Spain: January 2005

I've noticed in the last few years that my mother talks a lot about what she's had to eat recently. I didn't notice that when I was younger, but then I wasn't paying that much attention when I was younger. Or maybe people talk more about what they've eaten as they get older. That being the case, I'm really showing my age because this travelogue is all about what I ate. On the other hand, maybe it's just because I like to complain - and I don't have anything good to say about the inverted food pyramid that passes for a diet in Spain.

We flew out of San Francisco on American Airlines at 10 AM on the 28th, and had to change planes (and airlines) in Chicago. O'Hare had been heavily snowed in a few days before and I was anxious to get in and out of there before another nasty weather front rolled in. We got to our gate to make our transfer out of O'Hare without a problem, and shortly thereafter we received a page. Daisy went to the check-in counter and learned that we had been selected for a free upgrade to business class. I don't know what we had done to get selected for that honor but we were happy to take it. I generally regard transatlantic as torture, but this made all the difference in the world. The food was good; the wine was good, and best of all - the seats actually reclined, so I was reasonably well rested when we arrived around 9 AM (midnight Pacific Standard Time) in Madrid.


Wednesday, 29 December - We arrived in Madrid around 9 AM but  it took us about another hour to get through customs and retrieve our bags, the largest of which had been generously smeared with some kind of axle grease or hydraulic lubricant. I failed to notice this however, until I had dragged it off the belt and across my trousers. I spent the next few minutes wiping the grease off the carrying handle and all the surfaces that had been affected. Fortunately, it was our hard suitcase and not the smaller fabric suitcase that Daisy brought, so I was able to get it reasonably clean.

We made our way to the metro station that was located pretty much at the other end of the airport, and then it was a fairly simple matter of catching the correct subway to the Alonzo Martinez station near our hotel. When we emerged from the station the sky was blue and the sun was shining, and it didn't seem that cold, although we had been advised that the temperature was about 47 degrees. By the time we reached the hotel it was around 11 AM (2 AM PST) but the hotel staff was gracious enough to expedite the room cleaning, and we were in our room and unpacked by around noon. Daisy was feeling a little weary, and suggested that we take a short nap. Because I had been fairly successful at catching some Zs on both of our connecting flights I didn't really feel like sleeping, but I agreed to catch a quick catnap before heading back into town.

We were awakened about four hours later by the turn-down service, because we had failed to hang the red tassel outside our door to indicate that we didn't want to be disturbed. In retrospect, that was probably a good thing. Daisy asked the concierge for a recommendation on a good district to go dining, and he identified some places on our map. Because the room was very warm when we woke up, I didn't think it would be necessary to wear my thermal underwear before going out, but within a few blocks I began to see the folly of making such logistical decisions based on the temperature in my hotel room. It was dark now, and the temperature was now down into the thirties. Be that as it may, we were not going to be deterred by a little hypothermia so we continued on. We figured as long as we kept moving we wouldn't get too cold, and this would be a good opportunity to get acquainted with the city.

It wasn't. Even though we were equipped with a map and a GPS I managed to get us lost. We could see on the map where we wanted to be, and we could see on the GPS where we were, but we weren't having great success reconciling the two. I'm sure that in time we would have figured it out - or frozen to death trying, but Daisy saw a tapas restaurant that looked intriguing so instead we ducked inside and took our chances. If you're going to take your chances on random tapas restaurants, Spain is not a bad place to do it. Anyway, we got lucky. The food was good, the vino de la casa was good, and the heat was good. Also, it wasn't very crowded - at least not when we arrived there around 7:30 or 8:00. We had the grilled asparagus and the obligatory tortilla Espanola, which is a sort of potato and egg omelette. Go figure, an omelette that has egg in it. Apparently, tortilla is the Spanish word for omelette. Obviously, tortilla means something else in Mexican, but in Spain it's an omelette. We also had some kind of fried fish.

