The city of Madrid

After three AMAZING weeks cruising down the coast of Spain and Portugal, we started looking at the map to figure out a way to get back up to France. The Quicksilver Pro has kicked off in Hossegor, just up the coast from San Sebastian and Bryn being, well, surf crazy, had his mind set on getting there before the comp finishes, October 15th. Our options: a) drive back up the way we came, stopping at new spots along the way b) drive inland to Madrid and hang there for a few days. The decision was hard, we were loving the coast and were keen to explore so many more spots, but the need to see a doctor made up our minds for us, so it was off we big city we go…catch you in a few days surf life. 

Madrid. Another surprising city that left us wanting more. Although on arrival it actually left us wanting less as we tried to navigate our beast of a van through the city centre. By the time we actually reached the hustle and bustle of Madrid’s city, it was much darker than we would have liked. Once again, apple maps to the rescue, until the 3G cuts out while you’re driving through a tunnel that outsizes any tunnel that you see back at home. I’m talking like a mini city under there, 3 lanes, off ramps, on ramps, traffic lights and cars coming from all directions. With the 3G frozen, we had a choice, left off ramp or right off ramp and heading towards the middle pillar, Bryn swung right and of course it was the wrong way. Good start. Not all bad though, we popped up right in the city centre where the broadway shows take place and it was absolutely pumping with people, lights, traffic and us. “KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK” I jump off my seat as I see an unfriendly looking Spanish Policeman right outside the passenger window. Apparently, according to Mr Policeman, we’d gone through a red light without even knowing. In our defence…well…we have none. Whoops. Luckily enough we got off with a warning, must have seen the Great Britain sticker on the back and thought “amateurs.”

On arrival at Camping Osuna, the closest campground to the city centre according to google maps, we were exhausted and hungry. We’d driven 8 hours straight to get from the bottom of Portugal to Madrid and needed a feed, a shower and a cuddle to pick our spirits back up. We got a meal to share at the restaurant next door, had a shit, shower and a shave, then hit the hay. 

Good morning Madrid! Feeling fresh as daisies, we downed two coffees, had breaky, packed our backpacks, grabbed the camera, then set off into the city via the metro. For getting around Madrid, definitely use the metro, its easy to use, plus the city mapper app works here too! Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Not knowing what to do in the city, we walked through the centre, admiring the beautiful buildings, the shops, the cafes, the street performers and everything in sight really. We were seriously impressed! Everything was busy busy, as every big city is, but Madrid wasn’t dirty like Paris, or overpopulated like London, the streets were clean, the city felt alive and it was simply stunning. 

We walked toward Retiro Park, buying a coffee on the way and once inside, I thought, wow we need to come back here with a picnic. Retiro park is a huge 350 acre park, located at the edge of the city centre and is one of the cities best attractions. The beautiful park is filled with sculptures, galleries, monuments and lakes, with a few thousand trees and flowers too. When there’s no beaches around, the park is the next best thing right? You see all sorts of people, families, dog walkers, couples, people exercising, tourists like us and more. We even saw a guy dressed up like Kermit the Frog! Its the perfect spot to do nothing. With food on our mind, and not being able to have an ice-cream at the ice-cream stand because of this silly “on a diet October’ thing we’ve committed too, we continued the walk towards Plaza Mayor and decided to come back to the park with a picnic lunch tomorrow. 

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We walked a good 2km before arriving at Plaza Mayor and although we could have caught the metro, sometimes walking’s a good option because you get a good sense of the city, plus you see all sorts of random shit. We walked past one of the famous museums, not super interested in the museum, but the man dressed up as The Mad Hatter caught our eye. This guy was literally a spitting image of Johnny Depp, except when he stood up he was about 7ft tall. Nope that ain’t Johnny. A little mouse was performing with him either sitting on his hat or in his teacup. The mouse even got a smoko break and got to go back in his cage to take 5. Now this was a weird thing to see in Madrid.

