Travelling

APRIL BREAK: Valencia and Madrid

26/09/2018
City of Arts & Sciences
City of Arts & Sciences



With the first signs of spring, or by Easter, our feet get itchy and our minds dreamy. In 2018 – with professional, parental and academic commitments galore – early April just couldn’t come soon enough. Our escape from London follows the established pattern: first a visit to my family in the Istrian hinterland and then a break on our own, not necessarily nearby but within an easy reach. While playing with countless permutations on the Ryanair booking grid, I discover the flight from Trieste to Valencia. From this accidental destination we can take the Alta Velocidad train to Madrid and – voila’ – our itinerary sorted!
Monday night
We arrive at the airport of Trieste four hours before our 9.30 p.m. flight. When you have to drive through three countries (Croatia, Slovenia, Italy), deal with the Schengen–Non-Schengen shenanigans at the border and already possess a rather thick catalogue of memories from the same route, you prefer allowing extra extra-time. Besides, not many things are so thrilling as sitting in the café overlooking the runaway and sipping delicious Italian espresso, waiting for the gate to be announced.
At the security checks I bump into Nadja, a colleague and friend from my journalistic days in Rijeka. There is something so unbearably random, deeply exiting and archaically romantic about meeting someone at an airport! She has always been an idol and an inspiration to me. After a career in journalism, Nadja moved to New Zealand and found herself in Academia. She is flying to Stansted and then taking a train to York, where she lectures linguistics to postgrad students. We haven’t seen each other in over twenty years and cannot cover that period in two minutes. Instead we hug and arrange a get-together.
The plane is full. I listen to snippets of conversations – in Italian, Spanish, Slovene, Croatian, English – our eight-year-old traveller buries her nose into her tablet and our male companion opts for a nap.
We land shortly before midnight and Valencia welcomes us with a chilly and uncomfortable breeze. Taxi driver Luis takes us to the hotel Eurostars Rey Don Jaime in the Av. de les Balears. He navigates complicated one-way avenidas and the excessive amount of traffic lights (the rhythm of night lights is different to the day ones, he says, in the night it purpose is to control the speed while during the day it facilitates the flow of traffic), over the bridge and through a narrow access road to the hotel entrance. He tells us how to pronounce “Rey Don Jaime” like a local and compliments our choice of hotel, as from here we can cover the city “caminando”.



Tuesday

The four-star hotel Eurostars Rey Don Jaime is rather posher and shinier than what we usually go for, but at the moment of booking it was cheaper than other three-star hotels in the same area. For two nights we pay around 150 pounds. This price also includes one full breakfast. The self-service table is overflowing with local cheeses, hams, chorizos and other delicacies. After the savouries, there is the sweet table with cubes of wobbly cheese cake, triangles of almond tart, grapes and other fruits. It’s an extraordinary banquet of most delicious local flavours and impossible to stop eating… I’ve just consumed the daily recommended intake of calories. And of salt. And of sugar… Our fussy eight-year-old is more disciplined. She opts for a slice of bread with butter and strawberry jam. And nothing else…
Straight from the hotel we descend to the Jardin de Turia, the green artery of the city. After a deadly flood in 1957, river Turia has been dried out and its riverbed, with all its curvatures, tunnels and bridges, transformed into a seven-kilometre long park with trees, playgrounds, running and cycling tracks and other entertainment outlets.

