The Reina Sofia Museum in Spain, Retiro Park, and Toledo

The Reina Sofia is the second big Madrid museum after El Prado. They have many famous Spanish works by Picasso, Dalí, and Miró. Try to imagine looking at Picasso Guernica and then turing around and seeing 3rd of May by Goya. We also saw some interesting modern sculpture. The layout was manageable, brochure helpful, and staff friendly.

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Retiro Park is a humongous Spanish park. A meaty lake in the middle of the park (like SF’s Stowe Lake) anchors tree lined paths, grass fields (40 pushups), and thus endless running options. A two hour run cleared my mind from the museum overload.

For dinner we dined with a business friend of a friend, which I will discuss on my main blog later.

On our last day in Spain we took a day trip to Toledo, a one-hour bus ride from Madrid. It has a cathedral and some views. Nothing too special. Probably more exciting for people who get a high off medieval towns. The waiter fucked up our bill at lunch — again. I’m starting to think it’s intentional!Toleda

Spain is a wonderful country. Madrid is better than Barcelona unless you’re a crazy partying young person who wants to lie on the beach all day. The small towns probably have a lot of culture, too, worthy of further exploration if I had more time.

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El Prado Museum and Spanish Bullfight

Our first full day in Madrid we focused on two items: the Prado musuem and a bullfight.

The Prado museum is among the premier in the world, with a variety of famous works by Goya and Valazquez. We enjoyed free Sunday admission and I bought an audioguide to help enjoy such stunners as Las Mensinas. Though crowded, the layout was logical and staff helpful. As with all my museum visits so far, my experience has been a mix of old art history class knowledge that, somehow, still exists in my head, and new perspective and appreciation. The quality of the audioguide can really make a difference to a largely ignorant art spectator. The Prado guide contained the right amount of detail for me and made it easy to choose which paintings to stand in front of for a few minutes versus just pass by.Lasmensinas Audioguide

In the evening we headed to the famous Madrid bullfighting arena Plaza de Toros. I will admit upfront that I had mixed emotions about going to a bullfight. I’m not a big rah-rah-rah animal rights person — and I like eating meat — but the thought of violently killing a bull to 50,000 cheers didn’t appeal to me. The Madrid collisium is in its own right a beautiful setting. An old, red brick exterior and stone seating throughout the interior (think Roman coliseum). The atmosphere was surprisingly sober; I expected hooligan crowds, jeering, alcohol, etc. Far from it. The event started promptly at 9 PM with all people involved parading out and engaging in a very ritualized introduction which is described on the Wikipedia Bullfighting page (along with all other relevant details). Then, the first bull came tearing out and the matadores jumped out from their protective walls and waved pink flags at the bull. This lasted for a few minutes. Then, with the bull tired, a man on a horse entered the ring, baited the bull, and at the right time stabbed the bull in the back with a massive spear. Here, blood starts gushing from the bull. (I looked away during most of this — truly disgusting.) Then various other matadores came out and essentially just fucked with the bull, showing off their skill in avoiding injury. None of the humans got hurt. Finally, a couple assistants stab the bull with long knives that don’t come out and then the main matador stabs him with a sword. By this time the bull is gushing blood, squealing noise, and all the matadores then waves all their flags to confuse it (ie it doesn’t know which direction to charge). The bull collapses, the crowd cheers, and a man comes out and cuts off its ear, attaches a poll to its head, and it’s dragged off by horses. All in all, this happens six times in a row for two hours.Bull

Bull2 I’m not a fan. It was definitely fun to be in the scene but I didn’t see much "culture" to make up for the utter cruelty and violence. The man sitting next to me, I learned, has been coming to bullfights for over 50 years. He comes every Sunday all year, and every night during the two months of the year when it’s a daily show. Whew.

After the bullfight Austin and I went to an outdoor cafe in Plaza Mayor, drank Sangria, and I ate a Spanish tortilla (a small cake-like, flour-filled munchable). A lovely setting.

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Welcome to the Spanish Capital of Madrid

We arrived in Madrid late afternoon and walked to the hostel. Our joint knowledge of Spanish helped us check in flawlessly while aiding fellow travelers unable to communicate with the woman who runs this place. I must say being able to speak the tongue — even in a somewhat haphazard way — is making my experience in Spain much more rewarding.

