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Madrid and Toledo

8 May 2014

I’m rather pleased with my French skills. More and more words come back to me  from my school-girl French lessons and I think I communicate rather well when buying stuff and even helping other people buy stuff. But I’m dismayed this morning when I realise I can forget French for a few days and start to learn Spanish.

Aurora, sitting next to me, is Latin-American, so she schools me this morning with some basic phrases. Some of them we know from cartoons, and some I learnt from South Americans (Patricio & Julio) that I used to work with at Pizza Hut when I was a student. So I can say good morning, good afternoon, good evening, hello, please, thank you, sorry, and I can ask for water, white coffee and the toilet. And I can count to 10.

We leave the hotel at 8:30 this morning and have been on the road ever since, except for a morning tea stop and a lunch stop, both at servos.

Unlike the almost constantly flat landscape we saw in France, we pass hills and mountains in Spain. Still it’s very green, and we see alternately wooded hills and farmed fields, with the occasional rocky outcrop. Every so often we pass through tunnels under mountains, the road itself remaining relatively flat. Sometimes we pass valleys filled with tidy industrial areas. We also see lots of wind farms lined up along ridges.

We have wifi working on the bus, but it’s very patchy. I enjoy the fruit and pistachios that I picked up at the market yesterday.

It’s been a warm day and we approach Madrid late afternoon and check in at our hotel. Nothing really remarkable about the city so far, but we’re going out to look around this evening. The room is barely big enough to swing a door, let alone a cat, but it is cosy and comfortable. I jump in the shower as soon as I get to my room. Luckily I’ve kept some undies in my hand luggage so I can at least put new underwear on while I wait for my bag. (Pffeeew, I know you don’t want to think about that.) It’s still not there when I finish my shower, so I get dressed, don’t worry about shoes, and pad barefoot out to the lift to hunt it down.

A young Spanish porter is lugging suitcases out of the lift and lining them up against the wall. He asks me to watch my feet as he lines them up against the wall, or at least I’m guessing that’s what he says. I keep thinking he’ll pull my bag out next, but it’s not there and he goes back down for another load. When he unloads the lift again, still my bag’s not there.

“Your room number?” he asks me.

“Siz, zzzzero, siz” I tell him.

He goes down again and finally, next time the lift opens he emerges with my bag.

“Gracias!” I exclaim, and he laughs as he unloads the remainder.

The main boulevard in Madrid is wide, treelined and we repeatedly pass fountains with statues. There’s Christopher Columbus of course. Ashley points out magnificent buildings, which I’m less impressed with now that I’ve seen London, Oxford and Paris. But they are lovely. Everywhere there seems to be polizio – mostly young men in fluoro yellow shirts that we’d mistake for construction workers in Australia, except that they are young, handsome and neat, and wear caps, and seem to enjoy hanging casually around town in groups of 3 or 4.

We come to a truly beautiful white building that takes my breath away. There are people milling around on a veranda up high and I’m stunned when Ashley tells us that it was originally the Post Office, though now it is a hotel. Apparently Spain has had great wealth in the past, when many beautiful buildings were built, but right now it is in serious recession. We don’t see much evidence of recession. There are people everywhere, especially later in the evening (and the next evening) where they sit at cafe tables on the street drinking glasses of wine.

We get off the bus and walk to Plaza Mayora, the main square in Madrid. It’s surrounded by beautiful buildings, one of which is painted with murals of naked men and women, in weird positions, some with tails and horns, the men with velvety-looking penises. These paintings fascinate me. I keep going back to gaze at them, though we have very little time.

In the middle of the square is a monument with galloping horses, wonderful to stand under and look up at. Someone offers to take a photo of me with them. The people on the tour are great like that. They frequently offer to take photos for the people who have come on their own.

There is an unusual modern building that isn’t mentioned by the tour guide, but it commands attention. I found out the next day that it was built in the 70s or 80s (can’t remember which) but the man who built it ran out of money. I find that there are many buildings like this in Madrid, some of which remain empty due lack of money to complete the inside. The local tour guide obviously dislikes the building that I ask about. She says, with disgust, that it reminds her of the end of a power plug.

The traffic is heavy that night in Madrid. It gives us plenty of opportunity to look at the monuments and fountains. The huge railway station, with a metal structure, was designed by the same architect who designed the Eiffel Tower.

By the time we arrive late at the restaurant I’m feeling tired, and am sure my eyes are bloodshot. We’re shown downstairs to a long room shaped like the inside of a galleon, and lined in timber – a great ambience. I have a huge bowl of gazpacho for starters which is delicious. By the time the paella arrives, I’m just about full, which doesn’t bother me, because the paella was pretty ordinary, so I ate just a little.

