19. The London Chronicles: Part VIII – Spain and Travels Home

I apologize for the delay in posting this final part! I wrote the last several blogs while in DC, but we’ve been visiting my family and friends in Albuquerque since last week and I really haven’t had a moment of downtime to write until now.

Wednesday, August 2nd
So we arrived in Madrid, Spain! Our plane landed around 11:00pm, so we couldn’t actually see much of the city except lights laid out below from the plane window. Our Uber driver was a Romanian who had initially come to Madrid for a girl and then never left. He gave us a drive-by tour of a lot of the big, important buildings we passed on the way to our Airbnb (with everything in Spanish, of course).

Our Airbnb was on the third floor of this apartment building that had the most southwestern wooden staircase that I have seen since I moved from the Southwest. The apartment itself was strangely reminiscent of our flat in London, with a red kitchen and everything. I suppose that’s part of the reason we chose it. But it was lovely. We were greeted by a cat looking at us from the apartment opposite us. The cat sat outside on the windowsill and just watched us as we got there. Ricardo and I talked well into the night and finally fell asleep around 3:00am or so.

Thursday, August 3rd
We were up at 11am in the sweltering heat. Man, Spain is hot. Spain is especially hot when it’s in the 90s and you’ve been in London where it’s been in the 60s and 70s for the past month. We didn’t know the area at all so we found breakfast at the second place we could, which was this Spanish diner run by Chinese people. I had a tortilla and toast. A tortilla in Spain is essentially an egg omelet filled with sliced potatoes. It was quite yummy.

Ricardo and I headed to Parque de El Retiro, which was probably around a mile away from where we were. On the way, we got sunscreen and slathered it on. I see now why everyone is so tan in Spain. The sun really is relentless. Once we got to the parque, Ricardo spent some time talking on the phone while I sketched a scene of the trees and grass. We then ventured further into the park and came across a magnificent and larger-than-life pond and fountain surrounded on two sides by little outdoor cafes and ice cream places. We got coke zeros and wandered towards the Palacio de Cristal and found the small modern art museum in the middle of the Parque.

The modern art museum looked like it used to be a station house or something of the sort. Inside, the building was just a series of enormous white spaces. There was one room with signs with different typefaces, and another with framed letters of the alphabet. Giant plush letters filled one part of the place while colorful fabrics and sticks made up some of the exhibits. Ricardo and I had a long discussion about modern art while we were there. Afterwards, we again entered the bloody hot sun and found the Palacio de Cristal (or Crystal Palace) right across the way. It was an absolutely beautiful building created completely out of steel framework and glass panels. You could see straight through the Palacio to the other side. The building – really, more a piece of art than anything – was surrounded by trees on all sides. A pond rippled in front and it was filled with turtles and giant carp fish and two black swans that glided around most majestically. Inside, the Palacio was even hotter than outside. Which makes sense. Essentially the Palacio was one giant greenhouse. Afterwards, we returned to the area in front of the giant fountain and got a luxurious, true Spanish lunch in one of the outdoor restaurants. We got “summer wine” (really delicious sangria), Russian salad, rice with spices and seafood, and olives. Everything was so savory and full of flavor. I was absolutely stuffed.

After lunch, Ricardo’s friend Gian Piero met us at the Parque. He’s one of Ricardo’s best friends and had just moved to Madrid a month or two before. He led us on a walking tour throughout many of central Madrid’s landmarks. We walked past the Museo de Prado, but didn’t go in because a) there was a super long line, and b) Ricardo and I were museumed out by that point. To be honest I still am museumed out. We saw Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor de Madrid, which were both enormous plazas with bricks underlying everything and a vicious sun beating down across all of it. Statues of famous generals and other such things stood proudly in the centers. We walked through large avenues and small side streets. We had to stop and get giant water bottles, one for each of us, at one point because it was just so hot that you have to drink a lot of water to even maintain a façade of health wellness.

We ended up seeing the remains of an old Islamic site, and we went inside the enormous, magnificent Catedral de al Almudena. The vaulted ceilings were painted in the most colorful, bold designs. My favorite part of the Catedral was the part of the ceiling right above the alter: vivid blues and whites and oranges made a sky filled with the sun and stars. The Catedral was lined with alcoves dedicated to different saints. Every saint statue or painting was created in a different artistic style. It was beautiful. And then we saw the Palacio Real, which is where the Spanish royalty used to live. We didn’t get a chance to go in because it was already closed. The Palacio was very reminiscent to me of Versailles, since it was lined with gold gilded gates. The main difference was that while Versailles was more white and orange on the outside, the Palacio was this beautiful pale blue color.

