Ole Days

Konnichiwa Amigos


Saturday 16th August 2008

I wasn't expecting to go anywhere this summer. Work was just silly busy, the cottages were normal busy, everything was just busy, busy, busy for the both of us. No time for anything.

Then completely out of the blue Julie took the unilateral decision to book the cheapest Easy Jet flight out of Liverpool for my birthday weekend. We could have ended up anywhere in Europe. I was pleasantly surprised when she said we were going to Madrid. What a wonderful birthday present!

Despite only living an hour away from Liverpool we decided to stick to our usual habit of staying overnight before a flight. Old habits may die hard but at least the planes don't crash.

Crown Plaza Hotel Liverpool Airport

When we arrived at the Crowne Plaza hotel last night we were a little disappointed. In one respect it was an interesting period building but as a hotel the "1940's municipal" style didn't make for a good first impression.

Inside didn't fare much better either as we felt it was badly in need of a makeover. It came as quite a surprise to hear that it recently had one!?

After breakfast we moved our car to the hotel's long stay car park where we pulled up alongside some parked aeroplanes. From this vantage point it didn't take a genius to work out that this must have been the old Speke airport terminal building.

The chirpy scouse driver of our airport transfer bus filled us in on some of the hotel's history as well as giving us a comprehensive briefing about the business deals behind the recent change of ownership from Marriot to Crowne Plaza. Why on earth did he think we'd be interested in the franchise process?

Yellow Submarine Liverpool Airport
Lisa Dingle

Before he could move on to the topic of Acquisitions & Mergers we arrived at the big Yellow Submarine outside the Beatle airport and quickly joined the check-in queue.

Julie nudged me and whispered "Hey, that's Lisa Dingle from Emmerdale over there" And so it was. We don't watch it much but it was still something to get mildly excited about. Once airside we sat down at the bar and had a couple of drinks within touching distance of Mrs.Dingle; not that we were stalking her or anything.

By the slightest thread of coincidence Ringo Starr was born a few miles from here in an area of Liverpool called Dingle. Technically his birthplace is the nearest to the airport of the fab four, beating Lennon and Harrison (who both grew up in Wavertree) by a couple of miles, with McCartney much further away in the posh suburb of Walton. I wonder if Ringo Starr ever thinks "I wish I hadn't agreed to do that stupid Thomas the Tank voice over, I would have had an airport named after me by now!" (Although I'm pretty sure it's a posthumous honour. Has any living person ever had an airport named after them?)

John Lennon Airport was, as expected, adorned with large Beatles photographs accompanied by their many pearls of wisdom. Next to Lennon was "If the Beatles or the sixties had a message it was to learn to swim. Period. And once you learn to swim. Swim. You make your own dream. That's the Beatles story, after all, isn't it?"

Beatles Quote

I was gutted to learn that I had missed the whole message from my spiritual decade, the sixties. I've never learned to swim. I float like a brick. Swim like a drowning cat. Whilst I can propel myself the length of a paddling pool like an overwound-up toy, my frenzied strokes takes so much out of me that I if I were out of my depth I would drown. Period. I really should learn to swim.

At least boarding flight EZY7101 went swimmingly.

It was good omens all the way which helped Julie remain reasonably calm. Although the cocktail of diazepam and pinot grigio had probably more to do with her newfound wings of confidence. We sat in the middle of the plane, directly over the wings, right by the emergency exit. When an air stewardess asked "Are you ok with opening the door if we .... ?" (Aargh don't mention the C word!) Julie's newfound wings flapped a bit.

The two and a half hour flight was made much easier because we were sat next to a young lad from Newcastle. He was called Sam and had just left the TV talent show X-factor. He was one half of a duo who went by the name of Level 7. They'd progressed through to boot camp but had got no further. He was a really nice lad and we chatted all the way to Madrid.

"What are you doing in November?" asked Julie "I could do with a flight buddy!" He had certainly kept her distracted for the entire flight.

We landed then breezed through the airport, despite having to walk quite some distance from terminal 1 to terminal 2 for the metro.

A single-trip ticket only cost €2 which was a bargain as it delivered us almost to the door of our hotel.

We stepped out of the metro onto Gran Via, Madrid's most elegant of streets. Some of the architecture was absolutely exquisite.

Our hotel wasn't technically on it because its entrance was a short walk down Calle de la Salud but Hotel Arosa was in a perfect spot. Julie had also booked our accommodation on-line and had picked a really great location.

Hotel Arosa Madrid

We knew to only expect elevators on the ground level to beam us up to the 2nd floor reception. We weren't expecting however to have to squeeze into a space much smaller than a broom cupboard, especially as we were still carrying our suitcase and rucksacks.

"This is ridiculous" we thought and we couldn't stop laughing.

We fell out onto the second floor to check-in only to have to step back inside the space deprivation cell up to the eighth floor.

