Balancing Travel – Part 5: Alicante and Madrid

Hola, Alicante! We meet again!

When I returned to Alicante by train, I stayed for three days. I think Alicante and other towns on the Costa Blanca are to Scandinavians and Brits, what Florida is to North Americans. The weather in southern Spain is definitely warmer than Madrid. At first, I was underwhelmed by Alicante because I was comparing it to Valencia.  But then … I really got into it and took in the city’s charm.

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Alicante (Renfe) Train Station

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A little park in Alicante

My hotel, Eurostars Lucentum, was in a superb location for public, rail, and airport transportation; easy walking distance of the Esplanada and Castillo de Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara Castle); and across the street from Mercado Central (Central Market). The hotel was convenient to a street with a long row of very good restaurants, and a theatre where “Les Miserables” was playing.

Every morning I went across the street to a cool little cafe called Tres Semillas to use the wifi. Tres Semillas’ motto is “We are what we eat,” and they don’t use artificial ingredients or genetically modified products. Even though I don’t eat pastries, I enjoyed the fresh juice and great tea selections. And, by the way, I love their motto! (Reminds me of something “Ms. Daisy” would say!)

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Mercado Central

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La Esplanada – Alicante

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Tres Semillas Obrador – Alicante

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Downtown Alicante with Santa Barbara Castle in background

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Hog head for sale – Mercado Central (Alicante)

People were friendly and helpful in Alicante. I kind of had a conversation in Spanish at a gift shop that sold magic elves and gnomes, and other collectibles. I said, “Tengo comprar uno regalo por mama.” It got the job done and I pointed out what I wanted. When I tried to speak Spanish other times, I could only think of French words. When a French couple spoke to me, I was mute and couldn’t think of anything to say.  I just nodded and smiled.

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Elfos dolls

I found an organic vegetarian restaurant called Biomenu, while walking around the historic part of the city.  It must have been torture for the owner because we weren’t able to communicate… at first. I tried something I call “SPREMGLISH” — a jarring blend of Spanish, French, Mime, and English. I ordered one of the fresh juices from the menu, and, somehow also ordered an omelet and vegetables that were not on the menu, as well as fruit and tea. After that, the owner automatically prepared my meal when she saw me coming …and I was there every morning.

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With only three days in Alicante, I picked the day with the best weather to go to the beach. The hotel concierge recommended I take the trolley to San Juan Beach, which was far nicer than the city’s beach. I caught the trolley at the end of the hotel’s block. It was a scenic ride. For the most part, the trolley followed the shoreline. Here’s a tip should you ever take a trolley from Alicante to San Juan Beach: there is no trolley stop called “San Juan Beach.” Get off at the “London” stop or, like me, you will watch the trolley move away from the shoreline and the sea will recede in the rear window. At that point, I wondered had I missed my stop. Well, yes, I had; and after I got off that trolley, it was a bit of a wait for the next one headed in the opposite direction. The beach was worth the mild misstep in getting there:  I hung out half the day.

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I saved Castillo de Santa Barbara for my last day in the city. It was overcast, and threatened to rain. Luckily, it didn’t. On my way there, I came across a discreet little museum called Museo de Fogueres. So, I went in — free admission! —  and saw exhibits about the Bonfires of Saint John Festival, held annually in June. Historic, humorous, and whimsical figures of various sizes are built to burn in the fires. Some figures from each festival become ninots indultados, as they are the ones “pardoned” from the flames and given refuge in the museum.

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After I left the little museum, I walked to the castle. I bought a ticket inside the tunnel entrance; and continued through it to the elevator that took me to the castle’s upper levels. Castillo de Santa Barbara is probably the highest point in the area, and has a commanding view of metro Alicante.

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Overall, it took me a minute to warm up to Alicante, but I’d enjoy another visit someday. I had some great meals and good shopping – though I’m not much of a shopper. I tried to find some art galleries, but either there were none or no one could understand my SPREMGLISH. Oh, well!  I enjoyed the final convenience of my hotel’s location by walking across the street to catch the airport bus for my return flight to Madrid.

Hola, Madrid! We meet again!  

Madrid was my last stop the day before my flight home.  It was cold, windy, and rainy, compared to Alicante. The hotel was a bust. I went for the best deal in price rather than neighborhood, which had me on high alert while out and about at night. The hotel was supposed to be a 4-star, but I’ve seen better rooms at the YMCA. That hotel’s shameful breakfast buffet was unforgivable! Truly, you get what you pay for.

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Museo del Prado Madrid (Photo courtesy of Fotosearch Stock Photos)

The Prado Museum was the priority for my final hours in Spain. After 5 pm, it’s free. (You see, in the D.C. area, we are spoiled by our free Smithsonian museums.) There was a long queue to enter the museum, and I waited in the rain. I managed to spend just two hours at the Prado before it closed, and left feeling incomplete in my cultural experiences in Madrid.

There is more of Madrid I’d like to explore, and I will return; especially, to visit its world-class museums — the Prado, Reina Sofia, and the Thyssen- Bornemisza. That’s a promise.

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Next:  Balancing Travel – Part 6:  The Long Trip Home


Balancing Travel – Part 4 – Valencia

Hola, Valencia!

