After taking a somewhat uncomfortable red-eye flight from New York City, I arrived in Madrid at 845AM local time. Getting through customs was surprising quick and uneventful as the border agent looked as disinterested in stamping passports as I was having to wait in the tourist line. Usually, I like to arrive in a foreign country with U.S. dollars to exchange, however, by the time I remembered to withdraw money in New York, I got stuck with the only ATM in the airport that was not dispensing cash at the time. Thus, by the time I arrived in Madrid, I had to choose between the overpriced ATM or the overpriced airport currency exchange. I chose the ATM because at least I didn’t have to dig my passport out again. After withdrawing 200 Euro, I decided to take an Uber to my hotel. This is where I had my first “welcome to Europe” moment as the Uber ride was just as expensive as back in Washington DC. Upon arrival at my hotel, I was worried about not being able to check-in due to how early it was in the morning. However, I was fortunately allowed to check in despite it being so early in the morning. My second “welcome to Europe” moment came when I realized that I needed to buy a European surge protector because none of my electronics could plug into the hotel wall. However, that was a problem I would need to figure out after catching up on some much-needed sleep.
I woke up at 2PM local time and decided to walk to El Parque de El Retiro, Madrid’s equivalent to Central Park in New York City. While Google Maps told me that it was only a 5-minute walk, it did not consider how hilly Madrid was and the journey ended up taking me 20 minutes. Madrid was much colder than I expected, while I wasn’t expecting it to be as hot as Cartagena, I was also not expecting it to be as cold as New York City. The weather was cold, wet, and windy for pretty much the whole time I was there. I was fortunate enough to have pack 1 pair of jeans which I ended up having to wear every day. El Parque de El Retiro was huge and walking it definitely provided a workout. It was not as visually appealing given that I had come to Spain in the middle of winter, but it still had a unique charm to it. I walked over to El Palacio del Cristal, a famous glass mausoleum next to a small lake within El Parque de El Retiro. From afar El Palacio del Cristal provided a great photo opportunity, however, it was extremely crowded on the inside and was only an open area for people to stand around. Nevertheless, I was able to check off one of the main highlights of the city. After walking around the park, I ended up stopping at a little café for lunch. I ordered some tapas, a local Spanish cuisine, and some hot chocolate. The lunch was a little pricey at 8 Euro but was tasted amazing. In particular, the hot chocolate was actual melted chocolate as opposed to the watered-down version served in the United States. On my way back to the hotel, I was also able to find a surge protector for my electronics for about 6 Euro (crisis averted). Getting around Madrid was fairly easy once you figured out the metro system. I was given a metro card by my friend prior to leaving the United States and it cost me 29 Euro to use it for unlimited rides over 4 days. While a little pricey, it was still less expensive than what I paid to Uber to the airport. Over the next few days, I explored many parts of Madrid to include.
La Puerta del Sol/Gran Vía- The major commercial and tourist area of Madrid filled with high-end shops and ex-pat bars. The first night, I went to a nice little restaurant called La Cuidad de Tui and had paella, a Spanish rice dish. Not only was the paella delicious but I was even given FREE wine to wash it down. This would be unheard of in the United States outside of extremely high-end restaurants that already cost a fortune to eat at. After dinner, I walked around La Puerta del Sol and visited El Museo del Jamón (The Ham Museum) which was a shop with various types of meat. I then went to a nice sportswear store called Cooligans which had various apparel for international soccer teams. I found it hilarious that they sold shirts for Mexico’s national soccer team but did not have anything for the United States national team as the United States national team is currently higher in the world rankings, but I digress. I thought about buying a shirt, but 60 Euros for a t-shirt was a little out of my budget.
