Throughout our trip, I felt a bit jaded by large capital cities. The glass skyscrapers and massive deluge of people often led me feeling somewhat cheated of the culture we had hoped to witness. I was skeptical of Madrid, but wonderfully proven wrong.
Plazas dot the neighborhoods of Madrid. Visitors filled their arms with shopping bags. Street performers eeked out their best music recitals on violins, accordions, and homemade Blue Man Group style instruments. Others danced in super-hero or animated character costumes in the hopes of a tip from a sympathetic parent of an excited child. It was busy, fun, and full of life. It was impossible to immediately not contrast Spain’s vibrancy with the more reserved culture of its northern neighbors.
The geography throughout Spain, and especially Madrid, was one that stuck out. Full forests of massive holm oaks and cypress trees sped by on our commuter train rides into the city. A grassy, dusty sand mix spread underfoot, but did not seem to invade the linings of our shoes. But, it still seemed lush and not all that different from back home. The topography was intense with some rolling hills that gave us a little extra workout. Most of all, we enjoyed watching the leaves change colors.
El Rastra flea market sprawled up and down the steep streets of Madrid. Visitors and locals jostled one another mercilessly with elbows and shoulders in compact, narrow streets. Vendors sold antiques from 50+ years ago, while others sold souvenirs, housewares, and clothing. Suddenly, a firetruck siren abruptly stirred me from the mesmerizing seen before me. It crawled up the thin street forcing the crowds to squeeze aside. Two firefighters boarded the ladder attachment while police kept people away from the parked truck. The ladder rose and we craned our necks to see the firefighters grab two loose branches out of the tree above the crowds. Hannah and I looked at each other and laughed. All of that fuss for that? I had seen videos of dogs carrying larger branches.
We had backed into a stall of a man selling faux leather jackets. Since we were a bit of a captive consumer, I suggested Hannah try one on. It looked great on her, but had some nicks that meant it likely would not last very long. With a shrug, we moved on, only to find even cheaper ones in better shape near the end of the market. With a sexy and confident smile, my wife spun to the side showing off her new red leather jacket. I also picked up something, a green zip up sweater, which was just what I needed for the cold months ahead.
Spain’s culture was vibrant and boisterous. As we edged through crowds, jovial visitors and residents zealously jostled us with elbows and shoulders while loudly talking to one another and laughing as they went. Despite the rowdiness, Spaniards were generous, especially with those less fortunate. On numerous occasions, we witnessed good Samaritans sitting across or beside a homeless person on a corner, sharing a meal or engaging them in conversation. They were respectful of human integrity, far more than we had witnessed in many other countries. Another time, we stopped in a shop to find new running shoes since we switch them out every 3 months. After inquiring if the store carried Brooks shoes, the two young girls working conversed in Spanish and suggested we try the 6th floor of the mall adjacent to their shop. This was very kind, and sure enough, the shoes we sought were found there. It was always difficult to “give up” any items on our trip. We only carry backpacks with precious few clothing items that we had worn for months on end. Taking the Mari Kondo route, Hannah and I thanked our old tennis shoes for 3 months of service (that does not sound like much, but my estimate is that I walked/ran about 500 kilometers in them). A small, neat pile stood in the corner of our hotel room like an odd memorial to our grateful goods.
A fixture in Spain is the Mercado. Simply translated as “market”, these are permanent food halls that inhabit different neighborhoods throughout Madrid. Hannah and I visited at least 3, and all were different. They buzzed with animated Spanish conversation was locals sipped Sangria or clanked beers before tucking into plates of tapas. We joined in the fun and shared a tuna steak bruschetta, empanadas, and a croquette (capsule of creamy mashed potatoes inside a crusted shell). After weeks in Netherlands, Belgium, and France, it was a relief to be in a country with food that shared familiar flavors to what we had in Texas.
A final funny note: Spain is the ONLY country so far on the trip to have Taco Bell. Hannah and I had not had it in over a year and it reminded us of home. Our diet had also drastically changed during the trip, so our stomachs were far less than thrilled with the decision. 10/10 would still do again (my wife may disagree with that rating, but whatever).