My sabbatical rolls on! After Norway, there was no rest as a couple of days later I was on my way to Newcastle and Nottingham with my two mates Si and Chief for a couple of random nights out. Two days after that, I was off to Madrid…
Allison drops me off at Luton slightly after my planned time and speeds off, shouting to bring her back a big donkey from Spain. I thought I was going to Madrid, not the Costa del Sol. Still plenty of time to check in with my just-small-enough hand luggage, so I do so and proceed through security. A number of Liverpool fans are scattered around, some southern, some with thick scouse accents, obviously travelling to get a flight any way they can for the big game versus Real Madrid on Wednesday. I couldn’t get a ticket, but looking forward to seeing the match in a bar and maybe seeing the stadium.
I land early and stroll through without the need to wait for baggage. Ian from the Spanish office greets me and we drive to his place where I’m staying for a couple of nights, before one night in a hotel in the centre. I meet his family, have a snack and a couple of beers, watch Barcelona on TV and then go to bed.
I decide the best option today is to go into the office, relax in the morning, do a bit of work in the afternoon and then watch the match with them in the evening. I previously agreed I’d do a presentation even though I’m on holiday, as this is the first time I’ve come over and we might as well take the opportunity to cover off a few things. The office is located on Madrid’s longest and widest road – Paseo de la Castellana and seems to be set in a residential building. It’s about as different to Node Court as you can get! I enter and meet the team with a mixture of “Hola” and English, and are very warmly welcomed. Suddenly I realise how little Spanish I know, but luckily most of them speak very good English. I get shown round, and it’s nice to finally put some reality to something I’ve only imagined and labelled “The Spanish Office” for all these years. Ian takes me for a quick stand-up breaksfast at the place next door (reminds me of a New York busy eatery) and then it’s back upstairs.
The morning is spent on a spare laptop, as I surf but also prepare some slides for the afternoon. A little later, Jorge announces it’s lunch time and that we’re going somewhere a bit special. The restaurant is well known for its stag and hen nights, covering up apparently raunchy pictures with cloth during the day. At lunchtime it looks quite tame, but the stage in the corner with its leopard-skin chairs gives a clue to the nightlife. The menu is completely alien to me, but Ian translates and I choose a bean soup and meatballs to follow, which turns out to be very nice. I get to try some of Jorge’s octopus, which wasn’t half bad, actually. (I once tried a very rubbery one in Tenerife in 1987 and not touched it since!)
The afternoon was all work, doing a presentation to a few of them on the latest release. As they’re very busy, there were a few comings and goings, and of course lots of translating to be done, so it takes a while. I spend several minutes throughout the afternoon trying to work out what they are saying via the expressions and decide to make an effort soon to learn a bit more of the lingo! After several hours of slides, conversation, other issues (including an interesting prospect for blind users) someone breaks open the beers and snacks as we look towards the match. 7pm comes and goes and we continue working as there’s still more to discuss and things to resolve, it seems. These guys work hard and late. Eventually, we head off to a bar/restaurant and settle down for the match.
The tapas and beers are flowing as the teams make their way onto the pitch. C’mon boys – let’s have a good result! There’s obviously Real Madrid fans here, but not everyone wants them to win, so I feel I can cheer a little for the Reds. Half time, and the game is tight; so far so good. Things are looking like it’s going to end in a draw, but then we get a free kick on the right, which Aurelio takes….it’s floated in to the box…Benayoun rises…..it’s there!!!!!! 1-0!!! Get in!!! A few cheers go up with me, but the rest groan. Jose looks disappointed. I just smile and contain the rest of my excitement. The match finishes, and we leave for another bar (dodging the red light district which is strangely very near to the office!) for a couple of spirits. The night ends quietly, but I’m more than happy with the result.
Ian grabs a taxi for me and tells the driver where my hotel is. It takes a little while to get there, but I see a bit more of Madrid on the way. I drop off my bag as it’s too early to check in, and head off to explore. The first thing I notice is all the bull statues. Why? They’re all painted differently in a variety of different themes. I continue, not knowing where to head, before suddenly realising that a) I have a terrible sense of direction b) I hadn’t worked out where I wanted to go and c) I might not remember how to get back to my hotel! I buy a map but decide to just keep wandering. I actually love getting a feel of a city just by walking around it, without any particular purpose. The streets are busy, and traffic seems to be everywhere. What seems to be a pedestrian path doubles as a road, and it seems only a matter of time before some lorry or car runs me over! Pay attention, Andy; you’re not in Kansas any more.
I somehow stumble across the Royal Palace, one of the places I wanted to check out. I take loads of photos of the guards and the surrounding gardens in Plaza de Oriente, before moving round to the main entrance to see the coach and horses being paraded around. It’s all very grand, until the cleaner comes round to scoop up the horse poo. Mmmmm, nice job.
I go next door into the Cathedral de Almudena, which seems massive. Cathedrals are not really my thing, but I always appreciate the architecture and the how-the-heck-did-they-build-this nature. Inside is indeed vast, with colourful celings. I leave, impressed, and decide to head back to hotel to check in. On the way back, I get hustled by an Iranian man who starts off genuine but I soon realise he’s got some money scam going, so I immediately back off and go into the nearest shop. The hotel (Hostal Persal) is ok, but the room is like stepping into an oven; even the air conditioning doesn’t help much. It’s a bit basic, but I’m only here for one night and won’t spend much time in it anyway. So, where next? A quick scan of the map…can I do the park, bus tour, Bernabeu tour and be back in the office to meet for drinks by 7pm? Hmmm, probably not. Let’s do the park first and take it from there…
Armed with map, I head east and work my way through the Madrid streets. Noise is everywhere – not just the traffic coming at you from all directions, there’s a lot or work going on, so the sound of drilling and banging fills the air. Past a few more colourful cows, round some fountains, over the wide road and towards some greenery – Real Jardin Botanico. This looks interesting, so I pay my 2 Euros and enter. Where’s the colour? Damn – it’s February so there’s virtually no flowers! Mind you, there’s a few good photographs here, what with the long paths and symmetry/repetitions, so much to see on the four levels. It’s also very peaceful, hidden away in a pocket, keeping busy Madrid out.
