Chatting over Coffee in the Spanish Countryside

View of a rainbow from my room :o)
At first, I was nervous about where to sit at meals… I had flash backs of school cafeteria social rules. Luckily, we had one rule to follow at meals. Every table should have 2 Anglos and 2 Spaniards. Except there was one 6 person table, which would become the party table. 
So each meal I would walk into the little hotel restaurant and sit at the first seat where an Anglo was needed. By the end of the week, everyone was friends with everyone and people were starting to clique. Meals were the perfect setting to let loose a little and get to now each other even more than we already did. We became family and I didn’t feel an ounce of homesickness the entire time.
Unfortunately for me, I became very ill mid-week, with the worst enflamed sore throat and my nose was running like a faucet. I was a mess and I think I can tie the source to the very sick girl in my bunk room at my hostel the night before I left for Vaughantown. I bet she got everyone in that room sick…. She was coughing and rolling around in her bed the whole day and night I was there.
One on One conversation sessions
I kept going to my conversation sessions the second day when my ailments were hitting me full force…. unsure of what to do. Luckily, my second session that day was with a doctor from Madrid. As soon as I realized what she was, I started pleading for help and she was most gracious. She took me in the bathroom and shined a light in my throat. No white bumps, so she loaded me up with ib profren and just like that 30 minutes later I felt 100% better!
I wanted to cry and I ran over and gave her a hug! My throat had gotten to the point with all the conversation that it felt like it was bleeding, but I didn’t want to fail my obligation as a volunteer. All of the Spaniards were so interesting and I wanted to meet them all. I would warn them to sit away from me so I wouldn’t get them sick and I kept my sentences short.
Aside from my medical issues, I tried to take advantage of the experience as much as I could. Every night we would have entertainment whether it be a skit or sing along, etc. One night we did pub style trivia. We formed 2 teams and my team turned out to be a good team. All the trivia was in english, but some of the questions were geared towards European music and movies, so it was a good mix and we came together and won! It was very exciting… I think alcohol was on our side that night.
Later in the week, we were given a free afternoon to go to town as a big group and explore. So we went to the little castle at the center of Barco de Avila and took a couple group shots. We shopped for the specialty of the region: white beans. I bought a big bottle of hard cider to share with my new british friend that night. We had coffee in a small shop on the main square with a cute fireplace that we all gathered around.
On the cute bridge in town
Special beans from the region
The river in Barco de Avila
It was the perfect afternoon to cap off my week of emerging in Spanish culture. It was probably a funny site to the villagers, 30 people walking around speaking english in a town full of quiet senior citizens with little tourism.
The next day we had a big banquet style lunch before loading onto the bus to go back to Madrid. I was sad to leave my private hotel room in the remote hills of Spain, but I was looking forward to my plans to bar crawl in Madrid with my new British friends. I would have 2 more nights in Madrid before my flight back to the US. Stay tuned for the story of our bar crawl… it was quite eventful!
Our final lunch all together!

