Thursday, 25 June 2009

Sid came, she saw, she ate

And so my first visitor from the UK came to my new hometown. Sid arrived last Saturday lunchtime and we had until Tuesday evening to cram in what we could.

Saturday afternoon involved a trip to the Chocolateria San Gines for the to-die-for chocolate and churros. Proper hot chocolate - somehow thick and gloopy without being sweet - makes the stuff in the UK seem even more inferior. We wandered around Sol , in and out of random shops and generally enjoyed the sunshine, while I pointed out things I'd noticed since I've been here and Sid remembered things from a previous visit. Whilst in El Corte Ingles, I stopped briefly to look at little AC units, at which point Sid told me a needed a "large fanny thing". What can you say to that?! In the evening, despite our intentions to go out and sample some local eatery, we sat on the balcony with beer and G&T, watching the sun set and chatting. Eventually a home-made lentil stew made its way to our tummies!

Photos of Day 1:

Sunday started as lazy Sundays should - a long drawn-out breakfast on the balcony, of bread, cheese, houmous and watermelon. Despite all my promises, there was not a sign of the half-naked firemen jogging past and I think Sid thought I was making it all up.
By 12, we were out the door and heading for the first of the PhotoEspaƱa 09 exhibitions ( This is a great exhibition, with little bits all over the city - 74 in total. We had picked 3 that we thought looked interesting: The 1970s (at Teatro Fernan Gomez), 30/40s America (Calle Zorilla) and some photojournalism (in the Botanical Gardens). No photography was allowed inside the exhibitions (ironic, I thought)! The 1970s exhibition was pretty huge with a massive selection of international work - apartheid in South Africa, gay pick-up park in Japan, a very weird bar in Hamburg, self-portraits, you name it. As usual with any exhibition there were sections we spent ages poring over, and bits we practically walked straight through, saying "Hmm, yeah, OK, don't get it".

30s/40s America had unfortunately closed by the time we got there but by a quirk of fate it was in the same street as Al Natural, a vegetarian restaurant that had been recommended to me. It was time for lunch so a delicious veggie paella and an unusual courgette tart that involved absolutely no pastry or anything even resembling it followed. Oh, and an obligatory beer! Re-energised we headed off to the Botanical Gardens.

The large villa at the back turned out to house 2 exhibitions - one more of your "arty-farty" kind by a woman who did a lot of "video installation". Didn't do a lot for me, though the very first bit was amusing - sets of pairs of photographs involving a Spot the Difference game. The other was called "Evidence" - 2 photojournalists had trawled through thousands of photographs that had at some point been used in evidence in trials. There were no explanations of any of them, leading us to wonder what kind of trial had required, for instance, a photograph of a man in pyjamas, wired up to inexplicable leads, with what looked like an external pacemaker. A very early lie detector, we wondered! Others were more self-explanatory - footprints in dried blood, bullet casings etc.

It hadn't taken long, so we treated ourselves to a wander round the Botanical Gardens which, despite the dryness here, were blooming well. The indoor tropical gardens were steamy and we discovered a walkway across the top which gave a new view. It also served to prove that Sid appears to be doing a damn good job of getting over her fear of heights!

And then it was on to the Retiro. I do wish I didn't live quite so far from it, as wandering round the shaded avenues is something I don't think I'll tire of, but I just can't do it that often! We grabbed a little tub of ice cream each, and found a patch of grass to eat, chat and laze. I can never quite believe that it still seems to feel quiet despite the massive number of people in there!

The evening was again full of good intentions, but resulted in beer and G&T on the balcony, sunset and this time, bread, houmous, cheese and Marmite for dinner! Oh, and just maybe some cheesy puffs!

Photos of Day 2:

And so on to Monday. I'd been determined to get out of the city one way or another, and having been to Toledo a couple of weeks ago, Segovia was the destination of choice this time. A great easy train ride from Chamartin (25 mins and €9.45 each way) found us there by 11am. Be warned, should you go, the train station is in the middle of nowhere and you then have to take a 15 minute bus journey to the town. The bus dropped us off at the Plaza de Artilleria right opposite the famous aqueduct and our day began. Having picked up the obligatory free map from the tourist information, we followed the well worn path from the aqueduct, up to the cathedral and on to the castle. There are more churches in Segovia than I thought possible - strangely, apart from the cathedral, all locked. Very unusual for Spain. We didn't go in the cathedral as both of us have an issue with entrance fees to churches (if they'd asked for a donation, it would have been a different story), nor did we take the guided tour of the castle. It's an odd place - described as dating from the 11th to the 19th century, it looked for all the world to me as if it had been hurled up 6 months ago and should have been at the entrance to Disneyland. Maybe inside it was different but having read the descriptions of the "fairytale castle with its towers and parapets" I was expecting more Gormenghast than theme park.

