Friday April 9: Arriving in Madrid

The flight from London Heathrow was unremarkable, and we arrived slightly early in Madrid. At passport control we were told to fill in an arrivals form required of all non-EU passport holders. One would think that people could be advised of this requirement before they reach the front of the queue, but apparently not. We filled in the forms, queued again, and had our passports stamped.

We picked up our luggage, consulted my notes on how to get to the hotel, and headed off to the metro. Madrid has an excellent and inexpensive metro system, with this trip costing only €1.10. We had to change trains twice on the way to the hotel. While the station at the airport is well setup with escalators and lifts, most of the other metro stations are not, but we made it to our hotel regardless.

Hotel Trafalgar were expecting only one person in our room, even though our reservation clearly said two. Having a print out was a good idea! It turned out not to be a problem as the staff dealt with it efficiently. Once we settled in to reasonably adequate room, we went out for a walk around the area. It's really not very touristy. Being Good Friday, most of the shops were closed and the area was quite dead. It was just like being in Perth on a Sunday morning! But we did find a bar, had tortillas espanõl and beer, then went back to the hotel to plan the next day.

Saturday April 10: Madrid

We accidentally woke up late (around 11:00) and missed breakfast. So we got out of the hotel as quickly as we could and headed off to the tourist information place. They didn't have much of interest. Not to worry - we decided to make the Prado Museum our first stop. The €3 entry fee was impressive, but the paintings and sculpture didn't do much for me.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid
Plaza Mayor

After a quick stop for lunch, we went over to Palacio Real, one of the highlights of our time in Madrid. The building itself is impressive, and inside there are lots of ornate rooms, chandeliers, clocks, paintings, and tapestries. The armoury has suits of armour and weapons to look at, and the Royal Pharmacy has jars and bottles of medicines. All very interesting and strongly recommended if you're in Madrid!

Palacio Real, Madrid
Palacio Real
Palacio Real, Madrid
Palacio Real
Palacio Real, Madrid
Palacio Real

As we were leaving the castle we witnessed a very strange parade or procession. There were three bands, people in strange pointed hats and masks, and others in masks and cloaks. Some people were dressed completely in black. There were men in colourful outfits holding birds of prey. And a gold carriage with lots of flowers. We never worked out what the significance was.

Spanish Guard
Spanish Guard
Weird Parade, Madrid
Weird Parade

Since it was Easter, my fiancée insisted that we look for Easter eggs. We found some in a department store, but there weren't a lot around. Certainly they're not commercialised to the extent that they are in Australia. We headed back to the hotel around 19:00.

We'd spent the day travelling around on the metro, great value at €5.30 for ten rides.

Sunday April 11: Madrid

This time we managed to drag ourselves out of bed in time for breakfast, which consisted of cereal (which I don't like), croissants (which ran out) and pastries. When we left the hotel we made our way to the markets at El Rastro. Wow! These are the biggest markets I've ever seen. It was very crowded, and very big, and it took at least half an hour to walk from one end to the other. My fiancée was impressed!

We took the metro to Chamartin station to validate our Eurail passes and investigate the train to Barcelona on the following day. It was a terribly confusing process for non-Spanish speakers like ourselves, with separate information and ticket windows each telling us different things. All trains from Madrid to Barcelona were full, but in the end we were told it was possible to go via Zaragoza, wait four hours, then get another train to Barcelona. It didn't seem like a very good option, but we didn't have a lot of choice. There was a €3 booking fee for the train. Advice: Investigate train tickets as early as possible.

With that out of the way, we headed down to the end of the Grand Via, and took some photos of a big colourful mosaic dome on top of a building. We never worked out what the building was. Walking down the Gran Via, we found that most of the shops were shut. At the other end, we spotted the magnificent looking Palacio de Comunicaciones.

Dome in Madrid
Domed Building
Palacio de Comunicaciones, Madrid
Palacio de Comunicaciones

Crossing the road, we walked through a huge park - Retiro Meliodía. It was very pleasant on this sunny spring day, with big monuments and a lake, people on row boats, lots of people just walking, and several Mickey Mouse, Tigger, and Winnie the Pooh characters.

Back to the hotel, we headed out for dinner around 20:30 and found an Italian restaurant nearby that proved to be a simple option.

Monday April 12: Madrid to Barcelona

We were up early to get the 09:00 train. We checked out very quickly from the hotel, and took the metro to Madrid Chamartin station, arriving around 08:30. We were on the train about five minutes later. It was about 10% full, so it was difficult to see why a reservation was required. We were on a Regional Express train to Zaragoza, meaning that it was quite slow with several stops. The first stop was at Guadalajara, then we started going through some hilly areas. After about four more stops we arrived in Zaragoza around 12:40 and had a toasted sandwich for lunch at the station.

Zaragoza Station is not a very nice place to be stuck for four hours. It's very new and modern looking, but there's very little to do. There was lots of seating and wide open spaces. We tried to get onto an earlier train to Barcelona, but the ticket people said we couldn't. I think we should have been able to by paying a supplement. We waited four hours for our train.

