On Monday at about noon, we touched down in Madrid after flying across the ocean from Bogota. It was our first time in Europe in 6 years, and the first time that either of us ever had been to Spain. The first order of business, of course, was to acquire a few euros for pocket change, and that, unfortunately meant using one of those overpriced airport ATMs. This was the first time — and quite possibly will be the only time — on this tour that the local monetary unit was worth more than a U.S. dollar, and it was only slightly more. For all practical purposes, we could just about consider them interchangeable.
Tying one's shoe; such a simple thing, until two backpacks are weighing you down and you have no place to sit.
Arriving Exhausted at an Airbnb in Madrid
Our Airbnb for the ensuing three nights was a considerable distance from the airport. After investigating rates for taxis and Ubers, we decided they were prohibitive (unless we’d arrived in the middle of the night, which we didn’t) so we took a metro, which was only slightly longer a ride, and much more interesting. Especially since there was a band of musicians performing on our car. Madrid, we were to learn, has an outstanding metro system, making it very easy to get around at a low cost.
With one transfer, it was a pretty straightforward ride, depositing us at a station literally just around the corner from where we were staying. Except that we, um, got off at the wrong station and ended up walking about a mile lugging all our stuff. But at least we got a glimpse of the little park in the neighborhood where parrots roost in the trees — a not uncommon occurrence in this city. These are the descendants of birds once brought in from South America and elsewhere to be sold as pets, but later released in the wild. There are thousands of them here now, and the city has been planning to exterminate them as “pests”, to the protests of animal rights activists. So far, they’re still here squawking away. Which doesn’t mean they’re out of danger — the process is supposed to take about two years.
After flying Red-Eye from Colombia, lying down on a bed was our first and only priority
The apartment where we were staying was up on the 10th floor (?) so it had a pretty good view of part of the city. It was somewhat comfortable, though a bit cramped (especially the kitchen). In addition to us, the host was staying there (a woman named Juss) and one other guest/ permanent resident. While we were there, two other guests came in, two women from Canada who shared a room. The biggest complaint we had was the temperature. We’d expected Spain to be among the warmest countries we’d visit, but it actually was the coldest, and it was difficult to stay warm at night. We were given only one flimsy blanket, and after we asked for more we were given another flimsy blanket. When it was still not enough, our host gave us a little electric heater (which apparently she normally used herself) but it was too noisy to make use of. So we just piled all of our clothes onto the bed on top of us, as well as Kimberly’s yoga mat and anything else we could round up. Dennis even slept in his rain coat, because it seals in body heat pretty well.
After we’d rested up a bit from our long flight on a long night, we went out in quest of provisions. And we discovered that even in a major city like Madrid (population well over 6 million) it can be very difficult to find a good supermarket. The best one (and just about the only one) we found was miles away. Mostly, we just bought food from local produce stands and mom and pop stores, which seems to be what the locals do.
We did stumble upon an interesting little clothing store, with low prices. And Kimberly snagged a new pair of pants, an offbeat item with red and white stripes that has become a staple of her wardrobe. Granted, any item of clothing that makes it into our backpacks immediately becomes a staple. One interesting thing about this store was that rather than pay the cashier, you deposit your money yourself into a Jetson-era automated cash register.
March 31st – Walking Tour
The next day, we took a long hike to get an overview of the city. This included Parque del Retiro, a huge park with many notable landmarks, and the Gran Via, a major street abuzz with shops and activity. There were street performers, including some pretty amazing break-dance type acrobats. And perhaps most impressive of all was the cheery man sans arms who played a mean keyboard with his feet. And we checked out Plaza Mayor, a square dating back about 500 years that was once a royal courtyard, but is now surrounded by shops and eateries.
And we stumbled upon a statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, erected in 1930. The epic novel by Cervantes is set in the region of La Mancha, which is not far outside Madrid. It’s a story that we have adapted for the stage and performed many times, so we naturally we had to do our impersonations of our stage personae from the show.
At one point, we passed by the Royal Palace, which looked rather enticing, so we decided that we’d just have to return the following day to take a tour. Amazingly, even though there were big crowds milling around in this area, the only free public bathroom we found in the city was across the street at a little plaza. If you’re ever there and need to go, it’s down the steps leading to the parking garage.
