Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Posted on 9/21/03

Having gotten tired of staying in wonderfully private, yet lonely pensions, I aggressively sought out a hardcore youth hostel in Madrid, with a minimum of six people per room ,so that I might have dinner company and random innocent Spaniards on whom I could mercilessly inflict my Spanish language skills.

With Madrid’s likeability issues of 1994 still fresh in my mind, I approached the city with hesitant caution and a professional grade air-filter mask. Despite having to make three train changes in the most chaotic and mind-bending subway system in Europe, making my way to the hostel from the bus station went smoothly until I arrived at my stop. The Opera metro stop was the only station in Madrid with no escalators or elevators, forcing me to heave my physical and emotional baggage up one flight of steps, then down one, and then up two more before reaching street level in an exhausted tizzy of annoyance.

Los Amigos backpacker hostel was big-time, bare-bones hostelling. Not only did they have big rooms, stuffed to the point of creepy intimacy with people, but the place was full to overflowing. Despite being September, they were so booked that the common room and the dinning area were dismantled each night and temporary beds were moved in to accommodate all of the desperate late comers and the sad few who had been double booked by Los Amigos’ half-assed Excel spreadsheet reservation system that had more bugs in it than the New York Museum of Natural History. Los Amigos was back-to-basics hostelling. Breakfast, for example, was available with the price of the bed, but in a divergence from every other hostel in Europe you had to do your own dishes when you were done and do them quickly. Los Amigos only had about 20 place settings for 60 people to share, meaning that someone was always standing around, waiting for clean dishes so they could eat.

The September heat in Madrid while nothing like July, was still a little off-putting, but it wasn’t enough to make me immediately run screaming from the city. Like virtually all other European capital cities, Madrid had grown so big and become so cosmopolitan that it could almost pass for any other capital city in Europe if you plugged your ears and didn’t look at the street signs. To it’s credit, among the over-sized cities of Europe, Madrid probably has the most character. As in all of the smaller Spanish cities, the people spilled out and filled the streets every evening to have a few drinks, dine and socialize with the rest of the neighborhood. Little old ladies would get dressed up for the snail-like walk to the nearest plaza or park where they would sit in groups and chatter for hours. The men would also meander to these gathering places to play dominos and cards.

As far as I could tell, the Spanish eat out nearly every night of the week. I theorized that this social obligation and the resulting pointless need to keep a fully stocked kitchen accounted for the lack of decent grocery stores. Even on perennial stay-at-home nights like Mondays and Tuesdays, every café and restaurant would be filled to over-flowing from 9:00PM to 11:00PM. If you were foolish enough to show up on the steps of any of these restaurants before 9:00, you would inevitably walk in on the staff eating dinner together and be shoed out the door while being curtly informed when guests were welcome to enter.

One of many closed sights

Although in it’s grandiosity Madrid appeared to have an overwhelming number of tourist attractions, your options were very limited when you took into account how many of these attractions were closed for one reason or another. It was one disappointment after another and things were never closed for the same reason. The Palacio Real was closed for the entire week for a mysterious private function, the Palacio de Cristal was going through construction updates, the Templo de Debod was inexplicably closed for the month of September, the Palacio de Velazquez was closed on Tuesdays (guess which day I walked across town to see it?)… It must have been some karmatic backlash for something I had done before, but I had been such a good boy all summer (relatively speaking), that I couldn’t imagine what I had done to earn these repeated rejections.

One flamingly obvious change that had gripped Spain since my last visit was that it’s gay community was way out of the closet. Being one of the last bastions of European, close-minded, classic male machismo, Spain’s queers had finally found acceptance and had claimed whole neighborhoods of cafes, bars and clubs as their own. Valencia and Madrid in particular had very strong and confident gay communities and I expected to see the same in all of the other larger cities. It was heartening to see that the Spaniards had opened up to this degree, where only nine years ago a perfectly coifed man shamelessly strutting down the street in leather pants, bright orange shoes and a matching, skin tight mesh t-shirt would have drawn an unfriendly chorus of whistles and derogatory comments in his wake. The women were even more demonstrative with overt public displays of affection and decidedly un-feminine hairstyles and outfits where not so long ago women seen in public projecting anything less than the pinnacle of femininity were obviously tourists and the targets of similar hoots and public harassment.

