I finally made it back for a long weekend in Madrid, after nearly 15 months away. Unlike my last trip, when I was picking up my belongings from my time living there, this trip was fun and relaxation all the way.
Once I'd sorted myself out at my hostal on Friday afternoon, I met up with Julie, my first good friend when I arrived there in 2009 - we hit the Mercado San Miguel for the early part of the evening. We chatted away over far too many vermut grifos. It was good to catch up and it was particularly interesting to hear about how much Madrid has changed since I left, but especially in the last year since the recession really hit.
After the multiple vermuts with Julie, I went on to meet Eve, my first and best flatmate when I lived on Banana Street! She took me to a secret bar, on the sixth floor of what appears to be a residential building. A couple of beers and a huge plate of asparagus and pimientos al padron followed, accompanied by lots and lots of chat!
I was staying at my regular haunt, a hostal at the top of Calle de la Montera (commonly known as Prostitute Street) and once back there, around 1am, I flung the windows of my sixth floor room open and fell asleep to the sounds of late-night/early morning Madrid. It's weird that the sounds of the occasional bus and a few drunkards going past my flat at home drive me insane, yet I can sleep in Madrid with dozens of people chatting, singing and generally having fun in the street outside, and with the non-stop traffic on Gran Via just feet away.
Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny and after meeting up with Julie for a miniature breakfast, it was time for Cathy to arrive and join me. Once she was settled in to the hostal, we went out for lunch at FrescCo, still an absolute bargain "Eat As Much As You Like (with a free drink) for €10.95". Stuffed, we headed down towards Atocha train station, as I'd discovered Cathy had never seen the rainforest and terrapin pool in there! After gazing at the terrapins and booking our train to Segovia for Sunday, we went to La Caixa Forum where we saw no less than three exhibitions. One was, as Cathy put it, "arty bollocks", the second was an educational display about food shortages around the world, and the third was a somewhat weird exhibition of various real and fictitious circus and voodoo-type icons. We spotted a poster announcing that the 2013 Carnaval celebrations were due to start that day with a parade from Plaza Mayor to Cibeles. 7pm found us on Calle de Sevilla with several thousand other people awaiting the arrival of the parade. It was pretty spectacular - floats, music, fire-breathers, dancers and a gigantic inflatable dinosaur. We had to battle our way through the crowds back across Sol to meet Eve again in the evening, before heading off for a pre-dinner drink at Bar Ave Fenix (the old location of the famous Friday night English-practice meet-up). Then it was time for dinner at La Isla del Tesoro - possible the loveliest vegetarian restaurant I've been to anywhere in the world! I'd forgotten how tasty the (free) pre-starter of chickpeas, caramelised onions and mayo with a variety of home-made bread was. We shared mixed croquetas and then enjoyed an Energy Wok, a Barley Beach and a Jungle Burger! We walked off our delicious meal by wandering to Casa Patas, a bar recommended by Eve. Rather disconcertingly for a vegetarian, we were sat directly under a mass of jamon! It regularly hosts traditional bands and flamenco, though there was nothing on while we were there - initially I thought we might be just too early as it was barely midnight when we arrived, but they were putting the chairs on the tables when we left after two beers and two gigantic Drambuies - it was fun ordering those as it's clearly not something the barman (Oscar) had been asked for again and none of us could work out how on earth it would be pronounced in Spanish! How could I forget how enormous Spanish shots are! It had been another fabulous evening of chat, food and drink.
After a long and tiring day and perhaps just a little too much alcohol, it was a bit of a struggle to get up Sunday morning but we had train tickets to Segovia booked and had to get up to the north part of the city to catch the train from Estacion Chamartin. We made it with a few minutes to spare, grabbed another morning-after-repair tortilla baguette and headed to the train. I had believed my guidebook which said it takes 90-120 minutes to get to Segovia by train. However, that guidebook was written before the "AV" (Avant) trains were brought in. These are the high-speed trains and it turned out our journey took less than half an hour! The train station really is in the middle of nowhere and it takes another 20 minutes on a bus to actually get to the town but it's great to be dropped off directly under the famous aqueduct. Segovia is a rather weird city - the ancient part is being subsumed on all sides by new buildings, and not attractive ones at that. We spent the day wandering the cobbled winding streets, climbing the ancient city walls, marvelling at the height of the cathedral and watching yet another Carnaval parade in a different Plaza Mayor! We also listened to Spain's answer to The Flying Pickets - Tutto Voce - who were great. Eight male a capella singers, with a guy with a voice so low it was like the beginnings of an earthquake. We caught them rehearsing when we first arrived and then watched their main performance after the parade. It was clear from a lyrics sheet that was handed out and from the reaction of the audience that many of the lyrics were satirical. The Segovia Carnaval has a different theme every year - this year's was 1920s and prohibition. The costumes relating to that theme were mixed up with classic carnival outfits, worthy of a Venetian masked ball. During the stage show it started to snow but it wasn't to last. After more wandering around the Jewish Quarter, we treated ourselves to yet more croquetas and a white bean and egg mix at a local bar with pretensions (!) before heading back to take a closer look at the aqueduct. Even though I had been there before, I had honestly forgotten what an incredible feat of engineering the aqueduct actually is. We climbed the wide shallow stairs up the walls almost at the top of it, and marvelled at how something so tall and long could be held together by, well, nothing. There is no cement or anything similar - the blocks are held together solely by their own pressure. Cathy had a go at pushing it over but, surprisingly, without success! Another high-speed train whisked us back to Madrid, we walked some of the way back, past the area where I used to live, which has barely changed, but then the rain set in and we hopped on the Metro back to the hostal. We treated ourselves to a little siesta before heading off to Eve and Pedro's place, as they had kindly invited us to come for dinner. We had a lovely evening - Eve had made absolutely delicious food, we had a tour of their cute flat, chatted about nonsense as usual, I caught up with Pedro (again, one of my first friends when I arrived in Madrid) and generally put the world to rights! The Metro carried us back to our cosy hostal room for our final night.
