Can I Move to Madrid?

IMG_3354I distinctly remember a few conversations I had with people about traveling to Madrid.  Almost everyone said not to waste too much time there.  “It’s boring”, or “Give it two days max to walk around” were usually what other travelers had told me.  It’s just the capital of Spain, so according to some backpackers, it’s not interesting in terms of things to see and do.  Absolute nonsense.  I ended up really enjoying my time in Madrid.  It was one of those rare cities I found that I truly felt I could live in.  In fact, I was there twice.  Once for a whole week after Barcelona, and then again after exploring parts of southern Spain.  I really just felt at home there for some reason.  Some locals told me that people there are more down to earth than Barcelona.  It still has that big city energy, though.  My visit there had that perfect combination of things I look for…  beautiful old school architecture, great parks and green spaces, good weather, friendly people, a good hostel stay, and delcious food.  I can’t believe I almost let people talk me into not going.

Architecture

For its size, Madrid is really a very clean and beautiful city.   I found the architecture to be amazing.  Barcelona gets most of the attention because of the Gaudi buildings, but I loved the more classical styles I found in Madrid.  A popular spot is Plaza Mayor.  There was a Christmas market setup there, and tons of street performers.  It kind of reminded of some of the architecture I saw in Prague.

IMG_3321Puerta del Sol… a central part of downtown Madrid.  It’s filled with shops, cafes and street performers.  I kind of wish I just tipped some of them so I could take photos of them.  Some are really good, others are kind of strange and creepy.IMG_3331

Various other spots around town…IMG_3334 IMG_4056 IMG_4061IMG_3339

Madrid Parks

In downtown Madrid, there is this wide avenue called Paseo de Recoletos.  It has a green space that runs down the middle which creates the feeling of being in a park.  I loved walking down the street and would go out of my way sometimes to include it when walking to and from the hostel.
IMG_3359IMG_3357My favorite green space in the city was Retiro Park.  This was really a mix of a park and garden along with some palace like places used for art displays.  Between both of my trips to Madrid, I was there three times.  I tried to make it back on my last day but ran out of time.IMG_3391Palacio de Crystal… Not entirely sure what this was made for.  It was a big open green house type of structure.
IMG_3397 IMG_3401Gardens seem to be a popular thing in Spanish cities.  I’ve found them in almost every city I visited.IMG_4044IMG_4047IMG_4052

Tapas Experience

While in Madrid, I got my first taste of Spanish tapas.  I think in the States we usually associate these with small dishes like appetizers.  In Spain, the history of tapas goes back a few centuries when a king ordered that all drinks must include food.  According to a tour guide, this was done to prevent workers from spending all their money on alcohol.  This tradition is more popular in the south, especially in Granada.  However, I did find a good traditional tapas place in Madrid called El Tigre (The Tiger).  For 2.50 euros, you got a small beer and a plate of food.  I went with two Aussies from my hostel, and we thought the food was a little heavy on potatoes and bread, but still good and really filling.IMG_3332

Hostel Experience

Traveling in the low season can be nice sometimes.  There are fewer travelers to meet, but prices are low.  I was in an 8 bed dorm by myself for a couple nights, so I had a private room for a hostel price.  Here was the view from the balcony.  IMG_3380One of the guys working at the hostel, Pablo, was really helpful in getting people together.  On one night, he organized a tapas cooking class and showed us how to make a variety of different types of tapas.IMG_3351 The hostel also organized a visit to a flamenco show at a greatly reduced price.  However, I have to admit, the show wasn’t at all what I expected.  I thought the dancer and guitar player were good, but the singer’s horrible wailing turned me off from the whole experience.  I heard from a few people that this was just how the singing was intended in flamenco.  I went to another show on my return trip to Madrid and learned this wasn’t true.  More on that later.IMG_3382