Historical Madrid- My second day in Madrid, I woke up at 130 PM. Part of this was because I went to sleep at 3AM. Unfortunately, I completely forgot that the NFL playoffs would be this weekend when I planned this trip and given the time difference, the games are on from 1030PM-5AM. I stayed up until the end of the first half of the game between the Jacksonville Jaguars-Los Angeles Chargers. I went to sleep because the Chargers were up 27-0. Of course, I woke up next morning to discover that in true Chargers fashion, they would go onto lose to the Jaguars 31-30 after blowing a 27-point lead in the second half. After getting a quick workout at the hotel gym, I took the metro down to the Opera neighborhood to meet up with a biking tour group that would be going through the historical parts of Madrid. The group was composed of a family from Puerto Rico and an old guy from Poland. In Latin America, group tours are done in Spanish by default because most people don’t speak English. However, in Spain, this tour was actually done in English because the guy from Poland was there which was a nice change as it was much easier for me to pick up on the historical context of the sites that we visited. In all, the tour covered a lot of ground and I got to see many of Madrid’s historical buildings to include El Parque de El Retiro, the Royal Spanish Palace, Catedral de la Almudena, Palacio de las Cortes (Spanish Congress), and Plaza Mayor. Most importantly, the electronic bikes made navigating Madrid’s steep hills that much easier. However, I did almost die during the tour as I was inches from getting run over by an oncoming motor bike while making my way around a round-about next to El Parque de El Retiro. I got pretty upset at the tour guide because she did not warn the group about the danger of that round-about prior to crossing. She was also going extremely quick, and we had to stop several times because people were getting left. Had I not paid $50 for the tour, I probably would have left at that moment. Despite my frustration with the guide and the horrible weather, I felt that the tour itself was adequate and I was able to get a good feel for historical Madrid.
Estadio Santiago Bernabéu- On my final day in Madrid, I did not wake up until 2PM. Unfortunately, I had to stay up until 5AM to watch my favorite NFL team, the Baltimore Ravens get bounced from the NFL Playoffs. This game was particularly frustrating because the Ravens could have won had it not been for the team’s backup quarterback fumbling the ball at the Cincinnati Bengals’ 3-yard line after the inept coaching staff called a quarterback sneak despite the Ravens having the top run game in the league. The Cincinnati defense returned the fumble for a touchdown which completely changed the momentum of the game. The Ravens even had a chance to tie the game at the end of regulation, but the coaching staff suddenly forgot how to manage the game clock. After sleeping half the day away, I decided to take my mind off of NFL football to focus on European futbol. Madrid is home to one of the most successful international club soccer teams in the world, Real Madrid CF. Real Madrid CF has produced global soccer stars such as David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo. Real Madrid CF is also the current European club champions. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend a live game as the team itself as the team was playing in Saudi Arabia. However, for only 15 euro, I did get a chance to visit tour the team’s stadium known as Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. As soon as I arrived at the stadium, I quickly realized why the tickets were so cheap. Unfortunately, the stadium was one big construction site. It took me 20 minutes from the ticket office to get to the correct gate as I had to go around the construction. The tour itself consisted of a trophy room for Real Madrid CF’s soccer and basketball teams. It was pretty impressive seeing how many team and individual trophies that the team has been apart of, although I tend to root for the underdog. There was also a room that had an impressive 3-D presentation discussing the stadium upgrades. I was able to walk out to the mid-level of the stadium and see the actual soccer field. However, there were very few organic photo opportunities available as much of the inside of the stadium was also under active construction. Finally, the last shop was the team store where, for some reason, I had to show my tour ticket to access (it seems counterproductive as they should be encouraging as many people as possible to shop inside the team store). While there were some great looking items in the team store, I’m not a big enough Real Madrid CF fan to spend 40 euro on a scarf. Overall, I thought the tour was worth doing despite the inconvenience surrounding the construction.
I am now currently sitting in the train halfway to Barcelona. However, getting to this point did not come without drama. Today was the first day I woke up before 11 AM. As such, I arrived at the train station an hour before departure only to discover that my train ticket was not attached to my original confirmation email. No problem, I can just go to the company office and have them print it for me….or so I thought. Turns out the train company that was conducting the journey, Ouigo, did not have a physical office in Madrid’s Atocha station. I decided to try and contact the third-party in which I booked the ticket only to find out that their only form of contact was an e-mail form which took 24-48 hours to respond. I ended up having to go to a café, take my computer out, and dig up the ticket confirmation number. Fortunately, after finding the confirmation number, I was able to download the ticket directly from the train company website 20 minutes before boarding. Now you are all caught up. I have a full itinerary planned for Barcelona starting with a tour of La Basilica de la Sagrada Familia this afternoon. I look forward to sharing my experience in Barcelona in the next few days. Stay tuned!