Málaga, Spain

Posted by Karie on Jun 28th 2008 10:53 am

I won’t beat around the bush.  Our overall opinion of Málaga: eh.

It’s a fine place, and many people we met at our hotel absolutely love it here; but in my humble opinion, you can get better versions of all the same things elsewhere in Andalucía, or other parts of Spain.  Better beaches, better Picasso museums, better castles, better Roman ruins, better shopping, better weather… We didn’t hate it or anything, but if you have a limited amount of time in Spain, my advice would be to not spend too much of it here.

We had a nice day at the beach when we first arrived, but the sun is very intense here, so we both got a little burned, even with sunblock and an umbrella.  Not miserably burned, but enough to make you think you better not go back again tomorrow.  So there goes the primary source of entertainment in this city.

One of the most interesting parts of our time here was our hostel.  It’s a pretty cool place.  Very chill, with reggae music playing while barefoot people nap in various places in and around the house.  In the evenings, friends of the employees come over and hang out with all the guests.  It kinda feels like a multilingual fraternity house.  At night we all hung out and watched España cream Russia to make it into the UEFA EURO 2008 finals (and then later go on to become the 2008 European football/soccer champions!). Viva España!

The biggest problem with this hostel is that there is no air conditioning, and our room was on the side of the building that gets no breeze whatsoever.  Oh, and there are tons of mosquitoes, and we realized as we were going to bed that we somehow forgot our mosquito spray in Ronda.  It was the hottest, most miserable night of my life.  We actually slept most of the night with the door to the hallway wide open, which was probably weird for other people who had to walk by our room to get to the bathroom, but we didn’t care by then.  Scott got up at 1:00am to take yet another cold shower, and we were both pretty much done with Málaga by 2:00am.

Just to set the record straight, I looooove Andalucía.  I love Barcelona too, but seeing more of this country has given me an even greater appreciation for it as a whole.  That being said, I don’t want to leave these series of blogs on Southern Spain on a down note, so I will leave you with my top five favorite things about Málaga:

Chango, aka, “the big one” – part dog, part hibernating bear that lives in the hostel

Tomás, aka, “the small one” – Chango’s 6-month old son

The Chill Out Patio – the name says it all

Canopy covered pedestrian streets – these are a Godsend on a really hot day

…Last but not least: The most relaxing toilet seat ever – nothing like a gentle reminder of what’s awaiting you outside as you sit on the pot


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Ronda, Spain: white-washed romance

Posted by Karie on Jun 26th 2008 10:33 am

I’m not sure how I decided that we needed to visit Ronda.  Every time it would come up in discussions about our itinerary, Scott would say, “Sooo… what’s in Ronda?” And I never really had a good answer, besides that I heard it was really beautiful.

We actually ended up cutting our time here to 1 night, to give us a little more time in previous locations… since we weren’t too sure why we were coming here anyway.  But somehow we ended up staying for 3 nights.

We were completely unprepared, so we exited the train station to find out there are no city buses and no taxis around, so we hoofed it about a mile to our hotel.  Giuseppe (our GPS device) told us the shortest route… but what Giuseppe didn’t know, is that this particular route sent us all the way down a steep hill, across a bridge, then all the way back up the hill on the other side.

As we were crossing the Puente Viejo (“old bridge”), I was busy mumbling about dragging my butt and my bags up that hill.  However, Scott, who never stops asking the question “I wonder what that is?”, actually paused to look over the tall walls of the bridge.

One of the many things we did not know about Ronda is that the old town and new town are separated by a huge gorge, called El Tajo.  Scott’s gasps made me curious enough to stop complaining for a moment and come look.  I knew this town was supposed to be special, but I just wasn’t expecting that view.

Once we got to our hotel, we started actually doing some research on the town.  Come to find out, there are 3 bridges that cross the gorge (one of which would’ve taken us almost directly to our hotel with hardly any hills).  The white-washed old town is exactly what you’d expect to see in pictures of southern Spain, while the newer part of town is charming in its own right, with tons of pedestrian streets, a beautiful park set right on the cliff, and Spain’s oldest operational bull ring, Plaza de Toros.

