A Travellerspoint blog

August 2016

Day 9: Many Views from Toledo!

in which your author loses track of his own schedule but rescues the day with rare powers of serendipitous adventuring

sunny 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.

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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.

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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!)

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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!"

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

Posted by coolmcjazz 11:11 Archived in Spain Tagged toledo madrid Comments (0)

Day 8: A Garden of Madridian Delights!

in which your author sees two of the world's great artworks in an hour and books the rest of his trip like a millionaire

sunny 88 °F

If Day 7 was a day to see lots of ART, Day 8 would be a day to see… EVEN MORE ART! There are two works in particular I’d not easily forgive myself for missing given the effort it took to get here: Hieronomous Bosch’s 16th century The Garden of Earthly Delights, a riveting panorama of color, drama, and whimsy, and Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, arguably the most famous painting of the twentieth century. I have a 2pm ticket for the special Bosch exhibit at the Prado, and conveniently, Guernica is located in the Reina Sofia Museum, about a ten minute walk from there.

I get up and venture out at what for this trip is a respectable hour: 11am, perhaps? And thankfully find a café just down the street from Isabel’s place where I grab a “take away” café and large heart-shaped flaky pastry thing. (I forget what they’re called, but they’re very delicious!) This is a much easier and cheaper option than yesterday’s sit-down breakfast. Like many of the bakeries I come across in Madrid, they make their own bread, which looks delicious.

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I must say: I enjoy walking in new cities. (In fact, the only time I took the Metro during my four days in Madrid was to get to my flat from the airport.) Especially as I’m not finding the time to run given my late-night, late-morning travel style, walking both gets me some exercise, and allows me to get the feeling of a city under my feet. I wouldn’t say I left Madrid with a strong sense of where things are – unlike, say, Edinburgh, Madrid feels vast and sprawling – but I did at least see quite a lot of the city this way.

It takes me about 40 minutes to get to the Reina Sofia, arriving at about 1pm. Given that the Prado is about 10-15 minutes away by foot, if I’m to make my 2pm appointment, this unfortunately doesn’t give me enough time to do much more than a drive-by. I do linger a bit on a floor dedicated to early twentieth-century Dada art including Juan Gris. There’s a room where Buster Keaton’s classic 1920 silent film One Week --- the one where he orders a “build it yourself” house with his wife – is screened. (A friend of mine Patrick Bussink in DC created an entire solo theatre piece partially inspired by this film once, and I’d never actually seen the original.) I love Keaton’s films because they’re so watchable and enjoyable today. Won’t you come back to the movies, Buster Keaton?

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I breeze on through galleries containing vivid 1930s propaganda posters to get to Guernica. There’s a crisp intensity upon seeing it – a sublime quiet lingers over the room, as everyone knows the history and the fame of this work. The painting itself is massive, wretched figures howling out against war and oppression in slashing dark grays and blacks. At one point a family brings in two small children in strollers and I note the boy has a plastic water gun (ugh, irony) wrought mostly in dark gray and black, the same colors as Guernica. I snap a couple very discrete photos with my iPhone – they’re extremely strict about watching people do this, so I feel lucky to not get caught. This was really a terrific museum and it’s too bad to not stay longer, but I leave around 1:50 and dash the long tree-bound pathway to the Prado.

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I have a bit of a smug smile (to myself, of course) as I watched frustrated tourists asking why they can’t get into the Bosch exhibit (this was me yesterday) as I present my ticket. Celebrating the master's 500 birthday (roughly), the Prado has collected all of the major Bosch paintings and sketches from museums around the world for this; it's the most comprehensive Bosch exhibit ever imagined. The next hour was totally worth the cost and effort. Although there’s an abundance of fire and brimstone to Bosch’s works, there’s also an almost ecstatic delight in color, detail, and fantasy: bright, bold characters, unearthly flora and fauna in shocking pinks and greens, elfin creatures riding fish. I spend the most time standing directly in front of The Garden of Earthly Delights, an experience I won’t forget. (Check out this extraordinary high resolution online version of the painting; as one writer says, “this is the internet we were promised!”) One could stand in front of this triptych for a week and still not see it all; I promise myself to see it again sometime. Seeing both this work and Guernica within an hour of each other makes for a riveting, humbling, uniquely human experience.

