Aug 14

Basilica, Royal Palace, National Library

Friday our plans were to check out the San Francisco el Grande Basilica and the Royal Palace of Madrid.

On our way we stopped for breakfast at this nearby cafe, where I had a lovely cafe au lait. I had also ordered a ham and cheese on a croissant but wasn’t very hungry. Luckily I had a trusty ziplock bag and saved 2/3’s of the sandwich for later.

The Basilica was really pretty, and it was kind of nice to get there just as it opened. There was a sign that said no pictures, but as I tried to sneak one in, a passing guard was like go ahead! kind of like the conductor on the train from Toledo.

I sort of can’t remember the Royal Palace. Mostly I remember the outside where a couple of accordion players played continuously (Italian songs mostly, and the theme from The Godfather), and how two little girls tried to climb onto the ledge of an exterior window until a far-off guard blew his whistle at them and one climbed down with her hands up.

We also passed through the Sabatini Gardens, where we kept hearing these birds squawking. YP joked that it was a toucan, and then a couple of minutes later I saw three green parrots fly overhead. It turns out Madrid is overrun with wild raccoons and parrots. Who knew.

Our next stop was the Alumenda Cathedral beside the Royal Palace. We weren’t sure what it was. All we knew was that we could go to the top, which we did and saw a lovely view and these really cool statues:

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That was almost better than the Royal Palace.

Next were nun cookies. Let me explain: apparently there are these cloistered nuns who make cookies and other sweets. The nuns are somewhat hard to find, and we thought it would be fun to try and find them and also to bring back the nun cookies for our co-workers.

The convent wasn’t too hard to find. We overshot the alleyway, but quickly found our way back. We had a little trouble finding the door, but luckily the blog post I linked to above had a picture of it. I took one too. Then — d’oh! We discovered the place was closed and cookies and sweets wouldn’t be available again until September:

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No nun cookies for us. Another good thing was that nearby there was the Mercado Market, where we had a variety of food:

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That night we went off and did our own thing again. YP went clothes shopping and I checked out the National Library.

Unfortunately the library was closed by the time I got there. The website said it was open until 9 but it actually closed at 8. I got there right before 8 so at least I could go inside the gate and look at the exterior, even if I couldn’t go in the building.

Feeding my inner library nerd: National Library of Spain #madrid

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I met one of the resident library cats.

Spanish library cat is not pleased with me #madrid

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I wasn’t hungry and I didn’t want to go straight back to the apartment so I walked some more. I wandered down this street that kind of like Fifth Avenue, ie, lots of high-end stores that I would never buy stuff from.

For dinner, I stopped at a grocery store near the apartment and picked up salami, cheese, and a baguette. It was a bit too salty but still delicious.

Tomorrow’s agenda: get YP a matador outfit! Stay tuned…

Aug 14

Thyssen-Bornemisza Museu, Crystal Palace, Indian food

On Thursday, YP and I went to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum together and each did our own thing afterward.

I enjoyed the museum. At first I was very diligent about listening to every audio description and at least looking at every painting, but after almost two hours, I got saturated and started breezing through the rooms, especially after realizing there were two more floors and I had started in the middle.

By the time I called it a day, it was almost three and I was hungry. Actually I was hungry earlier but I had a bite of a Balance bar, which sustained me.

At the museum cafe I got the duck over cous cous. While the sauce was amazing — tartly sweet with apricots, prunes, and currants — the duck itself was tough and chewy. The duck I had at the Courte d’Ingles was a billion times better. But I ate the whole thing, knowing it would be a while before I ate again.

I also had the dessert, a very liquidy vanilla custard. The flavor was good but it was so watery. I’m starting to think Spain doesn’t do dessert so well.

YP was already back by the time I got home. We were supposed to meet one of his old friends at six, but at 5:30 she sent a message saying she couldn’t make it. That kind of sucked because I came back early for our plans instead of going to the national library.

