Friday, May 8, 2009

Life at 160kpm (100mph)

Last Friday was Europe's Labor Day so we all got the day off. Trying not to waste the long weekend, my friend Madeline and I decided we should take a quick weekend trip. Madeline is a scientist here from London and we get along great (probably because we both speak English so amazingly haha). Along with two of her roommates, we decided to go to Madrid and then Toledo. Maxime (pronounced max-seem) her roommate who has a car offered to drive! Great!

Once I got in the car, I realized we were going to be arriving to Madrid very quickly because he drove his little French car like it was a race car - and I think the majority of the time we were going 160kpm. Madeline and I, in the back seat were so scared that we spent most of the ride napping so we wouldn't have to see how fast we were going! When we arrived, I was a little worried we were going to do all the things I have done already in Madrid, but the day turned out great and I got to see new things in the city. We parked the car near the Parque del Buen Retiro (Retiro Park) and went in. It is a huge park near the center of the city that used to be the private gardens for Spanish royalty but now us commoners get to see it! We walked around the park, that boasts 15,000 trees, and managed to see a puppet show in Spanish, which was quite entertaining. I think Madeline and I were the only adults watching, but it was along our level of Spanish haha. We strolled around the park until we came upon the lake and decided it would be a good idea if we rented one of the many rowboats and paddled around the lake for an hour or so. I have never rowed a boat, let alone with someone else doing one side of the boat, so with a lot of giggles and splashing, we managed to row around the lake, take in some sun and relax after the stressful drive.

Once our time was up and we struggled to row back to the dock quickly we headed towards the city center. On the way we stopped at a pharmacy because Maxime needed to get something for his finger. Quick background - a huge ladder dropped on Maxime's hand two months ago, his hand was a mess, he almost lost his finger and has had 3 surgeries and his finger was an odd shade of red/purple. Madeline insisted he get some antibiotics, but obviously you cannot get those from a pharmacy without a prescription, so we then headed to the nearest hospital. We got to the emergency room and there were nurses standing outside asking us if we had fevers - which I later figured out was to decide if we had the SWINE FLU!! Maxime had to wait a long time, so Madeline and I set out to explore more of the city. I was getting nervous in the hospital anyways - mixing with possible swine flu cases! We grabbed some breakfast and then made our way to the city center, where I know my way around. I showed her all the main sites I have told you about before - Puerta del Sol, Gran Vía, Plaza Mayor, etc. We hadn't got much sleep the night before since we started our trip at 6am, so we found a table in the sun in Plaza Mayor and ordered some sangrias while we waited for the boys. I think my face got a little burnt, but we were happy to be in the sun (San Sebastian was rainy), listening to flamenco music and just doing nothing. From there we headed to the Palacio Real and then to the gardens behind it that I have never seen. Like a corn maze but shorter, there was a bush maze and we walked through the little shrubs, happy that we could see the rest of the maze and could step over the bushes if need be. After we beat the maze we wandered to the Plaza de España which seemed to only house random hippies or young teenagers kissing on the grass. Needless to say we didn't stay long and instead jumped on the metro and went to the train station. It may seem silly to visit the train station of a city, but like Grand Central, the Madrid train station is a destination in the city because it happens to have a huge tropical greenhouse with over 500 turtles! We stayed under the bamboo-roofed part of the station until it closed and then headed back to the center to grab some dinner. After a two drinks we decided we were too tired to see the nightlife of Madrid and headed back to Ernesto's (Madeline's other roommate that came along) cousin's house, where we were staying the night.

The next morning, Ernesto's cousin and her husband were so sweet, brought us churros for breakfast and made some coffee before we headed off to our next destination: Toledo! After the 30 minute drive, we stepped out in what was once the possible choice for the capital of Spain and all the home to the famous El Greco! Toledo is famous because at one point, Jewish, Muslim and Christians lived in harmony, all within this walled city that hasn't changed much since the 16th century. The Jews were banished from Spain in 1492 and the Muslims in 1502, but thier mark still stays on the city. While we were only in Toledo for a few hours (we needed to speed back to San Sebastian for a friend's birthday party) we had a great time in the medevial-like city. We wandered through the curving streets and were constantly getting lost. I guess we weren't getting lost persay because we didn't really have a destination in the city, just wanted to see what we saw. We stumbled on a synagogue - Santa María de Blanca. Built in 1180, it is the oldest synagogue in all of Europe and is still in gorgeous shape. While it is owned by the Catholic Church, it is a museum showcasing Jewish art, but there are talks that it will soon be changed back into a place of prayer for the Jewish community in Toledo. The horseshoe arches and plain columns show no trace that it is Jewish and I was suprised to find that there is only one Star of David in the whole place!

Wandering further into town, we came upon a park that overlooked the Tugus River, that surrounds Toledo on 3 sides. While standing here, Ernesto (whose family is from a neighboring village of Toledo) told us of a family story. He said that his family had taken a vacation to Turkey and met a Muslim man who said his family was from Toledo. Ernesto's dad started to speak Spanish with the man, and suprisingly he spoke back in perfect lispy Spanish! Ernesto's dad asked the man how he spoke such perfect Spanish and lived in Turkey! The man said that his family was kicked out centuries earlier due to the Reconquista but that they kept thier Spanish roots alive by learning Spanish. He said he even had a key to the apartment where his family had lived in Toledo before they were forced to leave. Obviously it was a large key and is probably not operational anymore, but I thought it was a great story - that the family has passed down this key, a little peice of family history that they could save!

Seeing as it was about 85º, we didn't want to spend the whole day in the sun and went to grab a bite to eat before heading back. On the way we passed the 2nd largest cathedral in Spain. The biggest, I found out, is in Sevilla. We didn't enter the cathedral, but admired the outside carvings - all depicting scenes from Christ's life. A day in the life, if you will :) We passed loads of souviner shops and many metal stores selling swords - something Toledo is very famous for. Known as the best swords in the world, Toledo swords were used by Hannibal for his Roman Army, El Cid and because of thier fame even fell into the hands of Japanese Samurai! Using steel mostly from the Basque Country, Toledo became experts at crafting these unbeatable swords! Most shops still sell these swords and some go even as far to sell jewelry or trinkets with the famous Toledo jewellery technique - Damasquinado. This involves black steel inlaid with gold, silver and copper threads to create beautiful, hand-made works of art!

We later munched on tapas (we normally call them pintxos in Basque Country) on a busy street and then headed back to the car to race back home. On the way there, the boys managed to get so lost that we went around the same round-a-bout six times, we passed an ambulance that had its lights on because we were going so fast, and we Madeline and I played little kid car games in the back - anything to distract from the speed! By time we were home, I was completely used to going 100mph, like it was a regular speed! Don't know if that's good. Regardless, we got back in one piece and in 36 hours managed to drive to Madrid, see the city, sleep 9 hours, race to Toledo, see that city and then get back to San Sebastian. A rather productive day and a half!


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