Mistakes were made

I was amazed how warm it was when we left the hotel at 5:15am. There was no traffic, so it only took 15 minutes to get to Madrid Airport, and it didn’t take very long to check in and clear security, either.

Madrid Airport is huge (at least Terminal 4 is); flights going to non-Schengen destinations (like London) actually leave from a satellite terminal (4S), which you reach by train; it probably took more than 10 minutes to get to Passport Control. The border guard wanted to stamp my passport on the same page as the inbound stamp from Porto, but had a hard time finding it because it was so faint; once she finally saw it, she muttered “Portugal” and made sure that her stamp was nice and clear.

We went to the lounge for a quick breakfast; I’d never seen an airline lounge that you had to enter and exit through the middle of the Duty Free shop before! It was perfectly pleasant, but the food options were pretty limited. Diane hadn’t quite finished her bottle of water when it was time to go, so she put it in her bag for later.

Our gate was a long way away from the lounge, but we had plenty of time. My watch told me that I’d walked more than a mile by the time we were on the plane, so I was happy that Iberia offered a nice breakfast on the flight to Heathrow. I didn’t quite finish my water, so I put it in the pocket on my backpack and brought it with me for later.

We arrived at Heathrow a few minutes early; when we exited the plane in the C concourse, we had almost two hours to make the connection to SFO. We had our boarding passes and knew we would be flying out of the B gates, so we wouldn’t have to change terminals; we were in Business Class, so we had Fast Track for Security; what could possibly go wrong?

Cue the ominous music.

We followed the signs and got on the train to go to Flight Connections. It made a stop at the B gates and I decided to get off to save time. That was a mistake, because there were no escalators going up to the concourse – BA keeps inbound and outbound traffic strictly separated at Heathrow.

The next train was far more crowded but we managed to squeeze in and went one more stop to Flight Connections. There were lots of people crowded around the help desks, waiting for an agent to fix their problems. We walked past them to the automated gate that lets you in to the Security screening area. I put my boarding pass on the scanner and waited for the gate to open.

It didn’t. The display read “Go to BA Desk”. I tried again with the same result. We were now people with problems.

We trudged back to the help desks and got into the “First and Business” line, which only had four groups of people ahead of us. Ten minutes later, there were still four groups of people ahead of us. Diane stayed in line while I tried using the self-serve kiosk to create new boarding passes; it couldn’t read my passport. I tried the BA app; it gave me a digital boarding pass, but wouldn’t create one for Diane.

Eventually, we got to an agent. She said that the boarding passes I’d printed on the Iberia site were incompatible with BA’s system, even though both airlines are owned by International Airline Group. She also said that at least one of us had missing passport data in the system, even though I’d entered it on both the Iberia and BA sites. Despite all that, she was able to print new boarding passes for us, and off we went. I finished my water on the way back to the Security gate, which opened with no problems this time.

The Fast Track line was closed due to budget cuts and staffing issues, so we got into the regular line, with a little over one hour before our flight. Still plenty of time, right?

Half-an-hour later, we could barely see the actual screening area; I started asking people if we could go ahead of them because we had so little time left. Everyone was great and let us go, for which I’m grateful – and I think I need to refill my karma account now!

At Heathrow, you have to take out any electronics bigger than an iPad as well as the 1-liter bag for liquids and pastes, but you can keep your shoes on. We were ready and got everything into the trays quickly; they didn’t even make us go through the millimeter-wave scanner! Things were looking up.

Until the tray with Diane’s carry-on bag got diverted to the “extra scrutiny” line, with three trays ahead of her. I asked if they could take her bag next – nope, that queue was strictly FIFO. When it was finally time for her bag, the agent found the water she’d brought from the lounge in Madrid; we’d both forgotten about it.

The agent took everything else out of the bag and found nothing else suspicious; he put the water through the analyzer, which found nothing suspicious. He apologized, said that they had to confiscate the water anyway, repacked the bag, and sent us on our way.

It was 25 minutes to flight time, and we still had to get to the B gates, which meant taking the train again. There were escalators to “All Departure Gates” near where we’d emerged from Security but the area was congested. I knew the escalators at the south end of the A concourse were always less crowded, so we walked there…quickly.

We took the uncrowded down escalator and found the sign directing us to the train for the B gates, which was, of course, at the north end of the concourse. Oops! So we walked even more quickly back to the north end to go down four flights to the train.

Which, of course, was delayed for a security check. After what felt like an eternity (but was probably only three minutes), we were allowed to board for the two minute journey to the B gates, where we took the lift up to departure level.

