When you book a ticket to Europe on a whim at a dirt cheap price, rest assured that the travel included in said tickets is not glamorous. I did my best to prepare for the elongated, exhausting trip to get me there: a 6a flight to Washington, DC then a whole day to hang out until my 6p red-eye flight to Madrid. I set my alarm extra early, scheduled my Uber to the airport in advance…I’d even picked up a nice eye mask and neck pillow so I had a better chance of falling asleep on the plane.
And for the most part, that’s exactly how it worked out. I splurged on a day pass to the lounge so I could rest and work outside of the hustle and bustle of the terminal; the open bar and buffet were nice, too, especially after the plane got delayed a few hours.
And I did sleep on the flight, dozing off after a brief chat with my seat-mates, a newly retired couple setting out to hike the Camino de Santiago and spend three months abroad staying with their grown exchange students and their families. Already off to a solid start in the impromptu conversations category!
Arriving in Madrid first thing in the morning was nice in that I had the whole day ahead of me to get my bearings. It was also exhausting; sleep on the plane, after all, doesn’t at all mean a good night’s sleep. So I made my way right to the metro and navigated to the studio apartment in Malasaña where I’d be staying the next few days. It all went so smoothly, snagging a ticket and sorting out the map, that I couldn’t help but be a bit proud of myself. All this travel seems to be paying off with each new trip.
By the time I got settled in my apartment, I couldn’t keep my eyes open any more, so I caved and let myself nap for a couple of hours. But I knew if I slept for too long, I’d never get myself on Spain time; I forced myself up and out of the apartment by late afternoon. With the long days of summer in full swing already, it didn’t get dark until nearly 9p the whole week I was abroad, making it easy to stay out a bit later than normal without feeling unsafe (not that I ever did, Madrid is a very safe city!). I spent the late afternoon walking up and down Calle Gran Via, a massive major street in central Madrid with exceptional sights such as TGIFridays, the theater presenting El Rey Leon (aka The Lion King)…you get the idea.
But then I stumbled onto Plaza de España and a rooftop bar with views of the park in one direction and the city skyline in the other. It was a perfect breather as I got the lay of the land and planned out my adventures for the next few days. I stopped later for a bit of dinner at a bar near my apartment; it only took one look a their gin menu to convince me I needed a G&T to sip on. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but suffice it to say I may have to serve up all my G&Ts the Spanish way from now on.
Traveling solo means there’s no one else to hitch your schedule to; you can go at your own pace, change plans on a moment’s notice. On this trip, much as it would’ve been nice to have someone to share the sights and memories with, my being on my own turned out to be a blessing. I’d come down with a head cold just before leaving, and soon it turned into a very annoying sinus infection. Most mornings, I let myself take my time getting ready for the day. I’d gone grocery shopping, so I had coffee and breakfast to keep me sated and, since it’s streaming on Netflix in Europe, Doctor Who to watch while I got ready.
That first day in Madrid, I put on a spring dress and new sandals and strutted out of the apartment like a woman on a mission: there’s a city out there to explore, and I plan on discovering it. Fast forward to a few hours and several thousand steps later when my feet are screaming at me for my poor choice in shoes and I’m nearly in tears as I stopped at a pharmacy to pick up the biggest, softest bandages I could find for my poor, blistered ankles. Rookie mistake!
Hurt as they did, I made myself keep walking to take in as much of the city as I could. The weather was gorgeous and I had a whole list of top sights for on my first full day there. I walked through Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol, wandering the narrow streets lined with shops and restaurants as I went. I made my way over to the Palacio Real de Madrid (Royal Palace) and soaked up the regal architecture and manicured gardens. I stopped for lunch at a quiet but delicious restaurant I happened by between sight-seeing.
I had a quick break to freshen up (and change my shoes!) before an evening tapas tour I’d booked for that night. A group of eight of us joined a British guide who lived in Madrid with his Spanish wife to spend the evening tasting jamón ibérico, sauteed mushrooms, Spanish wine, and a final stop for a few courses at a restaurant built along the old city wall. Full, happy and a bit tipsy, I walked back towards my apartment with a few of the folks on the tour, a nice couple from Toronto who’d recently been in Chicago for a wedding, and an Australian writer and theater producer living in New York.