So instead we checked out the Crystal Palace, which we had been meaning to anyway. I’m sorry to say it was unimpressive. I could see how it was once amazing, but now the glass is dirty and the place was empty except for a scattering of rocking chairs which were apparently part of an exhibit. Apparently it used to hold “flora and fauna” from the Philippines. Not anymore.

It reminded me of stuff in China: buildings that seem grand from afar but are shoddy and dilapidated up close.

We decided to have Indian for dinner. He found a restaurant with plenty of vegetarian options. We got there at 7:30 but it wasn’t open until 8:30, which is often the case around here.

We sat in a Starbuck’s for almost an hour. That wasn’t so bad. I was so tired, I was able to just sit, daydream, and people-watch.

I’m finding that while some Spanish men are definitely attractive (I’m a sucker for dark hair and eyes), they are way too well-groomed for my taste.

Finally, 8:30 rolled around. I wanted a little bit of everything so I got the tasting menu. The starter was a tiny meat samosa and pakora which was more like an Indian onion bloom. The entrees were curry lamb, saag paneer, and chicken tandoori with a side of rice and naan. Dessert was a small mango lassi. All for 19 euros, which is a little expensive, but if I had ordered one entree with rice and naan, it would have been almost 19 anyway.

Back home we were both pooped. I did what has become my evening routine: shower, take care of my feet, and watch an episode or so of Doc Martin. I slept well.

Aug 14

Toledo and jet lag

Although I slept pretty well the first three nights, Tuesday night I had trouble.

During the day we had walked around a lot and gotten tons of sun, but I probably went to bed too early, around midnight, when I wasn’t sleepy. Whatever the reason I was up until almost four, browsing on my phone and watching an old episode of Doc Martin on YouTube.

Unfortunately the next morning I couldn’t sleep in since we had plans to go to Toledo for the day. I got up around 8, had a couple of cups of coffee, and was functional (though barely).

We are so close to the train station. Just a five minute walk. And the train was really nice. The ride is only about 30 minutes, but the train was like a really nice Amtrak. I really enjoyed just listening to music and staring out the window.

Overall Toledo was fun, although it was easy to get lost, the cobblestone streets were hilly and hard to walk on, and because we didn’t know where we were going half the time, we missed a whole bunch of sights. We did get to see the Toledo Cathedral, El Greco museum, and Sephardic museum (which was pretty boring since everything was in Spanish). I had wanted to see a synagogue but we didn’t have time and I was pretty exhausted.

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The meals we had were pretty good. I’m not picky and enjoyed well enough the duck and chicken sandwiches I got at the first place (they were just 3 euros each and so I imagined they were tiny, which they weren’t, but luckily I had a ziploc bag and was able to save the superfluous sandwich for later), as well as the “tostata” with brie at the second place.

I expcted the tostata to be like the one I had in Madrid: one medium sized baguette. But this was the equivalent of three pieces of bread soaked in Brava sauce with two giant hunks of brie. I ate all the bread, one and a half hunks of brie, and all the chips.

I also had a lemon Fanta, which after walking around in the hot sun for hours, was freaking delicious.

We got back to the train station early and had to time stop in yet another Chinese-run convenience store. (I forgot to mention that these are common all over Madrid, if not all of Spain, and are called chinos.) Despite the lemon Fanta, I still felt thirsty so I got a couple of nectarines. He got drinks and a chocolate bar, which made me feel even thirstier looking at it.

My overall impression of Toledo? Hot, dry, and dusty. In a lot of ways it reminded me of China, at least the area surrounding Beijing. We even saw a little lizard clinging to the wall of the train station, which reminded me of the lizards in Changping.

The train ride back was just as nice as the ride coming. Our seats were backwards but there were plenty of empty ones facing the right way so we switched. (I was afraid the conductor would yell at us, like he would have in Paris, but he didn’t.) We even each got a window seat.

Before heading home, we stopped in a Body Shop, and I got foot files and cream. My feet really needed it.

We got back around eight. This time I was glad for an early night in. I took a shower then took care of my feet. It felt great and they are much better today.