The Ordóñez family, who pioneered the way bull fighting is done today, was from Ronda; as is one of the most famous bull fighters, Pedro Romero, who fought 6,000 bulls and was never once gored.  The bull ring was built in 1785, and only one matador has died there in all these years. It’s actually a pretty small ring, so it’s not used often these days, but when it is it’s kind of a big deal.

We had just taken a tour of a bull ring in Sevilla, which cost 5 Euros for an excellent guided tour.  This bull ring cost 6 Euros to tour, and no guide.  I was a bit disappointed at first, but I’m actually really glad that we did both.  The Sevilla tour was more informative, but the Ronda bull ring gives you access to so much more.  It was particularly interesting to see the system they use for guiding the bulls into their stalls then out into the ring in a way that requires no physical handling, so no one gets hurt, as well as other inside workings, and the museum.

I think having the history that I had learned in Seville helped me understand and appreciate the Plaza de Toros more than I otherwise would have.  However, Plaza de Toros does offer an audio guide for an additional cost, so that might be worth the few extra bucks if you don’t have much prior knowledge.

While we enjoyed visiting some of the other attractions in town (Arabic baths, a mine, etc.), there were three places in particular where we could both spend hours.  As a matter of fact, we did.

In no particular order…

The first was Hotel Ronda, which we spent quite a bit of time in, as we both had to work while we were there.  The hotel itself was wonderful (especially for the price), but the best part was the little old lady who runs it.  It used to be her family home, and it was just converted to a hotel a couple years ago.  She really took a liking to Scott, and was constantly taking care of him, giving him bottles of water, bug spray (lots of mosquitoes there), and anything else she could do to make sure we were comfortable.  Scott equally took a liking to her and her spunkiness.  At one point I heard a loud noise and I said, “What was that?”, and Scott said, “Oh, that’s her hanging a screen on the window in the other room. She must be taking a break from painting the lobby.”  Don’t let her 5 foot tall frame and gray hair fool you, she’s a firecracker.

The second was on/under/around the Puente Nuevo (new bridge).  From this bridge, you get a view of the gorge on one side, and on the other, the gorge continues (complete with waterfalls), but then spills out into a huge valley with olive orchards and sparse homes.

For 2 Euros you could pay to go down into the lower level of the bridge, for a small museum and a little different view.  There are a couple other lookout points, where you can actually see the beautiful bridge itself. You can get the best view by hiking down into the canyon, but by the time we realized that it was just too hot to attempt it.  If you’re there in the summertime and want to hike, start early.

Another favorite spot was Alameda del Tajo Park.  I’m not sure if it’s true, but I heard that this park was financed by fining people for swearing.  There must have been some vulgar mouths around town, because this park is pretty amazing.  It ends on the edge of the cliff, so the views are spectacular; there are fountains, a small aviary, and plenty of shaded benches.  It kind of felt more like a series of gardens, with pathways between areas of trees/foliage.  If only it had grass to lie on, we might have never left.

After spending a few days here, I can see why Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles both called Ronda home for many years.  We will definitely be back for more of its breathtaking romance.  In fact, I think we’ve found our future retirement community. In about 30 years, you’ll have to come to Ronda if you want to find us for 6 months out of the year.  Pictures just can’t do it justice, so I suggest you start planning to come visit us.


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Gibraltar, United Kingdom

Posted by Karie on Jun 23rd 2008 09:10 pm

We managed to hit 3 countries on 2 continents in 2 days, with less than an hours travel time between each of them.  The southern tip of Spain was not only the perfect launching point to hit Morocco, but also the British territory of Gibraltar.

The Spanish buses don’t take you directly into the U.K. territory, but the bus station is conveniently located about a block from the border.  You can spot the infamous Rock of Gibraltar from miles away, but after crossing the border, you’ll encounter one of its most unique traits before you even get to the rock.  You will cross an airport runway.  It’s the only runway in the world that has a stoplight, where traffic (both by vehicle and foot) can cross freely between take-offs and landings.  We first crossed it by bus, but later went back again to walk it on foot, just to say we did.

