Thursday, 15 September 2016

Finding Miguel De Cervantes in Alcalá De Henares!

On the day I went to Alcalá de Henares, from my hotel in Madrid, I took a short subway ride from the Sol Station (at Puerta del Sol) to Atocha Station. And since I already knew how to buy my train tickets from the ticket machine from my look-see the day before, I came, I bought, I wandered! Wandered through the station and caught my train to Alcalá de Henares, that is! 
             (The reliable Renfe train)

The train ride from Atocha Station to the Alcalá de Henares Station was just about 23 minutes, and I was surprised I was the only passenger in one of the cars!
          (I had the train all to myself!)

I got there at noon, and unfortunately, the tourist information kiosk next to the train station was closed; I needed a map! Instead, I asked for directions from the taxi driver waiting by the station. And thanks to his help, I was able to find Calle Mayor after 20 minutes of walking through the residential neighborhoods.

Alcalá de Henares means 'a fortress by the Henares River'. Yes, there's a river near the city.

         (The younger side of the city)

Alcalá de Henares has an ancient settlement that dates back before Romans came to Spain. It's about 35 kilometers east of Madrid. This is 'a city of three cultures' that include Moorish, Jewish and Christian cultures, and is a UN World Heritage Site.

                      (Calle Mayor)

                         (Fall sale) 

When I was planning the itinerary for this tour, I decided to include one trip outside of Madrid, and after studying the map, I decided on Alcalá de Henares because, one, it is the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of the famous Don Quixote, and, two, I wanted to taste their rosquillas de Alcalá, a puffy, tall donut-shaped pastry bathed in egg yolk and sugar glaze! Yes, food and pastry should always be in one's itinerary, and not just history and palaces. 

      (The famous rosquillas de Alcalá)

Having covered on foot the younger streets from the train station up to the centuries-old Calle Mayor, I continued lazily around the old streets of Calle Escritos, Calle Sta. Ursula and ending up on Capilla de Oidor and Plaza de Cervantes. 
   (One of the oldest hospitals in Europe:       Antigo Hospital Beneficio de Nuestra              Señora de la Misericordia)
(An entrance to the Universidad de Alcalá)

Passing through ancient alleyways and stumbling upon a hospital dating back to 1483, I was so fascinated knowing that this old city was flourishing even before Fernando de Magallanes arrived in the Philippines! 

And inside the Capilla de Oidor at the Plaza Rodriguez Marin, which was right next to Plaza de Cervantes, I visited an exhibition of the life and works of Miguel de Cervantes. 
        (Visitors can climb the Torre de 
          Sta. Maria on weekends) 

Behind the Capilla was the tourist information center and I was able to get a map. I asked the señorita whether I could climb the Torre de Sta. Maria. Unfortunately, she said, the Torre was closed that day. The 360-degree view of the city up the Torre could have been fantastic. 

In the middle of Plaza Cervantes was the statue of the most famous son of Alcalá de Henares. It was past noon when I walked around the Plaza; a few youngsters playing around, old señores sitting and chatting, a group of tourists and one Filipino eavesdropping as to what they were talking about. Ja-ja-ja!
The statue of Miguel de Cervantes lorded over his plaza as if always waiting to lecture his visitors as to why his works remain the most popular in the Spanish literary world.

          (Art works about Don Quixote 
           are everywhere in the city)

In Manila, I studied at Instituto Cervantes to improve my Spanish, and that afternoon, in Plaza Cervantes, I stood there looking up at the statue of the writer after whom the Spanish language institute was named. 
      (Students posing with Don Quixote 
             and Sancho Panza in front 
                  of Cervantes' home)

I may never be fluent in Spanish, and I may never be able to read all the works of Miguel de Cervantes, but being there right in the middle of his birthplace and standing under his shadow should be a good start to learning about Spain's greatest writer.

                       *  *  *  *  *

P.S. Yes, I ate two rosquillas de Alcalá immediately. Ja-ja-ja!

Next stop, la casa de Miguel de Cervantes.

Monday, 12 September 2016

The Real Madrid: The Grandiose Atocha Station

Part of my Madrid tour was a side trip to Alcalá de Henares, the hometown of Miguel de Cervantes, Spain's greatest writer.

