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April '08 Trip Report - Madrid & Barcelona

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May 21st, 2008, 10:47 AM
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April '08 Trip Report - Madrid & Barcelona

This is my first trip report ever posted on this forum, so please be gentle and thanks for reading! We traveled to Spain in mid-April 2008 and visited Madrid, Segovia, and Barcelona. I’d like to thank everyone who offered suggestions and advice either by way of a direct answer to a question I had or by way of just being active on this message board. I would like to especially thank Maribel for her invaluable guides, upon which we relied heavily for the food suggestions. Every place she recommended fit the billing!

Travelers’ Background:
My husband and I are in our early thirties, live in the Midwest, and have been to Europe together on three prior occasions - Italy in 2005, Germany in 2006, and Paris in 2007. We are budget travelers when it comes to accommodations (usually staying at 2 stars) and have at least one full sit down meal a day. We are also busy travelers who like to really get out and see the major sights, sometimes packing too many activities into one day. I am the obsessive pre-trip planner and DH is the navigator, passport/money holder, and communicator once we arrive. This is the longest trip I’ve put together for us, being in out of the country for a total of 10 days. We flew economy class on Delta from St. Louis into Madrid by way of Atlanta and home from Barcelona through JFK.

General Impressions:
Weather was great this time of year. It was still cool enough that we needed a jacket most days and there was the occasional rain shower, but it never washed out an entire day.

We found everyone very friendly, even more so when we (meaning primarily DH who is Hispanic, and me with my fractured high school recollections) spoke Spanish with the locals. I think this was the easiest international trip for us (other than when we visited Germany and my friend did all of the translating for us) in terms of conversing with the locals, finding our way around, eating, and shopping. DH isn’t fluent, but he’s conversational, so we tried to stick with Spanish as much as possible.

We found both cities rather expensive (Barcelona more so than Madrid) but we tried to cut corners where we could - budget accommodations, buying museum passes that included admission to several places at a discount or going to the museums when they were free to the public, walking versus taking the Metro, shopping at El Corte Ingles for snacks, wine and sandwiches on the days we didn’t go out to dinner, etc.

Thursday, April 10th - Madrid
We flew into Madrid on Thursday, April 10th. The weather was gorgeous and we had no problems finding cash, buying metro tickets, or getting to the hotel. We stayed at the Hostal Cruz Sol, a 2 star located at Plaza de Santa Cruz 6 on the third floor. We got an online rate of 60 euro per night for a double room, private bath. For a detailed review of the hotel, go here: http://tinyurl.com/6pmcx7

Madrid is a very fast-paced, bustling city with a great Metro system. The city is compact and very walkable. It has an old world charm to it while being metropolitan at the same time. The people are very fashion-conscious and fit. I was pretty self-conscious the first few days with my less than slim figure, my travel clothes and walking shoes, but I got over it.

After getting settled at the hotel, our first stop was the tour at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu since DH is a big football (soccer) fan. The tour was impressive given Real Madrid’s standing as the Best Football Club of the 20th Century as bestowed upon them by FIFA. The tour helped soothe DH’s disappointment when we were unable to get same day tickets for the Real Madrid-Murcia match that following Sunday. We would have had to fight a cast of thousands even after initially waiting in line two hours on game day. We opted to watch the game at a tapas bar at Plaza Mayor.

After the tour, we took the metro to the Palacio Real and had a guided tour there and the cathedral. The rest of the day we just spent walking around and warding off the jetlag. We had dinner at Carpe Diem, a wine and tapas bar. Since we were unfamiliar with the tapas etiquette and the portion sizes, we ended up ordering way too much and way too quickly, but the food was excellent and pretty affordable.

Friday, April 11th - Segovia
On Friday, April 11th we took a daytrip to Segovia. We opted to take the bus, La Sepulvedana, as opposed to the new high speed train, which gave me some downtime to write in my travel journal and for DH to catch a few more winks since the jetlag was still a slight issue. The bus ride took 1 hour, 15 mins.

