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21 Days of Spain

Author: Betsy Lubis
Date of Trip: November 2013

21 Days of Spain

My husband and I were neophytes in terms of international travel as we embarked on a three-week trip to Spain in November, 2013. He’d been to Peru several years prior delivering computer equipment to a charity but he’d known where he was going and that someone would meet him when he got there. And, I hadn’t used my passport since my 20s, when my parents took me on a professionally guided tour of the UK one year and a friend dragged me to an all-inclusive Mexican resort the next.

Before leaving, we’d bought tickets for the Alhambra in Granada for day eight and registered to run a marathon in Valencia on day fifteen. We’d also made hostal reservations for nights one through eight along with booking a Holiday Inn Express for the marathon week-end. For the rest, we intended to remain flexible knowing full-well that I am not the calmest person when unsure of where to sleep.

I also tend to be slightly uptight when lost. And, though we’d packed both a tablet and hand-held electronic device, we don’t own smart phones or carry internet access over our shoulders. So, we’d have to figure out where we were going before we went, ask someone along the way, find Wi-Fi accessibility in transit or resort to a becoming-difficult-to-find printed map.

Probably, it was best just to get going:

Day 1, USA to Spain
We boarded our Madrid flight through first class, as a rowdy old Texan whose wife was leaning down to arrange stuff on the floor, loudly proclaimed, “Shirley, what are you doing? You can’t do that here,” while watching for our reaction. Laughing dutifully, we continued on to our tourist seats.

From the dreariness of the terminal into which we de-planed, we might as well have arrived somewhere in the Eastern Bloc of the early `60s. Outside, the morning loomed almost as grey. The first ATM we attempted didn’t work. The second managed to spit out some euros after which we found the express bus to Atocha Station on our second pass by its stop. I noticed more litter than I’d been expecting strewn along the highway leading into town, but failed to interpret it as an omen of anything to come.

Our bus passed a 5 or 10K as we neared Retiro Park. The runners were progressing beside Atocha Station, so, once off the bus, we followed their path around a corner before realizing we were off course for our hostal. Referring to our map didn’t help. A lady walking by pointed out the general direction we should be going. We returned to the station to reorient ourselves before trudging on.

Hostal Numancia: Fourth floor of a building with apartments on the lower levels and another hostal on the floor above. The infrastructure needed a bit of maintenance, i.e., the sink in our room wouldn’t turn off. But, the staff was friendly and helpful. And, as the courtyard was strung with clothesline, we could hang our hand-washed stuff out there to dry. The shared bathrooms were relatively clean, given their age and decrepitude and the filthiness of some of our fellow guests. The Wi-Fi proved adequate.

We arrived too early to check-in. So, we left our backpacks and ventured out to stand on the zero kilometer mark in Puerta del Sol before heading into the café at the El Cortes Ingles department store for lunch.

Later, we drank American coffee at the Dunkin’ Coffee up the street from our hostal, and then walked around Plaza Mayor, on to Palacio Real and along the edge of Campo del Moro. We couldn’t decide where to go for dinner and ended up at the crowded Mercado de San Miguel. Without finding anywhere to sit, we ate standing up. I washed down my insufficiently micro-wave heated potato omelet with a glass of wine.

In bed by 10:00 p.m., my husband slept while I listened to the girls in the next room getting ready to go out. When they returned well after midnight, I was still awake.

Day 2, Madrid
Out for a run, we looped around Retiro Park a couple of times, managing not to get lost. Finishing, we bypassed a McDonald’s on one corner of the street for a café on another where we ordered the basic Spanish breakfast: juice, coffee, and toast spread with olive oil and tomatoes. Outside, a street vendor cooked sweet potatoes and corn over a relatively crude but functioning home-made grill.

After spending several hours admiring art at the Prado, we left the museum as evening arrived. Walking in the general direction of our hostal, but overshooting it a bit, we were distracted by a boisterous parade. In response to 1,600 or so Madrid sanitation workers losing their jobs, they and masses of their compatriots were marching in protest and leaving little trash fires in their wake. Bypassing the fires, we ended up on Calle Magdalena, our hostal’s street, only we didn’t realize we were there until we’d gone at least a block past the place.

We ventured into nearby Lavapies, which one of our guidebooks described as a traditional Spanish working class neighborhood now filling with immigrants. Looking for something to eat, our first dining option appeared as a string of Indian restaurants each with a nicely dressed young Indian planted out front to lure in business. We succumbed to the first where we got a small beer, salad, main dish, and little dessert for seven euros each.

