Friday, January 23, 2009

Under the Big Top in the Bull Fighting Ring - Madrid!

This past weekend the Willinghams packed up and flew to Madrid, Spain! Funny Madrid has not been at the top of my “must visit” lists but I was pleasantly surprised at all the city had to offer. And with plane tickets at 5 euros apiece, how could we not?

We flew the budget airline Ryan Air for the first time. They clearly offer rock bottom prices, but the catch is they charge you for everything else – snacks, drinks, there are ads and lottery cards sold en route, they even charge if you want to check one bag (although I guess that is par for the course now). So if you are able to dodge all the marketing gimmicks, then it is a steal. You can only bring one 10 kilo bag as carry on. We took it as a challenge to pack minimally and avoid all extra costs. Note to all mothers who are attempting this magic trick though…don’t skimp on the diapers. We realized halfway through the trip I had packed too few diapers for Connor. So we had an adventure trying to find a place on a Sunday that was open and sold diapers (a hard thing to do in Europe where most places are closed on Sundays). We ended up having to pay 29 euros (nearly $45) for a large package of additional diapers (more than the cost of our plane tickets!) Then we had to cram the extra European-make, super expensive diapers from the gigantic package in our already tight bags to get back home. Oh well. Lesson learned!

In Madrid we stayed at Hotel Preciados near the Puerta del Sol, right in the center of town. I highly recommend it and again we found hotel negotiations reign supreme during the colder weather. We had a great time touring around Madrid as a family. Highlights included a self-directed walking tour in the early morning, eating pastries at Salon La Mallorquina, and playing with Connor on all the “moo cows” all over the city. My favorite building/place was the Plaza Mayor. It was, as our guidebook said, like a “grand palace turned inside out.” A deep burgundy colored square with unique painting, lots of cobblestones, and a “BIG neigh neigh” statue (as Connor called it) in the center. Nearby was this intriguing street with little cavelike bars all over. The caves were long and narrow. I could only imagine how much fun they were during the evening hours though – but when traveling with a little one with a 7 PM bedtime, late night partying at bars is off the table.

Some other interesting tidbits about Madrid:
--- All of the street signs in Madrid display both the written name as well as an illustration. This traditional practice is supposed to enable the illiterate to understand the signs.
--- Churros for breakfast in Madrid is considered a “must do.” We went to Chocolaterias Valor to indulge in their churros dipped in steaming chocolate. Yummy! Connor of course had all the waitresses charmed - they spontaneously brought her extra churros.
--- The public transport system is awesome in Madrid. We hopped on and off all over (including coming from the airport). We were planning to take a chartered van upon arrival, but I am so glad we opted at the last minute for the bus/metro combination. It makes me feel alive and a part of it all to conquer well thought metro networks.
--- At night all of the buildings light up with these dramatic, individual per window spotlights - lit from below each sill. It is stunning and adds spirit and flavor to an already spicy city. Makes me want to grab a fan and some ruffles and begin dancing!

I had no idea how much art was in Madrid. We did go to the famous Prado art museum near the end of the day. The Prado is free on Saturdays in the evenings. But Connor was exhausted and tired and the hassle through security was a last straw for our girl after a busy day of going everywhere, so we were only able to stay ~30 minutes or so. But I got to glimpse the Prado's art somewhat - even if in a blur. We can say we tried!

By far my very favorite was the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. This place is less intimidating than the Prado with a warm and welcoming design and layout. And the Impressionist paintings were incredible. How is it that Impressionism can put you at such ease and awe when other genres of art can be so jarring and too bold? I discovered two artists who were new and inspiring to me: Jon S. Legere and Erich Heckel. Not sure either of them are that famous, but their work seemed to speak to me – and usually I am not one to engage very much in galleries, even though I do love art. But here I was taken with the brush strokes and the evolution of art styles so elegantly displayed. Even with a wiggly toddler in tow I was able to relax and absorb the stories of the art encircling us. Connor and Kirk were so cute because while I soaked in the masterpieces they strolled through trying to find all the "Neigh Neighs, Moo Cows, and Baby Jesus's" in the paintings. It was funny because all of the museum guards in every room couldn't help but smile at them on their treasure hunt within the art.