I arrived in Valencia by train from Alicante. I spent five days there — the longest at any destination during my two weeks in Spain. I stayed at Valencia Mindfulness Retreat, a bed and breakfast in the historic heart of the city. The B&B itself was a highlight with its charm, architectural details, style, and friendly hosts.  As a solo traveler, I liked the daily family-style breakfasts with diverse guests — Dutch, Italian, and British (while I was there). I loved being the only American guest!  Valencia Mindfulness Retreat is in easy walking or cycling distance of most sights. Yoga and meditation were available; I did both. My days in Valencia were a balance of leisure and exploration.

I visited popular sites in Valencia, like:

  • Basilica of Our Lady of the Forsaken – The Basilica flanked Plaza de Virgen, where people hung out, strolled around, or rode through on bikes.
  • Mercat Central – This market was almost overwhelming. Hams were hung like clothes on a rack; and there was a massive variety of fruits, vegetables, spices, and fish for sale. You could also order paella and other food-to-go. I noticed that in Spanish markets the meat might have an anatomical attachment that you won’t see in the typical U.S. supermarket –  like a head, hoof, or feet…or, maybe only the head will be in the meat case… or, you might see the entire defrocked animal.  All options are there!
  • La Lonja de la Seda – This UNESCO World Heritage Site housed the Silk Exchange in the 15th and 16th centuries. It’s a magnificent structure near Mercat Central. I put my camera on zoom to see the building’s architectural detail, and saw freaky gargoyles. I did a double-take, like…is that what I think it is? (By the way, gargoyles have a purpose other than warding off bad spirits, such as diverting water from a building – like a gutter. Well, that’s certainly one explanation for that appendage!)
  • City of Arts and Sciences – The science complex was architecturally fabulous — designed by Santiago Calatrava — and includes an Oceanografico (aquarium) and IMAX cinema. The interactive exhibits at the Principe Felipe Museum of Science were just so-so, but it’s probably a good museum for families and children.
  • Jardins del Turia (Turia Gardens) – This extensive park has athletic fields, bike and walking paths, and gardens. Turia Gardens is an awesome place to be active and outdoors in the city. This was the original site of the Turia River. The river flooded Valencia in the 1950s; so, like a biblical punishment, the city diverted the river; and converted the dry riverbed into a recreational park. (Poor river! I never did see where it was banished.)
  • Beach – It was a nice, long bike ride to the beach, which was very broad with smooth sand for days, and framed by mountains. It was mid-May and early in the season, and warm enough to bask on the beach awhile without the crowds. Loved it!

I found less touristy spots, like:

  • Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia.  The star here was not the art, dominated by Madonnas and cherubim. The real star was the elegant museum cafe where I was seated outdoors in the courtyard. I had a wonderful salt-encrusted dorade (a Mediterranean fish) with roasted vegetables. The meal and wine were served with all the flair of a fine dining establishment for less than 25 euros. When the server brought the fish out, I thought there was no way I could eat the entire fish. But, when he gently pounded the salt casing to release the succulent flesh, and filleted it and arrayed it on the plate, the portion looked very manageable. It was literally head and tail above any other museum cafe food I’ve ever had.
  • Institut Valencia d’Art Modern (IVAM) – I loved this museum where I discovered Valencian artist, Miquel Navarro. IVAM has a permanent collection of his sculptures and watercolors. The museum pamphlet describes his work as “a true symbiosis between body and architecture. Warriors, phallic symbols and totems transform their selves into bridges and fountains. Buildings, as well as cities, have organic similarities with the human body.” It was fascinating and I certainly couldn’t miss the phallic symbols; they were everywhere in his collection.
  • Museu d’Historia de Valencia – The museum used to be a water supply station. The art and Valencian history were creatively displayed.
  • L’Almoina Valencia – There, I viewed Roman and Arab archaeological excavations through a glass floor. It was unusual to see the history of Valencia in this way. Very cool!

I did other things, too, like:

  • Explored the historic quarter on foot, and helped a guy cook paella on the street.
  • Rented a bike.
  • Hung out at outdoor cafes with gelato, tea, or a glass of wine.
  • Photographed murals and graffiti that were everywhere — on construction barriers, shop doors, garage doors…. It was here that I fell in love with graffiti and street art, and now have hundreds of photos.

Another highlight was “The OMG! Meal” I had at an organic / local food restaurant I found called Kiaora Biocucina. Chef Yelel Canas graciously prepared my fish selection on the prix fixe menu, gluten-free. I had the kind of attentive service and multiple courses that I didn’t expect there. Kiaora was an unpretentious little spot, whose decor featured a large mural of a green mountain and a speck view of the chef’s family farm. Chef Canas is proud of his food philosophy, and local cuisine, and is happy to talk with patrons about his culinary creations. Amazing and delicious! (Update:  Chef Canas has left Valencia and will be opening a restaurant in Barcelona in Spring 2015. I will find him again. Bet on it!)

Valencia was all good. I had my poorest showing in communicating with people here because the people favored the local language, Valencian (a Catalan dialect), over Spanish. It wasn’t that much of an obstacle at restaurants or getting around, though. I’d return in a heartbeat and stay at the same place.  There is more of the city to  explore — my only regret is that I missed the Sunday flea market.  Next time!

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Next:  Balancing Travel  – Part 5 – Alicante