Going to Vaughan Town

I woke up early in my dark hostel dorm room on a Sunday morning.  Quietly I slipped from my bed, stripped the sheets, slipped my pack on and headed out the door.  It was the first time I had set an alarm clock on the trip and wasn’t happy about it, but I was excited for the journey ahead.
I caught the subway and got on a car that slowly emptied out as it moved along.  I then had a very creepy encounter with a guy on the train, which I will not go into details about.  I saw something I didn’t want to see, and luckily I packed light enough to run with my backpack.  I pushed the button at the last second for the door to open at a station before the train left the station. 
I sighed with relief when I saw I hadn’t been followed and waited for the next train.  On the next train there was a large group of young guys leaning on each other singing.  I found it hard to believe they had been up all night drinking and were still awake, but I recalled my younger days when the pulse of dance music kept me going till the sunrise. 
View of Hotel from back yard.  My room was the dormer in the roof on the left.
As I sighed at the realization of the passing of time, I found myself finally at my stop.  I was off to meet up with the bus for Vaughan town.  This is a volunteer program a friend had written about in her travel blog the year before.  I had planned to stay at least an extra week in Spain just to give it a go.
I found everyone on the sidewalk by the bus, sleepy but excited to go on the journey as well.  We were headed to a small hotel in El Barco de Avila, just a few short hours from Madrid, tucked in a valley between snowcapped mountains. 
The purpose of the program is to practice English conversation with Spaniards who’ve been studying English for the past couple months.  For my part, it was easy, there was no script, I was just supposed to talk and keep the conversation going.  The only guideline was to avoid testy subjects, such as religion and politics. 
My cute attic room.
Well, it was also pointed out that Spaniards tend to be very chatty, so we were not supposed to let them dominate the conversations.  We were told to try to make it 50/50 so they practice listening as well as speaking.  Everyone in the group, especially the Spaniards laughed when this was pointed out. 
I was seated with a Spaniard on the bus, so we could chat during the bus ride.  My job began immediately, but after my experience on the Madrid subway a distraction was most welcome!
Several hours later, we arrived at our lovely hotel, which appeared to be a great old house converted to a hotel.  There was even a side building that used to be stables or something, with very modern rooms installed within.  I was enchanted by the property and couldn’t wait to explore, but we were sent straight to work.  We went to have a group activity first, before checking in to our rooms. 
View from my room.
But let me clarify, that I never felt like I was actually working.  For a social being like myself I had fun at every activity.  We each had our own rooms.  Volunteers, who were all native English speakers from all over the world, were given free rooms and meals. 
Our meals were on a regular schedule in the hotel restaurant, where we had tables of four.  We had to sit 2 Anglos and 2 Spaniards at all times.  I was provided a vegetarian sign to put by my plate, because each meal was a fixed menu served to us.  This was the first time I really had to adjust to Spanish meal times.  Lunch was 1-2 and Siesta 2-4.  We had activities after 4 and then we didn’t eat dinner until 9!
Zoomed in on some snow caps from my room.
By the end of the week I was very used to napping in the afternoon and eating dinner late.  In addition, I was introduced to Spanish dishes I would not have picked out on my own.  It was such a great cultural experience for me.  The Spaniards also got to see how Anglos do dinner conversations.  It can be a bit harder to understand one another when you’re speaking quickly between bites. 
I taught all the Spaniards my business meals trick, for remembering what side your bread and water are on.  You just make a B and D with your fingers on both hands and you should see the B on your left hand and the D on your right.  That means your bread is on the left and your drink is on the right.  I explained to them that I learned this trick the hard way, by stealing a boss’ bread at a business meeting.  All of them found the tip very useful and easy to remember.  I was happy to share, especially since most of them were learning English to help them in their careers. 
Our closest neighbors.  Bunch of cute red heads!
My room was very cute on the top floor of the main house, with a big dormer window facing the mountains behind the house.  I felt like I was in a fairy tale, while I would stand in front of my windows and swing them open to feel the wind coming off the mountains, blowing clouds down into the valley over the snow caps.  I breathed in the fresh air, as best I could with the cold I had picked up in my Madrid hostel and looked forward to an eventful week.