It was much colder in Segovia than in Madrid so we wore our scarves and gloves there. We visited the aqueduct, the cathedral and the alcazar which had a very lax policy of permitting the visitors to touch items. We took my niece’s Flat Stanley with us and he had many adventures at the alcazar. For lunch, my DH wanted to try the cochinillo (suckling pig). Segovia has a whole section of its tourist website devoted to explaining what goes into the creation of the dish, the age of the pig, how it is prepared and they even have a certified seal that let’s you know if the restaurant you are eating at meets the city’s standards. We had lunch at Jose Maria (a Maribel recommendation) without a reservation, but did not have to wait because it was early in the lunch hour, around 2pm. It was a little disconcerting to see the baby pig brought out into the middle of the dining room and then sliced up for distribution among the diners. My DH loved it. I tried a bite and I have to admit it was delicious, but I still declined to order it since I saw the actual piglet to be eaten. LOL.

We returned to Segovia around 7pm. We visited the Parque de Oeste where the Templo de Debod was still open, and free for visitors. We spent the rest of the daylight we had at the park and just strolling leisurely back toward the hotel. I don’t have it written down where we ate that night, so we must have stopped at Museu de Jamon for a quick bite.

Saturday, April 12th - El Escorial and Valley of the Fallen
We booked a tour via Viator to see El Escorial and Valley of the Fallen. We generally shy away from organized tours, but the logistics of getting to the Royal Monastery and the Valley of the Fallen were complicated and we wanted to avoid missing the limited buses and trains that went out there. The directions to get to the tour office listed on the Viator email confirmation were less than clear when I reviewed them the night before. I emailed them then from our hotel (using the free internet access) asking for more detailed directions and still haven’t heard a response to this day.

So we woke up early, skipped breakfast, and went to Plaza de Espana no. 7 there the office was supposed to be located. We got to the end of the block and found the no. 7, and it was a hotel, a café, and a tour office all in one building. It’s 8:15am, the tour office, with a Julia sign, says it opens at 8am, but it’s still shuttered. I was under the impression Julia and Viator were two different tour companies, so we go to the hotel and café to ask. The hotel personnel gave us no guidance and the café workers thought we were nuts. So before I went into a complete panic, we walked back up to the Starbucks on the corner to get caffeine and a pastry. When we returned at 8:30am, the office was opened and we exchanged our vouchers for our tickets.

The coach ride was uneventful with some running commentary about buildings we passed and a bit of history on the Monastery. The tour through the Monastery was brisk to say the least. I would have definitely enjoyed spending more time there to examine the tombs and mausoleum. Afterwards we toured the Valley of the Fallen - again at a very brisk pace. Once we were inside and got a brief white-washed introduction, we had 30 minutes to visit and be back on the bus.

We returned to Madrid around 2pm. We grabbed a quick lunch and went to the Reina Sofia museum, which was free from 2:30 until close on Saturdays. We saw the excellent Picasso exhibit and had dinner at La Sede, another Maribel recommendation. We shared a platter of assorted Spanish cheeses and a wild mushroom risotto that was excellent. Dessert consisted of a warm chocolate lava cake and vanilla bean ice cream.

Sunday, April 13th - Madrid
Today we got up early and tried to get tickets to the aforementioned Real Madrid-Murcia match. We were ill-prepared for the mass of humanity that had already arrived with the same plans. We waited almost 2 hours after the ticket office opened and had moved very little. Upon discovering the true extent of the line and what we were up against, we decided to forego the game so that we could enjoy the beautiful day outside. We were able to watch the game later at a tapas bar.

We did a lot of walking around today and not necessarily in an organized fashion, but were able to see the Plaza De Toros, Plaza de Colon, the Discovery Gardens, the Puerta de Alcala and ended at the Prado.

The line for the Prado’s free entrance was impressively long…almost as long as the fans waiting in line for football tickets. Once inside, we focus solely on Spanish painters during this visit since we’ve been fortunate enough to see a variety of other art on our trips to Italy, Germany, and France. Afterwards we watched the game at a tapas bar and called it a night.

Monday, April 14th - Madrid
Today was our last full day in Madrid and the weather was absolutely gorgeous. We did a bunch of walking today visiting many plazas around our hotel. We had lunch at Botin like good tourists. LOL. We spent the rest of the afternoon at Retiro Park and the Royal Botanical Gardens, which has a great display of tulips, lillies, lilacs, irises, and rhodendrons in bloom. Since we were near the Atocha station, we did a trial run on how we could catch our train to Barcelona the next day. We found the escalators, the ticket kiosks and figured out how passengers were taken through security and to the platform. This little detour made things much smoother in the morning when we set out bright and early to catch our train. We had our last meal at a little corner café in the same building as our hotel.

