I spent last week traveling through Madrid and Salamanca, Spain. In France, they are required to have two weeks off every 45 days of school (!), and last week and this week are holiday weeks. My host family headed to the Alps to ski, leaving me with a free week. It worked out perfectly because my friend Lily, who is taking over my au pair position, was coming to Europe early and we planned our trip together. I hadn’t been to Spain since 2014, so I was eager to go back and see more of this beautiful country.
It was an eventful morning the day we were set to leave for Madrid. Lily flew into Paris that morning so that she could drop a majority of her luggage off. We had a mid-afternoon flight, so there wasn’t any rush. I got to the airport and there was a security lockdown of sorts–someone had left an unattended briefcase–and it was blocking me from reaching the terminal where Lily was. Luckily we weren’t too far apart and she could walk outside to meet me, but it was a little alarming that’s for sure. We went back to the apartment and I showed her where she’d be living and working for the next six months. We ate a quick lunch and headed back to the airport.
I usually have an unlimited public transit pass, but because I’m here so little time in February, I didn’t buy the pass and instead bought individual trip tickets. I’d been told these work to get to the airport (and I’d used them before to do so), but on our way back to the airport, we were slapped with a nice 35 euro fine because apparently they were the wrong tickets (eye roll). When we reached the airport, we found that our flight was delayed. A minimal 45 minutes so not terrible, but it was definitely not the most positive start to the trip.
We arrived in Madrid Monday evening and made our way to our hostel. We took the train and then the metro, which is where I immediately noticed the change in culture between France and Spain. In France, the metro is so fast-paced, and the buzzer starts alerting that the doors are about to close before there’s even enough time for people to get on and off. In Spain, the metro stopped at each station for at least a full minute, if not more, and people were really in no rush. It was much more laid back and easy here than in Paris.
Our luck definitely started to turn when we arrived at our hostel. We had booked to stay in a 6-bed female dorm because it was the cheapest option. When we went to check in, he said he had to talk to us about our room (we were immediately thinking “uh oh”), but it turned out that they upgraded us to a 4-bed female dorm for the first two nights, and our own 2-person room for our final night. Score! They also hooked us up with two days of free breakfast and free drinks at the rooftop bar. I was immediately impressed with the staff and service, and would highly recommend The Hat Hostel Madrid to anyone who travels there. Not to mention its fantastic location–a block away from the main Plaza Mayor.
After we checked in, we made our way to grab dinner. We knew it was going to be a low key night, and I was super impressed by Lily, considering she’d flown from Minnesota the day before and didn’t sleep until that night in Madrid. We ended the night with a glass of wine at the rooftop bar. It was nice to have a decent night of sleep before touring the next day.
If you know me, you know I’m a huge fan of Sandeman’s free walking tours, so we started our Tuesday morning with that. We met up with a friend and fellow Luther grad, Emilee, as well. We began in Plaza Mayor, where I learned that Madrid used to be divided into Austrian and Belgian territories. The plaza and the area of our hostel were in what used to be the Belgian region.
Madrid became the capital of Spain and the entire Spanish empire under King Phillip II in 1561. At that time, Plaza Mayor was an open space outside of the walls of Madrid, and was used as a marketplace–it was cheaper to buy and sell here than inside the walls of the city.
The King decided to build a square here to take advantage of the thriving marketplace and collect taxes on goods. He also utilized the space during the Spanish Inquisition for public trials, executions, and humiliations. He also held bullfighting matches here.
In the middle of the plaza sits a statue of Phillip III on his horse. It used to smell so bad and people believed it was cursed because no one knew why. In 1936, during the establishment of the second republic, rebels bombed the statue and it made a hole in the stomach of the horse. Out came the remains of hundreds of dead birds. Apparently they flew through the horse’s mouth and got trapped. They’ve now closed off the entrance of the horse’s mouth so no more birds have to meet their demise in the stomach of a horse statue.
We then made our way just outside of Plaza Mayor and saw the oldest restaurant in the world, Restaurante Sobrino de Botin Horno de Asar. It opened in 1725 and has never closed since. It has also seen its fair share of famous people pass through its doors. Goya, the second-most famous painter in Spain behind Velazquez, washed his dishes here before becoming famous. Hemingway, who came to Spain in the 1930s and absolutely loved it, wrote about this restaurant in the last two chapters of The Sun Also Rises.
Just down the street from this restaurant is an area that was referred to as closed gate. It was closed all day and night in order to wall in the scum of the city and rowdy people to stop them from spreading into the rest of the city. A cross statue, La Latina, sat here to remind those people of morality.
