Travel log Spain: day five, Granada and Alhambra

The previous day and evening I had done a lot of moving around, so I was content to start the day slowly. After my visit to Mirador San Nicolás the evening before, I had returned to my room at the guesthouse where I finished the cheese bocadillo purchased that morning in Madrid, drank a beer, and then went to bed.

I slept deeply and long in the little cave-like alcove where the bed was located. Follow this link to see the room I inhabited at el Numero 8 to see what I mean about the bedroom. It was quiet and dark and very comforting, not claustrophobic at all despite the lack of windows. I slept until nearly 10 am, which is very unusual for me. When I finally got up I made some instant coffee and breakfast, then started reviewing my guidebook’s thorough information on Alhambra in preparation for my visit later that afternoon. I took a break in my planning to wash a load of laundry and hang it out to dry. Finally at around noon I filled my water bottle, packed a few more snacks (another piece of fruit, some nuts) and left the room to get on about the day.

In order to manage the flow and impact of the numerous people who visit Alhambra every year, there are strict rules about entering the Alhambra grounds. When an entrance ticket is purchased, a time to enter the Nasrid palaces — the jewel of the Alhambra complex of buildings — is chosen by the purchaser or assigned by the tour operator. I had chosen an entry time of 15:30 (3:30 pm) because that block didn’t seem quite as full at the time I purchased my ticket online a few weeks before leaving Chicago.

Since I had an afternoon entry for the palaces, the entry rules further dictate that the earliest I could enter the grounds was 14:00. The guidebook recommended entering the grounds at least 30 minutes before the time on the palace ticket as there was a long walk from the grounds entrance to the palace entrance. It was further recommended that the other aspects of the Alhambra complex — the fort or alcazaba, the Generalife gardens, and the palace of Charles V — be visited before the Nasrid palaces, if possible.

I had retrieved my ticket and scoped out the entrance the day before, so I had a some piece of mind about how long it would take me to get up to the entrance and no worries about getting stuck in a long ticket line. When I left my guesthouse at noon, I had plenty of time to catch the bus, so I decided to spend an hour viewing some of Granada’s other sites first.

It’s not hard to spot the cathedral around which the oldest (Christian) parts of town are centered, so I headed down a street along the backside of the cathedral in search of the main plaza. Along the way, I stopped to buy some tea from an outdoor vendor with a huge selection of loose teas and herbs. Several of my friends like tea so I thought it would make a good souvenir. (I wish I had thought to take a photo of the beautiful and fragrant booth!) I stumbled into the Plaza Pescadaria first, then finally into the big Plaza Bib-Rambla. (Passing the first of several yarn stores I noticed in southern Spain!)

Sculpture in Plaza Pescadaria, Granada

Sculpture in Plaza Pescadaria, Granada

I made my way to a stop for the Alhambra bus at about 13:00, and made it to the entrance at 14:00 as planned. After entering through the checkpoint and splurging on an audioguide, I started the walk through the grounds towards the main sights.

I was hungry for lunch now and had not packed much to eat besides a KIND bar and an apple that I’d already consumed. My guidebook noted that there were few places to eat inside the Alhambra grounds, but it did mention that one of the restaurants had good sandwiches for takeout. Unfortunately this proved to be incorrect information, and my only other restaurant choice was an even more expensive one at the parador on site. I had a little over 20€ on me, and while I did have a credit card I didn’t want to splurge on an expensive (and lengthy) lunch. (Plus I had to surrender my photo ID when I rented the audioguide, and since using a credit card would require a photo ID I would have problems.)

Like many other suckers, then, I was left with no choice but to buy a sandwich from a vending machine for my lunch. First I had to break my 20€ bill, though, and I was glad to visit a vendor selling chips and packaged snacks to do just that. I took my bag of chips and vending machine sandwich (salmon salad on the Spanish equivalent of Wonder bread) to a bench in the sun and enjoyed the surroundings, at least.

The Alhambra is just stunning. It’s an overwhelming feast for the eyes and senses, which makes it a great challenge to write about and to share with photography.

The Wine Gate, Alhambra

The Wine Gate, Alhambra

It’s also nearly always packed with people, so it’s hard to get a clear shot of the amazing architecture. (Although at times it’s good to have some people in the photo to show the scale, such as in the photo above.)

After my lunch I entered the Charles V palace for a bit, but I had no time to visit the the museums housed inside. Despite getting to the grounds 90 minutes early, I only had 30 minutes left before my ticketed entrance time for the Nasrid palaces of 15:30. I wandered back out of the Charles V palace thinking I may be able to quickly visit the fort, but with such a short period of time open I decided instead to refresh myself with a small glass of cerveza.

Once I was through the checkpoints and in the palace I went a bit camera crazy. The details in the architecture were just so fascinating to me. I had little sense of time passing as I wandered the complex taking photo after photo. It was impossible for me to capture the fine details on the ceilings with my little point and shoot camera, yet I tried to do so over and over. I took photos of door hardware and tilework, too. My photo collection from the Nasrid Palaces is a mix of macro and micro.

The famous Court of the Lions was blocked off for restoration, but the beautiful Court of Lindaraja was a fine sight.

Court of Lindaraja

Court of Lindaraja

And then, you’re done. It seems rather unceremonious to wander outside the walls into a garden area with no discernible exit to the rest of the grounds. (Not just unceremonious, but potentially inconvenient, too. I overheard one woman go off on her husband/partner: “Stop f*cking with your camera and help me find the way out of here!” I was desperate for the restroom at this point, yet not in a meltdown, at least! And, yes, she was speaking American English so it was very easy for me to understand her.)

After I found the way out, too, and visited a restroom I noticed that the grounds were pretty empty at this point. It was near 17:00 and I needed to turn my audioguide back within an hour, but I had yet to visit the fort, so quickly made my way to the entrance. Perched at the very end of the high peninsula of the Alhambra, the fort has spectacular views. But that’s about all it has.

Opposite view

An opposite view: looking at Mirador San Nicolas from the Alhambra fort

It was interesting to see all the people gathering at Mirador San Nicolás from the other side, but there wasn’t much else to admire. I was in and out of the fort in about 15 minutes, then made my way back to where I entered Alhambra. Instead of riding the crowded bus back down into town, I instead walked the tranquil Cuesta de los Chinos path just outside the walls, ending up next to the small remains of the Rio Darro.