That was only the first of oddities found in this 2 ¼ square mile plot of land.  We crossed the runway and headed directly to the cable car station, which takes you to the state park on top of the rock.  While in line, we were approached by a guy selling a tour.  We had no intentions of even paying attention, but he was doing such a great job at selling to the people ahead of us, that we ended up signing up ourselves.  It turned out to be only 1 Euro more expensive than if we had done it all on our own, so it was a pretty good deal, and we liked the guy.
After a few photo stops along the road, we arrived at St. Michael’s Cave, which houses a Cathedral against a backdrop of dramatic stalactites and stalagmites.  The location is now used as an entertainment venue, and you can walk on paths even deeper into the cave, through the stone formations.  I’m pretty claustrophobic (I once cried in the middle of a gold mine tour), but these caves are huge and didn’t bother me a bit.  They’ve done a great job with the lighting and background music, which really enhances the experience.  You realize how good places like Disneyland are when you start comparing “the real thing” to the imitations, instead of the other way around.  This place was like that – almost too crazy to be real.

The tour moved on from there… next stop: monkeys.  The Barbary Apes have lived on this rock for centuries, and lucky for us, it’s baby season!  Oooh, I love baby animals.  They tell you not to feed or touch the monkeys because they bite and are not potty trained (among other reasons).  However, our guide assured us that he works with these monkeys every day, so he had our group stand still and take turns holding a monkey just long enough for a picture.  We saw another guide put a monkey on a girl’s shoulder, and that turned out to be a huge mistake.  The monkey tried to climb up on top of her head and in the process pulled out a big chunk of hair, knocked off her sunglasses and scratched her face a bit.  I bet it made a great picture though.  Anyhow, we did see a couple of snippy monkeys, but for the most part they all just hang out and pose for pictures.

Once we came down off the rock, we hung out around the town below for a while.  There were a couple of cruise ships in port, so the town’s population dramatically swelled for the afternoon.  It’s a cute little town, complete with a few British touches, like the red phone booths and fish & chips galore.  The official language is English, but being so close to Spain, we found many people were bilingual, or at least spoke acceptable Spanglish. (It’s thought that the term Gibberish came from Gibraltar.)  Most places will also accept Euros (and probably even Dollars), but will use whatever exchange rate they decide upon at the moment, so definitely get out a few GB Pounds if you plan to stay for any length of time.

I thought it was the perfect day trip, with a few really unique things packed into a small space.  Judging from all the cruise ships, I’m not the first genius to figure that out.  I guess some places are popular for good reason though, right?


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Tanger, Morocco

Posted by Karie on Jun 22nd 2008 07:50 pm

According to Rick Steves, Tanger is no longer ‘the Tijuana of Africa.’  But according to the Moroccan guy in the carpet store in Tanger, “You should really spend some time and go south, because that is the real Morocco!”  So, picture some place between those two descriptions.  Not the cleanest, but not a complete slum; a place of interest, but not at all representative of the rest of the country.

Either way, Tanger is all you get if you want a day trip from Spain.  At some point I would love to take a longer trip to go deeper into Morocco, but for now we just got a small taste.

With the high speed ferry from Tarifa, Spain, which takes about 35 minutes, we were in Africa in no time.  We had done a lot of research in advance, and read plenty of reviews on whether or not to hire a *official* guide, how to do so, etc.  The common thread we recognized was that no one really felt like they had done things right the first time.  We heard tons of people say things like, “We did this, but if I were to go again, I’d do it this way…”

Part of the culture in Morocco is to negotiate.  I don’t think haggling is one of my strengths, so part of me always feels like I’m being taken advantage of.  Based on the various blogs & forums we read, I don’t think I’m the only one that feels that way.

We were under the impression that there would be hoards of guides waiting as we disembarked the ferry, and we could barter to our hearts content for the best price.  However, when we arrived, we saw very few guides.  Then once you eliminated the ones who barely spoke English or had some unpleasant quality (i.e., smelly, obnoxious, etc.), we started thinking that finding a guide might not be as easy as we had expected.  It could be due to the fact that we took the first ferry of the morning, which had more locals returning to Morocco than tourists.  Even the guide we ended up with mentioned that the 2nd and 3rd boats are much more crowded, both with tourists and guides.

