Monday, January 29, 2007

Wintry weekend

In light of the fact that a number of people sent me this week's New York Times Travel section's 36 Hours: Madrid, I thought I'd share with you my own 48 hours in the city.


14 hrs

There's nothing better than discovering a new and different place to eat in your own neighborhood. I'd walked by Raíces del Mundo ("Roots of the World") a number of times before a friend suggested that we eat there. Raíces is a restaurant and fair trade store where you can also take world dance classes or see a show on weekend nights. A rare find in my very Madrileño neighborhood! With the 8-euro menú, we each had a salad from a different place in the world (the New Zealand contained kiwi, soy bean sprouts, lettuce, and a yogurt dressing), a tapa (like a Chilean empanada or a Mexican enchilada), and a drink. The food is good and a welcome change from typical Spanish fare. (An added bonus is that it's around the corner from my school--great for the days when you just can't stomach the thought of food from the comedor.)

16 hrs

Wandering through the eclectic Conde Duque neighborhood (just south of my own) en route to buy movie tickets for later in the night, we decided to stop and check out an exhibit at the Centro Cultural Conde Duque. The exhibit, Misiones Pedagógicas (1931-1936), is both eye-opening and well-executed. The so-called Pedagogic Missions, carried out in the pre-Spanish Civil War era of the Segunda República, were destined to bring culture (in the form of art, film, literature) to small villages throughout the interior of the country. The highlights are photographs of villagers completely entranced by Charlie Chaplin's silent movies, copies of art from the Prado, and books from the traveling library. In a documentary about the project, an elderly woman recounts a memory of her work as a missionary: "When I arrived, the villagers shouted, 'Communist! Communist! Communist! When are you going to bring the movies?'" For me it was fascinating to learn about this facet of the Second Republic, the most progressive era in Spanish history--too progressive, perhaps, considering the ensuing war and dictatorship.

20 hrs

Forget worrying about strange Spanish dining times: at Cervecería 100 Montaditos you can eat a delicious and cheap meal for under 5 euros at nearly any time of the day or night. This chain is sort of like a Spanish version of fast food: beer, wine, and olives appear on the menu along with 100 "montaditos"--tiny baguette sandwiches filled with everything from jamón ibérico con tomate natural to smoked salmon and cream cheese (salmon ahumado con queso Philadelphia). Almost everything on the menu (it's like a chit--you check the sandwiches and drinks you'd like, bring it to the counter, and they call you when it's ready) costs 1 euro, making it a very economical place to eat. We had dinner at the branch in La Latina with a friend who wanted to eat something before an evening flight.

21.30 hrs

On a night that was positively chilly--temperatures below freezing with an unbelievable amount of wind--we wandered into El Jardín Secreto (C/ Conde Duque 2) for something warm before seeing a late movie. Normally, this place is so packed on weekends that you have to reserve, but luck was on our side. Everything on the menu (hot chocolates, teas, shakes, cocktails, desserts) looked so good, we had trouble deciding. After enjoying a Persian chocolate and an "Orient Express" tea, we hurried across the street to the movie theater.

23 hrs

It's been quite a year for Spanish film. Penelope Cruz is the first Spanish actress in history to be nominated for best actress at the Oscars. But Volver didn't make it into the best foreign language film category--a different movie did. Guillermo del Toro's Oscar-nominated Laberinto del Fauno is still playing at Cines Princesa in the Plaza de los Cubos (just north of Plaza de España). I highly recommend it.


12 hrs

One of the best things about Madrid is the ease of leaving it for the day. Since it decided to snow everywhere in Spain besides Madrid this weekend, we decided we couldn't miss seeing it. Our destination was the walled city of Avila, best known for being the home of the mystic Santa Teresa, an hour and a half northwest of Madrid. The snowy Sierra de Guardarrama came into view almost as quickly as we got going on the A-6 highway. As we climbed to a pass in the sierra, the temperature dropped to -4 degrees Celsius (it had been 7 degrees C in Madrid) and, descending the other side, trees were laden with half a foot of snow. In Avila the temperature was -2 and the streets were still snowy. We wandered around inside the walls, enjoying the frigid but sunny day, and ate a bocadillo on a bench outside St. Teresa's convent. We made sure to try the famed yemas de Santa Teresa (candied egg yolks) before heading back to Madrid.