More to come from Barcelona…
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May 21st, 2008, 10:54 AM
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Here's a link to a small portion of the 1350 pictures we took on the entire trip:

http://tinyurl.com/5v4727
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May 21st, 2008, 06:35 PM
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Hi Misty

Nice trip report and I love your photos. We were in Spain at about the same time, and it looks like we had the same weather in Madrid – cool and overcast.

Did you like the churros and hot chocolate? I didn’t really care for it; I thought the fried taste of the churros did not go well with the very sweet hot chocolate.

Also, did you take the photos of the tulips in the El Real Jardin Botanico? These gardens were one of the highlights of my stay in Madrid. The day I visited was the gardens was the only sunny day in Madrid. They were beautiful.

Looking forward to the rest of your trip report.
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May 21st, 2008, 07:17 PM
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misty - beautiful photos - thanks for sharing!
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May 21st, 2008, 08:28 PM
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Excellent trip report. Please hurry with the Barcelona portion, as I am finding this useful in planning my trip (only 12 more days!)
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May 21st, 2008, 09:05 PM
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May 22nd, 2008, 06:13 AM
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Roadlesstraveled - yes, we took pictures of the tulips at the Gardens. They were gorgeous and so was a very vibrant orange rhodendron bush. We went later in the day and it was as if we had the gardens to ourselves. Loved it!

I also loved the churros, but we only had them one day. I described them to my friends here as fried dough dipped in chocolate pudding. LOL. The rest of the time we ate at La Mallorquina pastry shop.

Travel Trio - I'll try to post more today from Barcelona. I'm sure the weather will be gorgeous for you in 12 more days! Bring good walking shoes!
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May 22nd, 2008, 07:59 AM
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More from Barcelona:

Traveling to Barcelona
We took a high speed train from Madrid to Barcelona on Tuesday, April 15th. We purchased the tickets a few months in advance online with Renfe and snagged the 60% web discounted fare, so it was about 81 euro for two tickets. We used our online printouts which were scanned at the platform and off we went. The train made four stops, making our journey a little less than 4 hours. We could have taken a direct train which would have put us in Barcelona in 2.5 hours, but the cost skyrocketed for that saved 1.5 hours since there were no discounts available when we booked, so we declined. The ride was smooth and the train got up to 307 km per hour (190 mph). We arrived on time.

General Impressions
The weather in Barcelona was even warmer than in Madrid, but still cool enough to require a jacket. We had had rain a few days here as well, but nothing that washed out the entire day.

Barcelona is a definite contrast from Madrid. The avenues are very wide and spread out, kind of like walking in a downtown Chicago with the traffic, the people, and the long city blocks. Also in contrast to Madrid, the people were a tiny bit less fashionable (but still looking great), a little more diverse in shape and size, and seemed more artsy. Everyone seemed to have cell phones, cigarettes, and extremely laid back attitude about promptness, so some things are consistent from Madrid. Catalan is the dominate language in Barcelona, followed by Castilian Spanish. Most people spoke both languages fluently, but it did throw DH off for awhile getting used to the differences. Many people we encountered spoke English as well.

While Barcelona has a great metro system, be prepared to do a lot of walking! Even when we took the metro to the nearest listed stop, we frequently had to walk quite a bit to get to the attraction we wanted to visit. The streets are also much wider and the blocks are longer so it’s more like walking in a very big city than the compact walking in Madrid.

Tuesday, April 15th
After taking the metro from the train station, we had a very long six block walk to the hotel with luggage that weighed over 40lbs each. I was never so happy to see a little budget hotel as I was when we arrived at ours. We chose the Hostal Girona in the L’Eixample district based upon recommendations from here. We a small double room with a private bathroom for 60 euro a night. The hotel has a lift, but the doors were frequently left open, so the lift wouldn’t operate, so we prepared to walk some stairs. While at this hotel I had my first experience with electric plumbing. For those of you not familiar, the toilet plugs into the wall, uses very little water, and macerates the waste that is flushed away, kind of like a garbage disposal. Well, it sounds just like a garbage disposal when you flush it - a loud, rattly garbage disposal. Not only that, when you proceed to wash your hands, the water flows through the same system, thus more garbage disposal sounds…same for the shower. So when you attempt to take a shower in a 2x2 stall barely big enough to stand in, much less turn around in, you hear the noise every 20-30 seconds until you get out. It definitely took some getting used to, but otherwise, the hotel worked out great. To see a detailed review, see my review here: http://tinyurl.com/6ndufy

