Posts Tagged ‘europe’

Making peace with Madrid; exploring the barrios

August 3, 2015

Like a defiant, self-absorbed bad boy who refuses to follow the rules, Madrid has always seemed to be wrapped up in a sort of Bacchian narcissism that’s not entirely interested in you unless you go where he wants to go and do what he wants to do. And that typically means partying all night, until seven in the morning, drinking pacharáns and grazing tapas. Unfortunately, I go to bed at eight (and don’t drink much), which makes it rather difficult for me and Madrid to find common ground, let alone get to know each other more intimately.

But try I do. And, as with any strained familial relationship, I visit each year, with slight reservation, always trying to see the good, for the sake of getting along.

Why I try so hard is simple: it’s the home of my kids’ grandparents. And if it weren’t for them, whom I love dearly, Madrid and I would have parted ways back in 1997, when I packed my bags and said, good riddance.

I used to live in Vallecas on calle Monte Igueldo when I was first married. We lived in a two-bedroom piso on the forth floor of an apartment building with no heat or hot water due to an empty butane tank that took a good two months for the butane company to fill. It was December and it was cold as hell. It even snowed.  I used to percolate hot water in my coffee machine (we did have electricity) and mix it with a bit of cold water so that I could wash myself. We were so broke that McDonald’s was a luxury we couldn’t afford.

Poverty gave me a very limited and rather working-class understanding of the city.  I knew key tourist spots that you could visit for free–the Plaza Mayor, where Americans and Brits would sit at cafes that lined the inner courtyard, the Retiro, Madrid’s version of “Central Park,” the Rastro, a huge Sunday flea market in Lavapies, and Casa de Campo–another big green space that includes a pool, tennis courts, and a park. But other than that, I worked every day as an English teacher and commuted with the throngs of Madrileños, heading to Recoletos, up the Castellano or other parts of the city. And because I had no set location, no office or classroom–I took an English teaching job wherever one was offered–I probably spent more time underground than above it. Pair that with a hubby who didn’t exactly have friends that I could relate to or socialize with (he and his childhood friends would meet once a week to play Dungeons and Dragons, or drink at Irish pubs). And so, I never experienced the deeper Spanish roots of the city–or found any of those unwritten-about places that are not discovered, per se, but shared like a secret, among friends.

I think I may have actually said, me cago en la leche, when I finally left Madrid but who knows.

Yet, I keep coming back. As often as I can. And if I am to be brutally honest, I have to admit that it may be partly for selfish reasons. There are, after all, the warm and embracing Spanish people. And the amazing food. And the dry, desert climate I love so much.  The European experience is well-preserved in Spain. And Madrid, itself, while lacking in aesthetics, has the potential for deeper exploration. And so, each time I come here, I have the best intentions: to see a side of Madrid I never knew, overlook our rocky past, and once and for all learn to love this untamed rebel.

Lodging

Last year, was a giant leap in that direction. I finally decided to rent an apartment on the Plaza Santa Ana as opposed to my usual– staying in Vallecas with my in-laws. What a difference!

We were able to explore more of the center instead of just taking the train in for a few hours. We were free to dine out at night–though it kills me to miss anything my mother-in-law cooks. And we were able to connect a little more directly with the vibe of Madrid, as we were right there in the heart of the city, living la vida, as opposed to being insulated in a touristy hotel, or isolated in an outer barrio.

Foregoing a hotel to stay in one of the new-style super modern luxury apartments has other benefits too. There’s far more space for less money, it’s far more modern than any hotel in Madrid (with the exception of Only You a sleek, modern hotel at $350 a night, or  Oscar, in the gayborhood, which is beautiful, including the naked men on the walls, but not the best spot for two teen boys and their mum; basically a sex hotel in Chueca, easily identified by the banner over it’s front door “Do You Want to Sleep With Me?”) Leon II, Madrid

Check out Spain Select. They offer fully-furnished two, three and four bedroom luxury apartments in the heart of Madrid. Ours this year is a two bedroom, two bath apartment with a fully equipped kitchen (including washer and dryer),  living room and views galore for the price of € 135 (that’s roughly $150 a night based on the exchange rate on 7/21/15). It’s located on Calle Leon on a quieter street than the Plaza Santa Ana, which can be a party plaza.

Keep in mind, normal hotel rooms in Madrid are small. So, if you’re traveling with two rather large teenagers, or children in general, you’d most likely need two rooms or a suite. Apartments solve that problem. Of course, you will have to cover your own bed. But, I think I can handle that.

