Back in 1970 when I was a sophomore in high school, I was in a Driver's Education class along with a couple other crazy fellows. One assignment had the three of us penning a story together about a road trip. It was pretty funny. It was called "Our Trip to Spain", which is funny itself because it's pretty hard to drive a car across the Atlantic Ocean. At least it was the last time I checked. The teacher thought it was pretty funny too, and if I recall correctly we had to read it aloud to the class. That's how comedy writers are born. We got an "A".
Roughly twenty six years later one of those co-authors asked this author if he would actually like to go to Spain. You see, author number one had become quite successful in the fiber optics industry and had to attend an international conference in Madrid. Ostensibly I was asked along to be his Spanish interpreter, but since 8th grade Espanol is the furthest I pushed that envelope I know otherwise. Obvious life long chums, our birthdays are also only six days apart. I'm pretty darn sure it was more of a birthday present than anything else, and because of all his frequent flier miles I am also pretty certain my tag a long cost was minimal.
Since some of our recreational proclivities from high school apparently never left us, we were going to fly into Amsterdam first for a weekend of romping and cafe hopping. Then it would be off to Madrid on Sunday, four days of business and then another day and night in Amsterdam. What can I say, that Dutch town is a pretty darn fun place. Ranks right up there with Paris and San Francisco in my book, and of course it also retains a certain allure for a few of the faithful.
We left Seattle sometime in the evening, essentially taking a red eye over and arrived at Schipol, Amsterdam's airport, around 8 AM. We took a train from there to the hotel and amazingly were allowed to check in. A quick shower and coffee and we were ready to go.
My pal was quite an experienced traveler and had been to Amsterdam before. Hence I took a back seat and let him drive, only he didn't really drive because we took a train. Which was great. He really knew how to get around economically, which we'll get into more once we arrive in Madrid.
It took about ten minutes by train to get to Amsterdam's Central Station, about the same amount of time it had taken us to get from the airport to the hotel. In case you were interested.
Central Station in Amsterdam is a statuesque, picturesque, glorious work of art. As opposed to many cities in Europe or anywhere in Germany for that matter, most of the centuries old buildings in Amsterdam are still intact. Obviously out manned by insurmountable odds when the Nazi's came marching across the border, the Dutch threw up their hands. Saved the buildings, was still hell for the people. Just ask Anne Frank.
Looking down Amsterdam's main avenue at the beautiful brick train station always reminds me of Disneyland. For grown-ups, of course. Central Station also almost always looks a little like that picture to me. A little blurry.
We hit a cafe right off the train, twisted one up and then we were off and running. Amsterdam is a lovely city, interlaced with bustling streets and flowing canals. Bicyclists are everywhere, and the "ring ring" of their little bells is a constant sound. While not overtly rude like many of the brightly colored spandex crowd here, you still stand more of a chance getting run over by a bike than a car.
Historic buildings are everywhere and the city is rife with museums. With over 60 Amsterdam has the highest museum density in the
world. Absolute highlights are the
Anne Frank House, Van Gogh Museum, National Rijksmuseum and Hermitage Amsterdam.
There are a lot of cafes too. Everywhere there is art and everywhere there is something to help one appreciate art. Just a little bit more. Especially Dali. And Van Gogh.
We ate lunch or dinner somewhere I am sure and then took a stroll through the jam packed with mostly young men streets of the red light district. There, scantily clad live art sat or stood quite seductively behind glass windowed doors, a small room behind them and a curtain contained a bed. What few really notice is that the Rossebuurt (what the locals call it-Dutch for ‘pink’
or ‘red’ neighborhood) is in fact one of the oldest and most beautiful
parts of the city with its long, winding, narrow, cobbled streets and
utterly charming 14th century architecture.
After quite a long day without essentially sleeping the night before, we trundled back to Central Station and hit our hotel around 11:00 PM. The next morning we awoke about 9:00 AM Europe time, one of my Bud's traveling secrets. When you first get there stay up and ride 'em hard and as long as you can. Then when you get up the next morning you're acclimated to Europe time for the rest of the trip.
Coming back is a mother though for me. Anytime I get back from the East Coast or Europe I'm a mess for days. I have no idea which way is up. Something about that time space continuum thing.
