Spain

Barcelona

I loved the idea of Spain even before I’d left home, and from the moment I arrived at Barcelona airport I have been justified in that excitement. The airport was clean, spacious, beautiful and welcoming. I even loved the toilets – the doors were a bright red colour, and the scent in the air was of strawberries, just like the car air freshener I used to buy. You could easily be forgiven for thinking you were somewhere other than the toilets!

I navigated the airport shuttle bus and the metro system easily, and made my way to the designated location to meet my couch surfing host. Murat was wonderful. He had a busy day but stopped long enough to explain the public transport ticketing system and gave me a map and some directions to get around. His house was like a hotel it was so nice! He spoke English really well, as well as Spanish, Turkish and German, so once again it was good to have a local I could ask all my Barcelona related questions, and hear about their political and social economic situation – some of the things that make a country a country I think.

The weather was brilliant, low 30s when I arrived and was still warm and light at 9pm. I walked to the beach and was amazed at the number of people still out and about, eating and drinking and enjoying themselves. I now know why so many people love Barcelona, for I did immediately. I was surprised to find I appreciated the trees in the city. I hadn’t registered the lack of them in Italy and now that I was surrounded by them I discovered how much I’d missed them. I think trees and greenery make a city seem more alive, giving a certain kind of life and breath to a place. I felt that Barcelona was similar to Melbourne in a way, it was calm and relaxed and content. The moon was already in the sky, although it was still light enough to see quite well, and around 10pm it got a little darker and the sky turned a royal blue colour. I was astounded, I’ve never seen the sky that colour before. I took some pictures of it yet they are so rich in colour they almost look fake.

The next day I wandered around Barcelona on foot, using the map Murat had provided and obtaining another Hop-On, Hop-Off bus map. I saw the people camping out in Placa Catalunya, with their signs of protest that have been featured on the news lately. I walked down La Rambla, and saw all the illegal markets with men standing at the ready to leave if the police showed up. They had assortments of fake brand name handbags and sunglasses, all laid out in neat rows on sheets. Attached to each corner of the sheet were four lengths of rope, the ends of which were held by the seller, ready to raise his arm and envelop his goods within the sheet while he made his getaway. There were also legal shops along the street, many selling tourist gimmicks, some food places, and even a pet shop!

I found the Mercat La Boqueria, a well known market that had fruit and vegetable stalls, meat and fish and egg sellers, along with a variety of sweets and chocolate stalls. There were a few places where people sat at the perimeter of a ‘shop’, eating food that had been freshly cooked while they waited, and a few gypsies asking for coins. Most of these gypsies seemed to be women, often with signs about how many children they had. A woman in the market was heavily pregnant and I wondered how many other children she had to feed as well.

I walked via the Santa Maria del Mar church, where the ocean had once met the city, and walked past a number of Gaudi buildings, the famous artist/architect of the area. At the Cathedral there was a bride to be walking amongst the crowd, and some tourists stopped to take photos. I heard one young American girl proclaim she’d love to get married in Spain, then state that the bride’s dress was ‘beautiful’ – well we must have been looking at different dresses because what I saw was not my idea of beautiful – it was a frilly, puffy, layered skirt that looked like a teapot cover. The woman herself was pretty, but the dress was not. Each to their own though. I met my second Barcelona couch surfing host that night, and Virginia was lovely. She had cooked me a Spanish Omelette for dinner, and it was really good. She spoke Spanish, Catalan, French and English, and although she said her English was not good, I found her very easy to understand. All these people speaking a number of other languages left me feeling a little inadequate, and I wished I’d taken that Spanish course I’d thought of doing. I’d love to return to Spain learn Spanish, I think that will have to be added to my ‘must do’ list.

On all the information boards around the city there were three languages – one was English and the other two were similar when I compared them word for word. I figured one was Spanish, and I later learned the second was Catalan. Staying with hosts in a city means you can learn a lot more than you would otherwise and from Murat and Virginia I heard about the division between the Catalan people (from Barcelona and surrounding areas) and the Spanish people (the rest of Spain), and this division included the Catalan language – similar to Spanish but different enough that people had to learn it and differences could be heard when you knew enough what to listen for.