21 hrs

Madrid is full of fantastic and varied places to eat, but sometimes there's nothing better than a homecooked meal. For under 20 euros at the neighborhood supermarket, we made a feast of fresh ravioli with a hearty homemade tomato sauce, garlic bread, salad, a nice Rioja, and even ice cream. Cheers to that.


12 hrs

Though I'd considered joining the crowds at the Rastro (Madrid's amazingly enormous Sunday flea market), some friends convinced me to do it indoors at the Reina Sofia. So we ogled Picasso's Guernica, cubism, and surrealism alongside the hordes--the museum's free until closing at 14.30 hours. An unexpected discovery was a room on the 2nd floor with photographs of Madrid during the Civil War (which I swear were a new addition!).

2.15 hrs


With a group of Casa Granada novices in tow, I returned to my beloved Sunday lunch place. We were a big group and luckily arrived just in time to beat the rush. Just as we sat down, hordes of people started piling into the rooftop dining room. We ordered a series of delicious raciones and enjoyed the relaxed and smoke-free (!) ambiente. The views across the southern sprawl of Madrid will never cease to amaze me.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Teruel existe

One of the wonderful things about Spain is the concept of the puente. Now, by puente I don't mean "bridge" in the typical sense of the word. I mean, the Spanish puente: the long weekend, mini-break, what have you. I'm talking about several days of vacation thanks to a Tuesday or Thursday holiday "bridged" to a weekend by calling Monday or Friday off as well. In the States they've avoided those midweek holidays by moving many major holidays to a Monday. In Spain, they aprovechar (take advantage) of any excuse not to work.

The month of December was very kind to us working people of Spain. In addition to the Christmas holiday, the 6th and the 8th of Spain are national holidays: Constitution Day and then Immaculate Conception. This year those dates were a Wednesday and a Friday, and we got a lovely five-day break stretching from Wednesday through Sunday.

Knowing that we'd be traveling to the United States during Christmas and running around seeing dozens of people, Alex and I decided to use the puente de diciembre to get lost, literally, where we would know no one and where, in fact, there would be few people at all.

We decided to go to Teruel, a province northeast of Madrid, in the southern part of Aragón, a region that stretches all the way north to the Pyrenees and the French border. There's a joke about Teruel that says, "Teruel no existe" (Teruel doesn't exist). The provincial capital, also called Teruel, is the only one in Spain without a direct train connection to Madrid. The whole province suffers from depopulation and is generally considered one of the more remote and isolated places in Spain--it also normally registers the lowest temperatures.

But we were intrigued. There must be something there, we thought. For the first part of the trip, we weren't too convinced. We had rather blindly picked to stay in a town that, as we soon discovered, had very little merit. It wasn't pretty, it was tiny, and the whole area was not very picturesque. At least our lodging was decent and we did manage to do some hiking.

Our impression changed completely when we continued to our next destination--deep in the heart of El Maestrazgo, a beautifully wild and inaccessible part of Teruel. The scenery suddenly became stunning: hills and valleys, deep gorges, rock spires reaching to the sky. This area, especially, has decreased dramatically in population in the last century. It was common for us to drive through towns with half the houses abandoned.

Our destination was the Hostal de la Trucha -- the Trout Hostel. The approach was fantastic. We headed through a gorge, hugging the cliff walls in Alex's Clio and then arrived at the closest town to our hotel--Villarluengo. Perched on a rocky outcrop where the gorge opened, it was a truly spectacular sight. We had to wait an hour to eat at one of the town's two completely packed restaurants before descending a wildly curvy road to first a piscifactoría (fish farm) nestled among the trees and then to the eagerly anticipated Hostal.

The place is styled like an old-fashioned hunting lodge. You enter into a huge wooden-beamed room with a small bar on your right, the reception desk straight ahead, several couches, and lots of tables and chairs. On each side of the great room are enormous fireplaces. Each iron chimney hangs from the ceiling over a wood-burning platform. Taxidermist's stuffed animals are perched and mounted throughout the hotel. Our room had antique-looking furniture and red- and black-patterned wool curtains and bedspreads.