The train from Barcelona to Zaragoza was horrible. There were no luggage racks, and smoking was allowed throughout the train. As we got closer to Barcelona, it started to get more and more full and eventually there were people standing in the aisles. We had to share two seats with my fiancée's enormous purple case (I managed to fit mine in the overhead rack, but it didn't look very stable!). By the time we arrived we were quite unhappy and sick of travelling. The journey was long and uncomfortable. The train was very slow, and stopped absolutely everywhere along the way. We were most unsatisfied with the whole experience.

We arrived at the Auto Hogar Hotel after successfully negotiating our way around Barcelona's metro system. Feeling spent, we had dinner at KFC.

Tuesday April 13: Barcelona

Breakfast at the hotel was dodgy sausage with bacon, croissants, ham, cheese, and chorizo. Having learnt a difficult lesson from our experience in Madrid, the first stop had to be the train station to book our next journey onto Nîmes in the south of France. We booked the tickets with little difficulty - both the information person and the ticket person were cheerful and helpful, very unlike Madrid.

We went into the centre of Barcelona and walked through the food markets (Mercat de la Boqueria) looking at the colourful array of stalls. Then we walked up La Rambla marvelling at the pet stalls we saw along the way, including chameleons, iguanas, and little turtles.

Markets in Barcelona
Food Markets
Markets in Barcelona
Food Markets

We made our way slowly to Barcelona Cathedral, stopping in lots of shops on the way, and walking down attractive narrow laneways. The cathedral was very disappointing, and the front was covered in green plastic.

Narrow Barcelona Street
Narrow Street

We went back to La Rambla for lunch, some very nice kebab meat in pita bread. Then it was onto the metro for Barcelona's most famous attraction, La Sagrada Familia. Construction of this amazing temple began in 1882, and Gaudí was appointed the project director for the temple the year later. The temple is still far from complete, and construction work continues. Even so, it's an amazing structure with huge towers, and elaborate carvings everywhere. We took heaps of photos and climbed lots of stairs, up one tower and then down again.

Sagrada Familia, front
Sagrada Familia
Sagrada Familia, front
Front Façade
Sagrada Familia, rear
Rear Façade
Sagrada Familia spire

Next up was another of Gaudí's attractions, the Parc Güell. We took the metro to Vallcarca which appeared to be the closest station on our map, but really it was the wrong side of the park. We had to climb a huge number of steps up to the park (there were escalators, but they were switched off). Eventually we reached the park and climbed to the top of the hill, but there was still no sign of Gaudí's influence.

View of Barcelona from Parc Guell
View from Parc Güell

We took a different route descending from the top of the hill, and eventually stumbled upon Gaudí's work. There were mosaiced seats, arched walkways crossing over each other, a big convered area beneath the courtyard with a mosaic ceiling, a lizard fountain, more fountains, and weird buildings. It was completely unique and a great place to visit.

Unusual building at Parc Guell
Unusual Building #1
Unusual building at Parc Guell
Unusual Building #2
Lizard fountain at Parc Guell
Lizard Fountain
Gates to Parc Guell
The Gates of Parc Güell

We walked back down to the metro station (Lesseps this time) looking at all the souvenir shops on the way. There was a wonderful looking chess set that I liked, but at €124 just for the pieces it was a bit expensive. There were other good things too, such as serving plates, but they were all expensive.

We got back to the hotel around 19:30 and had dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant. Then it was back to the hotel for an exciting evening of washing our clothes.

Wednesday April 14: Barcelona

After breakfast we went up the funicular railway and chairlift from the Parel.lel metro station to the top of Montjüic. At the top is a castle (more functional than interesting it seemed). There was a military museum inside, but we didn't go in; so we just looked at the view shrouded in fog. We amused ourselves watching the goings on at the harbour, then headed back down the mountain and on to the Picasso Museum.

The Picasso Museum is fascinating. The huge range of work produced by Picasso during his career is on display, from little paintings on blocks of wood, to big paintings on canvas, paintings entirely in blue, pottery, and cubism. A visit to the museum is well worthwhile, entry costs €5.

We had lunch at the markets (Mercat Boqueria), starting with some very tasty pizza bread, then a long piece of bread with pizza toppings. We went back to the hotel for a while in the afternoon, then out to dinner at an Italian place on La Rambla. It wasn't very good. My fiancée ended with a weird salty rice dish (the so-called house specialty) and I had chicken schnitzel with veges. Mine wasn't too bad.

We went to a flamenco show in the evening, the setup was very touristy but the show itself was good. We had uncomfortable seats that were crammed very close together. Still, I enjoyed the show more than I thought I would, the live music was excellent and the speed of foot stomping was incredible. Afterwards, we paid a quick visit to the Museu de l'Eròtica, but it was disappointingly small and a bit pathetic.

Thursday April 15: Barcelona to Nîmes

We were up at 07:00 for a quick breakfast before starting our day of travel. We took the metro to Estacio Sants, found the platform we needed and didn't have to wait long before getting on our train. This one had comfy, semi-reclineable seats, luggage racks, food for purchasing, and retractable tables. So not all Spanish trains are alike! We left around 10 minutes late, but arrived right on time in Montpellier after a long stop in Perpignan for a passport check. I didn't realise they bothered with those anymore in Europe. At Montpellier we changed onto a local train, which was still fast and spacious. It only took another 30 minutes to get to Nîmes.

The story continues in France.
Back to the Europe 2004 index.