Today was one of those perfect days. I seem to be having a lot of them when I travel, especially on this trip! In Cambridge, in York, in the Isle of Skye, in Barcelona, and in Sitges, just to name those that spring to mind… I’ve realised that a lot of what constitutes a perfect day depends on the weather. Today’s weather was gorgeous – bright, clear blue skies with warm sunshine, bringing daytime temperatures to a very comfortable 20 degrees.
Had a nice, long well-deserved sleep and fully recovered from the hangover-like effect of the long distance bus yesterday. Woke up and my spirit immediately lifted when I looked at the sky. Ahhh… I really, really love clear blue skies. Its my favourite weather! Best still if there’s not a single cloud. Even in Singapore, when clear skies mean scorching temperatures, I still like it, because the feeling of looking up at a sky that’s so gorgeously blue and clear for miles is so uplifting and inspiring.
Breakfast was some lemon biscuits that I still had leftover from the UK, dipped in cold semi-skimmed milk. Explored Madrid more wholeheartedly today. Trust me, it tastes much better than it sounds. I walked the streets, admired the architecture, relaxed in the palatial gardens, and I have to say, Madrid isn’t so bad after all. Okay, I like it. I like Madrid. The architecture isn’t as picture-perfect as Barcelona’s gothic quarter and there are no avant garde buildings that bear Gaudi’s name. But the plazas and gardens are just lovely, and there are so many of them in Madrid. Even the touristy places are extremely nice and populated with locals (like the stamp and currency market yesterday at Plaza Mayor).
Many streets outside the very core of the city are not particularly picturesque, with very business-like and functional buildings, but the heart of town, centred on Plaza Sol, is pretty lovely. I enjoyed myself immensely just walking along the streets, taking short detours to see specific landmarks. I especially like the brightly-painted traditional Spanish buildings near Plaza Mayor. Once again, very different from Barcelona! Throughout the day, the song “马德里不思议”by Jolin Tsai kept coming into my head. Its my official theme song for Madrid (because that’s the only song I know about Madrid, I guess). Its tune is so catchy and happy, exactly how I felt the entire day.
I went to this temple with a strange name, which is an ancient Egyptian temple that was donated to Spain by the country of Egypt as a way of saying “thanks for your help” when Egypt was hit hard by a natural disaster some 30-40 years ago (I’m not very good at remembering facts, which is why this sounds so vague). Small but atmospheric and lovely ancient structure. I sat in the park surrounding it, admiring it and eating my 1.20 euro chocolate pastry from one of those lovely Spanish bakeries (they actually bake fresh on the spot, because you can see the kitchen at the back, and are mostly independent-owned, no chain stores! What a brilliant country!)
Once again, I have to say I like the abundance of benches in Spain. You never have to worry about a place to sit down. There are benches everywhere! After sitting on a bench at the temple park, I went to a nearby park that is just next to the royal palace, and sat down there as well. I don’t just sit there and stare blankly into space, mind you, I people-watch, which is a favourite activity in Spain, and sometimes read my copy of Bill Bryson. Its so relaxing to just slow down and do nothing!
The royal palace park was just wonderful. The trees and hedges were neatly trimmed and manicured, and there were a couple of lovely fountains. Now, just picture yourself sitting there, basking in the warmth of 20-degree sunshine, sitting on a bench, reading a book, and occasionally looking up to take in the splendour of the park and palace once more…. ahh…
I have to say that the Spanish Royal Palace is huge. Okay, I haven’t actually been to Buckingham Palace (London isn’t one of my favourite cities and I didn’t feel very much like visiting Buckingham in cold wet winter weather), but yeah, the Spanish Royal Palace is really big. It doesn’t have much of palace grounds, unlike the one in Japan, so all you have is a monstrously huge building that looks like one of those government buildings in Washington D.C. Many tourists milling about, and where there’s tourists, there are pickpockets so needless to say I was being extremely cautious. And also, wherever there’s tourists in Europe, there seems to be people who are willing to dress themselves in unorthodox ways to earn a living. There’s one girl dressed up as a fairy, and stood there immobile in white paint the entire day while people dropped coins into her box. And lots of other people dressed up as strange characters and looking like bronze/silver statues. Bull-fighting matadors seem to be a perennial favourite as well.
Went into the cathedral next to the royal palace, and it was good, but wasn’t particularly interesting or anything (like my previous post about art museums, there are tons of cathedrals and churches in Europe, so I left after a very brief moment.
Walked back to Sol, admiring the architecture as usual, and then back to the hostel at 1pm! At 1pm, most Spanish people have lunch and then take a siesta (i.e. they sleep. What a wonderful country!). But I had already slept too much the night before, so I busied myself cooking exactly the same meal as the previous day (delicious and healthy!), called home and used the internet before heading out again.
Went to the bus station to buy a ticket for the bus to Sevilla the next day. Why are people at tourist information counters at bus/train stations always so glum? Anyway, ticket bought, I decided to go to… okay, I forgot the name of the place. Ah! Alcala de Henares, that’s what it was called (thank you wikitravel). Although the name doesn’t sound particularly attractive (it reminds me of hernia), I have to say, this very town made me fall in love with Spain. After spending four hours here, I’m smitten with this country and can’t wait to return even though I haven’t left yet!
There was a conspicuous lack of tourists the entire day, this being not as popular a day-trip destination from Madrid as Toledo and Segovia are. I really, really loved this town. Its such a beautiful university town. I was in my most contented state ever just wandering through the picture-perfect small college patios and courtyards, down the main street which was lined with plum trees in full bloom, and sitting down on benches in random locations whenever I felt like it.
Grabbed a 500ml San Miguel (just 0.68 euros! It's amazing how cheap beers are in Europe), a baguette and ham-with-olives-in-them (what do you call those?!), then settled down at the central plaza to eat, drink, read, people-watch (old couples holding hands, young couples kissing, teenagers skateboarding, kids darting around, everyone talking and looking so radiant and happy), admire the colourful buildings fronting the plaza and gaze at the clear blue sky gradually turning dark. In these 2 hours, I fell in love over and over again with this country, and was completely smitten by Spain.
And when I tried to find the train station on my way back, the people I met just had to be so smiley and helpful, the most positive reception I’ve ever encountered from strangers so far on this trip. I walked around the old town and back to the train station, listening to music on my iPod, radiating contentment and happiness, and was so full of joy I couldn’t believe myself. It was just so perfect. I love Spain. I love this country, its plazas, its architecture, its mostly-friendly and always beautiful-looking people, its gorgeous weather, its lovely scenery, its exotic culture, its foreign language and its slow, relaxed attitude to life. I love it all.