We couldn’t have had a better first few days in Spain. After a 9 am landing on a cool, late-February morning at Madrid’s Barajas International Airport, our trip was about to go much better than we had expected. Arriving in relatively good spirits from Portland, my girlfriend Kate and I hopped on the Madrid Metro for a quick ride to our hotel in the Puerto del Sol, the heart of the city center. Dumping our bags and fighting the good, but always losing, fight against jet lag, we headed out for an early afternoon walk on the bustling streets of one of Europe’s biggest cities.
We headed towards the Plaza Mayor, one of Madrid’s most scenic squares and once the sight of public hangings during Europe’s darker days. The square seemed to be oddly busy, considering the time of year, and as we were about to enter through one of the dramatic, arched walkways, a color-guard of white horses came charging out with riders dressed in what looked like medieval garb. What few tourists were around started snapping pictures while Kate and I rubbed our eyes in disbelief, wondering if this display was a side effect from the sleeping pills we popped after our connecting flight left Newark.
Spain, as usual, was in the mood to surprise. This was my third trip to one of the most colorful countries in Europe and it was a place that Kate had wanted to go for a long time. While I had visited the urban centers of Madrid and Barcelona, the trip we planned would be a brand new experience for both of us. We were heading to Murcia to stay with friends of my aunt and uncle before spending the next ten days driving across the southern province of Andalucia. Our incredibly rough itinerary included stops in Grenada and Seville, but we were basically going to play it by ear. This was all in the future, however, and we were just getting settled.
It seemed that the color-guard was out to welcome a foreign dignitary who was far less impressed with the show than the handful of tourists gathered around. After the horses trotted off, Kate and I walked the small cobbled streets that ring Plaza Mayor. We popped in and out of shops selling hip, Spanish clothing in the pleasant, fogged over manner of people coming straight from an overnight flight. A pub offering up pints of Cruzcampo with free tapas was too good to pass up and we discovered that oiled sardines and strong, stuffed olives go great with a frosty beer even in the late winter.
When jet lag finally did get the best of us, we ambled back to our hotel and conked out while watching animated Spanish game-show hosts on the television. A brief spark of motivation before giving in permanently to jet lag led us out to wander Madrid’s maze of streets. We walked through the gritty Chueca neighborhood, home to Madrid’s gay scene with its cool bars and bistros. Our wandering led us down the Calle de la Cruz and into the city’s traditional center. Here a mess of narrow, tangled alleyways are lined with tavernas and restaurants serving up food from all over the globe. Finally picking a nice place with tables out front, Kate and I sipped mojitos while the smells of chorizo and calamari filled the cobbled lane.
We had to catch an early train to Murcia in the morning where we would finally meet Carol and Noel. Carol was from the rainy British Columbian coast and Noel, her husband, from the sunnier climes of Malta. They had met over 25 years ago when Carol and my aunt were traveling through Europe. They met in Malta and when Carol left for Italy she lasted just a few days before heading back to Noel in Malta. They fell in love and have been together ever since, settling in Spain where they now have two kids and deep roots.
Boarding our train and happy to leave the chaos of Madrid’s Atocha Station behind, we settled into the comfortable enough Renfe seats and watched as the urban jungle turned into gentle, desert plains with huge modern windmills stuck liberally about. Murcia is a regional capital near Spain’s Mediterranean coast and its location among towering, rocky cliffs and olive and lemon farms make it a quaint and unpretentious place. While Murcia isn’t high on the traveler’s list of must-see places in Spain, its mellow pace and cool city center, complete with a stunning 15th century cathedral, make it a nice surprise.
It was impossible to miss Carol’s still thick Canadian accent at the station and within minutes of both her and Noel’s warm greetings, Kate and I felt as if we were with old friends. It felt good to know locals in a foreign land as Noel zipped his SUV down Murcia’s narrow streets. Arriving at their house under the warm Murcian sun, we dumped our bags in a spare bedroom and headed into the backyard where Carol was dishing up homemade paella under lemon trees while Noel poured beers. Surrounded by a yard full of Carol’s pet tortoises and the neighboring mountains, we finally acclimated to the Spanish pace.
While we let the paella settle in, Noel broke out a huge map of Spain. He poured over it like a general trying to decipher the best way to infiltrate Andalucia.
“You must visit here. And here. And of course….here.” Noel told us as he pointed rapidly all over the map. While we tried to keep pace, Carol must have noticed our inability to keep up and suggested we take part in one of the greatest of Spain’s traditions; the siesta. Although it isn’t as popular in Spanish society as it once was, Kate and I took immediately to the siesta and decided on our second day in the country to practice it regularly…if only for the cultural benefits it would bring to our trip.
Before we would hop in a rental car and head off across Spain, we had a couple of days to spend with Carol and Noel on the Mediterranean. They were taking us to the coastal town of Benidorm where they had a second home in the form of a high rise apartment. I had heard plenty of stories about Benidorm from my time living in Scotland and was eager to finally get a look at it. An aging beauty, Benidorm is part Atlantic City and part curiosity. Still a popular place with people from all over Europe, Benidorm certainly has lost some of its luster to the newer kids on the block like Ibiza, Tenerife and Mallorca. I was expecting a quiet place, especially for the time of year, but the pubs and restaurants on Benidorm’s narrow streets were chock a block. The old girl, it seemed, still had some life left in her.
After a night out sampling Benidorm’s tapas restaurants and seaside tavernas, we sat on Carol and Noel’s balcony the next morning eating breakfast and staring peacefully at the sea. On our way out of town we stopped at a huge market selling all kinds of oddities. After checking out everything from old fur coats and antique jewelry to New Kids on the Block VHS tapes and plastic swords, we sat down at the market’s busy restaurant. As we tucked into our paella and sangria, Carol pointed out a woman dressed far too nice for the relaxed atmosphere of the market. Cloaked in elegant furs and caked in thick makeup, the woman floated from table to table. Carol told us, “We see her here all the time. She certainly likes a drink. I imagine she’ll be stumbling around soon enough looking for the attention of men.” We’d just crossed paths with Benidorm’s human counterpart.
As we headed back to Murcia, I realized it was going to be tough to beat our first couple of days.
Neither Kate nor I wanted to leave the safety of our hosts and it didn’t feel right leaving them so soon. They had gotten our trip off to an amazing start and were a reminder that traveling is just as much about the people as it is the places.
Before we left though, Carol gave me a crash course in driving manual so Kate wouldn’t have to do all the driving. As expected, she proved herself a brave woman for letting me stall out her car a handful of times before I got the hang of it on very tight roads. Lesson done and car rented, Kate steered our red Chevy west towards the medieval city of Grenada and what would definitely be a few more stories to tell the friends back home.
Written by Robert Lovik for EuropeUpClose.com