We did get a chance to walk through the Palacio gardens. In the gardens, a very strange little man walked up to us and asked if we spoke English (he was British), and since we did, he wanted to sing a song to us. We told him we didn’t have any money on us to give him (because we had never gotten euros), but he said he didn’t mind at all. He just wanted to sing to people. So he sang us this song for the longest 30 or 45 seconds of my life. None of the three of us knew where to look when he was singing. Finally, it ended and we thanked him and he thanked us for listening and then walked away to sing to someone else. It was very, very strange.

After the Palacio Real, Gian Piero, Ricardo, and I got churros con chocolate at the most famous churro place in Madrid which was called Chocolateria San Gines. So churros in Spain are very different from the cinnamon and sugar dusted churros we are used to in the States. In Spain, churros are just the fried pastries without any sugar or cinnamon and they are served three at a time with a melted cup of chocolate. The chocolate is not sweet, but it’s not bitter. It’s the perfect composition. So you dip your churro into the chocolate and eat it that way. It was very yummy, but I still think I’m partial to our cinnamon and sugar churros. After that, Gian Piero led the way across town again to this restaurant called Goiko Grill, where they had burgers and Venezuelan cuisine. Gian Piero’s girlfriend  Adrianamet us there as well and the four of us had the most delicious burgers. I was the only one of the four not from Venezuela, so I was the only one who didn’t know what food or appetizers where from Venezuela or not, but Ricardo was very excited about the food.

We didn’t get home until quite late but it was completely worth it. The area of town we were in was still bustling with people at 1:30 in the morning and apparently it is very normal for people to be up very late at night. I loved that part.

Friday, August 4th
Friday started with breakfast with Ricardo’s cousin who lives in Spain. The summer is the off season in Madrid, since everyone who lives in Madrid travels to the coasts and the beaches to escape from the heat. So there was hardly anything open, even though it was already past 9:00am. We passed by this really incredible building built in the early 1900s that was just covered with organic natural shapes like leaves and vines and flowers all sculpted right into the very walls. We eventually found a Parisian bakery place. It was charming. There were French hot air balloons hanging from the ceiling and there were pastries galore. We had the best breakfast of quiche and eggs and crepes there. His cousin has been living in Madrid for around a year and is an entrepreneur there. He gave us a lot of really insightful information into the lifestyle in Spain and the people and what sorts of things set Spain apart from other places. For instance, Spain is very laid back. Suddenly it made perfect sense to me why New Mexico is also laid back; many of the people who “founded” the culture in New Mexico came from Spain.

We spent some time back in our apartment in Madrid lounging around and taking naps. It was very reminiscent of a scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls (which I still haven’t finished reading; I really need to) that one of the women describes from her time vacationing in Madrid.

We then took the Metro out to the edge of Madrid where Gian Piero lives. As soon as we walked out of the metro station I was completely taken aback. It looked exactly like Albuquerque. The landscape was dry and barren with little shrubs and grasses in places, but not much more. The photo I took of the landscape looking at the highway looked exactly like I’d taken it in Albuquerque. It was the most surreal feeling I think I’ve ever experienced in my life. I was back in Albuquerque and yet I was on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in a completely different country.

We hung out at Gian Piero’s apartment for some time. Ricardo and him played Super Smash Bros together while I read, and they taught me how to play after a little bit as well. (I was reading Love in the Time of Cholera while I was there, if you’re curious. It didn’t feel right to read a book about London while in Spain, but it felt very right to read a book in a Spanish place by a Spanish author while in Madrid. I loved the book. It was amazing. It weirdly felt like a kindred read to Lolita, which I’d read earlier during our travels. Both were very strange love stories, the likes of which I’d never read before.) After that, we went swimming in the pool. And then headed out to meet Adri at a fancy tapas bar in central Madrid. The tapas bar was three or four stories tall. The bottom level was more a restaurant where you ordered, but where we were on the second level you got your drinks (summer wine) from a waitress and then went around to all the tapas counters and got whatever you wanted from there. We got fish-topped crackers and Spanish tortillas and delicious food. The place had a giant stage where there was a DJ playing music, but apparently performers such as aerial silk artists sometimes perform there. It was a really lovely evening.

