I’m leaving Lisbon feeling a bit unfulfilled. With hesitance I stepped on this early train and now I watch the mix of tile-covered and pastel and rust colored buildings dissipate into the distance. Out the window to my right and directly below the Rio Tejo, it’s immense width dividing commerce from industry, pours into the Atlantic Ocean. Now gone from view and a memory forever. Each city I’ve explored has taught me that you can hold no expectation from one to the next. Each has surprised me with its unique personality and purpose. I have truly enjoyed each and would find it impossible to pick a favorite. Before I expose the resistance to my departure I must revisit Madrid in my mind. These tracks only move forward and the past moves further behind.
My welcome to Madrid on the afternoon of the 31st was another wet one. I stepped off the metro at Puerta del Sol, the heart-center of the city. It is literally Spain’s center point as well; all kilometric distances in Spain are measured from there. Not interested in the effort to uncover my Lonely Planet’s basic map I began walking. It’s truly probably my favorite past time, to aimlessly wander through these enigmatic environments. Small creeks poured down the magnificent mosaic patchwork streets. Forget asphalt around here. I’m continually amazed at the labor intensive care put into beautifying hundreds of kilometers worth of streets and walkways. Tiling a kitchen with 12x12’s is taxing enough. These puzzle pieces are rarely more than 3 inches in diameter. After finally tiring and failing to make directional sense of the cityscape I pulled out my guide and realized I was a block away from the Mucho Madrid, an absolutely pleasant hostel run by an older couple who took obvious pride in their business and verged on O.C.D. with the cleaning. No complaints on my part as it’s rare to confidently step barefoot into the shower of such places. After a bit of chillin’ and BS-ing with a young and seemingly overwhelmed exchange student from Connecticut I again hit the streets.
Now, I have a good sense of direction and intuition and I’m quite confident in my Jedi radar, but in Madrid, forget it. Barcelona has some sense of a grid system with occasional slant streets and round-abouts that spider out in 5 or 6 directions, I grasped the playing field quickly. Madrid, however, is a truly fantastic, geometrically abstract, conglomeration of madness. The feeling of the city is much more modern than Barcelona and the merging of an urban and edgy underground graffiti-littered décor with the high class and trendy bourgeoisie influenced shops and centers is fascinating. I followed masses along Gran Via to the next artery, vein, and vessel until it was suddenly dark and quiet and narrow and tall and time to turn around. Good luck backtracking. Peace of mind in knowing all you’ve got to find is people and a metro stop. I do have to say I managed to stumble into amazing building, statues, and plazas. The only problem with doing this through aimless wandering is not knowing what the hell they are. I guess it’s really about the experience anyway. Like in Plaza Mayor where I joined a group gathered around musicians and mumbled along with them in my best attempts to sing words I didn’t know in words I didn’t know. I finally realized it was a Catholic group trying to polarize the paganism going on all around. I had earlier laughed at myself when, after the third group of costumed creatures and 15 minutes of subconscious unscrambling, I realized it was Halloween. I forgot the eyeliner and glitter, however I’m certain a singing reveler who came up to me and passionately grabbed my arm while pointing back and forth between me and the sky (again, my first thought was wallet) was exclaiming my likeness to the Christ. It was the first time I’d heard that since cutting my hair.
The true joy of the backpacker’s lifestyle and a necessity for the solo traveler is meeting and connecting with others. It seems there are about one in a dozen hostellers that I talk to where the conversation starts easy and just flows. The next morning I met Yanna, a Philly-born redhead teaching English in Italy with her cousin Helen. Teacher conversation led to a day of sightseeing and doing what I might tend not to on my own (like shopping for women’s underwear (it was for them, they lost their luggage)). A ticket on a double-decker tourist bus highlighted an entire city circuit I would’ve never seen otherwise. I experienced sadness partway through the day when a busy pastry shop and my trip to the servicios divided our paths. That’s the reality of the ebb and flow of this plight, connection and separation. I wandered more mysterious streets and stopped for a traditional dish of paella as part of a restaurant’s menu. A menu here is an appetizer (usually bread and butter or cheese) and a glass of wine, your choice of a first and second course from a set selection, a dessert, and a coffee to finish. And the coffee is not what we think of in America. In fact, I had to hold back my giggles at the first coffee I experienced in Paris. It’s small, petite in fact; it’s just damn cute. The cup looks meant for a dollhouse and I believe it’s meant to be sipped slightly with your pinky sticking out just a bit. What it lacks in stature however, it makes up for in strength. That potent little sugar packed shot of slurp puts the shine in your shoes and the shake in your soul. The perfect antidote to the wine induced coma following a long day of sightseeing. Halftime was over…
The highlight to the evening was watching the setting sun sweeten the view of Madrid’s 18th century royal palace, the Palacio Real. It’s another immense (2800+ rooms) and gaudy structure built before our country was a country by some royal dude (King Felipe V) because he could. It truly was a sight to behold. I then jumped on another two-story tour bus and stood on top taking in the darkening town. I experienced true satisfaction in the exhilaration of dusk as I soared along above the crowds. I stepped off the transit and into line at the Museo Nacional del Prado to check out “Spain’s premier museum and one of the finest art collections in the world.” Setting my exquisite and refined taste in art aside, I decided my mission in the four level museum was to find Goya’s famous Maja Desnuda (Naked Maja). Rembrandt…blah, Raphael…hmmm, no, I wanted to find the work of The Man commissioned by the husband to paint the portrait of the Duchess of Alba, Spain’s richest woman at the time, who he ended up shacking up with and painting and extra portrait of for himself, sans clothing. Scandalous! Along the way I was specifically struck by the energy coming from the scenes involving compassionate haloed and winged beings and the vivid colors infused into El Greco’s work. As the Prado was beginning to prep for its evening hibernation I found the dark works of Goya, including Saturno Devorando a Un Hijo (Saturn Devouring his Son), creepy. A dash up the stairs to Goya’s final displays revealed the unrevealed. Damn, there was the Maja Vestida but no disrobed duchess. It was on loan to some undoubtedly uptight outfit in Paris. As usual, I had to use my imagination.