Day 3, Madrid
We ran down Paseo de Castellano going as far as the Real Madrid futbol stadium. Coming back, we stopped at a café near the Prado for toast, jam, juice and coffee. The price of this “continental” breakfast posted on the chalkboard outside was the “bar” price. But, pegged as tourists, we were instructed to “sientense aqui” and motioned to a table. And, of course, there, we were charged the “table” price. So, our breakfast ended up being a euro or two more than advertised. For the cheapest price, you have to insist on sitting at the bar. Or, clarify beforehand that both bar and table are priced the same. If you know enough Spanish to do so, that is. Because while many servers will speak English quite well when it comes to the food, they turn decidedly monolingual when getting down to paying for it. Of course, I’d read this all before our trip. Yet, in practice, standing there, being weak in the native tongue, it was hard to implement.

For the second installment on our three museum pass, we headed to the Thyseen-Bornemisma. And, while I enjoyed perusing its art, it will be the museum I always remember for its rare water fountains. We’d already found a couple of them out in the open air. And, surprisingly in November, they were still turned on. Inside buildings, though, except for the Thyseen, they were virtually non-existent. Department stores, malls, bus and train stations: none. We routinely filled our water bottles from bathroom faucets.

That night, we didn’t walk far enough north of Puerta del Sol to find the restaurant we’d picked out of our guidebook though we did come across a second place we’d noted, where the Socialist Party of Spain was founded in 1869 or sometime around then. There, we walked in only to be ignored. So, we left and went to yet another place where, at least, we were escorted to a table and shown the menu. But, it was an expensive menu, so, we left it, also. Finally, we ended up at a restaurant near our hostal where we ate a nice three plate menu del dia for nine euros each. And, this is where the equally nice server sat the wine bottle on our table after we’d ordered only a glass saying, “A glass, a glass and a half. Is fine. Same price. Don’t worry about it.”

Day 4, Madrid
Heaps of trash line Calle de Magdalena and used packets of ketchup and jelly are streaked along the sidewalk. The sanitation strike has hit. Some of the major thoroughfares, Paseo de Castellano, for one, aren’t as trashed as other, more residential streets. We repeat our run from yesterday but go further, past the soccer stadium all the way to the Puerta de Europa Twin Towers…Tores Kos, which lean at 15 degree angles and also the golden obelisk by Spanish contemporary architect Santiago Caltravea. Some Japanese business people are there, too, taking pictures.

We gear up for our last Madrid museum day: the Reina Sofia and Pablo Picasso’s Guernica; the piece everyone goes to see. We see a lot more as well. At the museum café, I order what I think is an omelet. It turns out to be one of those potato things, cold again, this time stuck inside a hard roll. In the square outside, kids play soccer as dusk settles in. It’s as pretty and compelling a picture as anything we’ve seen in the museums.

Later, we find Artemesia II, the vegetarian restaurant we’d missed the night before. My husband asks for soup in addition to the main courses we both order. We’re brought bread, which we haven’t asked for and for which we’re charged 1.90 euros. A little appetizer we eat without ever identifying is served along with the bread. Then, the soup is brought along with my eggplant main course. Paella sits on the side. Since that’s what my husband ordered for his main dish, this makes us think they’ve served both on the same platter. (It’s a vegetarian restaurant in meat-loving Spain. It’s entirely possible they do some strange stuff). Anyway, we share that food and think we’re done until they bring out another large platter of paella. I’m stuffed but he manages to clean a significant portion.

Returning to the hostal, we pass a guy wearing a KC Royals (our home town baseball team) jacket. He’s talking on his cell phone at the time but mouths “no” he’s not from Kansas City when I ask.

Before bed, we make a slight adjustment in travel plans. Before the trip, I’d thought that with all Spain’s trains and buses we’d have no trouble going from point A to B whenever we wanted. But, of course, there are schedules. I also hadn’t realized that often going from point A to point B involves traveling to point C (Madrid) in between which throws more complexity and time into the mix. So, we ended up cancelling our hostal reservation for Friday night in Toledo and added Friday night onto our Granada stay.

Day 5, Madrid to Segovia
We walked to Principe Pio train station. It was right there, easy to spot, attached to its companion mall. Finding the bus station that was supposed to be there, too, proved a bit more difficult. Back outside, we found it in a completely separate building.

A woman seated two rows in front of us talked on her cell phone for almost the entire trip. Finally, another woman seated across from her leaned over and said something to the effect of habla mas baja (talk quieter), you’re driving me loca. (That’s the gist I made out anyway). We didn’t hear a word out of the talker after that, not even a whispered bye to whoever had been on the other end of her conversation.

Impressions of and experiences in Segovia: a) beautiful setting tucked between arid hills, b) Alcazar, Roman Wall, aqueduct, all quite impressive, c) the ponche segoviano (marzipan) cake at Limon and Menta was the best part of our day and the best pastry we’d eat on the entire trip, d) dinner at a pizza place with kids playing in a ball pit, e) guys slathering up wall posters announcing a protest against a proposed golf course. “Golf is only for rich men,” one of them informed us. And, golf wastes water in a country running out of water, their sign proclaimed.

