Madrid. City, province, autonomous community.

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I’m just going to be flat-out honest. I do not like the city of Madrid. Part of the reason is while I like to visit big cities, living there is different. I did not have a good experience living there. I don’t like either football team (in fact, I downright hate Real Madrid with a passion that I will support any team or anything that is playing them.) I find that some (note SOME, not ALL, before the angry commenters come in) people in the city proper are everything they complain that the rest of Spain is (lazier than the andaluces, faker than the andaluces, stingier than the catalanes, colder than the Spanish from the north coast…). They pride themselves on being “open” but I found it next to impossible to find actual friends in the three years I had to call the city “home”. I never felt more than a tourist (another thing I don’t like), whereas both Valencia and Bilbao felt like home immediately. Madrid is a city that never sleeps, and although they don’t understand the comparasion, I find it to be a Spanish New York City. Tons of people and things to see and do, but unless you have a good group of friends and/or family by your side, you’re always going to feel like an outsider.

On the other hand, the people in the villages and small towns in the province/autonomous comunidad de Madrid are some of the most friendly, most open and charming people you will ever meet. The mountain villages north of the city are incredibly beautiful and offer a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the city that gives the province its name. Every chance I got, I went to visit a village near the city. I also worked in a village just south of the city (45 minute commute) in one of the best schools one could ever hope find. So I want to make clear that if I am complaining about Madrid, it is for the capital city and NOT the rest of the comunidad.

Madrid the city does offer a lot for visitors, I will admit. There is the Palacio Real, Parque Retiro, Museo de Prado, Museo de Reina Sofía, Parque de Oeste (so much better than Retiro), Templo de Debod, Gran Vía, Puerta del Sol and relaxing cafés con leche in Plaza Mayor. There are many barrios for partying. Chueca (for the gays pijos, or posh/snooty gays), La Latina (for everyone and more and more for the normal gays), Malasaña (the alternative barrio), or Huertas (for the tourists). The gardens at Atocha (the train station) are remarkable. The metro line, although always too crowded at any hour of day, will get you where you need to go.

However, I prefer off the beaten path. There could be Set Meravelles for the city, sure. (Gran Vía, Parque de Oeste, Chamberi Metro Station is a closed metro station that takes you to the past and only locals visit, Puerta del Sol, Prado, Gardens de Atocha, La Latina/Chueca/Malasaña, etc etc etc.) I’m going to suggest Set Meravelles outside the hustle and bustle of the city, the REAL Madrid, the places that will give an opportunity to escape the madness. Some of them are quite popular destinations already. Some of them aren’     t known to people who don’t live in Madrid. All of them are worth a visit.

Set Meravelles de la Comunidad de Madrid

La Pedriza

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La Pedriza is part of the Guadarrama mountains in the north of Madrid. It offers amazing hiking trails and scenery. It’s famous for its granite rock formations. I’ve been on several day trips here, and it’s located next to the village Manzanares el Real, which is amazing in its own right.

Manzanares el Real

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Speak of the devil. Manzanares is the gate to La Pedriza and a quaint village of 7000 inhabitants located about 45 minutes north of Madrid city. It has a well-preserved medieval castle. The first time I ventured here was on my 28th birthday. It wasn’t my last.

Chinchón

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Chinchón is a small village of around 5000 people located 50 kilometres (30 miles) southeast of Madrid, and it has a famous circular plaza where that infamous Spanish tradition of bullfighting takes place from time to time. It’s also famous for its chinchón anis and a castle now closed to the public. It’s a great getaway from the city.

Pantano de San Juan

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The “beach” of Madrid. The Pantano de San Juan is located next to the village of San Martín de Valdeiglesias an hour or so southwest of Madrid and is a reservoir with beautiful scenery. It’s popular with families, and in certain areas, popular with naturists (I.E. there is a nudist part away from the families). It’s the closest you’re going to get to the beach in Madrid. It’s the only reservoir (embalse) that allows swimming in the entire Comunidad de Madrid.

Alcalá de Henares

Someone was an idiot and has no photos of the small city of Alcalá de Henares, which is 35 kilometres or 22 miles northeast of Madrid on the way to Guadalajara . I always meant to go back, but never got around to it. It is famous because it’s the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, he who doth wrote that great novel Don Quixote. It’s also the biggest city in Madrid outside Madrid. It also has a university and a population of white storks.

El Escorial

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El Escorial is a monastery in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a village of 18,000 people located 48 km/28 miles north of Madrid and is quite well connected with the capital by bus and Cercanías trains. Felipe II was the one responsible for its construction, which took many, many, many years. It is a World Heritage site with 500,000 annual visitors. I do agree with the popularity as it is amazing architecture, and the village is pretty damn cool itself.

Patones de Arriba

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 A village of less than 400 people located 60 KM (36 miles) north of Madrid, Patones is one of the coolest places I have seen in my life. It’s not well-communicated by public transport (you’ll have to get up extra early to catch the bus, but it is worth the effort to get here. The village is unique because it is constructed almost entirely from black slate, and to enter, you have to park the car outside the village and walk a few metres. It’s a popular day trip for the madrileños, but very few people outside the natives even know about it. It’s one of the best kept secrets. Sorry for spilling.

