As promised...Mr. Go's Spain trip report

Oct 20th, 2003, 07:36 AM
  #1  
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As promised...Mr. Go's Spain trip report

It should be noted that most of this report was prepared by Mrs. Go, who takes better notes than I do anyway.

HIGHLIGHTS: Normally we like to have more than 5 days for our trips, but this time we were taking advantage of a short school break. The timing was a nice change for us, though, as we usually have had to travel in late August. The weather was great ? low 70s and very sunny most of the time ? enabling us to spend a lot of time outside. Crowds weren?t bad at all, except in Toledo on a Saturday afternoon.

Day 1: Given our short time frame, we hit the ground running. After lunch, we spent several hours at the Palacio Real. Highlights were the porcelain room, state dining room, entrance hall and royal pharmacy, which was quite unique. The rest of the afternoon included a walk around Old Madrid, roughly following Maribel?s recommended walk in reverse, including stopping for the great view from Plaza de Gabriel Miro. We visited the church of San Francisco El Grande and stopped for drinks on the Plaza Santa Cruz, before heading on for dinner of tapas at several bars near the Teatro Real.

Day 2: We spent the morning at the Prado and probably only scratched the surface. On this Wednesday morning, the museum was free for kids, so we jockeyed for position with plenty of school groups. Allie particularly liked Velazquez?s ?St. Antony the First Abbot and St. Paul the First Hermit,? as she imagined that was a cheeseburger in the raven?s beak! Afterwards, we got a little fresh air in the Real Jardin Botanico, with the garden practically to ourselves. Following a quick lunch, we walked on past the Puerta de Alcala and into the Parque del Retiro to go rowboating on the estanque (fabulous!). The weather was ideal, and a street musician playing guitar nearby added to the ambience. From there, we walked north to the Museo Arquelogico Nacional and entertained ourselves for several hours looking at the caveman skulls, mummies and other artifacts from prehistoric to 19th century on the museum?s three floors. We walked back to our hotel via the Paseo de Recoletos, stopping for drinks at Terrazo El Espejo, an attractive outdoor café in the middle of the boulevard. Our evening was spent having drinks and eating tapas near the Cava Baja.

Day 3: Today?s primary activity was a trip to Segovia by bus. Following Maribel?s excellent advice, we took the La Sepulvedana bus, which leaves from the station at Principe Pio, near the Hotel Florida Norte (NW of the Palacio Real). It was about 8E for a round trip ticket and runs every half hour. The trip out to Segovia took less than an hour; the trip back just over an hour. The bus station in Segovia is a pleasant five-minute walk from the Aqueduct. Before lunch, we followed the tourist ?trail? through Segovia, stopping at the Aqueduct, Iglesia de San Martin, Plaza Mayor, Cathedral (currently housing an art exhibition) and Alcazar, with a significant amount of time spent at the latter. We climbed the 144 steep steps to the top of the castle for terrific views of the city and surrounding area, then carefully navigated the tight stairwell down amidst heavy traffic (making Mrs. Go wonder how she ever made it to the top of St. Peters).

After an expensive lunch back in the shadows of Iglesia de San Martin, we decided to get off the beaten path and, boy, are we glad we did. We found a little-used but well maintained walking path along the river and the base of the city walls that offered spectacular views of the city above. Get the map from the tourist office near the aqueduct, and find the path marked in green. It is an easy walk, and you can use it to get to the lesser visited Iglesia de la Vera Cruz, founded by the Order of the Templars in the 12th century, as well as back to the bus station. Back in Madrid, we enjoyed a tapas dinner at El Escarpin near the Teatro Real, and drinks/people watching in the Plaza Santa Ana, where Allie discovered the frozen lemon drink available at a number of the outside bars.

While the Plaza Mayor is a fantastic public square, for overpriced outdoor drinks and people watching, we preferred the Plaza Santa Ana and returned here on the remaining nights of our trip.

Day 4: This day was devoted to Toledo, although in hindsight it was probably not a good idea to go there on a Saturday, as the city was overrun with tours. The fact that this also was a holiday weekend in Spain didn?t help. The Continental Bus to Toledo was very convenient. It leaves on the half hour most of the day from the Estacion de Autobuses at the Mendez Alvaro Metro stop (generally south of Old Madrid) and takes about 45 minutes. Note that there is a fairly steep uphill walk of about 15 minutes from the Toledo bus station. We didn?t quite figure out how to take the city bus up there, but that would have been preferable. Once at the top, we followed signs to the Alcazar, only to discover that it is closed for renovations. So we pressed on, among the crowds, trying to find a few off-the-beaten-path routes ? one of the more enjoyable aspects of visiting Toledo is getting lost in the maze of narrow streets.