Our attic room at the Don Jaime hostal was clean and attractive, and as spacious any sloped roof room can be. Inside, the hostal was quiet, a nice respite after the relative cacophony of Hostal Numancia. But, it turned out to be a façade. Around 1:00 a.m., some rowdy types out in the street began carrying on, talking, yelling, and, presumably, drinking, until 5:00 a.m. Later, at check-out, we were asked how we enjoyed our stay. I said it was great until that ruckus began. The woman nodded. Even in my bad Spanish, she knew what I was talking about. I thought back to an on-line review I’d read. There may have been a disco we never saw up the street.

Day 6, Segovia to Madrid to Granada
No wait. A bus is readying to leave for Madrid right as we get to Segovia’s station. Once there, we walked from Principe Pio all the way back past Atocha Train Station and on to Mendez Alvaro bus station. We could have taken the subway and probably arrived in fifteen minutes but we walked an hour or so instead. There, we waited a couple of hours more before our bus left for Granada. We ate a decent lunch in a cafeteria in the busy station while plenty of police officers roamed about.

From my bus seat, I watched as a young man stuffed a dog three times the size of his kennel into his kennel. Once the dog was latched inside, the carrier was placed in the bus’ luggage bay and the driver shut the bay. We were almost ready to leave. But, then, a late passenger arrived and the driver reopened the bay to stash her stuff. The dog leapt out. The driver called after the dog owner, who was not yet even on the bus, to re-captivate his pet. So, the poor thing was again stuffed in his minute enclosure. By the time we reached Granada and I thought to notice, the animal was already running around outside. So, I don’t know if his carrier latch held for the entire five hour ride or if he’d escaped in transit. I do know we saw a lot of Spanish dogs, more in Madrid, it seemed, than anywhere else. One of the things I’d read before traveling is that Spaniards are lax in picking up after their pets. And, certainly, we had to step around feces here and there. However, we also saw plenty of dog-walking Spaniards dutifully carrying their little plastic bags.

Day 7, Granada
Apparently, Granada’s student population approximates 70,000. And, it looked like that many more had come to party with them when we arrived on a Friday night. Fortunately, the Pension Landazuri, run by ancient Maltilde Landazuri, was more subdued at least until Saturday morning when Manolo, her son, raised the metal door a little before 7:00 to open the Landazuri café right beneath our bedroom.

Feeling our vacation is becoming too hectic and disjointed than it should be, we decide to set simple goals for our day: 1) run. We end up on a high road leading out of Granada, skirting some trash, litter and a junk yard equipped with the compulsory barking dog. We get in an hour and a half run though some of that is walking the steepest hills, both up and down, b) laundry. Maltilde says a boy on a bike will come and get it for almost as cheaply as we can do it ourselves (13 euros versus the 7 we eventually pay) but we say we’ll give it a try. She gives us a map on which she’s circled the location for two laundromats. We never find the first. The second’s not a do-it-yourself place. Then, we see a euro off coupon for a third laundromat on the map. It’s the same laundry that will send the boy on a bike. We figure we’re only a third of a mile or so from it so we make our way there. c) travel plans. We need to figure out where we’re going after Granada and before Valencia and how we’ll get wherever that is. We do this while our clothes are getting clean.

Our goals met, we walk Calle de Sacramonte, the traditional heart of Gypsy Granada, passing the “cave” houses built into the hillside. Many have been turned into restaurants. Most everyone we see looks touristy like us. (Not until the next day, when we’re across the Daro River on the Alhambra side and look back toward Sacramonte do we see actual tents and rougher looking caves further up the hill where the hippies supposedly are now settled.)

From Calle de Sacramonte, we see mountain bikers and hikers on hillside trails across the valley, sort of behind the Alhambra. Tomorrow, after visiting it, we’ll try to figure out how to get there.
Meanwhile, we venture into the Albayzin (Old Moorish Neighborhood) to join the masses at Mirador de San Nicolas. They’re all gathered to see the shadows cast on the Sierra Nevadas as the sun sets. And, they not only want to see the spectacle, they’re all determined to click a picture of themselves as they see it.

For dinner, we pick up Mediterranean take-out and buy a four euro bottle of wine from Manolo to go with it. We carry it all up to Pension Landazuri’s third floor terrace with a view of the Alhambra spread out before us and Granada’s cathedral at our back for the best view of the day entirely to ourselves.

At 10:00 p.m., three or four impeccably dressed and quite loud Spaniards in their 30s or early 40s arrive to settle in down the hall. Half an hour later, they go out and the pension quiets again until they return just before 5:00 Sunday morning, coming in even more boisterously this second time around. We never get back to sleep but, eventually, they must as we neither see nor hear them after that.