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The joys of hostels.

Once upon a time, I used to stay in youth hostels as they were a cheap way to travel. I didn’t let that cheesy horror flick from the early 00s deter me. However, as I’ve grown older, I’d prefer to pay a couple of euros more and have the privacy and tranquility of my own room. (And in Spain, it’s not that hard to find a cheap pensión or “hostal” (hostel is “albergue”, false friends) After a couple of horror stories, one can imagine why. As I prepare for the Camino de Santiago del Norte from Santander next summer, I am somewhat apprehensive  about the albergues after some of my experiences.

Most of the time, things are fine and people are somewhat normal. They tend to be young university students who are looking to party or interesting older folks who want to see the world in a cheaper way. One of the better experiences I had was in Santiago where I met a guy about my age (I was 27 at the time) who was traveling to see the world, and we went out and had drinks and enjoyed the night. The same happened a few months later in Madrid with a French guy who spoke flawless English and Spanish. In Mallorca the following year, on my worst holiday ever, I met a Brasilian guy living in London who tried his best to seduce me. I turned him down, but we did go out that night. I was so angry I was the only one in the group who knew Spanish and who wanted to meet, you know, locals. Wherever I travel, I am always wanting to meet locals and learn more about the place than I am other tourists.

This spring, I returned to staying in hostels due to Ireland being super duper expensive and a bunk bed in a shared room is more expensive than a private room with a private bath in most Spanish cities. I met some friendly people, but I was on Spanish time (meaning I woke up way too early despite Ireland only being an hour earlier than peninsular time). The hostel in Cork was located a good 20-minute walk from the centre of town, and being there on a weekday meant there was absolutely nothing going on. In Dublin, I shared a room with someone who worked there and an Indian guy who was awake no matter what the time was and on his laptop even more than me. No big problems.

In Pamplona, there was hardly anyone at the hostel except angry German pilgrims doing the Camino Frances who did not understand the Spanish, English and German on their e-mail stating in bold letters that if you cancel a reservation the day of, you will be charged the full night. This is standard procedure in most places in Spain if not Europe. By failure to cancel, the hotel/albergue/pensión misses out on selling a bed, and they need that money in times of crisis. I tried to help explain what the desk clerk was saying in Spanish, and they went off on ME for taking their side about something that had been previously said. The customer is not always right. Lucky for me, the only other person in the room I was in was a madrileño, who in typical madrileño style, did not understand why I ever left Madrid for Bilbao and slept late, missing his important doctoral class he was in town for in the first place.

Another fun time was when I was in Barcelona and went into the kitchen to fill my water bottle and got screamed at by an American “DON’T DRINK THE WATER!” Apparently she thought as Spain speaks Spanish that the water must be like Mexican water and carries with it Montezuma’s revenge. After asking if there was a boil advisory or something, which can happen anywhere, and the girl shrugging saying “You don’t ever drink water in Spain!” I went ahead and filled it up and drank it in front of her. Another American who, like me, lives in Spain rolled her eyes at the tourist and asked me about Valencia versus Barcelona. By the way, I was fine drinking the water. The water from the Mediterranean cities can be a bit hard so many people prefer bottled water, but it is perfectly safe to drink.

In Amsterdam at the age of 21, I just remember the shower leaking through the entire room and me spending as much time as possible outside the hostel.

My first hostel experience was in Barcelona that same year, at 21. It slept about 20 to a room for 10 Euros or so a night. The desk clerk was horrible and unfriendly, and they still had lock outs. So I slept about 2 hours when I arrived at 7 am, and that second night I was nearly pickpocketed and robbed on the Ramblas. Don’t ever walk alone on the Ramblas at night. Now that I’ve spent more time in Barcelona than any other Iberian city that I have not lived in, I just avoid the Ramblas all together.

The best story, and by best I mean HORRIBLE, DISGUSTING, SO BAD IT HAS BEEN FICTIONALIZED IN MY SECOND NOVEL…happened in Rome when I was 26. It was my first Christmas in Europe, first Christmas away from my mom, and I was traveling through Italia for the occasion. I was staying at a pretty famous hostel in Rome. I believe it was the 26th or 27th, my last night in the city. I had seen all the tourist sites and even saw the Pope give Midnight Mass on the 24th. I was tired and ready to go on to my next destination, Milan. At about 5 in the morning, I was suddenly awoken by a drunk guy stumbling in. A few seconds later, there was screaming from the others in the room. WHAT THE **** ARE YOU DOING??

What was he doing? Why mistaking suitcases and the floor for a urinal, of course!

We all rushed downstairs to complain to the desk clerk, who did her best to calm us down as they sent someone to clean the room. When everything was clean, I considered myself lucky that all my stuff had survived the night dry. However, the guy had absconded with some of my rings and bracelets. A small price to pay.

Of course, this is the one experience that sticks with me most about nights staying in hostels…

As the Spanish say, mejor estar solo que mal acompañado.

What are your most memorable, for better or for worse, hostel/albergue experiences? Are they a nightmare for you, or do you love them?

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