Montserrat, Parc Guell and La Sagradia Familia Basilica

The next day I went to Montserrat, an hour away from Barcelona by train, up in the mountains, to hear the boys choir sing. They were amazing. I’m not particularly musically minded, however even I could tell they were really good, and the church was so full of people keen to hear this choir there was barely any standing room left. The train to the mountain was a regular train, then you had two options to ascend to the Monastery. I took the ‘dangling basket from a rope’ (Aeri de Montserrat) option as the views were reputedly better, and it was worth it, although I felt sorry for the man whose wife had convinced him this option was better becaues he was clearly not enjoying the ride. The other option was a funicular train, which went up the steep mountain tracks and was even shaped at such an angle so as to look like it wouldn’t fall off the mountain. Crazy stuff!

In the afternoon I made my way to Parc Guell, the famous park designed by Gaudi. It was large with many interesting monuments to see, and paths to wander along, and I saw some mind boggling sights. One woman in ‘shorts’ so short they didn’t include much more than a waistband; an ‘entertainer’ wearing leopard skin leggings, a leather vest with tassels and sunglasses made of two guitars playing guitar and singing old American rock songs in English with a heavy Spanish accent. There was also a guy playing an instrument I’d never heard or seen before, a Santouri. He was Iranian, and had been playing since he was seven years old. I was mesmerised by his music and ended up buying one of his cds. The instrument was played similar to a xylophone, and sat flat on the table, yet it looked more like a guitar with strings stretched across the top – 18 sets of four strings in a set.

From Parc Guell I walked to the La Sagrada Familia Basilica. I’d been told I had to go inside the basilica, and that my entrance fee would assist in finishing the building, which has already been going on for nearly 130 years. I arrived at 6pm and figured a quick look inside was ok for my student rate of 10. I’m extremely glad I bought that ticket, although quick look it wasn’t. I was expecting the usual dark interior with gold, marble and crystal of most basilica’s I’d seen, and wasn’t too excited. As I entered I got slapped in the face by the huge light filled interior, with white columns reaching 45 meters to the central nave are surrounded by bright colourful stained glass windows. The space inside is incredible and took my breath away. The church consists of 4500 square meters where 8000 people can worship. This is one place you must visit if you come to Barcelona. I watched a 20 minute film on the ongoing construction of the building, and that showed me just how much effort and detail is in every section of the church. There are three facades, of Passion, Glory and the Nativity, and on the central door, which is made of bronze and stands five meters high, the entire text of Our Father is inscribed in Catalan along with the prayer ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ in fifty languages. The artistic elements and attention to detail in this building is purely stunning.

The metro system in Barcelona was one I admired. At first glance of a map of all the train stations and lines it looks quite confusing, however the different coloured lines were easy to follow once you knew which station you wanted to get to. I had a ten trip ticket, and was happy to discover that if you take a bus and a train within one hour of each other, both trips are counted as only one on your ten pass ticket. Bonus! I also never waited more than three minutes for a train, and the information board on each platform would count down the minutes and seconds until the next train arrived. Once on board the train, there was a panel above each door showing the stations and a blinking red light indicated which station was coming up next. This was a great system for people who don’t know the city, and saves the scramble at each stop trying to find where you are and if you should jump off or stay on the train. I felt very comfortable in Barcelona and was a little reluctant to leave.

Granada and the Alhambra

I flew to Granada, in the south of Spain, to see the ‘other’ half of the country, and to visit the renowned Alhambra. Given that I was up until 1am on my last night in Barcelona, and I had to catch a bus at 5am for a 7am flight, I decided there was no point in sleeping for only three hours and stayed up all night, intending to sleep when I got to my accommodation. I’d booked a bed in a small town called Quentar, 13km out of Granada, and had directions of which bus I needed to catch to get there. One would think a flight and bus trip would be simple enough, but not so. The bus from Granada airport to the city centre broke down when we were only half way. The driver announced something in Spanish, and I asked the girl next to me what he said. Luckily she could speak some English and told me we were waiting for another bus which would be about 20 minutes away.

