Madrid Part II

As time rushes by the adventure has continued to be an absolute delight. After finishing my last post I set out into the city. In usual form I was more focused on the voyage than the destination. With my map stashed in my back pocket I picked a direction and began to roam. Through small alleyways, along major two lane thoroughfares and beyond I wound my way north across the city. The weather has been delightful, a little crisp but far from too cold. I’ve also been blessed with sunny weather and a total lack of rain. Eventually I found myself in downtown Madrid’s bustling tourist and business center. With beautiful old architecture thrown seemingly at random between new signs for major chains and newer buildings, the city was vibrantly alive with life.

I eventually found a large, beautiful park. I absorbed the beauty of fall-kissed trees, enjoyed the clean crisp air, and breathed in scents coming from all the vegetation. As I neared the center of the park, I came across a number of gorgeous cats who had seemingly laid claim to a small Galapagos monument. Walled away from the people by large wrought iron fences the cats had free reign of a fun, small set of pools and bushes. As I was relaxing and watching the cats frolic an old woman came up with a stroller. To my amazement, in place of the usual child the stroller held a cat strapped into an adorable little vest sitting regally in an unzipped jacket turned quilt. Though tied by its leash to the stroller, the cat was obviously far from interested in wandering off. As he sat there relaxing and watching the birds his mother pulled out a number of cans of cat food, began feeding the strays, conversing with each and calling them by name. The whole thing was adorable.

I watched the cats play in the bushes and harass the local pigeon population before I continued into the center of the park which was based around a small lake. The lake was surrounded by walkways on two sides, with the Galapagos monument on the third, and a large war memorial on the fourth. The memorial was a beautiful thing with a large central pillar, statuary and steps that led down to the water’s edge. Eventually I made my way around the lake’s edge and spent an hour or so napping, reading, and relaxing in the afternoon sun at the base of the steps near the water.

Rested and relaxed I continued my exploration of the park and eventually found a large, beautifully manicured garden which lead me down towards the Prado Art Museum. Despite painfully sore feet, I decided to make every moment count and picked up a ticket. The museum had a wonderful collection, all beautifully displayed. In addition to a number of the usual famous pieces, I found countless less renown works from masterful artists. Most memorable was a fantastic statue created in the 1400 or 1500s that had rich, pure colors and appeared to be almost 3 dimensional. The other pieces that really caught my attention were a series of stunning inlaid tabletops. The tables impressive in their weight to begin with, had tops that were completely covered in inlaid motifs depicting animals, wildlife, patterns, and flowers all created with gorgeous precious stones. One of the more impressive ones was also supported by 4 large beautiful lions.

In addition to their rather sizable art collection, the museum also had small, beautiful sets of Greek and Roman statues, and a number of marble slave masks that were infused with an amazing degree of expression and emotion.

After leaving the Prado I found my way back to the hostel where I rested for a bit before setting out to find some food. As I roamed hunting for a tapas or kebab shop I stumbled into a bustling market street lined with butchers, vegetable stands, and the like. A little further down it I found an entrance into an a large, two story market full of individual produce, fish, meat, olive, and sausage stands. The smells, colors, and assortment of food was absolutely fantastic. As I roamed, trying to decide what to pick up for dinner, I eventually picked up a persimmon and several tangerines. Not in the mood to cook meat, and unable to find seafood prices that fit my budget, I elected to continue my quest for a kebab shop. Eventually, kebab in hand I settled in back at the hostel for another night meeting new friends.

After a few hours spent in the hostel common area meeting, greeting and getting to know each other we set off to explore the city’s night life. As we meandered our way through the city and hopped from bar to bar, we eventually ended up at a fun downstairs club. The entrance was a small staircase where I had to watch my head, but the club itself was a narrow set of basement rooms with a vaulted brick ceiling. The place looked as though it had once stored wine casks. Eager to enjoy the evening, we danced, relaxed, and explored the particularly flavorful and peculiar club which was populated predominantly by locals dancing, smoking, and drinking the night away. By about 4:30AM we decided to call it a night and made the trip back to the hostel. The city at night is beautiful with vibrant lights, people wandering the streets at all hours, and a constant hum of activity.