Since the 13th century, Spain has had a drinking problem. Those who were poor always had to choose between food and drink, and they usually chose to drink because it was cheaper. At lunch, they would drink on an empty stomach (we all know what a bad idea that is) and this created horrible productivity for businesses after the lunch hour. Because of the downfall in the economy as a result of drinking, King Alfred demanded that every beverage be served with some type of food, thus creating tapas and a great Spanish tradition.
The Iberian peninsula was ruled for 700 years by Arabic moors from Northern Africa, who conquered the entire area in just 50 years. This explains the heavy Arabic influence in tradition, culture, architecture, and language throughout Spain. 4,000 Spanish words come from Arabic influence, for example “asucre” for sugar and “camisa” for shirt. The Arabic influence is also present in the flamenco dance culture (most common in Southern Spain), mixed together with Spanish and ghost culture.
Spain had a 200 year golden age from roughly 1500-1700. During this time, Spain was the biggest and most important country in the world, but to understand how that came to be we have to go back to the late 1400s, when the two biggest kingdoms were Castile, ruled by Isabella, and Aragon, ruled by Ferdinand. They got married and unified Spain, caused the Battle of Granada during the Reconquista of Southern Spain in 1492, the same year in which Christopher Columbus discovered America for the same King and Queen, massively growing the Spanish territory. Ferdinand and Isabella had three children: their son died of illness, one of their daughters died in an accident, and they were left with
Ferdinand and Isabella had three children: their son died of illness, one of their daughters died in an accident, and they were left with Johanna the Mad, as she’s referred to today. She married Prince Phillip of Belgium and together they ruled for six generations. Her “madness” started off that she was madly in love with her husband, who is said to have been a tall, blonde, and very handsome lad, then she quickly became mad out of jealousy because so many women swooned over her husband. She then transitioned into madness out of grief, as her husband was poisoned by his father-in-law because there was no one to rule Castile, so in Phillip’s death, Ferdinand became the King of Castile and Aragon.
Johanna and Phillip’s son, Charles I (Carlos in Spain) was only 17 when King Ferdinand inherited Spain, America, Belgium, The Netherlands, Austria, parts of Italy, part of the Roman Empire from his grandfather Maximillian. He eventually retired into a monastery for a more peaceful life and was killed by malaria.
Charles I’s son, Phillip II is who made Madrid the capital in 1561. He enlarged the Spanish empire by adding Portugal and Brazil (his mother was the princess of Portugal), and the Philippines. It was said that this was the empire where the sun never set, because there was always a territory where it was day time. Phillip II was hardworking and died of old age.
Under the rule of Phillip III is where we see the fall of the Spanish Empire. He was a lazy King and, as a result, those under his rule became lazy. Naturally he would die in his bed…
Phillip IV was nicknamed “the loser king.” He battled to retain the empire but lost. He loved art and commissioned a lot of paintings by Velazquez and died of old age in his 60s.
Finally we get to Charles II, the bewitched/cursed King. He suffered from a big head, a large jaw, a huge tongue, bone disease, and to top it off, he was mentally ill. It is believed that it because he spoke with a lisp due to his enlarged tongue that the Spanish spoken in Spain is spoken with a bit of a lisp compared to Spanish spoken in Mexico or South America. (Ex: “gracias” is pronounced “grathias” in Spain). This is a result of generations of inbreeding. He died on Halloween in 1700 and wrote in his will that his grandnephew (French) would receive his territory. This began a war of 15 years for the succession of Spanish grounds.
The cathedral is known as the most “mañana” case in Spanish history. Technically, “mañana” means tomorrow, but in the Spanish culture it can also be used to describe something that is taking a long time or something that is delayed. In 1561, there were 5,000 inhabitants in Madrid. The cathedral is said to have taken so long because, as the capital of the empire, it commissioned to have cathedrals in 40+ cities throughout the entire empire, putting off the work for the main cathedral in Mardid. Construction began in the 1870s in a neo-Romanesque style. By 1911, when the architect died, only the crypt had been finished. The next architect began constructing in the neo-Gothic style inside until 1936 when the Spanish Civil War began. Construction then stopped until the 1950s, when the third architect began constructing the outside in neo-Classical architecture to match the outside of the royal palace. The fourth architect kept the style for the rest of construction. Only in 1993 was this cathedral consecrated by Pope John Paul II. Barcelona and Madrid seem to always be in competitions with each other (especially football), but it’s safe to say that Barcelona has won the “mañana” competition, as La Segrada Familia is STILL not finished.