After half an hour of waiting, the bus arrived, our bags were transferred across and we continued into Granada. Chatting to the girl next to me, I heard that Australian has been a dream destination for her since she was a kid (it was not the first time I’d heard this), but it was so far away and so expensive. I began to think that our ‘remote’ location back home may contribute to the allure it holds for so many people. Of course I talk it up, telling them all the good places to visit if they should ever get there, and help to keep their dream alive. I like to see their eyes sparkle and their smile deepen as they envision their visit and know that I’ve helped make their day a little brighter.

Getting off the bus I was confronted by gypsy women, holding sprigs of rosemary. I waved them away, keen to get to my bag from underneath the bus when an older one grabbed my wrist with no intention of letting go. I wasn’t in the mood, so shouted ‘No!’ and shook my arm free. Geez, talk about pushy. It was later explained to me that these women offered to ‘read’ your palm, and then demanded money. Well they weren’t getting any from me, that’s for sure.

It was hot in Granada, and I was keen to lay down for a sleep, however I’d just missed the local bus to Quentar and the next wasn’t for an hour. I decided to stay put at the stop and wait. Thankfully the hour passed quickly and I got on the bus that arrived, only to be told that this bus wasn’t running, and I had to wait for the next one due to leave in another hour. Oh boy. Being hot and tired my patience was running thin, but what could I do except wait? I wasn’t going to trudge the 13kms with my backpack in that heat. Imagine my disbelief as I watched the stationary bus for an hour, only to find the original driver return, board the bus and wave me on board. Hmph. Must be the bus driver’s lunch time or something. By now I’d been awake for almost 30 hours and looking forward to bed.

The cottage in Quentar was great, and I know a few of you who would have loved it. It was carved out of the mountainside, and so was cool and quaint, and I had it all to myself. Along with bedrooms there was a kitchen and courtyard, bathroom and lounge room, and a tv and radio with their local station in English. I laughed to realise it was just like any commercial radio station back home, playing all the same songs with a few old rock songs thrown in. Using their wifi, I didn’t sleep and instead spent the afternoon inside away from the heat and on the net. In hindsight that was a bad move, as I’m still trying to catch up on sleep a good two weeks later on. However, at the time it was what I did. It was still warm at 8pm at night, and I began to understand why siesta is so important, because you simply can’t go out in the afternoon heat without whithering away!

Night time came, and so did a knock on my door. Visitors? Me? Hmm. It turned out to be a young guy who was also travelling and staying in the same village. He asked if I wanted to eat dinner with him, but I’d already eaten (I’m still not used to eating dinner at 10 or 11pm at night like they do here), so I agreed to walk through the village and chat with him instead. Ohad was from Israel, who had spent his gap year (between the army – compulsory service – and university) working in England and holidaying for the last few weeks in Spain. He spoke English perfectly and I was happy to talk to him and hear about his county and life at home. I eventually had to go to bed when I started feeling like a zombie and struggled to keep my eyes open.

The next day Ohad and I wandered around Granada and I found the town to be similar to Quentar, with tiny houses tucked away in impossibly small areas. Yet it was the attention to detail that struck me – the carvings in their doors, the patterned tiles and mosaic footpaths – all had been crafted by hand and were delicately constructed in what I imagine were the most arduous circumstances. The steep and narrow streets were barely wide enough for a very small car, let alone building equipment. The streets were so steep in fact, that when I saw a cleaner using a broom to sweep the street, I laughed when I realised the broom head was on a sharp angle to make his job easier. I saw a man fixing part of his balcony, with his ladder precariously balanced on the steep incline of the road. His only form of safety was his friend who stood against the ladder to prevent him and his tools tumbling down the hill. Whitewashed houses, in rows and rows up the steep mountains, against the perfectly clear blue sky was my overall impression of Granada and Quentar.