We also did laundry, took out the garbage, and watered the swapee’s plants. The dryer took forever. I was worried about using up a lot of electricity so I took most of my stuff out and hung it up. I had thought about using the clothesline outside, but it’s really high up. Like, I have to climb to almost the top of the ladder to reach it. I said fuck it and hung up my stuff around the apartment. YP was kind enough to find me some hangers.

Because it’s so arid here, almost everything is already dry.

I was able to sleep last night. I stayed up past one, between watching an old Doc Martin Christmas special and waiting for the dryer to be done. I woke up around 8 today. I could have slept more but I don’t want to have trouble sleeping again tonight, or at least lessen the possibility of it.

Aug 14

Mardrid, Day 4

We got going late this morning and came back early, but we still managed to do a lot, probably because we didn’t come back to the apartment in the middle of the day and rest for two to three hours.

We left at about 11:30 and headed over to the Prado museum. Along the way we passed the Royal Botanical Garden and thought we might as well stop in.

At the very front there were some flowers, but that was it. The rest of the garden was green, but there were no flowers. Too hot and dry, we guessed. There was a greenhouse full of cacti and other cool plants, but I’ve been to a hundred other better botanical gardens.

After that it was the Prado — or what we thought was the Prado I should say. The dramatic-looking building was on Prado Street and we just assumed.

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Turned out it was what is now known as Cibeles Palace. It was once called the Palace of Communication (don’t ask me) and before that, the Postal and Telegraphic Museum. Confusing but at least it was free, had restrooms, and had a nice cafeteria and. (I’m starting to think that what Madrid means by “cafeteria” is “borderline-fancy but reasonably priced restaurant.”) While YP had a couple of tapas plates, I had the price fixe menu, which began with a lovely salad –

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– followed by a nice rice stew. Dessert was fresh watermelon and honeydew.

I also got a piece of bread and water. All for 15 euros, or almost $20.

After we ate, we checked out the place. While the building was old and beautiful, the exhibits were very modern.

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Afterward, we started hiking toward the actual Prado museum. Along the way we passed another thing we wanted to try: rowboats in the pond in the park. Since the museum was open late, we decided to go for the rowboats.

It was pretty fun. Even better: there was no line. I had imagined waiting in line forever.

Unfortunately I forgot to put sunscreen on my arms so they were burning in the sun. But at least my face moisturizer had SPF 15 and I was wearing my hat and sunglasses. YP did all the rowing. I was nervous about moving around too much in the boat, and I also I don’t know how to control the oars.

The water was pretty stagnant — a murky green — and we saw several fish jump out. At first we thought they might be flying fish, but I just looked it up and they are koi, and unfortunately they might be jumping because the water is uncomfortably hot. Poor fish.

After the boat ride, we finally headed over to the Prado, and this time we made it to the correct one.

I was happy to be in a museum, but either forgot or didn’t know that the Prado is mostly religious paintings or portraits of royals and other noble people. Snore. At least there were a lot of El Grecos, and I enjoyed those. I also liked the special exhibit which compared El Grecos with more modern paintings, showing El Greco’s influence.

Because I bored quickly of all the religious paintings, I finished before YP (for a change). Plus he had stopped in the middle to eat something at the cafe. While he went off to check out the El Greco exhibit, it was my turn to get a nosh, in my case a chicken and cheese sandwich followed by a chocolate covered donut, which was actually more like cake (low-carb diet completely out the window by now). It was all tasty.

Then we headed home, stopping at the grocery store along the way.

It feels a little weird to be home so “early” although I was pretty tired and my feet hurt from walking barefoot in sandals again. I didn’t find a Sephora or whatever but at least I got some moisturizer at the grocery store, which turned to be not very rich, but it’s better than nothing.

It’s already 11 now so I don’t think we’ll be going out to dinner again. I can’t decide if I should eat something. I had a few random things since we’ve been home: a couple of celery stalks, a yogurt, and a bunch of walnuts. I might have an egg.