Fun Last Night in Town

When I was backpacking through California over the summer, I had a great hostel stay in San Francisco.  I met a lot of people to go out with, and one of them was Ara from Madrid.  She was taking a six week English course, but was also doing some day trips out of town on her days off.  We’ve stayed in touch through Facebook, and I messaged her when I reached Madrid.  We met on my last night in the city and had some drinks and tapas.  Between a mix of mostly English and my minimal Spanish, we were able to catch up.  She’s a science teacher in Madrid and is under pressure from her boss to teach her classes in English in a few years.  She got a lot from the classes in the States and enjoyed her time there as well.  She picked up the check for our meal which I tried to stop.  I was a visitor to her city, and she wanted to treat me.  I have a hard time accepting gifts from people, and really need to relax and accept hospitality.  Thanks Ara… Next time I’m there, it’s my treat and we’ll do the whole conversation in Spanish 🙂IMG_3425

After saying goodbye to Ara, I headed back to my hostel.  On the way, I realized I was really close to this well known churros place that I had heard about from a couple sources.  I think every culture has some sort of fried dough treat, and in Spain, one of them is the churro.  There’s a place near Plaza Mayor called San Gines that serves them up 24 hours a day.  It’s famous enough to have its own Wikipedia page.  I got in line, and from hearing the two girls in front of me could tell they were American.  Five minutes later, we were all sitting downstairs in San Gines with our churros and chocolate.  The chocolate is really thick… kind of more like a chocolate fondu than hot milk chocolate.  The churros are deep fried sticks of dough which taste even better when sprinkled with powdered sugar and dipped in the chocolate.

IMG_3430The American girls had both been living in Madrid for over two years and were teaching English.  I was really curious about this, because I figured it would be next to impossible to find work in Spain as an American.  Apparently a lot of Spaniards are learning English to find jobs outside of Spain in order to escape the economic crisis.  The government even funds a program to bring English teachers from the UK and US into the country and provide them with a stipend.  I enjoyed hearing their stories of life in Madrid, and travels around Europe.  The whole evening was one of those memorable nights of randomness.  It was a perfect way to end my first week to Madrid.IMG_3431

Return trip

So after that last night, I left Madrid for the Andalusia region in southern Spain.  Around two weeks later, I came back to Madrid to catch my flight out.  The cheapest flight out of Spain to my next destination was Madrid.  So, I knew I was coming back.  I arrived on December 30 and was hoping to meet people to spend New Years Eve with.  Two hours after my bus arrived, I found an event posted on the couchsurfing forums for Madrid.  It was a language exchange and hangout.  I met a lot of locals there, more than I had on my first trip there.  There were various levels of English spoken at the event, and after a drink, I relaxed enough to try my Spanish.  I’m really bad, but the little bit I know does help bridge the gap if someone speaks almost no English.  Good crowd.  I wished I was staying for a couple weeks so I could see everyone at the next meetup.  I was starting to feel a connection with Madrid at that point.

So I was looking forward to New Years Eve here, and in particular, Spain’s version of Times Square… Puerta del Sol (Sun Gateway).  I met some other solo travelers from the hostel on New Years Eve, and we spent the day together.  There’s a Spanish tradition of eating grapes at midnight.  The story goes something like this… if you can eat all 12 of your grapes in the final minute of the old year, you’ll have good luck in the new year.  I didn’t hear any bells, but just waited till I saw everyone else cramming grapes in their mouths.  I think I made it time, but I had to eat the seeds.IMG_4023

So there I was on midnight in Puerta del Sol with all the other crazy people in the rain.  We ate grapes, we celebrated the new year, and then I fast tracked it back to the hostel.
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A couple days later, I finally made it to another one of Madrid’s famous locals… the Museo del Jambon (Ham Museum) which is really a restaurant.  The ham in Spain is kind of legendary.  It’s something the Spaniards do really well, and I almost always enjoyed it.  IMG_4086 The place was packed no matter when you went.  Another good cheap eats in Madrid… something like 3 euros for a beer and a sandwich.  It was definitely one of those food experiences on my trip that made me glad to suspend my vegetarianism for the time being.IMG_4084

I think the highlight of my return trip to Madrid, and perhaps one of my favorite moments of Spain was seeing another flamenco show.  This one cost just five more euros than the previous horrible one I did last time in Madrid.  However, it was a 100 times better.  It was really a professional show put on by experienced dancers.  I went with a few people from the hostel who added to the experience.  Everyone had traveled a lot and had good stories to swap.  The music, singing, dancing, and company made for a perfect night.  It was really something and gave me a good sense of good traditional Spanish flamenco.

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Epic night.  I love how evenings like that can emerge from hostel stays.

