Bullfights, tapas, history, art, I went to Spain to experience everything I could in three weeks, but I also wanted to slow down and relax, something I rarely do at home. So I decided to travel solo at my own pace rather than deal with the demands of group travel – not that going solo wouldn't be a challenge in itself.
Without a tour guide to depend on, I'd have to handle all the details myself. I'd probably be so busy there wouldn't be a moment to worry about being lonely – but I hoped not too busy. If I was to have time for anything other than figuring where and how to go each day I had better have a plan – in place, in advance.
For months I prepared by reading guidebooks and surfing the Internet for travel information. I talked to friends who had been there, and learned some basic Spanish vocabulary by listening to language tapes.
As I would be flying to Madrid, it seemed prudent to stop there awhile to develop a basic level of comfort. Armed with a Lonely Planet guidebook, I could immerse myself in the city's historic and artistic treasures, then take some easy day trips to nearby medieval cities before venturing out to other parts of the country.
I arrived in Madrid during a colossal February downpour, so I took a taxi from Barajas airport (ESP2,000 – pesetas; C$17, US$11) to the Hotel Opera, which I'd reserved on the Internet.
The hotel's restaurant is famous for its opera-singing waiters. My room, though small, was cozy, and I was delighted with the hotel's location one block from the Opera house, two blocks from the magnificent Royal Palace, and a five-minute-walk from the medieval Plaza Mayor.
My mood was buoyant despite the disappointing weather. Not wanting to waste any time, I headed to the renowned Museum del Prado, just three stops away on the metro (ESP705; C$6, US$3.85 for a ten-trip card).
Opened as a museum in 1819, this neoclassical building, fronted by velvet green fir trees, contains a fabulous art collection. I spent the afternoon awed by the master works of Velásquez, El Greco, and Goya. Transported by the powerful images, my imagination wandered back in time as I wondered about these artists – how had they lived in their day, what were their hopes and dreams, and what had inspired their supernormal creative talents.
I left the Prado expecting rain, but bright sunshine had replaced the earlier gloom – perfect walking weather. As I strolled the tree-lined Paseo del Prado towards Puerta del Sol, historical figures seemed to be watching me from a second floor balcony. It wasn't hard to imagine resplendently dressed real people leaning over the same balconies two hundred years earlier.
With its elliptical design, the Puerta del Sol is Madrid's most central point and a busy shopping area, as well as a popular hangout at night – great for people-watching.
After stopping for a bite to eat at the Museo de Jamon (Ham Museum) where hundreds of hams hang from the ceilings of this colorful tapas bar, I walked west to the 17th-century Plaza Mayor, the heart of imperial Madrid. Over the centuries crowds of 50,000 and more have gathered in this majestic arcaded plaza and on its 437 surrounding balconies to view tourneys, bull fights, royal weddings, and other festivities.
I also knew from guidebooks I'd read that autos-de-fe took place here – the horrible public burnings of people condemned by the Inquisition. These days, the hottest event on Plaza Mayor would be an occasional rock and roll concert. And the most gruesome sight to behold would be the severed heads of several enormous bulls along with graphic photographs of famous bullfights adorning the walls of La Torre del Oro, a small Andalusian tavern situated on the square.
So far my slow-down holiday had been moving at warp speed, but now my jet-lagged body said enough sightseeing for one day. I went back to the Hotel Opera and fell gratefully asleep.
During breakfast the next morning I got chatting with three travelers from San Francisco who'd just arrived after skiing in the French Alps – George, a retired lawyer, Al, a technology guru and his wife, Ann, a business-owner. Since I dislike eating dinner by myself, I was glad they suggested meeting over a meal that night even though we had different plans for the day.
My schedule began with a two-block walk to Plaza de Oriente, an elegant square fronting the Palacio Real, or Royal Palace.
