Spain 2012

Written by on September 4, 2012 in Europe, General

It was sad to say goodbye to Cat, Micki, Alisa and Tom, but also nice to know I’d see them again in SF in a few weeks.  I settled into my typical travel-day attitude and was armed and ready with my laptop and nook to entertain me through getting to the Nice airport early and then my connection in Vienna.  I’m now halfway through the second “Fifty Shades of Gray” installment, “Fifty Shades Darker”, so time passed quickly!  There is a really easy bus from the Madrid airport to the city center for 5E which runs every 15-20 mins. It dropped me off at the train station, Atocha, and I took a quick taxi to our awesome hotel, the ME Melia.  My friend Chrissie was flying in the next day to meet me for the Spain “leg”, and so I hopped out of my backpacker shoes and embraced my “flashpacker” self in full force.  The ME was in a perfect location on the Plaze de Santa Ana, dead center in the middle of Madrid.  The ME was a 5* hotel that looked like it took notes from all W Hotels, from the cool rooftop bar, to the low-lit gym, to the extra-small but super-functional room with extra soft beds and pillows.  Nice!  And all for $100/night!  I’d looked at hostels in Madrid and was seeing 20E for a bed in a dorm.  So it was easy to justify $50 each to act like I was still employed and enjoy staying in a nice place.

It was Saturday afternoon and I’d seen a free walking tour advertised online, so I headed to the Puerto del Sol to hopefully join the tour and meet some peeps to hang out with as Chrissie didn’t arrive til the next morning.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find the meeting spot and missed the tour, so wandered around on my own for a couple hours re-acquainting myself with Madrid.  The same company also offered a pub crawl which started at 10p, so I made sure I was there on time and met my new friends for the night.  Most were under 24, but all were from different countries and all had interesting stories about why they were in Madrid.  The “pub” crawl was actually a cheesy “club” crawl, but I made due, and finally said goodnight to everyone around 4a.  This was not before our pub crawl guide Hector, a spitting image of the guy with the fro from LMFAO, got up on stage and did an amazing lip sync/dance for both of the popular LMFAO songs at the last club.  Hilarious! Wish I had my camera with me.

Chrissie arrived early Sunday morning.  I’d been to Madrid four or five times before and had never made it to any of the museums, so I made sure to make visiting the Museo Sofia del Reine, Del prado and the Thyssen top priority.  I really enjoyed the Sofia del Reine, especially the wing with all of the Picassos.  We also stopped into the Museo del Jamon, which isn’t really a museum but a chain restaurant selling anything and everything Iberican ham. Technically we visited 4 museums in the same day, which is definitely a record for me!

It turns out Chrissie is as big a movie buff as I am, so we found the English speaking movie theater and saw Bourne Legacy, followed by a couple glasses of Rioja on the Plaza de Santa Ana, admiring the purple lights atop our hotel.

I loved that our hotel had a gym.  I hadn’t had a real workout in a couple months, so was nice to hit the elliptical and a couple other machines to start the day.   I’ve been drinking way too much beer and indulging in way too many bread baskets, sadly resulting in me putting on back all the weight I’d lost in Ibiza.  Note to self – easy on the carbs!

Anyway, we headed to the train station thinking that we’d easily be able to get the train leaving 10 minutes later to Toledo, but was totally wrong as every seat was booked.  No big deal as we found a wine bar smack in the middle of the Atocha station that helped pass the next 1.5 hours til the next train, which took about 25 mins to get to Toledo.  It was REALLY hot that day.  We saw a sign that said it was 44C degrees, which I believe is 111F.  Not your ideal day to be touring an inland stone town.  We tried to make the best of it, visiting the Catedral Primada Santa Maria de Toledo, a gothic-style Roman Catholic cathedral where building began in the 13th century.  I think it’s one of the nicer Cathedrals in all of Europe, and I’ve seen plenty.  We also walked around to see a monastery and a couple synogogues, including the beautiful Santa Maria de Blanca, which is now a museum.

Toledo is another one of those towns that was quite tolerant of people with different religious faiths living harmoniously.  Well, at least until they expelled the Jews in the late 1400s.What is the deal with all the sword and knife shops in Toledo anyway???  They were everywhere!

