Of suckling pigs and melting cathedrals
The last time I visited Madrid I was staying in a boutique hotel , a concept quite new to an unseasoned traveler like me. In my mind boutique was cute, quaint and personalised. What I didn’t expect was a bathroom in the bedroom – ensuite and transparent leaving everything to full view. Well, that didn’t appeal to my sense of comfort so I opted for a well known chain of hotels closest to the Atocha railway station from where I intended catching the first train out to Barcelona for a day trip to see the La Sagrada Familia.
It turned out that my choice of NH Sur which was bang opposite the station was not particularly wise because apart from the location there is nothing else to recommend the hotel. The check in desk was four steps lower than the lobby entrance and there was absolutely no bell boy to help drag my suitcase down. The tiny lift was just about enough for me and my bag but the worst was yet to come………..no air conditioning. The manager apologised profusely and said that just the week before Madrid was so cold that they had to turn on the heat but I realised this is an old trick played by all European hotels. They just can’t be bothered to keep their guests comfortable.
The good thing about a bad ac is that you want to spend as little time in the room and get so exhausted that you just fall asleep the moment your head hits the pillow. So after a breakfast which consisted of pig, pig and more pig, we set off on the Hop On Hop Off bus to get an “overview” of the city. Our first stop was the Royal Palace which was officially closed but we were lucky to get a grandstand view of the changing of the guard complete with brass band and handsome soldiers! While we waited for the bus to lumber up we had a quick beer and tapas at the Sabatini cafe close by – totally touristy and playing only to the gallery.
After going through the city we stopped off at the Prado to visit one of the MUST see museums of the world. Following my principle of keeping to the MUST see exhibits, we picked up a map of the museum and breezed through the different rooms oohing and aahing at the appropriate paintings. Truly it was amazing and definitely more pleasant than the modern art we had seen the day before at the Reina Sofia.
That evening we spent exploring the environs of the Plaza Mayor and had dinner at the Cafeteria Christina where we were served by Pavan Kumar Bansal! While I would have much rather have been served by an authentic Madreleno I realised that since I was eating Italian in Madrid, I couldn’t expect to be served by a native!
My real quest in Madrid was to eat a suckling roast pig at the famous Le Botin or at La Galayos. Unfortunately my dining companions were either vegetarian or stuffed and since I couldn’t eat a pig by myself, I had to give it a miss. So I will have to go to Madrid yet another time to sample the famed roast piglet.
The countryside sped by in the high speed train to Barcelona, a city so vastly different from Madrid. The only word to describe it was huge and I realised that a day was just not enough to see it and my idea of doing a Hop on Hop Off was impossible. So we hopped on to the underground and did just the two stops that were possible – the La Sagrada and the Gothic city surrounding Barcelona’s cathedral.
Stepping out of the Metro station at Sagrada I was simply amazed to see the huge Gaudi cathedral looming straight ahead of me. The first word that came to mind was shock! It looked like one big gingerbread house about to melt down. Unfortunately there were huge queues so I didn’t even attempt to go inside but I am sure a conducted tour would have revealed even more than what I could see.
Gaudi’s unfinished work though gave me the heebie jeebies – fantastic, awesome and yet undeniably creepy a feeling which was not replicated thankfully at the old Cathedral in the Gothic quarter of this ancient city. I loved walking through this maze of old stone buildings each one more stunning than the next. Eventually I stopped taking photographs for fear of not being able to soak in the atmosphere and enjoying the feeling of being transported back in time. Barcelona’s cathedral is open to visitors in the afternoon and you can easily spend an hour or more listening to the lovely organ music played by the organist whose head can be seen bobbing behind the pipes. Take the lift to the top and get a rooftop view of the entire city and then come down to the square below to get yourself photographed with the letters that spell BARCELONA.
- If you are a piggy back traveller like me ( holidaying while the spouse is working) choose a hotel that is well located. The hotels in the Atocha district of Madrid may be pricey but you will be able to walk to most of the sights
- The Metro is safe and easily doable – so don’t jump into the Hop On Hop Off unless you want a roof top view
- Tapas is highly over rated and most of the Sangria is passable so go for Spanish food in places where you won’t find tourists…
- Walk through the Retiro park, walk through the city
- Keep at least three days to enjoy Barcelona