By the time we were ready to leave, the place had filled up considerably. According to what Daisy read in our travel guide, the people of Madrid are known as los gatos because they don't come out till late. This may be true of all of Spain, given that most shops don't open till around 10, and then most people break for a siesta around 1 PM to escape the searing heat, which on this particular day had soared well into the high 40s. Anyway, once we were back out on the street we decided that perhaps we should take this opportunity to get better acquainted with the subway system, and wait for another day to get acquainted with the city.

Like most cities I've visited in Europe, Madrid has an excellent subway system and we had no difficulty making our way back to Alonzo Martinez station in short order. The subways are deep below the city streets, and well heated. While we were waiting for one of our connections I took the opportunity to take photograph a large billboard for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I was thrilled to see that America was putting its best foot forward once again by sharing this fine example of American culture with the rest of the world. It's worth noting that I had only finished the game a week earlier. I would have finished it sooner but college has been putting quite a crimp in my video gaming - and vice versa.

An interesting parallel between Madrid and the United States is the proliferation of graffiti. It's that same style of graffiti that has become so popular in the last decade or two. I don't know where it originated but it's become a fairly universal expression of individuality. It's ironic that so much of it looks the same, but I guess that says a lot about the true nature of individuality.

But I digress. Once back at our hotel, with a belly full of tapas and vino de la casa, I had no difficulty getting back to sleep.

Thursday, 30 December - I did have difficulty remaining asleep however, and around 2:30 AM (5:30 PM PST) Daisy and I were once again awake. There wasn't much to watch on CNBC or BBC other than the mounting death toll from the tsunami that had struck a few days earlier. By now the death toll had now exceeded 100,000. The day before we left the U.S the death toll was below 10,000. On the day we left it was in the low 20,000s. By the time we got to our hotel it was at around 44,000. Now that the Indonesian government had decided to be more forthcoming about 80,000 or so deaths in Sumatra, we were well into six figures and indeed may have surpassed the death toll of the somewhat less natural disaster that has been ongoing in Iraq for almost two years now.

Anyway, it was around 3 AM now and I whipped out my trusty Powerbook and calculus DVDs. I figured a little calculus would be just what the doctor ordered to help me get back to sleep, but alas I didn't nod off for a couple more hours. I don't remember what eventually made us wake up again around 10 AM but it may have been caffeine withdrawal. Within the hour we were showered, dressed, and out in town foraging for coffee. We found a place around the corner and ordered two cappuccinos. The proprietor explained in what sounded like Spanish, that they didn't serve cappuccinos but they would be happy to serve up a couple cafes con leche. We said that would be fine. For those of you who (like myself up to that point) have never had a cafe con leche, it's like a cappucino, only... uh, you're in Spain. Maybe the milk is heavier and a little less frothy, and they don't put cocoa powder on top, but basically it's an espresso with some frothy milk.

I had two, and life was good. Afterward we ventured out into town to get better acquainted with Madrid. With the benefit of bright sunlight and my reading glasses, we had much greater success this time. I was fascinated by the Barclays bank building, which looked like an ordinary modern office building with some kind of art deco Lego piece stuck to the top. I snapped a couple pictures.

Around 1:30 PM we found a paella restaurant that had come highly recommended by Frommers, and fortunately they were just opening for lunch. Like the night before, we were about the first patrons to arrive, but by 3 when we were finishing our meal and bottle of wine, the joint was really jumping. We wandered back to our hotel to get caught up on the rising death count and declining dollar. And then, as was to be my pattern for most of the trip, I fell into a deep siesta.

They eat lunch in Spain around 1 to 4 PM, and for those who have the energy to venture back out after their wine-induced siestas - they don't generally start serving an evening meal till around 8:30 or 9. If you want coffee in the morning you better not want it before 8 or 9 in the morning, because nothing is going to be open before then. It's no secret that they do everything later in Spain, and I used to think it was because they take siestas in the afternoon, but clearly the siestas aren't a necessity because of the weather - at least not in the winter. The temperature is generally below 10 degrees C in Madrid (50 degrees F), and about a quarter of the country is currently blanketed in snow.