"Life is about tradeoffs" is a mantra I live by, and our hostel is no exception. Pros: free wi-fi and an elevator. Cons: no fan or AC (in Madrid) and a sporadic shower/bathroom facility.Meonledge

We ate lunch at 4 PM — oh no, does this mean I’m now on Spanish time? Shit! — and I had only two criteria: something quick and something cold. It follows, then, that I ordered paella. Something that takes long and is steaming hot. The waitress was nice but had a serious mathematics problem. She first orally said, "20 euros" (or whatever it was). I said, "Let me see the bill." In Europe they give the bill and then wait there expecting you to pay right away without examining the charges. This has been annoying — in Barcelona we asked for "dos minutos" and the waitress was shocked. Upon examination we noticed a mis-billing. She acknowledged the error. We gave her a 50 euro bill. A few minutes later she came back with the change. She fucked up the change. "Where’s the receipt?" She had thrown it away! Really smart: she had already messed up the original bill and then threw it away before delivering the change. We ultimately resolved the issue and warned some Australian girls who sat down next to us to be careful.

In the evening we wandered out to Plaza de Sol — "all roads in Spain lead to Plaza de Sol". It’s beautiful, totally authentic, some tourists but mostly locals, it seemed. A real cosmopolitan feel. We walked past a blood donation bus parked front and center in the plaza. Not only was the location bizarre, but the patients giving blood were lying down in cots right by the window. So pedestrians walk past expansive windows peering into squeamish people with needles in their arm. An interesting public spectacle! We also popped into a church and caught the tail end of a service. Austin and I debated whether we should go for communion — free bread and wine is hard to pass up — but decided not to. Hearing the choir sing Spanish was cool.

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We walked a little farther and bumped into the Museo de Jamon, a restaurant — er, "museum" — highly recommended by a guy we met in an Irish pub in Barcelona. The place is a real trip. Endless ham hanging from all the walls. More dead animals concentrated in a public eating place than anywhere else I bet. The food was fine (free water!), the ambience hip. A good choice.

It was 10 PM and we continued walking near Plaza de Sol and stumbled upon another nice treat: a huge concert and pep rally for Colombian immigrants to Spain. The plaza was packed with people, a band was on the stage, and Colombian flags omnipresent. Viva Colombia! was a frequent chant. Of course, these people chose to live in Spain! Austin and I sat down at a nearby table and got into a conversation with a Bolivian couple who immigrated to Spain. They had vaguely heard of California and weren’t certain where in the world it was. "It’s in North America, right?" This was a real eye opener. I may have guessed this could come from someone across the world, but not someone from South America where so immigrate north. They immigrated to Spain for the wages. The man works construction, the woman hotel rooms. The woman asked, "Do you like George W. Bush?" We responded. I asked the man, "Do you like him?" He responded, "I don’t know. I’m Bolivian." I really liked this…instead of just digesting the popular position, he just says he doesn’t know.Colombia

Streets in Madrid are still packed at midnight as many people sit down for dinner then. The temperature at this hour was equivalent to an unusually warm San Francisco early afternoon. Not surprisingly, from midnight to 2 AM I couldn’t sleep; just sweat. I feel good about Madrid — it will be a fun few days.

At The Risk of Turning This Into a Porn Site…

Has not Austin gone overboard with candids? Can not a man take a nap in hot, hot Madrid without uploading his photos only to find himself half-naked on the screen?

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Final Two Days in Barcelona

After breakfast at Cafe Zurich, we spent our first full day in Barcelona seeing the major Gaudi stuff. We started at the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s most famous architectural creation that is still 20 years from completion. (Gaudi, Austin tells me, was run over by a tram but his architecture plans are still intact.) From the outside the church is stunning. After paying 5 euros to go inside I can say it was dissapointing. There are some pretty good views on the inside of the forest-like architectural style amidst all the construction and scaffolding and construction workers. A friend from San Francisco had told Austin that if we go to this Gaudi then we just have to climb to the top of one of the towers and get an amazing view. How wrong this turned out to be.

