in the 12 square feet having a conversation.

For the most part, I could understand what they were saying. They were talking about different currencies. They then started talking about the dollar. Wanting to join the conversation, I asked in Spanish 'What about the dollar?' The Mexican guy said in English something like 'Yeah, we're talking about your country. The dollar isn't very good now.' And then they went on for another hour standing and talking in Spanish. Dave and I both though 'no, we don't know that'. At the first available opportunity, we got up and walked around the train. Heading forward, there was another sleeper car and then two sleeper seat cars, then the doors were locked although there was much more train.

Eventually, I laid down. If I laid straight, my feet were flat on the outside wall and the top of my head was on the hallway wall so I had to bend my legs. I had woken up with a head cold in the morning and now I was really starting to feel it. Going around Spain is up and down in the train (we had a bet on the elevation of Madrid, we both underestimated it; it's at 2,000 feet). My right ear wouldn't pop; my head was too gooped up. I rolled around a lot that night on the train but I did manage to get some sleep.

As the night progressed, the cabin emptied. By the time we were within an hour of France and daylight was in the sky, we were alone. I don't think I had ever been happier to roll across a bridge than when we finally crossed back into France. Another hour lay-over and we were on our train (that got longer as we went) back to Toulouse.

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