Versailles Palace

Now after a really great day at Paris, we wondered what to do the next day which was a Sunday. My friend C had to work on Monday. So even though our trip had started with a conversation about the original chateau that was the inspiration for Versailles and which we did want to see, somehow it didn’t fit into the schedule and we decided that the time would be better spent in seeing the Versailles. C had been to Versailles in one of her previous trips, but she was so kind to accompany me and see the palace once again. And then we went to sleep, which came easily after the exhaustion of the day and the lovely dinner that we had.

When we woke up, it turned out to be a cloudy, slightly rainy day. But that didn’t dampen our spirits. After breakfast with M and P, we drove down to Versailles. It was not too far from the village where we were staying. After purchasing the tickets, we wondered whether we should first go to the gardens or to the palace. We decided to walk through the really huge gardens first because the weather looked dubious and it felt reasonable to stay out as long as possible and the get inside whenever it started to rain.

After the experience, I can say that one can easily spend one whole day just going through the grounds of this palace and probably still not cover all of it! At some point, I remember myself looking ruefully at the people who had rented the golf-carts!

A little introduction of the Versailles palace. It is the biggest architectural legacy left by Louis XIV – the Sun King. It became the royal residence, and hence the center of politics, in 1682, when the King moved his residence and court from Paris to here. Earlier, his father Louis XIII used to go to Versailles for hunting and had a hunting lodge there. It remained the royal residence from 1682 up until the French revolution, when the royal family was forced to return to Paris in 1789.

Back to the spring day in 2018 – we started walking towards the gardens and tried to find the source of the music that we kept hearing. On the pamphlet, we’d read that there were some fountain shows with music.  We did come across some ponds and fountains and they were quite pretty, but it might be my being “geographically challenged” or may be the place was built like a maze, that we couldn’t find what we thought we should be finding, according to the pamphlet! In between it also drizzled and I had to whip out my black colored rain poncho which gave me a kind of wizardry appearance! C was more relaxed about the drizzle and cooly walked about without a worry :-).

After looking for the fountains and failing to find the source of music, we gave up and decided to just go towards the Hameau de la Reine. On the way we found the Petit Trianon. Went inside and looked around. It was a lovely mini-palace with its own chapel and beautiful rooms.

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Petit Trianon

The funny thing that happened with us there was at the restrooms! The ladies restroom had a super long queue while the men’s was empty for some time while we stood in the queue. So some ladies including decided to make use of the men’s restroom. C and I followed. By the time, our turn came, the men, who arrived in the meantime, got impatient and went in, even though the ladies outside told them that there were some women inside. That was a little embarrassing but then I guess in France, there is no concept of embarrassment. Now I am wondering, how come it happens that I have a restroom story to tell for both times that I have been to Paris! In the first trip, it was at the Eiffel Tower and this time, it was at Versailles – both great places and instead of some exciting story that I could have had there, all I’ve got are the restroom experiences as memories! It must be only in the movies that something magical happens! Frankly, I’m losing my belief in magic..sigh…

Anyway, we moved on and followed the directions to the miniature village that was made on the orders of Marie Antoinette. We followed the directions but then found on reaching the entrance or what we thought to be the entrance, that it was closed and had to go back to another location that we had already crossed earlier, from where we could enter. I was so tired that I was almost on the verge of asking someone with the golf car to give us a lift! But we carried on and finally reached the location. It felt quite deserted and the gloomy weather gave the feeling of a ghost village! There were animals which were probably the descendants of the original species of ducks, turkeys, pigs, donkeys etc., which were reared on the farm during the 18th century. It was a kind of refuge for the queen, away from the pomp of the Versailles, where she liked to maintain a rustic atmosphere. It was considered to be in bad taste – the general populace was convinced that the queen was mocking the poor people by having this kind of a hamlet where she pretended to be a milkmaid or a shepherdess. This also added fuel to the resentment towards the royal family which ultimately led to the  revolution.

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A house in the Hameau de la Reine

After the visit, we decided to walk back and go the palace. We kind of got lost, found a few others who were also trying to find their way out (I guess the makers made the layout of the grounds quite complicated – may be to help Louis XIV with his several amorous rendezvous or who knows!).

Once we could find our way, we proceeded and found a lovely restaurant and since our breakfast had become a distant memory by then, we decided to sit down and rest our feet and feed our tummies. C had a lovely looking pizza. And I found a gluten-free pasta dish, which worked well with a glass of wine.

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The Restaurant

I also ordered a side of French Fries – but then it was a lot, so I got it packed. That proved to be a good idea because when we reached the palace, we found ourselves facing a serpentine queue which seemed to just be there without a beginning or an end! Kept walking until we found the place where we could join the queue. The French Fries, even though cold by then, helped to keep away the boredom of standing in the queue.

Finally we could get inside and looked at the various rooms of the palace. I don’t remember too much now except the opulence on display.

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Chateau de Versailles

The Hall of Mirrors was a huge hall with amazing frescoes and magnificent chandeliers.

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The Hall of Mirrors

Funniest thing was to learn about the bed chamber of Louis XIV. It was a privilege to see the king go to sleep at night and get up in the morning (and do his business in the morning, if you know what I mean)! Sycophancy at its best or worst – depends on the point of view. If you are interested, just search the internet and you would find really incredible stories about what all went on in the French court during the times of Louis XIV.

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The curtains of the King’s bed

After looking at everything, it was time for the palace to close and so we had to get out, although I guess we could have spent another hour easily there had it not been the closing time.

Then we left and returned to our temporary home. When we reached, we found that M had prepared a lovely dish for dinner. After having dinner and some chatting, it was time to sleep and prepare myself for the next day when I would be solo explorer, as C had to make some visits as part of her work with the schools.