So Madrid rocked for me.  It really felt like a place I could live.  There were tons of things to see and do.  A beautiful city with cool buildings and nice parks to explore.  I met so many good people who I had fun exploring the city with and hearing travel stories from.  I honestly could see myself living there.  That said, it’s obviously not all roses in Madrid.  Spain is in the middle of a horrible economic crisis.  The youth unemployment rate is hovering around 50 percent, and it weighs heavy on everyone.  I still saw a lot of people out and about walking around, going into shops and cafes, and getting ready for Christmas.  I’ll have to go back in Spring or Fall to get another feel for things.  I hope I make it, though.  I know several people there now to catch up with.IMG_4083

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Paris… We Finally Meet

IMG_2630Over the last few months, almost everyone I met who was also backpacking through Europe had either been to Paris or was going to Paris.  Despite the popularity, there are mixed reviews for the city, and I’ve even had several French citizens tell me they don’t like Paris or Parisians.  I kind of wondered if I should skip it, but for me, it was one of those bucket list cities I really wanted to visit in Europe.  Paris was also special because the day I arrived marked five months on the road.  It’s true that it’s an extremely touristy city… the most visited in the world in fact.  My expectations had been lowered after talking with so many people about Paris that I believe that is what led to me having an amazing time.  My visit destroyed a lot of horrible myths that I had come to believe which was very cool.  So here’s how I spent my week in Paris.

On the flight from Bucharest, we flew over the Swiss Alps which was seriously amazing.  They stretched for as far as the eye could see.  Most scenic view I’ve ever had from a plane.

IMG_2607So one of the first myths about Paris is that people are rude and even if they can speak English, they don’t want to.  While I was recovering from my accident in Bucharest, I spent several days learning some basic French words and phrases.  My goal was for every interaction with someone to always start in French, and see how far I could get.  I learned how to exchange pleasantries and goodbyes for different times of the day and evening.  I also learned how to say “Can I have” so I could order food or a coffee without having to just point.  I also learned the numbers from 1-20 and some other simple traveler phrases.  This incredibly tiny amount of French which I learned with a $2.00 iPhone app I believe helped immensely.  Most of the time, this was enough to get by, and on the occasion where I had to give myself up and admit I didn’t know the language, “Je ne parle pas français”, I never encountered any rudeness.  Honestly, most people in Paris seemed to be able to speak basic English.  I even had a great conversation with a girl in an art shop who had lived in Minneapolis for a number of years.  The French are very proud of their culture and language and that kind of self respect usually leads to others having more respect for you.  So I’m not exactly sure why we perceive that pride as rudeness or snobby behavior.  Of course, one week is not enough to explore the entire city.  Not even close, so maybe I’m being naive.  It’s possible I just got lucky, but I had a very positive experience with Parisians.

So my first few days in Paris were basically a marathon session of seeing all the touristy stuff…  first, the Eiffel Tower.  Climbing the stairs out of the subway station and seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time impressed me more than I thought it would.  I felt a little banged up after Romania, but here I was, five months into the trip and still going.  I was in this incredibly famous city at its most famous landmark and all was well.  I spent a couple hours gazing and taking photos from all angles.

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IMG_2622IMG_2628Notre Dame Cathedral.  It’s free to enter, but there’s a charge to take an elevator to the top.  I stuck with photos of the free part.IMG_2960IMG_2701IMG_2705IMG_2699IMG_2698The Champs-Élysées.  Main street in Paris filled with high end shopping and at this time of year, an awesome Christmas market.  It was the largest Christmas market I’ve ever seen.  Easily half a mile long on both sides of the street.IMG_2945