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To get to the top you can climb the stairs or take the lift. Before knowing about the stairs we simply waited in line for the lift (a 2 euro fee). We waited and after a few minutes decided against the idea of a 30 minute queue. We walked around to the other side, out of curiosity’s sake, and amazingly found another lift with a much much shorter line. Why the staff didn’t re-direct people from the other line to the shorter one is beyond me. Around the wall, though, lay the entrance to the stairs. Yay! Avoid the 2 euro fee and take advantage of our youthful energy and bulging calves. We started the trek up the narrow, dark, windy stairs. Up and up and up. Heart pounding, chest sweating. A little workout. We got to the "top" only to realize that stairs only go about 3/5 of the way up. WTF? Why wasn’t there a sign that said this? Everyone who went up the stairs was pissed and we all cursed in our respective native tongue. The view from our little 3/5 platform sucked. We walked all the way down the stairs to the bottom and re-queued for the lift. Austin and I took the proactive approach of warning each person before they headed for the stairs. The stairs attract a lot of go-getters but convincing them it was a scam was easier than I expected. Finally the lift took us to the top. The views were OK, but frankly, I’ve seen better. All that for this? Then we had to climb back down the stairs where we bumped into people going the wrong way and were caught behind a Japanese baby whose parents refused to pick him up and instead used the 300 steps in a claustrophic dark spiral staircase as his practice session for walking. About 15 seconds away from the bottom we hear a voice from a girl ahead of us: "It’s a dead end!" We all stop in our tracks. I turn to Austin and the Brit behind us: "No fucking way. This has been a total disaster." Austin cooly responded, "I’m sure there’s a door." Of course there was a door. The woman just didn’t think to open it.

Next up was Park Guedell, a Gaudi-designed urban park that would be a stunning place to hang out and read and walk if there weren’t so many tourists! To me, it seemed like a cross between an African desert, Thailand beach, and Palm Springs, CA boulevard (that’s right – I’ve never been to Africa or Asia, but I know my stereotypes). The only thing I remember from Park Guedell was my search for water and the immense satisfaction I took in finding a free fountain.Park

We bused over to the FC Barcelona soccer stadium, next. FC Barcelona is the City’s European club soccer team. Of course entrance to anything and everything costs money and weren’t about to throw down another 7-8 euros just to see a stadium or a musuem about the team. So instead we parked ourselves at a fast food sandwich place and hung out in the shade until 2 PM. Then the more cultured and art inclined Austin headed for some other musuems while I found a gym near the hostel. Having been on the road for more than a month, my travel pace has slowed and I’m no longer able to do dawn to dusk tourism. My workout was noteworthy only for the Spanish girl working out next to the lat pulldown machine who did endless, and I mean endless, buttocks exercises and sure enough her shorts said in English "I’m doing this for YOU." Thank you?

For dinner we dined at an outdoor cafe where we both got Paella Mixta, a tasty seafood-esque Spanish dish Austin recommended. It was pricier than I would have liked and the without-a-tip-I-don’t-give-a-shit waiter didn’t provide a positive ambience, and the homeless person who approached our table with a plate asking for us to give him some food was a little unnerving, but all in all it was a good outdoors Spanish meal.

The next day Austin visited a Pacasso musuem while I hunted for a laundrymat, where I met an American family from Texas whose Dad got a job in Qatar in oil and now they live there for four years. We spent the afternoon on the crowded but gorgeous Barcelona beach where the sun was aplenty, water quite warm, and mood of the beachgoers upbeat. Four hours later we heard thunder and people started leaving — but for a few drizzles, the rain never came. As I write this on the train to Madrid, I can say Barcelona is a beatiful city with friendly people though not "stunning." I’m told Barcelona is an interesting contrast to Madrid, so I will write more on the two cities after spending several days in Madrid.Treesbeach Onbeach

Night Train to Barcelona and Exploring the City

10:30 PM. San Sebastian, Spain. Waiting for my first overnight train of the trip. Sitting across me from in the waiting area is a guy who looks like the worst possible crossbreed of Hitler, Fidel Castro, and Santa Claus. He scared the shit out of me and I prayed he wouldn’t be on my train. He wasn’t.

The train arrived late (this isn’t Switzerland or Germany) and after boarding I spent the next four hours trying not to fall asleep. The first leg of the overnight was in a regular seat thus my bags weren’t secured. I listened to an audiobook and some music. At 2:05 AM we pulled into Burgos, Spain, I fought my way through drunk old men blocking the door, and jumped out into the deserted railway station.Trainstation

The only other inhabitants at this hour in Burgos were two Chicago 20-somethings who’ve been on the road for a month. Except, they looked like student backpackers. We chatted. They’ve been sleeping in random hostels, parks, hills, beaches, vans. They had big beards and dirty feet. Nice guys, for sure, but I discovered that they are real student backpackers. I’m an entrepreneur and blogger who happens to be wearing a backpack. I’ve had the luxury of avoiding hostels (until Spain), I’ve been meeting people according to a schedule, and when necessary, I’ve checked into a low priced hotel. The whole student backpacker look of one-too-many-showers-in-a-communal-bathroom and never-plan-ahead-part-of-the-fun-is-the-crazy-stories-of-sleeping-on-beach don’t jibe with me.