While The Mad Hatter and his mouse was impressing the crowd…and Bryn, I became more interested in the fellow sitting about 10metres along, black clothes, black hat, black duffel bag, knee shaking anxiously, looking around sharply. I had to nudge Bryn 3 times before he could take his eyes off old Johnny and turn his gaze to the strange anxious man. Gut feelings are something you have to trust, if it doesn’t feel right, just walk away. So as we started walking away, 3 policemen with AK47s, batons and bullet proof vests, came walking past us in the opposite direction. Bryn, a little more realistic and less paranoid than I am, was convinced the policeman were going to take away Mad Hatter and his mouse. But sure enough, one from behind and two from the front, the policemen approached the anxious man in black. We stood about 100metres away and watched as the policemen talked to this guy, asked for his ID and made him empty his bag. Pretty spooky to be honest but we’re glad the police are doing their job properly. Walking away as confident, safe tourists we continued down the busy streets towards Plaza Mayor.

People who have been travelling Europe for as long as we have will definitely have come across the dark-skinned men, with their square white tarpaulins selling hats, sunnies, souvenirs, selfie sticks, fake Gucci bags and the list goes on. You’ve all seen them right? They hang in groups of 5-10, pestering you to buy their merchandise and if you’re like us and never considered that what they’re doing is illegal, then listen up. We walked into an opening and saw about 12 men with their blankets on the ground, merch on top, selling the shit out of their fake goods. All of a sudden “YANK” they pull up a stick with all four corners of the tarpaulins tied to it and start running. Within seconds, what was a neatly laid out, half ass stall, turns into a santa sack full of fake merch and 12 men running for their lives. Bryn and I, right in the middle of all this, have no idea what the hell is happening. So much confusion, we didn’t know whether to take cover or watch so we just stood there until we heard an under cover police officer, who’s obviously impersonating the culprits with his own tarpaulin set up of fake goods, start yelling into his walkie-talkie “THEY’RE HEADING EAST ON FOOT.” This whole chaotic mess, all in the space of about 10 seconds was funny and exhilarating all at once. Wow, we thought, Madrid is full on. 

We finally arrive at Plaza Mayor and take a look at the huge square around us, surrounded by three-story residential buildings and hundreds of balconies facing inwards. Every European city has their own square and to be honest they’re all the same, but it’s always pretty to see. Always vibing, with lots to look at and if only we had time (and money) to get a caricature sketch of the two of us at one of the many art stands, but god dam we’re starving!

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Fun fact of the day: the bronze statue in the middle of Plaza Mayor is of King Phillips III riding a horse and just after it was first constructed there was a foul oder coming from it, sparking an investigation. Police later found that hundreds of small birds had flown up into the horse’s mouth and become stuck. Their rotting corpses was the oder people in the plaza could smell! Gross and poor little birds! The horse’s mouth has since been sealed shut…thank god.

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So close to lunch, we headed towards the famous San Miguel food market, located just outside of the plaza. The historic iron/glass food market re-opened its gates in 2009, after a 6 year restoration and now has become one of the liveliest and most culinary places to eat in the city. With stalls selling tapas, treats, alcohol and more, this is an experience. (If you don’t make it to this food market, don’t worry, there’s many others to choose from around the city.) I felt like I was elbowing my way to get to the front as we ordered and ate our way through the 30 odd stalls, packed to the rafters with people. A little too intense for the two of us, but an experience none the less. We got in quick, ate some good Spanish food, then got the f*** out. Phew.

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One last stop before our legs fall off from the day spent walking around Madrid. A short, 9 minute walk from San Miguel to the El Corte Ingles shopping centre. After hearing the view of Madrid was awesome from the top story, we knew we had to try it out. We headed up to level 9 and popped out in the food court, it’s a shame we’d just eaten because this was no ordinary mall food court, it looked amazing, with a lot less people too. From the food court you can go out onto a deck and get 180 degree views of the city. Although beautiful, with buildings for days, the big glass barrier proved hard to get a good photo and the tall car park building beside, blocking a lot of the view. Still though, the famous landmarks were marked out on the food court window with a white vinyl, so you could look out and know what you were looking at which was a cool idea. If you’re going to do this, I would advise going for lunch and sitting either out on the deck, or on a table beside the window, it would make for a very pretty lunch with the view down below. 