P.S. It’s interesting that my visit here was on a dark gloomy day, quite like my visit to the Schonbrunn palace in Vienna in 2017. Is it to indicate the dark history? Food for thought..

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Exploring Le Marais in Paris

After the walking tour, the details of which you can find here, C and I decided to get something to eat. I wanted C to taste the South Indian flavors and in Paris, there is a whole street close to Gare du Nord that’s like Indian Bazaar! I didn’t know about it earlier but a friend who keeps going to Paris often, told me about it. You can buy Indian clothes, jewellery, vegetables, spices, sweets and what not there!

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We found the restaurant we were looking for and went in. I am a fan of that chain of restaurants considering they are the only South Indian food chain I know of that has restaurants in Europe, but somehow in Paris, I didn’t feel it to be as good as it is in other places. There were other restaurants nearby which were also offering South Indian food and if I’d had another chance, I would have tried them. Anyway, once done from there, we decided to take a walk around.

Another friend of mine – K, had given me a guidebook some days prior to the trip, which had some walking routes in it for a self-guided tour. C had a big map with her in which we looked to what we could do next. I don’t remember anymore what exactly were we looking for but we didn’t find it :). On the way however, we found a beautiful church – Eglise Saint Laurent with lovely stained glass windows. I of course had forgotten the name after these many months, but google is usually a miracle worker, if you can help it with the right words to search for.

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Stained Glass Window in the Eglise Saint Laurent Church

We decided to go towards the apartment of Victor Hugo and on the way, found another church. And while writing this, I just had an epiphany – that’s how foreign tourists to India must be feeling on finding temples all around, like the Indians feel on seeing the numerous churches in Europe! The normal things for the locals are so exciting for the tourists :-).

Thus walking, we reached Place des Vosges – at one corner of which is the Maison de Victor Hugo (apartment of Victor Hugo from 1832-1848). It is a museum now where things that were part of different periods of his life, are brought and arranged in a chronological order. You can read all about it here. It was interesting to know that besides being an author, Victor Hugo was also a good interior designer (or decorator)!

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Place de Vosges

We stayed in the beautiful garden outside, for some time and then proceeded towards Centre Pompidou. Ah forgot to mention, the friend of mine who visits Paris often, had told me to visit the Marais quarter. So that’s what we were doing. On the way of course, another beautiful church beckoned us. The things that attracted me were the clock above the arch and the red doors. I have not seen many churches with this kind of a clock. It was the church of Saint Paul. It was the first Jesuit church in Paris and was constructed on the orders of Louis XIII in the 1600s. Then during French revolution, the name changed to Saint Louis de la Couture Sainte Catherine. Today the name includes both Saint Paul and Saint Louis. It was damaged but has since been restored to its prior glory in 2012. The church has connections to Victor Hugo’s life and work. Look for it on the net if it interests you :-).

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Paroisse Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis

After exploring the church from both outside and inside (Baroque style), we moved on and reached the Center Pompidou. We were just wondering what to do next – go in or look for street artists around, when C’s phone rang. It was a call from our host M, asking when we were returning for our dinner appointment. You see, C wanted to take us all out for dinner and somehow we forgot to decide on the date and time. C assumed it would be on one of the next days while M assumed it was supposed to be that day itself! So she was calling to know when would we be back as she had made the reservation at the restaurant that we wanted to go to :-).  Then C and I hurried back towards the nearest station to take our train back to the town where P would pick us up. The return journey was as beautiful as the onward one, with the train crossing the river at several places.

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We reached and P was there waiting for us. We went to the restaurant w had the reservation. Fascinating for me was to find that it was an Indian restaurant of the name Le Maharaja, in that small village in France! C told me that whenever she’s been there to meet M and P, she has been to that restaurant only! I found it to be a pretty nice place and the food was good. The place seemed quite popular with the locals too. I have often wondered during my trips, to find an Indian restaurant at the most unexpected of places. I am not surprised on seeing them in the big cities, but to find them in places like this small village in France, Coimbra in Portugal, Segovia in Spain and some other such places, has filled me with so much happiness like having found a slice of home in a place far away from home!

Over food and drinks, we had a lovely evening. Satiated and happy, we returned and decided to call it a day and get some rest to be rejuvenated for the sightseeing that awaited us the next day.

Paris Once Again

Sometimes it’s just a matter of saying out aloud what you want to do and by some juxtaposition of stars, you are brought in touch with the right people and the rest just works out.

So my second trip to Paris – 13 years after the first one in 2005 – materialized quite like this. I had read an article about which palace was the original that made Louis XIV take notice and order the construction of his own palace on a much grander scale at Versailles. Since my friend C, loves both France and art & architecture, I shared this article with her, mentioning that I haven’t even seen Versailles yet and now there is this one which is said to be the original! She said we could make a trip. I jumped at the chance and we made plans to go there over the last weekend of April. And there, just like that, on a nice Spring weekend, we were in Paris.

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On our way

As it so happens, C has some really nice friends M and P, in a small town close to Paris. They graciously offered to have us as guests in their home. It is a beautiful and completely different experience of staying with someone local as compared to staying in a hotel! I am so very grateful to M and P for their hospitality and of course to C, for introducing me to such a nice family.

We reached their home in the night and after exchanging pleasantries and chatting for some time, we went to sleep. In the morning, after a lovely breakfast, P drove us to the station from where C and I could take the train to Paris. That is definitely better than driving into the city.  Since both of us have seen Paris, C more times than me, so this time, we decided to take a guided walking tour of the city. This was something that neither of us had done before and this way, one gets to know the stories which one cannot know when exploring a city on her own. We managed to reach the venue on time, despite the small unexpected inconvenience of the metro stop, where we wanted to reach, being closed for repairs. The tour was to start from the fountain of St. Michel. There was quite a number of people interested in the tour, so we were divided into a few groups. We got a guide who was British (possibly a student) and had been living in the city since a few years.

