in which your author loses track of his own schedule but rescues the day with rare powers of serendipitous adventuring
31.07.2016 - 01.08.2016 87 °F
This trip is starting to wane away. Not that I really mind, as I have so much work including academic work and my killer summer producing project I look forward to launching back into. But by Day 9 of a 16 day trip, living out of a suitcase is starting to wear me down a bit. Perhaps I’m losing just a sliver off my usual sharp as a tack focus? Stop laughing, my friends.
After a late night in Malasaña, Mar calls up at me to wake up, as the taxi she called for me arrives at 8:15am, about 15 minutes away. Thankfully I had packed everything the prior night so I grab a quick shower and after saying my goodbyes (adios, Bimba!) am out the door, off to meet my BlaBlaCar driver at 9am to catch a ride to Lisbon, Portugal. I arrive at the train station with plenty of time and am feeling rather proud for having been 30 minutes early; I’m even able to purchase some (decent but overpriced) breakfast and a bit of food for the journey. At about 9:05, I start to get worried – where was this guy? I call, I email, but no answer. Panic ensues.
And then, staring down at the draft of my itinerary on my phone, I realize: I’m going to Lisbon TOMORROW. And now, having dropped 13 Euro on a taxi, I’m standing outside the Madrid train station with my bags, with no place to stay for the night nor any idea what I was going to do. But! The first rule of traveling (especially solo) is don’t panic. Everything will be okay! I stop into a café for a croissant and park myself on a bench to hash out a plan. Immediately I check Airbnb to find out if Mar’s small but cute and ideally located flat is still available; thankfully it is so I rebook it. It dawns on me that I had thought about taking a day trip to Toledo, about 45 minutes to the south. (My parents have this beautiful painting of the town in their living room my Dad purchased there in about 1963.) I get in GO mode and ask an officer whether there’s somewhere to leave bags at the Madrid station, and sure enough, there is! The attendant is very helpful, and for only 3.60 Euro I can leave my bags there all day! What a godsend; I’d never tried to do that before and I have a feeling I’ll be doing much more of it henceforward.
The train ride – my first on this trip – is relaxing. There’s something deeply contemplative about passing by all these small Spanish towns. (I’m reminded of the time I lived in NYC and my ex got me an acting gig being a “fake interview participant” for Amtrak’s ad agency, who needed me to improvise something around the theme of “there’s something about a train.”)
I get cajoled into spending 20 Euro on a bus tour of the town, which will allow me to see great views, but when I go out to find the bus it has left. Thankfully, the ticket seller refunds my cash, saying the next bus doesn’t leave for an hour. Phew! And truth be told, this for me is the trip of many steps, so I head out and walk into the central area, about 25 minutes from the station.
The next hours are spent walking through windy, uphill roads in the dry Spanish heat. (Good thing I’m a runner!) Toledo feels medieval, and reminds me of Carcassonne, with its ancient city walls. Like Madrid, everything seems to be very high in the air, and yet most of the streets are too narrow for cars.
I pass a dog struggling with a plastic cup of water he ends up knocking over, so I stop into a bakery to buy a bottle of water. When I pour some for the dog, a young man comes out of a restaurant and says to the dog “Ah, you made a friend!” He introduces himself as David and we chat for 15 or so minutes – most people here seem very excited to practice their English – before he walks me down past the cathedral to a lunch place called “The Fisherman,” where I enjoy some delicious gazpacho and some decent but not terribly satisfying cod. I also find it an odd quirk of European culture how difficult it is to get water – as part of the 12 Euro deal I purchase at this restaurant (where apart from one regular, I'm the only customer), one can have either wine or water, but not both. (I choose wine. With all this walking, I've earned a glass!)
The magnificent cathedral of Toledo is set to open at 2pm, so I get in the queue for tickets and walk through a self-guided tour with an audio headset. The cathedral is Gothic in style, which means it stretches extremely high in the air. There are loads of tourists milling about gawking and craning their necks to see the top. I overhear a tour guide telling his group that in America, we have 60 ways to break up an hour minutes, but in Spain they only have fine: :00, quarter past, half past, quarter of, and "around that time!"
