People always say that one of the best perks of an Erasmus year is taking advantage of your international friends to see the world. Having been invited by my Spanish friend Cristina to Madrid to celebrate her 21st, a group of us jetted off to the Spanish capital for a weekend break away from the snow. Comprising of students from several different countries (France, England, Spain and Martinique) who all communicate together in French, our group was rather difficult for people to get their heads around in the hostel. When the famous ‘Where do you guys come from?’ question cropped up, there was no simple answer. We would say ‘Paris’ of course, which then lead to ‘So you’re all French then?’… We then struggled to explain all our origins and why we had all met in France. Needless to say, our group was definitely something of interest in our hostel! We also managed to cause quite a stir during check in, with poor Cristina having to translate from Spanish into French and resulting in three languages going on at once when one of the guys there said that he could speak English in an attempt to facilitate the situation. Still, the whirlwind of French, Spanish and pigeon English continued to confuse everyone – though we eventually got our rooms sorted. I have to say, I felt pretty powerless for the entire weekend not being able to speak Spanish. From the moment I stepped off the metro and had a woman hurling Spanish at me, it was quite frustrating not knowing what was going on and not being able to communicate properly. We were incredibly lucky to have Cristina with us, who was not only our translator but showed us all the truly Spanish places in Madrid and helped us avoid any tourist traps.
After checking into the hostel, we were amazed to find just how central our location was – we were 2 minutes from Puerta del Sol, a plaza at the heart of Madrid and thus one of the busiest and most bustling in the city. It is known as an area for festivals and political demonstrations (we witnessed at least two or three in the short time that we were there!) , and is home to the Statue of King Charles III. Cristina then took us to San Ginés, Madrid’s best and most well-known chocolatería. Despite being tucked away in a small passageway away from the hustle and bustle of Puerta del Sol, a mixed crowd of tourists and locals manage to find themselves there every hour of the day (its open from 9am to 6am!) Cristina says that she often goes there with friends after a night out – sounds like the Spanish version of a kebab after clubbing! Upon entering, we all started to foam at the mouth at the smell of an intoxicating blend of hot oil, fried dough and melted chocolate. These churros were definitely the real deal – crisp, hot and accompanied by rich, velvety hot chocolate, which we happily finished off even once the churros had been eaten. This definitely filled our hunger pang and revived us after a long day of travelling. Our experience of Spanish gourmandise was not to end there for the night however, as Cristina took us to a real tapas place. This embodied a truly authentic Spanish atmosphere – there was not one tourist in sight. At around 9.30, the place was absolutely heaving with locals nattering away over food and drink. Once we finally were seated (after a rather heated discussion between Cristina, some Spanish guys who tried to nick our table and one of the waiters), we finally began our tapas experience. And oh boy, we were amazed. We all asked for sangria (which came in literally a bucket) and were surprised to see plate after plate piled with snacks follow. Whilst the meat eaters could enjoy Cojonudos (a slice of Spanish chorizo over a slice of bread, Chopitos (battered and fried squid) and stuffed mushrooms, there was more than enough tortilla and patatas bravas (fried potato dices with a spicy tomato sauce) to satisfy my veggie needs. We were quite astounded to find that the waiter continued to refill our empty places, to the point where the five of us were forced to wave to white flag and admit defeat.