I had been walking a lot, so I felt no guilt in catching the bus up into the Albaicín quarter, where I stopped at the small market to buy a bottle of red wine and a green pepper, and was gifted with some fresh bread rolls by the proprieter. Back at the guesthouse I made a small tapas plate of sauteed green pepper, cheese, and the fresh bread rolls with some wine. (Why didn’t I note anything from the wine label? It was a local red and it was delicious.) I took my plate up to the rooftop terrace to relax and enjoy the last of the sunshine.

Then I heard the guesthouse host talking with someone in English and met the newest occupant, another single woman traveler from the U.S. We chatted for a few minutes and then parted as she went to unpack and I took my morning laundry off the clotheslines and down to my room. But she and I met up again and made plans to go to dinner that night.

One of the things that had concerned me about taking this trip by myself was that I would feel lonely at night, and especially during the evening meal. I was excited to have dinner with another person, and it seemed even better than she was an American woman traveling solo, too. I imagined we could swap tips and stories with each other and have a fun time.

The actual event was OK, but it also made me realize what I had avoided by traveling on my own: all the negotiations involved in doing something with another person. We had to decide what time to dine, what sort of food to eat, where to eat, and how much we wanted to spend. After all those things were figured out we wound up at a “Moroccan” restaurant at the edge of the Albaicín where we had a fairly expensive meal. Well, at least I had some leftovers.

By the time dinner was over it was drizzling pretty steadily and the walk back to the guesthouse across slippery cobblestones was treacherous enough that I was glad to have drunk nothing stronger than lemonade with dinner. We parted ways at our respective rooms and I settled in for another quiet, restful night in my snug room.

Spending summary
Food: 34,20€ (vending machine lunch, groceries, and expensive dinner)
Transit: 2,40€ (local bus)
Entertainment: 18€ (Alhambra admission plus audioguide)
Souvenirs: 17€ (tea and a small item at Alhambra)

Travel log Spain: day four, Madrid to Granada

I was up very early (5:00 am! on a vacation!) to begin my journey to Granada from Madrid. I needed to walk from the hostal to the subway and transfer subway lines once to get to the Estacion Sur bus terminal. From there I would board a bus for the 4.5 hour trip to Granada.

Granada is just not an easy place to get to. In preparing for my vacation in Spain, I had researched the places I was interested in visiting and Granada was a city that I wanted to be in very badly. This small but historically important city is connected to the other major cities in Spain by train, but the high-speed line doesn’t extend there so getting to Granada from Madrid was going to take four to five hours no matter what form of transportation I used. I had actually extended what was originally going to be a 10 day vacation to 12 days just so I could fit in a couple days in Granada, plus the travel time to get to and from there.

In determining my best transportation option, I decided to take the bus instead of the train because there were more buses a day to chose from and the price was several euros less. The major bus line serving that region, Alsa, had also recently introduced a service on this route called Supra which was supposed to offer a restroom, wider seats, power ports, and WiFi on the bus. For much less than the train, it sounded like I would have better amenities, so I booked a seat on the Alsa Supra route before I left Chicago.

When I left the hostal at 6:30 am it was still dark. I used the 10-ride Madrid Metro ticket to enter the subway and had a short, uneventful ride and transfer. Estacion Sur was “just above” the subway station, according to my guide book. As I left the station, I followed the signs pointing towards the exit for Estacion Sur and walked up the stairs to…a boulevard. There was a map just outside the exit showing some landmarks and the location of the station, but I was just not having any luck figuring out where the landmarks were in the pre-dawn dark. I dithered around the street a bit, then walked up the block to ask the only other person I could see out on the street, a sanitation worker, “¿Donde esta estacion sur?” After listening carefully to his long answer and observing his gestures, I proceeded in the direction he had indicated and was happy to see a well-lit station on the other side of the autopista ramp that had been blocking my view in the darkness.

My early day of confusion wasn’t over yet, though. While the station was an oasis of light and bustling with activity on this Monday morning, I was also having trouble figuring out where to board the bus. The terminals displaying destinations and departure times didn’t have anything resembling my Alsa Supra route on them. I didn’t want to wait in the long Alsa line just to inquire, and I had about 40 minutes before my departure so I decided to explore on my own. I took an escalator down to the bus boarding area and starting walking along, looking at the buses and the destinations listed on them. After a few minutes of searching I found a bus with Alsa on the side and a destination board marked Granada. A driver sat inside at the wheel, looking rather tired himself. I showed him the ticket I had purchased online in Chicago and printed at home. “¿Autobus à Granada?,” I inquired. He looked over the paper I handed him. “Sí.” Success!

The bus wouldn’t be boarding for a while, though, so I headed back up to the main terminal area for a few final preparations. While I had eaten my yogurt that morning and was carrying a few KIND and Larabars from home, I had passed a small sandwich shop and decided to get one for the road. A fairly large bocadillo made with a fresh loaf and cheese was only 3,80€ and great “insurance” against me getting hungry and cranky on the long ride. I also stopped at a restroom in the station; even though my bus was supposed to have a restroom on it, I didn’t want to take any chances. (That bus station restroom was the filthiest one I encountered while in Spain, and I was very glad to be carrying my own tissues, too.)

We boarded the bus about 15 minutes before departure, and then we were on our way. The Supra route didn’t hold up to all it promised: there were no power ports and the WiFi was present but I couldn’t get my devices to connect to it. I haltingly asked another passenger seated near me with a laptop for the password (clavé — meaning key — was the best translation I could come up with for password, and that seemed to work well enough), but from his expression and actions I could tell he was also having trouble connecting, and he wasn’t happy that there was no power available, either. We did have an attendant, though. She came around at regular intervals to offer us complimentary snacks and drinks, and to apologize sweetly for the lack of power ports. There was on-board entertainment, as well: a movie, several short features on music and sports, and a few different music channels.

An hour south of Madrid we were finally moving quickly along the autopista and the landscape was completely rural. I saw enormous wind and solar farms, as well as seemingly endless orchards of olives, and a few smaller orchards of grapes. About 2.5 hours out of Madrid we got into some mountains. For the next 30 minutes the views outside my window were astounding. I hadn’t seen anything like them since a drive through Colorado several years ago. The autopista was a narrow two-lanes hugging the side of the mountains, and I was very glad that I was not driving.