Aug 14

Vegetarian paella, wild dogs, and gelato

Last night I slept better than the night before, although it still took me a while to drift off and I woke up a few times. But we’re in no rush to be anywhere today so we slept in, meaning about 9 for me and 10 for him.

Last night we schlepped out to this vegetarian restaurant for dinner. We had to walk through the block of Indian restaurants and aggressive hawkers. I really feel like elbowing the ones who got right in our faces.

A weird thing about this city are the creepy, quiet, what we call “rape-y,” alleyways. I feel nervous walking through them, but then you always end up seeing a woman walking by herself.

The alleyways are pretty clean. No garbage and therefore no rats. The swapee said the garbage gets picked up every day so that explains it.

The restaurant was on the perimeter of what seemed like a church courtyard. There were several restaurants, all with a scattering of outdoor tables and chairs. The set-up was so weird. So random and ramshackle.

We’re finding that design and presentation aren’t big things here. For instance, even some little lights strung up in the trees would have made a huge difference, would have made the space more cohesive. At the mall, I noticed that the clothes just hung off in the mannequins while in America, they would have been pinned back to make them seem more flattering.

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The food wasn’t bad. I was hungry so I dug into my vegetarian paella, as well as the olives, pickled onions, and bread.

While we were eating, this woman walking about five dogs lost control of two or three of them. They were racing around, barking and fighting with each other. Nice.

We took a different route back home and one, didn’t have to pass the pushy Indian hawkers again, and two, stumbled on a whole bunch of restaurants in odd spots. They all seemed tucked against churches and in little alcoves. It was strange and lovely.

Then, by mistake, we ended up at Plaza de Mayor again, which had a completely different feeling at night.

Earlier we were there during the hottest part of the day so it was kind of abandoned and very sweltering. In the evening it was full of people hanging out, kids playing, and vendors selling these glowing whirligigs.

On the way back we stopped for gelato. I had told myself to not splurge anymore but then I was like fuck it. I had the choco-mint, which the girl behind the counter told us was also her favorite (she was so cute), but at least I only ate half.

We got back around midnight and I immediately jumped the shower. I felt so sweaty and gross from the whole day.

My feet are also kind of fucked up from walking barefoot in sandals. I really need a pumice stone and heavy moisturizer, but I made do with a washcloth and the Jergens I have. Too bad I didn’t get foot stuff yesterday. We passed like three Sephoras.

Today the plan is the Prado, the Naval Museum, and boat rides in the park.

Aug 14

Madrid, Day 3

Yesterday, as planned, we hit the Reina Sofia Museum. As expected I enjoyed myself a lot.

As is tradition, we first hit the cafe. It was about 11:30 but the place was almost empty, except for what we suspected were museum employees. I had what was essentially a prosciutto sandwich along with a chocolate cappuccino.

The audio tour wasn’t as complete as the ones in Paris — unless I just missed a bunch of stuff — but I learned a lot about Picasso’s Guernica; Spain’s participation in the 1927 Paris International Exhibition; and other stuff which isn’t coming to mind right now.

After the museum we walked through Retiro Park. It was lovely but so fucking hot — in fact, the hottest part of the day. Until then we hadn’t thought it was too bad, but carrying my backpack and walking through the sun (at least I had shades and a hat) was pretty insufferable.

We headed back to the apartment, and I made the mistake of dozing for too long at seven. Mistake because later I would have trouble sleeping. But I seriously couldn’t help it. Around eight we headed out to the gay part of town.

That was really cute. Tons of restaurants, bars, and stores that were still open. And the swapee’s friend was right again: we saw a lot of families having dinner at ten o’clock. Not just young people but older people and little kids. It was very interesting.

The restaurant we ate at was lovely. They started us with some olives and bread and butter. All was delicious. I didn’t even avoid the bread, which I usually do.

There was a veggie burger for YP and I had the “risoni” with mushrooms, cheese, and bacon. I thought risoni might be a mistranslation of risotto, but I looked it up and it’s basically orzo. And the bacon seemed to be missing. But otherwise it was really good. I ate the whole thing and the piece of bread that was left. Oink.