Day 8, Granada
The Alhambra: intricate craftsmanship of Palacios Nazaries, great views from the Alcazaba, beauty and serenity in the Generalife Gardens. We skip Charles V’s Palace. What we did see was all very impressive: #1 or #2 on most of the top ten lists of Spanish tourist sites. I only wish I’d read more about its history before we came.

We set out for a run in the direction of where we hoped to find the trails we’d seen yesterday. A young woman pointed us to the end of the Alhambra parking lot and a path leading up from there that took us where we wanted to go. We managed to run quite a distance without falling down the side of the hill or encountering an oncoming mountain biker rounding a blind curve.

Sprig of rosemary: a Roma (Gypsy) woman will offer you a sprig of rosemary and, then, when you reach out to take it, she’ll grab your hand, tell your fortune, and demand several euros for having done so. That’s what I’d read, anyway. Walking down Cuesta de Gomera at the end of our run, a woman held a sprig out to me. “No. Gracias,” I said and we walked on, though I was somewhat disappointed in not having let the story play out.

For dinner, we ate Mediterranean again but from a different place. Here, our food was served quickly but we had to ask three times before getting our beers. Meanwhile, an English woman sitting behind us groused that her beer glass came to the table half-empty.

Day 9, Granada to Ronda
On the train near Antequera, we saw a rock formation that looked like George Washington’s head in profile as if he’s lying on his back. My husband thought every rock formation we saw thereafter resembled GW as well.

Flashback to the Alhambra on Sunday: A young lady is walking around with several funky purses (one a furry lollipop looking thing) draped over her shoulder and stopping at various picturesque points to photograph one or another of them. Forward to Ronda on Monday: We’re walking across the new bridge over the El Tajo (gorge) 360 feet above the Guadalviven River. A young lady has stopped in the middle of the bridge to text on her cell phone. My husband hits me and says, “that’s her.” I say, “that’s who?” He says, “it’s the purse lady. From the Alhambra. Same pink glasses. That’s her.” But, I’m not sure.

We don’t have reservations but there’s a room for us with a matrimonial (double) bed at Hotel Andalucia, across from Ronda’s train station. It’s adequately furnished, decently sized, and appears to be clean. One of the first things I notice is no light bulb in the lamp on my side of the bed, but it’s not a big deal until my husband goes into the closet to hang up his clothes and discovers a broken compact florescent light bulb in the corner on the floor. I go downstairs and attempt the Spanish version of our room’s an environmental hazard site. (After all, I have an entire instruction sheet posted at home about what to do if you break one of these). But, the young woman in charge only thinks I’m upset over my lamp’s missing light bulb. So, we wrap the broken bulb in some toilet paper, put it in a plastic bag we happen to have and give it to her. She says she’ll get a new bulb for the lamp in the morning.

We stop at a nearby restaurant with a reasonably priced menu posted outside and a few locals sitting inside at the bar. When I ask the bartender about food, he says the kitchen doesn’t start cooking till 7:30. I look at my watch. It’s 6:50. So, we order two beers and settle in to watch Spanish TV till dinner time. An old gentleman in a green sweater at the next table seems to be the one in charge of the remote. News is on, followed by the original John Wayne True Grit. During the News, my husband thinks he catches a glimpse of us at the Granada train station. It’s true. A news crew had been there filming and interviewing just as a protest parade with their signs proclaiming something about “vecino” (neighbor) was set to start. Here, news broadcasts always include a litany of the day’s protests in much the same way that ours begin with a rundown of local murders and car accidents.

Day 10, Ronda
Other than the gorge, Ronda’s not a hotbed of tourist venues. (Though, Pileta Cave containing Neolithic and Paleolithic paintings is fourteen miles away, we never figured out transportation for getting there. We’d read we would need a car. But, the right bus combined with a long walk could have done it. A rented bike could have made it, too. However, we were hesitant to shake up our exercise routine so close to the marathon.) So, we toured Ronda’s bullring. It’s the oldest official one in the country. Before rings, they just used town plazas. The overpriced audio guide describes how killing an animal has been turned into a pompous show complete with the bullfighter’s assistants first coming out to inflict injury in order to level the playing field. At this point, I began to admire the Catalans we hadn’t yet seen for having outlawed the “art” by now. (Barcelona’s former bullring is a shopping mall). And, as if the bullring and attached museum aren’t enough, the Rondans have an added wing to show off a bunch of horse riding stuff and quite an extensive cadre of weaponry. I think it’s all a collection from some old rich guy who had a loose familiar connection to bullfighting. Not positive, though, as I’d turned off my headset by then.