We ran to our gate; fortunately, they hadn’t closed the doors to the aircraft yet! The gate agent scanned the boarding passes and looked at our passports one last time, and told us we could breathe and walk down the jetway to the plane. And we did.

Lessons learned:

• The sign at Heathrow Terminal 5 that says “Flight Connections, all terminals” means all terminals.
• Never put a non-empty bottle of water inside a bag until you’re completely past Security.
• The only path to the B and C concourses at Terminal 5 is at the north end of the A concourse.
• Be nice to people in a hurry – you may be them some day.
• All’s well that ends well.

I was pleasantly surprised when I got on the plane – not just because we made it, but because this plane had been reconfigured with BA’s “Club Suite” layout. BA’s traditional Club cabin is arranged so that half the passengers face backwards and many passengers need to walk over a neighbor’s legs to get to the aisle (especially awkward when people are sleeping); on this plane, all the seats face forwards and everyone has direct aisle access. There’s even a sliding door that you can close between you and the aisle to give you more privacy (at least that’s the theory). It’s not perfect if you’re traveling with someone, though, because the seats are pretty far apart, making conversation difficult.

I spent most of the flight editing photos from the trip and learning more about Lightroom, so I feel like I accomplished something today.

We sat on the runway for more than half-an-hour; I think it was a problem getting a ramp crew, but I’m not sure. Once they got that sorted out, things moved more smoothly – the door they used for disembarkation was right behind our seats, so we wound up being the last people to get on the plane and the first to get off. Our gate was very close to the Customs area; this was the first time we’d used Global Entry with facial recognition, and it was quick and easy.

And now we’re home – I’m trying to stay awake until at least 9pm Pacific, but it’s a struggle!

Last Day in Madrid

We had our second tour with Beatriz today, a Full Day Madrid Tour featuring the Royal Palace and the Prado.

We started at the Westin Palace Hotel and slowly worked our way to the Royal Palace. I showed Beatriz the track of our tour on Monday and she used that to make sure we mostly saw different areas of the city, though we did return to Plaza del Sol and the Plaza Mayor today.

Madrid has many unusual sights atop its buildings, like this chariot on the BBVA building.

Beatriz told us that the Tio Pepe sign in Plaza del Sol used to be on the building now occupied by the Apple Store – Apple paid to move it to its current location!

Madrid street signs tell stories, like this one for the Calle de Arenal, showing workers digging up sand; the name of the street is literally “Sandy Street”.

We walked through the San Gimés neighborhood, and again we didn’t stop at the chocolateria. And we couldn’t visit the old bookstore because it was too early in the day.

I got a slightly different view of Plaza Mayor today.

There are many old stores in Madrid; here’s a clockmaker who’s been in business for 140 years.

The sign for the Calle de Toledo could almost have been one of the photos we took yesterday!

Beatriz took me to what she said was the best candy shop in the city, Carmelos Paco, so I could buy distinctive hard candies. I got away with only 350 grams of candy. It’s in the La Latina neighborhood, as is the Church of San Isidro, which I found very beautiful.

There are apartments just across from the church; instead of a blank wall, we got to see this.

We also visited the branch of the Madrid Museum near the church, which tells the story of the miracle of San Isidro and the well. He makes a guest appearance in person.

After a quick lunch at Casa Revuelta, we went to the Royal Palace, and Beatriz gave us a private tour. Photos are not permitted in most of the tour, which is through the Royal Apartment, but there were a few opportunities.

It had gotten seriously hot while we were in the palace, so we visited a nearby watering hole before catching a taxi to the Prado, where Beatriz took us on a tour showing us some of her favorite paintings and painters, including Bosch, Breugel, Titian, El Greco, Velasquez, and Goya.

No photos were allowed in the Prado, either, but I did get to take a picture of Goya’s statue from the front as we left.

I had hoped to visit El Retiro and find the statue of Lucifer, but the weather prevented us from going there!

Instead, we went back to the hotel to drop off our burdens, had dinner at Lamucca, and packed. Our plane tomorrow is at 8am, so we need to leave the hotel by 5am, hence this short entry with fewer links than usual.

Holy Toledo!

Today we went to Toledo for a tour, booked, as usual, with Tours By Locals. Beatriz G. was our guide, and she’ll be guiding us again tomorrow in Madrid – so it’s a good thing we really liked her and learned a lot from her!

It’s also a good thing we scouted out the railroad station in advance, because we got to our meeting point a few minutes late anyway. We had plenty of time to go through security and board the train to Toledo.