The Arc de Triomphe is at one end of the Champs-Élysées.  IMG_2748IMG_2750One last night shot of the Eiffel Tower at night.  IMG_2931IMG_2937I can’t remember what church this was.
IMG_2637At the Botanical Gardens.
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The Louvre.  I finally made it to the Louvre on my third day in Paris.  IMG_2778 The museum arguably has some of the most famous works of art in the world… The Mona Lisa, Venus De Milo, works by Michaelangelo, the Code of Hamarabi, and many more.  I got there kind of early to avoid a long line at the door, but also because I was prepared to spend an entire day there.  The first thing that strikes you is just how enormous the museum is.  It would take a few days to see everything as there are three main sections that would each easily occupy an entire day.  IMG_2779One review of the museum I read recommended getting the audio guide.  I normally don’t, but the one at the Louvre is unlike any other one I’ve seen.  It’s actually a Nintendo DS and allows for an incredibly interactive experience.  Almost none of the exhibit labels in the museum are in English.  They are only in French, so at five euros, the audio guide was well worth it.  It must of used GPS or sensors in each room because it always knew where you were in the museum and would autoplay commentaries as you entered new sections.  You could even select a work of art and get turn-by-turn navigation to guide you there.IMG_2825

I guess if you write a blog post about going to the Louvre, you should include photos of all those famous works of art.  Yes, I did take pictures, but I’ve resisted posting anything like that in prior blog updates.  Honestly, it’s kind of crazy to see how people act in the Mona Lisa room.  The majority of tourists don’t even look at the art.  They have their backs turned to it and spend more time looking at their friend taking a photo of them with the painting in the background.  In the same room as the Mona Lisa is this huge painting called the Wedding Feast at Cana which depicts a scene from the bible.  It’s so overlooked, but a really awesome piece.IMG_2815Napoleon’s Coronation.  Ok, so this is one of those famous works, but I spent a lot of time looking at it, and enjoyed hearing the commentary on it.  Napoleon’s mother didn’t like her son’s decision to call himself “emperor”, and refused to attend the event depicted in the artwork below.  Napoleon had her painted in right in the middle of the work on an elevated platform.IMG_2818Some statues in one of the halls.  IMG_2790IMG_2791Greek warrior in actionIMG_2801The museum itself is filled with these rooms that just blow you away.  It was really an experience just walking around the Louvre.IMG_2805Turn the corner, and you find yourself in another another cool hall.IMG_2794This hall had a glass ceiling which created the feeling of being in the courtyard of a palace.
IMG_2846After six hours in the Louvre, I was starting to get pretty tired and was ready to go.  However, I still wanted to see the Napoleon Apartments.  These were actual rooms used by Napoleon III (nephew to Napoleon Bonaparte) when the Louvre was a palace. I used the turn by turn navigation on my audio guide to help me find them since I was kind of lost in the museum at that point.
IMG_2856IMG_2853IMG_2859The Louvre was everything it’s hyped to be.  It may sound lame, but seeing the Mona Lisa in person was an enjoyable experience.  I’ll always remember my visit.  I also made it to the Musee d’Orsay which houses some of the best impressionistic paintings from all over the world.  They had a lot of famous Monet’s and Van Gogh paintings.  Photos were not allowed, so unfortunately, nothing to share.  As with the Louvre, it’s totally worth the visit.  The museum itself used to be a train station and the huge open space makes for a great exhibit area.

After exploring most of the main tourist attractions to Paris, I set my sights on some of the other things France is best known for… its food and wine.  I decided prior to arriving that I would relax my usual budget constraints.  I was doing well on my spending after a month and half in Central and Eastern Europe, so felt I earned it.  Fortunately, there were other foodies at the hostel, and we teamed up to buy food to bring back to the hostel.  I did go out one night to this restaurant in Montmartre near the hostel and had a couple glasses of wine and a proper meal.  IMG_2762We found shops near the hostel selling everything from cheeses, baguettes, croissants, terrines, wine, veggie dishes and rotiserrie chickens.
IMG_2904IMG_3003And of course, we enjoyed plenty of French wine.  You can get really good wine in France for about $5 a bottle, even stuff from the Bordeaux region.  The hostel only had those shitty plastic cups, but hey, it’s about the content not the container.  Looking back, I really didn’t spend that much more money Paris than I thought I would.  IMG_3001This chocolatier shop had a great selection of chocolate blocks sold in bulk.IMG_2913A group of us from the hostel went this street market on Saturday and found some good bakeries, fromageries (cheese) and produce markets.  We also found this crepe place.  I mainly had dessert crepes, but the savory one I had here was my favorite.  I liked being able to watch her make them too.  She cooked the eggs on top of the crepe pastry.
IMG_2987Hostel experience