Barrios

Years ago, I would do my usual loop around the center: Sol, then the Plaza Mayor, a little of the Gran Via, Atocha, Retiro, maybe the royal palace, and that was pretty much it. This trip is all about branching out. And if you’re no stranger to Madrid, my guess is you already know about this gems.

Malasaña: I have since discovered the hipster Malasaña district, with pleasant delight, never knowing it existed. Duh. With cool cafes like La Bicicleta, that offers amazing coffee and French croissants, and a pretty well thought-out “workspace” (tables have drawers with keys so that you can leave your laptop locked up without losing your space when you go to the W/C), and Lolina Vintage Cafe, a thoroughly mesmerizing cafe popping with color and design (and a kind of quirky menu), it’s hard to resist this bohemian, vibrant district. The Plaza del Dos de Mayo is its center and it has great vintage and trendy clothing shops, fabulous bars and hip cafes.  Use metro Tribunal.

Huertas: This year, we will be staying in the Huertas neighborhood, which is the literary quarter:

Also known as Barrio de las Letras, Huertas was once home to prominent literary figures, Miguel de Cervantes and Lope de Vega among them. Calle Huertas itself is inlaid with quotes from celebrated authors, street names pay homage to them, and second-hand bookshops pervade. neighborhood, everything becomes a little more cramped and slightly less refined, and takes on more of an underground feel. Live music is at the heart of Huertas: by night, its subdued bars are ideal for meeting friends, sipping cocktails, and chatting quietly while enjoying jazz or singer-songwriter performances. –TripAdvisor

Be sure to stroll down the narrow calle de las Huertas, which has the Plaza de Angel and Plaza Santa Ana on one end, and the Paseo del Prado on the other.  This area is also known for its jazz clubs, live music venues like Cafe Central, neighborhood bookstores, The Teatro Español, and yes, more cafes and restaurants. Best people-watching spot: an outdoor cafe on the Plaza Santa Ana.

La Latina: 

While I’ve known about La Latina for quite a while (it is, after all where the Palacio Royal and a part of Plaza Mayor are located), I have never explored it as thoroughly as I’d like, nor have I done so knowing its history. La Latina is the oldest quarter in Madrid, and one of the most beautiful. It is here you will find the best concentration of tapas bars, including Café Bar DelicCasa Lucas, and Casa Lucio, the latter two located on calle Cava Baja, one of the oldest streets in Madrid and a popular cafe street in La Latina. Interestingly, the Cava Baja (and its twin street, the Cava Alta) were named after caves or “moats” that allowed subterranean access to Christians and Moors who could enter and exit the city even when the doors of the walled city were closed. In later years, merchants who would come to the city to trade would stay on these streets, which were lined with inns and taverns. 

Also in La Latina is Madrid’s oldest street, the calle de Grafal, which, according to historians, dates back to 1190. But stick to the calles Cava Alta and Cava Baja where all the action is. And only long after dark.

La Latina’s main squares are the Plaza La Cebada and Plaza La Paja. And you can also find the Rastro, a huge flea market open on Sundays in La Latina. 

To read more about Madrid’s neighborhoods, TripAdvisor has a great page devoted to them.

 

 

 

Rail trip across France, Spain

May 23, 2014

“I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.” ― Ernest Hemingway

Trying to get back to Europe is no easy feat (lorsque le temps viendrait!). Airline tickets can cost, at the cheapest, anywhere from $1,000 to $1,800 per person. Decent hotels in big cities like London, Paris and Madrid are usually over $200 a night. Forget about hotels by the beach in July and August. And while rail travel is still relatively inexpensive, it’s not what it used to be. Of course, you can definitely do Europe on a budget. Staying in hostals and sharing a shower with a bunch of backpacking twentysomethings is probably your top best budget saver. But, really? Not for a family of four.  So…bide your time, save your money and try to devote a few hours per week to perusing TripAdvisor for deals and tips and soon enough, you’ll have a realistic idea of how much you’ll need for the trip of your dreams.

Style, budget and space, check!