I had obtained a ticket to the Alhambra, and the much talked about Palaces. I’d bought a ticket only two days before, and not knowing exactly what I should see I opted for the full experience at 14. For anyone interested in going, you can buy a ticket on the day you wish to attend, for only €7, and that lets you into all areas except the Palaces – which were not that flash after all. Basically everything you can see in the Palaces is seen throughout the rest of the Alhambra and I’m not sure why people think the Palaces are so great. You have to attend the Palaces at your designated time, with up to 400 other people, and everyone shuffles through like a human cargo train to see the mosaic tiles and carvings, but honestly, it isn’t worth the extra €7.

What I did love in the Alhambra were the gardens (accessible with the €7 ticket). They were well thought out, and offered a welcome respite from the searing heat. There were various forms of water fountains to see, which I love, and plenty of taps to fill up your waterbottle as well. The greenery was striking against the tan and white buidings and the mercilessly blue sky, and I could have spent all my time in the gardens alone. My second favourite place in the Alhambra was the top of the lookout where I could see the distant snow capped mountains. These mountains were in such contrast to the shimmering heat that surrounded everything in Granada it was almost unthinkable that these extreme temperatures could co-exist in such close proximity.

Sevilla

I arrived in Sevilla by train, and the trains in Spain are luxury. Air-conditioned and comfy seats, I didn’t realise just how hot it was in the city I was heading to. My good friend Manolo in Sydney had organised with his friend Javi in Sevilla to have me stay at his house for a few nights. I’d been in touch with Javi and his flatmate Victor, and the plans were for Javi to pick me up from the train station, on his bike. I wasn’t sure how my backpack and me were going to fit on Javi’s bike, but I agreed and thought we’d sort it out when I arrived. Well I didn’t have to wait long to realise it was a motorbike I was getting a lift on, not a bicycle!

I’d never ridden a motorbike in a skirt and sandals, nor with a large backpack, but in Sevilla I did. Thankfully Javi had brought me a helmet to wear, and I trusted his driving, however I had some self talk going on about how I was going to be ok and get there safely with all my skin and bones intact, and I did. Nor was it the last time I was pillion passenger in a skirt and sandals, but each time I arrived safely, thanks to Javi. Often when you travel you put yourself outside your comfort zone, and this was one of those times for me. Unless you’ve ridden motorbikes, or been a nurse and seen accident survivors, you may not understand my hesitation. However, I breathed a sigh of relief and thanked my lucky stars after every trip allowed myself to enjoy the remaining adrenaline.

The day I got to Sevilla was the hottest day they’d had on record this summer. It was like walking into a brick wall as I exited the air-conditioned train station, and the wind while on the bike was like fire whipping at my arms and legs. We went directly to Javi’s house for siesta. It was impossible even consider leaving the house before 8pm because it was still so hot, and we eventually went out for dinner at 9.30pm. I met Victor and we had many different sorts of tapas for dinner. I learnt that tapas basically means ‘little meal’ and can essentially be a smaller version of anything they have on the menu. It wasn’t restricted to the tapas I’d seen in the hostels that you received free when you ordered a beer, that of a piece of a toasted french stick topped with various items. The tapas Javi and Victor ordered were delicious, and too numerous to count. Food here in Spain is so cheap, as is alcohol, and we pay far too much in Australia. Dinner finished at about 1am, and it remained warm all night, dropping to only about 28 degrees overnight.

