Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Madrid - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 3

We spent another day walking around and exploring Madrid. In the morning, we headed to the lucotorio on Cuesta de San Vicente. When we made it to the Palace, we were disappointed to find that we had just missed the changing of the guards by a few minutes. The walk today would take us around parts of Old Madrid that we had missed the previous day, to Parque del Retiro, and to some newer parts of town. By late afternoon, we had explored the Plaza de España surrounded with its old, plain, but somehow classy skyscrapers, and the outside of the Egyptian temple with its pond. This area offered a nice view to the part of town down the hill, the area that were were staying in. The soft orange light provided by the setting sun was beautiful on the walls of the Egyptian Temple and the pastel walls of the tall skyscrapers surrounding the Plaza.

Throughout the day, we had walked all around Madrid, through a Chinese and a Caribbean neighbourhood, which looked quit poor and run down. We also walked around a large modern art museum, with some giant kinetic outdoor art installations which demonstrated waves. This building had a large protruding red roof reflecting the cars in the street below it, making it look as if the cars were flying in the sky. We tried to take pictures of it, but the contrast between the roof and sky was just too large and our digital photos would come out either too dark or too bright. And of course, throughout the day, we made sure to stop for some beers to refresh us and push us ever onwards. For lunch, we sat at a small bar on a plaza outside a large modern museum. We ordered some bread topped with Jamón Serrano and Jamón Ibérico to try these Spanish specialities. I found I loved these just as much as prosciutto, one of my favourite foods. This bar, however, charged an extra euro for every item on the menu for sitting outside - once again confirming my view that nothing is free in European restaurants.

After our walk around Parque del Retiro, we visited the Botanical gardens with its wide array of different plants. The things that impressed me the most were a collection of different wine grapes, different herbs, and some plants that looked like giant chives complete with giant clusters of flowers. I requested a photo with these plants, and I got two. The first one had one of the giant blooms replacing my head in the photo. We ended the day with a well earned rest and a long conversation in the square in front of Museo del Prado. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to go in to visit its galleries. Well, this is a regret that we leave for Madrid. As my mom always tells me, it is good to leave some regrets for everywhere you visit, as it will draw you back again in the future.

When we returned to apartment, we found another couchsurfer there. He was from Florida and told us stories of him travelling the coast of the US by sleeping on the beach with his sleeping bag. He said that at least once, he awoke to someone standing over him and watching him sleep. One unsettling thing about him was that he had very high praise for pickpockets. He really liked how they work and loved to watch them target people. Perhaps showing your zeal for stealing is not the best quality to display when you're staying the night in a stranger's home.

Since this was our first Couchsurfing experience, we wanted to thank our hosts by taking them to dinner. Unfortunately, Sebastian was nowhere to be seen. In the end, we went to have dinner with Raquel, Adolfo, and the new Couchsufer. Two of Raquel's friend joined us at dinner, and we ended up paying 30 euros each to cover dinner for everyone! We ate on a sidewalk table, where many restaurants seem to be setting up, and plenty to drink, and plenty of seafood and a few Madrid and Spanish specialities.

After dinner, we prepared for bed as we had to get up early for a flight to Ouarzazate, Morocco the next morning. We said good-bye to the host of our first Couchsurfing experience, and reflected on how Couchsurfing is brining people together from all over the world. In our room, we set our alarms and chatted for quite a while, as we were both very excited to be going to a land with a culture completely foreign to us. Before going to sleep, I looked out over the bright lights of Madrid one last time, and using the light from thousands of dim sodium lamps outside far below, I made sure my alarm on my phone was set.

Madrid - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 2 (Part 5)

By the time we got back to Príncipe Pío, the sun had just about finished setting, and we were hungry. We found a local and busy looking restaurant to get some dinner. Unfortunately for us, we were once again surprised and caught off guard by the lack of English spoken in Spain, and we found that no one at the restaurant spoke English and they did not have an English menu. Luckily, Felix spoke German, and he had picked up his father's old German to Spanish phrasebook while visiting his father in Munich. After much debate and guessing, we discovered that the phrasebook, with a basic dictionary was no match for a typical Spanish menu, with its strange names for foods. When the server came, we just pointed at an item in the menu which appeared to be a dish meant for two people and ordered a cerveza for each of us. Over the next while, we would learn to start any order of food or drink with the word "cerveza."

The dish turned out to be a huge plate of tender, flavourful chunks of beef steak, some potatoes, and the most wonderful form of pepper I have had, later to be identified as a special variety of pepper called Pimentos de Padrón. These tiny Padrón peppers were pan fried in olive oil and sprinkled with salt, becoming very soft, juicy, and tender, some with small charred spots. It turn out this is the only way to prepare these delicate peppers and they are never used as an ingrediant in any other dish. The shape of the peppers was reminiscent of a slightly elongated habañero, and had very thin dark forest green walls. They were very flavourful and savoury, and had a slight sweet taste to them. Some of them were also slightly spicy. This combination of meat, starch, and a new and delicious vegetable was most welcome after a long day of walking and exploring. As a bonus, the beer came with a plate of olives, and as if having the best peppers I've ever tasted wasn't enough, these were the best olives I have ever tasted. These were tender and flavourful and was not sharp like the pickled olives I have previously tried and enjoyed. I loved these olives so much I ate every single one. I later found out that these olives were prepared by a traditional Spanish pickling method, curing them in a solution of white wine, shallots, and other spices.