Later, we walked through the narrow-passaged white pueblo Arab section before returning to last night’s same restaurant. The old guy in the green (or was it red) sweater is there, too, with the TV set to a string of Spanish game shows we seemed to be the only ones enjoying.

Day 11, Ronda
We attempt to route a run in a direction away from Ronda’s hills. But, this leads us to a highway so we have to change course. We end up on a path with the locals. It’s kind of like a trail near our house back in Kansas except instead of blacktop, it’s dirt and rather than beside a creek, it’s next to a railroad track. It also has no shade like our heavily treed one at home but the morning’s not really hot, so we don’t mind. Best of all, it’s flat and with only a few days to go before the marathon, we can use flat.

For 1.65 euros, we buy two oranges, two apples and two bananas from a fruit market. I sit in the sun in the hostal courtyard and eat my orange. Then, we find a laundry and again wash our limited wardrobe.

At a new place for lunch, we order lasagna as the second plate of our menu del dia. This proves to be a mistake as we’re not in Italy. This lasagna is extremely short on noodles and long on cheese and tomato sauce, excessively long on tomato sauce. We could have used some of it on our pizza back in Segovia as that, essentially, had been bread and cheese. And, although we’re not charged extra for the bread at this meal, the large plastic water bottle the young lady brings when we say we’ll drink water costs two euros. I should have asked before opening it. The only other couple in the restaurant is Spanish. Since they also have the big plastic bottle, Spaniards must all be used to paying for water with their restaurant meals. Still, the practice angered me enough that I refused to leave a drop, chugging a significant quantity and filling up the little water bottles we carried around with the rest. Curiously enough, the Spanish woman had also ordered the lasagna at which she, too, primarily picked. The guy she was with had a nice plate of meat in front of him that she was helping herself from as well.

Early in the evening, my husband was still taking a siesta when I decided to go out and see El Tajo one last time. Near the bus station, a French man, speaking French, held out his map and asked me a question. I considered that he might be up to no good but I was carrying no money so it didn’t matter. His wife stood close by yelling. I grabbed his map and turned it so its orientation made sense to me. Misunderstanding me, perhaps, he jerked it back, up-side-down as far as I was concerned while his wife continued to yell. I turned it back again and tried to point out where we were. He only looked confused so I waved and walked on. His wife was still yelling.

Day 12, Ronda to Malaga (to Valencia)
At the Ronda bus station, a) the unfriendly clerk can only take cash, b) it cost 0.40 euro to use the bathroom and c) we have an hour and a half wait. We walk across the street to a café where my husband orders tea and I try the infamous Spanish churros for the first and only time. They taste distantly related to a glazed doughnut without the glaze. But, really, they don’t have much taste at all. I’m hoping they improve once dipped in chocolate. Only the chocolate they bring me doesn’t have much flavor either. It’s thinner than pudding and thicker than hot chocolate. It doesn’t taste sweet. It doesn’t taste bitter. It doesn’t taste like much of anything other than hot. And, I, notorious for devouring anything sweet and chocolate, leave most of it all behind.

A bunch of passengers stand around waiting to board what we think is our bus. A blond girl joins the crowd. The bus, which does turn out to be ours, is a local that stops in several pueblos, more than one equipped with basketball courts. My husband says the Spanish like basketball. So, I wonder if anyone here would recognize a Kansas (KU) shirt if they saw one or do they just know the professional version. He says they might be familiar with the Jayhawks.

In Malaga, the blond girl is in front of me as we get off the bus and steer for the restroom. It’s closed for cleaning so we begin to talk. (Note on Spanish restrooms: when they clean them, they close them completely rather than make any effort to work around the people who need to use them. And, second note: Spanish restrooms are generally not very clean even when they clean them. This includes the ones they charge money to use. Plus, they’re often out of toilet paper. And, they have no hot water and, only rarely, paper towels. Plus, the air coming out of their hand dryers is cold and the flow is meager. No one bothers to dry their hands as, under those conditions, the process is excruciatingly tedious.) Nonetheless, the blond says she’s American and I say we are too. She asks where we’re from and when I say Kansas City, she lights up as she’s from Minnesota but goes to KU. She’s fulfilling her foreign language requirements by studying Spanish in Ronda for the semester. She’s also packing more for a week-end trip to Germany to visit a former foreign exchange student from her high school than we’re lugging for the entire three weeks. But, the point of this story is that she, at least, would have recognized the basketball team if I’d been wearing my KU Jayhawk shirt.

We leave Malaga’s station to find the Mediterranean. My husband, who essentially grew up at the Jersey shore, hasn’t looked at a map, or so he says, and doesn’t reference the sun. Just smells, I suppose, and his nose leads us on a fifteen minute walk to the waterfront.