Oceanografic
Oceanografic


We walk towards the port and find ourselves in the open-air museum of The City of Arts and Science. The ultramodern buildings in shiny white are interlaced with rays of light and water pools with finishing in white mosaic tiles. Instead of feeling cold – as various experiments in futuristic architecture tend to feel – this place feels airy and liberating. We play with the shades generated by structures and guess the resemblance thereof: is it a sail or is it a harp? Or is it the x-ray of a reclining whale? The City of Arts and Sciences consists of a science museum, cinema, planetarium, opera house and – our destination – the largest marine park and aquarium in Europe, the famous Oceanografic. The queues are short but unbelievably slow. We buy combined tickets for the Oceanografic and the Science museum which comes to 80 Euros (not cheap).
Over the next two hours we immerse ourselves into the colourful and fascinating world of the underwaters across the globe. We start with the Mediterranean pavilion that displays fish and creatures like breams, basses, crabs and octopuses and then move onto the tropical environments with each display resembling a scene from Nemo.
The shark aquarium is a darkened tunnel with dimmed blue lights and with sharks swimming to and from all directions. Oceanografic also offers “sleepover with sharks”, something that instantly tickles the imagination of our young traveller. If we only knew about it, we could have saved on the hotel.
The most fascinating part of our visit to the Oceanografic is the dolphin show, a definite must-see. And as I watch dolphins interacting with their trainers and following their instructions, jumping, playing, somersaulting, waving their tails and laughing I cannot stop wondering “are they real?”. And if you are not already in love with dolphins, by the end of the jaw dropping, eye-unblinking, heart-skipping-beats performance you will be head over heels…
In the basement café at the Science museum we stop for an energy injection of pastries, coffees and a Fanta. Regardless of the sugar levels, we have physical and mental energy only for a superficial and quick stroll through the exhibitions on Chromosomes and images of Earth taken from the space.
As the afternoon steps into its second half, our legs feel tired and achy and the rain is thickening. We are not quite well prepared for the disappointing 13 degrees, far below our British expectations.
Time to find some food. Not an easy task in the middle of the holly siesta. Eventually, we stumble across La Taula in Av. de Vicente Blasco Ibanez, that serves exactly what we are after, the famous paella Valenciana. Our young traveller orders chicken nuggets and chips and polishes it all off before the paella even lands on our table. But – it’s worth the wait. It’s full of rich flavours: with the dominant taste of saffron, succulent pieces of chicken and slightly rubbery pieces of rabbit, soft green beans and butter beans. Needless to say, no grain of rice is left behind...

Paella...gone
Paella...gone


Now we are ready for a bit of shopping. Our male companion buys a new pair of Camper shoes. They are exactly like his old ones, dark brown pelotas with beigey laces. He puts them on and disposes the old version with the shop assistant. Our youngest traveller buys five packets of stickers for the Panini Russia 2018 album and discovers that the numbers of Spanish stickers do not correspond to the numbers in the Croatian album. I leave my two football aficionados in a café to sort that riddle out and opt for my own ir de compras. I pop into Sfera. I try a top on in Mango. No good. The materials are of poor quality and every garment seems shapeless. Or – maybe I am just getting old and find shopping for food more satisfying than shopping for clothes? In the deli of the El Corte Ingles I buy a selection of cheeses (a soft one, a typical Manchego and a very hard, matured one), a pack of sliced Jamon serrano, various biscuits and fruits for our evening snack.
Our male companion is convinced he knows the way back to the hotel. Just a straight road; the Avinguda de Peris i Valero. We walk. We walk. We walk. The rain is thicker, the bag with groceries heavier. We walk a bit more. Yes, there is only one road indeed. But, we have been walking in the wrong direction and find ourselves at the Estacion Joaquin Sorolla, instead of the Pont de l'Angel Custodi where is our hotel…
We flag a taxi and five minutes and five Euros later we are finally at the hotel. Our male companion spends the evening watching futbol (Manchester City vs Liverpool) in the lobby. He makes friends with a Japanese and an Indian football fan and the hotel treats everyone with free paella. The two of us are in bed and watching cartoons in Spanish.



Wednesday


The temperatures have dropped to eight degrees Celsius and the wind is sharp and unpleasant. On the way to Estacion Joaquin Sorolla (to buy tickets for an afternoon train to Madrid), we stop at Cafeteria Antica for a quick desayuno of croissants and coffees. It’s a charming little caff, packed with locals tucking into their brunches of large servings of cheese, ham and fat-dropping slices of pork loins. We continue down the Avinguda de Peris i Valero and somewhere take a wrong turn and end up at Valencia Nord. Completely wrong station but next to the renowned bullring that recently staged the ATP crash between Spain and Germany. Spain won. At the Valencia Nord station we can still buy tickets for Madrid, yet the trains depart from the other station. Some trains are sold out and they are only two options left: the earlier train at 2.10 p.m. and the later at 5.40 p.m. We opt for the earlier one. Three one-way tickets come to 170 euros! Maybe I should have booked it in advance, after all…
Mercat Central
Mercat Central


We still have enough time to visit the renown Merkat Central, located in the very old area of Valencia, with narrow streets, historical facades and churches. The place is colourful, full of smells, flavours and cheerfulness. The stalls selling hams and other cured meats and cheeses are awaking our hunger. The vegetables and fruits look larger than you can possibly imagine, with some samples of red peppers definitely knocking at the door of the Guinness Book of Records. To my big surprise, our eight-year-old is immensely enjoying herself at the market. And while we take in the architecture of the place and the displays of foods, she finds a souvenir shop and buys a paella magnet. Outside the Merkat, she sits at the bar stools of the café and polishes off a large portion of churros y chocolate. In the nearby café Picamos we stop for a coffee and Pastel de Lisbon pastries (custard tarts). All espressos I’ve had so far in Spain – ok, it has been only a day and a half but I can squeeze quite a few in such a short period of time – have been perfect. Thick in consistency and with a flavoursome linger.

