Spanish Shenanigans

As usual, a lot has happened between my last post and now! I may try to write some separate posts about what’s been going on, but for now you just need to know that my last day at the Tax Center was 30 SEP. (It’s a temporary position, so I didn’t really have a choice about being done. I’m still undecided whether I will return for a third year next January.)

On 1 OCT, I drove Brandon to the Munich airport for an early morning departure to Madrid, Spain. Actually, he was headed to San Gregorio to observe some Spanish counter-IED training for the week. Normally, I really don’t know what Brandon does on these “business” trips, but this time the Armed Forces Network (AFN) has helped me out by interviewing Brandon and producing a news story! Obviously, the guy speaking English without a Spanish accent is NOT SFC Javier Rivas of the Spanish Army, but none other than MAJ Brandon Cave of the U.S. Army. Brandon was also quick to point out that he is now with the Joint Multinational TRAINING Center (JMTC), not the Joint Multinational READINESS Center (JMRC) anymore. Of course, he never even wanted this interview to air, so now he’s even more pleased that I’m sharing it. (Thanks for telling me you saw Brandon on TV, Deb!!)

Since Brandon was already in Spain and we haven’t spent much time exploring that country, we decided that I should join him in Madrid for the long Columbus Day Weekend. I flew in the evening of Friday, October 7th and Brandon met me at the airport. We are pros at public transportation now, so we easily purchased our 10-ride metro tickets and made our way to the hotel located in the city center off Puerta del Sol. We stayed at Hotel Europa based on recommendations from Rick Steves and TripAdvisor. As we had requested, we had a room with a balcony and a great view of Puerta del Sol. Even though the plaza is extremely busy almost all hours of the day, the double-paned windows kept out the majority of the noise so we could sleep.

That first evening we visited the Tourist Information to reserve spots on the walking tour the next day and plan our attack to see the city over the next several days. We ate dinner at Meson Cinco Jotas in Plaza Mayor. We chose to sit outside, but the wind really picked up after we sat down. It was so bad that umbrellas and lighting were blowing over and even Brandon was cold! We toughed it out though and I enjoyed my tapas menu all the way to the chocolate dessert!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

We woke up to a beautiful, sunny day that was perfect for seeing Madrid! The Discover Madrid guided walk began at noon from Plaza Mayor. We made our way from there to the Royal Palace, learning about Madrid as we went.

After the walking tour, we found some lunch at Plaza Santa Ana before visiting the Prado.

The Prado is HUGE and a bit overwhelming with more than 3,000 canvases. We decided to follow the Self-Guided Tour in Rick Steves’ guidebook and rented an audioguide to share. We maybe should have taken a guided tour because a lot of the paintings had been moved since the guidebook had been printed. We ended up zigzagging throughout the museum to find the most significant paintings. I think we saw Velázquez’s Las Meninas about six times as we walked back and forth! It was definitely necessary to stop at the museum café for a beer when we were done.

Since Brandon had already spent several hours looking at art that he didn’t appreciate, he decided that we should also get the modern art museum out of the way. Brandon really hates modern art. I have a greater appreciation for it and thought that it would be a shame to not stop at the Reina Sofía, especially since it’s free on Saturdays after 14:30! The major work at this museum is Picasso’s Guernica, which shows the horror of modern war. We made a beeline for that painting and then headed out; although I did make Brandon walk by some of the Dalí works before we left.

We ate dinner at Casa Paco. The walls of the restaurant are covered with autographed photos of celebrities that have eaten there. We sat beneath a picture of Tom Cruise! The restaurant’s signature dish is ox grilled over a coal fire served on a sizzling hot plate. It was delicious and the service was fast, which was appreciated since we didn’t even sit down until after 21:00. The Spanish like to eat late. Most restaurants don’t even start serving dinner until 20:00. That’s pretty late for us Midwest-raised folk that are used to eating between 18:00-19:00! Needless to say, after dinner, we just made our way back to the hotel to call it a night.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

We woke up to another sunny day in Madrid. Sadly, most hotels in Madrid don’t offer breakfast so we had to find our own. The first morning we ate at the hotel’s restaurant, but this day we tried eating at La Mallorquina, a confitería on Puerta del Sol. We both had Napolitana pastries and we stood by the bar like locals to eat them and drink our coffee/tea. While it wasn’t the most relaxing breakfast, it was delicious and we went back the next day!

It was good that we had a quick breakfast because we had another museum to visit, the Thyssen-Bornemisza. This museum was much more interesting for Brandon because it actually had some Impressionist works and several works by Van Gogh. It was also easier to navigate because you started on the top floor and just worked your way down, visiting the rooms in numerical order. We spent several hours there and probably could have spent several more if we had had the time!