One of the other myths about Paris is that there are no good hostels.  Utter nonsense.  I found this place called Le Village that had great facilities, helpful staff, and other friendly travelers.  They had crossoints for breakfast every morning, and a lady in the kitchen greeting everyone every morning, “Bon jour.  C’est va?”.  IMG_2866

After extending my stay once, I tried to extend it another two days and found the hostel to be completely booked.  I was on the verge of having to find another hostel when the manager offered me a bed in a studio in a nearby building for only 25 euros a night.  I’m still dumbfounded at why it was offered to me at such a ridiculously low rate.  I just slept there any way and never hung out.  I was either out exploring or stuffing my face in the common room.IMG_3007IMG_3009The highlight of the hostel had to be its location… right in the middle of Montmartre.  This is a very old neighborhood in Paris that is supposed to represent the city well.  My friend Natacha from France recommended seeing this area, and so when I found a hostel with decent ratings was located here, it was an easy decision.  The neighborhood was filled with plenty of scenic backdrops from which to take photos.
IMG_2765IMG_2767IMG_2769IMG_2771One of the main attractions of Montmartre is the Sacear Couer, a basillica.IMG_2775More photos from walking around during the day…IMG_2916Hmmm… hot wine, or “vin chaud” in French.IMG_2898IMG_2889The other famous attraction in Montmartre… Le Moulon Rouge.  I wanted to see a show, but there were a couple catches.  For one, it’s around 100 euros and people get dressed up for it.  Also, no one I met was interested in going, or they had already been.   I didn’t want to go by myself, or really spend so much for just a 90 minute show.  So, it will have to be something I do next time.IMG_2974So that’s my Paris story.  As I was saying, I had some low expectations for Paris coming in, but I was genuinely surprised.  I think I’d like to learn more French and come back someday so I can do a deeper dive.  Even though it was early December, the city was still filled with tourists, so I’d hate to be there in the summer.  Stick with late Fall or very early Spring to avoid too many crowds if you’re planning a visit.IMG_2977

American Vagabond in London: Part 2

When I was in Washington, DC, one of my favorite aspects of the city had to be all the free museums.  London is the same way, and I think it makes a lot of sense for an international destination if they want to show off their history and culture.  As a budget traveler, they’re a very welcome sight, and I took full advantage of it.  According to Wikipedia, two of the four most visited museums in the world are located in London, and I went to both.

The British Museum

Shot of the grand hall shortly after entering.

I think if you only had time for one museum in London, this is the place you would have to visit.  It’s over 200 years old, and has a very extensive collection of items documenting just about all of human history.  One of the most popular attractions that has been at the museum for over a hundred years is a collection of Egyptian mummies and artifacts.

The Egyptian stuff is definitely cool, and draws a crowd.  However, my favorite piece in the whole collection would have to be the Rosetta Stone.

The stone contains a decree by a ruler of ancient Greece in 2nd century BC.  It’s written in three different scripts… Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Demotic (an Egyptian language used after Hieroglyphs) and ancient Greek.  When the stone was rediscovered in the late 1700’s, scholars knew ancient Greek quite well, but the Egyptian glyphs were still a mystery.  Using the Greek translation, and a lot of time and effort, the hieroglyphs were interpreted using this stone.  Now we can read all the writings on the pyramid and ancient Egyptian monuments and tablets.  Pretty incredible piece of history, and just mind blowing for me to be standing in front of it.  All of the scripts had to be painstakingly chiseled into the stone.  I wonder what happened if you made a mistake.

There’s also an extensive collection of items from ancient Greece, including pieces from the Parthenon, and dozens of statues.

My other favorite part of the museum was a section that used to be known as the King’s Library.  I think it’s just part of the British Library system now.  It has a collection of old books and statues.  I wanted to just sit and relax in there with a good book and a cup of tea.

There’s a lot of controversy around the British Museum because some items are perceived to be “stolen” from other countries.  During the 1800’s when a lot of the artifacts were being uncovered, laws protecting antiquities really didn’t exist like they do today.  The Egyptian Museum in Cairo has tried unsuccessfully to get the Rosetta Stone back several times.  They even requested the stone be loaned to them for 3 months. The British Museum made a full scale replica of the stone, but that’s as good as they’re offering.  All in all, obviously a world class museum despite the controversy.  Sometimes it’s easy to get tired of seeing museums when you’re traveling, but this one is an exception.