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I satisfy my touristic/capitalistic impulses by buying some Bosch tchotchkes in the gift shop. (Aura may have disappeared, but at least my refrigerator can tend further in the direction of being a garden of earthly delights.) I pick up a gorgeous (and at 21 Euros, expensive) commemorative poster of this exhibit, which I ought to have framed – this was a very special thing to see and I feel fortunate the timing worked out so well.

I’d only booked two nights with Isabel to have a bit of flexibility, and since someone else had reserved her space for this night, I’d had to reserve a new place to stay in Madrid. This time I make sure I’m a bit closer to the Malasaña neighborhood which seems to be the neighborhood I’m becoming most familiar with. So I make the long… long… long (and hot) walk back toward Isabel’s, stopping at a fantastic burrito place where I have a truly great, thirst-quenching Spanish craft beer, grab my bags (which she was kind enough to let me store in her living room as someone else moved in), say my goodbyes, and head off to walk (of course) to my next flat.

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Mar’s flat is directly in the heart of Malasaña, and though the room is a bit smaller and ramshackle, Mar (and her friend Maria and assorted company) is a hugely warm host, kissing on both sides of the cheek as a greeting (both my Airbnb hosts did this) as is the European custom, and swiftly offering me a beer almost before I’ve dropped my heavy bags. The women are chatty and welcoming, conversing rapidly in Spanish and asking me about Boston and my trip They’re actually all from Venezuela, having moved to Madrid to escape the disastrous political environment that exists there right now. To a point, they all express fear for the United States about Donald Trump. They have … apart from Fenway, of course… THE. CUTEST. WEE. DOG. NAMED…. BIMBA! Bimba has a broken paw. Bimba loves being alive! And Walt Whitman.

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I settle into my smallish, yet comfortable room. There’s no air conditioning but two powerful fans blaze at me. It’s around 8pm, and I make the firm decision that for the sake of my sanity and comfort, I want to spend the next few hours arranging every booking for the rest of my trip, including what cities I’ll visit, where I’ll stay, and how I’ll get there. I draw out a list of possible itineraries along with costs, arriving at a final version which includes: flying to Frankfurt and visiting Freiburg and the Black Forest (where a former student has kindly found me a place to stay), Rome or Milan, Munich (along with Madrid, one of my original “target” cities), and Brussels. The major logistical point is that I must be in Cologne to fly back to Boston Aug. 7, so I work backward from that point. Knowing I’ll want to visit Cologne for at least two days, I decide to fly to the city closest, which ends up also being the cheapest option: I’m headed to Brussels! I’ve never set foot in Belgium so this is very exciting: Frites! Chocolate! Birthplace of Josquin and Ockeghem! Oh, and don’t they have halfway decent beer?

I reserve a train ticket to Cologne from Brussels (ugh, $80 for a 1 hour, 45 min journey is rich), and book the flight through RyanAir. (It has gone up in price from $66 to $102 in the last week, but it’s still a pretty good price, and my options for flying out of Lisbon are somewhat limited.) Given that I’m set to check my bag on my American Airlines flight home, and that I don’t plan on paying the additional $50 (!!!) to check my bag on this flight, this could be my last potential stumbling block; I’ve picked up a few bottles along the way in addition to other gifts that have weighed my bags down fairly heavily. Let’s hope for the best! I also book two Airbnbs that are above my typical price range: a gorgeous, well decorated flat in Brussels run by an antique collector (seems my speed – it’s where I type from right now, incidentally; my laptop feels very anachronistic here) and a similar plush place in Cologne run by a female professor. I’d rather spend extra (say, $70 a night vs. $30, which is what Mar’s flat cost me) to relax into the final 4 days of my trip – I’ve been (mostly) pretty good about money on the trip so I feel I can take that luxury.

After spending a good three hours planning all of this – note to self:even though it may stunt spontaneity slightly, consider doing this at home next time, it will save precious time and $$$! – I grab a shower and head out in Malasaña. I first hit up a cocktail bar called The Passenger, also the name of an infamous favored cocktail spot in DC. The drink I have there is delicious – called a Smoked Fig because of its incorporation of some local fig liqueur – but I opt to leave after this one as I’m the only one sitting at the bar and the bartenders are not terribly warm.