Keen to hit all the sites, we decided to get up bright and early the next day. Our first stop was the Palacio Real, an enormous and impressive palace, which is the second largest in Europe, funnily enough after Palais du Louvre. Whilst the official residence of the King of Spain, King Juan Carlos and the Royal Family do not live there, choosing the more modest Palacio de la Zarzuela on the outskirts of Madrid. Containing over three thousand rooms and including various grand paintings, silverware and furniture, the palace’s interior is notable for its exquisite wealth. Unfortunately we did not go inside, though the view from the outside was majestic enough. Facing the palace is the Catedral de la Almudena, an extremely modern cathedral designed in a Gothic revival style whose construction was not finished until 1993. Displaying varied styles from historical revivals to pop art-like décor, its Neo-Gothic interior is uniquely modern. Myself and Grégory were also rather happy and surprised to find one of the first Champions League trophies inside (though I suppose football is like religion, especially in Spain with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid!) We then had a wonder around a local indoor market, which was full of life, sounds, smells and colours. Next we had a promenade through the Plaza Mayor, which is perhaps the best known plaza in Madrid. This grand and historic arcaded square was originally a marketplace built outside of the city walls during the Middle Ages, and has played host to festivals, bull fights, royal coronations and executions. Today, the square is ringed with shops, restaurants and cafes and is a popular spot for both tourists and locals. Its symmetrical rectangular form and uniform architecture very much reminded me of Paris’s Place des Vosges.
We then hopped on the metro to the old city which is home to Madrid’s museum district, the home of the three major art museums clustered along Paseo del Prado. Our short visit meant that we unfortunately did not have time to conquer Madrid’s museum triangle – we had chosen to visit Museo del Prado, known as the home of one of the finest cart collections in the world. On our way we stumbled across Plaza de Cibeles, a massive roundabout at the intersection of Calle de Alcala (Madrid’s longest road) and the old city. The roundabout houses one of Madrid’s emblems, the Fuente de la Cibeles, which depicts the Roman goddess of fertility. One of the most prominent buildings is the Palacio de Cibeles, an impressive, cathedral-like structure which is now the city hall. Museo del Prado displaying the works of greats such as Goya and Raphaël, is definitely worth a visit. As in many museums with highly precious works of art, photos are forbidden (though that didn’t stop Grégory taking some cheeky snaps with his Iphone, though he did get caught once!) We then had a rather eventful journey back to the centre, as Caroline’s Iphone got swiped on the metro. We were all obviously, totally oblivious (the guy was obviously a professional), yet an off-duty policeman spotted the crime and chased the guy off the carriage. After a trip to the police station, Caroline was reunited with her Iphone (what a lucky girl!) In the meantime, me and Emma were absolutely starving after such an ordeal and had quite a feast in an all you can eat buffet. We were all then reunited for a night out at Joy, a 1950s theatre now converted into one of Madrid’s best clubs. As in France, Spanish nights out run much later into the night, and the real dancing only started at around 1h30. With a mix of international and Spanish music, the unique decor and dancers, it was an enjoyable night. Being an Erasmus event, it was full of international students – we even found some fellow Frenchies! Having woken up really early that morning, I was flagging by 4 (and if that was England I would definitely already have been tucked up in bed!)
On Saturday we awoke (rather unwillingly, though it’s rather hard to lie in staying in a hostel) to an absolutely beautiful day. Seeing as the weather in Paris had been beyond freezing before we left, we got rather excited at the prospect of sun and warmth (it must have been at least 15 degrees). Cristina had recommended the Templo de Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple rebuilt in Madrid – according to a guide literally ‘piece by piece’, with each stone being sent separately to the Spanish capital. Here we had a bask in the gorgeous afternoon sun and nodded off a bit, before heading to the Parque del Buen Retiro. Here we hired a boat on the lake which was entertaining (we all watched Caroline do most of the rowing!) The temperature had soon dropped with the sun set, so we stopped off for a quick hot chocolate to warm ourselves up before having dinner. Sunday was a rather rushed day due to mine and Emma’s flight in the afternoon – though we did have enough time to visit a local market and have an amazing lunch with the cutest mini baguettes I have ever seen (this concept needs to spread!) Upon our arrival to Paris we were warmly welcomed by a notice announcing that the RER B was closed due to maintenance works (surprise, surprise…), which meant we had to take a replacement bus before even getting anyway near a train back into central Paris.
A great long weekend in Madrid – though it’s now back to reality as uni starts on 4th February!