Spanish Constitution Day

Fountain on Plaza de Colon
               December 6th is Dia de la Constitucion in Spain.  They don’t have fireworks like in the USA, but they do like to party all day!  After Nicole and I took our siesta naps, we got ready for a walk about the area of Madrid called La Castellana.
                Very close to our hotel we came across Plaza de Colon with a bunch of large block sculptures for Christopher Columbus.  There was a long line of familes on the sidewalk waiting to ride the open top Christmas lights tour buses. 
Children playing the lights around the Christopher Columbus monument
                During December in Madrid all the streets are decorated with Christmas lights in different colors and patterns.  It’s very beautiful and helped me distinguish different squares and streets.  We walked past designer clothing stores and window shopped a while, before we headed to Chueca which is the gay district.
                A friend of mine had told me it was her favorite area, but when we arrived in the main square for Chueca, decked out in rainbow lights, it was very quiet and desolate.  Perhaps it was too early in the evening, or maybe the hot spots were hidden off on the side streets.  But we were not impressed, so we headed over to the streets around Puerta del Sol where we found crowds of people strolling through the lively streets, with tapas bars one after another.
Chueca – Gay District
                We hopped around the bars and wove our way through the streets enjoying the sights and sounds, snacking on tapas and sipping on vino.  We walked down one street lined with outdoor tables and were invited by a group of four guys to join them.  One of them spoke good English, but they spent most of the time speaking to Nicole in Spanish, while I sat quietly enjoying my drinks.
                They explained the holiday and how they celebrate it, which mainly entails drinking all day.  They were all but one married, they just wanted good company.  The unmarried single guy was actually Ukranian and his family had moved to Spain when he was in high school.  He spoke a little English and we tried to talk, but he usually didn’t understand what I was saying. 
Me at a bar, sitting next to a pig leg.  They have Jamon on display at all the bars!
                Eventually, we all decided to move on and find a new bar.  They joked about running out on the check.  I kept telling them jokingly to let me go first since if that was the plan… but they were good guys and paid the check before we left. 
                We wandered the streets, joking and making fun of people dressed in strange costumes.  There were a lot of people in wigs to celebrate the holiday.  We eventually picked a jazz bar to walk into.  It was super crowded and the band was about to start.  There weren’t any available tables, but Nicole and I decided to stand by the bar and stay for the music and we said good bye to the guys. 
Jazz Club in Madrid
                The live jazz band was good and the female lead singer was singing and American jazz song in English, but would occasionally mispronounce a word or say it funny.  It was interesting to listen to her sing and I couldn’t help but wonder how much of the song the audience actually understood.  We finished our wine, enjoyed the music, and decided to head back towards the hotel. 
                But of course, we had to finish the night with churros and hot chocolate.  We found a crowded 24 hours churros shop and went in.  Nicole ordered 3 churros and a hot chocolate.  We dipped pieces of the fried dough into the Spanish hot chocolate, which is thicker than and not quite as sweet as American hot chocolate.  When we finished the churros, Nicole said that you’re supposed to drink the hot chocolate. 


                I didn’t believe her, I wanted to drink it, but I thought it was a trick.  So I sat, looking around to see if anyone else was drinking it.  I finally saw someone else take a sip, so I drank the whole thing!  Nicole didn’t want it, but I love chocolate!  It was very yummy and the perfect treat before bed.

Strolling Through Parque del Retiro, Madrid

In my little book of Madrid, I found my hotel on the map and saw a huge green park two blocks away… So I figured it was worth checking out.  I walked past the beautiful circle called Plaza de la Independencia with the majestic Puerta de Alcala in the middle.  These arches are beautiful at day and night, especially in December when they have the Christmas lights up.

Across the circle is the entrance for the park called Parque del Retiro… or just Retiro for short.  I was impressed as soon as I walked through the first gate.  In my mind I was comparing it to Central Park in New York City, but this place was much prettier.  My little book said the park used to be the private grounds of the royal families until the late 1800’s when it was made public.  This explained why it looked and felt so perfect, because it was built for royalty!

It was a nice mild winter day and it happened to be Die de la Constitucion, the Spanish Constitution Day.   Two days later it would be Immaculate Conception day, another holiday, so a lot of people were off work the whole week and it seemed a lot of friends and family were out enjoying the park.

All over the park there are plazas and paths named after Central and South American countries.  Just past Plaza de Nicaragua, I came upon this beautiful body of water with the stately Monument of Alfonso XII across the way.  The lake is called Estanque and it was full of people rowing little boats around.  All along the perimeter of the boating lake were families walking along, taking pictures, enjoying puppet shows and music.  I felt nostalgic for a moment, thinking that this is how the people of Madrid had been enjoying this park for decades.  The whole scene would fit perfectly in a painting at the Prado art museum in Madrid.

I looked at my map to figure out what direction to head in next.  I saw two palaces on my map and my intrigue was lit up.  I went to the Palacio de Cristal first, curious to see the glass palace.  This structure looks more like a very fancy green house and is used for exhibits.  I thought about going inside, but the line was a bit ridiculous and I didn’t feel like being in with the crowd, when I was surrounded with such beautiful open spaces.

