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.

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.  

A French Geography Lesson by a German

Lots of Santas in France – skinny ones too!
 
After my siesta in Montpellier, France I headed out for a drink with Nicole.  I told her about the Irish bar I had been to, and we ended up finding a different Irish bar called Fitzpatrick’s.  This bar was much busier than the other one, but it was later in the day.
 
The good news was that this bar had a pool table!  Bad news was it was across the alley in a lonely little room that the bartender would give you the key for.  So we decided to stay in the bar where all the people were.  We drank hard cider and chatted with the different bartenders.
 
One awesome thing in Europe is you can get these mini glasses of beer.  Sometime you just want a half pint instead! 
Notice the Frosty the Snowman chugging a Guinness!

 

While sitting at the bar the bartender said that a guy down the bar wanted to buy us drinks.  I was surprised, but told the bartender to go ahead and bring me another cider.  The guy was in a military uniform and he came over to talk.  He spoke perfect English, was from Germany, but was serving in the French military. 
 
We chatted with him for a while about his life story and about our travels.  At one point, I stumbled over my geography so he picked up a coaster and started ripping little pieces off the edge.  I was laughing and asking what he was doing?  He just told me to hold on.
 
He took a pen and started drawing in cities and then finally held it up for us to see. 
 
He had made France!  The coaster looked a lot like France on a map and he put the cities in for perspective.  It was very clever and helpful.  I still have my map of France. :o)
 
Eventually we headed back to the hotel, so we could get up early and figure out how to get to Spain.  

Cote d’Azur

Cote d’Azur
We woke up early in Rome to head to the airport.  We had tried to buy cheap plane tickets to Nice online but it wasn’t working, so we were off to buy them in person at the airport. 
Turns out, this is not the best option, because the tickets cost more at the counter.  The girl at the desk apologized but explained there was nothing she could do.  So we each paid more than double the online price and headed to security for our gate. 
 
When it was time to board, we walked out onto the tarmac and boarded a little shuttle bus that took us to our Blue Panorama plane, which is a lot like Southwest.  As soon as we got off the bus, people ran to the two entrances at the front and back of the plane to board.  The seating was first come, not reserved.  But finding a seat together was not an issue.
 
It’s a very short flight from Nice to Rome… less than an hour, but with great views of Italy’s coast and islands in the Mediterranean.  I sat in a window seat on the eastern side of the plane.
 
When we arrived in Nice, it was very warm.  The sun was out and there was steam coming off the runway because it had recently rained.  The Nice airport is on the water and again you have to just walk across the tarmac to get inside the airport.  We found the bus to the train station and were on our way.
 
The bus drove along the coast and I understood why it was called the Cote d’Azur!  There were palm trees, white sandy beaches, rocks, and beautiful blue water.  I couldn’t stop staring out the window. 
 
Originally we had planned to go to Monaco for one night, but changed our plans to save money in France.  I’m glad we did, because of the surprise additional cost of the flight.  So we caught a train to Montpellier where we had a reservation that night.  Again, I walked down the aisle of our car taking pictures out the windows of the beautiful coast. 

View of a French vineyard from the train.
View from the train.



We arrived in Montpellier after dark with no map or idea of  how to get to our hotel.  We asked some girls, but no one speaks much English in France.  Luckily they understood some of Nicole’s Spanish and pointed us towards a cyber café so we could look it up. 

 
The French people in the cyber café were awesome!  None of them spoke much English either, but they helped us pull up a Google map and were arguing in French about the best way to go.  Finally, after all coming to agreement on where to go, we headed off towards the Plaza de la Comedie, which was only a few blocks away.  Our hotel was called Hotel de la Comedie, and considering that the plaza it’s on is very central to the city and well known, I’m not sure why the guys in the cyber café took so long to give us directions.  But whatever, we made it! 
Montpellier Christmas Festival
 
We were happy to find a very busy and fun Christmas Festival on the plaza.  We quickly checked into our hotel on the plaza and headed back out to explore the wonders of a European Christmas Festival. 
 
Seafood boat.  Oysters, Mussels, Shrimp, Prawns!
There were lots of drink choices… I started out with a glass of champagne and talked with the French man in broken English about how I had just arrived.  He welcomed me to France and another drunk French customer gave me a toast in all French and I have no idea what he was saying.  I smiled and nodded and drank up.  I was enjoying France already!
 
I moved on and had a warm mulled wine.  I tried the mulled wine from every stand to see which was best, but they were all good!  I had a shrimp cocktail from a seafood stand.  The most popular seafood dish was the soup, but I love shrimp and can’t pass them up.  I had a nutella crepe for dessert.  I watched the lady pour the batter on the hot iron circle and spread the thing layer for my crepe.  And she loaded it up with nutella.  Oh man it was so warm and gooey and delicious!  Let’s not think about calories now, you’re in France!  I kept telling myself that…
Nutella Crepe – Nummy!
 
There was a dance tent with a live band covering American rock songs from the 50’s.  I enjoyed watching the French people dancing the twist to Woolly Bully and singing along.   Eventually, I was too full to eat, drink, or be merry any more… It was time for bed.