The cathedral, the Iglesia de Santo Tome with el Greco?s ?The Burial of the Count of Orgaz? and Santa Maria la Blanca all make the trip from Madrid worth the time and effort, but if we go back, we would stay overnight to be able to see the city without the crowds. Back in Madrid, we spent another evening between the Plaza Santa Ana and the Plaza Oriente, an impressive location at night with the palace and statues alight.

Day 5: While we?d considered another day trip to Avila, we decided to stay put in Madrid and leisurely enjoy the last full day of our vacation. We took the Metro to La Latina and walked through the Rastro, Madrid?s large flea market that takes place on Sunday mornings. It seems to go on endlessly, from the booths along Calle de la Ribera de Curtidores, to all the antique stores on the surrounding streets. We were there early, and most of the vendors weren?t ready for serious bargaining, but Allie found a few small souvenirs. After an excellent lunch at El Schotis on the Cava Baja and a short siesta, we were back at the Retiro looking for the zoo (which by then was closed for the day). We considered an afternoon at the Thyssen-Bornemisza, but Allie declared herself museumed-out for this trip.

Day 6: We?d planned to walk around for some last minute photos, but it was drizzling and grey. Instead, we spent a little time wandering around El Corte Ingles, the LARGE department store near our hotel ? and particularly in the food section. Then it was off to Barajas and back to reality.

Overall: We very much enjoyed our time in Madrid. We were looking for a no-hassle type trip that would be interesting but not too taxing, and this was perfect. Madrid has some terrific attractions, but is also a great city for just walking around, with so many picturesque plazas, monuments, parks and fountains. Five days really wasn?t quite enough time for seeing all there is in the city and environs. We could have brushed up more on our Spanish in advance, but we did not have too much difficulty communicating. This was a great introduction to Spain, and one that left us wanting to come back for more ? if there was only more and $$$$.....

HOTEL: We selected the Carlos V because of its very central location and recommendations on this board. Although the décor in the rooms is a bit tired, the room itself was comfortable. Our triple room was on the interior courtyard, so there was no view, but it was very quiet. The bathroom was large and had excellent plumbing.

The ambience of the surrounding area (crowded, pedestrian shopping streets near the Puerta del Sol) is not really our cup of tea, but central location more than made up for that.

Service at the hotel was efficient. There is a very nice breakfast room/bar, and a substantial buffet breakfast included with the room. For 130E per night for a triple, we could not beat the price. Booking was easy through Best Western, and we got a lower rate than by booking with Expedia or the hotel itself. They also have a shuttle to and from the airport for 6E per person.

GETTING AROUND: Once in Madrid, we walked nearly everywhere ? the biggest benefit of the Carlos V is its very central location. We did use the Metro a few times and found it fast, clean and very easy to find your way around ? definitely on par with the subway systems in other major cities we?ve visited, and better than some.

RESTAURANTS: We are not particularly big eaters and were traveling with a 10-year-old who has a pretty set list of ?favorites? and doesn?t like seafood. Our dining tended to be more spontaneous (we did take along Maribel?s lists with us, though, and used them to target some areas), and we went for generous tapas over full dinners. Here are a few that we liked:

Cervecerria El Zagal on Costanilla de Los Angeles, near the Teatro Real. We stumbled in here for lunch, right off the plane, feeling a bit lost among the local business-lunch crowd. The waiter was very helpful, though, and we had an excellent cocido, plus a chicken dish and house wine for about 20E.

Vegetarian café/bar (name unknown) on the SE corner of Calle Santiago and Calle de Espejo, near the Teatro Real. This was a very low-key bar with a good wine selection, very reasonable prices and good vegetarian tapas (although not necessarily traditional Spanish food). Allie particularly liked the warm Asian noodle salad. This was our first experience with tapas (outside of Chicago-area restaurants), and the proprietor was very helpful. We ended up eating here twice.

La Cruzada on Calle Amnista 8, also near the Teatro Real. Also a low-key bar/restaurant with nice-sized tapas, including some chicken and beef selections that appealed to our little carnivore.

El Escarpin on Hileros, near the Teatro Real. We also just happened upon this one for dinner on our third night. From the raciones menu, we had an excellent paella large enough to feed an entire family, plus a sizable steak with potatoes and vegetables, along with house wine, for under 30E.