The royal palace was originally created to defend the city of Toledo (about an hour from Madrid). It was used as an outpost and located in the oldest part of the city, which everyone thought was ugly. The new royal palace was built right where the old one was located by Phillip V (who was French). He was used to nice palaces, as he grew up in Versailles, and the palace in Madrid is bigger than both Versailles and Buckingham Palace. I was amazed that anything could be bigger than Versailles, but lo and behold!
The Madrid Opera House was built in the mid-19th century and is known as one of the best opera houses in Europe for its acoustics. The square outside the opera house is named after Isabella II, but is more commonly known as the “Opera Square.”
Queen Isabella II was the only official queen Spain ever had. Daughter of Isabella, Queen of Castile, Isabella II was called filthy because she was afraid of water and bathed once or twice a year. She also got this nickname because she had many lovers. Her husband was homosexual, so he also had his own affairs. She had five bastard children. Because Isabella II and her husband would never have any legitimate children, they named one of the bastard children King, and he is the great great grandfather of Spain’s current King today, which our tour guide joked that the current king is a literal bastard. Ha!
After our tour, we made our way to the mercado (market) for lunch. They had an array of Spanish foods and we got a smorgasbord of food for lunch. After, we went to the most well-known place for churros, San Gines. We were even filmed (and perhaps on Spanish TV?!) while enjoying this delicious Spanish delicacy.
It rained off and on the rest of the day, but the sun was mostly shining so it wasn’t too cold. After full bellies, we needed to walk, so we went to the Temple of Debod, an Egyptian gift to Madrid.
After basking in panoramic views of the city, we headed back to the hostel for “siesta,” perhaps my favorite thing about the Spanish culture. For those of you who don’t know, Spain takes an afternoon rest/nap/relaxation time and a lot of places close down in order to observe this tradition. After relaxing, we ventured out for dinner and ended the night with sangria at the rooftop bar in our hostel. Literal perfection.
The next day we tackled Museo Nacional del Prado. I’m not a huge museum person and neither is Lily, so this was a fairly short stop, but at least we can say we visited and saw the works of Velazquez and Goya, the two most famous Spanish artists. After the museum, we went to Retiro Park and soaked up the sunshine. We had another lowkey night with dinner in Plaza Mayor, and a fairly early bedtime, as we woke early to get the train to Salamanca.
Salamanca is a small town in Northwestern Spain. It was only about an hour and a half train ride. We were staying in an air bnb about 10 minutes walking distance from city center. When we arrived Thursday morning, we ventured into the city center to look around, grabbed lunch and churros of course, and then went back and took advantage of siesta. We did a tapas dinner, which is so awesome because we all ate for under five euros, as each tapa is around the one euro range.
Friday in Salamanca was a day of twists and turns throughout the small cobblestone streets. We were looking in particular for the cathedral, which we were told was absolutely beautiful. Even though we were looking at maps, we seemed to always be getting turned around or ending up where we had been just five minutes before. It was then that we realized just how small Salamanca really was. We also concluded that we did see everything we set out to see, we just don’t know exactly when we saw certain things. Later that night, our air bnb host, Pablo, took us to a heavy metal bar. I felt pretty out of place here drinking a glass of red wine, but it was an interesting place and something I wouldn’t have stumbled upon on my own.
We returned to Madrid Saturday afternoon where we met up with another friend and Luther grad, Ryan Goos, who graciously welcomed us into his (awesome) apartment. It rained all day, but everyone was so exhausted from the week’s adventures, that we mostly stayed inside and caught up, as most of us hadn’t seen each other since graduation last May. We ventured out to meet some of Ryan’s friends and enjoy tapas. We then came home and made guac and watched a movie. The definition of a chill Saturday night, which was fine by me as I had to be up at 5:30 am for my flight back to Paris.
My favorite part about this entire trip was that it actually felt like a vacation. After so much traveling, I’m prone to thinking we have to jam pack every day and take the utmost advantage of being in a certain place. We definitely took advantage of our time everywhere, but we didn’t rush around and we didn’t even have a game plan. We wandered, sat and ate, talked, rested, and still got to see everything (and then some). While I’m all for having a plan of action, it really is refreshing to just go with the flow and enjoy living in the moment rather than scrambling to make it to the next moment.
I can’t believe that my last trip, my last visit to a European city/country has come and gone. For the last four years, I’ve known my next adventure, my next trip, my next opportunity to go to Europe or a new place I’ve never been. It scares me that that topic is now a big question mark. I’m so glad I got to spend it with some great friends in two beautiful cities. Now it’s time to enjoy my last four (!) days in Paris!