I didn’t have the LP with me in Spain, but have since found out that the manufacturing of swords in Toledo dates back to Roman times, and the sword-making industry in the 15th to 17th century went through quite the boom, with Toledo swords were regaded as the best in Europe.  Small history lesson 🙂

It was nice that Chrissie and I were on exactly the same page on our speed for viewing museums and churches (lightning speed), as we’d blown through Toledo in less than 3 hours.  I can’t say for sure that it would have been that fast had it been my first visit to Toledo, but it didn’t matter….we headed down to the train station to see if we could catch the earlier train.  Sold out!  Doh!  OMG…we were just a little bit off today.  No worries though as we found a bar across the street from the train station to wait for our train, coming two hours later.

Still in a movie mood, we went to see Ted.  Hilarious!  Loving that the theater was 2 blocks from our hotel.  We had seen a bar/restaurant walking near in our hotel earlier that day advertising 0.70E beers, so thought we’d give it a shot.  Turns out that’s exactly what you got for 0.70E…a shot of beer!  Oh well…I was so full from the massive popcorn, I probably couldn’t have drank much more.  We called it a relatively early night.

I worked out again the next morning, but spoiled it completely with the free breakfast I’d gotten by signing up for the ME frequent flyer club.  Normally 25E, it was a FULL breakfast.  I didn’t take full advantage, but definitely filled up with juices, coffee, mimosas, croissants, muffins, bacon, etc.  Soooo good!  We leisurely checked out and took taxi to Hertz. After a quick McDonald’s bathroom and snack break, we were on our way to Pamplona. We had a little trouble navigating our way out of Madrid, but it was smooth sailing after that. We tried to come up through Rioja wine country, but we’d left Madrid too late and the wineries were closed L Scenery was generally pretty boring and very quarry-like, except for a small section before Logrono, which had some stunning red rocks, similar to what you’d see in Sedona.

We reached one of my best friend Kelly’s place by 630 and did a quick turnaround and headed into center of Pamplona for a bite to eat. Our friend Lisa from Oakland was also visiting Kelly, so it was a nice reunion.

Three bottles of cava (Spanish champagne) and a few tapas later, we called it a night and headed to Kelly’s in-laws to pick up her adorable girls, Saoia (4 yrs old) and Miren (1 yr old).

It was a fairly early night for all, except me, who stayed up til 4am finishing up my Bulgaria blog entry, which I’m not sure I’ll ever get right and continue to edit as things with Shane evolve…or de-evolve, if that’s even a word, which is probably a better way to describe what’s happened over the last couple weeks.  Amazing (and sad) how quickly things change.Kelly woke us up bright and early the next morning as we were sleeping in the living room. She had found a sports club about 10 minutes away where Chrissie and I could play tennis, go to the gym and hang out by the pool for 15E each. That is exactly what we did!  Had an awesome day at the “Desportivo”, with lots of tennis, sunshine and several beers.  We finally walked back to Kelly’s office around 5p to sort out some lease stuff with my new prospective tenant, and then back to her place. Her and Inigo took us to an “acedor”, which is a Spanish grill similar to a Parilla. It was yummy!  After very little sleep on the couch the night before and lots of steak, cava and rioja, I was out like a light.

On Thursday, Chrissie and I headed back to the Desportivo for more tennis before packing up and heading up to Biarritz. On the way, we drove to the center of Pamplona for a look around as Chrissie hadn’t been here before, and the other night we only made it as far as the Plaza de Castillo the first night here. We wandered around and found a little restaurant by the Iglesia de Santa Maria, ordered, and took turns going into the church while waiting for food to come. Left around 4 and headed to Biarritz.  It was nearly impossible to park, but Chrissie miraculously found a spot near our hotel – the Brit Hotel Marbella, which was in a perfect location a block from the beach. 125e/night for an ok 3* hotel-def high season.  Very expensive for my backpacker budget, but everyone else was on vacation, so had to go with the flow.

We went for dinner at kid-friendly restaurant playing Latin music just loud enough to drown out kids noise. Score!  Had a long leisurely dinner and after walking Lisa to the taxi stand, and then dropping Kelly and kids off at the hotel, Chrissie and I grabbed a nightcap before turning in.  Oh…and I finalized lease with my tenant, which had been completely stressing me out. Phew!  I need to keep my apartment rented if I want to keep traveling. Hope she stays for the rest of my trip and makes my life easier!

