Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Over the mountains (to Madrid)

We slept well in Barcelona and even convinced Roxy to let us sleep in a bit. At 10:00, there was still a complimentary breakfast bar waiting in the lobby. The andouille sausage and cold Spanish omelets were a little unexpected, but sufficient to get us going. It turned out that the cab ride the night before wasn’t without some benefit; it gave me the chance to get my bearings. We easily found the route back to the highway and started the long drive to Madrid.

After leaving Barcelona, we climbed the foothills of the Pyrennes. The Catalan countryside was more what I expected of Spain than the modern metropolis of Barcelona. Quaint villages were positioned on rocky hills. Fruit and nut trees and vineyards stretched out through the valleys.

Quickly, though, the landscape became more arid and the population density dropped dramatically. Along desolate mountain ridges lonely modern windmills stood sentinel. I imagined the old Don Quixote sage with the new modern power generators. How might he have reacted to blades the size of a 747. And yet, at such distance, they were just tiny reminders that we hadn’t completely left civilization. For many hours, there was almost no development to speak of. We followed signs to Zaragosa, a town apparently large enough to host a top league soccer team.


Without much warning, the arid landscape gave way to cityscape. All of the buildings seemed brand new. I had to imagine that Zaragosa was a planned city, with incentives to bring residents into the uninhabited central region of the country. That was, after all, the idea behind the settling of Madrid.

The drive was easy enough, good weather and light traffic conditions. Undulating hills and curious rock formations provided just enough interest to keep me alert. Mary Ann noticed that many of the hills seemed to have lost their tops. Curious isn’t it that some Spaniard from this region might have been in the armies that first encountered the flat topped pyramids of the Aztecs. I surmised that many of these hills might have been worked over time for settlements or agriculture.


Our approach into Madrid was almost as sudden as driving through the other small cities in central Spain. I suppose that we skirted much of suburbia by taking the toll road bypass. Again, our directions were golden until up to the last two miles. A missed exit here and an unmarked street there, and we were again orienteering on instinct. This time the saving grace was the map Mary Ann printed with directions to the airport for the next day. We eventually found the hotel and street parking to boot.

The Travelodge wasn’t quite as nice, but it met our criteria: clean, quite, cheap, and they accepted pets. Roxy was happy to find a dog park near by, and we again expected to be near the city Metro system. We only got slightly lost on our walk to the station.

Hoping for a deal, we opted for the one day tourist pass Metro ticket assuming the followed the same 24 hour rule as Chicago. Not so, we learned the following day. On the trip, we were doing our part supporting public transportation by paying unnecessary fees. Beyond the unfair calendar-day, the subway was really nice. To get to the center of town, Puerto del Sol, we had to make a few connections. Pretty easy to do following the color code and end-station direction rules.

Emerging from the underground station into the main square, we were engulfed in a sea of people. We could not believe how many people were out and about. But the odd thing was that there didn’t seem to be any focus of the madness. There was no real event taking place. That didn’t stop the crowds from taking to the streets. All around traffic was closed and people of all ages wandered around, grabbing snacks at the cafeteria-style restaurants and doing late-evening shopping.


The only real pattern we could discern among the crowds was the habit of wearing crazy hats. At first, the Rudolf caps seemed cute, but then there were also giant afros, wildly colored wigs and springy holiday top hats. We even passed a stand selling Christmas masks. Nothing says, “happy holidays,” like creepy Barack and Michelle Obama masks. If you’re Spanish and reading this blog, please explain this tradition.

We eventually pushed our way through the crowds to the Plaza Mayor. There we encountered a traditional holiday market. Unfortunately, they weren’t serving any local fare. This was somewhat of a disappointment, because all of the restaurants in the area were packed. We wandered around a bit more, before our standards began falling again. I even considered going to Burger King.


Finally, we stumbled a suitable establishment. It was a little strange that they were nearly empty, despite the mass of crowds. Still, it offered a chance to sit down and enjoy some local fare, namely a plate of ham varieties and patatas bravas. These fried potatoes in spicy sauce are probably my favorite Spanish dish. Mary Ann judged the meal and the sangria more satisfying that our previous night’s fare. And we even made it back to the hotel via the subway too. We were starting to get the hang of travel in Spain.
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