Europe 2011: Madrid (1/6)

Day 1 – October 29, 2011

I arrived in Madrid at 2pm, by myself. My travel buddy Serena (who also went to Taiwan and Hongkong with me earlier this year) wasn’t due to arrive until the next morning at 7am, so my first day in europe was a solo journey! exciting times :)

I flew with Emirates Airlines from Singapore. Emirates is an excellent airline, I have zero complaints and their Singapore to Europe fares were unbeatable. I got an open jaw ticket which means I flew in and got out of Europe through different cities – Madrid and Paris, respectively. I stopped over at Dubai and chose the shortest possible layover which was three hours. the airtime for each leg of flights were 7 hours, which makes my total flight time 17 hours.

Anyway, Madrid is a nice city. It was easy to get around in and the majority of people understand english and/or willing to accomodate your english speaking. The city is relatively clean and safe – I didn’t encounter anything out of the ordinary during my visit, even when I was by myself. The metro network was extensive and easy to understand.

From the airport I took the train into the city for only €2.50 and did not get lost/confused at all.

One thing I noticed is that people stand on the right side on the escalator and this applies throughout Europe. I had a hard time adjusting when I got back to Singapore after two weeks because we stand on left. You can also eat and drink in the subway or do practically anything (except smoking) which was bewildering to me coming from a country with so many rules!

Serena and I booked a room at Hostal San Martin, located smack dab in the middle of Calle Gran Via which is Madrid’s liveliest street and their biggest shopping district. I would highly recommend Hostal San Martin based on the location itself. The friendliness of the staff and the cozy room were also appreciated of course :)

Gran Via

I dropped off my luggage in the hostel and promptly set out to explore around the area and shopped around. I couldn’t believe I was in Europe for the first time ever!! Soon, it was easy to understand why good things were always said about Europe. The place IS quite charming.

I was so excited when I saw H&M across the street but I soon found out there were H&Ms practically on every block in this district. They’re like Starbucks for shopping!

My friend Christina is doing her business school in Madrid so I arranged to meet up with her for dinner. That’s when I realized Spaniards have their dinner late. As in very, very late. I took a little nap around 8pm due to jetlag and met up with Christina at around 9:30PM for dinner(!). She took me to Mercado de San Anton, just off Gran Via station, for a very Spanish dinner.

Basically, Spaniards consider lunch as their main meal and they would go out to have 2 hour lunch. Traditional stores would even close during this time for a “siesta” which is basically… a nap time. Yeah, I know, when I found out about this I thought “Damn, europeans have it good!” – another positive thing to add to the Why I Love Europe list. I guess because of this, a popular choice of dinner would be tapas which are small dishes of a variety of food. They were cheap too, about €1-3 per dish. Dinner that night costed me only €7 including alcohol!

Mercado San Anton

The plate on the left is spanish omelette – not what I expected from omelette at all since it contained very little egg and more greasy, greasy potatoes. The plates on the right are little bruschetta-looking things topped with all kinds of fish. All of them were very yummy, but also very salty. I noticed this is true across almost all Spanish food I had during my trip.

Afterwards Christina took me to what she calls “churros fondue” at Chocolatería San Ginés. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I’m game with chocolate and when we got to the place at 11pm there were a bit of a line going in so that’s a very good sign.

Chocolatería San Ginés

And it was literally just that. Churros dipped in hot chocolate, except the hot chocolate was melted chocolate fondue in a cup. Christina told me it’s also a typical Spanish breakfast and I began to wonder how the girls stay so thin and beautiful.

I was also supposed to go out with her that night, but due to late dinner Spanish party doesn’t start till 1am, and at that point the jetlag has completely owned me and there is just no way I would survive the night. I didn’t go out and in retrospect it was a wise decision to do since I had a lot of walking to do the next day!

Day 2 – October 30, 2011

Serena landed at 7am, but I figured after getting luggage and getting into the city et cetera, she would only get to the hostel by 10am. I was still jetlagged and was up and awake at 6am, so I set out for a morning walk around the neighbourhood around 8.

All the street signs in Madrid looked like this. Very, very pretty but inefficient. In fact it wasn’t just in Spain, it was like this all throughout europe. Instead a hanging street sign they would put the street names on the first building parallel to the street. It makes for a harder navigation and I just can’t imagine how hard it is for those who doesn’t know the area well to drive around. It wasn’t a problem for us when we were walking during the day, but in a dimly lit area during the night it became quite frustrating. More on that when we get to Rome later….