On the road to Granada

On the road to Granada

We arrived at the Granada bus station, and I phoned the guesthouse to alert them I was on the way. My accommodation in Granada, el Numero 8, was nestled in the pedestrian only zone of the Albaicín (the old Moorish part of town), so there were very specific instructions on where to meet a person who would escort you to the house. For convenience sake I took a taxi up into the Albaicín and waited for my host, Rafa, to meet me.

It was a beautiful day, sunny and fairly warm, and I was happy to be in the city I had wanted so much to visit. Rafa (an expat from Chicago!) pointed out landmarks to me as we walked to the guesthouse; although there were occasionally names for the short, winding “streets” posted on walls, navigating by landmarks was the only reliable way to find a particular location in the Albaicín. Like Toledo, this area of Granada was built on the hillsides, and getting in and out of the Albaicín involved climbing up or walking down very sloped, cobbled streets, with a few actual stairs thrown in every once in a while. (In my notes I had jotted down, “would hate to walk these drunk!”)

It didn’t take long for me to finish the tour of the guesthouse and drop my bag before I headed back out. I had nibbled on that cheese sandwich bought many hours ago in Madrid, but I longed for a nice, big Spanish lunch in the worst way. I headed down through the Albaicín towards the “European” area of town, stopping along the way at a conveniently located restaurant. It was past 2 pm and I was hungry, so even though I had no idea what the food was like, I stepped in and asked for a table. My selections from the menu del día were a little quirky, but they hit the spot: a spaghetti bolognese starter, merluza plancha main course (grilled fish with vegetables!! there were actual mixed vegetables served alongside!!), and flan for dessert, all washed down with cerveza and agua.

After my satisfying meal, I continued down to the main street, Gran Vía de Colon, to orient myself and do a bit more preparation for my three night stay in Granada. I visited a ServiCaixa machine and retrieved the ticket I had purchased for Alhambra the next day; I went to another ATM to get more cash (because the Caixa machine, of course, wanted to charge me a fee to withdraw money!); I found the tourist office and picked up a map for Granada and one for Sevilla (the tourism office was run by the state of Andalucía, so they had information for many Andalucian destinations); and I took a ride on the little buses that go up to the Alhambra and into the narrow streets of the Albaicín so I could get a better understanding of the layout of the town and logistics for my visit to Alhambra. Before boarding the bus, though, I spent a few minutes sitting on Plaza Nueva enjoying the sunshine and watching dogs play.

Taking a break

Play makes me thirsty! I need a drink!

Before returning to my guesthouse for the night, I picked up some groceries for the next few days. Each room in the guesthouse had it’s own little kitchen facilities and cooking gear, and I planned to make good use of these during my stay. The “supermarket” marked on the small map given to me by my host Rafa was hardly up to American supermarket size standards, but it had everything I would need: yogurt, cheese, eggs, bread, jam, fruit, beer and Nescafé. (I should have skipped the coffee as I found on my return to the room; there was already a jar left behind by another traveler, as well as cooking oil, rice, and pasta.)

I hauled my groceries back up into the Albaicín, put them away, and then headed back out for a sunset view from the San Nicolás viewpoint. This viewpoint or mirador is a popular place to view the Alhambra any time of day, but as the sun sets the view is enhanced by the dramatic lighting playing across the Alhambra walls — both natural and artificial. Getting up to Mirador San Nicolás was a bit tricky, though. I knew the general direction, but the streets twist and turn so there was no direct way to get there from my guesthouse. As I stopped in a wide (by Albaicín standards) lane I saw the backs of two other women as they were pausing to consult their map, too. We turned towards each other, and there was the woman I had first met at O’Hare, and again at the Vodaphone store in Madrid! She was with her sister and they were also heading up to Mirador San Nicolás.

Together we found our way, and jostled for a place to take photos before the light faded.

Me at Mirador San Nicolas

Me at Mirador San Nicolas, with Alhambra and the mountains.

As the sun sank further down the sky, we could hear the unamplified voice of the muezzin from the nearby mosque calling the faithful to prayer. And it felt like I was outside of time in lovely, lively Granada.

Spending summary
Food: 33€ (including groceries)
Transit: 46,07€ (Alsa bus ticket with fees; taxi; local bus)
Hotel: 120€ (paid in advance for three nights, at 40€ each night)

Travel log Spain: Day three, Toledo

I slept poorly, most likely due to jet lag. Even though I went to sleep at midnight, I woke up just over two hours later and couldn’t get back to sleep until 5:30. But I wanted to go to Toledo on this day, so I was out of bed at 7:30 AM.

I walked the several blocks to Atocha station and despite desperately wanting coffee, I made it my first order of business to buy my train ticket. High speed trains run between several key cities in Spain, and I would be taking my very first high speed trip this day. For the longer high speed train journeys the best prices are secured when buying tickets in advance online, but for the shorter trips such as the one between Madrid and Toledo the cost is the same online as it is in person.

Atocha station was confusing to me. It’s a big station that not only serves as a terminal for cross country train travel, it also serves as a local commuter rail (Cercanías) station. I didn’t find the signage very helpful and had to ask where to buy my ticket. Once I secured my one-way ticket, I scoped out where to board the train. This also took me quite a while to figure out, and I was desperately wanting coffee and breakfast the whole time. Finally, I felt that I had the layout down and was able to get a café cortado and a croissant. I had 15 minutes to enjoy my breakfast, then boarded the train.

In 2004 there were terrorist bombings of several Cercanías trains at Atocha station. I’m not sure if security has been beefed up since then or if there was security screening in place before the bombings, but before boarding the train we were required to put our bags through the same sort of screening machines used at the airports. This wasn’t just a Madrid station requirement, though. I took two more train trips while in Spain and for each one passenger baggage was screened.

The train left at 9:20 AM and a short time later we were arriving in Toledo, approximately 72 km (45 miles) away.

Arrival in Toledo

Arrival in Toledo. Literally a mile a minute on the high speed train!

