01 June 2011

Madrid, Toledo, Avila, Segovia

I don't normally go overseas in early May.  There is usually a stretch between the holiday in February and Memorial Day weekend where if I go anywhere, it will be to a domestic location.  But a friend was celebrating his 50th birthday by taking a trans-Atlantic repositioning cruise from Puerto Rico to Malaga, so I said I would join the group in Spain, which would be my first visit to that country.  They were going to work their way up to Madrid from Malaga.  I decided to stay just in Madrid, so flying in and out was simplified.  United does not fly to Madrid, so I flew to Frankfurt on UA and then connected to Lufthansa to get to Madrid.

I was fairly certain that I wasn't going to get upgraded to business class on my outbound flight to Frankfurt.  The cabin was pretty full, so I was mentally preparing to sit in coach for the 10-hour flight.  Then, about 4 hours before my flight, I received a message that my upgrade cleared!  And, I even was already assigned an aisle seat (last time I had looked, there were none that were open.  I'm thinking that someone in Business was upgraded to First, which left open a good seat for me.  This would make a good start to the trip, as I knew I could sleep on the flatbed seat and arrive in the morning in Frankfurt a little refreshed.

The connection to the Madrid flight was simpler than I thought it would be.  We arrived on schedule, which gave me two hours to make the connection.  After passport control, I walked halfway to the gate and stopped in to the Lufthansa Business Lounge (thank you Star Alliance Gold), grabbed a quick bite, and then proceeded on the rest of the long trek to the gate for the noon flight.

Everything was fine for the flight.  I was surprised by being offered a hot lunch in coach on the 2+ hour flight.  I also was surprised when we landed at Terminal 2 in Madrid.  I had expected to land at Terminal 1, where the international flights land.  But I forgot that I was coming in from a Schengen country to another, so no need for passport control.  This saved me the walk to Terminal 2 to get to the subway station for the ride into town.  Since I was staying in a centrally located hotel (The Westin Palace), I opted not to buy a transit pass for the stay and instead just purchased a 10-ride ticket (with airport supplement).  Public transport is cheap in Spain, and the airport is not that far from the city, so even with a train change, It was easy to get within a few blocks of my hotel using the subway in about 25 minutes.  One thing to note:  even though the subway is fairly new, there are still steps to negotiate when traveling though stations.

I arrive d at the hotel around 3pm.  Unfortunately, my room was not ready.  I was offered to take a room that was ready which was of the type that I had reserved, or I could wait about 45 minutes for my upgraded room (a junior suite) to be cleaned.  I opted for the latter and went to sit in the rotunda area bar.  They even paid for a drink, which was very nice, and then came to get me when the room was ready.

Once settled, the first thing I did was head over to the Prado Museum, which was just across the street.  The last two hours are free on days they are open, so I took advantage.  It was not too crowded and I think I managed to see every painting within that time.  The next day would be my only full day in Madrid for the trip.  I walked across the central part of the city to the Royal Palace via the Plaza Mayor and toured the palace interior. I also visited the Reina Sofia to see Guernica and walked by to see the Living Wall (a sideways garden).  I tried to have lunch at the Mercado de San Miguel, but it was too crowded.  So I opted to seek out a vegetarian restaurant I had picked out.  Finally, I wanted to get a picture of the Puerta de Europa buildings.

That was pretty much going to be it for sightseeing in Madrid.  The next day, I scheduled a half-day tour of Toledo, and then I would meet up with my friends who were to arrive in Madrid later that day.

The Toledo visit was short but enough to see most of the highlights.  The only major site I did not see was the interior of the cathedral.  I also did not have time just to wander around the city for a bit.  But it was a nice introduction.  I know I will go back some time to explore further.

I met up with my friends after getting back from Toledo.  we walked over back to the Mercado de San Miguel, where I finally did get to grab some bites to eat. 

The next day, we planned a full-day private tour of Avila and Segovia.  For some reason, most tour companies do not run the big bus tours on Tuesdays to Avila and Segovia, so we hired a private driver/guide to take us to both cities.  Avila is a city with Spain's best preserved, complete medieval city wall.  but it seemed that for the most part, one comes to see the wall and the cathedral.  The one thing we didn't do was walk on the wall, but we were running short on time if we wanted to get to Segovia, have lunch and see the sights there. 

The drive through the countryside from Avila to Segovia was very interesting.  We went from a very rocky and dry terrain (reminding me a bit of Southern California) to flatter and softer land, where the cathedral of Segovia seems to rise like an island above the landscape.  Segovia has the best preserved Roman ruin in Spain, the Roman Aqueduct, a cathedral, and the Alcazar (said to be one of the inspirations for Walt Disney's Cinderella Castle, along with Neuschwanstein, which I have also visited).

We returned in the evening to Madrid and wandered into the  Plaza de Santa Ana  near our hotel for a nice outdoor tapas dinner on a great night to be out.  Afterwards, I debated whether to sleep or not, as I had to get up to catch a very early flight.  I finished packing and then slept for about an hour before leaving the hotel to catch a nearby 24-hour airport bus at 3:25am (at Plaza de Cibeles).  The subway doesn't run all night and starts at 6am, so finding out about the airport bus (costs 2 euros) was great.  I was surprised at how many people were taking the bus at that time of the morning. There was no traffic, so it was only a 20-minute ride.  I knew I was upgraded on my flight home already, so I was counting on sleeping on the plane, which I did. The counters at Madrid Airport opened at 4:00 am, Spannair has a lounge in Terminal 2 that opens at 5:00am.  One thing I didn't expect was not to go through security in Frankfurt (I swear I've had to do that every other time I've connected in Frankfurt) but I did not have to. I'll have to keep track now.  

I anticipate returning to Spain sometime soon, if UA/CO continue the routings that CO currently operates.

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