We lunch at a probably overpriced restaurant on the beach: a plateful of olives, bread (extra, this time), and small lettuce-free salads comprised of tomatoes, green peppers, white onions and fish.

Malaga’s train station with a mall, food court, movie theaters and bowling alley is much nicer than the bus station next door so we hang out there for a while. Later, in the seedier bus station, a supposed drunk guy who claims to be with the mafia tries to shake my husband’s hand.

Day 13, Valencia
The all-night bus ride from Malaga to Valencia is pure misery for a myriad of reasons. For the trip’s first leg, a young German couple directly in front of us talks both loudly and continuously. Then, for more than half the night, the radio blares from beside the first bus driver. And, of course, this bus is another local so it makes at least eight stops. Added to all that, the guy sitting directly behind me for the entire trip has a cold and blows his nose so often that, even though the seats recline, I’m afraid to lay mine back. I never sleep.

We reach Valencia at 7:00 Friday morning to a primping olive skinned guy in tight pants standing over the sink in the women’s restroom. A young woman just off our bus pauses at the door, calling to him, “senor, senor, this is the women’s room.” Another young woman from the bus walks up and calls out, too. I stop a second beside them before concluding he’s not deaf, he’s just ignoring them. He’s fiddling with his hair, adjusting his clothes, trying to impress or intimidate, one of the two, and I’ve got to go. So, I call the guy an English word that translates well and walk on in, motioning the young women to follow me. The stalls have full walls and doors so it’s not like he can see anything. When I’m done a few minutes later, a woman about my age is just coming in. She looks at me and says something in Spanish to the effect of what’s he’d doing in here right as I notice the creepy primper leading me out. I call him another word that translates well and shake my head.

Outside, my husband is waiting. Meanwhile, the guy goes up to another questionable looking character a few yards away and says something. We start walking into the station with me telling the story on the way. We’re looking at a map when the first guy comes up to stand right beside us. So, we leave. I turn around once or twice to make sure no one’s following.

Eventually, we happen upon the south train station where the McDonald’s hasn’t received their egg delivery. The Wi-Fi is working though, so we eat plain English muffins and use their internet to mark a path to our hotel, which, surprisingly, has a room ready for us at 10:00 a.m.

The marathon is set to start and end amidst the modern architecture of Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences. With our week-end centered on the race, we don’t actually visit its museums, science center, or opera house. Yet the design of its buildings, one resembling an eye, another, a whale’s skeleton, and the surrounding grounds are a fantastic site.

After collecting our race packets, we walk along the green zone, Jardin del Turia, until we reach the Gulliver playground: Gulliver tied up by the little people complete with climbing areas, ropes and slides. A school class, 4th graders or so, is there having a good time. We take a left and happen upon a little spot advertising an eight euro three plate menu del dia. For 1), we both order paella which turns out to be plentiful and delicious. I refuse to leave a bite. For 2), fish for me, pork for my husband. Both dishes come with potatoes and a fried egg. I clean this plate as well. We drink Cokes (included in the price). For 3), we’re offered pastry but have room only for coffee. This ends up being the best meal of our trip. Unfortunately, when we return the next day, the place is closed.

Day 14, Valencia
The best part of this day is the Holiday Inn breakfast with the little button on the coffee maker we can push as many times as we want, although it only spits out half a cup’s worth on each push.

We walk: to the Carrefour market in the mall near the race start, to the north train station, where, after some misunderstandings with the pleasant man behind the counter, we secure tickets for traveling from Valencia to Barcelona on Monday and from there to Madrid via the high speed train for Friday, past the closed restaurant from yesterday, and back to the mall where we bypass long lines at the McDonald’s near the entrance to find a place further back where we get chicken sandwiches, fries and Coke without much of a wait.

Day 15, Valencia
Our day’s consumed by the marathon.

Best part: the cheering, yelling “venga, venga” (which I translate as “come on”) and something like “anima” which my husband interprets as “animal” as in “You are an Animal.” Also, lots of percussion groups and oddly dressed-up characters on stilts and skates line intermittent parts of the route.

Worst part: the trash and mess. At aid stations, water bottles complete with screw caps were handed out. Runners promptly dropped the caps in the street. And, the streets at the aid stations grew slick with banana peels and residual gel packets. The goal of keeping the event green and environmentally friendly appeared to massively fail. Plenty of recycling containers were strewn about. Yet, among them, I couldn’t find a single trash can for the one gel packet I took except for a regular sidewalk one I stepped off the course to get to, almost missing a timing mat in the process.

