Spain at one time did not even register in my mind as a travel destination due to a long-held prejudice in which I believed it to be nothing but a haven for the lager louts of Europe on their beach package holidays (see Eric Idle‘s superb monologue on this subject from nearly forty years ago in a Monty Python travel agent sketch, or watch the current British comedy ‘Benidorm‘ which, perversely, I love).
For many people, this is Spain...
Anyway, by accident I found myself stranded on the Iberian peninsular one day in October 1989 with a fistful of dollars and unlimited time, due to circumstances too complicated to recount here. I ended up discovering that Spain‘s interior was in fact replete with treasures on a par with any other European nation, even surpassing most, visiting Madrid, Seville and Granada.
Fast forward to 1997 and I returned, this time for a week-long stay in Barcelona as part of my honeymoon, no less, and once again I loved the place, made all the better by having a bird on me arm, a Cuban cigar in me gob, and finally enough dosh to stay in a plush pad and be able to afford to eat in restaurants.
Your humble author drops in on Salvador Dali, Figueres, Spain, 1997
I’d always wanted to return, knowing that there were plenty more delights to behold, and so it was that I returned this month to the Castillian heartlands for an all too brief jaunt , revisiting Madrid and acquainting myself for the first time with a trio of World Heritage listed towns in the shape of Toledo, Segovia and Salamanca.
September 5th – 6th
Friday night, in a psychosomatic high fever with snot flying out of my snout in buckets, I hastily book rail tickets on the web, negotiating labyrinthine Spanish sites and nearly coming to grief due to a crashing Firefox (thanks, Mr.Snow Leopard!).
Late Saturday, bullet train to Osaka, and overnight it on Turkish Airlines to Istanbul. Questions: how can a two-engined Airbus possibly carry enough fuel for the fourteen-hour flight? Why are the Turkish stewardesses so unfriendly?
Clandestine iPhone snap of approaching grumpy stewardess on Turkish Airlines
My strategy of showing up early at check-in pays off, and I am able to avoid deep vein thrombosis in the emergency exit seats. I contemplate donning a mask, either to stop me spreading my lurgee (kept in check my massive doses of Contac 500 which makes me feel like I’m floating two feet above the ground) or to prevent the egress of the lumps of H1N1 which must surely be floating around the cabin. However, I soon dispense with the idea and indeed the further from Japan we travel the fewer masks are in evidence, until in Europe they are nowhere to be seen. They may be effective in preventing sickos from flecking their sputum around, but apparently they don’t do jack to stop the incoming viruses who can just as easily crawl up your hand or form a chain and bungee jump down your earhole.
Istanbul airport – sadly no views of Hagia Sofia on the way in, we kill time buying huge boxes of Turkish Delight whilst observing the numerous pale Russian young men who are everywhere, interspersed among the throngs of Arabs. Honestly, dropping all notions of PC, is there an uglier language than Arabic anywhere on this planet? I doubt it. Those harsh gutterals make it hard to determine if they are trying to communicate or just coughing up phlegm.
Next flight to Madrid, and I try to watch a Turkish documentary about Gallipoli. It is atrociously subtitled, and soon debilitates into an exercise in nationalism and militaristic propaganda, not to mention a deification of Attaturk. And that’s why they can’t join the EU, along with a little matter of 1.5 million dead Armenian civilians.
At last, Madrid! Stinking, red-eyed and blotchy-skinned, my first sight of Spain is not auspicious: a shitty looking half-built airport terminal. While waiting at the baggage claim a drunken Russian does a projectile vomit all over his fellow travellers while a man with either burnt hands or leprosy asks my companion to light his cigarette in the smoking area.
Soon we are on the metro, tired and bewildered, expecting to be assaulted by gangs of Roma children at any minute (more non-PC – chill, it’s humour), but instead get treated to the sight of a sexy young South American lady pull out her large tit in full view of everyone and proffer it to her progeny. Japan this is not, and it takes some adjusting to get into the European way of things.
The Suites Viena Hotel near the Plaza de España is wonderful. Warm friendly receptionists give us an enormous modern room complete with its own kitchen and microwave oven. This is quite possibly the largest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in, and the price is good too.
Hotel Suites Viena, Madrid
By now it is late afternoon, and though tired, we feel duty-bound to go out for an exploratory stroll. We head down to the nearby Palacio Real and its attendant Sabatini gardens, all bobbly trees, hedges and fountains, very nice indeed. However, the heat is astonishing in its ferocity – at 6pm it is still scorching hot, in the upper 30′s C, and we are shamefacedly forced to seek out giant buckets of liquid refreshment in that traditionally Spanish hostelry known as Burger King.
Next we climp up to Plaza del Sol, a transport hub and centre of old Bourbon Madrid, which leads us to the Plaza Mayor, an ornate square formerly the site of bullfights, executions and the odd bit of inquisition torture.
Madrid's Plaza Mayor
None of these sights are overwhelming in their beauty, and I reassure my companion that while Madrid is no Paris, the surrounding towns of old Castille and the city’s art treasures will more than make up for the Spanish capital’s slightly worn appearance.
(The full set of photos from this trip can be found here).