We woke up and headed down to spend a few hours on a rocky beach a block from hotel, swam with Saoia in her cute “Toy Story” inner tube a few times, but clouds rolled in and never left. With rain in the forecast for the next day, it was hard to decide what to do! Ended up going to restaurant across from the hotel for a ham and cheese on a baguette and a bottle of Bordeaux, and watched them cooking up some paella. Mmmmm…it smelled sooooo good!

It started to rain a little and Kelly showed up soon after with the kids. Then we ordered the special-a magnum of rose brut champagne for 40e. Hell yeah!

We stumbled out of there around 430. Kel took the kids upstairs for a nap and Chrissie and I took a walk down the boardwalk.  Luckily the sun broke through for a couple hours for our walk towards the lighthouse, where we stopped at the Hotel du Palais for a 16e glass of champagne. Wow…what a beautiful and elegant hotel.

Later that night we decided to venture farther from our little touristy street and had dinner al fresco in a nearby square.

We walked along a beautiful promenade, showcasing the coastline, with a few wayward rocks out in the water that the town has cleverly built walkways to so tourists have access and more photo opps.

We sat down at a restaurant about 100 feet from a gazebo with 6 or 7 older couples tango dancing to music that you can hear from anywhere in the square.  The dancers were really good, and I danced with Saoia to a few songs to keep her occupied while we were waiting for our food, which was fun. We drank another 2 bottles of wine with dinner.

As if that wasn’t enough, I wanted to go check out the casino as I’d found out that they had a poker room. Texas hold em with 5E small and big blinds. I decided to try it out, even though i had no business playing in a game that big.  I could not believe my eyes when on my seventh hand I was staring down at pocket aces…the best starting hand in poker. OMG!  I’d noticed the standard raise at the table was to 30E. Someone before me had already raised to 30E, and there was one caller. But from the few previous hands I’d witnessed, I knew that didn’t mean anything and those guys could be holding practically anything.  So, I pushed my entire 200E.  Unfortunately for me, both guys called. Flop came out 9-5-5 rainbow (all different suits). I thought I was good, but the other two kept betting. Damn!  I don’t even remember what the last two cards were, but it didn’t matter as one of the guys flipped over A-5 of hearts. Fuck!!! Minimum buy-in was 200e, and I couldn’t just leave, so went back to the ATM and then managed to dribble off another 200e over the next couple hours, not winning one hand.  Ouch! L    Lesson learned…I think I’m going to shelve my poker playing until I’m gainfully employed and can afford to lose that kind of money. I kept justifiying the extra spending with the income I’ll be receiving from my new tenant, as I don’t have to worry about the apartment…at least for a few months, anyway.

I woke up Saturday morning to a hangover and the first full-on rainy day of my trip. Boooo!  We took our time checking out and had a leisurely lunch before saying goodbye to Kelly and the kids and heading out. We kept missing the turn off for the highway, but weren’t bothered, as the scenery on the local roads was beautiful. We made a quick stop in cute St. John de Luz, walked a bit on the covered boardwalk, and peeked inside the Grand Hotel, which is worth a stop only to look at the old photographs of when it had been built a hundred years ago.

Chrissie and I continued on to San Sebastian and checked into the Hotel Record, which was in the Gros neighborhood, a few blocks from a great beach and about a 20 minute walk from the old town. Well…it’d be great if it weren’t 65F degrees and rainy!  This was the first time since London, 2 months before, where I needed to wear jeans and long sleeves, and even then I was a little chilly.

The beach was deserted, except for a couple surfers. We had grabbed a map and decided to make our own walking tour, heading towards every church, plaza or monument on the map.

We got really lucky as the rain stopped just long enough for us to see everything. Literally 2 minutes after we sat down in the Plaza de la Constitucion for a glass of cava, the sky opened up and it poured.  The rain didn’t last long and so we started on our pintcho/cava bar crawl, tasting and drinking our way through the old town.  The Basque region apparently has more Michelin stars than anywhere in the world, but my budget didn’t allow us to check out any of the fancy restaurants.  “Pintchos” in San Sebastian are the same as tapas in the rest of Spain…small bites that are displayed on the bar that you can take at will on the honor system, generally about 2E-5E each.  I don’t know how they do it, but the bartenders somehow keep very good track of what you’ve eaten, and you pay when you’re finished with everything.   After 5 pintxcho/cava stops, we were full and nicely buzzed, and called it an early night around 11.

