Buenos Dias, Mi Amigos!
I arrived in Madrid, late, on Friday evening after a less harrowing flight from Nice than I had experienced getting there. The Nice Airport was under construction and seating was limited. I flew on Brussels Airlines and that was a first for me. It is definitely a no-frills airline that will even charge you for water. They haven’t installed pay toilets, yet. The plane departed Nice forty minutes late. This time I was flying to Madrid via Brussels Belgium with only a 50-minute layover between flights. I had visions of going through the same stressful exercise that I had experienced in Frankfurt while traveling to Nice. However, this time God gave a break!
Brussels’ airport is not a massive aerodrome like Frankfurt. Furthermore, the pilot made up for lost time and we landed only a few minutes late. Finally, my departing gate was the same as the gate at which I arrived! I still had to depart the plane and join the long line that had already formed for boarding the flight to Madrid.
While waiting in line, I got my first exposure to the fact that Spaniards don’t speak English…except for the terse 3-word phase, “No speak English.” I am grateful for my 2 years high school and 2 years’ college Spanish. My memory of this language was put to the test my entire time in Madrid. I got by and within hours, I felt somewhat comfortable.
On the flight, I sat next to a lovely lady, in her thirties who was a mother of 3 young boys. She said that is what kept her in great shape. She did speak English and we had a delightful conversation. She was a wealth of information about Madrid and I would, later, be grateful for her suggestions.
My bags arrived on the flight with me. Immigration was non-existent and customs was a breeze. Much to my disappointment, no longer did you get your passport stamped at each country in the European Union. Oh well, it saved pages on my passport, which was rapidly filling up.
Minutes after exiting the airport, I was speeding my way through the streets of Madrid in a taxi whose driver eagerly gave me a refresher course in Spanish. We had a delightful conversation…I think. Anyway, it was fun. It was about 10:00 PM when I arrived at the Intercontinental and checking in, at that time of night, was a breeze. I was able to go to their club level, have a light snack, and head to my room for a welcome night’s sleep.
Realizing that Madrid is a massive city with so much to offer, I decided that I would not be able to see all of it during my brief stay there. After breakfast, I decided to spend the day touring some of the art museums. I chose the world-famous Prado Art Museum and the lesser known, but equally impressive Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. By limiting the number of sites, I was able to give the proper attention that each of the museums deserved.
The Prado is everything I had expected it to be and more. I first learned about this historic museum when, many years ago, I saw the play, “War in the Prado,” about the Spanish Uprising as depicted through the works of Goya. From that play, I knew that I wanted to visit this famous museum and view the works of this world-renowned artist. I was not disappointed!
Arriving early, I had been informed by my seat mate from the plane, that I would qualify for the senior discount which got me half-priced admission for all of the museums! She was right! I was able to see all the works of Goya and El Greco for 7 Euros, less than the price of two small bottles of water at the beach bar in Nice! The day was off to a great start!
I won’t insult the works of these great masters by trying to describe their works or the other great artists in this museum. Suffice it to say the entire display was extremely impressive! El Greco’s focus was mainly on religious subjects, such as his masterpiece of the Annunciation. It is truly magnificent.
As you might expect, the works of Goya covered a more humanistic set of subjects that were sometimes graphic in their depictions. The masterpiece, “The Execution” is a prime example of this. Goya also covered the daily life of average people such as peasants and farmers. One can easily see why the Spanish people are proud of these two renowned masters and this is why their works have earned such prominence in this great museum.
I chose to have a coffee and a blueberry muffin at the Prado and spend some time people watching. I was glad to see that the people of Madrid are rude to everyone, not just me. I found this interesting because I had been to Spain before. I had visited Costa Del Sol and Saville in the 1980s. The vast majority of those people were warm and friendly. I guess the people of Madrid are like the residents of any large city around the world such as Paris or New York. I won’t judge Spain by these people. After all, I met a delightful young lady on the airplane who was extremely nice and helpful and she was from Madrid.
Another tip, probably the most valuable that my friend gave me, was about the modern art museum a block away from the Prado. This is where masterpieces from the great impressionists were on display. While the vast crowds invade the Prado, only a few are aware of the Museo Thyssene Bornemisza which is in a red brick building without large markings, with in eye shot of the Prado. That is too bad because they don’t know what they missed.
In this unpretentious building hangs the works of the great impressionist masters. In fact, in one room, not much larger than my living room at home, was displayed the works of Monet, Sissily, Renoir, Van Gough, and Degas! I couldn’t believe that all of these paintings were in one room! There was more wealth in art in that one small room than the GNP of a small country! I was totally amazed and took the pictures to prove it.
The museum was more than that one small room. It had three floors through which one could leisurely stroll and peacefully appreciate the beautiful works of these artists without the noise and bustling of the crowds. It was a welcome alternative to the Prado and I am truly happy that I visited that museum after the Prado. I think I almost spent as much time there as the Prado and enjoyed both, immensely.
The time moved faster than I had intended. Thus, I had to complete my search for the obligatory Hard Rock Café (HRC) T-shirt. I suspected that the young gentleman collecting tickets at the museum would know the location of the HRC. I was right and to my relief he spoke English with a British accent. He informed me that the HRC was located in the Colon district and the best way to get there, in a timely manner, was by taxi.