Cerveceria Alemana, on the Plaza Santa Ana. While a bit touristy due to its history (Hemingway ate here), this was a fun place to hang out. The calamari and meatballs, in particular, were hits.

Vinoteca Barchera, also on the Plaza Santa Ana. A wine bar, with an excellent list and good variety of tapas. We enjoyed it, but had difficulty finding something that Allie would eat here.

El Schotis, on Cava Baja 11. We had a relaxing and enjoyable Sunday afternoon lunch here, including a steak that was still cooking on the clay plate when it arrived at the table. This restaurant seemed to be quite popular with local families, who had reserved most of the tables.

On the other hand, we had fairly unmemorable lunches in Toledo and Segovia ? the latter which was our most expensive meal on the whole trip.

GETTING THERE: Since people often ask about experiences with specific airlines, here?s ours?

Although Iberia has a nonstop route from Chicago to Madrid, we usually stay in the Star Alliance and, as such, chose an Air Canada route through Toronto due to a favorable departure time and good price. We found the AC planes (767 on the transatlantic legs, with 2-3-2 seating) clean and well kept, and the service on board friendly, attentive and efficient. The flight over was nearly empty, allowing all the coach passengers to stake out their own rows for sleeping. The return flight was full. The seat pitch didn?t seem too bad. The food was, well, what you?d expect in coach ? no worse than others and, in our opinion, edible. Beer and wine were free on the transatlantic legs. The 767s used on this route have large movie screens in the fronts of the cabins, so everyone has to watch the same movie (we have become spoiled by the individual seat screens and choice of movie on United). We?d intended to carry on our regulation 22? roll-aboards, and we did so on the Chicago/Toronto leg (United). However, Air Canada is very strict about the 10kg weight limit for carry-ons, so we were required to check them in Toronto and also on the return. Overall, not a bad experience ? we?ve certainly had worse (Air France, for one).

The one (BIG) downside was having to connect through Pearson, which is not a model of passenger convenience and efficiency ? particularly if you are connecting to the US on your return and are checking bags. If so, you essentially have to deplane, go through Canadian immigration, claim your bags, go through Canadian customs, recheck your bags, take a shuttle from T1 to T2, reclaim your bags again, go through US customs and immigration, recheck your bags again, then go through security. In our opinion, the new terminal can?t open soon enough. If you are a Red Carpet Club member, T2 does have a very nice Maple Leaf Lounge with free, serve-yourself drinks.

A word of caution: allow plenty of time to get to your gate in Madrid. We arrived at Barajas about 2:15 minutes early for our afternoon flight and needed almost all of it. We had maybe 10 minutes for some duty free shopping, and never had a chance to sit down before getting in the (also very long) boarding queue.
mr_go is offline  
Oct 20th, 2003, 09:46 AM
  #2  
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And I'm happy to answer any questions...
mr_go is offline  
Oct 20th, 2003, 10:09 AM
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Great info! We will be in Madrid in April, with a 12 year old with limited taste buds. WHat was you 10 yr old's favorite dining experience?

We also booked Carlos V (also for convenience). We'll have a quad room.

I am saving a copy of your email for my trip!
MFNYC is offline  
Oct 20th, 2003, 11:54 AM
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Steak and chicken were her two favorites At various places), and spaghetti once or twice. For some reason, she has decided she doesn't like ham anymore. Which is a shame, because the Madrilenos are quite proud of their local ham delicacies. Also, a good idea to remember the Spanish word for ice cream...helados.

Best bet for lunch: El Museo del Jamon (literally, the museum of ham). Locations throughout the city. Good, inexpensive, delicious sandwiches.
mr_go is offline  
Oct 20th, 2003, 04:02 PM
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no questions mr_go. Just thought I'd reply and say that I very much enjoyed your report. Our next trip is to Greece but your information about Madrid is well on its way to making our minds up about visiting the following year. Thanks.
milley_5 is offline  
Oct 20th, 2003, 04:45 PM
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hi Mr. Go,
Great trip report! I really, really enjoyed reading about your explorations. You packed a lot in to those 5 days, and I'm so glad you all had a great time. That walk in Segovia down to the confluence of the 2 rivers, in the Iglesia de la Vera Cruz area, with that view of the Alcazar looming above is unforgettable. Glad you found El Escarpín. It's one of my Madrid favorites too.
Thanks again for your extremely informative and helpful report. Welcome back!
Maribel is offline  

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