Then we shared an orange sorbet, which was more like an orange icee. It even came with just straws and no spoons. We needed to ask for spoons.

After our meal, we walked all over. There were people out but not a crazy number.

I had trouble sleeping that night, not because I was anxious but because of jetlag. The night before I think I was so tired it didn’t matter. But the second night was tougher.

I slept off and on until about 5:30. I was pretty awake at that time (we had gone to bed around one) and thought about getting up, but I managed to fall asleep again until YP’s alarm at 8. Then I had a very hard time getting up. PBJ bread and two cups of instant coffee to the rescue.

We spent the morning in the Puerta del Sol area, and had lunch in the Corte de Ingles, the big shopping mall. On the top floor is what they call a cafeteria, which is actually a pretty nice sit-down restaurant, on the other side of which is an even nicer sit-down restaurant.

I got a cappuccino, and fried eggs and duck over potatoes. It was sooo good.

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Our last stop in the mall was the grocery store in the basement. For some reason we both love browsing convenience and grocery stores in foreign countries. I had gotten a small jar of Nescafe earlier, but I also picked up a box of instant Viennese coffee, a small tub of walnuts, and a bottle of water. Then we just did a bunch of walking around. We saw the Plaza Mayor, the Estanque Parque del Retiro, and some other typical Madrid sights. All the while, it was so hot in the sun. In the late afternoon we headed back, stopping for tapas along the way. I had a bunch of walnuts during our time in the park so I wasn’t super hungry. I had half of one dish: toasted bread with tomato jelly, brie, and anchovies. It was so fucking good.

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On our way back we stopped at, guess what, another grocery store. This time I got eggs and yogurt.

For the past few hours we’ve just been hanging out. I had an apple, read, and, I admit, dozed off, but only for a few minutes. We’ll probably head back out soon to get some dinner.

Aug 14

Spain, I am in you

I’m finally here!

The rest of my travels were smooth for the most part. The flight to DFW was crowded but I had an aisle seat. I read, enjoyed the fruit salad I had bought in my home airport, and even fell asleep.

We landed on time, and it turned out the gate for my connecting flight was practically next door. I was so happy I wandered around DFW clapping my hands like an idiot.

I had plenty of time to get a personal margherita pizza at this sit-down Italian place. It was good, so good I hate the whole fucking thing, crust included, low-carb diet be damned.

The flight ended up being delayed by about 40 minutes, but it didn’t feel too bad. Plus the plane wasn’t full. Originally I was in a row with a Spanish woman and her daughter (the woman was very friendly and nice), but then they had the husband move into their row and I was able to take an empty row.

Happy happy!

The flight, strangely, didn’t feel as long as I was expecting. It was 8+ hours but I watched a movie (Million Dollar Arm), read the rest of The Secret History, and slept a bit or just curled up with my eyes closed, listening to music.

The only downside was that I didn’t bring enough snacks. They gave us dinner and breakfast, but I was still starving for much of the flight.

Connecting with YP was less smooth. His phone wasn’t working, and I kept thinking he was in the baggage claim area when he was actually outside in the receiving area. It probably took us an hour to finally meet up.

We were both starved, tired, and discombobulated so we just got food at the airport. I had a ham and brie baguette, which was really good. The ham was more like prosciutto.

Then we went to the apartment. The subway was sooo slow, or at least it felt that way to us. The walk wasn’t too long either, but with our luggage, after being up for 24 hours, and under the hot sun, it wasn’t fun.

The apartment swapee’s friend met us at the apartment to give us keys and a nice intro to the city. What I came away with was everything closes down in the afternoons, people eat dinner late, meals are extremely leisurely, and pickpockets run rampant.

After he left we just chilled. It was mid-afternoon, which is a quiet part of the day anyway in Madrid, so we both took naps. We must have slept for almost two hours. I didn’t sleep fully but kept drifting off and waking up, not knowing where I was. But it still felt good.

