This is a recounting of the third leg of my European trip in September 2019. After the cool and damp weather of Norway, followed by the more temperate and drier Belgium and France, we finished off with the sun and heat of Madrid. The main purpose in going there, besides it being a place we had never visited before, was to see what the Prado offered. We discovered so much more.
Tuesday Sept 24
Paris to Madrid
Today was a travel day. Lucille and I didn’t have an early flight, unlike the others, so were able to have a relaxed routine in the morning before catching the shuttle to the airport. The 2-hour flight to Madrid, via Air France, was uneventful even though there was the possibility of a work stoppage by government workers, such as air traffic controllers, in the almost constant parade of French protests about various complaints.
Once at MAD, we took the very handy express bus to the Atocha terminal in Madrid, then walked the 20-minutes to the B&B that Lucille had arranged. We were greeted by the landlord, given a tour of the apartment and some safety instructions (make sure you lock all 5 deadbolts, the safety chain and, when outside the building, don’t talk to anyone!). The views from the 4th (top) floor unit were not great, just walls on all sides, but the location was very handy for all the things we wanted to do. She gave us directions to the local grocery stores so we went out and bought enough breakfast and snack items to last us for our duration there.
Wednesday Sept 25
Went for a bike tour of Madrid in the morning. Took about 30 minutes to walk to the Bravo Bike shop from our B&B and get our bikes set up. Nice new Trek hybrids, much nicer than the bikes we used on the barge! Only Lucille and I were in the tour, led by Alex, so it was much easier to follow him in the crazy Madrid traffic than if there were more of us. Narrow streets, lots of cars that don’t give you much room and, of course, avoiding the pedestrians kept us busy and concentrated. Alex took us to most of the interesting sites in the downtown area, covering about 11 km in total. Finished the tour around 12:30 and walked back to the B&B.
We had nothing planned for the afternoon, wanting to save a full day for the Prado, so we went to the much smaller Reina Sofia Museum. A nice bonus was that it was free entry for seniors! We took our time in the museum, going through all the rooms and then walked over to the Parque de El Retiro which we had biked through earlier. It was nice to go at a pace faster than “museum pace” and the park is huge and beautiful. Many people were out enjoying the weather – jogging, walking, biking, picnicking or just lolling around on the grass.
Thursday Sept 26
Spent the day at the Prado and got in for seniors rate (€7.50). Perused most of the first floor from 10am to 12, had a small lunch in the cafeteria downstairs, then did about half of floor 0 from 12:30 to 3:30. Finally museumed, and religioned out. Will have to go back on Saturday to do the rest. It is a very nice museum but, unlike in the Louvre, the guards would not let us take any pictures! Not just no flash but no pictures at all. I was able to get a few anyway when they weren’t looking.
We had a rest and a bite to eat back at the apartment then did a 25-minute walk to where we had to meet Yolanda for the flamenco tour. She is a professional flamenco guide as well as a flamenco student and translator. We met her at 6pm and she took us to a tapas bar to have a wine and tapas, then to a flamenco studio (her old one), then to a flamenco guitar maker (one of the guitarists in Supertramp bought a guitar made there), then to a flamenco shoe store and costume store. All of this was to give us a background in the art of flamenco, as well as the history of it. The final stop was at a flamenco bar (Las Carboneras) to watch a show. The place was packed, and we had the best table in the house, right in front of the stage. The show was fantastic – athletic, artistic, dramatic – with the dancers showing off their best moves. It was not something I would have thought of doing so I thank our friends, John and Vida, for recommending it. Definitely a show to remember and well worth the money.
After the show, we walked back home, getting in around 11. A long but satisfying day.
Friday, Sept 27
Chris and Susan had recommended that we take the train to Toledo if we had time. Sounded like a good idea so we got up at 6am and caught the 7:50 train to Toledo, only a 35 minute trip. It was about a 20-minute walk from the train station to the main square downtown. We were way early for the 11am walking tour so we stopped for a coffee at a bar on the plaza then wandered around for a while. Very pretty town, lots of stone walls, castle type buildings and churches, of course.