National Gallery of Art

This art museum is situated at the top of Trafalgar Square.  Unfortunately, they don’t let you take photos inside, so I had to go to the internet to get the pics below.  I hate using other’s material in my blog, but I really enjoyed walking around the museum, so wanted to document the memory.  Really beautiful and peaceful inside that place with a lot of well known works of art… Rembrandt’s, Monet’s, Van Gogh’s and even a work by Leonardo Da Vinci.  Awesome museum, and a nice cafe inside too.

Natural History Museum

Unlike an art museum, or museum of human history, natural history museums document the history of our natural world… climate, geology, oceans, and all the creatures that occupy the planet.  I’ve been to a couple of these on my trip, but something about this one makes it special.

The building itself is a unique place and definitely sets the tone for the rest of the museum.  The inside is even more stunning.  It’s like a cathedral of science.

They have good collection of dinosaur bones, but I don’t think it was anything more than what I’ve seen in the Carnegie Museum, Smithsonian or Natural History Museum in NYC, but it definitely has some of the best atmosphere for viewing such a collection. 

Tate Modern

Travelers will tell you one of the best things about solo travel is that you learn a lot about yourself.  I’m positive that I don’t care for modern art.  That sounds rather unintelligent, and I realize modern art relates more to the world I live in today, but it just doesn’t do anything for me.  A lot of people will tell you to go to the Tate, but for me, it was kind of meh.  Give me a Renaissance painting, an impressionistic landscape, or an ancient Greek statue of Aphrodite any day over modern art.

I also went to the Victoria and Albert Museum (Also just called V&A).  It’s a museum dedicated to the decorative arts.  I’m not really sure what that means, but it’s cool, and right across from the Natural History museum.  It was my last full day in London, and it was raining when I went.  I was tired, so I just kind of went through the place quickly.  The courtyard and garden area was worthy of a snapshot.

Transportation in London

The Underground or Tube as most people call it, is London’s subway system.  It is a modern marvel of engineering.  Very extensive system that runs all over London.  It’s simple and documented with plenty of signage.  Transfers and exit points are well marked, and I don’t see how anyone who can read a tube map could get lost.  If you do, they have assistants in most stations to help with navigation or purchasing tickets.  I wanted to snap a few pics of the train and stations themselves, but there is a bit of paranoia around security in the UK as in the US.  So I was hesitant to take pictures.  I took the pic below in a rather stealthy way, so it’s not good.  What’s hilarious is that the photo contains the phrase that most people probably think of when riding the train… Mind the Gap.

The train is not level with the platform in most stations, so a kindly British gentlemen in a pre-recorded voice is constantly reminding you to “Mind the Gap”.   For my fares, I probably should have just bought a one-week pass, but I bought an Oyster Card instead on my first night after the plane arrived in Heathrow.  I ended up having to top it off a few times, which is a hassle, and I probably spent £5 more for my rides.

The cool thing about the Oyster Card is that once you reach the daily rate, you don’t pay any more.  I think the daily travel card is £7, so if you’re riding all over the city like I was, once you’ve used £7 of your card, the rest of your rides that day are free.  The Tube was one of the best public transit systems I’ve ridden.  I grabbed a pocket map on my first night and carried it around all the time.  It came in handy and was pretty beat up by my last day.

Hostel Life

Yet again, I stayed at a hostel and used CS to meetup with locals.  The hostel I stayed in was inexpensive, but felt a little dirty.  They didn’t have enough showers or bathrooms either in my opinion.  The benefit of a crappy hostel is that you don’t spent much time there, which makes sense when you’re in London.  I typically left by 9 or 10 in the morning and didn’t come back till 10PM or later.

I scored the bottom bunk again 🙂  I’ve been having good luck getting the bottom bunk lately.  However, on my last two nights, there was someone sleeping above me who snored like a hog.  I’ve learned there is a third universal truth in addition to death and taxes… there will be a snorer in your hostel room.

I’ll wrap-up London in a 3rd installment with some of my couchsurfing experiences.  I didn’t surf, but definitely met up with some locals.  I ended up having a pretty incredible Saturday when a series of spontaneous events emerged to form one of those perfect days.