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I walk past hundreds of revelers to a flamenco club Mar had recommended located in a hotel closer to the touristy centre of town, but it’s midnight now and their shows ended a while ago. (Hotels aren’t usually my scene, either.) I Google “American expat cocktail bars Madrid” and find some references to 1862 Dry Bar, which conveniently is in Malasaña, so I head back that way.

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This place is described as a speakeasy, and while it may not feel as secretive as my beloved Babckbar, it still has a slightly clandestine atmosphere, presented in two floors. Fats Waller's Ain't Misbehavin plays on the ground floor. The drinks are spot on – I have a Millionaire cocktail, made with rum, sloe gin, apricot brandy, and lime, and a sherry cobbler. (All of the cocktails I've experienced in Madrid so far are served with a thin slice of dessicated fruit; and the bartender tells me they make these by leaving sliced limes or apples or whatever in an oven with low temperature for a long time.) After some time standing, I manage to snatch a coveted bar seat, which seems to bring a bit of status, as a number of folks end up standing around and chatting; most are Irish attendees of a “stag party.” I have a conversation with a Dublin resident car mechanic named Anthony (I tell him if he ever goes to Boston, people will call him “Annnnnthony…” and explain why.) A couple sitting next to me furiously makes out. I figure if decorum is not really a thing for them, they surely won’t mind having their picture put out on the internet?

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The place shuts down around 3am and I walk back to my new flat. It’s impressive how safe this city feels. Even toting my nice camera around, I never feel in jeopardy because there always seem to be people around. Madrid is much fun! Tune in for my next entry, because things would go ever so slightly off rail…

Posted by coolmcjazz 02:50 Archived in Spain Tagged madrid cocktails Comments (0)

Day 7: El Prado y mucho mas!

in which your author sees great art, eats great food, drinks great things and thinks Madrid is great

sunny 89 °F

My first morning on the continent begins late; I fear this is becoming a steady refrain, though at least I have staying up late to watch history being made at the DNC as a reasonable excuse. By 1pm or so I walk back in the direction of the Metro stop and find a cute café to order some food. After establishing neither I speak good enough Spanish and the barmaid speaks enough English, I manage to point and stumble through enough to order some chocolate pancakes and espresso with crushed ice and lemon. The idea of a quick bagel and coffee place is pretty foreign here – when people go to cafes, for the most part they’re sitting and reading the newspaper or chatting with friends, rather than using them as quick carbohydrate/caffeine filling stations. I like that.

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I’ve determined that para mi, Madrid is to be a walking city. Overall, I feel a bit unhealthy after inconsistent meals, not much sleep, and a total abandonment of my professed desire to go running every day. I am still glad I brought sneakers (“trainers!”) though because it’s far more comfortable to walk distances. I walk… and walk and walk… headed to the Prado, whose reputation as one of the world’s finest art museums I aim to investigate. It’s hot out but invigorating to be in an entirely new place.

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The very first painting I view in the Prado is actually in the lobby, a work by Jose de Ribera, responsible for my favorite work of art in the National Gallery in DC, the one I always loved to show off to visitors. There are in fact two Ribera works in the lobby, and an enormous section of the museum dedicated to his work, which I find appealing for the same reason I love Caravaggio: intense drama and spiritual anguish, captured at the precise moment of dramatic catharsis.

The Prado is truly an epic place which lives up to its reputation; I can’t imagine any serious visit to Madrid would be complete without seeing its voluminous collections. Apart from Ribera’s works, some highlights for me include: Velasquez’s Las Meninas, one of the most discussed paintings in the world, in part due to the way it positions the viewer almost within the scene. The sizable crowd surrounding the painting adds to the complexity of subjectivity. Photos are definitely not allowed in the Prado – I think mostly so they can sell more postcards? – but I quickly grab a few iPhone pics to capture the ambiance. A few other highlights include: Strozzi’s Tobias Heals His Father, Weyden’s Durán Madonna and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Descent_from_the_Cross_(van_der_Weyden) (< ERROR: the link title is too long!), Miguel Bley’s early 20th century sculpture Blossoming of Love, Goya’s The Straw Manikin, as well as his Goya’s magnificent room of “Black Paintings,” which include this famous image of a dog. (I bought a poster!) Here’s a reminder to check out the Prado’s Google Earth project, which uploads a number of its masterworks in incredibly high resolution!