Anyway, the night train bound for Barcelona arrived, I boarded, and navigated to my car. The conductor opened the locked door and I found six bunk beds, with one open. I climbed the ladder into the middle bunk on the right side, threw my big backpack behind the ladder and kept my small daypack (with laptop!) at my side on my bunk bed. The bed was soft, with a pillow and blanket. The train roared away from the stop and as I lay there, scrunched up on my little bunk bed, I took pleasure in the exotic nature of the trip. I fell asleep and woke up throughout the night and was awoken for good at around 7 AM when the conductor opened our door and woke up one of the passengers whose stop it was. I groaned from my bunk, "Cuantas horas a Barcelona?" He responded, "Dos horas y media."

At the Barcelona stop a weary, sleep-deprived, unshowered Ben stumbles into the train station. New destination: Hostal Centric to meet my close friend from school Austin. I must admit I couldn’t wait to meet him. I’ve been living out of a backpack for a month knowing virtually no one; I’ve stayed with new friends and friends of friends but no one who I have known already (outside of a week in Germany w/ my Mom).

An hour later I opened the door to our clean, surprisingly professional hostel room and found Austin waiting. We were both exhausted — he from his flight from San Francisco and me from the overnight train and just generally being on the road for a hell of a long time. Throughout the course of the day our sense of place and time detoriated to dangerous levels. In any event, it was great to meet him and we set out by foot to explore the main street – La Rumbla – in Barcelona, said to be the most famous street in Spain. We walked along the waterfront, explored different side streets, and just generally take in this supposedly un-Spanish city by the ocean.Both_us_wter

But I was distracted by something else: food. I hadn’t eaten since 7 PM the previous night. I had gone from 7 PM to 1:30 PM on nothing but a Cliff Bar. This may be the longest time I’ve ever gone without a meal in my life. Oddly enough after awhile my hunger simply dissapated, and the objects in front of me turned to mush and I focused on left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot.

We lay in the park, checked out the famous cathedral in Barcelona, watched some break dancers, searched for water (a Herculian task) and then walked back to an All-You-Can-Eat Buffet for dinner. I spotted one on our walk and told Austin we had to eat there. I was shocked such a concept existed in Europe (first one I’ve seen) and was ready to do some serious carbo loading. The food was good, filling, and I sneaked out a couple bananas and fruit for our room.

¡Hasta luego!

One Picture is in Berlin. The Other in San Sebastian. Can You Tell Which is Which?

One city embraces the ball and hoop with gusto, the other leaves the net in shambles.
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Days 29 and 30: San Sebastian, Spain

This leg of my trip is noteworthy for it did *not* entail: planning.

As I prepared for my trip, many friends and blog readers told me, "Don’t over plan! Give yourself flexibility! Let yourself change your mind on the road! Enjoy it!" I decided to listen to these people to an extreme the past few days, and generally am happy I only decided to implement such advice for this short leg.

I had a plane ticket from Rome to Santander, Spain and nothing else. I had a night train in three days reserved. That meant I had 2.5 days and 2 nights when I’d have to figure my shit out on-the-fly. It’s definitely do-able if you’re that kind of person, but as someone who likes agendas and organization, it was a hassle.

I arrived in Santander, wandered over to the tourist desk, and asked in more words than these a very blunt question to the woman: "Give me an honest answer. Is it worth staying here in Santander for a night or should I just go to San Sebastian?" She vouched for Santander, but it didn’t convince me. I bought a bus ticket that left a couple hours later (buses are bigger than trains in Spain) and gobbled down a late lunch at a wi-fi equipped cafe.