The Toledo station was small but interesting; we saw the first of many beautiful windows and ceilings with geometric patterns (inspired by Islamic art).

The station also had a very unusual clock.

Beatriz called for a cab to take us into the city (the temperature was already well into the 80s) and we got our first glimpses of Toledo from the cab.

We stopped at a viewpoint to get better photos; there were at least half-a-dozen buses there doing the same thing!

The cab left us in the Plaza de Zocodover, which was being decorated for the Corpus Christi procession on Thursday.

The city had put up shades to cover the streets the procession will use. On Thursday, the area will be filled with thousands of people.

We started our walking tour by leaving the central area and walking on smaller, less-traveled streets. We took a quick look inside the Circulo del Arte, housed in the former Iglesia de San Vicente, a 13th Century Mudéjar church.

We continued walking through the city, enjoying the decorations and the occasional shade.

There are nuns making and selling cookies to support themselves here in Toledo, too.

We visited the Visigoth Museum, housed in another 13th Century Mudéjar church.

There was some stunning artwork still in place.

We left the Visigoths behind to walk the narrow streets leading to the Jewish Quarter.

And here we are!

We walked up a hill and Beatriz recognized a friend who invited us into his home! It was an unexpected opportunity to see a non-tourist part of Toledo.

We returned to the narrow streets – you have to like your neighbors to live so close!

There are two former synagogues in the Jewish Quarter; the first, the Synagogue of Santa Maria La Blanca, was converted into a church after the Expulsion of 1492, and later into a barracks. It is now a museum, owned by the Catholic Church.

Our second stop was the Synagogue of El Tránsito, now the Sephardi Museum. It also had a variety of uses after the Expulsion before becoming a museum early in the 20th Century.

The architecture shows a lot of the three religions which have shared Toledo over the years; there are Islamic windows, Arabic inscriptions, lots of Hebrew, and many reminders of the building’s use as a church.

Hebrew books and scrolls were on exhibit.

Outside, there was a wall with Ibn Ezra’s Ancient Graves inscribed in Hebrew and Spanish.

The synagogue has been partially restored – you can see an old Torah curtain where it once covered the ark, and an old drawing showing what the building looked like when it was in use.

Of course, it’s impossible to go to Toledo and not visit the Cathedral!

The interior is stunning.

The monstrance will be used during the Corpus Christi procession on Thursday.

The Islamic influence is here, too, in the geometric designs and the ever-present arches.

We went into the Chapter House, where the bishop and priests discuss matters of importance.

Beatriz said this sign means “what happens here stays here”.

The sacistry has amazing artworks. El Greco’s “The Disrobing of Christ” and Caravaggio’s “San Juan Batista” are only two.

We went back into the main sanctuary; I have far too many photos to post. I was amused by the carvings on the seats in the choir, like this mermaid. Beatriz said some of the carvings are NSFW, but she didn’t point any of those out.

We had to leave Toledo and return to Madrid; before we left, we visited what Beatriz said was the best marzipan shop in town, Santo Tomé, and picked up a few treats for later. They do amazing work with marzipan – this model of the Toledo School of Translators is in their front window.

Tomorrow, we explore the Royal Palace and the Prado with Beatriz. It should be a great day!

Over-heated, over-arted, and over-tired

We asked our guide, Jackie M., if we could start our four-hour walking tour of Madrid at 9:30am instead of the normal 10am in hopes of beating the heat. She was happy to make the change and it was a great tour, but we were awfully hot by the end.

We started at our hotel and she took us by the Prado Museum and the Goya Monument outside the main entrance; the lines were already long.

We walked past the Library of the Prado and the Jeronimos Church before getting to El Retiro Park.

El Retiro Park used to belong to the Royal Family; it was their “nice retreat” in the country, but it’s long since been surrounded by city and the Royal Family gave it to the city of Madrid in the late 19th Century.

There were “yellow alert” warnings for heat at the entrance to the park, which meant that they planned to close some buildings at noon, including the Crystal Palace, so we went directly there.

Well, almost directly – Jackie showed us the Oldest Tree in Madrid, a Mexican conifer planted more than 400 years ago, and we stopped to take a photo at the Plaza Parterre looking back at Madrid.

The Crystal Palace was built in 1887 as a greenhouse for an exhibit of Philippine plants and animals. It was designed so it could be moved to another site, but it’s never moved.

The Crystal Palace is now part of the Reina Sofía Museum and the current exhibit is called “Against the Extravagance of Desire” – it’s a cardboard construction!

