After a wonderful wonderful week in Paris I was really excited to visit Spain. I had always wanted to visit Spain partly because that is where my ancestors came from before they traveled south to Colombia hundreds of years ago. Not being able to speak French also made traveling around Paris difficult at times so I was excited to be able to understand and communicate with people on the street. The part I was most excited for though was seeing my cousin Carlos Andres, or Cacun as his family and friends call him. I had not seen him since I was seven years old so it had been way too long!
My trip to Madrid started with an early morning drive to the airport in Paris with Dominique. On the way to the airport we drove past the soccer stadium where France won the World Cup in 1998 so that was cool. My flight was at 6:50am so it was really nice to not have to take a bus to the airport because we already had to get up at like 4am to make it on time. I had a nice flight to Madrid and I flew EasyJet again. Once I arrived at the airport in Madrid, it was wonderful to see all of the signs in Spanish. French is a lot easier to read than understand when spoken, but being able to understand everything was something that I missed (even in Italy). Cacun had class that morning so he couldn't meet me at the airport, but there was a metro that went from the airport to within 3 blocks of his apartment so it was really easy to get there. He left the keys in the lobby of his apartment with the doorman and when I got there I just dropped off everything and headed out to explore the city. My cousin lives off of Calle Maldonado which I thought was cool so I obviously had to take a picture of the street sign.
Feeling hungry since I had already been awake for like 6 hours I decided to grab some breakfast/lunch at a nearby cafe. Unfortunately they didn't have a menu so the waitress just told me what they offered and at first I thought she was talking in a language I had never heard before. I didn't recognize a single thing she said except "tostadas" so I had to get toast since it was the only thing I recognized. When I asked her what kind of "jugo", or juice, they had she looked puzzled and after I said it a couple more times she said "oooh zumo". Clearly, my first interaction with a Spaniard didn't go quite like I was expecting when I arrived in Spain. After telling my cousin the story later that evening I was relieved when he said that many of the words for foods in Spain are different than in Colombia and he had to learn them after arriving. After finishing my toast and juice (maracuja!) I hopped back on the metro and headed into the center of the city. As soon as I got out of the station there was a tourist information center so I went and asked for a map of the city. Fortunately, communicating in Spanish was no problem at all and I proceeded to plan out what I wanted to see that day. From talking to my mother who loves art, I knew that no trip to Madrid would be complete without a trip to the Prado Museum. I took the metro a couple stops and got off on a beautiful avenue called La Gran Via. As the name suggests, this is a major and historic avenue and the buildings that lined it were beautiful. There were a few large governmental buildings and to make things even better, the weather was absolutely PERFECT. It was about 23 degrees Celsius which is like 73 degrees Fahrenheit with clear skies, so after 7 rainy days Paris it felt like paradise.
After the museum I decided to cross the city by foot and see the Royal Palace. As I walked into the heart of the historic center of Madrid I began to realize how beautiful the city was. I had always heard my friends say that in their opinion, Barcelona is the most beautiful city in Europe but none of them ever mention Madrid. Maybe it was the fact that I had no expectations for the city but I was really taken aback by it. I thought the streets were all really beautiful and amongst the nicest I had seen in during my time traveling this semester. I saw some really beautiful squares or plazas where hordes of people would be sitting out and enjoying the weather. It felt like a city I could definitely see myself living in. As I neared the Royal Palace I walked past a really nice looking pastry shop so I stopped in and asked the woman behind the counter if they had any specialties. She immediately directed me to these small bread like pastries which were made with chocolate, wine, or sugar so I got one of each to give to my cousin and his wife. I continued my walk toward the palace and stopped at the main cathedral of the city and was not ready for what I was about to see. I had been to many famous Italian churches and chapels during my time in Italy and France like the Duomo di Milano, St. Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and Notre Dame, but I thought this cathedral was the most beautiful of them all. If you look at the Wikipedia entry for the cathedral in Madrid you'll see that it is a small fraction of the length of the entry for the other famous churches I mentioned, and doesn't include works by Raphael or Da Vinci but I absolutely loved it. Instead of the usual frescoes you would see in the other churches ceiling's, this cathedral had beautiful patterns painted in extremely vibrant colors. To me, it really seemed like you would go there to celebrate the life of God and to worship Him. I really liked the fact that the building just seemed cheerful and happy inside rather than the dark and gloomy churches I had gotten accustomed to.