Sunday evening I set foot in San Sebastian: a) I had no map, b) I knew nothing about the city, c) I had no hotel/hostel reservation, d) I had no phone, e) I had no contacts. So there, plan-ahead naysayers, are you happy now?!  Such circumstances led me to start a search for a low-cost hotel by foot. There was a fancy looking place across the street from the bus depot. I inquired on a price, deemed it too expensive, but took note of the ballmark as a benchmark. I then wandered the streets of San Sebastian for a full hour. I had a hard time finding anything amidst the heavy crowds of old people (it’s a hot getaway beach resort town), let alone a place that had a room. Everything booked, or either too disgusting or too fancy. Hungry, tired, thirsty, and low on sleep from the night before, I trekked back to Fancy Hotel by Bus Depot and bit the bullet.
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Upon checking into my room, I immediately became enamored by the ammenities that awaited me. The bathroom was stocked with "bath milk" (in addition to bath gel, shampoo, and other standards), after-shave cream, and other goodies. It even came with a super-zoom shaving mirror, something I didn’t even know existed until I had "The Best Shave of My Life" in Cologne, Germany.

The next morning I discovered the true gastronomic Spanish treat — Tapas. At least I think I was eating Tapas. A "bar" (the kind that serves alcohol) had instead a smorgasboard of various finger foods, but about 200 times better than conventional American cocktail hour finger food. Simply wonderful food. These are scattered all throughout San Sebastian.

The rest of my morning was searching for a cheaper hotel; I found one through the tourist office, moved in, and then had the afternoon to actually explore what San Sebastian is all about, namely beaches and quant streets. I lay on the beach for a couple hours. I love beaches, but dealing with the sand afterwards is a real bitch.
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I walked around "old town." You know — all "old towns" in Europe are starting to look the same. (Same with churches and cathdrals.) At around 5 PM I opened up my laptop to do some offline work and discovered, much to my great joy, that this less-expensive hotel had free wi-fi. This may not sound like a lot, but for me it’s among life’s greatest feelings. I anxiously caught up on all the backlogged emails, blogging, and the like. Most of the trip I’ve had to do pay wi-fi, and every time I do so, I get drenched in sweat as I see the clock tick and knowing I’m paying $.12/hour. (My partner Dave told me on Skype last night that this is an irrational reaction, and I respond that we are irrational beings.)

Today I slept in, went for a run on the beach, checked out of my hotel at noon, and the rain promptly came down in bucketfulls to destroy any attempt at a "relaxing walk around town" in the afternoon. Thus, I’ve been confined to the dry lobby of this hotel where I am still enjoying the free wi-fi (yes, it actually is — ok, was — raining, I’m not in here just to use the web).

My night train leaves tonight for Barcelona. Will I be able to go to sleep, or will paranoia about someone stealing my shit not let me? We shall see.

Call CTU San Sebastian NOW

I’m sitting in Rome Ciampino airport. I notice a young woman near me in the terminal because she’s reading The Kite Runner, an excellent book. She also looks American.

I go to stand in line at the gate. I’m first in line because I’m intent on boarding first and getting exit row. (Little did I know I was first in line for the shuttle to go to our waiting plane in the middle of a runway…these no-frills airlines do it their own way…) This same young woman gets out of her seat 10 minutes later and stands behind me in line, #2.

We land in Santander, Spain, an unremarkable town with a little airport. I head off to the tourism desk to figure out how to get to San Sebastian. I get a ticket to a bus that leaves in a couple hours, so to kill the time grab lunch at a cafe that happens to have free wi-fi (what luck!).

I board the bus to San Sebastian in the afternoon. Wouldn’t you know it, this young lady is also on this bus. The same bus as me going to the same small town in Spain coming from the same small town in Spain!

After arriving in San Sebastian I don’t see her again. We go our separate ways. Until….today….on the beach. It seems we both “settled down” in San Sebastian for a couple days and both happened to pick the same beach for an afternoon tanning session. Yes, after rolling out my towel, there’s the woman, still reading Kite Runner, sitting only a stone’s throw away.

Look, I believe in randomness, but is this too weird? Yes. I need CTU San Sebastian NOW! Jack Bauer help me! I don’t want to talk to her because that may tip her off and she’ll instead send some other agent (or crazed blog reader?) to follow me who I won’t recognize.

I should note that while writing this post I was IM’ing with my fearless mentor Brad Feld, whose advice was, “Don’t forget, you’re bigger than them.” He is right about that. If I see this chick tomorrow on my night train to Barcelona, I’m going to ask no questions and just go Chuck Norris on her.