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Stopping into the museum gift shop, I think of Walter Benjamin’s infamous early 20th century writings on “aura” (a term he introduced) from The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Whither the unique sense of experiencing an original artwork (whether visual art, music, or other) in person when the image (or in music, the recording) is so easily “reproducible” in the form of posters, mugs, magnets, handbags, etc., all part of the selling of art via capitalism. (In the 1920s, Benjamin could hardly have predicted the full explosion of this phenomenon, though his essay remains so widely discussed in academia because of its foresight.)

I spend about four hours in the museum, soaking in much more than I did during my unfortunate touristic driveby of the Louvre six years ago. I was particularly looking forward to seeing Hieronomous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, but am disappointed to find out it’s part of a special Bosch (‘El Bosco’ in the local parlance) exhibit which requires a special ticket; they’re also sold out for the rest of the day. I grit my teeth and decide to buy a ticket for 2pm the next day, costing 16 Euro. There’s no way I can pass up a chance to see that work!

I leave the museum quite hungry and go in search of food and wine, stopping into a picturesque sherry bar recommended by Tom in Ireland. As I sit at a table in the back, I hoist my camera up to take a photo and am immediately, harshly reprimanded by the bartender: “Photo, no!” Hrm. I appreciate not wanting to ruin a locals-only vibe, and yet I find the admonition unfriendly enough to simply leave. (I’m not about to sit and chit-chat with a bartender who just yelled at me.) It’s a new feeling, being such an unremitting tourist; I know in American cities I’ve lived in, it’s easy sport to make fun of tourists, and yet at the same time, when I encounter tourists I also try to go out of my way to make them feel welcome. The heavy door slams as I exit; unintended on my part, but feels satisfying.

I find another café with outdoor seating and manage to order two plates and a glass of Albariño, the delicious and refreshing Spanish white wine. The patatas bravas, served with two sauces, are cooked with garlic, supple and crusty, and the tortilla is the most delicious thing I’ve encountered on this trip. Made with apples (manzana), onions, and bleu cheese, it’s smoky and flaky and pairs perfectly with the snappiness of the wine. It’s great to finally sit and relax, especially in a great people-watching spot, soaking in the air of this country I’ve only spent a handful of days in prior. I have another glass, this time of Godello, which is new to me. I pay my tab (leaving a tip, so as to reflect well on we undesirable American tourists) and keep walking, passing by crowded food marts, wide cosmopolitan streets larded with advertising and tourist traps, and a long line to get into El Rey Leon!

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I come upon a massive public square featuring street performers, men wearing sandwich boards and hundreds of people walking around. I weave my way through and end up back on a quiet side street (much more my speed), stopping in to a small, inviting café, with boisterous women sitting in the window. The bartender doesn’t speak English but I struggle through enough Spanish (and “the pointing system”) to order a Caipirinha, the traditional summer drink of Brazil, made with cachaca. I ask for a glass of water in Spanish, and the bartender instead gives me the ingredients of the drink. I’m learning that water doesn’t really seem a thing around these parts!

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I arrive back at Isabel’s place, settling in to some writing and scheming. After realizing the folly of waiting and assuming travel plans will come together, I’m resolved to square away my itinerary for the rest of the trip. I know I’m to go to Lisbon next, and had assumed I’d be able to pick up a train or bus there. However, booking these things online only two days in advance is a dubious prospect – all trains appear to be sold out. I’m at a loss, and very annoyed at myself for not squaring this stuff out earlier – please remember this for the next trip! – but I remember a service Leo had mentioned to me the previous night (which thankfully I had made note of) called BlaBlaCar, basically an Airbnb for car trips. By some strange stroke of good fortune, I’m able to book a ride for Monday morning at 9am with a 24-year old driver named Miguel. Success!

After writing for a couple hours, I head back out to return to the Malasaña neighborhood. I make it about ten feet from Isabel’s front door before stopping and realizing it’s now 1:30am, and though I know the bars will still be hopping for at least another 30 minutes, I’m a 15 minute walk away, and am tired. I turn back around and resolve to get a halfway-decent night’s sleep, especially if I want to see more of Madrid tomorrow. Adulting en España!