We allowed ourselves a bit of a lie-in on Monday morning as we had to check out but we then had the whole day ahead of us before flying home. We dumped our bags behind reception, paid our bill and headed to Chocolateria San Gines for an obligatory breakfast of chocolate and churros. Delicious, of course, but very filling and just a little sickly! Then it was another trip to the Mercado San Miguel for a wander round the food stalls. I managed to forget to buy the lovely veggie croquetas though. From there, we headed into the little back streets behind the market to try and find the Convent de las Carboneras - this is a "closed" convent (the nuns have no actual contact with the outside world) but in order to raise money, they make cakes and biscuits which they sell to the public via a rotating drum system. We stood in the right square, not quite sure which building we needed, when a smiley homeless lady came up to us saying "Dulces?" ("Sweet things?") We said yes and she led us to the building we were actually standing next to and rang a bell on the wall. When a voice answered, she said "Dos señoras aqui" ("Two women here") and the door opened. We followed signs to the "Torn" down two dark corridors and across a courtyard. In a darkened lobby we found the dark wood of a revolving drum with a price list next to it. A disembodied voice then reiterated the cakes, the amounts and the prices. We went for half a kilo of small almond cakes for €9. We put our money on the wooden tray and then it was whisked away on the revolving drum, replaced by our box of cakes! (If you click on the link above, you can see pictures of the whole procedure.) We thanked the invisible nun and off we went. When we exited back into the daylight, the homeless lady was waiting for us, looking very pleased with herself! We thanked her and offered her some cakes but she shook her head and said she would rather have money! Honest, if nothing else. We gave her a few Euros and a couple of little cakes anyway.
At this point, my sense of direction which had been standing me in quite good stead up until now, completely deserted me and I led us off in totally the wrong direction. We ended up walking to Lavapies which I couldn't have found if I wanted to, before I gave in and followed the map. From there, we planned to have a quick drink in Circulo de Bellas Artes café which had been Debbie's regular haunt when we lived there. The main door was closed due to some kind of incident with a falling sign and when we got to the alternative door we found a sign saying that there was an entrance fee of €1 just to get into the café. In all honesty, we weren't that bothered so we left again! We went back to Cibeles to check on the times of the newly-discovered airport bus (thanks Julie). Since we were right outside the Correos (main post office) we went into the incredibly impressive building to get stamps for our postcards. No physical stamps any more, apparently. We handed over our money and postcards and the lady used an ink stamp on them. Saves paper, I guess. From there, we headed back to the centre and to Bar La Catedral which I had always planned to visit. It was eventually time for a spot of lunch so we went to El Buscon, a regular haunt when I lived there. It had been tarted up a bit but was still busy and had a great buzz. The waiter was seemingly on his own, dealing with a full room of diners but he was great - he whizzed around, smiling constantly, putting up with my terrible Spanish and practicing his English on us and, as the afternoon went on, started to pinch Cathy's cheek each time he passed the table! The most impressive thing was that as a result of one of our questions, he popped back to the table and said "Do you not eat meat?" We confirmed that we didn't and he brought us a veggie tapas (everyone else seemed to have bread and sausage). We both had an absolutely delicious vegetable soup to start, then I had my favourite dish when I regularly ate there - huevos rotos con patatas fritas (in my case, sin chistora). Yes, it's egg and chips but yet somehow, it's not! Our attempts to leave were thwarted by the fact that every time we asked the smiley waiter for the bill, he pinched Cathy's cheek, stroked my chin and brought us two free shots, but no bill! We eventually managed to pay and headed to Plaza Mayor for a last little tourist bit! Finally, we had to admit it was time to leave, retrieved our luggage from the hostal and walked down to Cibeles for the airport bus. For the second time in one trip, we had completely misunderstood/misread travel time and a trip which we thought would take 50 minutes actually only took 15. We were at the airport extremely early but managed to kill time till our flight home.
It was a really lovely weekend with great company, lots of food and drink, and I remembered once more just why I loved living there!
I'm sure I'll be back again soon.
A selection of my photos can be found HERE.