I think traveling with people turned me into too much of a tourist. It’s not terrible, but I feel bad that I haven’t been CouchSurfing with locals and integrating into a social life wherever I go because I’ve been stuck acting as tour guide a bit too much. BUT that’s not to say I haven’t loved every minute of being with my Grandma and with Kevin. I fact, I guess I never would have met any of the people in Ireland if it weren’t for Grandma and I would have been bored and lazy in Spain without Kevin.
As a result of feeling like this, Madrid was the weirdest experience.
We took the high speed train to Madrid for the experience, hurtling at 250km/h towards the capital city through what began as mountains and palm-tree-dotted red and brown desert into hilly green pastures painted over by yellow and purple flowers, and what Kevin calls “baby trees.”
“Why is everything different here? The trees are small, the sky is a different shade of blue…” He commented several times. A he dozed off I watched the movie on the small screen at the front of the train car. It was a movie about an old couple facing mortality and change brought on by a loved one’s death (which, for whatever reason, was the topic of every other movie I saw on Spanish public transport).
Another factor making this trip weird was our decision to break up, which had happened the previous night in something of a rush. There was no fight or anything, it just… Was. After four and a half years, we were deciding to call it quite mutually on the grounds that our life goals and personalities were simply not compatible. As a result, we were like a couple of emotional pendulums, going back and forth between very cold and depressed to very sentimental and sweet.
But enough of that.
Madrid is, I guess, a great city. It has a lot of history which I will not inflict on you right now (but get ready for a comprehensive guide to Madrid in the future), which plenty of cool buildings and fountains and restaurants. Kevin and I were both suffering from intense allergies the minute we arrived (city air, maybe?), where I had barely had allergies at all on this trip until getting here.
The Plaza de la puerta del sol is a common meeting place in central Madrid. Vodafone, a European data provider, has purchased the metro station “Sol” (how is that possible??) so everything says “vodafone Sol” with the Vodafone icon next to it and is super ugly.
It’s a good place to start a walking tour. Nearby, there is a popular market called “El mercado de San Miguel” where you can fill up on overpriced drinks and tapas surrounded by a zillion people that don’t speak a word of Spanish. Across the street, there is a supermarket as well, where Kevin and I filled up on bread, chorizo, cheese, orange juice, and cake for less than 5€ total. In my opinion, capital cities (read: large cities) are the worst places to go on a food tour. Visit smaller cities if you want to try authentic food on a budget, and spend your time in bigger cities sight-seeing and making friends.
The National Museum of Modern Art is a really cool place to visit if you’re into modern art (film, photography, documentary, stuff like that). We went to the exhibition for free as students (always keep your student card– I graduated two years ago and it still works as a free ticket into a lot of museums) that dealt with using documents and film as motivational material to rally masses behind a cause, like the Vietnam war, the Black Panthers’ movements, and workers’ rights in the UK.
The Royal Palace is a great place to people watch:
And is located near enough to several parks that you can do a lot of relaxing and still make it down the river in one afternoon to see a huge portion of the city in a short amount of time, without even using the metro.
Kevin and I had matching rings that I’d bought for us before the start of my trip that were supposed to symbolize our commitment to each other. As the ultimate symbolistic gesture, we wanted to find a place in the river to drop our rings, tied together by foliage we found in the city. After a lot of hugging and talking, we held our rings together and dropped them, never to be seen again.
A really cool place to eat in Madrid that I guarantee no one else has written about on a travel blog is “Bar Nacho,” a few kilometers south of the Palace along the river. It’s a tiny little bar owned by an older couple. They served us a plate of hot wings, 2 tigres (fried oysters with some kind of squash or something), 2 spring rolls, and 2 beers for 5,20€ (and they dropped the 20 cents because I had no change).
Our final few hours together were spent walking hand-in-hand through El parque de buen retiro. Under better circumstances this would have been the perfect day. We sat and watched turtles swimming in the ponds, and Kevin’s mind was blown when, despite us being sort of couple-y, we were approached by a toddler who was still learning to walk, and his dad was with him, smiling and greeting us.
“That would never in a million years happen in the U.S.,” Kevin said bluntly.
“Maybe. But isn’t this great?”
An area of roses called la Rosaleda in the middle of the park set the perfect moment to film for a movie.
“In fifty years, even if we haven’t spoken at all after this trip, will you come to my funeral?” He asked. I couldn’t tell if he was serious.
“You promise?” I could feel a lump rising in my throat and fought it back down.
“What kind of question is that? I promise. I’ll come and make sure everyone knows everything about the real Kevin,” I said.
“Yeah, I’ll go last and start out my speech with, “I’m old and I don’t give a shit about formalities. Kevin liked this and that, and he really liked it when I…””
“Don’t you DARE!” He started cackling.
I spent the afternoon taking him to the airport where we attempted a good-bye without tears and (sort of) succeeded. That evening, I checked into my first AirBnB place (which was totally banal) and went to go meet up with an old friend from college, Derek.
Derek used to be a chair member of Prism, the Gay-Straight Alliance at Truman State Univeristy (for which I served as political chair/webmaster and president for a combined two years). He is now a student in Madrid and had agreed to take me up on a tower to see the city and then to dinner with his friends at El Tigre, a popular tapas restaurant in Madrid.
The cool thing about El Tigre is that you only pay (technically) for the drinks, and then food comes with it. There were five of us, so we ordered five drinks and got four big plates of different types of tapas. After two rounds I was absolutely stuffed, and the bill only ran us 5€ each.
There are several locations for El Tigre. One of them is in an area called Chuecas, which is the gay district of Madrid. Unless you’re totally comfortable with the way you look, it might be a depressing idea to go there. Everyone is well dressed and in incredible shape, and it goes without saying that if you’re self-conscious about anything, this place will bring that out…
But. Definitely worth a visit at the very least. We had a great time people watching and practicing my terrible southern Spanish accent with a native Andalucian before I headed back home to catch just a few hours of sleep in preparation of a two-day-long airport-hopping marathon.
My final thoughts on Madrid: expensive, noisy, and one of the least Spanish cities I’ve ever visited. On the other hand, it’s pretty in a lot of places, there is plenty to see, and the parks are some of the best I’ve ever seen. But I’m glad I’m not there anymore. After all, I left half of my heart there.