While researching before my trip, I learned that I had to take a Renfe train from Madrid-Atocha Station to Alcalá de Henares. On my second day, I took the tour bus around Madrid and hopped off at the Museo Reina Sofía stop to get to Atocha Station for a look-see.
      (Passing through Calle Mayor on the             Madrid hop-on-hop-off tourist bus)

But alighting at the stop and walking towards the station, I chanced upon KFC across the road, and since I was getting hungry, I decided to go in.

Interestingly, just like at Starbucks in Manila, Lidira, the KFC crew who took my order, asked for my name so she could call me when my order was ready. I told her, "Me llamo Alfonso, Rey Alfonso." ("My name is Alfonso, King Alfonso"). She smiled. I knew that the Spanish history was full of kings named Alfonso, and she probably smiled thinking that here was another pretender to the Spanish throne lining up at her counter and ordering fried chicken. Ja-ja-ja!

         (Fast food lunch fit for a king)

After munching down lunch, I hurried towards the Station, and even before I crossed the street, the whole structure was impressively huge. It didn't look like a train station; it looked like a sports stadium!
              (Atocha Station's dome)

Although the purpose of my look-see was to ask about the schedule of trains heading to Alcalá de Henares, I was distracted by the beauty of the whole station.

It was spacious with very high ceilings, airy and had shops, cafés, restaurants, a garden and a pond! With turtles! Lots of turtles! 

         (Turtles by the pond discussing 
                    Spanish politics)

The whole station was so interesting and unique that, if I didn't have a schedule to keep, I would have sat in one of the cafés, ordered coffee and watched commuters the whole afternoon! Atocha didn't feel like a train station; it felt like a plaza! It should be one of the most beautiful stations in Europe!

The station was inaugurated on February 9, 1851, under its original name Estación de Mediodía, but was rebuilt in 1892 after a fire. The architect of the 1892 structure was the Spanish engineer Señor Alberto Palacio Elissagne, who collaborated with no less than Gustave Eiffel, Señor Alberto's teacher. No wonder the station was all lines of steel and wrought iron that provided an 'industrial' feel.

(The Station's centerpiece clock telling the time through the wrought iron lines)

In the morning of March 11, 2004, coordinated terror bombings hit trains leaving Alcalá de Henares (which I was visiting during my trip), including one train heading to Atocha Station. One hundred ninety-two were killed, including one Filipino, and a memorial was built for the victims next to Atocha Station.   

                   *  *  *  *  *

Next stop, Alcalá de Henares.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

The Real Madrid: Plaza de Oriente, Royal Palace, and Queen Isabel II's Waistline

After meandering the ancient alleyways around Plaza Mayor and ending at Puerto del Sol, I suddenly felt my tummy complaining 'tengo hambre' (I'm hungry)

Though my eyes feasted with all the window displays of Spanish delicacies, spanish abanicos, bocadillo de jamon, tartas and brazos, my tummy was still empty! So, after dropping off my postcards at the post office at the basement of El Corte Inglés, Spain's largest chain of department stores, I headed towards Teatro Real, where the statue of Queen Isabel II stood.

El Corte Inglés was just a few meters out of Puerta del Sol, and tracing my Madrid map, I passed through again Puerta on my way to Plaza de Oriente.
   (Queen Isabel II before Teatro Real)

Before reaching Plaza de Oriente, I had to pass by Teatro Real, where the statue of Queen Isabel II stood, claiming sovereignty over the Opera Station, a subway station next to Teatro Real (Royal Theater), which hosts operas and theater performances; hence the station was named 'opera'.
                  (A royal waistline)

And while Queen Isabel II's subjects probably included commuters taking a subway ride, most of them probably ignore her quiet presence. But that day, one tourist became her curious subject, photographing and scrutinizing her statue. 

And something was not right, I thought. Her proportions were off! Ja-ja-ja!

I guess that's what I have learned all these years being an amateur photographer. I could easily spot what's not natural. If I could always spot a fake nose while walking around Seoul, spotting a fake waistline was easy. Queen Isabel II reigned from 1833 to 1868, and had I criticized her statue during those years, it probably cost me my head. Ja-ja-ja!

And by the time I was done admiring the queen's slim waistline, which bore no inflation from all the jamón ibérico, tapas, tartas (cakes) and bocadillos (sandwiches) she was served cada dia en su palacio, it was time for my own tummy to be filled.

I decided on a restaurant, and not just a bocadillo shop. Just like the queen, I had to be served. After all, there were 13 Spanish kings bearing my name; I crowned myself as the fourteenth. Ja-ja-ja!
(I wanted to order one plate of paella, but the waiter told me that the serving was too much for one person. Instead, he served me sliced tomatoes in Arbequinian oil and sprinkled with Maldon salt, bread and a mix of chorizo ibérico with Machego cheese. He didn't trust I could finish one paella.)