In the morning Victor dropped me in the city on his way to work, and I spent the day exploring the sights of Sevilla. I wandered through Parque Maria Louisa, a very nice large green space which led me to Plaza de Espana. I was mesmerised by this place. Walking up to it I saw a waterfall sprouting in the centre, with a large semi-circular building behind it. The sun was glaring and made details from a distance difficult, however it also added to the allure. This place was magnificent, and I loved it immediately. There was a moat circling the inside of the semi-circular building, and wide open spaces for people to gather and children to play. The small bridges crossing the moat led to a regal looking building and a horse and cart trotted right past me, cementing the feeling of returning to an era of the past. As I got closer to the building, I saw there were numerous mosaics along the wall, and each one depicted a city in Spain. The sections dedicated to each city contained a map of the city location in Spain, a depiction of the traditional history of the city, and what I think was the city’s coat of arms – and all of this was made from mosaics. I was greatly impressed at the work and effort that had gone into this place and took photos of all the cities I’d been to and planned to visit.

From Plaza de Espana I wandered through the old city, meandering via the tiny streets of Santa Cruz and via the huge Cathedral. I visited the information centre and was kindly given a map by the lady who spoke English and she happily answered all my questions about Sevilla. It was a nice change from the information places in Italy, and confirmed my love of this country even more 🙂 I met Javi back at the house for lunch, which we had at the University cafeteria nearby. Uni students = cheap food and I was happy to be part of it.

Siesta that afternoon included tennis game after tennis game. Javi loved his tennis so he watch the games while I sorted out some photos. Dinner was late in the evening again, for it hadn’t cooled down much. I’d managed to get a picture of a sign showing the temperature at 38 degrees at lunch time, and Javi assured me I’d get one saying 40 degrees if I was out a little later the next day. We went to an area known as Triana, where I was told the citizens didn’t say they lived in Sevilla, they lived in Triana – and it reminded me of the division I’d heard of between Paris and the rest of France. We had a beer before meeting Victor at another place, after another skirt and sandals bike ride, and I’d found beer in Spain to be quite nice, not like we have at home – although I reminded myself I’d not tried beer at home for a long time and it was possible that my taste buds had changed and not the beer.

Dinner included more tapas, I let the boys order as I didn’t know the names of what I’d had and I liked everything they ordered anyway. I enjoyed this style of eating – it suits my usual style of having a little bit of numerous things and calling it a meal. I could get used to this lifestyle without a doubt, and the more time I spent in Spain the more I wanted to learn Spanish and even considered the possibility of living in Spain. I’d just have to remember to sleep during siesta so I didn’t get too run down.

It was in Sevilla that I noticed a reoccurring feeling I’d had in Barcelona. The fact that most people I met in Spain spoke a minimum of two languages, Spanish (and sometimes also Catalan), and English, and often another language, made me feel a little odd. I’m still searching for the correct word to describe exactly what it is, however I felt bad for not being required to speak another language to get by in my own country. Although English is universal, the fact I didn’t speak any other language made me feel inferior in a way. It’s almost as if my ‘superiority’ of being born into a native English speaking country caused my ‘inferiority’ when in a country whose inhabitants must learn their own language plus English to prosper in their own country. I was determined to learn Spanish now and was disappointed that I’d not done so before this holiday.

The following day I did a tour of the Bull Fighting arena and museum and learnt how they kill the bulls during these ‘fights’. Having no prior knowledge of this ‘game’, I’m now not sure I ever want to attend a ‘fight’. The Matador’s who ‘fight’ the bull are in the ring first, using a pink cape they tease the bull, assess his nature, and basically provide a performance. After ten minutes the Matador leaves the ring, and in comes one guy who has five minutes to shove a long spear into the bull’s neck and disable him, then the next guy has another five minutes to stick two daggers into the bull six times, then the Matador returns and has five minutes to slice the bull’s throat, and this time he uses the red cape we all know of. I think this is the sequence, correct me if I’ve gotten it wrong, but you get the idea.