We left the apartment around six and wandered around. The friend was quite right about most restaurants being closed from 5 until as late as 9. We managed with some pizza (again: yum) and walked around some more. Along the way we passed a “meat shop” (there are a lot of them around here) and I got a little paper cone of delicious fried pork fat.

There was a festival we wanted to go to later, but we were both kind of tired so we headed back to the apartment to wash up, rest for a couple of hours, and charge phones.

At first I wasn’t too thrilled about the festival. It just seemed like a bunch of people standing outside drinking and dancing badly. Then we got to a part where people dancing well, and then a row of food stands. That part of was fun.

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I thought about getting a sausage or something but ended up getting a lame hot dog. I don’t know what I was thinking.

For some reason neither of us were too bothered by the crowds when usually we’d find them very annoying. We think it was because we weren’t in a rush to get anywhere, and for me, I figured that I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway, despite being exhausted, so I might as well stay out as late as possible.

The only part that wasn’t so fun was the street with Indian restaurants and very aggressive hawkers. I mean, they were all nice but I don’t like people getting in my face and saying ni hao.

On the way back, we picked up a bunch of groceries — I got yogurt and apples but forgot eggs and instant coffee (that is, instant coffee additional to the little packets I brought) — and got back to the apartment around midnight. I needed another shower and then had a yogurt. We went to bed around one, YP taking the bed in the loft and me taking the couch, since we figured I’d probably be up before him and making noise in the kitchen.

I tried to read but did that thing where I closed my eyes for a second with the lights on, and I promptly fell asleep.

I thought the slight noise from our neighbors might keep me up, but it didn’t. I only woke up once during the night, and that was when I noticed the flashing green light of the phone, which I covered with a pillow.

I expected to be awake at 4 or 5 in the morning, but I slept all the way until almost 8. I was still a little tired and could have slept more but I also wanted coffee.

I had two cups and a piece of PBJ bread by the time YP woke up.

Today’s plan is to visit the Reina Sofia museum, which isn’t too far from where we’re staying. And then the Retiro Park.

Aug 14

At the airport

I’m finally on my way to Madrid.

Like last year’s trip to Paris and London, YP was planning a trip to Spain anyway and was kind enough to invite me along. And as in Paris, he was successful in finding someone willing to swap apartments with him, which means free housing for us for most of the trip.

Taking the bus to the BART was such a good idea. I can’t believe I didn’t remember it until the last minute. I thought, Wow, that would be dumb if the taxi showed up at the same time as the bus, and then thought: oh yeah the bus!

I always imagine everything will be a nightmare, but it hasn’t been (so far). While the BART was crowded at first, it cleared out pretty fast and I was able to have a seat for most of the ride. Check-in and security were also easy. Maybe because it was so early.

Now I have an hour before boarding. So far I’ve peed once, called Mom, had 3/4’s of a breakfast burrito and coffee, and played on my phone. I need some water but I’m not ready to get up yet. After this blog post.

I should also get a little cash so I don’t have to worry about it after I get home. And I want some tea, and I should pee again.

I managed to get all my stuff in one small suitcase (free checked bag!) and my backpack. I brought less stuff than I did to Paris. Now that I know our “host” will probably provide towels, I didn’t bring one. And summer clothes and shoes take up less space than warmer ones. Surprisingly I’m wearing jeans now. I usually don’t like wearing them on the plane, but these are pretty comfortable, especially since I lost a little weight.

Although right now my stomach is a bit bloated from the breakfast burrito.

In this really nice terminal I don’t mind hanging out for a while. I realized I’m also better traveling early in the day than at night. At night I’m just so exhausted. In the morning I’m energized and caffeinated, and everything seems great.

YP isn’t flying out until 7:30 PM. He texted me a little while ago that he still hasn’t packed yet. But he’s had a lot to do in terms of getting his apartment ready.

This trip I was planning on working on revising my book. I really should. I wonder if I’ll be able to charge my laptop on the plane. Some flights offer that now.

I hope getting to my connecting flight won’t be a nightmare.