Sunday the 10th
MADRID! Having utilised the metro system the evening before, I had no trouble navigating the public transport system and made my way to the regions of Colón and Serrano. It was already past 10:00 am but there were few people in sight and even the convenience stores had not yet bothered to lift their shutters. When I exited the station I was immediately overshadowed by a building that alluded to an Ancient Style of architecture with its gable like the colosseum columns and statues of robed philosophers on the steps below. Prior to the Age of Enlightenment, the luxurious quality of books meant that this source of knowledge was not available to the public, yet this changed with the construction of the Biblioteca Nacional. Financed by the taxation of tobacco and playing cards as of 1712, a collection of 8000 books was the pride and joy of the first Royal Public Library. It became permanently accessible to the citizens of Spain in 1836, at a time of liberal revolution which facilitated the education of 75% of the population, then all illiterate. This simultaneously constituted the growth of the holdings, and although some books have overtime fallen victim to fire or robbery, the capacity of the Biblioteca Nacional is still expanding. In total, it can accommodate 115,000,000 volumes and today includes a copy of every text published in Spanish. The Museo of the Biblioteca Nacional featured a hall devoted to the creation and utilisation of paper with textbooks in unrecognisable scripts on display. Braille, hieroglyphs, ciphers and a plethora of alternative figures were inscribed in torn, weathered and evidently loved books preserved behind glass in the exhibition halls. I inspected a stained manuscript of the human anatomy with thin flaps of paper pasted on top of the original text. It was a curious educational tool of the 1500s, and the cabinet next door showcased tiles used to print lettering by hand. Although I could not understand the tableted explanations corresponding with the exhibits, I was amazed by the masterful texts that were incredible in both their artistry and content.
I walked to the Plaza de la Cibeles where the Town Hall and Bank of Spain bordered the square. The Banco de España was unfortunately covered in scaffolding but its outer appearance made no difference to the execution of its important role of regulating the Euro. When it was responsible for the 512 tons of gold reserves, an old-fashioned security mechanism was employed to protect the riches, which have since been shipped to Monaco for better protection. A system of pipes were used to flood the underground vaults, which is far from the lasers and sensors one might imagine are used to protect national treasures. The palace opposite that now operated as the Town Hall was once the Palacio de Comunicaciones – the acting post office of the last century. Since its appropriation in 2007, this building has doubled as both a museum and the offices of the parliament. The political ideology concentrated in this part of the city was evident in public artworks on display as well as a banner that spanned the exterior of the building with the block letters REFUGEES WELCOME printed in black on its white surface. Although this public message is respectable, the internal imbalances that have generated an urban poor within Spain has become a living reality for many and requires the same urgent attention. The slums in the suburbs are evident in all parts of the city. Only in the short walk from the metro, I had passed the sleeping homeless under any available coverings on the street side. Outside my hotel, families camped in tents or makeshift shelters, creating a subculture completely estranged from the rest of Spain. The disparities in the quality of local life was addressed in the public gallery through a series of photographs which acknowledged the issue, but no solution was presented herein. The other exhibitions included portraiture, 3D printing, and collaging concerning the ideal Europe and refugees. The artistry in the museum was matched by that of the building which had an illuminated stained glass ceiling I would not have expected to find in a post-office.
The end of the street brought me to a fountain of Neptune that stood at the centre of a roundabout surrounded by yellow poppies. This was the Plaza Cánovas del Castillo. I walked past the three museums which showcased the revolutionary artists that shaped national cultural practices and perspectives but was aware of my time pressures so did not step inside. My walk continued along a street parallel to the Paseo del Prado. Stalls were lined with second hand books for sale under £10 – now that I had an understanding of the significance of literature in Spanish culture this was an exciting sight! Rather than circling down the way I came, I traversed through the Botanical Gardens and was amazed at the sustenance of the greenery in the hot summer day. I had passed sunburnt fields on my way to Spain hence the rich flora made this rarity even more beautiful in vivid contrast. I reached the bottom of the plaza and found the Atocha Station. It was easy to spot as this semi-sphere sitting atop a terracotta brick building was bisected multiple streets. The Estación de Atocha had always been a significant meeting point in Madrid, but the grandiosity of this facade is only a recent development since the structure required immense restoration following an incident of mass murder that occurred in 2004. During the morning rush hour of the 11th of March, a series of bombs were detonated by an unconfirmed terrorist organisation which killed almost 200 people and injured tenfold that amount. From such a tragic event, however, the security measures have become increasingly thorough and the Atocha stands as a mark of national resilience. Finally, I made my way back to the metro where I had arrived earlier that morning, but not before purchasing a fan from a street vendor. It was forty-something degrees. I wondered if the locals ever got used to the weather here, I was becoming dehydrated so quickly I thought it might be a good idea to start drinking rose water so to make my sweat smell nice… Oh gosh, I really must be delusional from this scorching heat.
It was nearing time to meet my contiki family. That morning I had dropped my baggage in my assigned room and was relieved to find the two occupants, who had spent the previous night there, were still glued to their pillows and unconscious to the world. I pushed my suitcase into the room and silently tip-toed away, being careful to close the door with nothing but a whisper. Whilst I may have postponed the inevitable until this afternoon, the nerves had not yet subsided; but I need not have worried! I was warmly greeted by the two athletic jujitsu fighters from Miami of Spanish and Portuguese heritage who I am ecstatic to have as permanent roommates for the full course of our contiki. We quickly learnt we had the same sense of humour and are very excited for two weeks worth of shenanigans! After a quick bite, we attended our meet-up (insert administrative content here) and were soon befriended by the rest of our tour. The girls and I exchanged reluctant looks as we learnt that of the 28 attendees, six of them were male and only 2 were single. We ate dinner as a family in the restaurant next door: a buffet of tapas including potato omelette, croquettas, chicken drumsticks and a vegetable paella for main course. We shared a jug of sangria – it could not have had a more perfect match were I with friends from home! We were instantly glad we were all on the same page and already planning the upcoming weeks of mischief. The evening concluded in the city of Sol where we watched the Euro Cup final between France and Portugal. Although Belgium was out of the running, it was the company that I was there for, and good company it was!
Of course it does not take more than a few hours on contiki before those infamous stories are in the making! In the case of my roommates and I? We lost Lauren on the metro when her arm only made it halfway into the carriage! The rest of us stood in momentary paralysation and we collapsed in laughter as we pulled away from the platform. Bloody tourists – the locals stared at us in duly warranted judgement. We were reunited shorty after when the next train pulled into Chamartin. What a way to start our contiki – I just hope its not an indication as to how well we can stay together for the rest of our trip.