So, we ended up paying 30 Euros for a private tour for 3 ½ hours, including a brief (very, very, ridiculously brief) camel ride, and a taxi to drive us around to the first few stops.  I am confident that we could have done this cheaper, but inexperience comes with a price.

Our guide was a nice enough guy, but it’s pretty easy to tell when they’re full of it.  Like when we needed to get a taxi, but he didn’t want to use the rows of matching, clearly marked taxis that were all lined up at the taxi station.  He said, “Oh, those aren’t official. I will get us an official taxi.”  So we waited in the middle of the street for some unmarked beat up old Mercedes with no meter, no license, no signage, etc.  It was all included in our price though, so as long as he didn’t drive us off the side of the road we didn’t care too much. We knew that guides have “friends” and send business to their favorite drivers, shop owners, etc., so we expected a little of that.

The camel ride was one of the first things we did, as it was a bit of a drive away from the rest of the main sites.  Our taxi driver dropped us off in a dirt parking lot off the side of a main road, where a handful of camels were hanging around, as well as two other tourists who were just leaving.  “You, camel here.  You, camel there.”  So we boarded our respective camels, smiled for a picture, and we were off.  Our camels stepped over the curb and turned left down a side street, walked about 15 feet, then turned left into an empty field next to the parking lot where we started, then turned again to reenter the parking lot, then they sat down and we got off.  I couldn’t keep from laughing. I spent more time taking pictures of sitting camels than I actually spent on the camel.  Oh well.  Looking back, I think riding a camel in circles around a parking lot for much longer would have quickly lost its charm anyway.

From there we headed back into town, where we strolled through the Sunday Market, the Medina, the Kasbah, watched a lame snake charmer, sauntered through the bazaar, and everything else a tourist is supposed to do.  Including, of course, stopping to see some of our guide’s friends.

Our first setup was in a shop that sold handmade rugs.  Our guide took us upstairs, then left to get us some mint tea (a Moroccan specialty, which is really good), but he never came back.  So we sat there and listened to a Moroccan man with an Irish accent tell us all about rugs, as his silent helpers carefully rolled them out in front of us one by one, until the entire room was covered.  At first I was a little peeved, and already planning my speech to our guide that I was not going to put up with him wasting our time and pressuring us to buy stuff from his buddies.  However, I couldn’t help but like the Moroccan carpet man with the Irish accent.  He was friendly, interesting, and barely even made a sales pitch!  I think he realized pretty quickly that we weren’t buying, so he just didn’t bother.

Next stop was the herbal pharmacy, where we sampled anti-stress oils, rose petal cream, cooking herbs, etc.  It was interesting, but too smelly for me – like when you try to blend too many crayons and it all turns into an ugly brown color – it was like that for my nose.

We made a lunch stop at a traditional Moroccan restaurant, which I’m sure were also friends of our guide, but it was good food and reasonably priced, so I guess sometimes their setups work out in our favor.  First course was vegetable soup.  Second course was – get this – a chicken-stuffing type of mixture, wrapped in a flakey pastry, with powdered sugar and cinnamon on top.  It tasted like a Cinnamon Twists from Taco Bell with chicken inside… and believe it or not, it was kinda good!  For the third course, Scott had chicken over couscous and I had chicken tajine (which mostly tasted the same except that his had couscous and mine had potatoes).

The day was a whirlwind, but we got to see a lot.  Like I said, there’s probably a better (and cheaper) way to do everything we did, but overall we weren’t disappointed in the way things turned out.  Also, I should mention that one of the biggest benefits to having a respectable guide is that we didn’t get hassled once!  We noticed a couple of times where a vendor would be out in the streets hassling every single person that walked by, but our guide walked ahead of us, and he would always speak to the vendors in Arabic, and we would pass by freely.  He also helped us negotiate when we wanted to buy something.  We were going back and forth with the vendor, and finally he spoke up and said, “give them the price they want,” and the vendor immediately conceded.  I guess little things like that make me feel like we got more for our money than just the parking lot camel ride.