After the museum, we walked to Retiro Park to try to find some lunch. We didn’t see any sit-down cafes, but there were a couple self-serve places where we were able to get a sandwich. The park was a great place to be on this beautiful day!

We had to watch our time at the park because we didn’t want to be late for our evening activity…a Bullfight! I had some reservations about attending this event, but I figured it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Now I can say I’ve been to a bullfight, and that I don’t ever need to see another one! I think the bullfight deserves its own post (and this one is already pretty long!), so look for that in the next couple of days.

After the bullfight, we went to Casa Ciriaco for dinner. I had partridge and it was interesting, but not the best meal I ate in Madrid. We didn’t even finish our bottle of wine. We ended up having them cork the bottle so we could bring it back to the hotel with us. After a very long day, we were ready to turn in for the night!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Again, we had great weather for our last full day in Madrid and we visited the last major sight, the royal palace (Palacio Real). Rick Steves describes this palace as Europe’s third-greatest, after Versailles and Vienna’s Schönbrunn. Brandon and I have visited both of these, so we figured we better see this one, too!

There was quite a line just to get tickets, and when we got to the front of the line, we discovered that the next English guided tour was going to start in 3 minutes. We ended up purchasing the guided tour and after I questioned the ticket seller several times about whether we really had enough time to make it, he called ahead and told the tour guide to wait for us. We made our way through security and did manage to meet up with the guide at the palace entrance. I am really glad we decided to go with the tour because there were 5-6 rooms added to the end that were only available with a guide.

The grandson of Louis XIV and born in Versailles, King Philip V commissioned this Royal Palace in the 18th century. The palace has about 3,000 rooms, but only about 25 rooms on one floor are open to the public. (We saw about 30 rooms with the extra ones on the guided tour.) Today, the royal family lives in a mansion a few miles away, but they still use the palace for official functions.

While the palace was impressive, I must admit that it was just another palace! There were a lot of clocks in this palace and the chandeliers were also notable. There was also a Stradivarius Room where the only matching quartet (two violins, a viola, and a cello) made by Antionius Stradivarius are displayed.

We walked through the Armory before leaving the palace and ate lunch at Rick’s recommended spot, Café de Oriente. We had some great people-watching while we ate right at Plaza de Oriente near the palace.

With all the major sightseeing done, we leisurely explored some more of Madrid after lunch. We went in the Cathedral of Almudena (built 1883-1993). It was strange being inside such a new cathedral! The interior is Neo-Gothic and the 15th-century painted altarpiece is a bit unexpected in the modern interior.

We stopped for an afternoon drink outside the Mercado de San Miguel and then walked through to admire the various food vendors.

We actually were just killing time until we could buy cookies from the nuns! Brandon’s mom wanted us to buy these cookies from cloistered nuns when we were in Barcelona, but we never found what she was talking about. We were successful in Madrid, but it was quite the process! First we had to buzz the button on the wall and wait for the sister to respond over the intercom. She said something quickly in Spanish, and I responded with “dulces” and we heard the door buzz open.

Brandon leading the way into the convent!

After walking a bit, we found the lazy Susan that lets the sisters sell their baked goods without being seen.

These cookies magically spun into view. Normally, they have a variety of cookies, but we gathered that on this day, these were the only option! They were lemon cookies with lots of powdered sugar. They probably wouldn’t have been our first choice, but were still delicious!

We took the cookies and Brandon put €8 on the lazy Susan for the nun. She turned the lazy Susan one more time and a plastic bag appeared for us to carry our box of cookies.

With our cookies in hand, there was just one more thing I wanted to do in Madrid. I wanted to see the modern side of the city, so we took bus #27 from the Prado museum to the towers of Puerta de Europa. Rick Steves described some of the landmarks that we rode past. So often we visit these large cities, but only see the historic side.

We splurged on our last meal in Madrid at Posada de la Villa. Our waiter was very nice and outgoing and he helped us order. We ended up with an appetizer of baby squid and the special of the house, roast lamb. After the meal, we tried the licor de madroño, liquor made from the berry trees that are a symbol of Madrid (remember the bear with tree photo at the beginning of this post?). Everything was quite delicious and a wonderful way to spend our last evening.

Unfortunately, we had to get up very early the next morning to catch Brandon’s flight. We were on different flights since the Army had booked Brandon’s ticket. Even though I left three hours after Brandon, I went to the airport with him and just waited. And on the other end, Brandon had to wait in Munich about three hours for me to arrive so we could drive back to Hohenfels together.

We had a lovely time in Madrid, and it was nice to enjoy some warmer weather before winter fully arrives. I’m not sure that we would have chosen to go to Madrid on our own, so I guess we should thank the Army for sending Brandon there! I could definitely get used to traveling with him on these “business” trips as long as they send him to friendly places like Spain!