Churros
Churros



It’s easy to flag a taxi on the streets of Valencia. As soon we raise our arm in front of the café, one stops. It takes us to the hotel where we fetch our bags and then to the Estacion Joaquin Sorolla. Miniature bars, historic monuments, furniture shops and corner cafés are whizzing by and we are determined to return – and stay longer – to this layback, relaxed and friendly city…



Train to Madrid

Train to Madrid
Train to Madrid


It takes one hour and 44 minutes to reach Madrid on board of the Alta Velocidad train. We slide through dramatic changes in the landscapes; evergreen forests soon change into olive groves and then we are suddenly surrounded by desolate land of a dark orangey colour. It’s early April after a weird winter across the whole of Europe and the earth has not yet fully awaken and spring still seems weeks away.
At the Estacion Atocha we get a taxi. My evening-school Spanish from decades ago comes in handy with chatty Spanish taxi drivers. I ask him about immigration. Yes, there are many immigrants in Spain, he says with a matter-of-the fact tone, both from North Africa and from East Europe. He is more preoccupied with the wealth gap between the inner Madrid neighbourhoods and the outskirt ones. For his flat in that poorer, suburban part of Madrid, he paid 80 thousand Euros. Same size flats within Madrid inner-city cost three, or even four times more and no many people can afford that…
Our home for the next three nights is Novotel (Centre), a large, conference-business style hotel with a flash entrance and a gaudy bar. Not our typical place, but – again – it offered a great deal on the day of booking. The room is specious, TV-screen gigantic, bathroom larger than our spare room back home and there are bottle of complimentary water in the fridge.

Squid and chickpeas
Squid and chickpeas


Late afternoon we take a walk in our neighbourhood and end up in cerveceria/restaurant La Divina de Goya. It’s only six o’clock and the place is empty. When we ask for food, the waitress and the barman look at us in utter shock. You cannot possibly want to eat before 8.30? No one serves food before than in Spain! We do have a card up our sleeve, though – a hungry and grumpy child – and they invite us inside and promise to put something together. The next two hours are a feast of eating and drinking with complimentary goodies galore: toasted slices of bread with fish and tomato spreads, selections of olives and bowls of crisps. Our male companion orders botifarra sausages served with a beans stew (that reminded him of a meal in Girona, many, many years ago), our starving child opts for an adult size breaded fillet of beef with potatoes and I choose a chickpeas and squid stew “to be eaten with the spoon” (so Mediterranean). We finish our meal with glasses of cava and chocolates on the house. And all of this for 60 euros!
In the hotel bar we sip alcohol and alcohol-free cocktails and beers in front of the cinema-size screen showing the Juventus vs Real Madrid game. At half time, our eight-year-old and myself head to the room, leaving behind our football obsessed companion to watch the game to the end… Next morning, he tells us that he couldn’t remember the number of the room and had to return to the reception. Even then, finding the room was not the most straightforward experience. He blames is on the complicated arrangement of even/uneven numbers on each floor. I blamed it on the beer.



Thursday


After a quick desayuno of coffees and pastries in the café Relax, not far from our hotel, we walk through the famous Parque del Buen Retiro. Spring is in the air and the trees are waking up from the winter hibernation. The park is hiving with people: joggers, fast-walkers, leisure-strollers and mothers with prams as well as a rather chatty and cheery team of gardeners trimming the bushes and clearing the leaves.

El Retiro
El Retiro


The only to-do-thing for our first full day in Madrid is a visit to Museo Nacional del Prado. The queues are not long and tickets are reasonably cheap (15 Euros adult, under 16s go free), yet it still takes us a while to go through the airport-tight security. El Prado is one of the most famous museums in the world and the home to one of the largest selections of European arts. We spend hours walking through galleries and taking in masterpieces by Velasquez, Rubens, Van Dyck, El Greco, Titian… Yet – just like at my two previous visits – I am mostly captivated with the two Mayas by Goya…
Sometime in the early afternoon, after seeing hundreds of paintings of the Virgin Mary and the crucifixion of Jesus, our eight-year-old tour leader asks for food. She demands Italian cuisine “because so far in Spain she has not found anything she likes”. We can’t believe our luck when we realise that nearby, in Calle Fucar, is the Italian pizzeria Piccolo Diavolo, highly recommended by Trip Advisor. We order spaghetti allo scoglio, pizza margarita, pizza diavola and a large salad contadina (crunchy lettuce, black olives, cherry tomatoes and slices of pickled artichokes; yummy). And a portion of deliciously indulgent and calorific profiteroles bursting with chocolate and cream.
In a souvenir shop on the way back to the hotel, we purchase fridge magnets and postcards. Yes, we still write postcards. But, with stamps for Europe costing 1.60 Euros, I am not surprised that the art of writing postcards is facing extinction.



