Monday, March 15, 2010

(Portugal Trip Part 7?) - Madrid

The bus trip to Madrid was mostly uneventful, with the exception of a 2 AM coffee break that the driver decided to take somewhere in Extremadura, during which everyone had to get off the bus. I had been asleep up to that point but I had trouble falling back asleep once the voyage resumed. This, combined with a week of sleeping in hostels where someone inevitably is snoring meant that once we arrived in Madrid at 5:30 in the morning I was pretty out of it from the sleep deprivation, and I feel that these pictures will reflect that fact.
I successfully navigated the unusually complicated Metro and headed to the hostel the AEGEE group was staying at, knowing I wouldn't be able to check in but hoping to leave my bag so I wouldn't have to haul it around until noon. I accidentally woke up the manager because I didn't realize the door from the street was unlocked, but I dropped of my backpack and port bottles and went out to find some breakfast. I passed through the Puerta del Sol (we'll see it later) and the Plaza Mayor, and both were completely empty, but at that point I didn't care and I found a cafe for some churros and orange juice.
My main goal for the morning was to go to the Museo Reina Sofia and see Picasso's Guernica, because I knew that wasn't a stop on the tour we would be doing as a group. Luckily the sleepy/angry hostel manager had given me a map, so I started walking down a very long street that appeared to lead to my destination. But then guess what I saw?

Dunkin' Coffee?

I guess the Spaniards wouldn't patronize a store that they thought only sold donuts. But then why is coffee written in English? These questions did not stop me from entering. I got a chocolate donut and some hot chocolate, but I had forgotten that Spanish hot chocolate is pretty much chocolate syrup, only more bitter. Not very drinkable, is what I'm saying. I saw the newsstand across the street open up so I went across and bought a newspaper, and then instead of reading it I fell asleep in the chair for about 40 minutes. When I woke up my stomach was upset, possibly from the nasty hot chocolate, but I'm sure my schedule and eating bus station food the past few days hadn't helped. So after a visit to the basement restroom I continued to the museum.

It's the Coffee-Bake Place!

I think it's technically called the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

La Hirondelle (The Swallow) by Joan Miro. What, you mean that doesn't look like a bird to you?

BRUTAL Picasso painting of some sheep heads

La Naguese (Woman Swimming) by Picasso

Looks like they are trying to decide what color to paint this room. Put this in the category of "Art I Could Probably Do"

Unfortunately, the only picture in the whole museum you AREN'T allowed to take pictures of is the Guernica, but I saw it and was impressed. It's huge, and they also have a bunch of the sketches and studies Picasso made as he was planning the painting. Since it was getting close to when the AEGEE group was supposed to arrive, I went back to the Plaza Mayor and browsed the Christmas markets that they had set up there, looking for ornaments to give as gifts. No luck, however, as most of the stalls sold various nativity pieces/landscapes. I did see some interesting things there though, as you will see below.

The Plaza Mayor of Madrid

In my sleep deprived state I combined E. bola with E. coli in my mind, which made me think this was a hilariously funny name for a cafe. I didn't realize my error until I got back to Oviedo . . .

Nothing says Christmas in Spain like Mickey Mouse in an Uncle Sam costume.

Some traditional Christmas goods on display. Notice the Zombie Michael Jackson, very tasteful.

Some Italians posing with a fat Spiderman smoking a cigarette.

Christmas stalls

My group of fellow foreigners showed up an hour late, as usual for AEGEE, and after getting settled in to the hostel we set off on a walking tour of the city. I'm not really gonna narrate that, so just look at the pictures to see where I went.

Puerta del Sol, a famous plaza that many regard as being the heart of Madrid. This is where the crowds gather for New Year's celebrations, when they eat 12 grapes at midnight, along with the chimes of the clock when it strikes 12. The neon sign in the center of the picture is also really famous, but I have a picture of it lit up later on.

Hmm, this may have something to do with the Puerta del Sol being considered the center of Madrid - they measure all distances from Madrid from this plaque. (Additionally, we have a bigger monument for this at the state capital in Richmond)

The main shopping street in Madrid, Calle Preciados (literally - expensive/valuable street). Well, at least they're up front about it.

Another famous neon sign on the Gran Vía, one of the main arteries of Madrid. According to the guides, these signs are really old and now they are protected landmarks and can't be taken down. Hello, free advertising! Rock on, Schweppes!

Dirty, tired, and unshaven in front of the Metropolis Building on the Gran Vía. It's just an office building, but it's one of the most iconic landmarks of Madrid, which is a city generally lacking in representative landmarks. (Paris = Eiffel Tower, London = Big Ben, Madrid = ?)

Seat of the city government on the Plaza de Cibeles, where Real Madrid fans shut down traffic when they celebrate major victories.

The Puerta de Alcalá, one of the gates of the now-removed city walls of Madrid

The Parque del Buen Retiro, the "lungs of Madrid"

"The Forest of Memories" - man, the pathes in this park have such poetic names

OK, well . . . most of them anyway

I really liked this park; it was very pretty

Awesome lake in the park with rowboats you can rent. Beth doesn't know this yet but we are totally doing this when she comes to Spain.

I told you I had a picture of Tio Pepe lit up at night. According to the interwebs, this is the best selling brand of sherry in the world. The sign says "Bottled Andalucian Sun".