A rail trip across France and into Spain not only requires money but time. Reasearch time, in particular. Hours of Google searching went into each of these hotels, painstakingly trying to find ones that fit into my budget, without compromising that one commodity I just don’t ever want to give up: atmosphere.  Being the hotel snob that I am, any place I stay must have that certain je ne sais quoi, that ambience that delivers a true “I’m in Europe” feel. And believe it or not, that “feel” is not easy to find. Many hotels across Europe are plain, simple, and at best, functional. They may have a stunning reception area, but rooms oftentimes can be barren (a bed, end table, TV and bathroom), and lacking in what I call an American idealized version of what we think a hotel in Europe should be. Worse yet, is that in certain cities the hotel fashion at the moment happens to be all-American, New England, circa 1982 (ahem, Madrid, I’m talking about you. You go from the sublime to the ridiculous). The worst though are the hotels along the coast in France and Spain. Little seaside resorts that are inundated in summer with European travelers. Booking three months in advance isn’t soon enough. You need to grab some of the better hotels six months to a year in advance, or get stuck with the typical highrise hotel room that makes you feel more like you’re in Wildwood, NJ than on the Costa Brava.  Lastly, and most importantly, is that when you travel as a family through Europe, it’s almost impossible to find big rooms with a separate living area. Many times what they offer are quadruple rooms, or “quads” which is basically two double beds smushed together in one small room. And while that may save you money, you just may end up killing each other by the end of your trip. I hate to be a whiny, privileged American girl, but — when you’re traveling together for 18 days straight, you need your space. So, all of the rooms I booked either had connecting rooms, a separate bedroom area or, we simply rented two rooms.

OK, so…the particulars… This particular itinerary is an 18-day rail trip, consisting of  seven stops, beginning in London and ending in Madrid. Because my kids’ grandparents live in Madrid, we saved it for last, where we will stay for five days in an apartment, not a hotel (I’ll get to why, below). Every other stop along the way will be a two-day stop. Had we not extended our stay in Madrid, we probably would have gone from Barcelona over to Pamplona (one day) then to Bilbao (two days) and then Madrid. Each hotel is in walking distance of public transportation, either directly walking from the main train stations, or by connecting Metro stops. The only time where this is not the case is in Annecy, France, where we plan to rent a car from Paris and drive to Annecy (in the French Alps). We are doing this for two reasons: once in Annecy, we would like to take what we believe is a 45-minute car ride to Geneva, Switzerland (a train ride from Annecy to Geneva apparently takes three hours, due to a gazillion stops and layovers along the way), and so that when my husband has to go back to Paris the next day, to head home, he can simply take the car back, and drop it off at Charles du Gaul airport. If you would like actual cost of the trip, or hotel recommendations, please feel free to comment. And of course, when I get back, I will give my firsthand account of how it all panned out!

LONDON, ENGLAND • HOTEL: The Academy Hotel,
 21 Gower Street, Bloomsbury 
London
WC1E (Tube Goodge Street- Northern Line 6HG)(Two night, family room) I chose this hotel (instead of the Think Apartment Hotel, which I had originally booked) because it was a little cheaper and it was a little more central to where I wanted to be. This hotel is in the literary Bloomsbury district in walking distance to Covent Garden. Their family room consists of two separate bedrooms and a living area. It doesn’t look too fancy, but London hotels are extremely expensive. We’re lucky to have found what we hope will be a nice place. • TRAIN: Aprox. 2 hours, EuroRail Train London-Saint Pancras to Paris Nord (four persons $459)

PARIS, FRANCE • HOTEL: Villa Pantheon, 41 Rue Des Ecoles 5th arr. – Quartier Latin Paris, 75005 (Metro Maubert Mutualite) (Adjoining rooms) Also pricey are hotels in Paris. This is a British-style hotel supposedly in the Latin Quarter, but it’s if it is, it’s on the very edge. It’s much closer to the Saint-Germain-des-Près area, farther south-east. But the area itself is another favorite area of mine–right by the Pantheon, and of course, in the heart of Paris, on the left bank. Here, we reserved connecting rooms. • Rental Car Company: Auto Europe. Picking up a midsize car at the Gare du Lyon around the corner and heading to Annecy (aprox 5h 30m )

ANNECY, FRANCE • HOTEL: Hotel Les Tresoms 3 Boulevard De La Corniche Annecy, France TELEPHONE: +33-450514384 I wanted to splurge a bit at this location. When will we ever be back in the French Alps? Why not have a hotel room on Lake Annecy? A bit over budget, but hopefully worth it. • TRAIN to Aix-en Provence (aprox 3h39m)

