As you no doubt will have realized by now, I visit my friends in Spain multiple times a year - and this time was no exception. I love going back to my 'second home', and seeing my friends again. We have such a great time and I wouldn't change it for the world. Not only this, but the location is absolutely stunning, in the rocky mountains - the town Aspe is just half an hour from the beach front! It was quite strange to be on the beach just a few days before Christmas though.
I had a fairly relaxing week away, just relaxing and catching up on the gossip that I've missed... However, we did squeeze in time to go to my the local school's Christmas show, because my friends' younger siblings were starring in the show. I thought that the show was really interesting in the way that many of the children sang Christmas carols in English - with only about 20% of the singing actually in Spanish. I was also surprised to learn that the children expected their presents not from Santa Claus, but instead from the Three Wise Men/Kings who would arrive not on the 24th or the 25th but instead on the 6th of January. Other than that, it seems that Christmas in Spain is pretty much the same.
After seeing my friends in Aspe (near Alicante) I then travelled by train to Madrid. Although this seems like a very long way when you look at a map of Spain, in reality it took less than three hours. The train was really efficient and after sitting in my designated seat I felt that I was on an aeroplane rather than a train - free newspaper and movie entertainment included!
Upon arrival, I checked into Uhostels in the city centre - after battling my way through the Metro system. Navigating my way around the city was my main concern before leaving, but in actual fact Madrid feels much smaller than it is - and the Metro is of course identical to the London Underground which I'm already familiar with. The hostel also proved nothing to worry about, as it was clean and warm with friendly staff and areas to hang out and socialise - but also your own personal space. I would really recommend Uhostels, only 15 euros a night!
After dumping my stuff in the hostel, I set out to explore the city. To my surprise, it was only a short walk right to the heart of Madrid, near the Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol and the Palacio Real. My favourite place that I saw during the day was the Royal Palace (pictured below). The gardens surrounding it were stunning, and I could have lost myself for hours in the mazes. Not only this, but the area surrounding the palace was decked out for Christmas. There were churro stalls, street entertainers and to top it all, a huge ice rink had been set up for people to enjoy. I preferred this to the Plaza Mayor - an open square with a statue of King Philip III on horseback (pictured right). Although the Christmas lights did look lovely, I didn't feel that it impressed me as much as the Royal Palace, which was truly magnificent.
All in all, it seems to me that Madrid is a city that should be visited at night. I thought the Christmas lights in the Puerta del Sol were amazing - in a place that didn't really register during the day. However, I did expect more people to go out in the late evening. To my surprise, most of the Christmas lights (including the stunning Christmas tree pictured above) were turned off at around 10:30pm. This was to discourage people from being in the city centre late at night, avoiding both costly electricity bills and drunken violence. Still, it was something I didn't expect and did bring the reality of Spain's financial distress to my attention.
The following day, the heavens opened. I couldn't believe how much it rained, which was a real shame for me because I was constantly trying to move from one shelter to the next. Despite the weather, I made it further out of the centre, near the Museo Del Prado and the Plaza de las Ventas. First on my list of things to do - see the infamous bullring. Although I didn't enter the bullring, I did walk around the outside area and visit the museum there. I was fascinated by the personal histories of the matadors, and finding out more about what inspired them to enter into the 'battle of death' with a ferocious animal. Mostly men from Andalusia, I found that it was perceived as a sport, a spectacle of art and even a duty - detracting from the torture that was carried out in the ring. On the walls of the museum hung the mounted heads of bulls and the posters advertising as if it were 'the greatest show on earth'.
Another place I visited that day was the Museo del Prado (free student entry!). The piece that I was most looking forward to seeing was Velazquez's Las Meninas, and I was not disappointed. I cannot profess that I am any art expert, but this painting was amazing. The perspective of the work is a sort of 'behind the scenes' snapshot of what the monarchs (who were being painted) would see. Therefore, when looking at the painting, you assume their position, looking at the painter himself and the maids of honor, chaperones, two dwarves and a dog. This complex composition amazed me, as I found that there was so much detail - so much to look at and too little time! When I was walking around the museum, there were also art students painting from the originals in the gallery. I stood awhile and watched an artist paint, allowing me to appreciate how much time is invested into art - something that I would not have the patience for. Having said that, during my trip to the gallery I did find out that many famous artists would only paint the main focal points of a portrait (e.g. the face), and then leave the rest of the work to their assistants...
After that, I was homeward bound. I always like to arrive at any station to catch a bus or train SUPER early because otherwise I panic - so I arrived with an hour to spare in la Puerta de Atocha train station. And boy am I glad! There was so much to see - a whole host of plants, a small pond with turtles and a vast array of market stalls. I couldn't believe my eyes when I arrived, and I really enjoyed looking round. Another thing I didn't expect from my time at the train station in Madrid!
My trip to Madrid brought my travels in Spain to a close. As always, a huge
thank you to my 'gilis' in Spain, without whom so many adventures would not have
been possible. Thank you, thank you and thank you again. I had such a great time.