The great cities of Europe abound in beautiful gardens and buildings. While pleasing to see, the real interest for me lies in learning some of the intimate details behind the facades. So I like to buy a book about local lore and read a little as I go. While waiting for the palace to open, I sat on a bench in the gardens and opened All Madrid, a book I'd purchased at the Prado Museum gift shop.
I learned that in old times this square was the washing place of the district, and in 1704 a band of traveling actors made their home here. A theater was built then torn down in 1818 to make room for the newer Royal Theater and Opera House.
The Royal Palace is built on the site of Madrid's grim 9th century Alcázar, which was destroyed by fire in 1734. Begun in 1738, today's Royal Palace is an immense Baroque mansion. I moved leisurely through some of its 2800 opulent rooms taking time to read the English signs that helped make a self-guided tour enjoyable. My favorite was the sumptuous Throne Room with its red velvet and white lace curtains and decorative gilded bronzes.
I left the Palace early enough to walk to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza before dinner and take in a temporary exhibit of Medieval Art called "The Mediterranean Renaissance." Renting an English audio-phone brought each piece of art to life for me, but after that I'd had enough for one day and skipped the permanent collection.
Al and George were waiting for me in the hotel lobby at 8pm; Ann was tired and would join us the next night. I told them about the Palace and the Museum, and they told me about their day in Toledo. We walked to Rincon de La Cava, a tapas bar near Plaza Mayor with a dungeon-like dining room with chains hanging from the ceiling, Frankenstein style. We ordered beer and filled up on delicious garlic shrimp and Iberian Ham then went next door to Restaurante Botin, famous for its suckling pig (ESP4,100; C$35, US$22). We enjoyed the medieval atmosphere of the restaurant while discussing each of our travel plans.
Afterwards, we walked to Puerta del Sol, and mingled with the crowds of Madrileños (pronounced MAH druh LAYN yos) who love to socialize late into the night. It was just a casual evening stroll, browsing along filling the time with window-shopping and friendly chatter. Back at the hotel, we agreed to meet the next night to try a non-smoking vegetarian restaurant that had been recommended to me by my friend Kathy at home.
I'd read that Sundays feature free weekend entertainment in Retiro Park. I hopped the metro to the Retiro station, crossed the street to find the park filled with well-dressed families, couples, and individuals on their Sunday outings. Realizing I'd given up feeling I had to go everywhere all at once, I suddenly felt at ease, as if I was one of the Madrileños and Madrid was my home.
I strolled past fountains, flowering trees and people rowing boats on the lake, fell in with a crowd listening to the haunting sound of a Peruvian band's Andean music, laughed along with the locals at the jokes and antics of a comic juggler. I followed the gags as easily as if I understood Spanish.
Several hours passed before I walked back to my hotel, stopping first at a bookstore in Puerta del Sol to pick up an English version of The Magic of Three Cultures by Raphael del Cerro Malagón, reading material for my upcoming visit to Toledo. I also got a Spanish copy of J K Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which I vowed I would learn to read one day.
I met my San Francisco travel acquaintances for dinner once again, and we luckily nabbed the last table available at 9pm when the Restaurante Integral Artemisa opened. We tried one another's dishes; Ann and I had flavorful Spinach Catalonian Style (924ESP; C$8, US$5); Al and George opted for a delicious non-vegetarian dish – Pollo al Estilo Armagnac – organic chicken cooked in Roquefort Sauce with raisins and Armagnac liquor (1,800ESP; C$15, US$9).
Meeting Ann was one of those lucky chance events that occur when you cross paths with a stranger and quickly feel as if you'd known each other forever. I was a little sad that this was our last night together, but for me part of the allure of travel is looking forward to the next bend in the road. I tuned my thoughts to exploring the medieval cities of Toledo, Segovia, and Ávila where, I was pretty sure, new acquaintances would share parts of my day, but if not, I felt confident I could rely upon my own resources to make my visits memorable.
Information: Tourist Office of Spain.
Train Info and Tickets: RENFE .