Me, Myself and Madrid

Blue skies over Plaza Mayor in Madrid
Plaza Mayor
Madrid was the first city that I was visiting completely on my own. Well, almost completely alone. I had a friend, Yi Yi, who was on exchange in Madrid and my main reason for visiting the Spanish capital was so I could see her again because I only usually see her once a year anyway (She's now based in Abu Dhabi). 

Although I was going to Madrid to visit Yi Yi, she had classes pretty much all day for most of the time that I was there so that left me to explore the city all on my lonesome during the long summer days. As Yi Yi was living with a host family, she wasn't able to host me and I was set to couch surf with some of her friends who I had never met but had been promised were super friendly. It's the closest that I have ever gotten to travelling alone and as a result, Madrid is a city that will always be close to my heart.

I was lucky enough to be greeted by Yi Yi at the airport and it was so nice being reunited with her after almost a year! Nothing tops the feeling of seeing friends overseas and this was no different. Madrid ended up being one of my favourite trips during my whole 7 months away from home.

Plaza Mayor Madrid
Plaza Mayor
The intricate patterns and designs on a wall in Madrid above eye level

Patatas Bravas at a tapas restaurant with patatas bravas sauce and mayo
Patatas Bravas
Black squid ink paella arros negre in Madrid
Black Paella
We spent our first afternoon wandering around the city centre but it quickly started raining so we sought shelter in a nearby bar, deciding to grab dinner while we waited out the downpour. I had been so excited about visiting Madrid not only because I got to see Yi Yi again, but also because I would be reunited with Spanish food! Paella is one of my favourite dishes but instead of getting a traditional seafood paella, Yi Yi suggested that we try out the black paella which is actually made with squid ink! I was really worried that my teeth would be stained black after our meal but if anything, my teeth were whiter than they were before. We also ordered patatas bravas, another favourite of mine, and tortilla which Yi Yi introduced to me as one of her favourites.

What is a visit to Spain without at least one serving of churros? Before calling it a night, we hit the most famous churro cafe in Madrid, Chocolateria San Gines. Founded in 1894, San Gines is now one of Madrid's most iconic places to visit for both locals and tourists alike. The cafe is meant to boast the best churros in the whole city. I'm not sure if it was the hype or not, but I didn't really think the churros at San Gines were particularly special at all but in saying that, they were still delicious. 

Iconic Tio Pepe sign in Puerta del Sol
Puerta del Sol at night
San Gines Churros
Yi Yi and I decided to have brunch the next morning before she headed off for class and before I began my solo exploration on Madrid. For brunch (yay my favourite!), Yi Yi promised me some decent poached eggs at a cafe that she had become a regular at. Although still not being like brunch back in Melbourne, it was the closest to brunch that I had gotten since leaving Melbourne and I was ecstatic.

For day one, I was going to be alone until Yi Yi finished class at 5pm. My plan was to do a walking tour starting at 11am to familiarise myself with the city, see Madrid's main sights and get to my bearings. I'd been on my fair share of walking tours around Europe, such as in Barcelona, Edinburgh and Budapest, so I knew a walking tour would be the best way to settle myself into Madrid.

Unfortunately, brunch ended up running past 11am, meaning I missed the walking tour. Instead, I explored the city on my own, mapping out a route for my own personal tour that hit all of the main attractions that Madrid offered.

The basement of the cafe
Brunch, my favourite meal of the day!
Puerta del Sol
Puerta del Sol

Plaza Mayor
If you've been an avid reader of my blog (I thank you very very much), you'll know by now that I am absolutely obsessed with markets. For every city I visit, I will do a "markets in *insert city name here*" Google search and Madrid was no different. Mercado San Miguel turns out to be one of Madrid's main attractions, an indoor market that offers everything Spanish (and more), from sangrias to paellas, seafood to fruit and veg, craft beers to Spanish wines.

This unsurprisingly ended up being one of my favourite spots in Madrid and although not exactly cheap, I found the prices in the market to be quite reasonable and not extortionately high like at most tourist attractions.

Mercado San Miguel
A wall of Jamon

So much paella
After eating as much as I physically could at Mercado de San Miguel, I took my time wandering over to the Royal Palace of Madrid. I did notice that I got quite a few curious looks from passers by throughout the day. I guess I might have been a little bit of an odd sight. A small, Asian girl who looked about 17 years old, wandering around the streets of Madrid completely alone with just a mirrorless camera and a cup of mango juice. Was she lost? Where was her family? Where was the rest of her tour group?

The curious glances didn't take too long to get used to though and didn't bother me for the rest of the day. Having lunch alone in a restaurant is a bit of a strange feeling when traveling alone. Eating alone back at home isn't a big deal but for some reason, I felt more self conscious about it overseas. The wifi was all I needed as a distraction though.

Plaza Major

I decided not to enter the Royal Palace. As it required an entry fee, I figured that it wouldn't be worth my time or money. I am as far from a museum or gallery person as there ever could be and seeing the inside of a palace was not something that particularly called out to me, especially as I had seen and knew that I would be seeing more than my fair share of palaces in Europe.