I was extremely curious about the history of the place--seen from the road above we thought it was a bunch of abandoned buildings. The weekend receptionist happened to be from the neighboring and tiny village of Pitarque and told us quite a bit. She explained that what is now the hotel had first opened in 1789 as the first banknote paper factory in Spain. Later it was a successful textile factory, among whose buildings included a church and a school for employee's children. In the post-Spanish Civil War era, the factory ceased production as bands of robbers roamed the countryside and robbed the factory's goods. This was accompanied by a general flight of people from the mountains of the Maestrazgo to the cities. The towns in the area became shadows of what they once were.

In those years, some entrepreneur took interest in those abandoned factory buildings and the clean waters of the Río Pitarque to establish the Hostal de la Trucha there around 1970. Together with the Pitarque-fed fish farm that sends kilos and kilos of trout to Zaragoza daily, I imagine the hotel owners don't do too badly for themselves.

In addition to getting some nice hikes in (the area is full of beautiful, well-marked trails and breathtaking scenery, like the Organos de Montoro, seen below), Alex and I visited a tiny town that the woman in Pitarque's tourist office had recommended. The town, Montoro de la Mezquita, has ten inhabitants. We got out of the car to look around and encountered virtually complete silence. A boy played with a ball in the street; we could see two men tending to their fields below town. On the way out, however, we noticed that a municipal bus stop.

We asked Inma, the receptionist at la Trucha, about Montoro and she explained that the population has gotten so low that Villarluengo had to adopt the town. The public bus stops in Montoro twice weekly. Oddly enough, but perhaps because it has such a tranquil and removed setting high at the head of a valley, it is home to two casas rurales (similar to country bed-and-breakfasts), which probably more than double the town's population when they're busy.

Inma herself went to school in Pitarque until secondary school, when she had to go to Teruel capital. Of the school in Pitarque, she told me, "It won't last even five more years. It will disappear."

The schools and inhabitants may continue to disappear, but the tourism infrastructure appears to be alive and well.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The return

I was struck by the dull dark grayness of the Madrid sky when we emerged from the metro midday on January 8. It was a gray unlike anything I'd seen before: oppressive, thick. All the cars and buildings looked like they'd been covered in a layer of dust, dirt, and soot. The air reeked of a mixture of diesel fumes and cigarette smoke that seemed to hang in the intersections where pedestrians waited for the light to change and tried to keep warm.

Maybe it was that I was exhausted from the overnight flight and attempting to sleep in the few hours between dinner and the inedible breakfast. Maybe it was that I was coming from the smoke-free paradise known as the United States. Maybe it's that Madrid needs a good rain to clean the soot off the façades of the buildings and the dog crap from the sidewalks.

The flight

December 21st was a day that will live in infamy. My boyfriend and I got to Terminal 4 of Madrid-Barajas Airport two hours before our flight, waited in a long line to check in, and then were informed that our flight--purchased more than two months earlier--was overbooked.

"I'm sorry," the man at the counter said. "It's something the Americans do."

He worked for Iberia, which handles American Airlines' Spanish flights.

He sent us to another counter where a different attendant spent over half an hour looking for other flight options for us. Our original tickets would have sent us through Chicago and then to the nation's capital--something I wasn't too thrilled about, but had accepted for the incredibly cheap price of the ticket. But this gray-haired airline-passenger-anger veteran worked some magic and got us on a flight to New York five hours later, and then booked us two flights to D.C.: one with a short connection and a second one standby, but with a longer connection time.

He then sent us to the Iberia information counter where, he said, they would give us our money. Money? Oooh. And, yes, within ten minutes a bespectacled woman was handing us each 300 euros for the inconvenience and a voucher for a free meal in the airport during our wait.

Dang right.

Of course, in New York we missed the first flight because it took our bags so long to come off the plane. And we almost didn't get on the second (and last) flight to D.C. because we were on standby. But we did, and by the end of the night we were hugging my parents at National Airport.

Apparently, giving out money for your wait is part of some European Union legislation. I suppose it's a way to avoid getting hammered by hundreds of furious airline passengers.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

I'm baaaack

Now that took a while. Updating the ol' blog has been on my to-do list since I returned from the States nearly two weeks ago. Looks like it took spraining my ankle to change the tone of my weekend from skiing (indoors), parties, cleaning, and organizing to sitting at my computer with a bag of frozen green beans strapped to my ankle.

As for the lottery, we didn't win. We did, however, get reimbursed for the second number that several of us bought because it shared the same last digit as the winning number. Better than nothing.