This is a big deal if you want to avoid being nickel-and-dimed; nearly all the countries we’ve traveled to, especially in the cities, have restrooms only for a fee — usually a pittance by American standards, but still it’s the principle of the thing. Earlier in the day when we were strolling down the busy shopping street, Kimberly ducked into a restaurant to use the bathroom while Dennis waited outside. As we were leaving, a young man came up to Dennis and said something in Spanish that he didn’t understand. The man then said “It’s for money”. Assuming he was a panhandler, Dennis refused to give him anything and the guy left in a huff. Realizing that the young man was rather well dressed for a beggar, Dennis concluded upon reflection that he may have been connected with the restaurant, and was just trying to collect the fee he considered due them. As Americans, who take free restrooms for granted, it’s astounding that people consider it that important to profit off of bodily emergencies.
And we hit yet another shopping mall, this time finding an excellent department store called Primark, where we bought sunglasses and a couple of other small items we’d been needing. By the way, it seems to be quite a thing here for grandparents, or at least older relatives of some sort, to take the babies for a jaunt in their strollers.
April 1st – Playgrounds and a Palace
Anyway, the next day we headed out on another hike, this time with the ultimate destination of the palace. Along the way, we romped in two decidedly unorthodox playgrounds, and passed over a strange modern bridge and a classic very old one (as in Eighteenth Century) called the Toledo Bridge. We also counted at least a dozen construction cranes on the skyline, suggesting that the city is undergoing a major construction boom.
Curtains Up Kimberly: "Look at all of the cranes." Dennis: (looking everywhere but at the cranes) "Where? I don't see them." Kimberly: (pointing towards the construction zone) "There. I see at least 10 of them." Dennis: "Oh cranes! I thought you meant cranes as in birds." Which makes total sense considering Kimberly is always on the look-out for birds. The rest of the day we had a running joke about all of the cranes we spied throughout the city, none of which had wings.
Got to the Palace, and made it inside without a long wait in line. Then it was a stroll through several floors of jaw-dropping opulence, such as you only are able to surround yourself with if you manage the achievement of being born into a certain family. You can see for yourself from the photos that — oh, wait. There was no photography allowed. At least not after the first few rooms. The really high-class stuff may be open for viewing and admiration by the unwashed masses, but their cameras are not allowed to defile the royal relics. And the security staff is very strict about enforcing it.
But take it from us, the rooms of the palace had gold-plated everything. There was the royal banquet hall, still in use. There was a huge portrait of the current royal family that took 20 years to complete. There was a throne room, with relics from several past rulers, and a ceiling painting that depicted the heavens opening up in honor of the king. There was a statue of a Spanish king done in the style of ancient Roman sculpture, portraying him as an emperor. And there was a music room with priceless instruments on display, including 4 Stradivari and an Amati. This place could have quite a yard sale.
Back at home, it came to our attention that we would be required to have a COVID test to enter Morocco the following day, even though we were fully vaccinated. Not sure how we overlooked this rather important detail until the night before our flight, but we did. Fortunately, we discovered that there is a COVID testing site at the airport, and they could issue results within 30 minutes. Not so fortunately, the only appointments available were at 3:30, which could leave a tight squeeze considering that we had a 7:30 flight to Morocco and a lot of lines to wait in to get to the gate. But you do what ya gotta do, so we took the appointments and hoped for the best.
April 2nd – Ready for Departure or are We?
So the next morning we packed up and headed out. First, we had to stop by a copy place, because we also needed to print out a form before we got to the airport. Not as easy as it might seem given that most everything is closed on a Sunday morning. We did, however, manage to find one that was open and sort of on our way, our at least not too far out of our way, and got the job done even though the fellow at the shop spoke no English, and our Spanish was still embarrassingly inept — and not likely to improve soon, since we now were headed into Arabic territory.
Arriving at the airport at about noon, we tracked down the COVID test site. Who knows, we thought, maybe they can work us in early. To our immense relief, they did just that. And to our even more immense relief, the tests were negative. So we had plenty of time at the airport, but most of it was waiting for the airline to open its counters.
This trip was booked on Ryanair, our first time ever to use this airline. It’s a rock-bottom budget airline, so the lines at the ticket windows tend to be long. But the huge plus is the ticket prices. Our flight from Madrid to Agadir, Morocco — another continent away — had a base fare of 6 (yes SIX) euros each. With our huge backpacks in addition to our smaller carry-on bags, we had to pay an additional 25 euros each — it costs four times as much to transport a 25-pound bag as a 150-pound human, go figure; but it was still dirt-cheap.
And the flight was on time. Furthermore, when we got aboard we discovered that the plane was… well, not bad at all. No tattered filthy seats or missing windows or anything else you might expect from a penny pincher’s airline. And there were outlets to charge our devices. All in all a surprisingly comfortable ride to Africa.
Parakeets and other Birds that Tweet in Madrid
March 30th – April 2nd, 2022