Posted by coolmcjazz 04:35 Archived in Spain Tagged prado madrid Comments (0)

Day 6: Walking On Air, Against My Better Judgment!

in which your author starts his day in a rainy irish graveyard and ends it drinking vermouth in madrid

sunny 90 °F

After two consecutive days of DNC-inspired sleeping in, I’m overdue for an early morning according to the actual local time. And this slated to be a big travel day, jumping across the pond to the continent to begin the truly adventurous portion of my trip. Mark has the foresight to drive us to the grave of the immortal Seamus Heaney (Heaney, of course, may have been mortal, but his poems – like this one – will live on as some of the best in an already well stocked lineage of Irish writing.) It’s raining steadily but thankfully Mark has a giant golf umbrella.

Heaney’s epitaph takes my breath away: “Walk on air against your better judgement.” (The ‘e’ in ‘judgment’ strikes me as distinctly European.) A striking slate gray against so much surrounding greenery, with silverish stones filling a shallow pool, Heaney’s grave is set aside from the rest of the church graveyard by its location under a tree which acts like a canopy. It’s a restful and contemplative spot.

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I had the good fortune to participate in a performance of Heaney’s poems with The Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge last year, an event that only further convinced me of the power of reading poetry out loud, but one of my favorite performance opportunities I’ve found for myself in Boston. I think of that night, and of Heaney’s legacy of advocating for young writers, spending about five minutes at his grave. It’s an unexpected highlight of the trip up to Northern Ireland; I hadn’t realized this place was so close to where Mark lives. We say our goodbyes and I leave Mark with a can of AERONAUT Dr. Nandu beer. I expect the next I see him will be in America!

I head to the old McCoole homestead in Magherafelt, with the intention of seeing the “bigger” house which I believe was the master house. (When we were here 2.5 years ago we only made it inside the smaller house built for the kids.) When I pull up to the barns from which access to the lands begins, the short man who Mark’s Dad spoke with last time was there on his tractor. As it turns out, this is Hugh, Robin’s brother. Having missed the sun yesterday, it’s of course pretty much pouring rain now, and Hugh offers to drive me out to the spots. He’s a talkative, elfin spirit, and his thick, nearly-unintelligible rural dialect makes him seems transported from hundreds of years ago. Couldn’t be a nicer fellow. As we’re driving, it dawns on me – this is my first time riding in a tractor!

After he opens the gates (there so cows won’t get out, natch) we drive up to the ancient homes, both of which are crumbling and may not last another generation. I’m still about unclear about the provenance of these homes; as Hugh tells me this one was owned by some people called “Rinney.” (I can’t place the McCool connection, though I suspect the house was originally built by a farmer named John McCoole who may have only lived here for a generation or two.) We have to climb into the larger house through the window, and I feel like my photos would fit in on some creepy “abandoned spaces” website. Hugh lays a long board over the dilapidated staircase so I can climb to the second floor, where there are at least two bedrooms. Decay is everywhere: ancient, barren fireplaces, floors and ceilings rotting through. As I climb down, I brush past the banisters, which seem somewhat “modern” or at least “of the 20th century,” probably installed some time in the 1910s or 20s? (Though the house probably hasn’t been used since the 1940s or 50s? Who knows.) I imagine the people who must have lived in this place for so many years. I think of the house at the end of The Blair Witch Project. Thankfully it’s not dark out. Shudder.

We stop on the way back in the smaller house that I visited on the last trip, and Hugh points out the cornerstone dated 1735, signed “JMc” – my initials! This would have been John McCoole, who I assume built both houses? The stone is lying up against the inner wall of what’s now used by the farm owners as storage space for old, rusted tractors. Hugh tells me a story about a man who not too long ago claimed ownership of this stone and just when he was about to show up to remove it from the property, suddenly dropped dead. Don’t mess with the JMc’s, apparently.

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We ride the tractor back to the barns – I’m becoming a real expert at climbing in and out of tractors by this point – and Hugh’s (taller) brother Robin is standing by some bales of hay in his thick tweed cap, puffing on a cigarette in the damp air, as at least a dozen newborn black and white kittens scamper in and out of the barns. I thank the brothers for tending to the ancient McCoole lands – regardless of my inability to prove a direct genealogical connection to these “Toberhead McCools,” it’s about the closest I’ve found to an ancestral home.