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Tarifa, Spain: This Place Blows!

Posted by Karie on Jun 21st 2008 07:24 pm

I found out first-hand that Tarifa is the wind capitol of Europe.  It’s a cool little town, but not quite a “destination” for most people, unless your goal is to windsurf, kite surf, or find the fastest way to Morocco.  We were here for the latter.

Most people don’t go out of their way to visit Tarifa, but it’s worth a look if you’re in the area.  Not to mention it’s faaar better than Algeciras, which is another common gateway to both Morocco and Gibraltar.  That place blows too, but not because it’s windy.

Tarifa sits on the southernmost tip of Spain, and you can actually see Africa from there.  I’m not sure if the ferry we took across to Morocco was actually a high speed, or if it’s just fast because it gets blown between Continents by the strong off-shore winds.

We arrived mid-afternoon and hit up a rooftop beach bar for a late lunch.  We had just come from Cádiz, where the beaches were completely full before noon, so we couldn’t figure out why the beach in Tarifa was pretty empty – especially on a Saturday afternoon!  Well, after we finished our lunch we decided to park it under an umbrella for a bit, and that’s when we discovered our answer.

It was sunny, and the breeze felt great on the restaurant patio, but down on the beach it felt like we were in a full on sand storm.  It was almost comical, especially when we looked across at a couple of girls near us who were trying to lay out, but instead had their sarongs wrapped around their entire body & head to protect them from the abrasion.

We realized why this place is so great for water sports (particularly wind surfing), but not highly recommended for beach goers.  So, instead we had a relaxing evening exploring the town and preparing for our trip to Morocco the next day.


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Cádiz, Spain

Posted by Karie on Jun 21st 2008 01:36 am

I think we only heard English once the entire time we were in Cádiz.  It was awesome.  Its beaches are definitely a tourist destination, but mostly for the Spaniards.  Cádiz, the oldest continuously inhabited city in western Europe, is only connected to the mainland by a small strip of land.  It’s pretty far down there and the public transportation is terrible, so most backpackers or foreign tourists don’t make their way down… but we did, and it was well worth the trip.

Getting into Cádiz isn’t too difficult (especially if you’re coming from Seville), but getting around the town stinks.  The train is used a bit like a Metro/subway system, as you can use it to get from one end of town to the other.  The problem is that the trains only go once an hour (in Barcelona we complain if we have to wait more than three minutes for the next Metro train).  The buses are just as bad.  The good news is that taxis are cheap, so it’s a good option if you just missed the train and don’t want to wait another 59 minutes.

Depending on where you stay, many things are within walking distance.  Both the train & bus station are near the Old Town.  There are also beaches in that area, but “THE” beach, Playa Victoria – the greatest beach in all of Spain – is a bit of a hike away.  We opted to stay near that beach, and go into town for the day, but you could also do it the other way around, depending on your priorities.

I might have been ok hanging out on Playa Victoria the whole time and never seeing old town, but once I got there I realized it was worth braving the public transit system.  Of course we climbed the Cathedral bell tower.  Our ticket also gave us admission to see some excavated foundations dating back to 1100 B.C.  However, one of the coolest pieces of history in the city is free.

They recently discovered some ruins while doing some construction, and upon excavating, realized that they had stumbled across the largest Roman Theatre on the Iberian Peninsula and the 2nd largest in the world.  It’s still being excavated (you can tell that it was a lot bigger than what is currently uncovered), but it’s open to the public and completely free.  I just cannot get my arms around how an entire city can be built ON TOP of things like this!  Who decided to fill that in and build on top of it??  It just amazes me to think of what else we might be walking on and not even know it yet.