We purchased an Articket http://www.articketbcn.org/en/ for 20 euro each that granted us admission into 7 of Barcelona’s art centers. The Articket does not (at least it didn’t when we were there) grant you “rock star status” as my DH calls it like the Museum Pass in Paris. You have to stay in the queue to get an admission ticket just like everyone else…yours just happens to be prepaid. Since we are big on museums, this saved us a bit of cash because it paid for itself after 3 site visits and I believe we ended up going to five of the seven sites.

Our first day was spent exploring the L’Eixample architectural sites made famous by architect Antoni Gaudi. We walked along the Avenue of Discord where several of his buildings are located. Most of them could only be seen from the outside, but Casa Amattler was covered in scaffolding. Casa Battlo charges an admission fee of 16.50 euro per person for a tour, which was a bit steep for us so we passed. We did visit the Casa Mila (La Pedrera) with the Articket and the Sagrada Familia.

We had a fabulous late lunch at Tenorio Braseria, Paseo de Gracia 37, based upon a Maribel recommendation. The chic purple and steel décor looked a little fancy for us at first, but we were fine. The service is a little quicker, similar to how it is in the States. We were given shaved cheese as a complimentary appetizer, we ordered sangria, tomato bread, and I had a tropical fruit salad and DH had salmon carpaccio. We had the crème catalan for dessert and it was fantastic.

Wednesday, April 16th
The second day we took a funicular up to Montjuic, a hill overlooking the harbor in Barcelona. The weather was gorgeous and we visited a museum dedicated to Joan Miro using the Articket, the Olympic Park where the 1992 summer games were held, the National Art Museum of Catalonia (MNAC) with the Articket, and a bunch of plazas. Later that day we toured Camp Nou, home of FCBarcelona, the rival team to Real Madrid. The tour impressed me with the dedication of the supporters who raised all of the money themselves to build the new soccer stadium back in 1957 in the face of Franco’s oppressive regime. Talk about solidarity and devotion to a sport!

We left the park and got onto the busiest metro line in Barcelona and got off at the busiest time of day at Placa Catalunya. This is where we experienced our first encounter with a pickpocket on any of our trips. DH had our backpack on his back and we had to go up an escalator to get out of the station. We were crammed in like sardines and when we got to the top, we discovered the backpack was open. Luckily, we carry no valuables in the backpack. DH has our passports and money in his interior zippered jacket pocket and I carry the camera bag with the strap wrapped around my hand. I am sure the losers were sorely disappointed to only find our map, sunglasses, and my niece’s Flat Stanley in the compartment that was opened, since they left it all in the bag. LOL! While we didn’t lose anything, the experience did shake us up a bit because we’ve traveled quite a bit and we consider ourselves aware of our surroundings and cautious with our valuables.

We had dinner at Trobador, 2 Rambla Catalunya, a sister restaurant to Tenoria Braseria. In addition to the cheese, sangria, and tomato bread that we were addicted to at this point, DH had sausage with white beans and I had a cheesy risotto dish. We had “chocolate prohibited” for dessert, which was a large, decadently rich chocolate truffle covered in crème anglaise. Total was less than 40 euro for both of us.

Thursday, April 17th
Today it rained heavily in the morning so we went to the Picasso Museum. So did half of Barcelona it seemed. LOL! Picasso spent much of his life in Spain and in Barcelona; so much of the museum was dedicated to his early works and development as an artist. We waited in line a long time in the rain, but used our Articket for admission. Afterwards, we visited Santa Maria del Mar and walked around a bit until it cleared up. We had lunch at Taller de Tapas near the Picasso Museum. We had prawns, squid, a salad, and a vegetable dish with anchovies. We also had our first bottle of cava…when else can you have champagne at lunch than on vacation?

Then we visited Parc Guell. When the guidebooks tell you it is a 15 minute walk uphill, believe it! We got off the metro, walked along a few blocks and then made a left. Once we rounded the corner, we were staring straight up a very steep incline several blocks long. Luckily, there were escalators that broke up the trek uphill, but I could feel my heart working when I reached the top. The park was beautiful and busy since the weather had improved, however, a squall kicked up while we were up there and we had to scramble for cover from the lightning. When we left the park to catch the metro, the signs indicated it was 1200 m to the stop. It felt like 12,000 meters since we walked a good clip for at least 20 minutes before reaching the stop.