It wasn’t much hotter inside the Crystal Palace than outside – maybe the cardboard absorbed some of the heat. :-)

The Crystal Palace is next to a lake, complete with swans and turtles.

As we continued exploring the park, we saw the Fuente de la Alcachofa, which used to be at the roundabout near the main railroad station – they moved it to improve traffic flow.

There’s a huge lake in the park, used for boating, with a statue of King Alfonso XII at one edge.

We left the park and went back into town, stopping by the Puerta de Alcalá and another monument to King Carlos III. It took me four tries to get a photo without traffic!

We continued down Calle de Alaclá until we reached the Paseo del Prado and the Fountain of Cibeles, one of three fountains dedicated to Greek deities on the Paseo.

Our next stop was outside the Cervantes Institute, dedicated to spreading Spanish culture throughout the world.

We took a look at the Gran Via, Madrid’s Broadway. Buildings are being repurposed all the time – this one, the Edificio Metrópolis, once owned by a Spanish life insurance company, will probably become a hotel.

And this one, formerly owned by Equitable Life, has already become a hotel – a Four Seasons.

We were almost ready to start exploring the older section of Madrid, but first we had to walk through the Plaza del Sol – on our way, Jackie pointed out the candy shop which makes the most iconic candy of Madrid, La Violete. I noted its location for later.

The Plaza del Sol is under renovation – when it’s finished, it’ll be a huge area for celebrations. They do plan to leave the statue of Carlos III in place, along with the Tio Pepe Sherry sign.

Madrid Region’s main office is in the plaza; the official Zero Kilometer marker for distances in Spain is right outside.

Madrid, of course, has a Plaza Mayor (every Spanish city does). Most of it burned down in the 18th Century; the building behind the statue is the only remaining original building.

We made a quick trip to visit the cloistered nuns of the Monasterio del Corpus Christi. [They sell cookies], but we chose not to buy any today. There are some interesting decorations in their building.

We stopped at the old Madrid City Hall on our way to the Cathedral and Royal Palace, and I discovered the reason behind the bear-and-tree statue I posted yesterday – that statue is patterned after the city’s coat of arms.

The Cathedral was completed in 1993 (it was not Madrid’s first Cathedral).

When the monarchy was restored after Franco’s death, the King decided he didn’t want to live in a 4,000 room palace, but it’s still used for ceremonial purposes. We plan to visit it on Wednesday.

The park adjacent to the Palace has statues (of course), including ones for the original Kings of Spain, the Visigoth Kings.

More modern kings have statues, too, such as this one of Alfonso I.

And that was our four-hour tour of Madrid. Jackie took us back to the Plaza del Sol so we could return to the hotel on our own – I stopped at the candy store on the way back, and we collapsed for a while.

When we were ready to face the world again, we visited El Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisz, right across the street from our hotel. Jackie had advised us to start at the top floor with the oldest art and work our way down to the newest – we didn’t even finish the top floor.

I was amazed at how vibrant the early art was, like this painting of Christ and the Samaritan Women from around 1310.

This Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni from 1489 stopped me in my tracks. It’s amazingly three-dimensional.

I liked The Meeting of Tamar and Judah by Tintoretto, too.

The museum closes early on Mondays, so we had to leave before 4pm. I did get to glimpse this one very contemporary work on my way out.

We went back to the hotel to cool off again; we left one more time, with three goals:

  • Have dinner
  • Find our meeting point at the railway station for tomorrow’s tour of Toledo
  • See Guernica at the Reina Sofía Museum

The first two were easy, but when we got to the museum, there was a huge line waiting for 7pm when free admission began. We didn’t have to wait, though, because people over 65 get free admission all the time – we got to the room with Guernica about ten minutes before the crowds arrived.

They don’t allow photos in the room with Guernica to avoid traffic jams; the rest of the museum welcomes photography. I was pretty tired by then, so I only took one photo, of Man Ray’s Indestructible Object.

Tomorrow is supposed to be even hotter than today, and Toledo is usually about five degrees Fahrenheit warmer than Madrid. Wish us luck!

Segovia and a little bit of Madrid

When we checked into the Westin Palace, the desk clerk offered me the choice of 1,000 Marriott points or daily breakfast for two in the hotel restaurant, La Rotonda. It wasn’t a hard choice; I chose the breakfast.

This morning, I realized the wisdom of the choice; not only was the breakfast buffet amazing in its breadth of choices (little hamburgers for breakfast, sparkling wine, churros, omelettes, two kinds of smoked salmon, and much much more) and very tasty, but the room was almost worth the price of admission by itself.