AIX-EN-PROVENCE, FRANCE • HOTEL: Hotel Aquabella 2 Rue Des Etuves, Aix-en-Provence, Bouches-du-Rhone, 13100 This hotel is right in the center of town 11 minutes walking distance from the main train station. I can’t forget to have some ratatouille while here, and of course, a little bit of red wine de Provence. We reserved two separate rooms at this hotel because of their size. And unfortunately, there is only one late night train to Aix from Annecy, so we will pretty much lose a day here. Quel dommage! • TRAIN: (About 2h30m to Sete)

Update: this hotel was a huge disappointment–very unclean and definitely not as up-to-date as the photos would have you think. However, it is very close to a charming plaza right off the rue Merindol, before you hit the the Place Forum de Cardeurs where we had a great Moroccan dinner in an outdoor cafe, called Le Pe’tit Tagine. My suggestion: if you want to experience Aix, rent a house in the countryside

SETE, FRANCE • HOTEL: Le Grand Hotel, 17 Quai Maréchal de Lattre de Tassigny, Sète, France. This is one of those places that has probably become far grander in my imagine that it is in reality. I say this because the hotel looks amazing, yet the town looks completely lacking. In fact, it looks as if it’s just a canal town. And yet, it’s Provence. I’ll make the best of it. • TRAIN: (aprox 3h3m)

BARCELONA, SPAIN • HOTEL: Hotel Duquesa de Cardona 4* Sup.Passeig Colom 12 – 08002 (Metro: Jaume 1 or Drassanes) Barcelona (España). This is another stuning hotel with a roof top bar and pool overlooking the sea. Here, we will be staying in their largest room, the Junior Suite La Duquesa, with double balconies and a separate bedroom. Once I arrive in Spain I believe I can finally relax! I speak Spanish far better than French, and I am far more at ease here as I know the customs much better. Además, este es el país del padre de mis hijos. • TRAIN: (about 3 h 5 m)

MADRID, SPAIN • HOTEL: Apartment Plaza de Santa Ana 1, 2º Dcha B, 28004, Madrid (Metro: Anton Martin. Apartment arrivals can be made between 4.00 pm. and 9.00 pm. Last but not least! Madrid, my old home! Because we normally stay with my in-laws, I have never had need for a hotel in Madrid. However, now that my sons are so big, and we all take up so much room, it’s time we got a place of our own. When I looked into hotels in Madrid, I was greatly disappointed. And then I remembered apartment rentals for a similar price. Bingo! For under the cost of a hotel room with two double beds and a bath, we will be renting a two bedroom apartment on the Plaza Santa Ana (one of the most popular plazas in the center of town), a huge living room, kitchen two bathrooms and a dining room. Outrageous. It’s also right near the Tirso de Molina metro stop, which means it’s a direct line to my kids’ grandparents’ house in Vallecas.

Feel free to share this itinerary. And if you have any questions, comment below!

A touchy subject, even for the world of film

November 11, 2011

In a few days, D and I are headed to Amsterdam for the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA) where a film I took part in, “Love Addict,” will debut. And while I’m thrilled to once again be part of the art world, schmoozing with a great clique of writers, directors, producers and photographers, in Europe no less, I am a little leery.

For starters, the documentary is a topic of interest that might not be, how shall I put this, all that well received. It’s about weakness and that’s something some people have a hard time witnessing. People might laugh. We will, after all, be in Europe. “Oh those Americans,” they’ll say, “Always angst ridden and falling apart over the most luxurious and invented of possible problems.” And it’s true. Love addiction isn’t really about love or anything lofty like that. It’s not even about something as ugly yet facinating as being addicted to sex, meth, hoarding or any of the more lowbrow dysfunctions. It’s about the psychology of personal defense mechanisms and how that plays out in a person’s life. It’s about whining over not being loved, but feeling stuck and doing nothing about it because you don’t believe in yourself. Superficial, self-centered stuff that probably should have been dealt with at age 13, not 43.

And let’s face it. The documentary is not based on “real” suffering, in the broader sense, the kind you find in places like war-ravaged Iraq or Sierra Leone. We didn’t film a heated polemic on climate change or the impending doom of global food shortages. This is self-imposed, I can’t control my behavior stuff that causes suffering. It’s akin to over-eating, over-spending, gambling, drinking. It’s the addiction argument. We participate in these behaviors of over-indulgence and over-consumption and suffer the consequences, then wonder what the hell happened when we fall flat on our faces. We wonder how it got this bad. And why it can’t be stopped. So we call it a “disease.” Really, it’s like cancer; it spreads. Obsessing over that which we cannot have and putting up with bad behavior from others becomes the dominant response. It gets to the point where good judgment is lost. It gets to the point where a husband smacks his wife across the face. It gets to the point where she stays because she “loves” him. She stays “for the kids.” Or she stays because she’s scared to death to be alone.

