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The Real Madrid

Madrid, Spain

Trains in Spain, I soon discovered, trump those anywhere else in Southern Europe. Taking a mid to long-distance train journey is very much like taking a flight for the Spaniards, and with this come many advantages and associated disadvantages. For example: you have to 'check-in', passing through impressive security and waiting in a lounge for them to call you up to board, when you again pass through two levels of identification/ticket-collecting before you can access the train. Time-consuming, but reassuring. Once on board, you can recline in big comfortable seats, listen to a number of private radio stations or even watch the film. This last option was played in Spanish with subtitles in Catalan, but I think I understood most of it; Lord knows how. I also took the opportunity to steal the headphones provided as my MP3 ones had broken the day before. However, I don't mean this as a bad joke when I say that every word spoken or sung through them sounded like it was being lisped. Dodgy headphones aside, the whole experience contrasted sharply with having to walk over the tracks in Montenegro, Serbia or Turkey just to get to a train that looked like it was last used to carry soldiers to the Eastern Front in the early 1940s.

Like Barcelona, Madrid also has a good metro system, so once there it was easy to find the hostel. If anything, however, fewer people here speak English, making it difficult to locate yourself with the help of the locals, and I found myself employing my few Spanish phrases more often than their fluency deserved. I had nearly no previous knowledge of the city, so after getting settled, I looked at the metro map and decided to go to Gran Via, this sounding like a fairly central location. From here, it was easy to walk around the centre of the city, from the palatial gardens in the west, down to the older streets and squares of the city, and back up to the more modern commercial centre. As a city it is interesting but not inspiring, and particularly after Barcelona I was struck by the lack of history and culture. Later that evening, I also noticed another problem: food. Tapas, the famous dishes of Spain, are rarely vegetarian, and on a budget it is difficult to eat anything else here. I walked around for some time, and eventually settled on Starbucks and a thoroughly American salad.

Having decided that the city itself could probably not occupy me for a further two and a half days, I aimed to spend as much time as possible in the world-famous art galleries. On the second day it was raining, so I went to Del Prado, the grand and expansive gallery housing everything from portraits of imperial families to, irritatingly, rooms and rooms of Goya of whom Spain is particularly - and in my opinion unjustly - proud. The next morning, needing something a little more expressive, I went to the Reina Sofia, Madrid's premier modern art museum. Spain apparently had its renaissance last century, artistic expression bubbling over the supression of Franco's regime, and it shows. This is one of the few art galleries I've been to where you literally stumble upon works you know or recognise in every room, surrounded by similar pieces that make you think even more deeply about what is familiar to you. The one problem was that the museum is simply too big for one day and doesn't have any sort of narrative to string the various exhibitions together.

In the afternoon, thoroughly tired of walking inside, I went to walk outside in the city's extensive parks. They feel somehow timeless until, suddenly, you're standing before a garden built in remembrance of the victims of the terrorist attacks Madrid suffered a few years ago, a tragic reminder that history is a living process. The weather began gloomy, but gradually brightened throughout the afternoon until it was too hot to walk around. Back at the hostel that evening, I was greeted by yet another set of roomates. These had been changing every night of my stay, making it difficult to get to know people, and the hostel itself was one of the biggest I'd stayed at, modern and impersonal. It was time, I knew, to move on and begin my journey home.

permalink written by  BenWH on May 22, 2009 from Madrid, Spain
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
tagged Spain

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