After leaving the cathedral I finally made it to the Royal Palace, which was directly adjacent to the Cathedral. I just walked around the outside of it and opted to skip the free tour because after being at Versailles a few days earlier, I assumed it would pale in comparison. I continued to head north and stopped at the Parque de la Montaña which was full of people laying down and soaking up the sun. In the center of the park there was a monument called the Templo de Debod and I sat on a park bench for like 25 minutes to rest. Once I was feeling more energized I continued to walk north and then west to get to my cousin's apartment. It was fun to just walk down random streets to try to get a feel for what the city is like. Once I realized I was too tired to keep walking all the way back I found a nearby metro station and headed "home". Once I arrived I used the computer my cousin left out for me to check my email and facebook until he and his wife got home from school and work respectively. Maria, Cacun's wife, got home first and it was really nice to meet her for the first time. After a few minutes Cacun came home too and I think we were both really excited to finally see each other again. We just shared stories about our families and I told him about my time in Italy until we heard his neighbors on all sides of his apartment start screaming "GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL". It was not until we heard this that we realized that Barcelona was playing Arsenal in the Champions League Quarterfinals. Arsenal opened up the scoring first and since everyone from Madrid hates Barcelona everyone was celebrating the goal. Maria made a pasta with pesto for dinner and it was really good and we all sat around the TV and watched the soccer game in true Spanish fashion. It was a fun game to watch because Messi scored all 4 goals for Barcelona and proved why he is the world's best player. After the game Cacun helped me plan out the things I would see the following day and then we set up the inflatable bed he has for his guests.
After a long nights rest and a long list of things to see, I had cereal for breakfast before heading out. The cereal was incredibly good and easily the best tasting healthy cereal I have ever had. I am a big fan of Special K Red Berries, but this cereal was in a class of its own.
After eating, I set out for a full day of sightseeing. I began by walking down to the Parque del Retiro which is like the Central Park of Madrid. The walk down from Cacun's place was nice and I walked down a street lined with really nice shops and boutiques. Perhaps it was Madrid's '5th Avenue'? At the corner of the Parque del Retiro there is a famous arch which was really nice. I then headed down a main avenue toward the Plaza Mayor but stopped at Plaza Sol. Both plazas are major open spaces but the Plaza Mayor is the center of the historic part of Madrid with Plaza Sol being more of a cultural center like Times Square. Both were really nice and it was a very scenic walk. Next to the Plaza Mayor I went to Mercado de San Miguel which was a new market full of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and meat. I stopped in and had a papaya smoothie and it was delicious. I had seen the market the day before but had no idea what it was, but my cousin told me I had to visit it. I had also been right next to the Plaza Mayor the day before but didn't even realize it was there because it is enclosed.
By this time it I was starting to get hungry and it was already lunchtime so I headed to a Colombian restaurant called Patacón Pisao which Maria recommended. I ordered a Bandeja Paisa and drank a Pony Malta and Colombiana. A Bandeja Paisa is a very typical Colombian dish which literally means 'tray from the countryside'. It is basically an assortment of many different foods and I enjoyed every bit of it. My dish came with arepas (a cornmeal patty-delicious), platanos (plantain), frijoles (beans), arroz (rice), carne molida (ground beef), chicharrón (fried pork rinds), aguacate (avocado), chorizo (sausage) and fried eggs. A Pony Malta is a malt soft drink and a Colombiana is a soft drink but both are extremely typical beverages and it had been a really long time since I have had them.