The train station was beautiful, but I didn’t have time to linger. I went all touristy when I arrived and headed for a bus that promised to drive us to the scenic overlook of the city made famous by El Greco, and then drop us in town. As I headed to the bus stand, I bought a map for 2€. I barely used this map so it was a complete waste, unfortunately. The tour bus company gave us all maps that proved to be pretty decent, so I used that one instead.

The topography of Toledo and its surrounds is very hilly and I was also glad to not have to walk uphill into town; this alone made the 6€ bus trip worthwhile since a cab would have been similar in price. The overlook was beautiful and while it was a clear day it was also a cold one. I’m sure the open upper deck of the bus must have had the best view, but I decided to ride inside and stay a bit warmer.

Overlooking Toledo

Overlooking Toledo

After we arrived at Plaza Zocodover, the main square in town, we were given some suggestions on what landmarks to visit and suggestions on how to return to the train station. And then I was off!

Toledo is a charming city that retains it’s medieval character. It’s well known as being the home of the painter El Greco and for its grand cathedral (visible in the photo just left of center). I visited houses of worship for all three big “religions of the book” in this small town where Christians, Jews and Muslims once lived peacefully together. It was also the first UNESCO World Heritage site I visited on this trip, but certainly not the last.

I loved Toledo. Walking the hills wasn’t so bad when one can do so at a leisurely pace, and the narrow streets were very different than the wide boulevards of Madrid or Chicago.

A Toledo street

A Toledo street. I also saw many For Sale signs here. (The costumed characters aren't real, by the way!)

Despite snacking on a granola bar brought from Chicago and a piece of fruit purchased the day before, I was famished by 13:00 and had to eat lunch. This was early by Spanish standards, but I just couldn’t hold out any longer. I stopped at a small cafetería that looked well-populated by locals having a snack (croquettas with wine or beer seemed to be the preferred thing to nosh), took a seat at the counter, and ordered the menu del dia. This time I had a bowl of sopa del dia (a chicken broth with fine egg noodles), lomo with patatas fritas (grilled pork tenderloin with fries) and a cerveza for 10€.

I wandered around Toledo a bit more after lunch. I had made it to the Sephardic Museum (housed in an old synagogue), the grand cathedral, the Santo Tomé church (where I ogled El Greco’s famous painting The Burial of the Count of Orgaz after paying 2,30€ and caught the end of a mass in the main chapel for free), and the old mezquita or mosque (I didn’t pay to go inside the mezquita here). By now it was late afternoon and I had returned to the Plaza Zocodover to decide what to do next. At 10:30 in the morning this plaza was pretty dead, but by mid-afternoon it was full of people strolling, talking, eating, and just socializing in general.

I bought a few dulces (sweets) at the Mazapán San Tomé shop on Plaza Zocodover. Marzapan (as we call it in English) is a sweet paste made of almonds. Toledo is apparently well-known for mazapán and I have to say these sweets were the best marzapan confections I’ve ever had. The marzapan I’ve had in the past came from Germany and I thought it much too sweet. The Toledo mazapán was just sweet enough and had a nice fruity flavor to it. I bought about four pieces and made myself save two for later.

To accompany my sweets I wanted coffee, but I also wanted to sit out on the square in the sun and not at a café table. How to get a coffee to go? I didn’t know how to ask for something “to go” and my phrasebooks (a print on and two different electronic ones on my iPhone) just weren’t agreeing on how to say this. So I went into McDonalds to get a coffee, since everything at McDonalds is packaged to go.

Apparently the opening of a McDonalds fronting the historic Plaza Zocodover was rather controversial, although it was allowed. I saw lots of people in the McDonalds, and it was not American tourists filling the place up. McDonalds in Toledo did not have American style drip coffee; it had the typical Spanish coffee selections of café con leche or café cortado. I ordered a café cortado and took it out to the plaza. I felt compelled to take a photo of it, which I’ll share here. This is a typical McDonalds coffee in Spain.

Cafe cortado from McDonalds in Toledo

Cafe cortado from McDonalds in Toledo

I placed the guidebook I was using next to it for size comparison. A café con leche would have been a bit larger, due to the extra milk. It still would be much tinier than the coffee servings we’re used in the U.S.

After my snack, I was ready to go. I decided to walk back to the train station since it would be all downhill and pretty easy. As I left the plaza and started walking the direction indicated by the guide in the morning I got a bit worried that I couldn’t find the map he had given me. I must have dropped it somewhere, but I really wanted to verify my route before going far downhill. I stopped to check the other map I had purchased that morning, but I couldn’t orient myself with it after spending all day using the other style map.

I stopped a young couple who were walking around with the same style map from the tour bus company and asked them in Spanish “Donde esta estacion del tren?” They didn’t seem to know, but responded to me with some English. I explained that I had lost my map and was turned around, but we were still not able to establish the correct route.

They continued on their way as I stood there struggling with the strange map for another minute or two. Then they turned back to me and offered me their map and some new observations of how to follow it to the train station. That was so kind of them and typical of the people I encountered in Spain. I’m sure they just needed a few minutes to process through my question and comments, and once they had figured it out they offered as much help as they could give.

Until I had the train station in sight, I was still a bit anxious during my walk through the walls of the old city and across the river on a scenic bridge. The topography of Toledo is so much a part of it’s charm. Because it is situated high on a bluff and surrounded on three sides by the river it’s easy to see why it was a desirable place to build a town back when land wars were common.

At the train station I went to the window to buy a one-way ticket to Madrid. After I got my ticket I noticed the board announcing the departure schedule and saw how lucky I had been: with the exception of the train for which I was now ticketed, every remaining train was sold out that day! I don’t know what I would have done if I had decided to linger in the square even 20 minutes later; I may have been stuck in Toledo for the night!

During the ride back to Madrid I fell asleep which made the already quick journey go by even faster. Although it was still pretty early by Spanish standards, I didn’t have much energy left after running all day on such a little amount of sleep so I decided it would be an early night. Besides, I had to pack and settle my bill that night since I needed to leave the hotel very early to catch my bus to Granada the next morning.

While settling my bill at the hostal, I ran into a small snag. The hotelier had taken my reservation with a credit card, but I was now being asked to pay for the room in cash. Luckily due to my big withdrawal I had the 150€ on hand, but it necessitated another trip to the ATM since I definitely needed 120€ cash for my hostal in Granada the very next day. Throughout Spain I found that credit and debit cards weren’t used very much by locals. I had to pick up the habit since I usually pay for everything with one of my rewards credit card at home (I do pay the bills off every month).