The following morning I woke up early, explored the area around the hostel a bit more before hopping the tube up to the train station. The train station is a large, beautiful structure, with fun elements and a very flavorful style. One of the large common areas within the station has an indoor garden in the center of it with large palm trees, all sorts of vegetation and even a decent sized pool full of lilies and turtles. After taking it all in, I snagged a quick bite to eat and then made my way to my train. Interestingly I had to put my backpack through an x-ray machine. I then boarded the train through a terminal, as you would at the airport. An all around new process I hadn’t been through before.

I enjoyed Madrid thoroughly, though it´s without question a large city and lacks a lot of the charm of a smaller town. The people were friendly, but in a big city sort of way. The streets while beautiful are somewhat sterile and modernized, not to mention, land-mined with dog nuggets. That said, I enjoyed it immensely and my stay was fantastic, but the city cannot compare in any way, shape or form to Seville which I will write about soon.

Florence, Italy

After an exhausting train and ferry ride I eventually arrived in Florence. I had pushed hard in order to ensure that I arrived in time to meet up with an old College/dance friend studying outside of Milan. I arrived Wednesday evening and had set up a meeting time & place the following day. Because I’d spent so much time traveling and the trip on the ferry had been somewhat last minute I had failed to book a hostel online. That meant that upon my arrival I had a bit of an adventure ahead of me. It was getting later and of course, raining. I made my way to the first computer cafe i could find and printed off the location of two hostels. After wandering around a bit, I eventually found them. Unfortunately, both were fully booked. So, with two one star hotels marked on a map the concierge had given me I set out into the cold rain again and eventually found one with a room for one night. I snatched it up, though a little more expensive, it was still reasonable. The hotel itself though was garbage…loud, cold, with a lockout, odd hours and minimal services. I thawed out a bit then struck out to find food, ate and called it a night.

The next morning I found an internet cafe, a kebab shop and set to checking to make sure there had been no changes to Emily and my rendezvous spot/time and to write a blog update. That took most of the morning and by three o’clock I made my way to the train station where with only a little difficulty, Emily and I found each other. It’s amazing how the internet, e-mail and cellphones have changed things. Traveling without a cell phone, or a phone of any sort for the matter, really has emphasized the differences in how we do things, plan things and how different it is when we get separated or have to meet someone.

After a funny adventure and inquiring at a few locations where we repeatedly got offered the marital suite, we found another one star hotel with two single beds and reasonable room prices in a great location. It served as our base for the two remaining nights we would stay in Florence. We dropped off our bags, then set out to explore the city and get some food. As we walked we quickly found the main Cathedral which was beautiful, the streets despite a light drizzle, were still energized and exciting. Eventually, we found our way to the main bridge where we paused and took in the sight for a long while. The river was beautiful, the bridge lit up as the sun set. The bridge, laden with shops, is full of windows and odd protrusions where rooms have been added or extend out over the water. To either side the buildings are a tight mixture of various colors, designs and levels. The windows have beautiful shutters and often plants or vines. The sun was such that it reflected serenely on the river below.

From there we returned to the hotel, found a small store, picked up some wine and relaxed after a long and event-filled day.

The next morning we woke up early eager to see all of the sights and make the most of our only full day in Florence. We set off by foot wandering through the city streets. As in so many other cities they are a fun/beautiful mixture of cobblestones, sidewalks, parks and old buildings full of character. First we made our way north toward the castle, which was extremely disappointing. The castle walls are made out of red brick, but lack any real definition or flair. Inside of the castle walls is a small mishmash of modern buildings and warehouse like museums. All in all a dud so we quickly moved on and headed south toward the Academia that houses the David. However, there the line was rather ridiculous and eager to be as efficient as possible with our time (and not stand in the rain) we decided to return later. Museums & major sights are typically best seen after 3 as that is when, in my experience, most tourists are starting to wind down, having started early and gone straight to the major sights.