Anyway, back to Playa Victoria.  It wasn’t that it was more beautiful than Croatia, because let’s face it, the Atlantic is a far cry from the Adriatic.  There’s not one specific reason why Playa Victoria has earned our Favorite Beach award.  There are many: the soft sand (you don’t find many sandy beaches around Europe), the waves, the umbrellas, the relaxed atmosphere, everybody playing in the water, etc… I think we liked it because it felt like home, except the bathing suits are smaller and nobody speaks English.  However, despite the skimpy bathing suits (on both men & women), another thing I liked is that it didn’t feel like the fashion show that you see at some beaches.  It seemed like people were there to relax and hang out with friends, and not just to show off their tan lines (or lack thereof).

We found the city to be less expensive than most, although the restaurants right on the beach are still overpriced, as is expected.  We also found the city to be friendly and patient when our Spanish failed us. I had read some reviews that Cádiz was not welcoming to foreign tourists, but we didn’t find that to be the case.  Maybe because we tried.  It’s true that you can get by with English in most of the big cities around Spain, but if you don’t speak any Spanish, I’d recommend keeping your phrasebook handy in Cádiz. Not only is it the considerate thing to do, but it’s the only way you’ll get anywhere.  Just tell the cabbie, “vamos a la Playa Victoria!”  Don’t forget the sunscreen.


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Seville, Spain

Posted by Karie on Jun 19th 2008 06:37 pm

We can now say that we have seen the three largest Cathedrals in the world: St. Peter’s Basilica (Vatican City), St Paul’s Cathedral (London), and Catedral de Santa María de la Sede (Seville).  I’ve lost track of how many bell towers I’ve climbed, but it seems we never pass up the opportunity, and this was no exception.  However, one of the most unique things about this particular Cathedral is that it houses the tomb of Christopher Columbus (known as Cristóbal Colón, in Spanish).

While we were waiting in line to enter the Cathedral, I couldn’t help but overhear an American who apparently lives in Seville, and was temporarily reducing himself to this level of tourism only for the sake of his friend who was visiting.  When someone came through the line passing out flyers for a flamenco show, he began to ramble, “Oh look, you can pay to see flamenco.  Why would anyone do that? I would never pay to watch flamenco, blah, blah, blah.…”

We were aware that you can easily find free Flamenco shows in bars and restaurants, which is really fun, and usually pretty good.  However, it’s also possible to find free live music in the streets, restaurants or subway tunnels around the world… but that is not the same as going to a professional concert.  All options can be great, but the paid show is just in another league.

The Casa de la Memoria de Al-Andalus Flamenco show was rated as the #1 activity in the city on Trip Advisor, so we decided to check it out, despite the know-it-all’s criticism.  (By the way, this was not the show handing out flyers at the Cathedral… I’m sure there are plenty of second-rate shows out there, so do your research in advance.)  This particular show was priced at 14€/ticket, which is quite reasonable considering some go for 30€, or more if it includes dinner.  The show consisted of one guitar player, one singer, and one dancer… it was simple, but very impressive.  Oh, and there were actually Spanish people there, not just us crazy foreign tourists!

Next we hung out at the King’s vacation home for a while, the Alcázar of Seville, which was once a Moorish fort.  I’ve heard that the Alhambra in Granada is a better palace, but this one wasn’t too shabby.  The King’s family still vacations here, so access is closed to some areas, but we found plenty to ooh and ahh at for a couple of hours.  I’m in love with Spanish architecture, tiles & gardens… even got a few ideas for our future home.  Thanks King Juan Carlos!

In summary, if the King vacations here, it’s good enough for me.  We found Seville to be full of life and culture around every corner.  On more than one occasion we wandered into a plaza to find dozens of people just hanging out under the large canopies.  This happened in various places, at various time of the day.  There were people of all ages, ranging from tourists to locals meeting friends during siesta, and a few “regulars”, which I determined were the people who seemed to know the stray dogs.  I also witnessed my first violin & accordion duo here, and it was probably one of the best street performances I’ve ever seen.  Seville has “all things traditional” in Spain, but somehow it’s still full of pleasant surprises.


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Madrid, Spain

Posted by Karie on Jun 16th 2008 09:48 am

As much as I’m a city girl, I’ve found that the biggest cities (or capitol cities) are not always my favorite, just because there is more of everything… more to do, more commercialism, more traffic, more slums, more expenses, etc.  I am glad to report that this was not the case in Madrid.  I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked the city. It had some beautiful architecture (although I must say that Barcelona still takes the cake on that), lots of interesting sites, and really friendly people.