By my third day, I decided to give in fully to the best part of vacation: the eating. There’s a fine line between indulging in all the wonderful tastes of a new place and overeating to the point of discomfort, and I got dangerously close to the latter that day. #worthit
After a small breakfast at home, I walked through a bit of the city to Chocolatería San Ginés, a café serving Spain’s most decadent dessert, chocolate con churros, since 1894. The fact that it was about 11:30a when I got there (they’re open 24/7) didn’t matter one bit; I ordered the house specialty for myself—freshly made churros and a mug of warm melted dark chocolate. I imagine the thing is meant to be shared, but that was not happening on this day in Madrid, no sir.
After the café, I figured I should maybe eat something other than sugar, so I made my way over to Mercado de San Miguel, a food market originally built in 1916 and renovated about a decade ago. Teeming with people at any hour of the day or night, it’s not a massive space, and yet vendors of all kinds line the perimiter: tapas, desserts, cheese, seafood, jamón, empanadas…on and on. I snagged a glass of wine while I stopped here and there for enough small bites to make a big meal.
Very well fed, I switched gears from food to culture, making my way to Parque del Buen Retiro for a walk through the park. One of Madrid’s largest greenspace, it’s this gorgeous blend of Central Park—a man-made pond with rentable row boats, long promenades lined with sculptures and fountains—and Versailles—manicured gardens with shaped topiaries and wrought-iron fixtures.
Walking just about halfway through the park, I came out very near to Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid’s premiere art museum. I thought I’d wait until the free hours kicked in at 6p, just enough time to take in a few masterpieces before heading out for my evening plans, but I’ve never been able to resist a good art museum. So I paid the entry fee (and got the audio guide!) and logged a few hours exploring the centuries-old art throughout the galleries. I even ran into the theater producer I’d been on the tapas tour with the night before!
In planning what I might get up to, I realized I was staying just around the corner from Teatro Flamenco de Madrid. And when in Madrid, right? A quick check on their website showed that they had performances at 8p each night, and that a reserved ticket + drink ticket would be less than $40, totally within my fun budget. I’m always up for a night at the theater, but it can prove difficult when you’re in a foreign country that speaks a totally different language. So a live show centered around music and dance was a perfect solution! Of course, I ordered a G&T and sipped on it as a small but passionate cast performed with emotion and intensity. A perfect way to end a whirlwind day in the city.
I knew my fourth day in Madrid would be a chill one, essentially waiting the day away for my overnight train to Lisbon. I had to leave the apartment by noon as the host had other guests on their way in, so I lugged my suitcase and shoulder bag (side note: I way overpacked for this trip!) down through the cobblestone streets of Malasaña on my way to the metro. With nowhere really to be, I sidled them up next to me at a cafe table on a terrace and sipped on a cafe con leche while I pretended to read a book but really just people-watched a few hours away. It was lovely.
I did make it to the train station, but hours ahead of my train’s 9:45p departure time, so after I found the luggage lockers (just a few euro to safely store my bags for the afternoon), I got back on the metro and headed back into the city for a bit. Figuring I’d like to see a bit more of the city, I got off the train at the opposite side of the park I’d been at before. As I emerged from the station, planning to make my way to the Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid (the Royal Botanical Gardens), imagine my delight when I stumbled into a row of book sellers in booths along the promenade! I took my time perusing the Spanish versions of novels and biographies and coffee table books before stepping into the gardens.
Are you noticing a trend here? It’s one of my favorite things about travel, the wandering around and stumbling into new experiences and unexpected sights. I like to strike a balance of picking out a handful of things I know I want to see or do, but leaving enough wiggle room to fall into whatever happens to cross my path. It can mean some hurdles here and there (being hungry and finding yourself in a restaurant-free neighborhood is never fun), but generally speaking, it allows for the happy accidents that find us when we leave ourselves open to what’s possible.
I did make it onto my train that night; I’d adjusted my ticket to a bunk in a 4-person sleeper car rather than just a seat, and though I was still stuffed up and not feeling great, I managed to get in a few hours of sleep as the train made its way through western Spain and down to Lisbon, another four days of exploring and adventures ahead of me.