   (I asked Señor Paulo the marca(brand 
      of his delicious chocolate and vanilla
          ice cream; he didn't know.) 

The I reached Plaza de Oriente with a heavy stomach, burping as I stood in awe in front of the magnificent galloping statue of King Philip IV. The statue of the monarch riding a galloping horse was a tricky project. Its designer, Pietro Tacca, was worried that the statue would fall, considering that only the horse's two hind legs would be supporting the statue. But the Father of Modern Physics, Galileo Galilee, came to the rescue and calculated the weight distribution and design. He suggested that the elevated portion should be hollow, while the lower end should be solid, giving support to the whole elegant statue. I figured they had to consult the most famous physicist at that time, considering the king would also have been ignoring his own weight management with all the jamon iberico and tapas buffet in the palace.
             (Physics problem: how to balance 
           King Philip IV and his galloping horse)

               (Admiring a royal architecture)

Plaza de Oriente was actually to the 'east' of the Royal Palace; hence 'oriente'. And by the time I was done admiring the statues and sculptures in the Plaza, it was late afternoon and the Palacio Real, with all its 2,800 rooms, was closed. I wasn't planning to go inside anyways; I might just encounter a Spanish ghost and even with my basic Spanish, I figured we might not be able to understand each other. Ja-ja-ja! 
(Abre la puerta! They wouldn't let me in the palacio.)

                     (Cathedral of Almudena)

As expected, the Royal Palace looked magnificent but I was more fascinated with the architecture of the Cathedral of Almudena, completed in 1883, situated across the palace. I got there just as the sun was setting, and with the lights of the Cathedral bathing it, the colors of the sunset and the church were matching each other!
      (Soft light and shadows always bring 
      out the beauty of any architecture)

                      *  *  *  *  *

Fernando Magallanes (Ferdinand Magellan) left Seville, Spain, in August 1519 and arrived in the Philippines in March 1521, after about 21 months.

And I expected these two Madrid postcards, which I sent through the post office at the basement of El Corte Inglés for €2 each to arrive at my postal address in the Philippines for less than the time it took Magellan.

Sadly, the two postcards never arrived. :-(

Saturday, 10 September 2016

The Real Madrid Breakfast: Churros con Chocoláte!

Tired from dragging my luggage from Korea to Turkey, and then to Spain, and having not been able to sleep well in Istanbul, I finally got a good night's sleep in Madrid at Señor Tomas's Hostal Las Fuentes.

And covering Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, Plaza España, Plaza de Oriente, Palacio Real and Almudena Cathedral from late afternoon till night added to the tiredness. I just had to squeeze in my visits to these places as I already lost a day due to Turkish Airline's delayed flight!

If a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, mine began with a delayed flight! Grrr!

So, after waking up at 8AM the next morning, I immediately opened my hotel window and looked up the Madrid skies. ¡Buenos dias! Time for churros con chocoláte desayuno (breakfast)!
      (Churros ready to be cut, served and enjoyed)

So, I just walked down a few alleys for about five minutes to Chocolatería San Gines, which was near the Church of San Gínes. This famous churros place is actually open 24 hours, but when I got there, I was the only one! I guess all the tourists in Madrid were still asleep!

"¡Hola! Churros con chocoláte, por favor!", I proudly blurted out to the señorita at the entrance, which was probably the same sentence the actual King Alfonso exclaimed when he sneaked out of the palace to visit this place in the early 20th century. 

I took a seat, surveyed the mirrors and black-and-white photographs on the walls, and convinced myself that I was not dreaming! I was finally in Spain and about to savor real churros with hot chocoláte! ¡Olé!

I read somewhere that churros were first created by shepherds who needed snacks when they went out in the plains centuries ago. But thanks to those shepherds, today, churrerias are scattered all over Spain to feed shepherds without any sheep.

My churros con chocolate cost me €3.90, and although I have always enjoyed tablea chocolate at home made by my mom, the hot chocolate in the churreria was so rich and thick that you could feel the drink slide down your esophagus and settle heavily in your stomach! Que rico!

      (By the time I was done, San Gines was full!)