We had a low key dinner of sandwiches, olives, and wine that we picked up at El Corte Ingles since we splurged on lunch.

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May 22nd, 2008, 08:29 AM
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Friday, April 18th
Today was our last full day in Barcelona and in Spain. It rained quite a bit in the morning, but we were determined to take the tourist stroll down Las Ramblas, so we donned the rain gear and headed out. We saw the vendors selling souvenirs, birds, flowers, food, and a variety of bizarre street performers that would be furious if you took their picture and didn’t leave some compensation behind. We also roamed around La Boqueria where you could get any fresh fruit, vegetable, seafood, meat, cheese, or dessert items imaginable. We had fresh fruit smoothies (raspberry for DH, pineapple and coconut for me) while we walked.

We walked down to the Columbus statue and across the walkway to Port Vell, which is really just a fancy mall on the water. We dried off and used the restroom there and walked back up Las Ramblas, taking detours this time to visit the plazas and churches nearby. It was a very relaxing and enjoyable walk once the rain let up mid-afternoon.

We had lunch at El Gran Café, 9 Carrer d'Avinyó. I had a fabulously rich artichoke ravioli with carbonara sauce and DH had Barcelona-styled cannelloni. Since we were full from a rich meal, we declined dessert. The rest of the afternoon was spent just walking around, snapping pictures and soaking up as much of Barcelona as we could on our last day.

We checked out of the hotel that night so as to avoid disturbing the management at the crack of dawn when we needed to depart for our flight home.

Saturday, April 19th
We left our hotel at 6:30am to catch a taxi that we reserved the night before to take us to the airport. We arrive at 7am, three hours before our scheduled departure. The Delta ticket counter has plenty of agents milling around, but no one is helping customers. We must weigh our luggage before getting in line (both came in under weight, thank you very much). Once in line we wait, and wait, and wait and wait, for over 40 minutes while the agents chat, have coffee, and discuss various and sundry things. Finally, the ticket counter opens for business, and we have the new agent, who cannot understand why my ticket reservation is under one name and the face of my passport says another. I’ve been married since my passport was issued and had it amended instead of reissued entirely. You would be amazed at home many airline and security officials do not know where to find the amended information. We finally get our tickets (although no boarding passes for our connecting flight because it’s too early, whatever that means), get through security, get through passport control and wait patiently to board our flight to JFK.

The flight was uneventful and landed on time. However, we still cannot get our boarding passes for our connecting flight because it’s more than six hours out (thanks Delta!). Originally, we had a four hour layover, which Delta changed twice in the time between when we purchased the tickets and when we traveled to be a hellacious 8.5 hour layover at JFK. So we can’t go through security to get a decent meal to wait out the layover because we don’t have boarding passes. We pass the time reluctantly sitting outside of a Starbucks and finally get our boarding passes at exactly six hours out. We spent the rest of our time wandering around Terminal C, bored out of our minds and eating crappy fast food and drinking. There were several other flights that were cancelled or redirected to JFK that day, so it was a zoo of cranky passengers at the Delta end of the terminal.

Once we boarded, we sat on the runway approximately 55 minutes waiting to depart because according to the pilot, “It just gets backed up like this sometimes.” Of course, we couldn’t get up to use the restroom and they couldn’t serve drinks because the pilot had to be ready to go when it was our turn and who knew when that was going to be. It only caused me to be crankier and more anxious to get home and intensified my hate of flying through JFK (this is just one in a long line of *fabulous* experiences at JFK airport). We landed back at home around 11pm local time.

Thanks for reading!

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May 22nd, 2008, 03:12 PM
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Well, thanks for posting!

Really enjoyed your well-written report and your keen observations. And, wow, those photos - excellent. Laughed out loud at Flat Stanley at the Alcazar in Segovia!!! (My daughter's Flat Stanley made it to Honolulu - such a fun school project.)
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Apr 4th, 2009, 10:34 PM
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Because I'm doing research on several different places for our June trip, I'm limiting my trip report reading to places we'll actually be visiting. But I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed the Barcelona portion of your trip report. I found your restaurant info as well as the info and link for the Articket to be especially helpful. Thanks for posting this report!
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