Most unexpected: We’ve finished the race and are readying to leave when I’m distracted by a fairly heavy (for runners, in particular, and for Spain, in general, from what we’d seen) middle-aged woman with a long towel wrapped around her waist. She’s working to pull off her running shorts, tights, or whatever she’d been wearing from beneath the towel. When she gets whatever it is off, she bends over and stuffs it in the same bag from which she extracts a large pair of white underpants. She begins to put these on underneath the towel, which has begun to slip off by this point. Once the underpants are sufficiently up, she flips off the towel before layering on a pair of sweatpants. Her bottom area dressed, she pulls off her race shirt, followed by her sports bra. To my disbelief and to everyone else’s apparent disregard, she’s standing there completely topless, pausing to converse with a couple of people from her race club, before she digs out a sweatshirt and, remaining braless, pulls it over her head.

Day 16, Valencia to Barcelona
For eight euros, we take a taxi to the train station. The train ride to Barcelona is uneventful. We eat the peanut butter sandwiches we’d packed back in Valencia and watch the scenery. The train tracks run close to the Mediterranean for a while. It’s raining when we arrive and, though there’s Wi-Fi in the McDonald’s at the Sants Station, we can’t seem to use it for making a reservation at any of the hostals we’ve highlighted in our guidebook. We revert to the station’s Tourist Information office where the young English speaker behind the counter can’t make one either. However, she can, for a ten percent fee to the TI, make us a reservation in a specific area and price range. We let her do it. She scribbles at a point on the map just off Las Ramblas, telling us it’s the Hotel Atlas.

A scruffy looking kid is hanging around while we’re getting rain covers over our backpacks. Everyone who’s gotten off the subway with us has already dispersed. I’m beginning to wonder if we should worry about him, but all it turns out he’s doing is loitering until no one’s around so he can jump the exit.

We stumble about for at least thirty minutes looking for the pinpoint on our map, asking at least four people, including two policemen, where it might be. We’re less than a block from the place most of the time but it’s raining and the streets are so convoluted in their medieval layout, we can’t find it. Finally, a lady tells us it’s just around the corner and we’re almost right in front of the Hotel Atlas’ front door before we spot the entrance.

For dinner, I tell my husband there’s a venerable Barcelona restaurant on one corner of nearby Placa de Catalunya and a Hard Rock Café on another. We opt for the later. It’s the first we’ve seen of an actual ketchup bottle on the table and it may be the quietest Hard Rock ever. They’re playing the right music. They just aren’t blasting it.

After dinner, we walk all the way down Las Ramblas to the waterfront and sit on the second floor balcony of a mall outside Starbucks to drink American coffee and eat brownies for dessert.
Back at the hotel, I’m kept awake by a) the coffee, b) loud Scandinavians or Germans in the hall, c) a trash truck in the street outside our window for more than a few minutes sometime around 1:00 a.m.

Day 17, Barcelona
We follow the steps of a Barri Gothic walk we’ve plucked from our guidebook, throwing in a couple of detours here and there. One is to La Boqueria Market, where we buy expensive chocolates (though not the ones shaped like women’s breasts) and walk through the meat, vegetable, and fish stalls. I’d read that Barcelonans have been buying their animal parts at this location since 1200. All the produce looks fantastically fresh. The skinned rabbits, I don’t particularly care for.

We skim through the parts of the cathedral that can be toured for free. Supposedly, Barcelona’s barely cracks Spain’s top twenty cathedrals list. But, we’ve yet to see the inside of one, and this will be our last opportunity. And, though not religious types, we’re momentarily impressed. We also enjoy the thirteen resident geese swimming around in the courtyard fountain.

Later, we rent bikes and pedal up along to where the beach ends at the CaixaForum, a Modernista brick factory that’s been turned into a cultural center. Later, still, we walk back through Placa de Catalunya and on to the Block of Discord, the string of three houses designed by different Modernista architects, Gaudi being one of them. We keep walking, on to the Gaudi designed Casa Batilo where we have no intention of paying the ridiculously high price to go inside though we do pause to study the meringue stalactites hanging from the rooms’ ceilings that we can see for free from the sidewalk.

Returning to Las Ramblas, the hot chocolate we order at Dunkin’ Coffee is so thick it’s undrinkable. I dip my chocolate chip cookie in it, but what’s not absorbed in that process gets tossed.

Day 18, Barcelona
We take the metro to Sagrada Familia (Spain’s #1 on many tourist lists). The basic entrance fee is 45 euros per person, plus a few extra to go up into one of the towers, plus a few more for the audio guide. It’s a construction zone as they’re using tourist money to help finance finishing the thing by 2026, the 100 year anniversary of Gaudi’s death. And, they still have a lot of stained glass to put in plus erect the 400 foot Mary tower and the 560 foot Jesus one which is supposed to be only slightly lower than the summit of Montjuic so as not to one-up God’s creation. Outside, cranes are flying around carrying building materials overhead as we’re looking at the church’s facades and listening to the audio guide. And, inside, though several signs request silence, a boisterous school group or two are running around and an entire labor crew is up on scaffolding installing stained glass with their power tools. With all the statues, gargoyles, and numerological references, my mind settles on Ghostbusters from which it refuses to budge till I spend a minute focused on the main altar’s crucifix beneath an overhanging awning of golden lights that transports my thoughts immediately to New Orleans and Mardi Gras. I do admire the reference to tree branches in the design of the interior columns and that connection to nature it’s said Gaudi was always trying to achieve.