Anyway, I kept walking down Gran Via to the west, and (after stopping at a random place for a very greasy breakfast – again wondering why people aren’t overweight here) found myself in the middle of Plaza de Espana park!

Very pretty park! I spent some time strolling around leisurely and taking pictures.

I felt a bit adventurous so I ventured more down the street south of the park, and somehow ended up at the Royal Palace. By then it was already 10am so I headed back to the hostel in case Serena got in, and she was already there when I got back. So after she settled down, we explored the city more.

We ended up at Plaza Mayor, and decided to have lunch there since it was such a beautiful day out. Big mistake. The place was such a huge tourist trap. We ordered a plate of cured ham and a plate of Spanish omelette, and ended up with a bill of €20 per person and it wasn’t even that good.

But I did get a nice picture so I’m not going to complain anymore.

From there, we walked south to find El Rastro, a flea market swarmed with people. It was too crowded for us so after about ten minutes of walking we bailed and took the metro down to Prado museum instead. Yet another mistake as none of us were well versed in Spanish art history, so that became a waste of €10 and two hours of boredom.

Thankfully, next door to Prado museum was a big, beautiful park called Retiro Park.

We promptly headed there, walked around and sat on the park bench for awhile, appreciating just how BEAUTIFUL the weather was that day. I really couldn’t ask for more!

Except I could. After about 30 mins of catching up (I hadn’t seen Serena in person since HK/TW trip), we decided to walk to the north of the park, with the intention of taking the metro back. Then we came across…

… The REAL area of the park where it was just completely alive with people, kids and tons of things to look at. We ended up staying for 30 more minutes before taking the metro back to Gran Via. After a little bit of shopping, we were both jetlagged and tired so we decided to take a nap. I had plans to meet up with Christina again that night, but we both managed to sleep through alarms and didn’t wake up for dinner… we only managed to get out for a quick meal at midnight and promptly went back to sleep >.<

Day 3 – October 31, 2011

Thanks to sleeping early the previous night, we were both up at respectable time. While Serena was getting ready I spent most of the morning running around the city trying to look for a working Citibank ATM, but they ALL seem to be out of order! I was really unhappy with Citibank that morning since I was running out of cash.

Anyway, I remembered seeing an interesting looking place near Plaza Mayor that looks similar to the place Christina brought me to on my first day so we decided to go there for lunch. The place was called Mercado de San Miguel.

… and JACKPOT! It was a tapas place!! I got the above things, and some croquettas (not pictured) for €6.40. including the rose wine too!

Serena also LOVED the place. in fact she loved it so much that we went back again later that day for a second lunch!

We headed out a bit south to Royal Palace Madrid. We were a bit disheartened to see the line snaking around the block, but it actually moved pretty fast and we didn’t wait more than 20 minutes.

The palace inside was absolutely beautiful and totally worth the €10 entrance fee. We weren’t allowed to take pictures so I don’t have any, but I was busy being amazed anyway that I forgot to sneak in a few pictures.

We also visited the big cathedral across the palace, called Almudena Cathedral. Inside was just amazing:

Made me think of my mom. She would LOVE all the cathedrals and churches we saw in this trip.

We then stopped for more food at Mercado San Miguel, then walked to Puerta del Sol, the city square center, where we encountered a group of teenage girls chanting and waving around canadian flag. I can only assume they were Justin Bieber fans…?

I was really impressed by this guy. His costume was very well-detailed and he looked like he was sitting on air (probably using the same trick as one of those KLM ‘invisible chair’ installation… or maybe this is where KLM got their idea?)

We took the metro down to Plaza Cibeles for more picture time:

Then we walked back home and rested till dinner time, where I finally met up with Christina again for dinner. She took us to a famous Paella place at La Baracca, which I’ve written a separate entry for.

After that Christina had invited us to a halloween party, but we had to decline again since our flight the next day is at 9am :( which means we had to get up at 6 and be out by 7. so in short, I didn’t party at all in Europe! It’s okay though, it was still an EPIC trip.

Our next stop was Barcelona, my favorite city of the entire trip.

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