From there we made our way south to the Cathedral which is an incredible sight. In addition to its sheer size, the colored marble is fantastic and adds life and flavor on a majestic scale. As we made our way around it we eventually headed inside. The inside is no where near as ornate or well decorated as many other European cathedrals, but in place of that ornateness the Cathedral offers sheer size. It is an incredibly large open space that leaves one feeling dwarfed. You could easily fit several small buildings inside of it and I won’t even bother trying to guess the height of the vaulted ceilings. With the large clock on the wall above the entrance it almost feels as though the inside of the Cathedral is a town square in a lesser town. In fact, as I reflect on it, it almost felt as though there was not a roof at all, but rather just a set of tall buildings enclosing the area.

As we exited the Cathedral we walked straight across to the beautiful bronze-gold colored doors that are famous for the sculpture work carved into them. The quality and brilliance of the artwork on them lived up to my memories and expectations. From there we headed back towards the river and the Ponte Veccio, but before we got there found a large square that houses part of the Uffizi. There there were a number of large marble reproductions of the David and other famous pieces. We looked at the pieces, snapped some photos, and took in the tower and architecture of one of the palacial buildings on the square before looking for the entrance to the Uffizi.

There we found something I never thought I’d see and which I didn’t think possible. I suppose it was one of those, only in Italy moments. The Uffizi was closed for the day, the reason? The Museum was on strike. Frustrated and dismayed we continued on to Ponte Vecchio and crossed it. The wooden shutters that they use on the shops there are really neat…dark aged wood with metal hinges…they look a bit like the sides of carriages built into each other.

With gellato in hand we continued to the large gardens north of the bridge located in the old palace. There we took in the sites, but decided to hold off on paying the outrageous entrance fee. Instead, we backtracked slightly and headed down along the river. From there we took a side street thinking it led to another set of gardens. While it did not, it wound up to the top of a larger hill which offered a beautiful look out over Florence. There we took in the city, the bridges, the duomo and other main sites before making our way back down toward the river. Once there we found a small market and picked up a snack which we ate in a small park besides the river. Tired but eager to finish the day out we headed back to see the David and walked in without a line.

There were 3 things that stood out in the museum above the rest. The first was of course the David itself. The way it is framed, lit, and its size truly is magnificent, especially when one considers that it is carved entirely from the same piece of stone. There is no denying the fantastic level of skill required to complete the task, or the beauty of the end result. The veins on his hands, the expression in the muscle and the pose. As you walk around him the entirety of the presence changes. Each new vantage point offers a different form and each is equally impressive.

The second element I found fascinating was a set of 6 sculptures he had also created. However, these initially appeared incomplete. The figures themselves were at best only halfway carved. The effect that the pose and composition had was fantastic as the figures appeared to be evolving out of the marble. The end result were figures every bit as powerful, if not more so than a completed sculpture.

The third thing I found really interesting came in the form of historical text attached to one of the frescoes. The text noted that the fresco had been designed as part of the introduction of religious dogma that described Jesus birth as an immaculate conception. It stated that the concept had been widely introduced in the 1500s and then adopted as official church doctrine in the 1850s by Pope Pius. A fascinating bit of information I had no idea about, and which I thought added to my understanding of religion in general and how it evolves.

There were also a number of religious paintings, molds done in the 1800s of major sculptures and a large musical instrument exhibit full of incredibly carved instruments. Some were covered in ivory and gem stones, others were covered completely in intricate carvings and designs. All were beautiful.

From there we returned for a quick nap, before heading back out to catch the bridge at night. The night time beauty of Ponte Vecchio is incredible. There, in a light drizzle, we walked along the water front as it was lit by street lamps done in the old style. Before long we were both humming singing in the rain and skipping along. All in all it was a beautiful day and a magical evening as we explored the city.

The next morning we woke up early eager to go and see the Uffizi before we left for Pisa and points beyond. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived the Uffizi had a line that would have taken hours to clear. Frustrated we explored the leather market and the city for a bit before catching our train to Pisa.

There I’m afraid I have to leave off.