The highlight of the night was when 3 musicians burst in, playing guitars and mandolins, singing heartily. They are shamelessly dressed in little pantaloons and navy stockings, and are clearly enjoying showing off their skills. We cheer and clap and they pass out 2 tambourines that people play with varying skill. Aurora and Mayra (also a Spanish speaker) stand up and dance at the back and make requests for Spanish songs. Jenny knows one of the tunes and sings along in English.

Next they bring in a table and place on it a large cake covered in meringue. They pour alcohol over, turn the lights out and light it with a flourish. Everyone is quite hearty by now and there is more cheering. The ice-cream cake is taken away and served up and CDs are offered for sale. I love their singing, such a happy sound, so I buy one to take home, having it signed by one of the musicians.

Friday 9 May

The next day a local guide boards the bus to show us the sights of Madrid. Julia talks incessantly and is not as easy to listen to, or to understand as Agatha was in Paris, and she definitely doesn’t have Agatha’s sense of humour. However, she has a wealth of knowledge and I pick up on snippets of it. Madrid has a varying architecture resulting from Spanish and Arabic influences over the centuries. The traffic is heavy again and we see many of the monuments and fountains by daylight that we’d seen last night. I am once again full of wonder at the beauty of the Post Office building.

We stop at a large square and get out briefly to explore. I think Julia said there’s a tract of forest from here all the way to Toledo.

Toledo is our next excursion. It’s about an hour’s trip and Julia talks almost the whole way. The scenery is not attractive. We see the word “muebles” on many signs on buildings. It means “furniture” and furniture-making is a popular industry along this stretch. There are also junk yards, like huge parking lots, not as untidy as our junk yards, and near them, huge mounds of crushed metal. Julia points out wheat fields. But they are not like the vast rolling wheat fields of Australia. Groups of apartments or townhouses are interspersed amongst them, “villages” as Julia calls them. There are also many industrial buildings. Occasionally we see a huge silhouette of a bull, mounted high on a hill, facing the highway. These were originally advertising for wine, but it became illegal to advertise next to freeways. (How good is that!) The company got away with painting them black and leaving them there. Occasionally we’d see patches of wild red poppies either running across the edges of the fields or along the highway. It’s a hot day and the sun beams in through the broad windows of the bus. We are weary of travelling, and of Julia’s voice, as we approach Toledo.

Toledo is a very old city, dating back to the Roman times (I think) and it has evolved with the history of Spain. There are architectural influences from the Spanish people and also from Arabic people who invaded at some stage. The streets are so narrow that cars can’t get through them, and certainly not big tourist coaches. Outside the city there are huge parking lots where people leave their cars.

One of the early buildings of Toledo is a castle. It’s an ideal position, because the fast-flowing river loops almost entirely around it, forming a natural moat. Large stone walls are built across the areas not surrounded by river. The population of Toledo is fast decreasing. There are strict building laws, such that, while people are allowed to build, they can only do so in keeping with the old city. It’s so inconvenient to live there that people are leaving in droves, and it is mainly old people who have grown up there that remain.

A road suitable for coaches circles the city and Julia tries to prepare us for the view as she talks in superlatives. When we stop and look, we are nonetheless filled with awe, looking at the amazing stone buildings all built close to each other. Here, I pull out my iPad to get a photo for Facebook.

The coach then takes us to the gates and we go up escalators into the city. Parts of the city are centuries old, other parts more recent, but it is difficult to tell which is which, due to the strict building laws. We start in a “square” which is quite small for a square, then wander through a maze of narrow cobbled alleyways past, you guessed it, souvenir shops and restaurants. This area is famous for a particular type of craft, with very pretty gold-stamped metal made into plates, earrings, chess boards etc. When the tour finishes, Steve and I go find a restaurant to eat in and manage to communicate via charades that we want to share a plate of paella. We have a little time for shopping, with Steve tempted by knights in armour on horses, and me by gold dangly earrings. We don’t buy either though. I am so indecisive. Steve dashes off to look at more shops. Julia counts everyone and decides we’re all there, but I know Steve is missing. Luckily though, he arrives before we leave the square – he’d found some fans to buy.

Returning to Madrid city centre, we are offered the option to spend more time in the city or return to the hotel, which I do. It’s lovely to have some quiet time to check emails, shower, and get dressed ready to go out again.

In the evening we go to a tapas restaurant. The wine is bad so I opt for Sangria, and the food is good. We begin with baby lettuces and slices of tomato with dressing. We have croquettes, potato pancakes, small servings of fried fish, salt & pepper calamari, chicken and at last, a really good paella. It comes in a huge pan and is  I’m sure there are other dishes too that I can’t remember, but I am totally stuffed by the end of it and unable to eat the fruit dessert (which isn’t terribly exciting.) By the time we finish dinner, Madrid is beginning to liven up and the streets and restaurants are filled with people. (We were told that people don’t eat until very late in Spain.) Some people from our tour decide to go walking but I opt out – I was ready for bed.