I've figured out why the do things later in Spain: it's because they're on Central Europe Time or CET. If you consult a world map you will see that most of Spain is farther west than England, but rather than being on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) or the equivalent Western European Time (WET) like Portugal, Spain insists on being in the same time zone as Helsinki and Kiev. This means that the sun rises around 8 or 8:30 at this latitude. For somebody who is suffering from chronic siesta-induced jet-lag, this means that I have to start my day around 4 AM with about four hours of caffeine withdrawal. Some might argue that if I'm waking up at 4 in the morning maybe I don't need any caffeine, and right now I might agree, but at 4 in the morning before I've had my coffee my reply would more likely be "shut the hell up".

So anyway, when I arose from my siesta it was about time to venture out for our evening meal and to walk off our afternoon meal. But having learned from the previous night's experience we instead decided to bundle up in multiple layers and to utilize the Metro to get us to our intended destination without freezing to death like a couple of poor little match girls. Besides, once we arrived at our intended neighborhood destination we still had the opportunity to walk around the serpentine streets for about 45 minutes before we actually found the restaurant that had been recommended by Frommer's.

When we got to the restaurant it was nice and toasty inside so I immediately retired to the restroom to remove a layer of thermal insulation. We then ordered the prix-fix meal which consisted of bread, wine, Castillian soup, salad, and some kind of meat dish. The wine was good, the soup was very tasty, albeit greasy, and the salad was iceburg lettuce and tomatoes. The dressing was oil and salt. Simple, but if you like salt and tomatoes (and I do), you would probably like it. The main course turned out to be a big, honkin' steak served on a scorching hot skillet-like plate. The waiter demonstrated how to slice the steak (which was practically uncooked on the inside) and then press it against the skillet-plate to cook it to taste. This proved to be very effective. The table was not equipped with a salt-shaker but this proved to be no problem, as the Spanish are not shy about salting your meal before delivering it to your table.

Desert was a caramel flan, which is a fairly traditional desert in Spain. Overall, except for the fact that the meal featured nothing resembling a vegetable except lettuce and tomatoes - the meal was very satisfactory and more than a little filling. Afterward, we waddled back to the Metro station and made our way back to the hotel.

Before turning in for the evening I took another picture out the window of the Barclays building, and we packed our bags so we would be ready to catch the 9 AM train to Santander in the morning.

Friday, 31 December - When I woke around 4 I fired up my calculus DVDs in hopes that it would put me back to sleep, but instead I ended up brushing up on derivatives for about an hour and a half. Then I got up and showered so that I would be poised to go out and get a cup of coffee two hours before any would become available.

By 7:30 Daisy and I were both anxious to get to the train station. Not because we needed to catch a train that soon but because we reasoned that at least there we would be able to get a cafe con leche. We checked out of the hotel and had them call a taxi, and by 8 AM we were at the station with tickets in hand and cafe in cup.

Our train pulled out a few minutes after 9, and by 9:30 the elevation had risen to the point where there was evidence of snow on the ground. By 10:30 there was little evidence of anything but snow. At this time of year, contrary to what you may have heard, the rain in Spain falls mainly somewhere other than on the plain. Maybe in the south of Spain or on the coast, but the high plain was blanketed with snow.

By 1 or so we were once again dropping in elevation, and I was starting to see evidence of frozen vegetation between patches of snow. This part of Spain is truly majestic and entirely not what I was expecting.  I knew we would be passing through the mountains to the north but for some reason I was expecting the kind of mountains one would see in a spaghetti western. In retrospect, I don't know what I was thinking; they don't have spaghetti in Spain so I don't know why I was expecting to see something from The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. It was all good, and it was anything but ugly.

On our descent through the mountains toward the northern coastal town of Santander I was amazed by the pastoral splendor, and I remember thinking that this was the sort of place I could see myself living. Unfortunately, this is not the sort of place where Daisy could imagine herself living because it's too far from the hustle and bustle of the city, but at the time it was a pleasant fantasy.

on to Santander and Gijon