Sunday, May 24, 2009


When I got to Madrid yesterday, I could tell right away it was going to be a very different experience than Barcelona.  A better experience.  Not that Barcelona was bad. Everything just felt like a bit of a struggle there, which at the time I chalked up to it being a culture shock having just come from London as well as being in a non-English speaking country. But not only that, I just didn't find Barcelona an appealing city.  It was fine, but that's all it was - fine. When I expressed this same sentiment to someone the other day, I was reminded that fine definitely doesn't sound like a positive!

So back to Madrid...

I landed in the early afternoon and took the metro into the city.  As I was sitting on the metro, a couple sitting across from me struck up a conversation.  They were Americans from Texas, and I was thrilled to talk to them.  I have heard very few American voices in the past three weeks, and it had gotten to the point where as I would hear an American in a crowd I wanted to run up to them and say, "You're an American? I'm an American!"  But since that would be a bit psychotic, I hadn't done that... yet.

The hotel is awesome.  It's in the perfect location on Plaza de Santa Ana - right in the middle of several great wine and tapas bars and within easy walking or metro distance to anywhere I have wanted to go.  For dinner last night I went to a wine and tapas bar, Vinoteca Barbechera.  I had read excellent reviews of it online and then when I discovered it was right across the plaza from my hotel I decided I had to go there.  It was packed and there wasn't a seat to be found, so I squeezed in at the bar where I stood to eat and drink.  The tapas were not your run of the mill fried calamari like I ran across at every tapas bar in Barcelona.  I had one of goat cheese with caramelized onions and the other (and the hands down winner) was foie gras with a candied apple.  I had two glasses of wine as well.  My whole bill was only 12 Euros. Perfect!  

The hotel has a great rooftop bar, Penthouse Bar, which is a Rande Gerber bar.  For those who aren't familiar, he's the guy married to Cindy Crawford, and he has bars and restaurants all over the world, including Whiskey Bar in New York.  I'm on their mailing list and a few weeks ago received an email for a free bottle of champagne on my birthday, which was yesterday. Perfect, except I had no one to share it with, but since it was my birthday, I made a reservation anyway for a table in the bar. I got there about 12:30 am, and it was packed.  Even though I had a reservation, they only had a seat for me next to three other people.  When I sat down I ordered my bottle of champagne and asked for four glasses so I could share. No way was I making it through an entire bottle by myself, and I thought this might be a way to make friends fast.  Sure enough, once they each had a glass, we started chatting.  It was two girls and one of the girls' father, all from Germany.  One of the girls, Julie (pronounced like Julia), was a student doing a semester in Spain.  The other girl, Karina, had just finished a semester in Spain and had returned to Germany but was visiting Julie for the weekend.  Julie's father (I didn't catch his name) was also visiting her for the weekend from Germany.  Of course they all spoke fluent English (and Spanish), so we didn't have any problems communicating. Once they found out it was my birthday Julie and Karina asked me to go out with them and one of their friends, Isabella, who was born in Brazil but grew up in London and was visiting for the weekend as well. 

About 2 am we met Isabella in Plaza Puerta del Sol and took a taxi to Club Kapitol, a huge club in Madrid that has seven floors, three of which have a DJ and dancing.  The entry fee was 20 Euros (it came with a drink, but that is a serious entry fee!), and the girls insisted on paying for me because it was my birthday.  We started out by going to the bar to get our drinks and then going to the main floor, which consisted of pop/techno music and dancers on stage.  The club was very much like a club I've been to in Miami.  The music was really good, and at one point, a man was drumming along with the music up on a suspended platform above the crowd, which everyone really got into.  About 4 am or so, I ended up catching a taxi back to my hotel and leaving the girls at the club. 

One of the things I really wanted to do in Spain was see a bullfight.  I found out that the San Isidro Festival, marking the beginning of bullfighting season would be taking place while I was in Madrid.  This morning I took the metro to the Las Ventas bullfighting stadium to buy a ticket.  As I approached the stadium, I saw a crowd of people and realized I had stumbled upon an anti-bullfighting protest.  But this wasn't your normal protest.  This was a topless protest. Men and women dressed in only black bikini bottoms and shorts were sprawled out on top of a huge white tarp holding signs that read "Tauromaquia Abolicion," or "Bullfight Abolition." Obviously this didn't deter me - I bought a ticket for 7.70 Euros - but it did make for an interesting start to my morning.

After leaving the stadium, I took the metro to Retiro Park, which was supposed to be one of Madrid's most beautiful parks.  From the parks I've seen so far in Europe, I would qualify it as one of Europe's most beautiful parks.  It was a great day to be at the park - sunny and warm - and the park was crowded.  There was an orchestra playing, and I stayed for awhile and enjoyed the music.  Later I took the metro to the subway stop near my hotel and in Plaza Puerta del Sol saw yet another protest.  This one was protesting L'oreal and other cosmetics companies, and people wore giant lipsticks on top of their heads.  The Europeans are nothing if not creative in their protests.  I then walked to Plaza Mayor and walked around and checked out the different street performers, followed by El Rastro Market, which is similar to the market I went to in Notting Hill last weekend, though not nearly as large and extensive.  This market consisted mostly of clothes and jewelry.  I bought a cuff made out of hammered metal for 15 Euros (happy birthday to me!).  After going back to the hotel for a bit, I went to the Museo del Prado, which is one of the major art museums here in Madrid and has free entry on Sunday late afternoons.

A word of warning:  If you have any qualms about the senseless killing of animals I would advise that you don't read the next paragraph or look at the pictures that follow.

The bullfight was at 7 pm, so I made my way back to Las Ventas stadium.  As I walked up to the stadium, I was laughing at how it didn't feel all that dissimilar from going to a UT football game.  I found my seat, which I had assumed would be terrible considering the inexpensive ticket but wasn't bad at all, and I was in the shade for most of the bullfight.  I sat through five bullfights (I have no idea how many there are as five was enough for me), and each one followed basically the same pattern:  There was a main matador and then three or four other matadors out in the ring.  Each had a bright pink cape.  A trumpet would sound, signifying the bullfight was to start and out came the bull.  Sometimes the bull had to be agitated a bit to get him started; other times he came out mad and was ready to go.  Each of the matadors would take turns using the cape to get the bull to charge and as it seemed the bull was getting too close for comfort to one matador, another matador would get near the bull and distract him with his cape.  Then the trumpet would sound again, and out would come two guys on horses with lances. The horses were each blindfolded and covered with some kind-of protection against the bull's charge, which happened every bullfight.  When that happened the guy on the horse would stab the bull with the lance.  In fact at one point, a horse was knocked over to the ground, and I thought the bull had killed him, but they got the bull away from the horse, pulled the horse up and he was fine.  The trumpet would then sound and the guys on horses would leave.  The other matadors then try to implant what looks like colored sticks into the bull's back, and once they did that, they would stick there and the bull would run around bleeding with the sticks attached to him. (I know I'm not explaining this well at all, by the way...)  Again, the trumpet would sound and then it was time for the matador to come out with the red cape and a sword.  At this point the matador was just agitating the bull, but later when the final trumpet sounded, the matador would then begin stabbing the bull in his back with the sword.  As it became apparent the bull was dying (he would get what can only be described a lethargic and refusing to charge despite the matadors' attempts to agitate the bull with their capes), the main matador would kill the bull with one final stab to his back.  The bull would go down and then horses came out and dragged the bull away.  The whole process was one of the craziest things I've ever seen.

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