Friday, September 4, 2015

THE REAL MADRID

Wow, I have a whole day in Madrid and I have to make it count!

I didn't sleep well at the hotel.  At 1 a.m. someone passed my door with a really loud roller bag.  At 2 a.m. someone came by to noisily join a party in progress, which was pretty quiet until he got there. Did I mention the walls are thin? I finally slept and woke up at 8.  My body told me to go back to sleep and I woke up at 10.  I finally left the room at 12, ready for my first "whole" day in Spain.

I had originally planned to visit a couple of the big art museums that are very near the hotel.  I looked at the map and saw that the Royal Palace was less than two miles away, a good walking distance for me.  I would rather look at history than Picasso, so I made that my goal.

Actually, there are several royal palaces, and many Royal buildings on the map.  I passed Royal Academies, Royal museums, etc.  "Real" is "Royal" in Spanish.  After many difficult years under dictator Francisco Franco, the Spanish love their royal family.  However, King Juan Carlos did get in trouble with the public for going on a luxury African safari when the people were suffering unemployment over 23%.  The safari was actually paid for by a Syrian businessman, but the King said he didn't want his son "waiting forever like Prince Charles." After almost forty years in power and overseeing the government transition to democracy, the King abdicated in favor of his son, Felipe, in 2014.  I think Elizabeth does not want to see Charles and Camilla taking over, and William is enjoying his young family life too much.  So she waits.

It was a pleasant walk to the Palacio Real. There are lots of tourists and many different languages around me.  I see a lot of short short denim pants, but I am out of the fashion loop and don't know if that's a local thing or a broader fashion statement.  We had similar "hot pants" in the 1960's, but I don't remember them being made of denim, except perhaps for Daisy Mae Clampett's.

The Royal Palace is huge, consisting of a large courtyard surround by three legs of the multistory palace, anchored by a large church on one end.  One leg holds the Armory, which contains ancient suits of armor and even life sized horses fully armored except for their legs.  Some of the gauntlets had sharp spike across the knuckle area, so a slap by the back of the hand would have caused serious damage.  Some helmets had curled horns in the ear area, which I guess was to make the wearer look more fierce or godlike.

The Palace itself is no longer lived in, but is used for ceremonial occasions.  The dining room must sit over a hundred people.  The throne room was sumptuous, of course.

I started walking back to the hotel and opted for some interesting detours through diagonal streets and plazas.  Forty five minutes later I was back at the palace, even though I could have sworn I was heading in the direction of the hotel.  At this point my foot was hurting, so I quickly went the direct way home, stopping only to enjoy some Spanish paella and wine at an ancient looking bar/restaurant.  It was not what I expected. The rice was lukewarm, maybe because I was again eating my dinner after 4 p.m. when lunch service was officially finished.  The paella also was very crunchy, and I had to pull a lot of shrimp fins, chicken bones, mussel shells, etc out of my mouth.  I have heard they put "everything but the kitchen sink" into paella, and this was an example.


Thursday, September 3, 2015

SEEKING SIM

I can't sleep on planes.  I felt like I had dozed, but my fitbit didn't log any sleep.  So I landed in Madrid at 11 a.m., kind of groggy but ready to take it on.  I didn't have a guide book but knew my first item of business after getting my bag was to find the RENFE, or train station, and get a senior discount pass, which would entitle me to 40% off on the trains.  I always remember advice like that, even if I don't know where I'm supposed to go.

|I had to go down the crazy little steps to get off the plane, a real challenge with hand baggage and no sleep, then walk forever to get to the main part of the airport.  The main airport is beautifully set up for tourists, with bus, Metro and distance trains right there. I found where I needed to go and bought an immediate ticket to get downtown and a ticket for Saturday to Pamplona.  I had booked a small hotel right across from the train station so I wouldn't have to walk far with my luggage.

It took me a few tries to figure out which exit to take out of the huge train station, then to find the "right across the street" hotel whose street wasn't shown on my map and nobody I asked knew where it was.  A helpful man whipped out his cell phone and found "Calle Dr. Drumen" and directed me.  It parallels the main street and is definitely tourist oriented, with a McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, and Starbucks all on one block, along with numerous sidewalk cafes.  Hostal Buelta was smack in the middle of the block, but I was too early to check in.

I asked about finding a Spanish SIM card for my iphone so I could avoid Verizon roaming charges. The man at the desk told me there was a phone store "right up the street, not sure how far."  I left my roller bag and went out for a walk in the beautiful sunshine.  The neighborhood consists of a mix of government and commerical buildings made of stone.  The sidewalks are wide with room for plenty of sidewalk cafes.  Many shops are closed due to Spanish siesta time, from approximately two to five.  After walking about a mile uphill, I hadn't seen a phone store.  In Africa and Latin America they are all over.  I decided to get my tired body back to the hotel, rest till the shops reopened, and try another street.

