I left Shannon airport on a Tuesday afternoon and arrived in Madrid on Tuesday evening. Is it not bizarre that a person can be in a completely different country in just a couple of hours? Perhaps if I’d been forced to spend a week on a boat, or a month sitting on a donkey, I might have found some time to learn a little Spanish. As it was, I arrived in Madrid with little more than the few words I’d learnt from watching Dora the Explorer – and even those I couldn’t quite be sure of, as Irish Dora speaks Gaelic and Spanish, and I, speaking neither languages could really only guess at the difference. So my ability to communicate with the natives was limited to ‘Hola’ ‘Adios’ and ‘Una beera por favor’ (the last phrase courtesy of a friend of legal drinking age, and not my little friend Dora). Add this limited vocabulary to my decision not to bring a guidebook (for its brick-like weight and space was already allocated to far more important things such as soon to be purchased clothes), and some might say I was somewhat unprepared. But I figured I’d get by this time round with making good use of my pointing finger combined with a few select grunts and snorts, and resigned myself to the idea that I might have to play the dumb tourist for a few days – and I was obviously doing a darn good job of it too as the first lucky Spanish person I pointed and grunted at, the guy at the airport metro information desk, warned me I should hold on to my bags on the subway (which as we all know is code for ‘you could only look more like a prime target if you had a hundred euro note stuck to your bum’)…..
I emerged from the metro (both bags accounted for) on to the main street Gran Via where I was immediately confronted with the sights and sounds of the city, my senses bombarded by horns, sirens, traffic, pedestrians, dirt and exhaust. I checked into Hostal Metropol, conveniently situated right above the metro stop, dropped my pack then headed back out into the madness. I soon abandoned my free map and wandered my way around the main streets, traversing traffic at the pedestrian crossings where sharp looking traffic officers blew short shrill bursts on whistles and performed the seemingly absurd job of controlling cars despite the traffic lights. Every now and then rows of fashion shops reaching three or four storeys high would break and I’d emerge in another huge open square, lined instead with historical buildings and where people leaned casually against statues or gathered near fountains.
The weather was warm and light until about 10.30pm, when I wandered back to the hostel, had a shower to wash away the city grime, then watched the new world out the window for a while. From the room, five storeys up, I had a view of a lit-up fountain, opposing high-rises, a bus stop, and the revellers and prostitutes below on the corner who made for interesting people watching. Exhausted after my reintroduction to the world of travel and the unexpected impact of the city on my now country-accustomed senses, I went to bed with the window open to break the stifling heat, the sounds of the city still audible through earplugs.
I woke the next morning and waited about an hour until my girly room-mates were done beautifying themselves in the bathroom. Five minutes later I headed down stairs, clean but comparatively dull, dowdy and completely unconcerned. Back out into the city I followed my map southwards towards the train station, walking from square to square, and stumbling across several green and shaded areas – welcome oases of calm in amongst the madness.
At Atocha station, I managed to organize a train ticket to Valencia in the evening, without too much trouble (having by now added ’Habla ingles?’ to my vocabulary). In the meantime I went to visit the Reina Sofia Centre of Art. I had planned on taking a bus tour around Madrid to see the sights of the city but the gallery was air-conditioned, serene and – oddly enough – filled with art. So I ended up spending the whole day inside wandering around quietly, looking and not touching weird and wonderful things, my head filling with interesting ideas about the world, about mad artists, about why someone would build a staircase out of beeswax. Aside from the beeswax and another exhibiton of cool kinetic stainless steel and light sculptures, I also saw the painting ‘Guernica’ by Picasso, a monochromatic response to events of the Spanish civill war. In real space the painting is as impressive for its scale (approx 3.5 x7.8 meters) as it is for its emotive content.
I arrived in Valencia that evening where I was to stay with the cousins. As soon as I stepped out of the train station I felt the atmosphere was far different from central Madrid. The vibe was far more relaxed, less frantic and claustraphobic. Jeremy met me at the station and I was taken back to the Armstrongs cool (as in degrees, but also just cool) apartment, fed and put to bed in little Abby’s room. It was accomadation akin to the Sheraton in my eyes, no no, more like the Hilton, having never had the luxury of my own bathroom AND my own nightlight.
