So this marks the first time I’ve left a country with tears in my eyes. Aye, España, you’ve been so good to me, but I’m tired and my bag is heavy so I have to leave you to return another time.
But before I boarded the budget flight back to Germany, a completely different world in all respects, I spent a good few days in the heart of Spain and a place that will remain in my heart for a number of reasons better not explained here: Madrid.
That was a long, Dickensian sentence, wasn’t it? Maybe a bit light on the superfluous description though… No problem. I can fix that. So, Madrid…
The Greatest Village in the World
The first thing I noted about Madrid was that, despite it’s size and general importance in world affairs, it really is a lazy little place with the heart and soul of a village. I guess that must come from the fact that Madrid started out as a small, rather smelly little village. Unlike the sprawling metropoli of London and Paris, Madrid was slow to expand beyond its humble walls.
I found the opening times of stores hard to adapt to without my Spanish guide (not to mention general Spanish meal times: big lunch at 2:30pm, little dinner at 10:00pm). I’d constantly find that my guiri body clock had woken me up too early to get a head start on shopping at the more interesting boutiques and that I was often tires before the life of the night even began. But the human body is an amazing thing, full of inherit survival mechanisms and mysterious biological clocks, and so I quickly adapted to a more “late” lifestyle.
Despite the laziness of the city, in it’s more central locations it is still a bustling city full of all the regular characters you would expect from a capital. What I do find difficult about Madrid, and Spain, is the massive amount of beggars, lost souls and mystical scam artists. My heart is squeezed and twisted every time I walk by a down-and-out human on the street, knowing that no matter how much I give it will never be enough to solve the huge injustices and problems that are the result of modern human exploit. And yet there are those, I’ve learned, who use this guilt and foreign ignorance for more nefarious purposes. I swiftly learned to dodge “curse-wielding” branch salespeople and say a firm “no gracias” to other peddlers. That’s not to say that you should mistrust everyone or even give in, but just a reminder that money does strange things to people…
Madrid’s Gran Vía, Plaza Mayor and Paseo del Prado swiftly became my most visited haunts. The Gran Vía is the perfect thoroughfare through the cities most important sites and an impressive site in its own right. Plaza Mayor is the central and historical monument around which my whole visit revolved and Paseo del Prado is home to some of Europe’s greatest museums, which I gladly spent the majority of my time. In fact, I spent so much time in these amazing galleries experiencing amazing classical art and intense surrealism and abstraction that I began to go a bit loopy with it all. By the end of my visit to the more modern Museo Reina Sofia I was definitely experiencing cultural exhaustion.
Speaking about galleries for a bit, I must say that being in the same room as some of, and my definite, favourite paintings of all time was an unbelievable experience. To spend twenty minutes just getting lost in the details of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, staring in reverence at Picasso’s Guernica, horror in the room of Goya’s Black Paintings, or admiring the radiance or Valesquez’ Meninas, are blessings I will always be thankful for. I’ve seen so many of the world’s most famous masterpieces on my trip through Europe, but Madrid has definitely been the city that has given me the most in terms of art. Who’d have thunk, right?
Madrid’s amazing parks, suburbs and restaurants are also worthy of praise. I particularly loved, and felt sort of at home in arty Malasaña and had an almost spiritually touching time walking through Parque de El Retiro.
I’ve become so good at exploring over these months, though, that by the end of the second day I’d just about seen every major sight I wanted to hit. So instead of wandering without aim for a day I decided to take a quick and cheap train to nearby Toledo, located in La Mancha, home of my beloved wretched hero, Don Quixote.
My first impression of Toledo was one of deserts, desertion and desolation. Full of garbage and mystery goo, Toledo’s east side is not the prettiest place. But as I climbed higher and further into history I began to see Toledo as an incredibly pretty walled town, just the sort of thing you’d probably expect from the middle of Spain. Here I learned a lot about the horrors of the Inquisition, and gained a new respect for modern times. I also experienced what it is to visit a truly touristy town. It honesty didn’t feel like anyone actually lived in Toledo, most of it’s store space dedicated to swords and Don Quixote merchandise. By the end of the day though, after entering the town a bit hesitantly, I found myself liking Toledo for what it was. Of course, I definitely couldn’t spend more than a day there… But it’s pretty innit?
«No Adios; Hasta Luego»
My trip to Spain reminded me, yet again, that time is fleeting and best spent smelling the roses. I woke up one clear and cold morning just realising that, for all my reflection and photography, that there was still more for me to take in. I guess that’s the traveler’s curse, never feeling like they’ve seen or experienced enough, but in Madrid I felt it particularly strongly. I started staring intently at buildings, taking tours, listening to music and simply meditating in parks. I don’t want to feel like I’ve been walking around like a somnambulist this whole time, but… Uhh, I guess none of it will ever seem real until the end and the time of reflection and photo slideshow sessions.
Spending time with my “amiga bonica” has helped to put things into some sort of perspective again though. These weeks have filled my heart again with more precious memories, and see through the bewitching veil of tourism and consumerism. I may not have too much time left in Europe on this trip, but I know now I’ll spend it even more wisely, to take home gifts more important than physical souvenirs; things like walking slowly through parks and galleries, eating great meals, reading your favourite adventure story on a mountaintop, learning a new language, staring at someone you love and simply just being.
So muchas gracias, Spain. You’ve been everything I’ve ever hoped for and more. I’ll definitely back whenever the stars align again… Or whenever I have the cash in my bank account again.