The walking tour took us to various viewpoints overlooking the city, with the guide (heavy Spanish accent) explaining the history. Combination of 3 cultures – Christian, Arab and Jewish – all reflected in the architecture. We finished the tour around 12:30 so had a beer in the Jewish quarter before visiting the synagogue museum (free for seniors!).
Afterwards, we wandered over to the cathedral, which was recommended by our guide. Supposed to be one of the largest in the world, though it didn’t seem too big from the outside. Not so! The place is enormous, with more naves, chapels and other rooms scattered around. Opulence galore, with gold, artwork, and artifacts displayed all over. Took lots of pictures and spent almost 2 hours in the warren of rooms.
After finding our way out of the church, we found a restaurant that our guide recommended. A non-touristy place with good prices but, unfortunately, the food was mediocre at best. We didn’t linger after dinner and made our way back to the square then down to the train for the trip back to Madrid.
Saturday Sept 28
Another Prado day and we finished off all the rooms that we didn’t see on Thursday. Definitely museumed out now.
We went back to the apartment for a snack then walked to the San Miguel market for a look around. Lots of yummy-looking food and drink which, of course, required more pictures. Lucille bought a bottle of sherry to bring home for €10. Went across the street to the restaurant that Yolanda recommended to have a patate (potato based tortilla) and a beer then back to the room. Finished off the day by relaxing and more games of Farkel.
Sunday Sept 29
Madrid – Amsterdam – Edmonton
Got up at 6am and got to the Atocha station in time to catch the early (7:03) express bus to the airport. Approximately a 40-minute ride, €5, and very handy.
First leg to AMS was on a KLM B737-800, with a window and middle seat. Unexpectedly, got a hot meal, though small.
Schiphol airport is large and the signage was not great to find out which gate our next flight left from. We arrived at B gates and departed from E gates, a long walk away. Glad we weren’t in a hurry! Lost Lucille for a bit but we met up again at the passport control. We tried to change our seats for the next leg – I wasn’t able to choose our seats when I checked us in the day before – as we had the middle 2 seats in the middle 4-seat group of a 2-4-2 configuration. No such luck, the flight was full.
The homeward leg was on an A-330. Comfortable seats but the middle of the middle row sucks! I was surprised that so many people are going to YEG but I’m glad that KLM is able to maintain the route.
Unlike my outbound trip from Edmonton, I wasn’t happy with our plane. I couldn’t get any sound from the entertainment system (using their headphones) and the USB charging ports didn’t work. Fortunately, Lucille had earbuds and the proper 2-prong airplane adapter, so I was able to watch a movie (Rocketman) to help pass the time. I need to remember to bring my adapter next time I travel
So, what did I like on this trip, after visiting 4 countries and many different cities? Well, everything of course. It was all fun, even re-doing the old bike route from 7 years ago. But the things that really stood out and that will live longer in my memory bank were the unexpected:
- The spur of the moment decision to, unprepared, hike the 15 km trail between Mt. Floyen and Mt. Ulriken, outside of Bergen;
- The harp concert in Bruges that we heard about by chance;
- Biking up the cobblestone hill on part of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the Oude Kwaremont,on the way to Tournai;
- The string sextet/choir/organ practice in Peronne that we just happened upon.
Some of the planned activities were memorable too, considering that they were completely outside of our experience so had no idea if we would enjoy:
- The zipline outside of Flam; and
- The flamenco tour in Madrid.
The common thread uniting all these is the experience of something new. I have always loved being challenged physically, which is why I loved hiking Machu Pichu, so the Bergen hike and the Oude Kwaremont climb, besides being surprises, fit right into that category as well. But a harp concert? And delving into the world of flamenco? Knowing me, who would have thought! The zipline was just pure fun – I knew that I would enjoy that experience – keeping a smile on my face the whole way down.
Note to self, and anyone who happens to read this – aim for the new, be it places or activities, even if they are outside your realm of experience or (within reason) your comfort zone. The greatest fun, and greatest reward, is in expanding your horizons.