The reception area was like a grand Bourbon palace, very in-keeping with the history and architecture of Gran Via.
Hotel Arosa Madrid

In stark contrast the eighth floor was strikingly modern. Spanish slate walls and calming beige floors raised our hopes for a cool and contemporary bedroom.

Those hopes were somewhat dashed when we stepped inside and saw a mattress on the floor.

"That looks like a futon" I said.

"That is a bloody futon" confirmed Julie "where are we? bloody Tokyo!?"

We half expected a Geisha to totter out the wardrobe to serve us sushi and green tea.

Hotel Arosa Madrid

"I was so looking forward to a proper bed!" continued Julie the dismayed..

Our aching limbs were desperately in need of some comfort and we couldn't hide our disappointment in having to bend down onto the floor and rollover onto a rock hard futon matress. It was like a cruel form of Japanese traveller's torture. There was nothing for it but to crack open the champagne to numb the pain. It worked a treat!

When I woke up a few hours later I was a little worried when I couldn't feel the left hand side of my head. Sleeping on the solid futton had stopped the blood from flowing. Once the feeling gradually returned and the pins and needles subsided I got up and pottered about the room. Julie was still in a deep sleep; like a victim of a badly cooked puffer fish.

I amused myself for a while looking out the window watching the busy shoppers of Gran Via. The view to the left, over the rooftops of the city were made a little more interesting by the two domes of somewhere and somewhere else.

Gan Via Madrid
Madrid rooftops

I ended up standing there for ages.

In fact I only snapped out of my voyeuring when the sun had set and my stomach asked "are we fasting today?"

So I returned to the room, finished the unpacking and tidied up; gradually increasing the noises as I went along. A rustle here, a slam there. I had visions of a repeat of what happened in Florence when a relieved post-flight Julie slept for 14 hours! Tonight was going to be different when the rattling of an empty champagne bottle around an empty rubbish bin did the trick and Lazarus rose from the bed. Five minutes later a very bleary-eyed Julie was being led down the hill towards Puerta del Sol.

Madrid's most recognised icons can be found in Puerta del Sol.

Tio Pepe sign Puerto  del Sol Madrid

The "Gateway of the Sun" is home to the city's symbol, the bear in the woods thing. The famous illuminated Tio Pepe sign dominates the square in the evening. It's apparently the best selling brand of Sherry in the world. Also located somewhere in Puerta del Sol was a marker for Kilometre Zero, the spot from which every road in the country is measured, making it the centre of the Spanish universe no less!

Being at the centre of it all, it comes as no surprise that it has seen its fair share of Spain's history. One of the most infamous took place on the 2nd May 1808 when the local Madrinellos rioted in a popular uprising against the occupying French forces only to be brutally crushed.

I must admit I find history extremely fascinating. Walking streets were momentous events took place always gives me a thrill. Even at home, when I walk around Caernarfon for example, I'm blown away by the things that have gone on before.

Another piece of Spain's past was represented by a statue of Carlos III astride his faithful horse. By all accounts he was a typical inbred royal, in that he had that sickly-child runt-of-the-litter look they often get through all those cousins marrying cousins for generations.

Before I left Puerta del Sol I wanted to find Kilometre Zero but this half moon shaped square (if you know what I mean) was mostly covered by renovation work and the remainder was so busy with people on their way to somewhere else the maker was impossible to find. We too were on our way somewhere, armed with one of those little pop-up maps, on a b-line to the tapas bars of Plaza Santa Ana.

Along the way we came across Museo del Jamon, a brightly neon lit "museum" to the ham which looked more like a Soho sex shop.

It was like a shrine to porknography!

Museo del Jamon Madrid
musei del Jamon, Madrid

They certainly get turned on by the cured ham in this part of the world.

We turned down Calle Victoria which despite being packed with tapas bars we continued on our course towards Santa Ana. Within no time we popped out into a large square.

It was a very bleak empty space; certainly not the "popular gathering place with a lively, at times rowdy, atmosphere" the tourist guides claimed.

"Is this it?" yelped Julie.

I desperately looked around for some happy shiny people but it was deserted.

"This can't be it" I said, more in hope than anything else. I was so relieved when I spotted a sign and realised we had ended up in a desolate car park called Plaza de Jacinto Benavente.

We did find our Shangri-La in the end and Plaza Santa Ana was exactly what the guides described.

Plaza de Sta Ana Madrid

It had a lovely atmosphere.Families sat at tables enjoying their meals served by the multitude tapas bars that spilled out into the middle. There was a wonderful vibe to the place.

Whilst being very popular with the tourist it didn't feel like a fake tourist trap. It felt right. No wonder Ernest Hemingway was a regular here.

