Madrid Revisited; Toledo Visited
April 2005
For the last week of March and the first week of April, I returned to Avila, Spain, to IEMA, a language school I also went to in August 2002. My goal: to be able to pass the lowest level diploma later in May for the Diplomas de Español como Lengua Extranjera (DELE). I did a travelogue about Avila last time, and there isn't much new to say... except that everything looks even nicer, per a great deal of redevelopment, and the hot chocolate at a nearby coffee bar is like a melted candy bar.. and that is SUCH a good thing.

Instead, I've wrote about my weekend trips while at IEMA -- the first to Madrid, and the second to Toledo.

First, a bummer about Spain -- unlike Germany or Norway, museums or tours in Spain rarely accept university IDs for student ID discounts; they mean teenagers when they say "students." And that's really unfair -- I am, per the amount of hours I carry, a full-time university student. I have less disposable income than the teenagers I know...


The first and only time I visited Madrid before this weekend was in 2002, and at that time, I didn't like it. I found it confusing and ugly, without anything obviously interesting to see, unlike Barcelona, which seemed to have a lovely vista around every corner. Lonely Planet goes on and on about Madrid's partying night life -- and I haven't been into that scene in many, many years. So what's so great about Madrid?

At last, now I know. You definitely need a guidebook to know what to see in Madrid, or someone who knows the city well to take you on a tour, in order to find out what makes Madrid so great. And you will also need help finding a place to stay! It's definitely a city that's enjoyed best by couples or small groups, but I had a very good time by myself -- and I had been very, very lonely on this trip as a whole, so that's saying a lot.

I went to Madrid after class on Friday, taking one of the semi-express trains (though the posted train schedule was very, very hard to figure out -- I don't speak German but can easily figure out a German train schedule1). It's quite easy to get a train from Avila to Madrid, as far as times go -- but they do sell out, so it's a good idea to buy your ticket early. My Spanish got quite a workout -- I did okay speaking, but I still have trouble understanding people. I had packed a small, empty day pack in my suitcase, and packed only this and my Eagle Creek bag for the weekend in Madrid, leaving the rest of my luggage behind -- I was so glad to have packed so light for Madrid -- it made getting from place-to-place oh-so-much easier.

IEMA helped me find a room in Madrid before I left Avila, and thank goodness they did -- I never could have done it without them. I had tried to find a place to stay in Madrid before I had even left Germany, with no success (you really need to book at least a month in advance for Madrid). Per IEMA's recommendation, I stayed at the Hostal Rodriguez (calle Mayor 14, 4th floor, 913651084), very near the "Sol" Metro stop. I cannot tell you how much it reminded me of our hotel in Cairo (the first one). It was only 25 Euros a night, which for Madrid is unbelievable , apparently. When I travel in Europe, I prefer to stay in what are called "pensions" in German, and "hostales" in Spain. They are a step above youth hostels -- you do actually get your own room -- but there's no TV or bathroom or phone inside. Often, they are in someone's house. In Germany, they are more like bed and breakfasts (sometimes exactly), but in Spain, they tend to be rather run down. But as long as they are CLEAN and SECURE, I'm happy -- when I'm traveling as a tourist, I don't care about modern furniture, a piece of chocolate on my bed, brand new bread spread and sheets, a TV in the room... When I'm a tourist, my room is a place for me to read and sleep in peace -- that's it. The Rodriguez family owns most of the fourth floor of the building, and most of it is made up of guest rooms (and the bathrooms) of their hostal -- the rest is for their own family. I had a double bed, a shower and sink in the room, and the toilet down the hall. My room was away from the street, and I was in heaven to get such a good night's sleep in such a LOUD city!! I took a big stack of cards from the hostal's front table and brought them to IEMA, so other students could know about it.

The hostal was in the BEST part of town to be in to access everything I wanted to in Madrid, including the Metro. After I arrived Friday night, I just walked around. I ate at a vegetarian fast food place -- a very good, very cheap meal -- and people-watched. The next day, I got up very early, had a small breakfast down the street, and walked to the Prado -- a bit of a hike, but I needed the exercise. The line was tiny when I arrived at 9:30 a.m. -- and I am so glad I got there so early, because when I left many hours later, the line was around the block.