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St. Michael

So the history of Paris starts, of course, from a long time ago but the guide started with the history of Napoleon’s Paris. In 1804, after Napoleon became Emperor, he started projects to make Paris grand like ancient Rome. The Arc de Triomphe, three bridges on the river Seine,  wide street Rue de Rivoli, are some of the landmarks for which the credit goes to Napoleon. Some years after his death, his nephew and heir  Napoleon III became the president of the second Republic of France. Paris was decaying at that time – the population having grown too big for the infrastructure. So in 1853, he tasked the architect Georges-Eugene Haussmann to make the city modern like London. To do that, he had to bulldoze off huge parts of central Paris to make way for the big streets and modern sewage system. That was the birth of Paris as we know it today. However, he had to face a lot of backlash for his work – political of course, as the whole idea of second Empire, hence Napoleon III and by association Georges-Eugene was not liked by the republicans like Victor Hugo (“Les Miserables”). So he had to be sacked by the emperor due to political pressure.

With this introduction, we moved on and reached Notre Dame. Here we were told about the ancient history of Paris. In around 250 BC, there was a celtic fishing tribe of the name Parisii which settled on the island  “Ile de la Cite”. That’s the center of Paris today.  In 52 BC, the Romans took over and established the town called Lutetia. The construction of the cathedral of Notre Dame was started in 1163 AD and finished in 1345 AD. The style changed from Roman to Gothic with thinner walls, bigger windows, stained glass designs and the height of the ceiling. The left tower is wider than the right one and it was a deliberate imperfection. Probably because of the notion that only God himself can have perfect creations.

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The Notre Dame

In 1792-93, a cult arose in France – the Cult of Reason and Notre Dame became its biggest center. It was an atheistic philosophy against the Roman Catholicism during the French Revolution. This cathedral and several others in France were converted to Temples of Reason. The cult lost its steam sometime in 1794 when its leaders got executed. Thereafter, Notre Dame was abandoned. It became a wine and gunpowder warehouse for some time. In the winter of 1804, Napoleon invited Pope Pious from Rome to get himself coronated as the emperor. Anecdote says that things didn’t go as expected by Napoleon when the Pope didn’t want to give him the crown. Then Napoleon snatched the crown from the Pope and crowned himself. But nobody of course can say that for sure. The only fact about the event that’s known is that Napoleon placed the crown on his head himself. Fast forward to 20th century – during the WWII, the headquarter of SS in Paris was right opposite Notre Dame!

From there we walked towards the Sainte Chapelle. Built in the Gothic style, it was the Royal chapel in the 13th century. It was constructed on the orders of Louis IX to house the religious relics that he had collected, the most famous being the crown of thorns that Jesus was supposed to have worn before the crucifixion. Looking back at my blog post from my first trip, I should have known this but of course, 13 years is a long time!

Then of course, we saw the Le Conciergerie – which is such a beautiful building but used to be a prison at one point from where poor Marie Antoinette was taken for her execution. The guide told us that she was more the victim of propaganda than being a really bad person in reality. She was just like the other royals of her time. The revolution would have taken place – with or without her. With her being of foreign origin, the mob found it more convincing that she didn’t care about them (which the French origin royals didn’t do either, but you know..) and made her the target of their hatred.

Walking down, we reached the Pont Noeuf. We found a nice spot in the shade to sit down while the tour guide told us the stories about this bridge. It is the oldest standing bridge in Paris – having been completed in the beginning of the 1600s.

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Pont Noeuf

“Noeuf” means new but then you have to see that it was the new bridge at the time it was made :-). The expenses for this bridge were covered by having a tax on wine that was brought into the city – sounds to me like a version of “Import Duty”! Henry IV, who made the completion of the bridge possible, was raised a Protestant in Catholic France but he converted to Catholicism to make things easier in those religio-political times. But that didn’t work out for as he would have wanted it to  – he was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic. Anyway, about the bridge. There are ~381 stone heads called “mascarons” on the walls of the bridge. They have all possible human expressions on them. One story goes that the king threw a party. Then the artist captured the faces of drunk people and made these. Another one goes that they may be based on the faces of the husbands of the numerous mistresses that the king had! Who knows the purpose of anything anyway?

After sitting there for a while, we moved towards the Pont de Artes – Bridge of Art. It was made in 1801 or so and it was the first bridge to be made of iron in Paris. It connects the Louvre to Institut de France across the Seine.

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Bridge of Art leading to Institut de Franc

The fame today of that bridge, however, is because of the crazy trend of putting love locks on the bridge that started in 2008! The city had to remove about 45 tons of locks in 2015 from the bridge as they were weighing it down. And now, there is one pole only where the locks can be put. Anecdote – the trend of love locks seems to have started in Serbia with the first one having been locked in Belgrade.

The bridge is supposed to be for art and it was interesting to see the “find the card” game artists there who could very “artfully” make you part with your money :-).  The Institut de France, consists of five academies, the oldest of which is the Academie Francaise. This academie was established in 1635 by none other than Cardinal Richelieu (remember him from The Three Musketeers?)! There are forty members in this academie who are called Les Immortels! These people have the official authority on everything about the French language. If you have heard a French sounding word and there is no way to find if it is of French origin or not, you can send it to them and they would figure it out!

Then we walked towards the Louvre. It used to be a Fortress earlier and then a royal palace. Now – it is the house of Monalisa, and a lot of other treasures. I had gone inside the Louvre in my first trip to Paris a long time ago. It’s just impossible to see everything there in one trip. While the guide was explaining something about the Louvre, I found a chestnuts vendor and bought a few chestnuts. The aroma of freshly roasted chestnuts is so tempting! So I missed some of what he talked about the museum but there was anyway, more pleasure for me in the chestnuts at that point than what he was saying!