Over the course of one night, there are six ‘fights’ and therefore six bulls are killed every Sunday night from April until October in Sevilla. I was told they eat the meat, and I hope so because otherwise that’s a lot of animals wasted for nothing. I heard a lot more people in Spain are starting to turn away from this old tradition, and it is becoming less and less popular. I found the whole idea cruel and a little sickening. The more interesting side for me was the training of the Matador’s, and hearing about some of the best ones. They are usually trained from the age of 14, and by 18 it is known if they are going to be ‘good’ or not. Their career lasts for about 20 years, if they don’t get killed by the bull first. The best Matador’s in Sevilla and Madrid can earn up to 150,000 per night – about $AU200,000, for 30 minutes work a night. One Matador had his first fight at the age of nine years old, and would draw in huge audiences every time he ‘performed’, until he was killed by a bull at the age of 24. When a bull kills a Matador, the bull is then killed, as is the mother bull – as retribution for producing a killer bull I guess. Doesn’t seem fair really.. Another ‘star’ Matador was in the ring for 40 years, before he committed suicide when he was in his 60s. Made me wonder if killing all those bulls over the years played on his mind too much..

I saw a few more sights, then headed back to Javi and Victor’s place. I got the bus as it was 3pm and way too hot to exert myself any more. I photographed a sign declaring the temperature was 41 degrees before I got on the bus, and as I got nearer to my destination the signs indicated the temperature was increasing, to 43 and then 44. I was happy with my photo of 44 degrees, and headed inside to wait out the afternoon heat. I’d bought an overnight bus ticket to Salamanca for €47, as the train ticket to Madrid was going to cost €80 and I wasn’t prepared to pay that much for a train. Javi very kindly offered to drive me to the bus station on the motorbike again, in between sets of tennis, and once more I was wearing a skirt and sandals, and carrying my backpack. He did very well to balance the bike with me and the backpack behind him, although I figured my bag just made me about equal to the weight of another guy on the back! I boarded the bus at 8pm for an expected arrival in Salamanca at 2.45am the next morning..

Salamanca

The bus was exactly on time, and I arrived in Salamanca – or at least the town I hoped was Salamanca – at a quarter to three in the morning. Luckily it was warm enough to be walking the streets, and they were well lit up so I felt safe doing so. Without the tourist information centres opening for another few hours I had to use my photo of google maps and the maps at bus stops to find the hostel. It was a few kms from the bus terminal, but I managed to use what I had to get there ok. I fell in love with the city in these early hours, and imagined I was walking home from a late night studying and felt right at home. There were some other people out and about, and I guessed that Wednesday night might be ‘uni’ night at the pubs. Even though those out were obviously drunk, I felt comfortable wandering around at that time of morning and looked forward to seeing the city in the daylight to see if had the same ‘romantic’ allure it produced at night.

I checked into the hostel at 4am, and the guy on reception kindly gave me a bed to sleep in for the remaining few hours even though I’d only paid for a bed for the following night. Whether that was because I spent a few minutes finding out his name was Gabrielle and he was from Venezuela and had lived in Spain for the last few years and he didn’t speak much English, or because I was a single female traveller or simply because he took pity on me arriving at that hour, I’m not sure, but it was a very nice gesture all the same. I slept until mid morning and woke up to find a large curly haired man snoring with his mouth open in the adjacent bunk. Eww, not what I want to see first thing when I wake up. Thanks mate. I usually choose the top bunk in hostels because it gives you a little more privacy, but I didn’t have a choice this time.

Heading out to explore, I walked up their main street and was struck by the uniformity of the buildings. Everything was old, but clean and built of similar golden sand coloured blocks. The place was also impeccably clean, and there were healthy green trees and landscaped areas throughout the city to contrast with the golden buildings and blue skies. I found everyone to be really nice, and the shopkeepers – probably used to so many students – were patient with my limited Spanish and tried to help me out by speaking English. There were cheap shops – being a University city one would expect that – and although the fashions were not really my kind the places with sales on were crammed full of girls with arm loads of bargains.

Plaza Mayor was a huge square, constructed of the same golden coloured buildings to form an open meeting place that got crowded as lunch time dragged on. There were shops at the perimeters, underneath the edge of the buildings inside the square, and although I’m not sure what business the buildings contained I guessed it was something Governmental because of the five flags on display on the main building.