Despite being about 7 degrees cooler than Madrid, it was still hot so lunch on a shaded terrace overlooking the terracotta rooves and the mountains was required. Perhaps predictably, patatas bravas (no spicy kick at all), bocadilla tortilla (yum) and champinones al ajillo (garlic mushrooms and mega-yum) were today's picks. Ah, and beer!

Duly fed, we headed away from the main area. It's a lovely city and, like many of these kinds of places, much more interesting to get off the beaten track and wander the back streets of the residential areas. This we did, wandering through empty streets of ancient houses, dodging the occasional car that squeezed down the narrow lanes. We found more churches, viewpoints, storks, a kid's playground (couldn't resist), a convent which I accidentally tried to break into, a very incongruous young band rehearsing in a church garden and a long flight of stairs leading out from the city walls and down to the valley and the river below. According to the map there was a grotto and a cave down there so off we went. No grotto, no cave - I'm sure they were there but we just missed the path. However, instead, we found ourselves on a tiny bridge over the river - perfect for Pooh Sticks of course, which Sid won! It was very tranquil down there, even cooler, shady, we couldn't hear any traffic but the cicadas were impressive! Sadly, we realised that (in reverse gravity theory), what came down, must go back up. When we looked up at the city walls, we realised it was going to be a long way up! A well deserved smoothie awaited us at the top before we caught the bus back to the train station and headed home.

Determined to make it out of the flat one evening, we hopped on the Metro later that evening, went to a very camp (not to mention expensive) bar in Chueca, then on to have huevos y patatas (egg and chips to most of us) in a tapas bar near Sol. Very tasty and certainly after the gigantic G&T Sid had been served in Chueca, very required! When we finally ordered the bill, the waiter pouted and said "No! Why?" Admittedly we couldn't come up with a very good reason so we accepted the large free liqueur he brought over instead - no idea what it was - tasted like Cointreau mixed with Pernod or something. Not Sid's cup of tea (in fact, I think by then that's exactly what she wanted!) so I drank both. It would have been rude not to! Home on almost the last Metro. Now that's more like it!

Photos of Day 3:

And so Sid's last day rolled around. We walked down to Plaza Chamberi, met Debbie, and headed into the Metro Museum based at what used to be Chamberi Metro Station. Opened in the early 20th century, one of the first stations in Madrid, it was closed in 1966 when, due to the curve of the line, it was deemed impossible to extend the platform length from 60m to 90m, to accommodate the new trains that were being used on the rapidly growing Metro network. It was rediscovered some 40 years later and restoration work was begun. You can now descend through the original ticket office and gates, onto one of the platforms. Protected by a screen of perspex, you can see over to the opposite platform and wait for the passing Metros to hurtle through. It's a strange feeling to be down there - the restoration work has been meticulous - old tiled advertisements and the original route signs all serve to make you feel like it could be 70-odd years ago. There is a constantly running film projected onto the walls of the opposite platform, showing the Metro in its first few years. After the trip down to the platform, there's a mini cinema with a 20 minute film about the history of the Metro and the restoration. All in Spanish, of course, fortunately with subtitles (in Spanish!).

We re-emerged into the sun and headed down to Bar Santa Barbara at Alonso Martinez Metro. Having been in there a couple of times previously, I remembered the divine Patatas Santa Barbara (like patatas bravas but their own secret sauce!), and the verduras salteados - aubergine, courgette, carrot, peas, beans etc, roasted in olive oil and sprinkled (liberally) with rock salt. Gorgeous. And of course the obligatory lunchtime beer!

Then it was back up to my area for a walk round the local park, then to the flat for tea and cake on the balcony (how civilised). We pondered long and hard at the cake counter in the local shop, finally deciding on long thin chocolate filled light pastries, sprinkled with more chocolate. Or as Sid called them - poo. We drank tea and ate too much poo, then it was time for Sid to pack up and head off on the Metro. :-(

Photos of Day 4:

All in all, it was a great 4 days. Thanks to Sid for good company, mother nature for the fantastic weather and to Madrid!