I was concerned about how I would get coffee and breakfast the next morning with such an early departure and I was feeling lazy so I stopped at the Starbucks near my hotel that evening. I bought a sandwich for dinner and a breakfast for the next day: a venti americano coffee (yes, Starbucks had venti size in Spain!) and a yogurt parfait. (I had figured out a clever way to keep my yogurt parfait cold overnight, too. I hung it out the window in it’s little Starbucks bag, and secured it with an extra carabiner clip, just in case. The americano coffee had no milk in it, so it could sit on the desk all night; I just had to drink room temperature coffee the next morning.)

Next to the Starbucks was a little convenience store where I also bought a can of beer to enjoy with my sandwich that night. Beer helps me sleep well, and I was concerned that jet lag would mess me up again; the next day was going to start very early, so I needed to be well-rested!

Spending summary
Food: 30,25€ (included next day’s breakfast)
Entertainment: 17,30€ (tours, entrance fees, map)
Transit: 21,20€ (AVANT high speed train tickets)
Hotel: 150€

Travel log Spain: Day two, Madrid

Before I had left on this trip, I considered taking a day trip to Segovia on this particular day. But I decided to skip the day trip and just stay in Madrid to explore. So, after getting ready (which included taking down the laundry I had washed the night before and hung to dry in the shower) I went out in search of some breakfast.

This was the day I truly began to eat my way through Spain. I started out at a cafetería on Paseo del Prado where I ate a hardy breakfast: a small omeletta boccadillo (an omelet of eggs and potatoes on a roll) and a cup of café con leche. Actually, since I really needed the energy to get going, I had two cups of café con leche! I ate this sitting at the counter and avidly watching and listening to the action going on around me.

I saw one man order a beer with this breakfast. It was watered down with something else (I couldn’t see what), but I clearly saw the beer being added to the glass from the tap. This was also the first time I saw someone eat the “olive oil and tomato on toast” that I had read about in the guidebook. It wasn’t what I expected. I had thought there would be toast, certainly, brushed with olive oil and then topped with sliced tomatoes. Instead what I saw consistently whenever anyone ordered this was a topping made of pureed tomato spread on the toast. It wasn’t tomato sauce exactly, but it was something similar. Tomato jam, perhaps? My breakfast came to 6€, so I paid the bill and left to wander the city streets.

I scoped out the entrance to Museo del Prado. I wanted to figure out how and where to enter because I planned to return that evening during the free hours. Most of the museums in Madrid are free for the last two hours at least one day a week; visiting museums this way would save me money since I rarely have the mental energy to spend more than two hours at a time in a museum anyway.

After my Prado planning was done, I headed to Plaza Mayor. The day was partly cloudy, but it was a Saturday and the city center was bustling with people.

Busy Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Busy Plaza Mayor, Madrid. All sorts of action to be seen!

For sale signs over Plaza Mayor, and a potential neighbor

For sale signs over Plaza Mayor, and a potential neighbor

During the walk through the city I saw plenty of Se Vende (For Sale) signs hanging on the balconies of apartments. The housing crisis hit Spain hard, too, and I’ve heard several stories about Spain’s mortgage and banking issues on NPR and Planet Money podcasts. I was reminded of them as I walked along and viewed the real estate (and potential neighbors enjoying the morning air).

I wandered further along Calle Mayor and ran across what became my favorite place in Madrid: Mercado San Miguel.

Mercado San Miguel, Madrid

Mercado San Miguel. The best eating (and drinking) in Madrid!

This market had only a cursory write up in my guidebook where it was described as a place to purchase gourmet picnic supplies. One could certainly stuff a picnic basket with the offerings, but the market also had tables where the food and beverages could be consumed on site. In addition to raw ingredients, there were many items ready for take away: canapes made with fresh fish or caviar; oysters; jamon; cheese plates; empanadas; olives; sherry; wine; beer; coffee; gelato; pastries and confections. I could go on and on about the bounty of the San Miguel Market!

Since this was a Saturday the market was packed. As I drooled my way through the busy aisles I managed to find a small space at a bar where I purchased a noon-time snack.

Noon snack at San Miguel Market, Madrid

Noon snack at San Miguel Market, Madrid

That’s a small beer (una caña) and a canape (open-faced sandwich) made with fresh bread and a few slices of the famous jamon, or Iberian ham. I didn’t want to spoil my appetite for lunch, though, so I left the market after my snack was finished and continued walking towards the Palacio Real.

It was a beautiful day for walking and I savored my stroll, stopping to gawk at weddings and fountains and the beautiful facades of the buildings. I made it to the Palace and then…I decided I didn’t want to go in. It was 14:00 — the lunch hour in Spain — so I stopped at random restaurant for the menu del dia. Fixed price, three-course lunches that include a beverage (wine, beer, or coffee) are common in Spain and I enjoyed them whenever my schedule allowed. On this day I had ensalada mixta (mixed green salad), hake con arroz negra (grilled hake fish over rice cooked with squid ink), a vino tinto (red wine), and torta chocolate to finish. I splurged for a cup of cafe solo (plain espresso, no milk) to accompany my cake. My total lunch bill came to 11,90€.

By now it was nearly 16:00 and I needed a rest, so I started the long walk back to my hostal. Along the way I stopped at an ATM to get more cash. The ATM I visited this time (a Deutschebank one) did not flash a fee screen at me, and since at this time I wasn’t sure how often I’d encounter fee-free ATMs, I tried to withdraw a fairly large sum: 400€. After a bit of churning, I got a message that my transaction was rejected by my bank, so I walked across the street to a Barclay’s ATM and gave that a try. I got the same message.

I started to get worried that I’d have to go to the expensive ATM, and then my tired brain finalized reasoned it out: at home I have a $300 withdrawal limit and 400€ is much higher than that, so I should try again for a smaller amount. A withdrawal of 200€ worked with no fee message and I was relieved. While I had been able to use my credit card to pay for lunch, I knew I was going to need 120€ in cash to pay for my hotel room in Granada in a few days, and I wanted to get the money in hand. If I was going to have cashflow problems, I wanted to know as soon as possible.