Saturday, August 5th
I woke up Saturday morning feeling very sick. Part of it was dehydration, part of it was my immune system had relaxed for the first time in months, and part of it was the dread of traveling for 36 hours that we were getting ready to face.

Firstly, Ricardo and I had to check out of our Airbnb, so we packed up all of our luggage and went to Adriana’s house to drop off our luggage there for a few hours. We went to a store around the corner to get me a gatorade or powerade for the electrolytes and I chugged it. Apparently when I had gotten to her house I was pale pale, and I began getting color back in my face after that powerade.

After that, Adri, Ricardo, and I headed over to this place that served Venezuelan arepas, where we met up with Gian Piero. I’ve only had arepas one other time at Raquel’s (Ricardo’s sister’s) house in New York. They’re essentially these really thick corn flour tortillas or pancakes in a way. You cut them open through the middle and then stuff them with anything from eggs to beef or chicken or anything in between. At the arepa place I got a tuna salad arepa and it was delicious. After arepas (where we watched this one little finch go around hopelessly pursuing a girl finch that kept rejecting him), we went to a frozen yogurt place down the road. It was delicious. Honestly, we had so much delicious food in Spain (qué sabroso!) that I was constantly full. I would get un-full enough to have another delicious meal and then was full again. Perpetual fullness everywhere.

After that, we went back to Adri’s, picked up our bags, and said goodbye before taking an Uber back to the airport. And thus started out day and a half travels back to D.C.

Saturday, August 5th/Sunday, August 6th: Perpetual Traveling
So we got to the airport in Madrid, got through security, and looked out at a landscape that looked like it could have been New Mexico. Our plane back to London was uneventful. We arrived at the London Gatwick airport to the south of London and got through customs. We then took the tube back to the Blackfriar station and got out to find somewhere to eat. We’d arrived in London around 8:00pm and since our plane the next morning left from London Heathrow at 5:30am, we decided to not get an Airbnb for the night and just camp out out the airport. So since we had plenty of time to get to the airport, we walked from Blackfriar’s towards Temple station until we found a lovely Italian restaurant where we decided to eat.

The meal was lovely. It was my first attempt in a month at eating healthy again. (I was doing a really good job of eating vegan since last January for environmental reasons, but it was impossible to do in London. Why deprive yourself of all the delicious meat pies and pub food while you’re in London?) The bathroom played classical music and it was a perfect, lovely meal to end our travels in Europe with.

We then made our way to Heathrow airport and got there around maybe 11:00pm. We camped out on a row of chairs by the entrance and took turns taking naps, charging phones, and reading books. Finally, around 3:00pm we checked in our luggage and got through security. Our first plane flew from London to Chicago. Even though we flew for around 8 hours, we were flying back in time so we got to the Chicago airport around 7:30am. I probably slept maybe an hour or two on that plane, which totaled to maybe three hours of sleep total in two days? We had to go through customs and security again in Chicago (and Ricardo had to throw away the sunscreen in his carry-on, which had already made it through security in Madrid AND in London). Our flight to DC was thankfully short and we made it back home by about 4:00pm.

Thus ended our travels in Europe.

Afterward
I’m still in disbelief that I got to visit three different countries (England, France, and Spain) and five different cities (London, Oxford, Paris, Dover, and Madrid) this summer. I had no idea I would get to travel so much. The most expensive part was that plane flight across the Atlantic. After you’re there, it’s so much cheaper to travel between countries. I have loved every moment of it and would move to Europe in a heartbeat if it was easy enough to do so. Ricardo has been the best travel companion one could ask for and I’m so lucky to have gotten to experience it all with him.

London is still my favorite city of all time. Paris came in second. Madrid came in third. I think DC is probably somewhere on the same level as Paris or Madrid. I have so many photos that I may or may not ever publish them all somewhere. But regardless, it was an amazing trip.

If you’ve been reading all these travel blogs (which I know from talking to some of you that you are), I’m really glad you have. You’re the best. Thanks for sticking through this trip with me!

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