The next day I was awake way too early and did a lot of Africa research and planning before Chrissie woke up. I’m now thinking of adding another month there to explore more of the South Africa coastline, as well as Swaziland and then do some diving in Mozambique, but need to figure out timing to lock-in my flight out to Hong Kong.  Seems like a lot of work for something months in advance, but there aren’t too many seats on the J’Berg-Hong Kong flight, so need to be careful not to cut my time too short as who knows when I’ll make it back over there.

It was a nice sunny day, so we decided to power-walk for an hour+ along the beach before heading to Bilbao to meet Kelly and the kids at the Guggenheim museum, which was designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 1997 alongside the Nervion River, which ran through the center of Bilbao out to the Atlantic Coast.

The architecture and design of the Guggenheim museum is fantastic…every few feet I had to take another picture as the building looks different from every angle.

The David Hockney exhibit was cool…he uses such vivid colors in his landscapes.  Inigo was hungover from the night before and said the colors were too bright and were making his head spin, which I actually found kind of funny.  The permanent exhibitions/ installations were interesting in a way that makes me scratch my head and wonder how some of it is actually considered “art” and who made the decision is was so good it belonged in the Guggenheim…? I say that as, like a lot of modern art, some of this looked like something you, me or even a 5 year old could create.  Still scratching my head.  That said, there were several cool exhibits, one of which was Jeff Koons’ “Puppy”, a gigantic dog covered in flowers at the front.

It was sad to say goodbyes, but Chrissie and I wanted to hit to the road for our 100km drive to Santander, where we were looking forward to some much needed beach time and tennis after all the cathedrals, museums and monuments we’ve seen during our whirlwind week.  We checked into the Gran Hotel Sardinero, which was in a perfect location across the street from the main stretch of sand on la Playa Sardineros and the promenade that went for miles in both directions.  We were also right next to the casino.  Don’t worry… there were no poker games going on either night, so I wasn’t even tempted to play again!

We found a place to play tennis and booked a court for the next morning at a facility that had some outdoor courts badly in need of resurfacing, and then some strange covered hard courts.

It was nice to get in a good workout, and we stopped there again the next morning on our way out of town.  Wd did a drive by through the center of Santander, but after all the places we’d visited, I can’t say there was anything noteworthy other than the beautiful beach to mention.  After tennis we had a very nice and lazy day at the beach and after a nice dinner and our now standard cava and rioja, we turned in early.  We did have some fun with Stephanie…Chrissie thinks I should start a Stephanie blog or facebook page, which could be funny, but not sure I’d have the time.

Tuesday was a big travel day as we had a lot of ground to cover on our drive back from Santander to Madrid, which took about 5 hours.  We decided to break up the trip and stop halfway in Burgos, the old capital of Castilla and Leon region, which had an impressive Gothic-style cathedral whose construction began in the 1200s and finally finished in 1567, with some Renaissance touches added on later.

It was worth the stop, but I think I’ve seen way too many churches in Europe as it takes a lot to impress me now.The drive back to Madrid took another 3 hours, and after checking into our new hotel by the train station and dropping our car at Hertz, we walked through the parts of the city Chrissie hadn’t seen yet and saw the Plaza Espana, the Palacio Real, a couple more Cathedrals, and settled in to a table at the touristy Plaza Mayor for our first glass of cava for the day.

At 10E for a small split, it was our only drink in the Plaza, but we were entertained by these three guys who made every kid (and some women) who passed them jump or scream.

We walked back towards our hotel ended up back at our movie theater to see Rock of Ages, the terrible Tom Cruise movie-musical, and then at the cutest little cafe called Miranda, which I highly recommend.  Our waiter was adorable, and after another 4 or 5 glasses of cava, we called it a night on our final night in Spain.  It was a whirlwind eight days and a fitting end to my summer in Europe. I’m so glad Chrissie came over from SF fo rthis leg and that I was able to hang with Kelly and her family and see Lisa for a few days.

Off to New York City to catch up with friends for Electric Zoo Festival and some tennis action at the US Open!   This is where my actual round the world ticket started…and I was pleasantly surprised when I checked in at the business class desk that they actually have a special VIP security line, too.

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