Around four, I opted for dinner at one of the lovely sidewalk cafes.  My dinner is actually lunch, since Spanish custom is to have supper at 9 or 10 at night. If I wanted to eat, I had to get to one before they closed lunch service.   A lot of the restaurants don't even open till 9, and nightclubs don't open till midnight.  When do these people go to work in the morning.?  The restaurant I chose specialized in calamari, even though Madrid is far from the ocean.  I wanted something little and asked for a local beer and a mini bocadillo, the classic Spanish sandwich.  I got a slab of chicken on a dry French roll, with no mayonnaise, tomato, lettuce, or anything.  Well, it was cheap and I got to watch the people go by.

I had better luck on the other road I chose to walk along.  I passed the Prado, a famous art museum, and walked about a mile up and found an internet store that sold SIM chips.  Ten Euros for two gigabytes of data, plus 8 mb of talk/text.  The owner changed the SIM card for me and I was careful to store my Verizon card where I could find it again.  Interestingly, I still got a couple of texts on my Verizon phone number after this, so I'm not sure how that works.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

PREPARING FOR THE CAMINO

For about nine months I have been planning to walk the Camino Frances, a 500 mile trek across northern Spain. Why? Because I can (maybe). Because, at 63, I feel age creeping slowly into my body and that a withering crone is in my future. A good diet and lots of exercise might stave her off for awhile, but my intentions are always much better than what I actually do, so she is there, waiting for me.

People ask me if I got the idea for this journey from watching Martin Sheen in "The Way." Actually I never saw the movie till about two weeks ago, when I saw that it was free on Amazon Prime. I watched it again last week on Netflix with my daughter-in-law in New York. She fell asleep, so it can't be that exciting.

I first heard of the Camino when I bought Shirley MacLaine 's book of the same name in 2000. It sat on my shelf and went through several moves with me till I finally read it this year, after I had already decided to go. Honestly, I couldn't finish it. I gave it away as soon as I could. I have no intention of being visited by all the wacko spirits she conjured up along the way. Shirley, you're crazy.

There is an active Camino group where I live in Asheville. They meet weekly at a local coffee shop. The three times I went, there were 10-20 people there, and all had gone at least once. The local REI outdoor store has Camino lectures once a month, and I have been attending those since January. The room is always full and there is a mix of those who have been, those who want to go, and those who are trying to figure out what a Camino is. (The word means "walk" in Spanish.)

So I have been preparing for awhile, trying to figure out how little I can carry on my back since I don't want to finish as an invalid after carrying half the contents of my closet for 500 miles. 

The prevailing wisdom is to take two sets of clothes, one to wear and one to wash. I have trouble with that. A young fit person can do this journey in under a month, walking about 25 miles a day. I am planning on two months, staying in some towns to "smell the roses,"more likely wine grapes, along the way.

Another big issue is getting the right shoes. I'm taking a pair of Brooks Cascadia trail runners, walking sandals, and flip flops for the shower. Taking only one pair of sandals is recommended, but I hate to get my walking sandals wet before t wear them out to dinner, and I need sandals for the communal showers in the hostels so my feet don't pick up some weird fungus and rot off. On a 500 mile walk, your feet are your most important asset. Some people wear Crocs, but my feet don't like them.

A wrench in my plans came when I developed painful Achilles tendinitis about two months ago. I had plantar fasciitis about ten years ago that took two years to get rid of, and I hoped this wasn't the end of my plans. An X-Ray showed a bony projection, or heel spur, on my right foot. My podiatrist prescribed ice, exercises, and alternating my daily training walks with pool walking days. I was told to walk in the pool for the same amount of time as I walked on land. I have access to a pool but I found walking in it incredibly boring. It's not like I could take my iPod in. My training walks were never more than five miles, and my pool walking was never more than an hour.

As a result, I am not in the shape I want to be in for this journey. My podiatrist and several friends questioned if I should go. My thought was that I could always find a beach city in Spain somewhere and hole up for the duration.

Another worry is that the first day of the walk has a 3000 foot elevation gain over the Pyrenees then a steep descent. Many people, especially older ones like me, wrecked knees and feet so badly on this part that they had difficulty continuing. There is only one hostel on the way up and it was already booked up. My former teacher from UNC, who has walked the Camino several times, advised starting in Roncesvalles, after the Pyrenees. I felt like he had given me permission to avoid the difficult part. "Make it YOUR Camino," he said, and I have taken those words to heart.

I still have right heel pain, especially when getting up or after walking 2-3 miles. My podiatrist gave me an okay to go, along with prescription strength ibuprofen.

After frantic last minute packing, I decided to put my backpack and trekking poles, which have metal tips and are not TSA friendly, into a wheeled duffel bag I had set aside to donate to Goodwill. It has one rubberless wheel but still rolls noisily. It is an old friend that has been around the world with me and on long trips to Africa and South America. I somehow feel better that my old friend, who like me is slightly broken and has seen better days, is accompanying me on the first part of my journey.

I will take it slow and modify along the way if I need to, even if that means there's a Spanish beach in my not too distant future.