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The Louvre

The tour ended at the Tuileries Garden. The guide told us the story of how Paris was this close to being being ravaged to dust in the second world war by the German army but for the intervention of a Swedish diplomat! He also told us that despite the Eiffel Tower being today the symbol of Paris, the Parisians actually hated it when it was constructed (and may be even today :-)). I read somewhere that one famous writer hated it so much that to avoid looking at it, he would dine in the restaurant situated on the Eiffel Tower! My memory of it from my first visit is that it was a cold autumn night and all I was interested in after taking the boat ride in Seine prior to climbing the tower, was a restroom, but which we couldn’t find anywhere, until we reached the second floor of the Eiffel Tower!

Back to spring 2018, the tour ended and we took our leave.  I am so glad that I could finally complete this post. And now that the momentum is set, I believe I can complete this long pending travelogue. The next post will detail out I what we did next on our first day in Paris. Until then, au revoir..

Tips for Madrid

You can read all about my trip to Madrid here.

And here come the tips for Madrid as per my experience.

Important Links:

Metro

Interactive Bus Map

Official Tourist Website of Madrid

Within the City:

  1. If you are staying somewhere near the center, then most of the places of interest are within walking distance of one another.
  2. It is mostly flat but there are some ups and downs on the streets. So wear comfortable shoes.
  3. But sometimes one does get tired after standing in queues, walking around in museums for 3-4 hours at a stretch, or simply doesn’t have that much time. So for such scenarios, I felt that it was a good idea to buy a 10 trips card for Zone A which works both on Metros and buses. It can be purchased from the ticket machines at the metro stations. There is a plastic card which has a one time cost of 2.50 Euros and then on top, this 10 trip ticket costed 12.20 Euros. The same card can then be topped up when you need more, after having exhausted your 10 trips. There are options also to have single journey loaded on it as well as 1/2/3 day passes. You need to look carefully for the options. The machines have an English interface too. And sometimes I have also seen the staff from the Metro standing there to help the people.
  4. Before having bought this metro card, I used the buses twice and I could buy the ticket directly from the driver by paying cash. The interactive bus map whose link I have given above works but is a bit slow. Google map showed only metro/circanias connection and not the bus connections unfortunately.

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Airport to City transfer:

  1. If you want to use the Metro to come to the city from the airport then you would need to add on the card mentioned above, using the ticket machine, a 3 Euro airport supplement which is valid only for the same day as when you have added it.
  2. I liked the option with the Bus that runs from outside all Terminals and for 5 Euros, it takes you to Atocha, which is a big train station close to the center. It was bus no. 203 from Terminal 1. You can directly pay to the bus driver and get the ticket. You would see the “Expres Aeropuerto” written outside the airport terminal to know where you can board it from.
  3. There is another option – a train called “Circanias” with this symbol  128px-Cercanias_Logo.svg. Please note that this is different from the Metro. You will have to purchase a separate ticket for this. It is a different ticket machine than that for the Metro. Could be purple or red colored. It costs the least of the three options – bus, metro, circanias – at 2.60 Euros one way ticket as there is no airport supplement required for that unlike that for the metro. It starts from Terminal 4. If you land on any other terminal, then there is a free shuttle bus that can take you to Terminal 4. The option on the ticket machine to be chosen is “Adult Ida” for one way ticket and it would then let you select the station you want to go to.  Note: keep the ticket safe because you would need it to both enter and to exit the station.
  4. And of course, there is the option to take a taxi. From what I read online, it is at a flat rate of 30 Euros to the city center. What does city center mean for that, I don’t know. So may be do your research first according to the hotel where you plan to stay before deciding whether taxi would work out for you.

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Sights:

The following list is something that you would find on all the websites about what to see in Madrid, but I will write them down for completeness sake:

Museums:

Classical Art – Prado Museum

Modern Art – Reina Sofia Museum

Another Art museum – Thyssen-Bornemisza

History Museum – National Archaeological Museum – A very good museum showing artifacts from pre-history to early modern times. Explanations are in English too. For a good experience, I’d suggest to rent the audio-guide. The app doesn’t work properly.

Palace:

Royal Palace

Parks:

El Retiro Park with a lake and a Crystal Palace inside it.

Church:

Cathedral Almedina (free entry for the cathedral, museum is with a ticket)

Lots of other churches can be seen along the way as well. In particular I went to the church having the tomb of Goya where he had also made the frescoes. It’s called Ermitage San Antonio de la Florida.

Beautiful Squares:

Plaza Mayor, Puerta de Sol, Plaza Espana

Markets:

El Rastro street market on Sundays and public holidays – starts at 9:00 AM. Go early to avoid crowds.

Mercado San Miguel (and several other mercados) – market halls with fresh produce, meats, fish and so on.

Gran Via

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Of course, Madrid is much more than these. There are so many free museums to see. For a list, check out this page. I went to two of them mentioned on this page – the Casa Lope de Vega (house of the author Lope de Vega) and the Museo de Historia de Madrid. I liked both of them.

In addition, there is one other good thing in Madrid – for the Palace, the Prado museum and the Reina Sofia museum at least (there will be other places too), there are timings for free entry for general public everyday. You may want to check online if the timings fits on the days you are going to be in Madrid. The queues may be large for that – so plan accordingly. At the palace, they stop the entry one hour before the closing time. At the Prado Museum, the queue for the free entry starts getting built up one hour before the time and can be really long! At the Reina Sofia, I went on Sunday and the queue was quite alright at 1:30 PM. I took the entrance for the Nouvel building. The queue on the other entrance – Sabatini building appeared to be longer.