One thing I really loved about Madrid, is that people let me try to speak Spanish to them.  Even if they could tell that I’m American, and they know how to speak English, they still humored me and allowed me to butcher their language.  One guy at a café even tried to help me by correcting my pronunciation, which I think is way cool, except that to my ears it all sounded the same.  JamónJamón.  Yeah, that’s what I said.

A few of my favorite sites/activities in Madrid were:

Finding Scott’s Twin
We were walking down the street, when I noticed a guy walking the other direction that was dressed EXACTLY like Scott.  I suggested taking a picture of the two of them together.  Of course Scott disagreed, but after a few minutes of my mad persuasion skills (aka, bossiness), he gave in.  We were walking in opposite directions, so by this time Scott’s twin was a good distance away from us, so we took off in a sprint.  At the moment we caught up to him, my thoughts finally caught up to Scott’s hesitation, as I wondered how I was going to approach a stranger and ask him to pose for a photo with a random person who was dressed like him, without looking like a weirdo.  So, I employed my acting skills and used the surprised technique of, “Oops, I’m sorry I just bumped into you… Oh…  Hey!  Well, wouldya look at that!  What are the odds of running into someone dressed exactly like my husband?!  Hey Scott, look! This man is dressed just like you!  Come on over here and smile…”  Click.  The guy was actually really cool (how could he not be with such a great sense of style), and we all got a good laugh out of it.  Even though he didn’t speak any English and couldn’t understand my whole routine anyway.

Palacio Real (Royal Palace) and gardens
This is the “official” residence of the King of Spain, although he doesn’t really live there. However, it’s still used for some occasions.  Beeeaaauuutiful.  We didn’t even go into the largest section of the Oriental Gardens, but the palace is surrounded by smaller gardens, fountains, courtyards, etc., which are all free to enter… Unlike the palace itself, but it was worth the price.

Parque del Buen Retiro (Park of the Pleasant Retreat)
The place lives up to its name.  I don’t even know how much time we spent here, but it was a good long while.  It’s a huge park with a beautiful lake right in the middle, as well as a few smaller lakes/ponds throughout the grounds.  Normally you can rent little boats on the lake, but for some reason the boat rental booth decided to close this particular day.  There was just a hand-written sign posted over the normal business hours, so I guess the owner decided it was too nice a day to spend it in a little booth.  Gotta love Spain.

Free Museum Sundays
In Barcelona several of the museums are open for free on the first Sunday of the month (same in a few other cities around Europe), but in Madrid, there are free hours EVERY Sunday.  They are typically just in the afternoon or evening, for example, the famous Museo del Prado is free 6:00-8:00pm.  You can imagine that the line gets very long, so get there early, but it does go pretty fast.

Picnic
We spent our last evening in Madrid doing one of my favorite travel activities – picnic in a square.  We picked the beautiful Plaza Mayor.  This plaza has a long history of being used for anything from markets to bull fights to executions, but these days, it’s used for sitting.  Overpriced restaurants line the plaza, and in the middle, people sit.  There are no benches, but that doesn’t stop people from congregating in little groups on the ground.  I love it.  It’s beautiful, social, perfect for people watching, and the only thing the people in the restaurants had that we didn’t was the fat bill… and chairs, which are so overrated anyway.

Grand Exit
There’s a pretty new AVE highspeed train system that connects some of the major cities in Spain, so we were excited to travel from Madrid to Sevilla in style.  We’ve been on our fair share of trains, some nicer than others.  Some of you might remember the one with the bottomless toilet where you could see the tracks wizzing by as you wizzed…  This was NOT like that.  The bathrooms were civilized, and the seats were like first class on an airplane (or at least how my Coach status would imagine first class to be).  At a speed of about 170 mph, we got to Sevilla in no time… but honestly, I wouldn’t have minded spending a little more time on the train.  Of course it costs a little more than taking the slower train, but I justified it as the cost of entertainment, as we headed into Andalucía.


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