We did a quick wake and bake and then went back in to explore the city on our recently acquired elevated awareness level. We did discover that the hookers in the red light district changed appearance from night to morning. College coeds and Playboy looking playmates made up the eye popping lingerie or bikini clad sizzlers behind the glass windows at night. Quilt clad middle-aged Mothers and Over Eaters Anonymous members made up the choice cuts in the morning. They all did business. Night and day.
There's something for everybody.
We ran the city into the ground once again, merging cafe's and culture and simply soaking up and adding to the fabulous energy of that city. This time we returned to the hotel around 10:00 PM, we had a plane to catch to Madrid at 6:00 AM the next morning.
Since we did not want to import any of the merriment we purchased in Amsterdam for fear of you know, life incarceration in a foreign country, we endeavored to get higher than the plane was going before we left Schipol. We did, and we also ended up leaving some merriment on the bench since we had already hit an altitude of 8 Miles. We figured what the heck? Someone else might need a little adjustment before their flight.
It was a quick hop from Amsterdam to Madrid, probably just over an hour or so. My pal had a couple trunk size pieces of luggage with him that contained necessities for the trade show. However, they could have been filled with contraband and merriment since nobody, not even no one, looked at our passports or luggage as we entered the country. Apparently customs was still asleep.
That was OK, we figured we'd have to score merriment in Spain anyway. My Pal and I used to be really great drinking buddies, but that aspect of my misbehavior had to go in the early 90's due to health considerations. I had a liver about the size of Wyoming and was going to drink every last drop of alcohol on the planet. There wouldn't have been enough for you, so I had to stop. My Bud was still partaking of course, but that particular vehicle was then Out of my league.
So we needed to find some weed. Simple. And apparently that was going to be my job. I mean, I was the interpreter after all.
I also learned from this very experienced traveler friend of mine a great travel tip. As soon as we arrived at the airport in Madrid he got a copy of the Metro Map and a regular map of the city. Above and below ground. That was it. With those in tow and a week's metro pass we ended up traveling all over the city for five days for about twenty bucks each. That would have been one cab ride anywhere. We went just about everywhere underground, returning a few times rather late at night. We were never accosted nor did we see any, except at the park one day. Which I'll get to later.
With maps in hand we took the metro into the city, landing a few blocks from our hotel. It was way too early to check in, but we got the luggage stashed by bellhop and then off we went on the streets of Madrid.
My companion needed to find a new pair of black dress shoes. I needed to find some weed. Since I was the designated interpreter and since I had graduated 8th grade Espanol, I started developing some sort of phrase or question that I would ask someone. Like a Spanish hippie. Or Spanish surfer. If they had those in Madrid.
I developed and I rehearsed. It was, after all, apparently the main reason I was in Spain. So that I could score drugs.
"Conozco a la marijuana un picante?"
"Sabe tu marijuana en la suerte?"
"Que tu sabe un marijuana por favor?"
"Donde esta mi pantalon?"
And so on.
Somewhere in our meanderings, besides reveling in all that is Madrid, he found some black dress shoes and we both found a little shop that sold little pipes. That, you know, you could put some form of merriment in. Since I was still rehearsing when I bought a pipe, I sort of motioned at the bowl as I looked inquisitively at the sales clerk. Then I smiled and nodded with arched eyebrows. As if I was a foreign fool. Somehow it got through though, he smiled but shook his head no.
Sigh. Looked like I was still gonna have to come up with something to say.
With empty pipe and new black shoes in tow, we continued on with our Sunday city stroll. The streets were packed and bustling, pedestrians were everywhere. It looked like many of Madrid's inhabitants were enjoying a beautiful, leisurely, sunny, big city day.
Meandering the streets of Madrid is still my favorite memory, reveling in the energy filled foreign vibe. Somewhere along the line we came across yet another packed park or square, where throngs of people would be found hanging out, playing games, enjoying the sunshine. This park was a little different though, there appeared to be a younger crowd that had congregated. Some were drinking brown bagged wine, a couple were strumming acoustic guitars. And then, as I continued my survey, I noticed a couple fellas about twenty feet away passing a lit joint. Eureka!
As I looked, one of them caught my eye. Or I caught his. Maybe both. However it happened, our eyes met and he motioned me over.