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And then the 2 hour 45 minute car trip back to Dublin to drop off the rental and catch my flight to Madrid. I make a couple stops, most prominently in the small town of Antrim, where I resolve to spend the remainder of my British pounds which will be of no use to me once I cross the border back into Ireland. A liquor store has a half bottle of Laphroaig 10 Year single malt for 19.99, which would be an easy way to kill the 20 pound note in my pocket, so I give it a go. (I learned a neat trick from Backbar: using Laphroaig in a small spray bottle to finish cocktails with a touch of smoky peat!) I also pick up an extremely useful solid royal blue tie – for 20 pence, the equivalent of about 28 cents! – in a second-hand shop, and a card game appropriately called “The Game of Daniel” for my brother.

Driving to the airport – thinking about my bags which are getting heavier by the day – it dawns on me I’ve just picked up A BOTTLE OF LIQUID with which I AM JUST ABOUT TO BRING ON A PLANE. GAHHH. Ugh. Time to get creative, experienced traveler.

I do a bit of research and the internet tells me that many drug stores (specifically, Dunnes, a sort of magical half-department store, half-grocery store) sells small 100ml bottles intended for bringing liquids on planes. A helpful young employee helps me find these and says “I like your accent,” to which I respond, “I like yours too!” Although I suppose in this situation, I’m the one with the accent.

I walk back to my rental car which I had left in a neighborhood close to the shopping center, crack open the Laphroaig, transfer it to the plastic bottles, and repack my bags. Genius! Funny how solving one simple travel dilemma makes you feel like Rick Steves all of a sudden.
After filling the diesel (gas is very expensive here), dropping off the car goes uneventfully. I really enjoyed my experience renting from Sixt, by the way – and will have to write them a positive review, especially since many of their Dublin airport location reviews weren’t all that great. If such a thing is possible, I’ve left simultaneously plenty of… and barely enough time. Mostly due to the unexpected rebottling adventure. I walk briskly t the gate, which (of course) feels about ¾ of a mile from the security gates. After a bit of delay, we’re off to Madrid.

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The temperature is at least 15 (maybe more) degrees hotter here than in Ireland. I immediately have to adjust to the assumption that I don’t speak the local language – at least not well – and that I’m seen as a foreigner, an outsider, and perhaps even worse… an American tourist, what with my camera bag slung around my neck and my baseball hat. (I’ve spotted a few other Red Sox hats on this trip – more than Yankees, might I add. Well done, Europe.)

The Metro proves more confusing (and expensive – a trip from the airport is around $7) than I had hoped, as I almost despair upon seeing a line I was depending upon is closed. With my heavy bags, I’m at a crossroads. After a minute or two of intense mouth frowning I realize the other line goes to the same place, and I’m set. Not reading the local language fluently creates some unnecessary drama!

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After a walk from the station – felt like 30 with my bags but was probably more like 12 – I arrive at my Airbnb. My host is Isabel, a young, cosmopolitan academic who recently completed a PhD on the modern European novel (her bookshelves attest to this knowledge), focused on a French writer unfamiliar to me. She offers a beer (a German dunkelweiss?!) and I relax after a somewhat long travel day. After settling in, I venture out to check out the town, heading toward the heart of the Malasaña neighborhood, about a 15 minute walk.

After bucolic Northern Ireland, Madrid feels electric. Hundreds of young folks standing and chatting, populating the streets, lolling about in windows of cafés. (Unlike the US, most people seem to smoke here, but thankfully seem careful to only do it in windows.) I pass by a few places and settle on a smallish stand-up bar laid out horizontally with vibrant, clacking conversations in Spanish. I start chatting un poquito de Espanol with a couple standing next to me, both from Argentina: Leo, who lives in Madrid, and his friend Dani, just arrived today from Buenos Aires. We converse for about 30 minutes and though (very) halting Spanish, I manage to order a plate of manchego cheese and a local drink called yayou (gin, sweet vermouth, and Coca-Cola, served with lemon slices).