The pain of being in an environment like that was usually offset for me by the company of the people that I was with but seeing as I was completely alone, I couldn't see the experience as a particularly enjoyable one and decided that seeing the outside of the Royal Palace would suffice.

The Cathedral of Madrid
The Royal Palace of Madrid
The Royal Palace gates

I ended up having the best time wandering around solo! It meant that I could go at my own pace and stop to smell the (hypothetical) flowers. It was so nice to, for once, not have to consider anyone else's opinions or wants when wandering around. Traveling with others is a constant game of compromise, where you might have to endure sights you're not interested in at all or even miss out on ones that you were really keen on seeing.

Exploring a city on your own means you get to call the shots and do whatever you want to, even if that is sitting in a park for half an hour and just daydream (yes, I did do that...). Coming from a trip where I traveled with as many as 10 people, it was so peaceful and relaxing to just wander around solo. Being by myself also meant no visits to any museums or galleries! Score!

Gran Via

Madrid's official symbol: The bear and the strawberry tree
Solo gelato

At 5pm, I met up with Yi Yi as she had finally finished class for the day. This was the only day where she finished class relatively early so we decided to take advantage of the extra time we had together and planned to visit El Retiro Park. We spent hours rowing around the lake in the middle of the park, enjoying the sunshine and the precious time that we had to catch up on the happenings of each other's lives. I'm glad that I had Yi Yi there with me to see the park, rowing around the lake on my lonesome would have been more than a bit sad. We also explored the colourful glasshouse, one of Yi Yi's favourite parts of the park.

We had a quick and cheap dinner at a place serving €1 rolls, somewhere that Yi Yi had told me was popular with students. Our night was an interesting one. Yi Yi wanted to treat me to a typical Spanish night out so we ended up at an Erasmus clubbing event that was popular with exchange and Erasmus students. I had heard plenty about the Spanish's reputation for being sleazy and shameless but I did not realise how true this stereotype really was until going on this night out. I'm sure every girl is used to being hit on in clubs but for the first time ever, I had guys shamelessly grabbing at me with no subtlety at all. One guy even grabbed me around the waist and began dragging me away from Yi Yi, not letting go even when we both tried to pry his arms off of me. From an outsider's point of view, it probably looked like a kidnapping scene from a bad action movie and all that was echoing in my mind was my dad's warnings of "Be careful in Europe! I've seen Taken!". Two girls on a night out alone may have not been the best idea...

Retiro Park
Retiro Park lake
Retiro Park lake
Palacio de Cristal

Palacio de Cristal

Day two started off a little rough. I woke up at 2pm feeling (more than) a little worse for wear after the previous night out. The night before may have ended up with me throwing up out the side of a cab and then getting kicked out of said cab, having to walk all the way back to the apartment instead...

I also came to the horrifying realisation that my debit card was gone. I could have dropped it the night before in my inebriated state but I'm convinced that it was stolen from me (I have small flashbacks). Instead of doing the sensible thing and immediately cancelling my card like most people would have at the time, I shrugged my shoulders and went back to sleep. In my defence, I was feeling absolutely terrible, I felt like shit for lack of better words and the magnitude of my missing debit card had not really cut through my mind in my hungover state.

I eventually woke up half an hour later and went out for lunch with Yi Yi's friend, one of the girls who's couch I was crashing on. Only after lunch did I think it would probably be best to finally call up Barclays to cancel my card. This phone call ended up being more difficult that I had anticipated as they required all of my banking information, information that I didn't have on me because I was in Madrid... No matter how many times I repeated to them that I was overseas, they just told me that it was as easy as giving them my account number, the account number that was on my long-gone debit card...

In the end, I finally managed to get Barclays to cancel my debit card. Unfortunately, they refused to give me my account balance because I failed their security check (excuse me, I think I know my own mother's maiden name thank you very much). This meant that I was left in the dark until I got home about whether someone had gone on a spending spree with my debit card, spending the £2000 I had just transferred onto it the week before.

Palacio de Cibeles

Atocha station
Rainforest in a train station?
Turtles in a train station?
I began exploring very late that day, leaving the apartment at around 4.30pm. Luckily, I had managed to see most of Madrid's main attractions the day before so I didn't have too many things that I had to see and spent the day wandering around aimlessly at a relaxed pace. Madrid is famous for it's galleries and museums, especially the Prado, but there was no way that I was setting foot into one of those even if I was paid to do so (I really don't like museums). I decided to check out that area anyway and from there, headed to Madrid's largest train station, Atocha Railway Station, to book myself a return ticket to Toledo for the following day.

When I first stepped into Atocha Railway Station, I thought that I had accidentally stepped into a greenhouse. Not only does the station host an indoor rainforest, they have birds and turtles too! Definitely the coolest train station that I have ever seen.