On to Parque del Buen Retiro – a huge park which rivals some of London’s. Now this is nice – iPod on, relaxing on a bench overlooking a calm green scene, in 20C, watching people relax and the rest of the world slowly go by. A few photos of some nice gardens, strange trees, some flowers (at last) and then I reach a large boating lake. I grab a sandwich at a stall and sit on the grass, watching people gradually row their way across the lake as the beautiful and young congregate round the steps of a monument. Madrid is pretty stylish, it seems. It’s very relaxing, and I wish I could stay here longer, but if I want to do more today I’d beter go. I listen to a mother gently sing to her baby a Spanish song I recognise but can’t name, but it sounds wonderful. I get another woman to take my picture in an awkward-looking this-seat-should-be-higher pose, and then leave.
The office is near Real Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium, so I’m going to head up there after a quick change for the evening. The sun begins to set, but I’m just in time to get in the tour before it closes and before I have to meet Jorge and Paco. Cool. I step out of the Metro, turn around…and there it is!! Wow – the Bernabeu!! I’m actually here, at one of the most famous stadiums in the world. On the outside, at ground level, it’s not as impressive as some of the new stadia that has since been built, but it is certainly huge. I get my ticket and get taken up to the highest level. Woah – there it is, and there’s the goal that Benayoun scored in! I see the guy who came in with me try to take a photo of himself with his iPhone, so I offer to help. He returns the favour, but somehow misses any of the pitch. Oh well, we’re going down there soon anyway. The rest of the tour consists of the away dressing rooms (very swish), the history (lots), trophy cabinet (vast) and to pitchside (photo opportunity). I’m cajoled into getting my photo taken with an invisible Raúl which I don’t intend to buy, but the next photo setup is the European Cup/Champions League Trophy! I know, I know, it’s only a replica, but I’m about to touch my favourite trophy! (I even had a mini one as a Subbuteo accessory as a kid.) Finally, after purchasing the photo and a couple of gifts it’s time to complete the tour and meet up for beers.
Back at the office, I say goodbye to everyone there as Paco, Jorge and I leave for the centre of Madrid. They tell me we’re going to a number of bars for drinks and tapas, so I explain that in England we call this a pub crawl. Not quite your typical English pub, though! We drink and eat standing up, and have olives, peppers, jamon, cheese, bread, Spanish omlette and various snacks I’d never see served up in England. I even noticed how they take the meat from the bone, which isn’t exactly appetising to see being done, believe me! The first red wine goes down slowly, not accustomed to drinking it in a bar. Paco seems to be a bit of a connoisseur, so we let him choose. I would normally go for beer, but when the place clearly specialises in wine, I thought it was a bit common of me to choose anything else. Still, it’s good stuff.
After several glasses of red, I’m now all tapas-sed out. On to beer, then vodka. Things start to go a bit hazy. We talk to some Liverpool fans, I get my photo taken for some leaflet thing, try on the tightest free t-shirt you could ever get and quickly take it off, and see Paco gather a load of beer stickers on his chest. A tired reveller hangs his head and sleeps on a stool, oblivious to Jorge and Paco’s antics behind him. More fans, and some singing. I’m pretty drunk now and head outside to sing a few Liverpool songs with some fans. Teach the Spaniards You’ll Never Walk Alone and the Torres Bounce. Paco then starts throwing this light thing around which I’m not sure is a Spanish custom or something that he shouldn’t be doing it. Oh damn – it’s gone 3am and I have to get up at 7:30 for the flight home! Where’s my hotel? Where are we? Why haven’t I packed? I feel a bit ill. This could be trouble tomorrow…
My phone wakes me up and I think I must have died. This is not good, but I have to get to the airport, dead or alive. I shower, which under the trickle doesn’t really help much, and the room is still cooking me slowly. I gather up everything and pray that I can find my way to the Metro. I navigate my way there, thankfully, and spend five minutes training the few brain cells currently working the route I should take to the airport. Ok, think I got it. After a couple of squashed journeys, I eventually make it to the airport, where there’s a big queue. Great. After along wait, I suffer the embarrasment of my hand luggage – despite being the right dimensions – not fitting into the stupid orange size-checker and having to be checked in the hold. More queuing and extra fees. Just get me home…
Luckily, there are no delays, and I doze for pretty much the whole of the journey. Through the sleep, I hear a few scousers dicuss Rafa and the match, including a tale of how one of them woke up just ten minutes before the goal! I discover my lift home from Luton is now not happening, so a quick call to Wendy (here’s your blog mention!) and Dave sorts this out, much to my relief and delight. Soon I’m back home, showing off the photos and ready for a nice rest…
So that was Madrid. An excellent city and a great visit made possible largely by the kind people from our Spanish office. A fantastic Liverpool away win, the stadium tour and a crazy night out on the town topped off a fab few days.
Now to plan the big trip…