Aside from Chocolateria San Gines, I also visited its equally popular competition on the other side of the block, Chocolatería Los Artesanos 1902. But Los Artesanos have more variety of pastries compared with San Gines.
     (Señor churrero frying sus churros)

On the succeeding mornings in Madrid, I went to San Gines and had cafe con leche, pestiños and flor. Pestiños and flor are crunchy, sweet fritters popular in the Andalucian region of Spain. I decided I might as well enjoy all other breakfast goodies in the neighborhood.

        (Cafe con leche, pestiños y flor)

When the shepherds during the old Spanish times created a batter and fried them into snacks, they might not have thought that, one day, the snacks they created would also bring such enjoyment, not just to the generations of Spanish families, but also to one tourist, who made his way through the alleys of Madrid and was welcomed with a cup of hot chocoláte and a plateful of churros!

Friday, 9 September 2016

The Real Madrid: Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol y Bocadillos De Jamon!

Visiting Spain has always been in my mind ever since those Spanish classes during college became my favorite subjects. ¿Por que? Why? Because having been under Spanish rule for centuries, Filipinos, I thought, would have an easier time learning and speaking Spanish. It turned out, it wasn't always the case. Not all my classmates were thrilled when the teacher gave out quizzes during our Spanish classes. Ja-ja-ja!

And even after college, I made sure I wasn't going to forget my Spanish. My high grades and exemptions from the final exams were not going to the basura. So, when I finished my Level 12 French at Alliance Francaise de Manille, I enrolled at Instituto Cervantes in Manila to review my español. And it paid off!

Yes, my spanish professors (Señores Sua-an y Billanes, y Señora Garde) in college and at Instituto Cervantes (Señora Lola Lazaro!) would have been proud! I was able to navigate 2,100 kilometers of Spain over 11 days armed with my confident español y una mapa de toda España

Although the first leg of my journey (Incheon Airport to Istanbul-Ataturk Airport) to Spain was riddled with disappointments, I tried to forget it once I was up in the air en route to Madrid.

Arriving at Madrid Barajas Airport, I was a bit worried about my ruined tour plan because the two-hour delay of Turkish Airlines flight made me lose a day in Spain! But I just had to carry on. Well, it's the reality of travelling; sometimes, you just have to brush aside delays and disappointments that weren't part of your itinerary.

Hostal Las Fuentes
About two months before I flew, I studied Madrid's geography and decided to book at Hostal Las Fuentes because, one, it was at the city center and was close to tourist sites, and, two, it had reasonable rates. Señor Tomas, the owner, was very helpful and even told me about the history of the whole building, part of which serves as his hotel. 
Hostal Las Fuentes was on Calle de las Fuentes, which is about eight minutes by foot from the royal palace. He told me that the building used to house those who worked at the royal palace, such as palace officials, writers and even prostitutes who catered to the 'royal needs'! Yikes! When he told me that, I immediately regretted I asked him about the building's history. I suddenly worried whether 'one' actually stayed in my room! Ja-ja-ja! 

Plaza Mayor
I got to the hotel mid-afternoon, and after checking in, I wasted no time and walked towards Plaza Mayor as my first stop. Plaza Mayor is the main square built in 1620. It's a popular hangout for locals and tourists due to the cafes and restaurants around it. 

At Plaza Mayor, I asked for a Madrid map at the tourist information center. I then wandered around the alleys admiring the shops selling authentic spanish abanicos (some souvenir shops in Spain sell abanicos made in China) and shawls. 
                         (Spanish abanicos!)

I had to stop at a shop selling cookies and bocadillo de jamon (ham sandwich). Of course, I also had to order Coca-Cola fria (cold Coke)! 
         (Not-your-ordinary-ham sandwiches!)

Puerta del Sol
Puerta del Sol literally means 'gate of the sun', and this square is one of the most popular in Spain as this has been a place where people gather since the 15th century.
That day, tourists, street performers, vendors, and probably a few pickpockets crowded Puerta del Sol. As I was advised, I kept my wallet in a sling bag and was aware of it all the time. 

Even though the sights and activities during one's travel may occupy your attention, you should always be aware of your surroundings, and avoiding crowds is always a good precaution. 

I have to admit I almost got pickpocketed right along Calle Mayor! The two college-age female pickpockets were really quick! Luckily, they weren't able to get anything. I caught them and shouted "Hey!". And their ready response? "It was open!" Then they just casually walked away. They struck during the moment when I let my guard down. I learned a lesson. From then on, I was always careful.

                                                                          *  *  *  *  *
Next stop, churros con chocolate for breakfast!