As I walked back to my hostal feeling much relieved, I stumbled upon one of those small neighborhood stores the locals called chinos and decided to look for a power strip. This store had a little bit of everything and I walked out with some fresh fruit and my power strip in hand. I took a short rest at my hostal before walking the two blocks to the Prado and strolling freely inside for the next two hours. With the exception of a few Goyas from his “black period” it seemed that the entire Prado collection was religious art. I’m glad I went, but I didn’t feel the need to schedule any more visits to Prado since I just don’t like that type of art very much.

It was now about 22:00 on a Saturday night: prime dinner hour for Spain. I stopped at a place near my hostal that was bustling with people. There was no room at the bar (my first choice to dine since one can easily point to the sandwiches and canapes on display without having to figure out what to call them), but I was seated at a small table by myself. As I sipped my vino tinto and nibbled on the olives and canapes I had ordered (jamon de pato or “duck ham” and sardine with roquefort) I felt very lonely.

I looked at the tables full of families and couples and felt conspicuous in my corner my myself. But I still savored the experience. I jotted in my notebook about my day and wrote about how fabulous the food was and how much I was enjoying it. I couldn’t finish the olives, but rather than let them go to waste, I offered them to a table full of fun looking people near me. They gladly took them with thanks (gracias!) and a smile. Then I paid my tab and went back to my room to call B and sleep.

Spending summary
Food: 34,20€
Incidentals: 7,70€ (power strip and fruit)

Travel Log Spain: Day One, Madrid

My flight from Chicago arrived nearly an hour late, but it was still early by Spanish standards (before 9 AM). It seemed to take at least 30 minutes to exit the gate and terminal and get out to some cool, fresh air. This was likely quite true as I found out on my return to the airport. Madrid’s Barajas Airport is very spread out, and most flights from the U.S. arrive at Terminal 4S, which is literally miles from the other terminals.

Before I left, I had researched how to get from the airport to the city center on public transit. The Madrid Transit System recently started a new service: the airport express bus. Thank goodness for this efficient, cost-saving service! I had exchanged money to have a few euros when I landed, so I had the 2 € coin in hand for the bus driver. Once on the bus, I was happy to discover that it also had free WiFi. The bus terminated at Atocha train station, which was about a six-block walk from my Madrid accommodations: Hostal Gonzalo.

While trekking to the hotel, consulting a free map picked up at the airport tourist information booth I turned a corner and saw a long line of people on the street. As I got closer to my hostal, I had to literally struggle my way through an increasing glut of people who were trying to access a church at the end of the same block my hostal was on. While I checked in, the proprietor tried explaining to me that there was something special about the date and visiting this church, but I really didn’t understand it.

After an eight-hour flight and maybe two hours of sleep, I was tired and glad to lay down for about an hour. Then I headed out to do some more business tasks. I needed to get more cash from an ATM and pick up a SIM chip for the unlocked mobile phone I had brought with me from the U.S. (borrowed from a friend in the biz…thanks, R!) So I headed out on foot towards Puerta del Sol, considered the center of Spain.

I stopped at the first ATM I encountered: a Servi-Caixa machine. I was disappointed when it notified me that an additional 3€ charge would be levied for me to use the machine. According to my research, ATMs were largely fee-free in Europe, yet here I was being charged! Happily I found this an anomaly; there were a few ATMs that charged for use, but once I saw a screen notifying me of the fee, I would cancel the transaction and then walk a bit further (no more than a block usually) to use a fee-free ATM.

As I arrived at Sol, I was dazed by the plaza around me and dodging sprinkling rain.

Puerta del Sol, Madrid

I wandered around a bit, entering the big department store chain El Corte Ingles (found in every major Spanish city), and the Vodaphone store where I waited to purchase a SIM chip for my phone. While in the store I had a chance encounter with a young woman I had met at the departure gate in Chicago. It seemed like a funny coincidence to meet up with her there, and we chatted for several minutes about the flight and how we were finding our way in Madrid. She was meeting her sister shortly (who had been studying in Valladolid), then heading to Granada next. I commented off-hand “Maybe I’ll see you in Granada.”

While at Sol — which was a major transportation hub — I also purchased a 10-ride ticket for the Madrid public transit system for about 10€. I had to pay cash for the ticket since neither my credit nor my debit cards would work in the machines. I used my ticket that same evening as I rode the 27 bus up Paseo del Prado to the Madrid Knitters Night.

When visiting a strange city, it is a comfort to find others with whom you can connect. Every time I travel for pleasure, I try to find a knitting group meeting and/or visit yarn stores. People who share your interests are usually very welcoming and this group was no exception. There were a few ex-pats in the group, so I had no trouble communicating with my limited Spanish.

The knitters helped me stay awake and engaged on this day where I was tired and jet-lagged. They also helped me with a pesky problem I had been trying to tackle. I had been looking for a power strip to purchase, and it was here I learned that a power strip was called a ladron (thief) and that I was likely to find one in a ferreteria (hardware store) or a chino (a small, neighborhood store typically run by Asians, hence the slang name).

Madrid Knits!

Madrid Knits! meeting

I bought a sandwich at Starbucks to eat in my room for dinner, then left the knitting group about 30 minutes early and made my way back to the hostal. (Passing by lines of people still waiting to get into the church!) I ate my sandwich as I used the WiFi in my hostal to call B on Skype, then went to bed.

On this first day in Spain, I was tired and lacking confidence in my communication skills. I did OK, though, thanks to the kind people at my hostal and the knitters.

Spending summary
Food: 17,35€
Transportation: 12,00€
Incidentals: 15,00€ (SIM card)

Post vacation post

I’ve been home for six days and I think I’m firmly back on schedule now. The first two to three days were tough due to the jet-lag. I went back to work the day after I arrived home and worked a typically full day from 7 AM to 6 PM. I sneaked in a 30-minute nap during the afternoon and crashed fairly early that night. But by the third day I was re-adjusted to the time zone and getting by just fine.

I took over 550 photos, but judicious pruning resulted in a final photo set of less than 450. I uploaded them all to my Flickr account with each photo titled and described (be sure to click on the Show Info link in the upper right when in slide show view to see the descriptions). I’ll be writing a travel log of the experience with key photos featured, blogging from the extensive notes I jotted down in a little notebook I carried with me every day.