The Prado... it's absolutely amazing. I could have spent a week there. I just wanted to sit and stare at some of the paintings for hours... I couldn't get enough of it. I was particularly fond of the Rubens. Not just because the women are fat like me, but also because there is so much movement in the paintings, and they GLOW. I really don't know much about painting -- I just know what I like. Well, I LOVED the stuff at the Prado. I just love how all of the paintings don't hold back in terms of themes, sex, whatever. Everything was, to me, so BOLD -- but with the dignity that things today that try to be bold so lack. The religious paintings didn't interest me much -- it's just all looks pretty much the same. I much preferred things with a secular or pagan theme -- these crackled with life, or death, depending on the subject matter... I got to see Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights , which is just so mind blowing in real life -- what drugs was this guy using in the 1500s? Oh, I was in heaven. So many people just blow through the rooms, glancing a bit at each painting and never stopping at all -- and I was standing enthralled in front of just one painting for several minutes. I was there for a little over four hours, and would have been there much longer, but I was starving . But I'm going to be looking for good book on the Prado, because I would love to read more about the incredible works I saw.

I had a nice big American lunch, and then went on to the Museum of Archeology, which apparently no one has heard of, because every time I said I was going to go there, people said, "¿Donde?" I found out about it, ofcourse, from my copy of Lonely Planet Spain . It has primitive artifacts that have been found in Spain, as well as items that have been found by Spanish archaeologists abroad. There are some really good pieces, but the Museum needs to add many more maps and more graphs to give context to items. And the pictures of sites where things were found are woefully faded. The room for Egyptian items was quite impressive -- and remember, I have actually been to Egypt, so that's saying a lot. While I was at the Museum of Archeology, I saw all sorts of references to early Celtic and Iberian settlements -- and the remains of such -- near Avila. Later back in Avila, I asked my professor at IEMA about them, and he gave me some directions and info off the top of his head. He said that all these sites are on public land and you can just walk right up to them and into them, and that Avila (and the rest of Spain) hasn't really understood that there are tourists like Stefan and me who want to see this stuff. It's a shame, really, because there is such a huge market in catering to tourists who like pre-Roman stuff (if you doubt me, go to some of the primitive sites in Ireland or even Sweden).

Then I went to an Irish pub and drank too much. But I was just so happy to have found an Irish pub serving Guinness instead of that dreadful Beamish stuff! I had asked before I left if it was okay for a woman to go alone to a bar, and my professor at IEMA had said yes, in most places in Madrid, it was just fine. Then I came back to my hotel and took a nap. Ahhhhh. And then I just walked around the area of my hotel a bit in the evening, bought some donuts at Dunkin' Donuts for the next morning, and ate at KFC. Okay, WHY did I do all the US stuff in Madrid? Because we don't have this stuff in Bonn (Berlin, yes, but that's five hours away). I go for a year or more without it. I miss it... I was on vacation...

Meanwhile, back in Madrid on Saturday night... I was in bed by 11 -- and it was so quiet... which I wasn't expecting in central Madrid, but because my room didn't face the road... Madrid is a lot like New York in terms of a plethora of bars and restaurants and what not, but I just didn't feel like it. The next day, I went to the Museum of the Americas, which has lots of stuff that the Spanish stole from the Americas. Sorry, but there's just no other way to put it. There would have been a lot more, but they melted down most of the gold and broke up much of the "pagan" art work. Still, they did have a lot of stuff, and it was very ell presented. The old maps were particularly impressive and interesting. It was a bit hard to find -- it's not downtown, and not obvious from the Metro stop. And, once again, no one I asked about it had ever heard of it.

Then I went for a tasty Spanish lunch of roasted chicken in a heavy sauce. Then I went to another place for ice cream. Then I went to another place for wine and tappas -- a few bites of spicey meat or eggs that is traditionally served with alcohol in Madrid. Got into a long conversation with the waiter, who is the son of immigrants from China and Peru. It was a great way to end my time in Madrid.

What is Spanish food? Depends on the region of the country. On the coasts, it's seafood, and the paella -- this incredible dish of rice and seafood and meat all cooked together in a HUGE pan serving anywhere from 4 to 40 -- is to die for. Here in Central Spain, they do amazing things with pork and beef. Everything in Spain is very, very fresh -- wonderful flavors. And because of the more than 700 years of Arab influence, they cook with all sorts of spices (unlike the Germans). Thinks aren't spicey hot, but they are spicey flavorful. Mmmmmmmmmmmmm. In Spain, you eat a light breakfast early, then a light snack at around 10:30 with coffee, then a big hearty lunch at around 2, then another light snack and a beer at 4ish, then a very light supper at around 10.