The big plan for today was a guided tour to Segovia. Our guide, Pepe, also did the driving; it took a little over an hour to get to Segovia, much of it spent in Madrid traffic.

On the way there, I noticed this huge cross near the highway – it is the largest cross in the Western world (500 feet high) and was built between 1940 and 1959 at the order of Francisco Franco. He was buried there but was exhumed in 2019; he is, however, still dead.

We parked on the outskirts of Segovia, near the old Roman aqueduct, which was in use until late in the 19th Century.

It’s more impressive as it gets closer to the city and is carried on arches to maintain the gravity-powered flow of water.

It discharged into a cistern which is now drained; Pepe showed us how the water flowed in and out and how the iron content had stained the granite over the centuries.

On the way into Segovia, we passed a billboard advertising the Sixth International Swift Conference – it was for the birds, not the language, and we found quite a few of them flying around.

Pepe told us a lot about the Spanish Inquisition (which continued until 1834), complete with drawings illustrating the process of getting the accused to confess (waterboarding was part of the process). They built a church for the Inquisition to do its work outside the walls of the city – plausible deniability is nothing new.

Pepe told us about some of the civil wars that had happened in Spain, including, of course, the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. After Franco died, the city put up a monument to those who were persecuted during and after the war.

We walked through the Jewish Quarter; it was rather small and not terribly photogenic. Pepe said that Jews had lived thoroughout the area before the Inquisition, not just in the one area, which was quite close to the Cathedral – you could see the gargoyles which provide the drainage for the Cathedral from there.

We walked to the Plaza Mayor, which was lovely. During the Inquisition, it was the site of the weekly executions of the guilty; again, Pepe showed us drawings and described the process in detail.

We walked by the Cathedral; it’s impressive.

Diane noticed some interesting markers on the street – at first, I thought they might have been a Spanish twist on the Stolperstein (stumbling stones) you see in Germany, but they’ve been placed by the Network of Spanish Jewish Quarters to mark the old Jewish Quarter.

The crown jewel of the day was our visit to the Alcázar of Segovia (Segovia Castle), where Queen Isabella I (of Columbus fame) was enthroned.

No castle was complete without a moat – Pepe said that they fed the alligators in the moat through the hole in the rock.

Children did a lot of the fighting in wars in the Middle Ages; they were enthusiastic and easily replaceable.

We visited the ceremonial Throne Room, complete with tapestry on the wall and a stained glass window showing Ferdinand on his horse which is standing on the severed heads of a number of Moors.

Ironically, the Castle is filled with Moorish designs and architecture.

Isabella’s coronation was commemorated on the walls.

It was well worth the visit.

We doubled back to the Jewish Quarter to see the Abraham Seneor House; Seneor was a major funder to Ferdinand and Isabella, and was so important to them that he was given a coat of arms and they didn’t force him to convert. He was, however, posthumously converted to Catholicism.

Pepe had made reservations at Casa Duque, an old family restaurant (the current owner is the fourth generation) serving traditional cuisine. We couldn’t have their speciality, roast suckling pig, but what we did have was delicious: Judiones de La Granja con puerro (beans with cod and leeks) as an appetizer and two kinds of lamb as a main course. We had Spanish wine, of course – Muruve Crianza, a 2016 Toro from Zamora.

It was time to leave Segovia, but we took one last look at the aqueduct. Pepe had told us that when the Christians came to Segovia, they were reluctant to use pagan constructions like the aqueduct, so they Christianized them by adding, for example, the statue of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus in this photo.

And here we are, saying goodbye to Segovia.

Possibly the most shocking thing I saw all day were the fountains – they run 24 hours a day, offering water to all and sundry. I can’t imagine such a fountain in California!

On the way back to Madrid, we saw a bridge which reminded me of the Sundial Bridge in Redding; it’s the same architect.

When we got back to Madrid, we holed up in our nice air-conditioned room for a few hours, but ventured out after 8pm. We went to Eccolo Gelato for dinner again, but wandered around a lot and found a few interesting sites.

Our hotel is at the edge of the Barrio de las Letras; there’s a statue to Cervantes across the street from the hotel, but many other Spanish authors are honored by statues throughout the area.

Not all the statues are of authors – here’s one we found near the Sol Metro station.

Tomorrow is supposed to be hotter than today, and we have a walking tour of Madrid planned for the morning. I’m hoping the temperature will stay under 100°F, but I doubt it.