Also planned is a review of all those notes and my receipts to add up the amount of money I spent on this trip. At a minimum I can say I stayed within budget, and I suspect I actually spent less than budgeted. During the trip I checked my spending status a few times, so I could make corrections as needed.

As I reflect on my trip to Spain, here are a few general things I noted about the experience.

  • One of my best purchases while in Spain was a power strip. (In Spain, these are called a “ladron” which literally translates as thief.) I usually had a single power outlet near the bed in the small hotels and alternate accommodations I used, yet I wanted to plug in multiple electronic items each night. My iPhone (which I used for Skype each evening) and my tablet (a “rooted” NookColor ereader) were usually low on power at the end of the day, and with one outlet it would have been difficult to charge them both. I’ll be lending this power strip to a friend who is traveling to Europe next month, so it was well worth the 4,80 €.
  • From a fashion/function perspective, nearly everyone wears a scarf in Spain. It was an exception to see someone not wearing a scarf. Men, children, and women of all ages were observed wearing scarves. I also saw many women wearing very tall boots (some above the knee) with leggings or slim pants, and shorts with tights. The latter look was not something I thought was very flattering for many.
  • I was surprised by how much less I spent on food than was allowed for in my budget. I ate very well in Spain, but the cost of good food was much less than I thought it would be.
  • I also budgeted way too much for public transit; I rode buses and subways in the major cities, but did much more walking, which meant less money spent on transit. That said, I overspent on a transit card in Madrid. I purchased a 10-ride ticket good for subway or bus and only used about six rides. Conversely, in Granada I rode the bus enough that I should have purchased a five-ride ticket; since I hadn’t done so, I paid a bit more for public transit than I could have. (I was staying way uphill and at the end of a day with lots of walking, I welcomed the bus ride to get me up to my hostal!)
  • I could have packed one less pair of pants and not packed my flip-flops at all. I was traveling as lightly as possible so any small bit of weight removed from my backpack would have been a good thing. Nonetheless, I probably would have saved only about one pound if I hadn’t packed these items.
  • Those microfiber travel towels are awesome! I packed a decent sized one and used it mainly to squeeze extra water out of my clothes after washing since the places I stayed provided towels for bathing. I would hang the microfiber towel and my clothing, and they would be dry by the next morning. Amazing.


The rain in Spain

I originally wrote this while in Sevilla, Spain. It got stuck in my Drafts, so it’s a bit dated. Rather than just dump it, though, I decided to push it through, even if it is a few days late. I’m home in Chicago now. More writing and photos about Spain will be posted over the next week or so. I took *a lot* of photos.


I couldn’t resist the reference. It’s been raining off and on for days now, so many that I’ve lost count. I think today has been the worst, though, since the showers get fairly heavy at times.

While walking to the Real Alcázar late this morning I became soaked to the knees and had to take shelter under an awning not far from my destination. To continue walking in the deluge would have been crazy. As I stood under the awning with others — one of the “gypsy” women, still clutching a sprig, and fellow tourists from points unknown — a man with a tripod in his hand and camera around his neck began commenting to me in rapid Castilian. I think the general meaning was that it rarely rains so heavily here. Finally the rain slackened to a more normal pace and I continued on.

Alcázar was filled with tourists quite glad to linger in its many beautiful and dry rooms. By the time I reached the gardens the rain had stopped for a bit, but I still chose not to linger in them. I made a joke to myself that the gardens were full of gatos y patos (cats and ducks), and that the ducks had the advantage today.

I have the rest of this day to sightsee in Sevilla, but the miserable weather makes the final item on my wish list — a stroll along the Guadalquivir River — a very bad prospect. So I will instead spend time reading, writing, and knitting in the apartment. With a bottle of wine at hand, of course, since it is vacation.

Small bites

Hola! Estoy en Granada ahora. That’s Granada as in Spain.

After months of researching and talking about wanting to go to Spain, here I am! This is a big deal to me. I’ve been diligently putting aside money in a targeted savings account every month for a year because I knew I wanted to travel. I just wanted to go so many places it was hard to make up my mind. Finally, late last Fall it came to me: Spain.

Apparently the feeling is floating around with a lot of folks. Some friends of mine will be here in Andalucia next month, in fact.

I’m traveling on my own and it’s been a bit tricky. My Spanish is rudimentary and rusty. It’s starting to come back a bit, but I’m so shy to speak. Only now — four days into the trip — am I starting to feel willing and able to stutter out abbreviated phrases using abysmal grammar. At least I’m trying, right?

I’ve been staying connected via WiFi in my accommodations. I carefully chose places that included it in the amenities. I haven’t been blogging, though, because as much as I love my little tablet (a “rooted” NookColor) the lack of a qwerty keyboard is a challenge for me.

Traveling alone is lonely at night. I suspected it would be, but I decided to not put off the trip for that single reason. I hoped that I would meet others to talk with, and I have. But I don’t get to converse with people every night and I’m always dining by myself. Spaniards aren’t necessarily stand-offish, but they have their own lives and aren’t here just to amuse me. The language barrier and my general tonguetied-ness hasn’t helped.

But I’m here. That’s what is important. I’m eating typical Spanish food (not a lot of veggies, unfortunately) and drinking Spanish wine and beer. I’ve adjusted to the Spanish dining schedule which involves light breakfasts, mid-morning snacks, sizable lunches at around 2PM (that’s 14:00 hora here)  and more snack-sized bites in the evening. This eating schedule really works for me (although the small amount of vegetables does not).

So far I’ve stayed in Madrid and for the next few nights I’m in Granada. I visited Toledo yesterday (a day trip) and move on to Sevilla in a few days. There’s much too much to see and do, so I’ve just resolved to use the same approach to touring Spain as the Spanish do with eating: small bites here and there keep you satisficed. And this, too, works for me.

International travel and banking: Part 2

A few days ago I wrote about some of the research I’ve been doing to prepare for a trip to Spain. That post focused on some of the challenges of using U.S.-issued debit cards in Europe. In this post I’ll share what I’ve learned about another concern when using credit and debit cards: fees.

There are so many fees associated with banking these days (and they can change so often) that’s it’s often hard to keep track of them. In doing my research into fees I may encounter while banking in Europe, I was also confused by the lack of consistency in terminology.