Anyway, I went to the train station and had to wait more than two hours because the train I wanted was fully booked. Good thing I brought a book. I spent the time reading and watching peoples smoke anywhere and everywhere despite the "No fumar" signs everywhere. Finally, it was time to board the train, which was oh-so-packed. As it pulled out, a couple of people got very frantic, and I realized that one of them had gotten on only to say goodbye to someone -- and he'd not gotten off fast enough. The train was an express, so it wouldn't be stopping again for almost an hour. And they did the unbelievable -- they made an unscheduled stop at a station and let this guy off. I was stunned. That would never happen in Germany.

I got home at 10 p.m. -- which is dinner time! My family fed me, and we watched lots of news about the Pope (el Papa). He died while I was in Madrid. And that was the end of my quiet nights for another week -- Avila apartment construction is rather poor, and people stay up oh-so-late there...


A week later, my time at IEMA was up, and it was time to head to Toledo. I had just ONE shot to make the train in Madrid, and if I missed it, no Toledo. I left for the train station immediately after class. The infuriating part was that I couldn't buy the train ticket to Toledo until I got to Madrid. Unlike Germany, you can't buy all of your train tickets at once in Spain -- if you need to change trains, you have to buy your ticket at the time you change. Isn't that INSANE?!!!

I almost missed by train to Toledo in Madrid, even though I was there in plenty of time: there was never a notice that it was boarding, unlike all the other trains. And there was no one going down the steps to board. I just finally decided I would investigate, even if it meant getting fussed at for trying to get on the train too early. Well, there sat the train down there, and I got on, and it pulled out, like, 60 seconds later. And it was my last chance to get to Toledo. Close one...

We went through Atocha station, and that gave me pause... The ride once out of town was... well, rather boring. The land between Madrid and Toledo is barren -- dry and seemingly lifeless. I felt sorry for anyone who lives out there. I had my walkman, and that kept my spirits high even as the landscape tried to bring me down. Just as the staff at IEMA had warned me, the train actually didn't go to Toledo; because of repairs being done to the station and the tracks there, we all had to get off at a remote station away from Toledo, and take a bus into town. That was no problem. But we got to the Toledo train station and... no taxis. I was tired, I was lonely, and I was nervous, as I always am when I arrive anywhere new, even when they do speak English. I spoke to the train conductor, who had ridden on the bus with us, and he was so nice -- he drove me into town! I couldn't believe it. It was such a kind act. He let me out in downtown Toledo, at the Zocodover plaza, and I took out Lonely Planet Spain and studied it oh-so-carefully. And I managed to find my way through the labyrinth of tiny cobbled streets to my hotel!! I so rock sometimes. It was still early (for Spain, anyway), so I went back to Zocodover (where I found out held public burnings during the Inquisition) and had a very tasty meal of brie, mushrooms and toasted bread, all baked together, along with a couple of glasses of cheap, amazing red wine...

Later, by the way, I found out that the public bus stop right next to the train station has TWO buses that go right to downtown Toledo, right where I needed to go. I really should have read my guide book more carefully before I left...

I stayed at the Hotel Santa Isabel, which is quiet, in a very good location (near what you want to see, but tucked away from the crowds), is very reasonably priced and has BBC World on the TV. I made my reservations via email, contacting the hotel directly -- and I was very, very pleased with how quickly they always responded, how helpful they were, and how late they let me check in on Friday night. And I did the whole thing in Spanish!

Toledo: it's incredible to find such a beautiful, historic city rising up so high out of such a barren area. Toledo is a living museum, and the temptation is to try to take a photo of every street. You can see and feel the three cultures -- Jewish, Islamic and Christian -- everywhere. You can see Jewish and Islamic influences in the architecture of the churches. Many doors and windows have a key-hole shape -- a legacy of the Muslims, who claimed the city as the seat of their Spanish kingdom for many, many years. I couldn't believe cars could drive on the tiny, tiny winding cobbled streets -- but, indeed, they did. Some buildings may seem grim and dirty on the outside, but often hide beautifully decorated patios in their center. I saw most of the tourists sites, but I feel like there are layers of the historic city I still haven't seen.

I got up early Saturday morning, with a plan to hit my first stop by 10 sharp -- museums are open Saturday all day, but then only until 2 on Sunday, and not at all on Monday, so I knew I would have to use my time wisely. My first stop after breakfast was the Sinagoga del Tránsito, in what used to be the cities Jewish quarter. Now the Museo Sefardi, it has a long, detailed exhibit that offers lots and lots of information not only about the Jewish history of Spain, but also lots of information about modern Jewish culture and celebrations -- I never knew the significance of many Jewish festivals, and now I do. It's a beautifully done space -- but, sadly, the staff's behavior was SHAMEFUL. They were talking loudly, laughing even louder, and being so incredibly disrespectful to the site. I was livid. Can you imagine if I had attempted such behavior at the Cathedral, what kind of wrath I would have incurred? Their disdain for where they worked was appalling.