I marvelled at the Conch Shell Palace, the New Cathedral, Puente (Bridge) Romano, and of course, their University. The oldest University in Europe is in Bologna, Italy, and Salamanca, Spain houses the second oldest. Above the main doors to their University are many sculptures and carvings, and amongst it all is a single frog. There were two theories I heard with regards to finding the frog. If you found the frog by yourself, without any assistance, one theory said you were guaranteed to get married, the other said you were bound to pass all future exams. Therefore, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to find the frog or not…! Regardless, you could spend hours looking for the frog, and since every tour group passed the doors and had the frog pointed out to them it was easy to cheat – if you wanted to. I didn’t, yet made the mistake of visiting the tourist shops on the way to the University, and there are postcards showing where the frog can be found. Even though I’d seen this postcard, finding the frog still wasn’t easy, so I was happy when I finally did locate it.

The city was built along a river, which no doubt contributed to the greenery around, and it gave Salamanca a feeling of being healthy and alive. I bought myself a Salamanca University t-shirt as inspiration to learn Spanish and with the hope of one day coming back to this city to do so. They speak the purest Spanish, Castilian, in Salamanca, which is why so many international students come here. I even looked at the Real Estate Agent’s windows and noted the prices of apartments for sale – if I deciphered correctly, the price range was about €50,000 – €90,000 and quite reasonable I thought!

In the hostel there were 10 bunks per room, meaning a possible 20 people could sleep in the room at once. It was a cheap hostel, and a great place to meet other people. One English guy was in Salamanca to learn Spanish, although he wasn’t taking lessons and figured he’d learn by living there; one very pretty French girl had been studying Spanish in Madrid for six months with Erasmus (the European University Exchange Program I had heard many people were participating in and of which I was quite jealous!) and was in Salamanca for a few days break; another few one-nighters I didn’t get to speak to; the curly headed Italian in the bed next to me who was working late nights and trying to get a permanent job in Spain – he seemed very proud of his hairy muscular chest and walked around the room with just his jeans on; and an older guy in his 60s who was in between two cruises around the world and who walked through to the bathroom in his underwear with his belly hanging out and was unfortunately an Australian.

I say unfortunately because no matter whether you like it or not you’re an ambassador for your country when you travel, and he was not giving anyone a good impression of Australia. I understand everyone gets old, but there is a time when you must stop staying in hostels. Some hostels have age limits, and I can see why. I think it’s a little more necessary for guys than girls, although I’ve never seen an older woman in a hostel dorm room – only blokes still seem to want to do that. I can guess why, and I’m a little grossed out by it even though I’m probably ten years older than the girls they’re looking at. I appreciate you’ve got to get to the loo, but put some shorts on at least. No one wants to see your skinny white legs and little jocks covering an even smaller appendage. It wasn’t made any better by the fact his hair was white with yellow ends and stuck up every which way possible, nor the fact he had a story for and about every situation possible. That night he announced that ‘lights go out at 12am, because I need to sleep’, which was met with a rolling of eyes en masse, and I bit my tongue from stating the obvious. Generally people in dorm rooms are considerate of others, but having someone declare a rule such as he did only creates tension and unease. Grow up and pay for a private room or stay in a hotel next time I say.

Apart from him the hostel was great! I hung my towel up lengthways underneath the mattress above me to give me some privacy from the Italian, and had a good night’s sleep. In the morning I got the French girl’s contact details and we arranged to meet in Madrid over the weekend.