We return to Placa de Catalunya and eat lunch at the Corte Ingles 8th floor café. The view is nice but the salmon in orange sauce is only so-so. We shop for a bit, buying a few souvenirs, nothing substantial. My husband picks up a shirt from a table and three sales clerks immediately respond by hovering about, ready to refold it just right.

We revisit Dunkin’ Coffee, this time ordering coffee with our treats. The hot chocolate’s still there swirling about in its warmer and, now that I really look, bearing a significant resemblance to dirty motor oil.

The trash truck comes again, parking beneath our window around 1:30 a.m. Two coverall-clad dames haul lumber scraps from somewhere nearby and hurl them into the truck at approximately two minute intervals for fifteen or twenty minutes before they’re done.

Day 19, Barcelona
We walk to Montjuic in the cold and wind, wandering about until we find the tour buses at the ruins of the summit’s castle. The views are exceptional, the city, the Mediterean, Mount Tibidabo across the way. We walk down from here thinking we might run across the 1992 Olympic Stadium, but, we never do. We do pass the Olympic diving pool before stopping at the Juan Miro Foundation where we eat tuna sandwiches with chips before perusing the art. We also spend several dollars in the gift shop.

Continuing on downhill, we reach the spectacular fountains at Placa de Espana. Some nights, I think mostly in the summer, these are illuminated by a light spectacular. We pass the former bullring/now mall and stop to take a few pictures of the Miro Woman and Bird statue in Parc de Joan Miró.

For dinner, we refer back to our guidebook from which we pluck Biocenter, a vegetarian restaurant located two blocks off Las Ramblas. We’re early. Only one other table is occupied. Later, another couple, a man and woman near our age, are seated at the table behind ours. They speak English so the server is apparently under the impression they’re Americans. But, the woman sets him straight, declaring, “no, never” quite vehemently.

Day 20, Barcelona to Madrid
The high speed train to Madrid’s Atocha Station was unexpectedly quiet. And, if there wasn’t a sign posted at the front of each car telling the train’s speed, you wouldn’t realize how fast you were going.

For lunch, we ventured out of Atocha, back to the nearby picturesque square in front of the Reina Sofia for cocido madrileno, a famous Madrid stew where the broth is served in a bowl with a couple of noodles floating about and the rest of the ingredients arranged on the surrounding plate. These included cabbage, potatoes, garbanzo beans, and blood sausage which I didn’t eat. The food was OK but, even after numerous days here, we let ourselves be taken in by adding bread, wine, and espressos to the meal under the mistaken impression that some, if not all, were already included in the price.

From Atocha, we took the subway, transferring once, to the end of the line. And, from there, we walked twenty minutes at the most, up over a highway, and along a sidewalk the entire way to Hotel Nuevo Boston where we’d reserved a reasonably priced room for this business class hotel that came with a free shuttle to the airport, an overpriced food buffet we didn’t eat, since, in addition to being overpriced, more than one on-line review mentioned getting sick from the food, and an expensive continental breakfast we also skipped.

Later, we walked 1.3 kilometers to a shopping mall and bought clothes including a scarf for me as that seemed an appropriate memento. Every chic Spanish woman had been wearing one. For dinner, we chose burgers and chocolate milkshakes (high on the milk, low on the ice cream, plenty of chocolate) at Mel’s Diner in the mall food court.

Day 21,Spain to USA
The 8:00 a.m. shuttle to the airport was full. So, we were glad we’d read the reviews that advised reserving a spot at check-in. Clearing security was a breeze in terms of time despite having to take practically everything out of my backpack to get a jar of marmalade I’d bought back at the Carrefour in Valencia and never opened. Once I’d handed it over, the security screener barely gave it a glance before pitching it in the trash. After that, Starbucks was just beyond putting our shoes back on which meant chocolate muffins and large American coffees for our last breakfast on Spanish soil.

Although a mere 21 days in Spain does not make us experts in independent travel, I refuse to still consider us neophytes. And, we’re already contemplating where to go next. I’d love to ride a bike in Amsterdam. And, we’ve both dreamed of Paris since high school French. My husband asks if I’d be up for a Brussels marathon. Sure, I respond. How does one say “you’re an animal,” over there?

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