When we returned to the apartment, we found our Couchsurfing hosts had lit candles all over their apartment and told us that Raquel had forgot to pay the electric bill... again. We spent the rest of the night chatting. It was this night that we picked up a great tip from Sebastian, a French Canadian, to visit Merzouga when in southern Morocco. He had a wonderful time there, and said his experience was surreal, as he had gone from hiking the freezing glacier fields of the high Atlas to trekking the burning heat of the sand dunes of the Sahara in a day. Unfortunately for us, we will not have time to hike in the High Atlas, but we decided we should seriously consider visiting the desert as Sebastian had indicated it was not far from Ouarzazate, our next destination.

Settling into our tiny room for the night, one sleeping on the bed and one sleeping on the floor, we filled up the entire floorspace and made it impossible for any of us to move around. We talked about the adventures we were going to have went to sleep dreaming of exploring the unknown.

Madrid - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 2 (Part 4)

Along with our beer came a plate of fresh lightly salted potato chips. At first I was afraid that we would be charged for these chips as I'e been charged for many things in Europe that I'm used to getting for free in North America. I've been charged for water (the norm for Europe), ketchup, and other small things. Making me more suspicious was the fact that I read in nearby Portugal they would bring small plates of food to your table and unless you send them back immediately they will charge you for it.

However, we soon found out that night that this was not the case in Spain, and was one of the best things about this country! It turns out that at nearly every single bar or restaurant in Spain, if you order a glass of beer, they will always bring a small plate of food for free with your order! What a wonderful tradition! When you're hungry and looking for a snack during the day, instead of buying an unhealthy snack at a convenience store or fast food place as you would do at home, you would instead pop into the closest bar, order a beer, have a drink and a small plate of delicious and varied food all the while resting and chatting with your friends. Why, it was even common for one to make a dinner out of this arrangement. You can head out at dinner time with your friends, and over the next couple of hours until time for bed, you can pop into a bar, order a beer, receive a plate of whatever tapas they're serving with their beer that day, and move onto the next one when you're done. This makes for a long and leisurely night of hanging out with friends, mingling with people, exploring the neighbourhood and having a variety of different beers and min-courses to drink and eat.

After our beer, and a rather unexciting plate of chips, due to the touristy location of the restaurant, we continued our afternoon of exploring old Madrid refreshed. We walked to Puerta del Sol, the centre of Madrid with its stately white buildings and throngs of people in the squares watching street performers. Taking some photos of the statue of the bear climbing the madroño tree, the symbol of Madrid, we moved on. Unfortunately, it wasn't until later that we heard about the other main attraction of Sol, the nail that marks the start of the main roads in Spain. Since Madrid is located close to the centre of Spain, there is a spot in Puerta del Sol, Kilometre Zero, from where all the highways in Spain are measured from. These highways, starting from the heart of the city that is the heart of Spain, radiate in all directions to reach the outlying areas of the nation in all directions. It is said that putting your foot down on the nail will ensure a speedy return to Madrid, much like how throwing a coin over your shoulder into the Fontana di Trevi wil ensure a speedy return to Rome.

Continuing our walk, we travelled east along Calle de Acalá. This was a most impressive avenue. Surrounding it are large, impressive, centuries old stone buildings with very expensive looking decorations. Many of the buildings had large oversized statues on the roofs. The noise and smells from the hectic traffic, the chatter from the throngs of people moving in all directions, the heat and humidity of a clear summer day, and the buildings that look like they could have been taken out of a story set in a fantasy land was overwhelming. Looking down the avenue, one could see a long line of stately buildings with humongous overly ornate statues glittering with gold looming over the wide and busy street. Walking down this most impressive avenue, we reached on of the most recognizable symbols of Madrid, the Palacio de Correos y Telecomunicaciones, Madrid's town hall. If you have not seen a picture of it before, you must look it up when you get an opportunity to. It is a large, white symmetrical building, most meticulously decorated, and looks quite medieval and overbearing. Combined with its large fountain with a statue of lions drawing a chariot, it is a most impressive sight to behold. It was here that Felix and I took our first photo together on the trip, a great kick-off to the months of unforgettable experiences to come. Throughout the day, I can't help but wonder how impressive Madrid must have been throughout it's entire history.

At this point, it's getting to be late afternoon, so we decided to start heading back. We walked back along Gran Vía, the widest and most bustling avenue in Madrid. Gran Vía was like a wider and taller, but less historical looking version of Calle de Acalá. Although it had less ornate and taller buildings, there were still many gems of architecture to be observed, the most impressive being the Edificio Metrópolis at the intersection of Gran Vía and Calle de Acalá.