I didn't go out on the town with the rest of the group that night, instead opting to go to bed at about 9:30. The hostel had some of the most comfortable mattresses in the world (well at least on my bed, I didn't sleep in any of the others), and I'm not just saying that because of how tired I was. The next morning we went on another walking tour, because there was still stuff to see. You know the drill, look at the pics.

Approaching the Royal Palace of Madrid from the side

Almudena Cathedral, across from the main entrance to the palace. Construction began in 1859 but it wasn't consecrated until 1993!

This is the only Cathedral in Spain I've had to pay to get into, and it's definitely not the most impressive. The inside is very toned down and modern.

Waiting in line to get into the palace, we saw the funniest accordion player ever. You'll have to twist your heads to the left, though, because I couldn't figure out how to rotate the video.

The Royal Palace of Madrid - the official residence of the King of Spain, although he actually lives in a smaller palace on the other side of town and this palace is only used for official functions.

Pictures weren't allowed inside, and there was even a really mean security guard that yelled at one of the German guys for taking one and made him delete it, so my next picture is of the palace gardens.

The Temple of Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple that was given to Spain by Egypt as thanks for helping to preserve the Temples of Abu Simbel. The Netherlands and the US also got one; ours is the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.


After we saw the temple I got some Chinese food with a few American girls I had met on the trip to Galicia, and then we got on the bus for the 6 hour trip back to Oviedo. And so ended my Portuguese/Madrid adventure, almost 4 months ago. But I'm trying to get caught up, so bear with me. I leave you with this picture of some fruit I saw at a rest stop on the ride home.

Don't buy this fruit, it's Caro (expensive). Get it? It's the brand of the fruit, but it's also a word. Funny, right? Whatever, I'm going to bed.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Portugal Trip Part 6 - Sintra

On my final day in Portugal I was planning on taking a train out to the hills around Lisbon to Sintra, where there are a couple of former royal palaces (Portugal is no longer a monarchy). However, I overslept until about 10 AM, so I checked out of the hostel and wandered around the city debating whether I should go out to Sintra or to the Oceanarium near where my bus would leave from at that night at 9. During this period I decided to use my casino winnings to buy a few bottles of port as gifts for my and Beth's parents, which although a nice gesture I'm sure ended up being a mistake when I decided to go see the palaces, since I now had to lug both my heavy backpack and the bottles of wine all day. I don't regret buying them, though, I just regret not planning it better.
So I went to Rossio station to catch the train, which took about 40 minutes (I assume - I fell asleep and when I woke up I was alone on the train sitting in the Sintra station). It was a bit of a hike from the train station to the first palace, which is located in the downtown area of Sintra, a very pretty little town, but it was completely flat (for now) so my wine bottles and I set off to see the sights.

Rossio train station

View of the Palácio Nacional de Sintra from across a little valley

This palace was a popular summer getaway from Lisbon for the Portuguese kings. Those two weird cones are chimneys for the kitchen.

More of those azulejo tiles, and a very ornate ceiling

The exterior of the palace was filthy. You'd think with it being a national monument and all, they'd powerwash it every once in a while.

I sighted another palace/castle on top of the hill! Now I wonder how you get up there?

Said palace is the Castelo dos Mouros, and luckily I didn't have to climb up to it because the waiter who served me my very Portuguese hamburger and coke for lunch told me where the bus stop was. What followed was probably the most harrowing bus ride of my life, and I've ridden some buses (Norway, anyone?). The hairpin turns were nothing new, and yes, the narrowness of the road made the passing descending vehicles a little interesting, but what truly set this route apart was the poor condition of the pavement. So I bumped and twisted up the mountain, hoping these castles up here were worth carbonating the wine I was toting. After what felt like forever but was probably only about 15 minutes, I arrived at the Palácio Nacional de Pena. Photos weren't allowed inside, but I wasn't really blown away; many of the "royal chambers" were smaller than our living room in Richmond.

That's not to say that the outside of the palace wasn't impressive


A very awesome, very dirty palace

Crap! I overshot the Moorish Castle . . .

A king's view of the Atlantic

After leaving the Pena Palace I walked down the road to the Castelo dos Mouros, which you have probably figured out by now means Moorish Castle. It was constructed when the Arabs were in control of the entire Iberian Peninsula but fell into ruins after the Christian reconquest and was restored in the 1800's in keeping with the Romantic style of the era (the literary/artistic movement Romanticism, nothing to do with candlelit dinners and rose petals). Compared with the other two palaces we've visited so far, this one is much more . . . rustic.

One of the gates into the castle, with only about 4 1/2 feet of clearance. Those Arabs must have been really short!

A ruined church outside the main gate. Funny story, when they were restoring the castle in the 1800's this church still had it's roof, but they decided it would look more "Romantic" this way.

Part of the wall running through the woods

Hey, I can see the Palácio Nacional de Sintra from here!

Yeah, I climbed those battlements. The sun being right in my face kind of prevented me from getting any good pictures up there though.

Man, I love taking pictures of flags

After walking along every treacherous wall of the Moorish Castle I caught the bus back to the train station and went back to Lisbon. The rest of my evening was uneventful: lost 40 euros at the Casino Lisboa (you gotta quit when you're ahead, kids), at some steak and eggs in the Vasco da Gama Mall food court, and got into a fight with the rudest bus station employee in Portugal (long story, but apparently I was supposed to have ESP to know where to catch my bus to Madrid). Finally I settled in on the overnight bus to Spain, looking forward to getting back to a country where I understand most of the language.