No matter what they’re called, it’s impossible to conduct a transaction in a currency different from the one you have in hand without paying some sort of fee or penalty. Even if you start out with cash, you’ll have to pay a fee to convert it to the local currency. Using one of the major credit card brands — Visa, MasterCard, or American Express — there is a minimum 1% fee levied on the transaction. That fee can even be as high as 2-3%.

I’m OK with those fees, actually. There is a business cost to the transaction and someone must pay it. What I’m not supportive of, though, are the extra fees charged by the bank who issues you the credit card. The bank does nothing here, but often charges an additional percentage-based fee on the transaction. If you read through the links above, though, you’ll see that some banks are a better deal than others.

Capital One does not charge an extra fee for “foreign transactions,” and for this reason I opened a new account with them. My first statement period was a bit rockier than I’d like, but so far I’m managing and I’m sure I’ll be glad to have their fee-free service when running up bills for lodgings and transportation while in Spain. The card I got through Capital One is actually a rewards card, too, so I should earn some cash back on the transactions. 🙂

But I think I’ll also carry my work issued American Express card with me for emergency back up. This card is only supposed to be used for business expenses, but I think my employer would be OK with me using it for an emergency. The fees for using American Express are more than those with my Capital One MasterCard, but less than they would be for the Visa card I still have from a small U.S. bank. Unfortunately my beloved Discovercard (beloved due to its cash back rewards, only) will be useless in Europe.

The other place where people usually get hit by fees is when using ATMs to get local currency. Most travel sites these days recommend forgoing the old approach of loading up on traveler’s checks or carrying lots of U.S. dollars to exchange along the way. If you’re going to a major European country, you should have no issue with finding an ATM where you can securely get Euros.

Many U.S. banks will also dig into your pocket to secure additional fees for these transactions, too. I ran into this issue just a few months ago while taking a business trip to Toronto. I didn’t think about needing local currency for anything, but it ended up I needed to get some Canadian dollars for cab fare one evening. One trip to the ATM of a major bank for $60 resulted in nearly $7 in fees: a flat $5 from my bank, plus an additional $1.75 fee from Visa for the currency conversion.

Note that there was no fee from the Bank of Montreal terminal from which I retrieved the cash. Apparently only in the U.S. are we subjected to additional fees from ATMs that aren’t branded by the bank in which we keep our accounts. When using an ATM in Spain to get Euros, then, I’ll still be subject to the 1-2% fee leveraged by Visa or MasterCard. The trick is to avoid add-on fees by my bank for not using an ATM with their logo on it.

If I had thought to do the research before leaving for my business trip to Toronto I would have discovered that my little used credit union account is the best value for these currency-securing transactions. I’ve had an account at this credit union since I was a child, and I nearly closed it recently because it is not useful for me in daily life. (There are no branches or ATMs anywhere near my house, and there is only one ATM that is remotely close to my office downtown.)

But I’ve very glad I did not close it now, because they don’t charge any fees for using ATMs that are not branded by them. All the fees associated with ATM use of this account here in the U.S. are charged by the banks that “own” the ATM at which I would perform the transaction. How did I confirm this? I called the credit union and I grilled them about their fees. Yes, I will still pay that 1-2% currency conversion fee to Visa, but I won’t pay the credit union any additional flat rate or percentage on the transaction.

So, I’ll still follow common sense rules about ATM use, such as using the ATMs associated with major banks and not travel companies. But at least I can feel comfortable traveling around with only small amounts of cash while in major cities that have plenty of ATMs. And hopefully that will make me less of a target for theft.

International travel and banking: Part 1

Today’s post at Get Rich Slowly has reminded me to record some research I’ve been doing into banking while traveling outside the U.S. For the past several months I’ve been flirting with the idea of a trip to Spain. So far this has resulted in lots of logistics planning, but no actual bookings. Nonetheless, I’ve learned some important things that will help when I do finally get there.

While in Spain, I will be conducting purchases with both cash and credit card. I may use a debit card, too, but since I would not get the same purchase protection with a debit card as I will with a credit card, then I’ll likely just use my credit card to pay for lodgings and transit whenever possible.

I’ll also need cash for things like incidental purchases (water, small snacks, etc.) and potentially for bigger purchases such as transportation tickets at unattended stations. And here’s where the first important lesson begins.

Unfortunately for U.S. travelers, the credit and debit cards issued by U.S. banks do not meet the security standards used in most European countries. This means that if I need to buy a train/bus/metro ticket at an unattended station, I’ll most likely need cash.

In Europe the security standard for debit and credit card purchases is referred to as chip and PIN. A smartchip is embedded in the card and for a transaction to be successful the purchaser must key in the correct PIN associated with that smartchip. This standard is supposed to be much more secure than the one used in the U.S. that involves swiping the card and simply checking a signature and/or ID. The U.S. just hasn’t adopted this standard yet, which adds a layer of complexity to travel planning.

While there usually isn’t a problem making purchases with U.S.-issued credit cards at hotels, restaurants, and shops, travelers have reported problems purchasing tickets from machines with their cards. Cash will work in the machines, though, so I’ll try to plan ahead to have the right amount of cash on hand or to purchase tickets from agents only.

Recently a chip and PIN pre-paid foreign currency card has become available in the U.S. I’ve looked at this card offered by Travelex and while it does have some benefits, I’m not sure yet if I’ll give it a try. Putting my vacation funds on a pre-paid card would certainly help me stay within a set budget, and since it’s a chip and PIN card, I should be able to use the card at metro ticket machines and other unattended vending stations. Since I work not far from a Travelex office, I may make time to stop in one day and ask about what fees may be associated with using their Cash Passport before I commit. In just looking at the Terms and Conditions online, the fact that it will cost €1.75 per ATM withdrawal alone makes it pretty unpalatable to me.

Increasingly the chip and PIN standard is becoming the norm. Canadian banking institutions are now issuing these cards and I’ve even gone so far as to research whether it would be worthwhile to open a Canadian bank account so I could get one. So far, it looks like I’ll just have to get used to using currency when I run into situations where my credit or debit card won’t work. And that will lead me right into the next topic in Part 2: minimizing transaction fees. More to come!