Madrid

I got the train to Madrid on Friday 24th June, and was met by my couch surfing host, Mario. We went to a bar he knew to have some lunch, tapas and beer. This was beer with lemon however, and was almost like soft drink (I later realised some bars do put lemonade in the beer, others actually put lemon juice). At this bar people throw their serviettes on the floor rather than put them in the rubbish bin and it was normal practice. I was told the bar we were in was pretty clean, and that later on we’d visit a bar where you get a free plate of fried chicken wings with any beer you order, and not only the napkins get thrown on the floor, but so do the wing bones! No way! Sure enough, at the other bar people threw their serviettes and wing bones on the floor. I snapped a quick photo, for I’ve never seen this done before and was having trouble believing it was happening in front of me. I was encouraged to throw some bones on the floor, and I struggled to do so. I aimed at the cigarette bin and was booed when my wing bones landed in there. So I gritted my teeth and threw the next lot on the floor amid cheers from those around me. I honestly didn’t get any satisfaction from it, and couldn’t understand how this was accepted behaviour, but apparently it is.

For my first full day in Madrid I followed what has become my ‘normal’ routine, although this time I already had a map of Madrid that I’d found at the hostel in Salamanca. I got the train into the city and walked around all the major attractions and sights. I saw the Royal Palace, the Royal Theatre, Plaza Mayor (which was very similar to the one in Salamanca), Puerta Del Sol (the central point of the city) and a number of other plazas and big buildings. I loved all the fountains in Madrid, and was especially enthralled by the Neptune and Cibeles fountains. They were each in the middle of a large intersection and I had to risk life and limb to get close enough for a decent photo – although I was not the only tourist darting across the traffic to do so.

The Prado Museum was free after 6pm so I wandered around there for a few hours, and although there were some nice paintings and sculptures, museums don’t really ‘do’ much for me. I say this because there was a lady in the Prado who, while staring transfixed before a large painting, was quivering and whispering repeatedly to herself “This is why I came, this is why I came”. I’d call her a ‘museum’ buff 🙂 Later that night Mario was going to a music concert with a friend of his, and I took the opportunity to go along as well. What I didn’t realise was that it was a Rock Concert, in Spanish, and all those in attendance were there to remember their youth – which was likely when I was a baby…

I entertained myself by listening to the music, some of which sounded familiar but I had no idea if the words were the same, but mostly I watched the crowd. Women were squeezed into clothes that may have fit them 20 years ago, tottering on high heeled wedge shoes, while men clutched a beer in one hand and slapped their thigh with the other. There was a lot of leg jiggling going on, and not the dirty kind. The main ‘dance’ move, if you can call it that, was keeping one leg firmly planted on the ground while lifting the heel of the other foot up and down in time to the beat. This leg was usually the one also being slapped by it’s owner in enthusiasm for the song. As people drank more the ‘fists pumping the air’ move became more regular, with slurred Spanish words shouted at the band. I can only guess they were words of encouragement and support for it remained a fairly tame crowd otherwise.

On my last day in Madrid I’d arranged to meet up with two girls – one was the French girl, Anais, I’d met in Salamanca, and the other was an American girl, Deborah, who’d contacted me via the couch surfing (CS) website in Granada yet we’d not co-ordinated our cities until Madrid. When Deborah and I met up she claimed she’d emailed me because I was one of only a few girls on the CS site (it’s true, there are mostly guys on there), and I was an Aussie, and every Aussie she’d ever met previously had been good value. Well I like to think I kept up the good Australian reputation, as we had a number of laughs and an enjoyable afternoon in general, whiling away time in the sun. Deborah was one of the few American’s I’ve met who admit their country has many flaws, and she was keen to get out and see how other countries surpassed her own in various ways. She was in Madrid to learn Spanish as well, and I wished I was looking for an apartment with her… She was funny and we shared some travel stories that only those who’ve experienced similar would appreciate.  We spent the time comparing and contrasting France, America and Australia, and discussing the pros and cons of living in each country. Anais spoke French (obviously), English and Spanish, and was doing a degree in Anthropology. She was one smart chick, and stunningly beautiful as well. I now have contacts in many more countries and new places to visit on my wish list!

Photos of Spain

Photos from Spain can be viewed here– enter ‘europe’ when prompted for a password.

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