After the HUGE meal I am not sure I had ever felt that full in my life. My stomach hurt from eating so much but everything was so good that I just couldn't put my fork down. The next destination for me was the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, which is the home of famous soccer club Real Madrid. They have a daily tour and I had been looking forward to visiting this colossal stadium for days. The tour was a lot of fun and I met a couple guys from Napoli (Naples), Italy and a family from California who were all really nice. I was able to see all of the trophies that the team had ever won as well as memorabilia from their most significant moments. The coolest part for me was getting to sit in the chairs that the players sit in during the games.... talk about comfort! Following my visit to the stadium I went to the Plaza de Toros to see where the bull fights were held. Unfortunately when I got there it was closed but it was still cool to see the outside because it was really beautiful. One day I would love to be able to see a bull fight. I know a lot of people want them outlawed because they are cruel to animals, which is true, but I can also appreciate the artistic side of it. In America we are still executing human beings (by firing squad in Utah), so comparatively they are probably doing better in Spain with regards to what is humane. By this time it was already time for me to head back for dinner. Maria and Cacun wanted to take me out to a place called El Lateral for Spanish Tapas and all of the food was absolutely amazing. The highlight for me was the shrimp tartar guacamole and also the morcilla.
I slept in a little later to recover from the long day of walking and went straight to the train station for a day trip to Toledo. I was excited for the day trip to Toledo because from my Spanish history class at Penn, I remembered that the city had Muslim influences so the architecture was much different than that of Madrid. The train station was probably the coolest one I have ever been to because there was a large garden in the center with huge plants and a pond full of turtles. It also had a Burger King inside which was a huge plus. Try to guess how many turtles there are in the picture below. I believe I counted like 20!
The train ride was only 30 minutes and only cost 11Euros but I was really surprised by how nice the high speed trains were in Spain! The seats had an incredible amount of leg room compared to the trains I had been on in Italy so I was ecstatic that I could relax and enjoy the ride without feeling too cramped. Once I got to Toledo I walked up the hilly streets (the city is built on hill, with the most historic parts being highest) to the center and just spent the day walking around. I went into the cathedral which was built in the 1400's which was really cool and I also really liked a square in the center which was full of young students. The city had much more of a desert feel to it and in a sense you could really feel the Muslim influence. It almost felt like being in a different country (except they spoke Spanish). I found a store which was essentially called Tienda Maldonado (I don't remember the exact name, but it was something like that) so I stopped in and talked to the owner who told me the history of the Maldonado family in Toledo. The craziest part of the day was definitely when I ran into the family from Southern California that I met at the soccer stadium the day before. We all laughed when we saw each other and stopped to talk for a couple minutes- I should have taken a picture with them! I had a wonderful day trip and the weather was also perfect so that made the day even better.
I headed back to Madrid for my final evening with my cousin. When I got to his apartment he had forgotten to leave the keys with the doorman so I called my mom on Skype from my iPod since I could get internet reception when standing outside of his room. After Cacun and Maria came home, one of their friends called and invited them to a bar. Maria wanted to stay home but Carlos Andres and I went out to celebrate my visit and because it would be cool to meet his friends. I had a great evening which included my first aguardiente, having to pick up a barricade at the US embassy which a friend accidentally bumped as we walked past it, and meeting his friends which were all very nice. The best part was definitely talking to and spending quality time with my cousin. We ended up getting home really late and I only slept for an hour before I had to take a taxi to the airport, but Francisco called me to wake me up which was a big help. The rest of the morning was basically a blur but I made it to Milan safely. When I got off the plane in Italy I felt like I was finally home. This was the first time when I had returned to Milan from a trip and really felt like I was back in MY city, and it was actually kind of weird. I don't think that 2 years ago I would have ever believed that I would call Milan, Italy my home one day.
I feel extremely blessed to have had the opportunity to travel to Spain and France. I am not sure what I did to deserve this opportunity but I am definitely making the most of it.