The good news is that you can travel all over Spain by train and by bus. And the trains between some of the major cities travel at 180 miles an hour, so that you can get to where you're going a lot faster than by car. We feel that we've really missed the boat, so to speak, for not developing a system like this if the U.S.
The charm of Madrid comes from both the old and the new. Just off the Plaza Mayor is the newly decked out and reopened Mercado of San Miguel. It contains 33 booths selling seafood, cheese, wine . . .and you can shop to go or do as the young hip crowd in Madrid do and enjoy your copa de vino and tapas standing or sitting, if you're lucky, at a table.
One of the highlights at the Monasterio was the aviary with the "vuelo de los rapaces" or the flight of the falcons. We were amazed at the control the falconers (two intrepid women) had over these birds, helped by generous handouts, of course, and a little frightened when the birds grazed us with their powerful wings as they came in for a landing.
From the Monasterio, we caught the high speed train on to Barcelona, which turned out NOT to be our favorite city in Spain, for many reasons, one big one which we'll explain later. The center of the city is attractive and modern, although a few blocks from the main thoroughfares, the streets are dirty and the buildings covered with graffiti (not that a little dirt and litter bother us a whole lot--we've traveled in places that are worse--but Spain is a modern European country, and Madrid led us to expect better.)
It was no novelty to see women in high heels riding motorbikes in Barcelona. In fact, although this photo doesn't show it, motorbikes outnumber cars on the streets downtown. When the light changes to green you have to watch out for the barrage of them crossing the intersection.
Barcelona 2010: The Magician's Assistant
You'll see this coming before I did. That's because I never thought it would happen to me. I was ready for the woman with the sick baby. When she tried to hand it to me, I would turn around and let her drop it on the ground, if that was what she wanted to do. I would ignore the crowd of urchins trying to attack me, hold my possessions securely and yell “Ladron! Me robaron! Me robaron!” I would fend off the street vendors offering watches, sunglasses, and the like. I would decline advice from the overly helpful young man on the corner. My camera strap was over one shoulder and under an arm so that the camera could not be snatched away by someone riding by on a motor scooter. My wallet was in a zippered and velcroed pocket which I could hardly get into myself. The crowd in the Gaudi Catedral de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona was not particularly heavy. Boy was I naïve!
But let me make a little digression. We find that traveling in Spain is a lot different than traveling in Mexico. For one thing, there is such a mix of people here that we can't tell where anyone is from until we hear them speak. There are tourists from all over Europe (we've run into very few Americans) and such a mix of cultures and appearances! We've been especially impressed by the number of really tall, very slender women, always fashionably dressed, that we've seen on the streets of Madrid and Barcelona. One thing we haven't seen in any numbers are the begging Gypsy women that I remember pestering us on my first trip to Barcelona (that was almost 40 years ago—Generalissimo Franco was still in power.) OK, now back to the Gaudi Cathedral.
It's really hard to get a good original shot inside or outside the cathedral. For one thing, it is still under construction, although building began in the 19th century. Then the portions are so sweeping and the light so varied, that it is hard to decide where to point your camera. I was changing lenses from a wide angle to a longer lens when I noticed my back pack was open. That's funny, I thought, I must have forgot to zip it shut the last time I changed lenses. I checked, and nothing was missing. No problem, but I've got to be more careful. I zipped it shut, and aimed my camera toward a detail in the vaulted dome of the cathedral.
From now on, a warning to any photographers near me. If you get too close, you're likely to feel a sharp elbow in your ribs or worse, even if you're a tall, good looking woman!
I got lots of sympathy from these guys at the Sagrada Familia!
Kind of interesting that the woman in the information booth where I made my complaint gave me a preprinted map to the nearest police station and the telephone number to report my Visa card stolen. Visa delivered us a new card by FedEx the next day!
A note about language. One of our problems in Barcelona was that all the signs are in Catalan rather than Spanish. And while we could figure most of them out, some of them left us totally perplexed. We asked one of our cabbies how many Barcelonans spoke Catalan, and he said 10 per cent. But the government wants to preserve the language, so everything official is written in Catalan, and it's taught to all of the school kids. So the parents don't speak it, but the kids do--a situation every teenager would love! We wouldn't have recognized the police station if we hadn't asked some guy in a truck for directions and he invited us to hop in and took us there.
And then service people in Spain don't believe that Americans (or Brits for that matter) can speak Spanish. While we speak enough Spanish to get around, understand directions, order food, and even carry on conversations with our patient friends, we don't consider ourselves fluent in all situations. That is made worse by the fact that there are dialects and accents in Spain that don't in anyway resemble what we are used to hearing in Mexico. We can understand people who speak standard Castellano pretty well, but that seems to be a minority when you get out of Madrid. And what's worse, when we are recognized as American tourists (which isn't very hard), people just assume we are speaking English, even when we are using Spanish (admittedly with an American accent). When we got to the police station, Jim asked the officer in charge if he spoke English, thinking it would be easier to conduct official business in our first language. But the officer said not at all, and we went ahead and handled our report in Spanish without difficulty. He even complimented Jim on his Spanish. But another officer who knew a little English, who was giving us directions back to our hotel, insisted on talking to us in English. Our Spanish was much better than his English, which we could barely understand, but he thought he had to talk to us in English anyway. Later we stopped in a little pizzeria for a bite to eat, and Jim offered the coupon books which we hadn't used after our aborted trip to the Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia to our waitress, she said "I'm sorry, but I don't speak English." Jim said, "But I'm speaking Spanish!" and she replied, "Now you are, but not before." She had no trouble understanding him once she realized he was speaking Spanish and not English as she expected him to. Most people in Spain who deal with the public do speak English, since it is the universal language for all the Europeans who travel (except maybe the French). The exception seems to be people in official positions. Like the person at the train station who dealt with international reservations. He spoke only Spanish. Go figure.
From Barcelona we trained down to Alicante, a resort town on the Mediterranean south of Valencia. It's a beautiful town with a wide Esplanade along the waterfront. In the summer it's jammed with European tourists, but at this time of year it was lively, but not overcrowded. It was a great place to relax after our Barcelona experience.
One thing we loved about Alicante besides the beautiful women was the great food. We found a little Italian restaurant (owned and staffed by real Italians) which served some of the best seafood and pasta that we've ever eaten. Every meal, of course, accompanied by a bottle of very good wine, all at about a third of what it would cost us in Ann Arbor for something not nearly as good. and every meal was followed by a free serving of lemoncello, a very tasty Italian aperitif. The name of the restaurant is La Pecatta di Gola (the sin of gluttony). Viva la temtacion!
That's all for now. Look forward to seeing you all soon.
With love from the Fotogypsies.