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Day Trips:

I took two day trips from Madrid to these very beautiful medieval towns:

Toledo – You can either take the Alsa bus from bus station at Plaza Elliptica or a train from Atocha Renfe. To go to the main square – Plaza Zocodover which is uphill,  after reaching Toledo, you can take the elevators by walking from the train/bus station towards what looks like a parking lot. Look towards the city uphill from the bus station, and you would see this structure and that’s where the elevators are:

Or you can take the bus (5, 5D, 51, 61, and 62) from right outside the train station (on exiting the train station, turn right and you would see a bus stop on the main road). I don’t remember the exact ticket price for the bus but it was somewhere around 1.50 Euros.

Or you can hike. Depends on your energy level.

There was a very good free walking tour (tip based) at 11:00 AM from the Plaza Zocodover. Try to take that one. It gives a very good overview. Then you can decide which places you would like to go in to know more about them. There was a red band ticket which gave you entry to several sites. The cathedral entry requires a separate ticket. On Saturdays, the El Greco museum and the Sefardi Museum (Synagogue) allow for free entry after 2 PM. Otherwise they are part of that red band ticket.

Segovia – You can either take the Avanza bus from bus station Moncloa or a train from Atocha Renfe.

You can reach Plaza Elliptica and Moncloa easily with the metro.

It takes a bit longer with the bus than with the train but the frequency of buses is higher, the scenery along the way is nice and they have wifi. The directions were quite easy to follow at both the Moncloa and Elliptica bus stations.

In Segovia, the bus station is like 5 minutes away from the Aqueduct (from where you start your tour) while the train station is farther away. The tourist information center has very friendly and helpful people who will explain everything to you. Their map is also extensive with photos of the sights and brief explanations so you know exactly what are you looking at. There is a walking tour from there at 4:00 PM (may be there are other slots but I don’t know about them). While I was there, I saw there were several groups of people with a private walking tour but I don’t know how to book if you are just by yourself. I could find no free walking tour like the ones in other cities. It’s definitely worthwhile going inside the Cathedral and the Alcazar (paid entrance).

I took the train to go to Toledo and returned with the bus. My experience was that it was much cheaper and easier to travel with the bus than with the train even if it takes slightly longer.


Food:

If you are able to eat everything and have no dietary restrictions, you will love all the things there. But if you do have dietary constraints, then it may be tricky to find things you can eat. I found a few places which worked for me as a vegetarian and with food sensitivities. Check on google maps or tripadvisor when you are in a particular area but be careful about the timings as sometimes the opening hours might not be correct on google maps which happened with me twice. Or, just do your research beforehand and stick to the plan to avoid surprises later.

Madrid – Day 6

Finally the day came when I was supposed to return to the routine life.

Adventures? Of course.

I started the day with packing my bag. Then after checking out and leaving the bag at the reception, I went out to explore some more places.

The first one was very close to where I was staying. It was the house of the Spanish Golden Age writer Lope de Vega, where he spent the last 25 years of his life from 1610 to 1635. The entrance is free there.

It is quite a big house considering it was built sometime towards the end of 15th century. The ceilings are also high. I am not sure if that’s then the original version or a restored one.

The house has three floors – on the ground floor is the reception and a lovely garden. The people there are very friendly and give a free house tour in English also. You can book it online. I didn’t know about it and kind of registered on the spot.

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The bedroom

On the first floor, there is the author’s bedroom, a chapel which can be viewed directly from a window of the author’s bedroom and a study with also a kind of drawing room. There was also a ladies drawing room which was common for those times and had an oriental setting (sitting cross-legged instead of on chairs),dining room and the bedroom of three of his daughters. One of the daughters became a nun later.

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Coal burner for warmth in the drawing room

He had quite a colorful love life. Had 15 children between 2 wives and 6 mistresses. However, most of the children died quite young. He himself lived up to the age of 73 despite having a breakfast of Ham and Brandy everyday!

On the third floor is a guest room (where a soldier friend of his Captain Contreas lived for almost nine months!), a bedroom for two of his sons and the servants room.

After the tour, I went ahead in search of another monument – the tomb of Goya. It is actually a church – Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida – and has the frescoes done by Goya. He’s buried there itself. That part of the church serves only as a museum now while the services are held in a chapel next door. It was not allowed to take pictures inside.  So here’s one from the pamphlet.

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Part of the Frescoe

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Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida)

Where’s the adventure in this you say? Well when you get confused with the metro system and take longer to reach some place using the transport system than if you’d just gone on foot, then it is an adventure (or mis) in my book! I also reached a mall which looked interesting but having packed the bag earlier had given me the wisdom to not buy anything anymore!

Then I decided that I should go back and pick my luggage because I didn’t know what else I would experience while going to the airport.

Just stopped for a slice of cake at one place shown by google as a vegetarian/vegan restaurant in the vicinity. It was a sugary explosion!

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After that I went to get my things. The same wok shop where I had my dinner yesterday, was open and so I got my lunch packed.

Now going to the airport was another adventure and I am very happy that I started early. Why? Ok first of all on reaching the station, it was a bit difficult to figure out which ticket to buy for these trains called Cercanias. The machines didn’t show the option in English and it took me some time and asking people around that “Ida” means “one way”. Then got the ticket and went to the platform 1 as told by the customer care person. I was thinking I am lucky because the train was there in 2 minutes. Now what I didn’t know (although I had the suspicion) that the train would stop at an intermediate station and I would have to change. The customer care person had said no changes are needed so I ignored the nagging voice of my head. And then I understood what was wrong in some minutes. The train ended at an intermediate station. The driver had to tell me that! Then it was not clear when is the next train from there to the airport. Thankfully there were some other people standing there with their luggage and they told me that the next train would be from the same platform. It eventually arrived 10 minutes later, and finally I reached the airport.