I walked along the pond in front of the Crystal Palace and found a black swan!  Just like the crazy ballet movie.  I didn’t know they were real.  Somehow the black swan knew exactly where to sit for my picture of the palace.  

I walked towards the other palace, Palacio de Velazquez, which is just a small historic building with wide open space inside used for exhibits as well.  I went inside and enjoyed a large exhibit of modern art.  It was a very pleasant space for art display with lots of natural light filtering through a skylight.

After enjoying myself in the park for so long, I decided my feet were tired and my stomach was hungry, so I headed back to the hotel to see if Nicole was awake.  Luckily, she was awake and wanted to go out for tea.  She was hoping herbal tea would sooth her throat.  I wanted to check out Cafe Gijon, because my little book said that’s where intellectuals used to hang out.  Also, it was only two blocks from our hotel!  

I was not impressed by the menu… it was regular tapas like everywhere else, but twice as expensive.  So I just ordered a Spanish tortilla, which is just a potato omelet sort of thing and a sangria.  Nicole had a lot of trouble ordering her tea, even though she speaks fluent Spanish.  She must have been calling tea by it’s Central American name, and in Spain they call it something else, but after much confusion and hand gestures she got her tea with honey.  

We enjoyed the outdoor seating on Paseo De Recoletos, a main street so to speak.  And made plans to fill up on cheap tapas later that night.  

Palace and Churros

I woke up in my nice dorm room all to myself with the radiator blasting next to my bed.  Today was the day I would rejoin Nicole at an AC Hotel she reserved.  I knew she was arriving early today, but I decided to run over to the Royal Palace since my hostel was so close before checking out.

Across from the Royal Palace in Madrid is the Plaza de Oriente.  It’s a beautiful garden with majestic rows and paths for strolling around.  Later in my trip, I would learn a few funny secrets about this park.  The numerous statues in the park were meant to go along the roof of the Palace.  However, the statues were too heavy!  So they placed them throughout the garden.  If you look closely you’ll notice that they aren’t top quality sculptures, with random chips and unfinished details, because the artists didn’t plan for people to see them up close!

Another interesting story I would learn was about the statue of a king on a horse in the park.  It’s a large impressive bronze statue of a man on a horse with his 2 front legs in the air.  If you look at the statue and think about it you’ll notice that the only part of the statue touching the base are the horse’s two hind legs.  

This statue was built for a king who no one liked, but the kind wanted an impressive statue so maybe people would think differently of him.  So he insisted on having the horse up in the air… but the artist had issues.  The statue kept falling forward…. even hollow it was to heavy and off balance.  So they called in some brain power… Galileo!  Galileo came up with the genius idea to make the back half of the horse solid bronze and the front half hollow.  And now we have an impressive statue of an unpopular king!

Across from the garden, I walked over to the main gate for the Royal Palace.  They keep the public locked out from the courtyard within the Palace, so you have to pay and go through the visitor entrance.  It was early and the entrance had a bit of a line already.  I thought about waiting and going in, but didn’t want to be here all day and I had to get back to my hostel for check-out.  I figured I would come back later, but that never really happened… Turned out it was Spain’s Constitution Day this week, so the people celebrate by visiting the sites in Madrid.  Super crowded!

I stuck my camera through the fence to get a nice shot of the palace.  Someone told me this palace is bigger than Versailles, but I didn’t really believe them.  It’s big, but it’s hard to tell if it’s really that big?  

If you turn around from the Royal Palace Gate, you face the Cathedral.  It’s not the most impressive Cathedral, but it does have interesting murals on the building and doors that are worth checking out.

I assume this is the royal crest that I took a picture of.  It’s very pretty stonework. 

I turn to leave and notice the morning light shining into the lonely courtyard between the Palace and the Cathedral.  I headed down Calle Mayor towards my hostel and stopped over at the Mercado de San Miguel.  The market is a beautiful iron and glass historic structure.  My lonely planet book mentioned that Anthony Bourdain had been there on his show.  

I checked out the beautiful fruit stands and grabbed a cafe con leche to go.  