Friday


We decide to separate for the morning. My two football-mad companions want to go to the Bernabeu stadium and I have a slight preference towards the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, another of the world-famous museums of Madrid. We wave goodbye in front of the hotel and head in opposite directions. The Thyssen-Bornemisza museum is crowded and the queues are much longer than at Prado. I opt for the combo ticket that covers both the permanent display and the temporary exhibition “Sorolla and Fashion”. I am also told – as the place is busy – to start with the later. Although an interesting concept with pieces of epochal clothing exhibited next to the painting that depicts identical items, I feel indifferent. And impatient to see the permanent corpus. I start with the arts of 20th century. Encountering some of my favourite pieces of all times – by Mark Chagall, Dali and Lichtenstein – leaves me breathless…

The Cock
The Cock



On the way to our meeting place at Plaza del Sol I stop in Market Café for an espresso and writing my diary. Instead of writing, I just stare dreamingly at rivers of passers-by.


Plaza del Sol
Plaza del Sol



After exchanging impressions of our separated morning, we head to Plaza Meyor. This rectangular square surrounded with old houses and balconies is the hub of tourist life and a centre of local entrepreneurship (a minion starts dancing with our little traveller and instantly asks for payment). It’s noisy, crowded and colourful, a real theatre of everyday Madrid.

Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor


In the restaurant Hogar we opt for the menu del dia. We have paellas mixtas for primo and for the second I order the “cocido madrileno” (boiled meats, potatoes and vegetables Madrid style) and our male companion prefers grilled pork loin with chips. There is no children’s menu and the youngest member of our travelling crew, by now very hungry and grumpy, decides to help herself from our plates, exclusively with potatoes… The food arrives quickly, tastes reasonably good for a set menu and it’s very cheap (30 Euros).

Catedral de Almudena
Catedral de Almudena


It’s a bright and warm afternoon and the streets of Madrid are crowded, noisy and colourful. There is still some time for sightseeing, although slow in pace and low on enthusiasm for our tired child. We walk around the impressive Catedral de la Almudena and the Palacio Real, both monuments built in a neogothic style and with grey and white façade. Along Calle Mayor we take in the remains of the old Moorish city wall until we reach one of my favourite spots in Madrid – Templo de Debod. This remarkable monument has been donated to Spain by the Egyptian government as a sign of gratitude to Spanish engineers for helping them rescuing monuments during a flood. It’s located on a hill surrounded by the Parque del Oeste, offering breath-taking views of the city. From there we descend to the Paseo del Pintor Rosales and grab our afternoon coffees and a large portion of churros y chocolate in one of the first cafés we come across…

Templo de Debod
Templo de Debod





Saturday

The last half a day of our holiday. We pack our bags and deposit them in the hotel cloakroom and head out for a few more hours on the streets of the Spanish capital. After a quick coffee and Naepolitan pastries in the Madariz Café at the Av. de Felipe II, we head towards the Madrid’s bullring. No member of our travelling trio is impressed with this blood-thirsty form of entertainment. But, it is part of Spanish heritage and the bullring Las Ventas at Calle de Alcala is certainly a beautiful structure with elaborate decorations and horseshoe shaped arches. Next door there is the Museo Taurino, the museum of bullfighting, again not something that we have any interest in…

Streets of Madrid
Streets of Madrid


My idea of popping into a shop or two (hopefully by myself) does not materialise. Instead we walk back to Madariz Café and have another coffee at the terrace while watching people gathering for the flamenco festival in the ZiWink sport hall. Women are dressed in full flamenco gear, in amazingly frilly dresses with roses in matching colours decorating their hair. The square is pulsating with rhythm, laughter and celebration… Yet for us it’s time to head back, to a slightly greyer and quieter London.
As our taxi drives pass the new stadium of the Atletico Madrid, our young football fan shouts from the back seat:
“Next time we are visiting this one!”

Santiago Bernabeu
Santiago Bernabeu