It was a long day out to Spain. The train from Paris left at around 2 and even on the high-speed it was a 6 hour journey to Barcelona. Luckily for me, about halfway through a group of Germans came on board and sat in the seats next to me. We talked and laughed and they were kind enough to share their food and beer with me. It was a mini fiesta! Hopefully we will meet up sometime when I am in Germany later on in this trip. At Barcelona, I waited about an hour for my next train to Madrid. Tired and exhausted, I slept the three hours to the capital. There, I was hoping to catch some Zs in the train station but apparently it closed and so at 12:30 AM I was out on the streets of Spain’s capital. With no better plan, I walked the three miles to the hostel that I would be staying at the next night. Luckily they had space and I crashed hard, despite the noise of the drunks outside. In Spain, the party doesn’t stop until 6AM!
A Day in Madrid
After breakfast I took a nice walk up to Las Ventas, the most famous bullfighting ring in Madrid. The place has been hosting fights since 1931 and can seat 25,000! Tickets range in price based on what row you are sitting and whether or not you are in the sun. I purchased two sol (sunny) tickets for the next day’s event. Then I walked back towards the center of town, detouring through a beautiful park called El Retiro. It had a large lake where people were out on rowboats. Along the edges, vendors called out their products while musicians serenaded passersby in hopes for some coins. I took a short nap in the grass before visiting the nearby Museum del Prado. It was an extensive art museum and kept me occupied for a couple of hours before I had enough. Near Plaza Mayor, I found a dirt cheap restaurant selling tapas and montaos. Tapas are small plates of just about anything, many being different forms of ham or fish, while montaos are like mini sandwiches. I met a nice Spanish guy and shared a few beers, though his English was quite difficult to understand. I walked some more,before taking a siesta… When in Spain right? I arose a couple of hours later to a nice Serbian couple who had moved into the room during my slumber. Then I hit town for a few more beers and watched a couple of street performances in Plaza del Sol. Just after midnight, Glenna arrived and we fell asleep in the hostel, tired from our travels.
The next morning we moved to a new hostel and ate a nice lunch of tapas and sangria at a nearby market. Then we joined a walking tour in Plaza Mayor. Plaza Mayor is Madrid’s main square and seems to be very busy at all times. The plaza is lined with nice outdoor restaurants, while the center is riddled with strange entertainers and costumed people all trying to make a quick euro. In the very center of the plaza stands a statue of King Felipe III on horseback. Interestingly, this statue was the cause of a horrible stench in its early days. Apparently, the guy who made the statue left the horse’s mouth open and hundreds of birds were able to fly in to roost. However, they were unable to find their way out and thus perished and rotted inside the statue. Nasty! The tour took us to many sites in the historic part of Madrid, teaching us much about the country’s historical kings and queens. Spain is still ruled by a constitutional monarchy today. Being the capital, Madrid is also the country’s largest city and the third largest in the EU. Its metro area has an incredible 7 million people. As always, the walking tour was a blast.
Bullfighting at Las Ventas
Afterwards, we took the metro out to Las Ventas and hit up a local bar for a beer and some more tapas. The place was decked out in bullfighting murals- it really set the mood for our first experience with corrida de toros! To explain a little how it works, in Spanish bullfighting three matadors fight two bulls each. Requirements for the bulls are they must be 4-6 years old and weigh at least 1,000 lbs. The whole event is more like a show at a theater then just purely a fight.
It is broken down into three stages, each one announced by a group of musicians with trumpets. In the first stage, the tercio de varas, the matador tests the bull and observes his behavior.
Then, two picadores mounted on horseback enter the arena and stab the bull, weakening its neck muscles and making it easier to kill later on. In the second stage, the tercio de banderillas, three men place three barbed sticks each into the bull.
The final act, called the tercio de muerte, is where the matador kills the bull, distracting it with a red cape and making the final stab with a sharp sword. Surprisingly, the only reason the matadors use the famous red capes is to cover up the bull’s blood. Bulls are actually color blind!
The fights were impressive and a joy to watch. Packed in tiny cement bleachers, we felt a sense of community. The crowd jeered and cheered with every move. During the second fight, the matador did so well the crowd erupted, waving white handkerchiefs. For his performance, the matador was rewarded an ear of the bull. Later on in the event, one of the matadors did exactly the opposite. During one of the passes, the bull seemed to catch his leg and he fell. The bull veered on him and he came within inches of being gored! It was a thrilling night to say the least!
And while you may think that this whole thing is barbaric and animal cruelty, take this into consideration: A bull chosen for the ring not only lives longer than a typical meat cow, he also has freedom on the range as opposed to being in a slaughterhouse. In addition, if you consider the fact that humans don’t actually need to consume meat, both die simply for our enjoyment.
After an exciting night with bulls, we had a chill morning. We went for a run in the park, ate some incredible bakery in the market, and then toured the royal palace.
In a park across from the palace, we found a cozy little spot to hammock and take a siesta. Then we snacked on some churros and headed back to Plaza Mayor for a tapas tour. Apparently there are many legends as to how tapas began. One is that the king at the time went to visit a local town and ordered a drink in the bar. Noticing that sand from outside was blowing into everyone’s drinks and not wanting to insult the king, the quick thinking bartender put a slice of ham on his drink. When the king asked what this was he said tapar- a cover! Nowadays tapas are a staple of Spanish cuisine. When you order a drink from a bar, small tapas will come as well free of charge. This tradition comes from a time when poor peasant farmers did not have enough money for both food and drink. Obviously they would choose drinks and too often would get drunk. Because of this, Spain’s agriculture severely dipped. Noticing this trend, a law was commissioned that with every drink food must also be served, essentially keeping the farmers from having to choose between the two. I must say, it is a great tradition. On the tour, we hit four local restaurants enjoying some bomb as food and some wonderful drinks as well. We even drank from a Spanish wine skin.
My favorite place was the Museo del jamon. Translation: Museum of Ham! Basically a chain fast food joint, the place had massive chunks of ham hanging from the ceiling and the walls. The food and the beers were dirt cheap! After the tapas tour, we continued our night on a club crawl. Several of the people from the tapas tour also joined in and we had a great night dancing and drinking. In one of the clubs, I had a huge surprise when I ran into the German guys from the train a few days previous! What a small world! We had some drinks and danced a bit, vouching we will see each other again in Germany. I can’t wait!!!
A Day in Toledo
We went on a day trip the following day to Toledo, a medieval city an hour bus ride to the south. Once the capital, Toledo is now known as the city of three cultures. It was historically influenced by Jews, Muslims, and Christians. It is an impressive walled off city with narrow streets climbing the steep hill it rests on. We wandered around, absent mindedly, past old churches and down steep cobblestone roads. Near an impressive medieval bridge, we got our adrenaline fix with two zip-line rides each across the river.
They were fun rides! Down at the river’s edge, we walked a path that encircled the city and was part of a larger path that follows the route of the fictional character Don Quixote! On a particularly nice spot, we set up the hammock and took a nap.
Afterwards, we had a nice lunch, though neither of us had any idea what we ordered. Back in Madrid, we headed to Plaza Mayor for a nice dinner of paella, Spain’s National seafood and rice dish, and a giant jug of sangria. When we were stuffed and feeling jolly, we drank some more wine in the market before calling it a night. I love Madrid!
One more morning with a buffet of bakery from the San Miguel Market. The bakery there is the bomb! Then we packed up our things and headed to the train station. We were leaving the land of bullfighting behind, for a whole new region of Spain: Catalonia, and its main city, Barcelona!