Thereafter, it was more or less alright. There were no long security check queues, nothing to hurry about and best of all, no noise! Got on the flight in time. It started a bit late (that’s my experience usually in Europe with low cost airlines – they never start at the time stated on your ticket). I missed the train connection that I wanted to take from the airport to my town. I might have missed it anyway even if the flight reached at its correct time, because the train station is quite a long walk from the Terminal. The good side of it? I went to the city and had some dinner and then took a bus back to my town. The waiting was boring and it was cold at that time but then, no journey is complete without some discomforts.

So, now it’s all back to routine. No more luxury of making only two decisions a day “where to eat and what to see”. Until the next trip!

P.S. I will write down my tips for Madrid in the next post.

Madrid – Day 5

As the fourth day was spent in Segovia and I didn’t do anything much in Madrid except figuring out the different Intercity bus stops by making some errors in judgement and learning some lessons which may be I could help someone else with some day.

So jumping now on the fifth day of my trip.

I had quite broken sleep and so I was a bit drowsy in the morning. Didn’t get out of the room until 11:00! That’s quite alarming considering that the vacation ends the next day and the routine would have to be brought back!! Sigh…

Anyway, so as I was late for everything, I was also late in deciding what to do. Once decided, I went ahead with the first excursion of the day – the National Archaeological Museum. It’s a great museum of history of the Iberian peninsula, explaining everything from prehistoric times to early modern period, with the help of artifacts as well as audio-visual aids. The 5 minute videos they have created for different parts of the exhibits are excellent. There are three virtual reality setups too. I watched only two of them and they were both quite nice. The first one was that of a prehistoric cave and the second one was of a Moorish city center and a house of those times. When I reached there, a group of school children was also there but I think they were already finished with the tour. I think that they would have liked the tour because of the good audio visual aids instead of having to read everything themselves!

The price of the ticket was quite reasonable (3 Euro general) compared to so many other museums of this level. One can easily spend 4 hours here and yet not complete the tour!

Interesting also to note is that the museum was commissioned by the Queen Isabella II in the 19th century.

The artifacts are very good with explanations given in both Spanish and English for each. I wish all museums could make that effort! I have spent a lot of time and money in museums where all I could do was take pictures (and sometimes not even that) without understanding the details because the inscriptions were only in the local language :(.

Below is an image of a mosaic from the Roman times, to give you a glimpse.

Roman Mosaic

I was a bit hard pressed for time because I had read that the Palace was open only until 6 PM from October. I wanted to make it in time for that. But as fate would have it, I didn’t plan the time correctly and was denied entry like a few more in-front of me in the queue because by the time our turn came, the clock had turned to 5 PM and they close the doors one hour before the closing time. So there went my chance of seeing the palace – not that I mind it too much. My only regret was that I could instead have spent more time the museum instead of hurrying up on my lunch and running to the palace.

On the way out from the museum, I saw this monument – Monumento a Jorge Juan y Santacilia. I don’t know the significance but looked impressive. Hence the photo.

Upon reaching the palace, I saw this statue of Felipe IV once again, having seen it first on the day of the walking tour. There are several interesting things about this statue.

  1. The King got it made while still alive. So the hoofs in the air don’t signify anything.
  2. The sculpture was made based on a painting by Velazquez.
  3. The mathematical calculations done to solve the problem of stability of this statue with such a position of the horse, were done by none other than Galileo himself, who was a friend of the Italian sculptor Pietro Tacca.
  4. Hence the statue is also called the statue of three geniuses – the painter, the sculptor and the mathematician.

Felipe IV statue

While I was in the queue for the Palace, and didn’t know that it would turn out to be futile, I managed to capture the picture of the Almudena Cathedral in a similar was as of the statue above. I found it to be a pretty interesting look with the sun in the back giving a kind of aura!

Almudena Cathedral

After the disappointment of the palace, I thought of looking again on the net what I could do after 5. Found that the Municipal History museum was open till 8 and entry was free. So I made my way to that museum. This museum tells about the history of the city. It has quite good exhibits but taking photos is not allowed and the details and layout is not as good as the Archaeological museum. But hey, it’s free and for that, I must say, it was quite nice. One can spend around 2 hours there. The nearest metro was Tribunal.

Museo Municipal de Historia

After finishing with this museum, I made my way to do some small shopping and then went back towards the room. There is a nice Wok place on the way where there is good internet connection along with decent food. So I stopped there, had my dinner and worked a bit on the post.

With this , the day comes to an end. It’s a mixed feeling for me today – satisfied with the good museums and disappointed with not being able to get inside the palace. Ah, you win some,you lose some. All in a day’s work.

So now, I must sleep. Packing to be done tomorrow morning!

Segovia

Today morning, I took it a bit slow. Having bought some cookies and juice the previous night, I didn’t have the struggle to find a place to get breakfast. Why didn’t I do that before!

Then I decided to make a day trip to Segovia – another beautiful medieval town close to Madrid. I had a false start – a website confused me about which Intercity bus station to go to. Once I reached there, I found that I should have gone to another one. Time and money (spent on public bus) down the gutter. Then bought myself a metro card that I’d been avoiding until then and went to the correct station (Moncloa). Once there, it was easy. There was a bus at 11:30 which would reach Segovia at 12:50. The ticket was so cheap – 4 euros and a few cents! The bus was comfortable and had wifi too!

On reaching the town (the bus stops at two places – the second one is the one closest to city center), it was easy to find the Aqueducts – the Roman structure that has withstood time and has become the symbol of Segovia. Beside the height and length of this marvelous structure, it is much more impressive to note that the granite stones are set on top of one another without mortar! The tourist office was right beside it. They are very friendly and nice over there and answer all your questions very patiently. With the map, it was quite easy to find points of interest along the way (which Segovia has aplenty). I wished for a walking tour but the only one mentioned at the tourist center was to start at 4 PM! So I decided to go on my own with the map which had decent explanations of the sights.