Next was the Iglesia de Santo Tomé, which has just one thing to see: El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz (The Burial of the Count of Orgaz) by El Greco. The audio commentary is a must -- it explains why this one painting is worth so much of your time.

It took me way longer than I thought it would to find the Mezquita de Cristo de la Luz, one of two surviving mosques in Toledo, but I did, at last. It's just the shell of what it once was, but still worth the visit, and the views from the garden were fabulous. I was quite disappointed to find that the Mezquita de las Tornerías, the only other surviving mosque and now an arts and crafts co-op, was completely closed.

Completing the religious trifecta, I also visited the cities cathedral. It's the usual lavish Gothic fare. It proved hard to navigate -- I never did find the entrance to the sacristía, which is supposed to house more works by El Greco and lots of other things worth seeing (I could only find the exit).

The souvenir shops were more than decent, and I did enjoy watching someone actually lay in the gold strands for a piece of jewelry (although then I felt like I had to buy something...). I loved the symbol of the city in particular -- a cross, a crescent moon and small cross, and the Star of David, altogether -- and bought a pendant of such for my grandmother. But what I really wanted was this symbol on one of the tiny decorative plates that boasted just about every other design imaginable -- but none were to be had. I also REALLY wanted to buy a sword -- they were everywhere -- but contained myself and did not.

I visited most of the other key sites of the city on Saturday and on Sunday morning, with the exception of the Alcázar, Franco's military museum and a memorial to him. I just... well I just really hate that guy. Sunday, I went to a much touted exhibit on "Dinosaurs" (there were official city banners for it everywhere), and it turned out to be just some plastic models of skeletins. Very well done models, but, well... I was expecting, well, actual bones. What killed me was the woman carefully taking pictures of them. It wasn't worthlessMaybe I wouldn't have minded if the models had been full-sized... it's one of those times on a trip I saved the little train tour of Toledo as my last touristy thing on Sunday evening, and it was a perfect time to do it. It's a very informative and complete, if very bumpy, tour of the city, in both Spanish and English. At one point, one of the plexiglass windows fell off one of the cars. The driver stopped and picked it up with an air of non-chalance. It must happen every time.

If was a bit hard at night to find a place to eat -- somewhere that wasn't way fancy, but wasn't a pizza place either. I did notice that there were lots of other single tourists, including young women. I didn't know how to strike up a conversation without sounding like I wanted something. I kept my guide book out on the table as a kind of beacon, but it didn't work.

Monday, everything was closed -- and my flight was not until the early evening. So, I walked... and walked... and walked. I walked most of the interior of the city and walked quite a ways around it. Someone had warned me that I would be out of things to do in Toledo by Sunday afternoon, and they were RIGHT. Plus, everything is closed on Monday, so the only thing to do on that day is to walk around. Or sleep. Or travel. So I left Toledo much earlier than I had to, thinking I'd be happier if I was bored in Madrid, rather than Toledo. I waited for the bus at the Toledo train station (which is going to be lovely after its renovation), and once again, had a close call: I almost missed the bus because the clock in the station was broken. I just happened to glance at my watch at the right time. Whew!

So, I did another trip entirely by myself. Hurrah for me. But... I was really, really lonely on this trip. I don't mind touring around by myself for an afternoon, or even a day. In fact, sometimes I crave it. But I do really like being able to talk to someone over meals, or at the end of the day, to review all that we've seen and done. If I have to, I will still do Paris by myself, if it's the only way to see it, but I really do hope I can meet up with someone there, even for just one day.

Also, I think that, if I'm going to Spain again, I need to get a new guidebook. Lonely Planet Spain was still invaluable, but some key information is no longer valid, and some information is missing (like there's no mention of the little tourist train in Toledo). I may switch to a Rough Guide -- I like to alternate.

One final thought: I think it's long overdue that the Catholic Church and Spain more fully acknowledge the Inquisition and its reprehensible acts against non-Christians, as well as the sacking of the Americas. It's hard for me not to think about where the gold of all the opulent religious pieces comes from as I gaze at them behind their display glass or protective bars. As there is in Germany, there should be plaques, monuments and events throughout cities that recognize these events, with pledges that we need to always be on watch so that they never happen again.

Ofcourse, we should do the same in the USA, regarding the massacres of Indians and the slave trade...

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