Thursday, 19 December 2013

Jamon, chocolate & churros y marizipan: more Madrid and Toledo

Day 2 had the perfect blend of culture, deliciousness and more interesting people.  After a morning with cafe con leche, croissant and catching up emails, I met up with the Taiwanese girls for a Spanish feast near the puente del sol, "the center of the center!", as dramatically described by my host.  Madrid is famous for its jamon, and literally there are hams lining the ceiling of restaurants and markets, and they love to shave off slabs to serve with melon, crusty bread or alone.  We went to el museo del jamon to indulgent at one of the most famous places to get it, standing at the counter to enjoy the cheap and delectable meal.  As a vegetarian, I elected for the tortilla espanola, another dish that testifies to Spaniards' abilities to do great things with patatas (and not just smile for photos... It's their version of "cheese"), a vegetable I have never enjoyed before coming here.  After some more wandering, munching and caffeinating, I parted ways with Sarah and Ellen to meet Alexandra at Museo del Prato, "the Spanish louvre".  Alexandra was born in Texas but has lived in London for most of her life, raised by an adventurous family that encourages her to kiss giraffes in Kenya, Safari around almost every country in Africa and adventure in the Middle East.  I felt like a home body after hearing the list of places she's been.    Anyway, I don't usually get too excited about classical art but after finding out students get in free and hearing couchsurfers rave about it, I decided to give it a chance and I'm so glad I did!  In addition to seeing famous works by Goya and el Bosco that I remember learning about in Spanish class, the collection contained many religious paintings but several were portrayed with a surprising sense of humor.  Vibrant colors that last 600+ years, photo-like precision and larger-than-life paintings that spanned the wall took my breath away.  After our daily dose of culture, Alex brought me to madrid's oldest churreria.  We waited in a line that spilled out the door to share churros and chocolate, a treat more typically enjoyed post-party, during pre-dawn hours.  But the place was packed even before dinner... Who doesn't love thick, fried sticks doused in a steamy mug of melted dark chocolate?
Churros and chocolate with Alexandra
After Alexandra, I met up with Rob, a quiet but super sweet computer scientist who brought me to the couchsurfing language exchange at a cozy bookstore.  Lead by a very Nordic looking Minnesotan, it was mostly Spaniards trying to improve their English but I met an Italian mathematician too.  Interesting conversation ensued, discussing eating alligators and the depressed Spanish economy.  Rob took me on a scenic walk past more Christmas lights and historic area of towns to meet up with my host. Martin saw me swaggering like a sailor because of the blisters from my boots and recommended a perfect bar, where we reclined on cushions and people-watched (the bar was close to the gay part of town).  I must admit, I thought people from Asheville were intense with their unapologetic, full frontal staring at strangers.  At least three times in Spain so far, groups of people brazenly stare and talk about me, in front of my face.  I usually hear "rubia", "guapa" and "solo" (blonde, good looking, alone) so it's awkward but it could be worse.  And they love it when I pipe in with some Spanish.  At this bar, a few middle aged people were making bets whether or not I was a professor.  The flight attendant on the plane to Spain asked me whether I was going home for Christmas, even though I practically knocked her over with my big backpacking pack.  How these people get these ideas is beyond me but the middle aged people were pretty close.  Woot for giving off nerdy vibes!
Me near the Metropolis, one of the most photogenic sites of Madrid on the Christmas light tour
For my final day in "Madrid", Roberto, the Taiwanese girls and I met for a day trip to Toledo, a walled city famous for marzipan, mosaics and swords, about an hour away.  Toledo was adorable, with its windy streets, multicultural Arabic, Jewish and Christian influence and hilly panoramas.  We mostly just wandered, delightfully perdidos (lost) in Toledo,  peeking into churches and re-appearing in people's back alleys.
Ellen, Sarah and I with Cervantes in Toledo
I considered staying in Madrid for another night for a holiday party with Otavio and friends but when I heard they gather at 10:00, go out at 1:00 and come back at 6:00 am, I elected to take advantage of the rainy weather and hop on a bus to Granada.  I'm looking forward to "Spain's most tourist city", especially because I'll be joined tomorrow morning by Simone, a solo traveler from Greece who will bring the sunrise when she arrives at 7 AM.  We also hope to meet up with a pink-haired Bostonian working in a hotel there.
Thanks for reading- I wish I had the time/resources to make these entries more like the blogging I've practiced for epicure and culture, but given the circumstances, hopefully you find it somewhat educational/entertaining.