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Although it’s after 2am at this point, the neighborhood show no signs of slowing down, though the bar does start turning off the lights around 2:30am. After saying farewell to these nice folks (I tried unsuccessfully to meet up with Leo over the next few days, but perhaps he’ll visit the US) I keep wandering. There’s a big square with seemingly hundreds of people outside enjoying the night. I have a refreshing, well-made mojito at a small, welcoming café called Vacaciones and do a bit of writing in a journal I purchased in Florence years ago.

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This place starts to close around 3am and I make my way back to Isabel’s place, where I stay up until 5am (ugh) and watch the DNC, featuring some very riveting speeches and one slightly pedestrian-if-still-inspiring speech by our-next-Madam-President-if-I-have-anything-to-do-about-it, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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So far Madrid is living up to its reputation as a fun, vibrant center of European late-night culture! Viva!

Posted by coolmcjazz 07:54 Archived in Spain Tagged madrid Comments (0)

Day 5: Scenes from the Big Belfast

in which your author meets good Irish theatrefolk and finds out Ireland serves more than Guinness

overcast 70 °F

Day 5 began in similar fashion to its immediate predecessor, as I sleep in somewhat late. (Three sleepy cheers for solo travel. Maybe yawns.) But this would be a day of some ambition, traveling to Belfast, where I had popped in briefly on my last trip, but hadn’t at all explored. Before we leave his area, Mark drives us to the area of the McCool (technically “McCoole”) homestead – the original inspiration for my visit to this town in 2014 – and we speak with a wizened old chap named Robin, owner of the farm on which the homestead lies, and as it turns out, brother of the short fellow we met two years ago – who gives me the green light (so to speak) to check out the old buildings the next day. It’s gorgeous and sunshiny, which is a rarity in these parts, but since I’m anxious to get to Belfast, I tell him I’ll be back in the morning and we head to the city.

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Though Mark is running late for work, his position as Ireland’s Greatest Tour Guide demands that he takes the time to drive me around the murals painted in honor of the massive sectarian violence that devastated so many during the 1970s and 80s. Apparently only ten years ago, the roads we’re driving on would have been cordoned off to keep the Catholics and Protestants away from each other. It’s striking how many houses are flying Union Jacks in the Protestant area. Without weighing in too heavily here, it seems odd to me that the Protestant Royalist sympathizers can’t also sympathize with people who want their country to be independent from a foreign power who has a very troubling and violent history of oppression toward them. (I think immediately of the callous British indifference which created the Potato Famine, but there are many other examples.) I understand Royalists don’t see England as foreign, but as part of a unified whole, but technically there’s a big ocean separating the lands. Identity is a complicated issue. (How’s that for the understatement of my blogging career?) It will be interesting to see how all this shakes out in the wake of Brexit, which everyone here seems slightly skittish about. After stopping at a few of the murals for both sides – it's particularly moving to see a shoutout to #WeAreOrlando – we pop into the Sinn Fein shop, where I pick up a 1916 magnet and a pamphlet on Kevin Barry, the young man whose 1920 martydom inspired one of my favorite Irish songs. Pretty sure the woman in the shop undercharges me when she realizes I’m from America.

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Belfast is a city I’ve spent a fair amount of time with on an artistic plane, having acted in Solas Nua’s Scenes from the Big Picture in DC in 2007 plus directing the same show in Boston in 2014, plus a number of other plays including directing readings of This Other City in both cities. (There’s a moment in that show where the female character Maria, a prostitute trafficked from Moldavia, is asked her name and she responds “Europa,” which comes from Hotel Europa, a massive landmark adjacent to the bus/train station.) My last trip here was really a brief pit-stop, so I’m looking forward to seeing a bit more.

Mark drops me off in the city center and I start walking around, popping briefly into neighborhood landmark St. George’s Church, where I light a prayer candle for the election of Hillary Clinton.

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My first major stop is connected to my Irish arts background – to Tinderbox Theatre, with whom I’d had some lovely interactions with via Solas Nua in the past. We produced a number of scripts that came out of their development program. Hanna Slatne is their powerhouse dramaturg and theatre advocate, and she welcomes me with a cup of tea and a copy of a recent work they developed, and introduces me to new Tinderbox Artistic Director Patrick O’Reilly. The three of us sit and chat for about an hour, discussing some shared challenges of working in the arts, particularly the unending battle for funding. (I write this on the road from Madrid to Lisbon, and I just saw over Facebook that the Mass Senate overturned Gov. Charlie Baker’s dastardly cuts to the MassCultural program. Three cheers for the power of social media political advocacy!) Like every single European I’ve spoken with about this, Hanna and Patrick are utterly horrified at the potential of a Donald Trump presidency. Especially given the shocking nature of Brexit, anything seems possible, no matter how horrifying. We discuss the possibility of their touring a show to the US, and I promise to connect them with culturefolk in Boston who might be able to help. Even though I’m not as heavily immersed in Irish arts these days, I could foresee a return in the near future. So great to meet these guys and hope to work with them at some point down the line!