Home to Cassie girl, our bodies shattered from the 16km we’d walked that day! How am I gaining weight, not loosing weight when we’re walking so much?! Argh. Anyway…we spent our night writing blogs, cooking dinner and having yarns with this old boy from NZ who reminded me of my dad. 

Up early the next morning, it was time to FINALLY wash our bedding and give Cassie a full on clean. You don’t really get the chance to do this while living the vanlife, it tends to get to the point where you don’t know if you’re sleeping on the beach or on your bed. Whats it been, a month since we brought the van? Woah gross. Pillows, sheets, duvet cover and towels thrown into the wash and the duvet inner shaken out and hung on the line to air. Floor mopped, benches wiped, clothes folded nicely in our baskets, man our mums would be proud. 

At 1 o’clock when Cassie girl was as good as new, we hit the road for Retiro Park with a picnic in hand. Last nights leftovers, french stick, fruit and ciders, we hopped on the metro and went straight there. The park is so big! We went in a completely different entrance to yesterday and came across so much more including the Monument to Alfonso XII. This is a grand monument at the head of a large lake  near the centre of the park. If you’re feeling up to it, you can hire a little row boat and go for a paddle, theres tons of row boats to hire. We skipped this because we’d done it in Paris, so we found ourselves a little spot nearby and set up for the day. For a few hours we just chilled here in the park, nothing to do, sun beaming through the trees, it was the perfect spot to read our books, sleep and just hangout. From my experience, when you’re in big cities you rarely relax, its always this, that and the next big thing to look at, so this was a nice change and really made Madrid stand out amongst the other big cities we’ve seen so far.

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One of the places I wish we’d seen in Retiro Park is the Crystal Palace. I knew this was somewhere in Madrid, but little did I know it was in the same park we’d spent most of our day…dammit! Oh well theres always next time. The Crystal Palace is a glass and metal structure built in 1887 and is made almost entirely out of glass, which is now used for art exhibits. Just check out the photo below to see its beauty!

No matter what, you’ll always find something to do in Retiro Park, so make sure you visit on your trip to Madrid.

Right, time for a drink! Feeling a little tidily from our ciders in the park, we b-lined it for Tartan Rooftop bar. Now this was a mission to find, even though we had maps open in our phones. The bar is called Tartan but there’s no actual signage out front of the address, so when you’re looking for this, its on top of the Círculo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Building). Going up the lift and popping out onto the rooftop made us feel like we were living the lifestyles of the rich and the famous, until we realised we only had enough money for one drink each after the 4Euro entrance fee #travellife. But hey, no worries, drink it slowly and you’ll be right! We sat ourselves down, Sangria in hand and took in the incredible view of Madrid all around us. This beats the El Corte Ingles view by miles! You can see so many of the famous landmarks and beautiful architecture stretching out as far as the eye can see. Its definitely worth the entrance fee + the sangria.

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Some other cool rooftop bars in Madrid are Gau&Caféon top of a university, The Hat (apparently one of the favourites)Mercado de San Antónon top of a gourmet market and Gymageon top of a gym. These are on the cards for next time but like every big city, its a struggle to see/do everything when you’re a budget traveller on a time schedule.

Madrid really surprised us and although we didn’t see a pinch of what the city has to offer, it left us wanting more. Having spent two weeks on the coast, not a building in sight, it was a little hard to adjust to the chaos of a large city but that’s all part of the fun. Having two full days exploring the city was enough for old Cassie, Bryn and I, so we hit the road nice and early the next morning and headed towards the west coast of France, next stop. Biarritz. 

Peace
Leah | free & addicted

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