Aqueduct

I made one mistake though, I kept walking and reached the Cathedral and then realized that I was hungry and the restaurant, that looked promising on tripadvisor, was all the way back from where I had started! So I had to retrace my steps but thankfully I didn’t need to regret that because the food was quite nice.

There was almost 10 degrees (Celsius) temperature difference between Madrid and Segovia, probably because it is on a hill. I wished I had something warm with me every time I was not in the sun! But it was manageable.

Then I started back and went to this huge Cathedral. It is quite an imposing structure.

I went inside to explore it. Unfortunately, there was no audio guide. It was quite beautiful inside with every chapel having a different decoration style. There was one painting of Mary with Jesus, inside one of the chapels that looked completely different from all other depictions I have seen before. See below for yourself. The dresses are so elaborate and the lower parts of the painting have a 3D effect!

Moved on and after passing through several other Romanesque buildings, I reached the famous Alcazar of Segovia, which I don’t know why is also written at multiple places as the inspiration for the Disney Castles. My impression was that the Neuschwanstein Castle of Germany was the inspiration. May be there were more than one. The slate roofs give a metallic glint to the conical tops. Here there was an audio guide so it was better to understand what I was seeing :).

The views were amazing from here. I didn’t climb the tower – my aversion to climbing stairs prevents me everywhere from making that effort!

Once done, I made my way back passing through the Jewish quarter. There I didn’t learn anything. So kept moving on till I reached the station. This was not the same way I had gone up, so I missed all the shops. May be for good (you know why)! Then I bought the bus ticket which was for the journey starting about 50 mins. later. That was enough time for me to go to the Aqueduct again, complete the checkin for my flight and getting a printout of the boarding pass at a Reprografia (printing center) that I had seen earlier! Phew…

The bus journey through lots of winding roads, and then the Metro journey went quite smoothly and I was back in my room tired, but satisfied with the day.

Will think about what to do the next day in the morning. Until then, let me catch on some sleep..

Madrid – Day 4

After falling asleep late the previous night, I thought I would get up late. But the internal clock somehow knows when to wake you up – alarm or no alarm. And it’s not that I felt exhausted to get up. So dillydallying for some more time (no sunlight, till around 8:00 am, kind of makes you think it’s too early to get up).

But then I did get up and decided to do some of the things suggested by some helpful folks on the internet. The first one was – go to El Rastro street market that takes place every Sunday. But before that I again needed breakfast! The search took me to the opposite direction but then what can one do – empty stomach doesn’t help the thinking very much!

So after getting some fuel, I braced myself to go to El Rastro. Although the other thing I wanted to do was closer to the restaurant, I’d read that it gets too crowded if you go later to that market. So I just went ahead. And boy, it felt so much like being in India (but minus the art of haggling) where I believe every big city has some weekly markets which have been running since nobody knows when! And the internet advisors were absolutely right- by the time I wanted to return, the crowd had swollen to enormous proportions! I bought some things which I know will probably just collect dust later but when one is a shopaholic, that affected part of thr brain finds ways to justify the purchases!

Funny was to see Made in India things being sold by Spanish people – incense sticks, jewelery, clothes with Indian motifs, decoration items, bedsheets and what not.

It had also a fleamarket with old stuff in one part of the street. One could find a lot of things there to go back in time!

Now, the next part of the day was to be spent in the museum of Reina Sofia. The internet posts said that on Sunday it would be free from 10:00 to 2:30 Pm. So I hurried, only to find that seemingly the times have changed to start the free entrance only at 1:30 PM!

So I thought of getting some lunch in the meantime. Again walked a lot only to find that the kitchen of that restaurant would be ready only at 1:30! So moved on and found another place where finally I could get something to eat. Relaxed a bit, drank lots of water (that seems to be forgotten when you are travelling isn’t it?) and then went back to the museum.

There was a small queue and cleared pretty soon, which was quite pleasant after the experience with the Prado museum two days ago!

But then – may be not everyone is into Modern Art. I am not into it either but I wanted to see Guernica – the famous work of Picasso.

Reina Sofia Museum

So I went and despite not wanting to spend too long there, it was almost 3 hours later that I came out! Quite interesting was to see the “antiart” movement of Russians during the revolution. The collection was called “Russian Dada” – the artists are called Dadaists! Their art was not the normal art of the times of rest of Europe. It was quite strange. Check it out on the Museum page to know more.

Once done from there, I wanted to go to the El Retiro Park to see the crystal palace as it was mentioned in Reina Sofia that some temporary exhibition about something called “Breathing Spaces” was running there. Turned out to be huge structures made of colored glass with modern artsy symbolism of noses (that’s what it felt like to me) inside this enclosure. The park itself is beautiful and quite big. You can sit, read, walk, run, play – do whatever you like, away from the hubbub of the city despite being in the middle of the city!

Crystal Palace at El Retiro park

I think if I count the no. of steps I have taken today, it should cover a month’s worth of 10K steps per day! Even tiredness has no energy left to tell me that I am tired!

Done with the dinner, I think I should try to sleep. Let’s see what the next day brings. I haven’t planned anything yet. Will see tomorrow morning how it feels and decide then. Buenos Noches for now!

Madrid – Day 3

I wrote about the trip to Toledo but some time was also spent in Madrid – before leaving for and after returning – from Toledo.