The next day, the weather once again bright and warm, Melissa and Abby took me walking around the near-by park which interestingly was created by rerouting a river and filling in the remaining bed. In the centre of the park is Valencia’s striking city of Arts and Science the architecture and white mosaic surfaces of which are reflected in pools of water. Surrounded on every side by box-like apartment blocks these buildings look like part of some other futuristic world. Later in the day we biked through the city to the Americas Cup Village to meet Jeremy for lunch and I got to ride a Harley – sort of. The village was pretty cool to see despite my very limited knowledge of sailing – I know there’s a boat involved…and lots of rope thingees….Biking around the harbour Melissa pointed out the different country bases, and their varying levels of opulence.
The next day, Friday, the cousins showed me around the old town of Valencia. The old city like other old cities in Europe has an almost fairy -tale feel with its sand-coloured buildings, marble tiles and copper domes, and a market atmosphere with people meeting, chatting and selling. Walking around central Madrid I could have been in any European capital city, here in Valencia with its bullfighting ring, small cafes, and horsemeat stall (….) it felt more like Spain. The heat was still and dry and by the time the afternoon rolled around and it was almost time to catch the train back to Madrid, I was feeling somewhat lethargic, my body unaccustomed to the temperature – and four whole days of sunshine. Before I left, the cousins gave me a little taste of home in the form of a jar of Marmite they didn’t think they’d get through before they left Spain.
After an air-conditioned train ride I was back in the big smoke where I stayed my last night at MuchoMadrid hostel, a small clean and friendly place to add to my list of favourites. That evening I did a last spot of shopping to fill the gap in my bag and then escaped back to the hostel for the night. The next morning, the only day of rain, I was back on the subway and off to the airport.
I’d chosen to travel with just a small backpack and my ‘handbag’ so as to not worry about checking anything in. Both bags were bulging by the time I was ready to leave Madrid and I was slightly concerned that I might be made to pay to check one of them in. But nobody brought it up and I made my way to the end of the line of people waiting to go through customs. As the line inched forward though, I began to have second thoughts, perhaps I should have checked my bag in. I fidgeted nervously. I thought of the x-ray scanner. Would they see it? And who knew what the penalties might be in Spain….I could end up tied to a bull.
Sweating and trembling I put my bag on the conveyor belt and watched as it moved painstakingly slowly out of sight, towards the two stern-faced customs officials with their eyes glued to a screen. They looked at each other, then simultaneously looked up and straight in my direction. One of them waved me over and motioned for me to open my bag. I hesitated, my mind racing, implausible half-excuses forming and evaporating. There was no way out, I opened the bag and waited. Behind the x-rayscanner was a glass wall separating customs and the check-in desks where queuing travellers had begun to take interest in what was going on. The man rustled through my bag and pulled out what he was looking for. As he held it up to the light I saw the people watching on recoil in horror. The officer said something to his partner, then turned to me and gusted another stream of Spanish. I listened for any word I might know but I gathered this was not a conversation about the weather, or beer. I looked around for an ally, anyone willing to help. ‘Is jam?’ asked a female customs officer who had bravely come over to try and determine what sort of dangerous substance this was. ‘Yes’ I replied, then quickly ‘No, is butter’ I say, thinking in some warped sense of reasoning that perhaps butter is less like a liquid at room temperature and therefore more stable and less dangerous (scientists, back me up here). I think this may have been the turning point. Whether butter is infact more volatile than jam, or whether it was my flustered manner and unreliable story, I don’t know, but the two men shook their heads violently. The woman translated: ‘No‘……’Sorry‘ she adds. As I walk away I sense the tension in the air relax, as if everyone in view suddenly and collectively let out their breath in relief. And behind me I hear a heavy thunk and a resounding echo as my recently acquired 1.2 kilo jar of Marmite is flung into an empty wheelie bin – the one obviously reserved for the few foreign and extremely suspicious items.
Now no longer a threat to my fellow passengers I boarded the plane. Two hours later I walked out of Shannon airport to a miserable grey Saturday afternoon, happy to have experienced the warmth and vibrancy of Spain if only for a few days, but happier still to have avoided any bull-related punishment for the trafficking of dangerous goods.
Tags: Art, Madrid, Travel