Every European city claims a Hemmingway connection but Madrid has more right to that claim than most. He reported on the Spanish Civil War for an American Newspaper and later published "For Whom The Bell Tolls", one of literature's brightest moments. His favourite watering hole during his time spent in this city was the bar Cerveceria Alemana on Plaza Santa Ana.

There were two opposing focal points here that gave the square a real presence. On the east side of the square was a Hard Rock Cafe Hotel, lacking in tacky signage and cleverly disguised as an attractive building splashed with purple haze. On the west side was the brightly lit neo-classical facade of Teatro Espanol, one of Madrid's premier theatres.

We walked around browsing a few menus getting increasingly hungry yet not having the courage to step inside.

I must admit the traditional looking bars scared us a little. We were overcome by shame at our Basil Fawlty like linguistic skills. Our saving grace was a modern looking restaurant called Tapas Bar. We felt a little more at ease stepping inside and asking for the tourist's menu Ingleses.

Teatro Espanyol Plaza del Sta Ana Madrid
Tapas Bar Pz Santa Ana Madrid

When the waiter came to take our order I wanted to make amends so I spoke in my best "Manuel he-from-Barcelona" Spanish and ordered Gazpacho, Patatas Bravas, Piementos and Tortilla Espanyol. They weren't exactly difficult to say. In fact I believe my menu choices may have been influenced by how simple they were to pronounce!

I forgot to mention my cunning plan to Julie and she went ahead and ordered something quite unpronounceable!

I embarrassingly fluffed my attempt and quickly resorted to the English translation of "fish with mayonnaise". I recovered well though, when my "Gracias", spoken with confidence, had a certain Javier Bardem gravitas to it, or at least I thought so.

We had five dishes on their way and to be honest I expected them to arrive all at one. A selection of small platters for us both to share. The Patatas Bravas and Piementoes arrived first. We waited for a while for the rest but had almost finished by the time the Tortilla Espanyol was served. Only after we had cleared our plates did the Gazpacho arrive.

Julie was on the verge of chewing her arm off by the time I finished my healthy portion of cold tomato soup. Only then did they serve the final dish of our order, the fish goujons with alioli. Despite the peculiar sequencing the food was very tasty and the portion was much larger than I expected.

It was nicely decorated inside. Although the way we were seated all I could see, other than Julie's smiling face, was a chalk drawing of a cow illustrating all the different cuts of meat, whilst Julie's view, other than my hairy face, was Playboy TV on a small television up on the wall. We found that more than a little odd.

cuts of beef Tapas bar Madrid
buskers Plaza Sta Ana Madrid

We left the tapas bar called Tapas Bar. It was almost midnight yet it was such a lovely warm summers evening we sat down at a table in the middle of the square for a few drinks.

We chilled out; people watching, listening to (and paying) a steady procession of buskers, eaves dropping to fellow visitors and locals alike, and adding to the atmosphere ourselves by generally putting the world in its place.

At midnight the bright lights illuminating the Teatro Espanol were switched off which was a sign for us to move on. We still felt the night was young so we walked back through calle Echegaray. I knew there were a couple of Flamenco bars down here. Not the clichéd tourist types but real hard core flamenco.

Due to the recent introduction of the smoking ban in public places there was a cloud crowd outside almost all of the bars. Their presence was enough to intimidated us and we chose not to push past them to get inside. It was a shame really as they looked really interesting.

A few doors down from reaching our hotel we came across an Irish bar and comforted by the familiar we stepped inside for a pint. It looked typically authentic on the inside, all dark wood and red velvet bar stools. They may have failed to provide an Irish barman (nor even an Australian) and I'm not too sure why they had large wooden Native American Indian totem pole thing in the corner but the cold dark Murphy's sure went down well.

It was empty except for us and another couple seeking solace in the Emerald Isle's favourite export. Whilst the lack of people watching opportunity was replaced by a large screen showing highlights from the Beijing Olympics, it was all about to change.

All of a sudden the city's underworld descended on us. Through the window we saw this terrifying group shuffling down the hill towards us. It was like a scene from some post apocalyptic horror film and they all piled into the Irish bar.

Julie and I literally sat there mouth agog, eyes aghast, speechless and all the other signs of disbelief as the strangest parade of people past before our eyes. Goths, Punks, funeral directors, mourners, S&M dominatrix and a tall dwarf dressed in 18th century military costume.

They were all absolutely fascinating to watch; like curious fairground attractions of "bearded lady" and "man with three nipples" we gawped at these strange exotic animals. I'll refrain from calling them freaks as they were people just like you and me, just with an altered sense of reality.

I thought they'd all come for a pint of the black stuff but they hadn't.

They were all heading downstairs to where there was a large dancefloor. It seems inappropriate to describe it as such. I'd never been to a Goth disco before. Still haven't as we didn't pluck up the courage to go down there!

"Can you imagine them dancing?" I asked.

"Yes, they'll be doing the zombie dance to Michael Jackson's Thriller!" said Julie.

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