The first thing was to find a place to get breakfast. That is proving to be difficult in Madrid as a vegetarian with food sensitivities. I found one place where the staff helped a bit to figure out what I could eat. So I had a slice of Spanish omelette with orange juice and some coffee. However, later I had some problem which means some allergen was present in the food despite the precautions I took. Anyway, I went from there to the station and found that there would be a train in 20 minutes but alas, on checking at the ticket machine, that train was already full. So the lesson is – either don’t wait till the last minute to get the train ticket or take the bus from Plaza Elliptica which can be reached with a bus E1 from Atocha or with a metro. Anyway, that delay of one hour (to get the next train) gave me the time to explore the station and surroundings. It was quite interesting to see a tropical forest set up inside the station!

Tropical forest inside Atocha station

Looked around, reached the next building, came out, found giant baby head sculptures, took some pics and went back into the station. Figured out with google that Planta Baja means ground floor. So this train was to leave from the platforms on Planta Baja. At this station, a baggage scan was required so the queues were quite long. But it went fast. Then there was a queue to get inside the gate for the platform on which the train arrived. And guess what – my carriage was at the end! Had to do some running but thankfully, I managed to board in time.

Then the journey went fine. The rest of the day was spent well in Toledo.

Now upon returning, since I was in no hurry, I explored  a bit and and found it much more flexible to return to Madrid from Toledo with the bus! On reaching Madrid, it was a bit confusing at the bus station when the security guard said that Metro was the only option whereas someone on tripadvisor or other such site had mentioned that there is a bus too. So I looked around and found that indeed there was this bus – E1 that went to Atocha from there and it costed 1.50 Euros. Now as fate would have it, on some whim, I got down at one or two stops before Atocha. I think was Santa Maria de la Cabeza. Walking down from there I found myself at a street full of street art!

This was the first one of the “serendipitious” things that happened when I mentioned that in my previous post. I had thought about going to look for some street art on one of the days during my stay (it was mentioned in a post about “things to do in Madrid” that I read a few days ago) but didn’t know that I’d find a street just like that, without even looking for it.

The second one was finding a street full of Indian restaurants and grocery shops! I had just wondered in the morning or on the previous day if Madrid has Indian shops. And there it was – again, without even doing an online search for it! The shops are actually from people from Bangladesh, as revealed by a chatty restaurant owner who was opening his restaurant and found me looking at the menu. He was very happy to talk in Hindi with me, so I entertained him although I was dead tired and just wanted to go to my room!

After taking my leave from him and reaching back the hotel, sleep eluded me and I just sat in the room with no worry to do anything or to go anywhere. That’s the best part of being on vacation – isn’t it?

Toledo

Toledo is a beautiful medieval city, half an hour away by train from Madrid. I had already planned on going there before the start of my trip and it was later also recommended by a friend. The place kept reminding me of Siena in Italy, Brugge in Belgium and Coimbra in Portugal because of its hilliness, the narrow stone studded streets and beautiful architecture that somehow withstood the test of time! But of course, each of these places have their distinctive features. Here – it was the influence of Arabic architecture in Jewish and Christian buildings.

So after missing the first train despite being early, as its tickets got sold out, I had to wait one hour at the station to get the next one! In hindsight, it might have been better to take the bus instead (which I took for returning). The buses run every 10 mins!

Nonetheless, I reached with hardly any time to spare to go for the walking tour that I had planned. Took the public bus to reach the venue just in time to catch up with the group which was about to leave. Here’s the view from the public bus on my way up to the main square.

Going towards the city center

The tour began with the guide giving an overview of the town’s history (which I missed but then caught up later). It’s been in existence since around one or two centuries Before Christ. The Carpetani, Romans, Visigoths, Moors and finally Christians again – quite a history!

We stopped at a place that used to be a mosque and later was turned into a church but since the artisans were Muslims (the Jews, Muslims and Christians – all stayed in harmony for quite some time) the architecture of parts constructed later was also of the Arabic style.

The church which was originally a mosque

It’s worthwhile to be in Toledo early and spend the whole day getting lost in its lanes and looking at all the sights a bit leisurely instead of the rushing I had to do because of that missed train!

Anyway, we passed through the Cathedral, the church of the Jesuits, and from a view point saw the Synagogue El Transito, El Greco Museum to name a few. The whole city is studded with monuments.

Once done with the tour, I went in search of some food. Found a vegetarian place finally, despite google telling me “you have arrived” and me not finding it neither to my left nor to the right! The food was quite alright and portion huge.

Then I made my way back to the Jewish quarter to look at two synagogues – El Transito and Santa Maria la Blanca. They had been recommended by the guide to be seen to compare the architecture styles. It was indeed quite interesting to see that the second one looked more like a mosque. That’s because most of the craftsmen were Muslims from Moorish times, who were allowed to stay there by the Christian rulers.

El Transito

Santa Maria la Blanca

Prior to seeing the two synagogues, I went inside the El Greco museum which was on the way. Amazing artworks on display there.

I didn’t have too much time after all these so I decided to go inside the Cathedral.

The Cathedral

It’s so huge that it’s quite impossible to take a proper picture from the narrow streets. Armed with the audio guide I explored the Cathedral but couldn’t find any way to go to the top (not that I had any energy left to climb the stairs anyway!). Funnily, my brain has decided to forget everything that the audio guide explained. All I remember is what the tour guide told us about the Cathedral like the story of the Bell that legend says broke on the first day of its ringing (being so loud that it could be heard till Madrid, windows getting shatterer and a pregnant woman going into labor to name a few effects of the Bell 😀).

Then I made my way down towards the Jesuit church but again, didn’t climb up the tower despite the recommendation.

Decided it was time to go, went down the town via escalators that I had read about online and finding them by chance. Found the bus stop and took the bus back to Madrid. Found some “serendipitious” stuff but look for it in the next post.

For now, I should probably go and get some breakfast! Adios amigos y amigas!