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Hanna recommends a visit to a culture space called The MAC, about a 10-15 minute walk away. Along the way I pass by some visually stunning uses of urban design; clearly Belfast is leveraging the power of ambitious artists and thinkers to modernize neighborhoods like this.

The MAC itself – a combination theatre space/art gallery/fully stocked café/community hangout spot – is a really impressive place. (As Hanna stated, “When the MAC was built I felt like I worked in a neighborhood built for grownups.”) I sit in the café with some small plates and a local amber ale and catch up with the blog, writing Day 3. After an hour or so I explore the art galleries, which are well designed. There’s a palpable buzz in the place, with families wandering around and conversations in the café. The MAC is a testament to what happens when a city builds an arts space – it becomes a place for a community to realize itself.

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Reversing my prior walk, my next stop is the extremely posh Merchants Hotel, a spot I’d been advised to check out for serious cocktails. The reputation was well deserved, and I feel at home with the bartenders, who are creative and passionate. The level of service is also astoundingly high – when I leave, the head bartender walks me all the way down and out to the street to point out which direction I should head in. I have a few delicious, complex drinks there including an original, off-menu concoction by one young bartender using dark rum, vanilla, and molasses. I spend much of the time writing a letter – it’s so nice to sit and relax and think – and assumedly having watched me photograph my drinks, as he walks me out, the head bartender asks me if I’m writing an article! (My response: sort of? But not really.) I pick up a cocktail recipe book and he generously tosses in their spirits guide. Merchants is a fantastic, comfortable place – get a load of the dining room, which looks like one of the rooms in the Titanic – that is such my speed, it ends up eating up much of any remaining time I might have had to explore Belfast.

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I end up wasting about 45 minutes searching for food – one place is no longer serving, and another place where I order some pasta is taking forever for the food to come out. Mark video messages me on Facebook and says there’s a 9:30 bus to Magherafelt, so I cancel my order and dash out to try to get to the bus station in time. Thankfully, I grab a veggie burrito on the way, at a place whose name I don’t remember but was obviously the Irish version of Chipotle.

I make it to the bus with three minutes to spare (!), passing by the Crown Bar – the most bombed bar in Europe, I believe – which sadly I don’t have enough time to visit. (Had the same thing happen last time I was here! Next time in Belfast it’s a must-see.) The sun going down over Northern Ireland is stunning.

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Mark’s father Leo – a fine, salt of the earth man who escorted us around in the pouring rain while hunting for old McCools graves in County Derry during our trip here in 2014 – picks me up at the bus dropoff, and leaves me at the Flax Inn, where Mark has completed his shift. It’s wild to be back inside this place that factored in so greatly into my last trip, and kicked off this friendship! I check out the second floor and the clock that runs backwards, and wave hi to Danny, Amy and Graci, my former travel companions. Long like the Flax 4!

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Mark and I pop over to Mary’s for one last drink but it’s late and we’re both exhausted, so we call it a night. Knowing this will be my last Guinness in Ireland for a while, I leave it 1/3 full, as a rejoinder to myself to come back. (The Irish version of tossing a coin over your shoulder at the Trevi Fountain?) I actually get to sleep at a reasonable hour that night, sadly missing the DNC speech by personal political hero and badass Vice President Joe Biden, which I’ll have to watch later and lament his premature exit from American politics. Anyway. Great to spend at least a bit of time in Belfast!

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PS – I wrote most of this entry in a car with three strangers driving the semi-mountainous dry lands from Madrid to Lisbon. I’m four days behind in posting, ugh! Going to try to catch up on this trip!

Posted by coolmcjazz 07:34 Archived in Northern Ireland Tagged belfast Comments (0)

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