I spent the rest of the day walking across the city, yes I walked across the whole of Madrid, to make it to the Temple Debod in time to see the sunset over it. Temple Debod is an Egyptian temple that was dismantled and rebuilt in Madrid. Yi Yi had told me that viewing the sunset there was unmissable so I made it my mission to get there on time. She wasn't kidding. The sunset was spectacular, one that photos don't do justice to. It was so relaxing just sitting there by myself, appreciating the gorgeous sunset. I couldn't help but feel a bit alone though as the park was full of couples. I don't think that I spotted a person by themselves or even a group of people, just happy couples, so I did feel a bit odd and out of place but decided to embrace it.

Not sure what I stumbled upon here

Sunset over Templo De Debod
I finally met up with Yi Yi after the sun had set at 10pm for a late dinner together. In our search for a good paella restaurant in the Temple Debod area, we unintentionally ended up in one of Madrid's most renowned restaurants, the Casa de Valencia, which was officially inaugurated by the King and Queen of Spain in 1975. Although a little pricier than average, the food that we had there was truly amazing and they were definitely deserving of their prestigious reputation. The interior was decorated beautifully with intricately designed wooden pieces so we felt more than a bit out of place in our less-than-casual clothes.

Fried calamari
Seafood paella
Seafood paella

For my third day in Madrid, I decided to take a day trip to a small town called Toledo which was an hour away by train. I felt like I had seen most of what Madrid had to offer besides their famous museums and galleries but as someone who does not enjoy museums and galleries at all, I decided to dedicate my last day to exploring Spain's old capital city. If you want to have a look at the Toledo photo blog I posted a few weeks ago, check it out here!

I ended up having the most amazing day in Toledo and it remains as one of my favourite destinations that I've visited. All day, I felt like I was living a real life fairytale walking around the ancient streets and alleyways of the gorgeous city. The only downside to the day was that I received more than my fair share of unwanted attention. As a solo female wandering around a foreign city, I had expected this and especially after being warned about Spain's reputation for being a little sleazy, I was prepared for some catcalls and wolf-whistles. For my previous two days in Madrid, I had dressed more conservatively in jeans but to take advantage of the 38 degree heat in Toledo, I opted for a playsuit which definitely worsened things for me. At one point, I turned around to see four men crouching over and trying to look up my shorts. Not cool at all... I was also followed a few times which got a bit scary when I was completely alone but the guys ended up leaving me alone if I walked into a shop to escape.

I ended up running back to the train station in Toledo to make sure that I didn't miss the return train I booked. This is because my plans for the night were what I had been looking forward to during my whole time in Madrid. I was seeing a Real Madrid match at Santiago Berbabeu Stadium! Missing the train that I had booked would mean missing half of the match so I ran across half of Toledo, even if that meant completely embarrassing myself and being laughed at by a group of local teenage boys.

*Click here for my Toledo photo blog*

Toledo Cathedral
When I got back to Madrid, I met up with Yi Yi outside of Santiago Berbabeu Stadium to go and see the Real Madrid match. I had waited my whole time in Madrid for this and it definitely didn't disappoint! Luckily, I got to witness Real Madrid win so the crowd was buzzing and the atmosphere was amazing.

After the match, Yi Yi insisted that I finally try some jamon, something that she had been trying to get to me try during my whole trip in Madrid. We ended our night at a tapas restaurant for my last meal in Madrid before returning home to Warwick.

Walking outside Santiago Berbabeu Stadium in Madrid amongst the crowd before a Real Madrid match
Santiago Berbabeu Stadium
Football players lining up for the coin toss before a Real Madrid Match at Santiago Berbabeu Stadium
Santiago Berbabeu Stadium
Mid footbal match at a Real Madrid match at Santiago Berbabeu Stadium in Madrid
Empty Santiago Berbabeu Stadium
Ham, jamon, mushroom and chicken croquettes after the Real Madrid match at Santiago Berbabeu Stadium
Chicken, jamon, cheese and mushroom croquettes
Jamon on a slice of bread at a tapas restaurant
Jamon on bread
Overall, I loved Madrid. Although the city itself isn't as exciting as others and there may not be as many activities to do, Madrid will always hold a place close to my heart. I got my first taste of solo traveling in Madrid and after that trip, I can definitely see myself properly traveling alone in the future. It is something that I enjoyed a lot and I feel like it is something that I could definitely handle.

I loved almost everything about this city, from the gorgeous summer weather to the delicious Spanish food. The city's main train station has an indoor rainforest with turtles! If that's not a reflection of how amazing Madrid as a city is, then I don't know what is.

The only downside to my time in Madrid would be the unwanted male attention that I received as a solo female traveler. I got wolf-whistled at more than I was comfortable with and even had a guy shamelessly grab my ass in public as I walked down the street in broad daylight. As a girl walking around alone, I feel that I was more susceptible to treatment like that but I'm sure it wouldn't have been as big of an issue if I had travelled with at least one other person and this is definitely not something that should put you off visiting such an amazing city!

I struggled quite a lot to write this post and now that I've lost all of my travel notes (I cried), I'm really worried that I'm not going to be able to write about the rest of the cities that I still have to write about! I'm about 30 cities behind and I'm not sure how much I'll remember from each of the cities, especially the ones that I visited last. I'll be trying my best though so stay tuned!


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