At the urging of several hostel residents, I set aside a day to visit Toledo, a small, tourist burdened city about one hour’s drive south of Madrid. Toledo proper was perched on the top of a hill and still surrounded by it’s remarkably resilient ancient city wall. The area within the walls was filled with an unequaled number of medieval stone structures per square kilometer that had survived the millennia. Seeing as you could walk the length of the walled-in part of the city in about 20 minutes, all of these sights were within easy distance and I managed to cover almost the entire area in about three hours of punishing walking and repeatedly climbing and descending the rolling hillside that supported the city.

Toledo was indeed an annoying tourist town. Other than the obvious attraction of the old city, swords and knives seemed to be the main tourism export. Walking down the street, armory shops were more common than cafes and they didn’t seem to mind if you and another tourist drew out a couple blades from one of the sidewalk displays and reenacted the big sword play scene from “Princess Bride.”

Taking pictures that would do justice to Toledo was more difficult than training a cat to do your taxes. There were no shortage of awesome sights, but in the process of backing up far enough to get all of your subject into a shot, you would inevitably back into another building, leaving you with few alternatives other than simply taking a feeble picture of a part of the super cool cathedral or what have you. Other places were wide open enough to get the object of your interest into the frame, but in doing so you would also capture a prohibitive amount of objects that would completely ruin the shot such as busses, tourists on their cell phones and satellite dishes.

While being very cool to look at and traipse through I was grateful for the guidance that I had received directing me to not spend a night in Toledo. It was indeed a great place to see, but with it’s small size and tedious Rube Tourist angle, one afternoon was more than enough absorb the city before surrendering to the urge to flee on the next bus back to Madrid.

I suffered from a mysterious, non-stop headache in my left eyeball for the better part of my stay in Madrid. I am not prone to headaches, so this development was starting to cause some concern as well as fueling newfound paranoia about brain aneurysms until the third day when someone smarter than me pointed out that it was probably due to the altitude. Arg. Suddenly the obvious explanation, like my headache, made dull, painful sense. Madrid was by far the highest altitude I had spent any length of time in since I clawed my way up Preikestolen in Stavanger and I was barely at the top of that thing long enough for a pressure headache to take hold and appreciably annoy me. I rationed myself with Ibuprofen for the next few days and predicted relief when I returned to sea level in Lisbon.

Near the end of my stay in Madrid, I stumbled across an impressive English used book store/exchange down the block from Los Amigos. I traded in “The Bourne Identity” and spent a ridiculous amount of time scanning four cramped rooms with floor to ceiling book shelves, some holding books three layers deep, for free reading to fill my time in bus stations and during solo dinner outings. I walked excitedly back to Los Amigos with a daunting pile of books, before belatedly realizing that I was going have to carry all of that extra goddamn weight with me for weeks. I justified this burden as a necessary evil as it would likely be a very long time before I found an equally large selection of English books.

By the end of my five days in Los Amigos, I was in desperate need of a chiropractic adjustment. As in all of Spain, the bed was a passive instrument of torture, but that was nothing compared to the damage done by the micro-elevator in the Los Amigos building. This elevator was smaller than the average phone booth and the thing had only two speeds; “Go” and “Stop.” There was no “Gently Slow Down Before Coming to a Stop” stage in it’s repertoire, so at the conclusion of each ride, the elevator came to a spine crunching halt causing another disc to slip out of place and resulting in the loss of about ½ an inch of height.

As I made plans to vacate Madrid on a night bus to Lisbon, I had to admit that the city wasn’t as disgusting and hopeless as I had remembered, but I was also disappointed by the large number of must-see sights that I missed out on due to their untimely closings. The Palacio Real in particular, with it’s 2,000-something rooms reportedly filled to the rafters with royal gluttony was a huge loss. Sadly time was a wastin’. At my current pace, I could only hope to finish Spain and Portugal by the end of September, if I was lucky and that didn’t bode well for my goal of concluding my travels by December. The road was calling long distance, so I thrust myself into fray, heading into Portuguese territory.

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