The art collections of the cathedral are impressive, including works by El Greco and the only Caravaggio I’ve seen on this trip. (The painting of his owned by the Prado was on loan.) His work never fails to move me – this work, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_the_Baptist_(Caravaggio)#John_the_Baptist.2C_Toledo (< ERROR: the link title is too long!), has an innocence and simplicity not always found in his more dramatic works. (Wikipedia tells me there’s some skepticism over whether this was actually painted by Caravaggio.) I’m also hugely impressed by the ceiling painted by Luca Giordano.
Leaving the cathedral, I continue walking around the small town, in search of a view similar to the painting in my parents’ living room; oddly, I can’t find a photo of this painting online and it’s not the very famous View of Toledo by El Greco. I pick up little trinkets and gifts here and there, including a tin sign – Toleda seems to have about 80 shops, all of which sell the exact same things.
After walking a lot, I’m unable to find that view without driving, but I still get to see quite a lot of the town, and eventually collapse into a sidewalk café chair to drink a horchata, a Mexican (I think?) drink made with milk and cinnamon. Oddly enough considering I'm in Spain, the song stuck in my head all through the day is America by Simon & Garfunkel, which was played during the Bernie Sanders tribute at the DNC. It takes a while – I probably walked 6 or 7 miles this day? – but I eventually get back to the train station, and on the train I eat one small piece of marzipan, the local almond candy, which is delicious, and make the trip back to Madrid.
I collect my bags at the station – that was easy! – and take a cab (not my favorite but Mar’s place is too far to walk, especially with bags) back to Malasaña. When I arrive, Bimba (Biiiimba!) is practically jumping for joy to see me again, his little blue bandaged paw ticking up and down like a lever– I rarely hit it off this well with dogs other than Fenway. Mar is cooking dinner with Maria and another friend, Maria Isabel. (Lots of Mar-names to keep track of here.) Mar pours me a thirst-quenching gin and tonic (I add a dash of my secret ingredient, Laphroaig to a second) and I plop down on the couch and explain my confusion over the days – they hadn’t expected to see me back here and Mar says she thought Airbnb had made an error when I rebooked! Maria cooks some delicious pasta which they serve with olive oil infused with herbs and chiles (must remember to do this at home), and it’s one of the best meals of my trip, not only for the delicious food but for the company. All three women are frightened about Donald Trump, and in halting yet poetic English, Maria Isabel expresses how all citizens of the world look to the United States for leadership in democracy, and that we are at a crucial crossroads for the future of the world. (What she said was more profound then how I’m recalling it days later – I wondered whether I should have taken some notes to help remember – but it was one of those conversations that feels deep and meaningful, and can only be experienced by travel. Three women who had left Venezuela because of an oppressive government, all who know about the dangers of fascism. After all this talk about America, I propose that I would like to pronounce a Walt Whitman poem en Español from the copy of Leaves of Grass they keep in the living room. After years of studying the language, the Spanish flows from my mouth – apparently I’m better at reciting it than understanding it – and Maria Isabel reads another poem in English. It’s a lovely moment of cultural interchange and the whole dinner feels like a highlight of the trip. And like most rich travel experiences, it comes about entirely by happenstance. These are wonderful and welcoming people!
I grab a quick shower and resolve to walk back to 1862 Dry Bar to try a cocktail I missed the prior night, and given that it’s Sunday night, the bar is much quieter. I have the delicious, well-balanced Apple No. 1, with Irish whiskey, Apple and ginger cordial, fino (dry sherry), and Scrappy’s cardamom bitters, an ingredient I used in the Pear of Brown Eyes cocktail that got me into the finals of Thirst Boston’s “Best Home Bartender” competition last Spring. On the way back to Mar’s I pick up some food for the car ride to Lisbon which actually takes place the next morning. I have a nice chat with a college girl named Georgia from Texas A & M, traveling alone in Europe for 2 months. Travel never interested me in college but (as this ever-expanding blog will attest) I’ve certainly made up for it since!
Given the schedule snafu, this was a slightly spontaneous and logistically off-kilter day, but as I said to Mar, “We have a saying – when life hands you lemons, make lemonade!” Off to sleep to repeat the prior night’s plans to take a cab to the train station… hopefully on the correct day!