I had arrived at the HRC with the intent of having an early dinner, there. However, it was extremely crowded. Thus, I was able to get my HRC T-shirt, take photos, and left to explore the Colon district.
Not far from the HRC was a most familiar sight! It was Mel’s Dinner, just like in San Francisco! It was crowded, but not as bad as the HRC. I couldn’t pass this up! The hostess actually seem unimpressed when I told her that I once lived in San Francisco where the original Mel’s was located. However, the food was very good and so was the service.
I find it very interesting that many American franchises have sprung up all over Europe. McDonalds, Starbucks, KFC, Burger King, Hard Rock Café, Dunkin Donuts, and even Mel’s Dinner all have at least a foothold on the European continent, if not more. What I find even more interesting is that they all seem to be doing a great business. They are usually crowded. I have also noticed this when I was in malls and train stations. There would be local restaurants serving the local cuisine with a few patrons. However, almost next that restaurant was a Burger King or McDonalds that had people standing in line. The differences in success were easily apparent. It’s almost as if the local people were saying, “Let the tourist eat the local fare. Give me a Big Mac!”
My last day in Madrid, I rested and went around the local area. Since I had a departure time of 21:35 for my train to Lisbon, I was given a late check-out time of 16:00. They allowed me to remain at their club level until my departure time. I spent the time using their internet to check e-mails and eating finger sandwiches and snacks until I felt the need to get to the train station.
Most people that know me will agree that on time for me is usually 10 minutes early. I like to get to the airport at least two hours early to people watch and to have a buffer just in case anything goes wrong. I applied this to train stations, too, and left almost 3 hours early. I asked the hotel to arrange a cab to take me to the station and I reaffirmed with the hotel front desk that there was ONLY one train station. As you expected, there are two train stations in Madrid and they sent me to the wrong one. I didn’t find this out until I checked in with the station’s Customer Service who politely informed me that the station I needed to be at was clear on the opposite side of Madrid! They wrote down the correct station and sent it with me to find another cab.
Another cab ride (This one for $25 Euros) and 30 minutes later, I arrived at the correct train station. Again, I felt the need to check in with Customer Service. Why? Nothing else could go wrong, could it? Murphy’s Law was on steroids, that night! The ticket agent looked at my ticket and politely but firmly said in broken English that my ticket was “Impossible!” It was a ticket from Lisbon to Madrid. My train was leaving Lisbon, Portugal at 21:35 going to Madrid! To further complicate the issue. My Global Eurail Pass was invalid!!!
I think the look of shock and panic in my old man’s face brought out all the available compassion in that railroad bureaucrat. He immediately went into “Let’s see if we can fix it mode!” Luckily there was a train leaving Madrid for Lisbon at 22:35! It was a sleeper. However, all the first-class compartments were fully booked.
I began to have visions of the smoke-filled second-class sleeping compartment that I experienced on the train from hell between Belgrade and Sofia. He assured me that this was the Spanish Train System and that the smoking laws were strictly enforced. Besides, I really didn’t have a choice.
This whole problem had begun with the “nice” lady who had issued the ticket at the train station in Prague and created several problems. First, she wrote down the wrong end date on my Eurail Pass. I had pointed this out to her and she immediately took the attitude that she knew her job! This error automatically invalidated my Eurail Pass! She also reversed the stations, but told me that the train was going from Madrid to Lisbon. I didn’t feel like checking or questioning her on this. I took her at her word. Lesson learned! Ironically, the Customer Service (CS) agent noted that this was not the first incident of this nature with the Prague Travel Company that made the error. Also, I have found out from others that this has happened to them, too!
Unfortunately, I didn’t discover these errors until I got to the “Correct” train station! Thank God, I arrived 2 hours early. Otherwise, I would have never made it to Lisbon on my scheduled day. The real hero in this whole mess was the great Customer Service (CS) agent who realized all these errors and got a team of 5 guys into a “huddle” reminiscent of the final game of an NCAA Tournament. Reflecting back at this huddle, it was really a sight to see with all the arm waving, yelling, figure pointing, foot stomping, and regulation checking. Occasionally, my new best friend, the CS agent, would turn to me with a question or a need to look at my passport, again! This “Huddle” lasted a good twenty minutes. Finally, they came up with the outstanding key “Play” that would reissue a proper Eurail Global Pass and get me a reservation on that night’s train in the second-class sleeper to Lisbon. I understand that reissuing an invalid Eurail Global Pass takes almost an act of God. Well, they did it! I thanked each of them, especially my new best friend the CS agent, profusely! I think the look on my face and the tone of my voice affirmed my sincerity. Yes, there were people in Madrid who actually WERE helpful! I boarded a nice, clean, smoke free sleeper car and departed on time for Lisbon!
I will deal with recouping the cost of the other first-class ticket through my Credit Card Company and travel insurance company when I return home. I will also reflect on this whole incident to determine some lessons learned. It could have been a whole lot worse. God worked over time on this one.
I arrived in lovely Lisbon, at 07:30, tired but on time. Would I be so lucky as to have a hotel room available for early check-in? We will see in the next update that covers Lisbon and other parts of Portugal.