My trip to Europe started with Madrid, the capital of Spain. The first thing that struck me though was just how empty it the airport was when we landed. For those who have traveled internationally, one of the most irritating parts is standing in a 1 hour queue for immigration right after you get off 8+ hour flight. It took me less than 5 mins and I could not be happier. This small bonus was a wonderful start to my trip.
I was travelling through Spain with one of my friends from college, Vivek (most of you probably know him as Subbu :) ). Our main aim for this trip was to relax, have fun and see new places. I don't know what it was about this wonderful capital city, the narrow cobbled streets, the bustling squares or the fact that you could just step 2 streets away from a main road to get some peace and quiet, but it inspired me to walk around and just absorb the atmosphere and I could not wait to get started.
We made our way to the dorm we would be staying at, dumped our luggage and headed out to explore the city. That first day went by in a blur (probably because of the jet lag), but I remember being very relaxed at the end of it. The next morning, I realized why people like staying at hostels. You get to meet so many new people! Breakfast was fun, with conversations about favorite breakfasts in 5 different countries (on 3 different continents).
We went to a lot of squares and historic buildings in Madrid that day, but the thing I remember distinctly, was Churros con chocolate in this little cafe on a hidden side street. If you are ever in Spain, do NOT miss this treat for the senses, its an amazing way to relax and take a break from exploring the city (also a good way to gain back all of the calories you burnt walking around all day).
Another must see place and the next on our places to visit that day, was the Prado Museum. Photography is not allowed inside most museums in Europe, but you would not think about taking photographs when looking at the amazingly life like paintings. It can take anywhere between 1 hour and 1 day to explore Prado depending on how you feel about art. Not having been exposed to many old paintings, the art here was a revelation.
The next day we had, one of the main attractions of Madrid and an iconic place in all of Spain to visit. The Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas is regarded as the home of bullfighting in Spain. The start of the season was a week away and the ring was being prepped for opening night, but visitors were allowed in on guided tours. Personally, I am not a fan of bullfighting, because I consider it wrong to force bulls (or any other animals) to fight. However, I kept an open mind and was impressed with the deep respect our guide showed for the animals. I realized that it was a matter of perspective and it was not right to judge something that was part of a nation's culture. No matter what your views are on bullfighting, the place will make an impression on you.
A short train ride and a moderately long walk away from the bullfighting ring is the Palacio Real de Madrid. The palace itself looks much like you would expect a palace to look. But aside from that the gardens around the palace are extremely well maintained and a delightful place to spend some time relaxing.
There is another unusual sight near the palace, something you would never expect to see in Spain (or Europe for that matter). The Temple of Debod is an Egyptian temple that was "transplanted" to Madrid to save it from flooding due to the construction of the Great Dam of Aswan across the Nile. The gardens around this temple also serve as an excellent place to get a great view of the city.
By this time, I was famished and my legs sorely needed rest so we headed back to the area near our hostel to grab some dinner and reflect on our experiences over the last two days. If you are vegetarian like me, don't worry, there are more than enough options available for you in Madrid. We had dinner at this delightful, all you can eat buffet place that had a wonderful spread, while also being quite economical.
Alas, it was time to leave Madrid, a city with elements of history and the present age to take a bus ride to our next destination - Barcelona the second largest city in Spain and the capital of the Catalonia region.
See my full photo album from Madrid here : Google+ Album