As I walked further along my way, I came upon a churro stand getting setup for the day.  The stall had all this steam pouring out the sides.  From a distance I thought it was on fire, but as I got closer I realized he was just getting his yummy churros ready.  So I bought a couple churros to dip in my coffee and kept moving.
I checked out of my hostel and headed towards the Retiro area where our hotel was.  Nicole had sent me an email to notify me that she had arrived and let the front desk know I was coming.  So I found our hotel in a very nice expensive looking area.  The AC Hotel was beautiful and modern.  Free wifi in the lobby bar and a bed to myself!  What more could I need?
The most entertaining part of the room was the frosted glass walls to the bathroom.  It really was a non-issue, because you couldn’t even see details of a body through the glass, but it made the room feel very modern and fancy to me.  I liked it a lot!  
I also liked my new AC Hotel terry cloth slippers I found ready to wear under the sink.  :o)
But unfortunately, I found Nicole asleep in one of the beds with a cold.  She had been on the night train all night in a cabin with a family with a crying baby and she felt like crap.  She was down for the count and just wanted to rest for the remainder of the day.
I was dissapointed for her, but totally understood.  I showered up and got ready to explore more on my own while she rested up.  

High Speed Train through Spain

The next destination of our trip was Madrid.  It was kind of rainy in France and I wanted to move on and find good weather.  So the next day we went down to the train station to figure out when we should go.  There was a train leaving in an hour that would connect me to the high speed Renfe train in Spain at the border.  

The high speed train cost the same as a plane ticket!  But I was excited to get there and decided I didn’t care about the cost… 100+ euros… 

Expensive Fancy Fast Renfe Train… with a movie in Spanish, thanks for the free headphones I guess?

Nicole on the other hand, was not going to cave on the price and decided to wait in France for the super cheap overnight train.  

I raced back to the hotel, grabbed my backpack and ran back to the train station to board my train.  It was a regular train to the Spain border, then I transferred to a regular Spanish train and then in Barcelona I went through airport level security and boarded the high speed train.  

At this point, I probably should have stayed in Barcelona for a couple days.  But Nicole was flying out of Madrid in three days, and I wanted to spend the last few nights together.  What I didn’t know was that Nicole would be sick the last two days and would stay in most of the time.

Mediterranean view from Spanish train

But it turns out Madrid is not a bad spot to spend a week.  I arrived at the Madrid train station around sunset.  I had a reservation at a hostel near the Puerta del Sol and I decided to walk since the weather was so nice.  But it was a Sunday, and the closer I got to my hostel, the more and more crowded the sidewalks became.  Turns out, Spanish families walk around the shopping districts on Sunday evenings.  And particularly this week was very busy, because it was a week full of holidays for them.  

Pretty Circle outside Madrid train station

Eventually, at a snails pace I made it to my hostel, where I was put in a five person dorm by myself!  Sweet!  I got settled and headed out for tapas and sangria!  The streets were super packed, but I was super hungry and 20 pounds lighter without my backpack, so I quickly zigged and zagged until I found an empty shrimp shop. 

Puerta Del Sol Christmas Tree

I walked in and they had a pretty menu written on a wall of mirrors.  One of the guys spoke english and he kindly walked me through my options.  I went for a full plate of prawns and multiple glasses of the sweet house red wine.  

Within minutes of chugging my first wine, while waiting for my prawns, the shop filled up with hungry groups of people.  I was watching the people at the bar, peeling their shrimp and throwing the shells into a little gutter along the foot of the bar.  It reminded me of the olive pit spitoons in Venice.  

Prawns and Wine at my cute standing table.

I was utterly stuffed after my plate of prawns, but I wandered on to find a glass of sangria.  I found another empty bar and sat down near a girl that was also by herself.  She said hello in English and asked if I spoke English.

I was excited as always to find someone who spoke English and we sat together and chatted.  She was a doctorate student from England and she said she spends a lot of time in Spain for whatever her thesis was.  We chatted for a while until I explained I was tired and said good night.  

I went back to my nice solo room and enjoyed my bed next to the radiator.