Sure, people might snicker over my American sensibility for personal growth. And they might even get that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of their stomachs when the director toys with the idea of a woman who resorts to stalking a la Fatal Attraction, or another who dates a kid fifteen years her junior with no job and no real ability to handle an adult relationship, let alone take care of himself. Through most of the documentary, in fact, you find yourself asking, is this a real problem or do these people simply suck at managing their lives. In the beginning you feel like, clearly, anyone labeled a love addict is sick in the head. In the end, you wonder, “Could this be me?”

And that’s a good question.

Maybe the cultural dilemma of how men and women treat each other within a relationship is not as black and white as the media would have you think. Maybe love addiction is a lot subtler than the Hollywood version, or the battered woman version. Maybe the term “love addiction” is a misnomer, and it’s even more prevalent than alcoholism. You remember those statistics from the 80’s? In every family there’s at least one drunk. Or was that “jerk”? I can’t remember now. But I can tell you this: there’s tons of unhappy women suffering through bad relationships right now or stuck in a one-sided flimsy representation of one. It’s plague-ish, if you ask me. Take a good look at all your girlfriends. How many have stayed in a bad relationship or a bad marriage long past the point of dignity? That’s love addiction. How many settle for a “friends with benefits” situation in the hopes it turns into something more? That’s love addiction. How many men or women do you know that have had affairs and destroyed their families on the fantasy-based whim that love with this perfect new stranger will save their soul? That’s love addiction. And how about the hard-working career woman who finds it safer to date a married man, or one about 3000 miles away rather than go out and actually find someone close and available? That too, is love addiction.

It was just this past weekend that my Aunt came to a family party with proof that dating a bad boy is an epidemic among twentysomethings. She showed me a photo of my cousin N, a beautiful Paris-Hiltonish statuesque blond. She was pictured with a cute, smiling Italian guy. The first words out of my Aunt’s mouth were, “This guy is actually [emphasis mine] nice.” I.e. he’s not a f’ up like the previous ones.

It reminded me of my youth. I dated one bad boy after another. Each one ever so slightly less bad than the last. You’d think I’d be trading in behavioral traits in the hundreds instead of making microscopic improvements in increments of one. But were my bad dating decisions so far from the realm of what’s normal? I don’t think so. Sure, some of my friends dated good, kind, loving men who treated them well. But most couples in my circle had problems. And marriage didn’t leave you exempt from mismanaging your life. Marriage and love addiction are not mutually exclusive. And while having problems within a relationship is normal and unavoidable and by no means signifies that you or your partner are addicted to love, the degree to which those problems do exist and the length of time they last are your best indication that you are in a healthy relationship or that serious soul searching is in order.

But getting people to accept that idea is almost impossible. We all have preconceived notions of who we are and Unflattering Labels don’t really fit into our personal worldview, I’ll give you that. Who wants to be labeled a junkie? But remove the label and what have you got? Romeo and Juliet, is what you’ve got. The glamorization of painful, unhealthy love. So, does it really matter what the disease is called? Does it really matter if it’s a disease at all? The lessons are what’s priceless: love thyself, your body is a temple, you are a miracle, you have value, you deserve better than scraps, you need to grow up and get over the fact that life ain’t a Shakespeare play…

This documentary doesn’t offer those lessons. It should, but it doesn’t (it will have resources for how to get help on its website and DVD). What it does offer is the problem. And a socially acceptable glimpse at love addiction. Unlike self-help books, which, let’s be honest, are a bit embarrassing (no one wants to be seen checking out a copy of “ Women Who Love Too Much”), documentaries don’t imply there’s anything wrong with you. You can go to the theater and be a voyeur into the lives of others and you can freely and secretly gauge if this is something you need to investigate further. A documentary is a film. It’s art. And while you can certainly judge the participants of the film—and even laugh at them if you want—you cannot avoid recognizing yourself in their stories, if but in the smallest of ways.

And I guess that’s all I can hope for. That art can still inspire individuals to sustain judgment and think deeply about what this film implies. Not the sloppy Jerry Springerish implication of classless people getting paid wads of cash to beat the crap out of each other for entertainment. But the deeper implications of the human heart, and its delicate  and often feeble inability to always be strong.