But lest you think poor Connor spent the entire time cooped up in her stroller in art museums, there were plenty of kid-friendly activities in Madrid. We found playgrounds all over. This one was across from the Thyssen museum and we went during prime “siesta” time. Connor danced in the sunlight and delighted in the swings, slides, and sand.

Another fun activity – we strolled all over Retiro Park. The grounds were enormous with European sculptures and meticulous decoration throughout. I was wow'd for a public park. I could tell it was a popular siesta spot for many Spaniards. We settled in front of this great lake with charming rowboats and again a “BIG neigh neigh” statue (Connor loves those). There was someone playing “Oh when the saints go marching in” on saxophone in the background which was the cherry on top. Connor ran around with other children and had a ball watching the boats and the ducks (of course).

Finally, we walked to the Plaza de Toros – Spain’s top spot for bull fights. We weren’t going to attend a fight, but just to take in the memorable stadium. Well, when we arrived this is what we saw….

The “Circo Americano” was in town!!! Connor has never been to the circus so how could we say no? We will have this incredible memory to always tell her about her very first circus under the big top within Madrid’s bull fighting ring. I thought Connor was going to melt she was so happy. We went into the tent and found our seats and Connor promptly started playing with many of the other Spanish children around. She would give “Green Muh Muh” to them and then ask for it back – back and forth a million times. They of course “speak” different languages, but the connectiveness of the children was heartwarming. And what a strange experience the circus was. There were only 2 rings, but one was an ice skating rink – so this circus was more of a icecapades plus traditional circus all in one. There were trapeze artists, clowns, tight rope walkers and the very best part were the animals: camels, elephants, and ponies!!! When the animals came out Connor sat still on our laps and just oooh’d and aaah’d and clapped without taking her eyes for a second off the show. I don’t think I even saw very much of the circus, because watching Connor watch the circus was the biggest treat of all. There was a master of ceremonies (is that what they call him in the circus?) who narrated the show, of course all in Spanish. It was all over the top! And I am so glad we made that memory together! We only stayed for the first half – and when we saw them putting up a makeshift “cage wall” for the tigers and lion tamers we were glad we were on our way out at intermission. But man, if you ever come across a circus in a bull fighting ring, don’t hesitate – just go!

We also took a day trip to Toledo, Spain. This town is the namesake of the expression “Holy Toledo” mostly because it has what is considered the best cathedral in Spain and was a former capital of the country. It was the type of town where you are meant to get lost – that is part of the fun. We wandered the streets and I was taken with the glass window box balconies everywhere. I tried to think what I would do in it if I had one. People watch? Play cards? Eat meals? With all the street looking in? Hmmm. Maybe not too practical, but they sure were pretty. Toledo is also famous for marzipan so we of course had to indulge! We enjoyed the Santa Cruz museum – and I couldn’t help but to photograph the schoolchildren there on a Sunday playing some version of Red Rover right in the front yard of this grand museum.

We couldn’t resist bringing home a souvenir of a fun flamenco dress for Connor with a fan and doll. Usually we don’t fall prey to the tourist scams, but the fringe sealed the deal. We got the dress for a mere $10 from a street vendor. Olay!

For those of you who don't have Madrid on your bucket list, think again. It is a city alive with fun and festivity, art and culture, high energy combined with relaxation. And with all that in one weekend, who knows what we would do with even longer there? Thanks Ryan Air for the cheap airfare!

Click here for Madrid and Toledo (full album)

1 comment:

Dallas said...

Wow, I can't believe the price of your tickets. I'm going to have to check out Ryan air. It sounds like Spain was a lot of fun - and probably a lot warmer than Brussels.