'This is it," my Pal said, nudging me with his elbow. I meandered over and my new friend handed me the lit joint. I took a puff, smiled and then passed it on. Then it was showtime. The line I had been rehearsing all day. With perfect enunciation. In two part harmony.
I began, "Tu sabe marijuana donde a la el adobo?"
He gave me a quizzical look.
"Conozco a la marijuana el donde sabe tu con carne? Se incendio mi pelo?"
And then, in perfect European English he asked, "What is it you're trying to say?"
Fifteen minutes later we were walking away with a few grams of hash. That was apparently a lot easier to import across the water from Morocco than marijuana was from elsewhere. That was fine with us. We already had a pipe. Plus I was still smoking cigarettes back then. Ain't nothing like a little hash laced nicotine coursing through your veins. That was almost as good as the first smoke of the morning with your first cup of coffee. Oooh, sigh. They both still sound pretty good. Been a while now.
Here's a shot of the pond and fountain at El Parque de Retiro, Madrid's main park. It was both popular and magnificent, with works of art intermixed with lots of grass and trees. And people. Lots of people.
It was at the park that we experienced some local color. Both fair and foul. Now that we had a pipe load of happiness to partake of now and again, we were having a great time. Especially me. Plus I didn't have to keep repeating some insipid line in my head that wasn't going to work anyway. As we were strolling along in the park, our mellow Sunday afternoon ambiance was broken by some loud, shrill foreign screaming.
We turned around and noticed a couple of older Asian ladies about a hundred yards away. One of them had a purse. The other one, the screaming one, was watching her purse run away in the arms of a thief. Had the bad boy been somewhat coming in our direction my compadre and I would have certainly engaged. But since he was running in the opposite direction at a rapid rate of speed there was no way we two middle aged crazies could have caught up. He was already a few hundred yards away. That poor lady certainly had better days. Loose your purse or wallet in a foreign country? Can you say embassy?
Smoking merriment can sometimes lead to hunger games, and happily we found a little food trailer type establishment in the park. He made salami sandwiches, that was it. Kind of like a hot dog stand, only different. Which was fine with me, sandwiches are my favorite food. They're so versatile.
We both ordered a ordered salami sandwich, I mean, that's all he had. It was real Spanish salami and rough crusted French bread. How European could you get from one simple meal?
So we got our salami and french bread sandwiches, and that's what we got. Salami and french bread. That was it. No mayo. No mustard. No lettuce. No tomato. No condiment or vegetable of any kind. No fruit salad, nothing.
We shrugged. What the hell, we wanted local color, that's what we got. Snacks Spaniard style.
Maybe the guy got the bread a few days earlier, maybe rough crust was the way it was. Either way I could only eat about half the bread. The roof of my mouth was so tore up from the other half of rough crust that it felt like a tank with steel tread had just done a week's worth of artillery exercises inside up there.
Once we had finished shredding our mouths, we were off to Plaza de Toros to see the bull fights. Ole!
I had never been to a bull fight before, I probably won't go again. It was pretty gruesome to me, and the odds are way stacked in favor of the humans.
It coulda been the pipe and merriment, it coulda been the fact we were in a foreign country at an event neither one of us had ever witnessed, it doesn't really matter. We quickly discovered amid all the equine and bovine gory pageantry and hoopla happenin we had no idea what the hell was going on. Ole!
Fortunately we also quickly discovered we had a bilingual English speaking guy sitting right behind us. It's amazing how easy it is to find like tongued folk in a space inhabited mostly by other tongued folks. Especially us speaking English in a jam packed arena mostly speaking Espanol. He overheard our conversation and stepped right in.
He became our bull fight announcer, explaining what the heck was going on. Basically in colorful pageantry, a host of folks on horseback kinda stab and gore the bull with a series of slices to several areas of it's anatomy, essentially weakening it before the matador ever enters the arena. Apparently a bull that had not been gored open in a few strategic locations is much too much of a match for a matador. So they slice and dice a few choice tendons and ligaments here and there rendering it a veritable roast before the game begins. Ole.
Then the matador tosses around his colorful cape thingamaroo and eventually he, too, pulls out a sword and tries to hopefully end the bulls life with one quick, decisive slice to the groin. Or where ever.
If the bull doesn't fall after all that stabbing and goring, he gets let out to pasture, never again to fight. They won't let him because now he knows and will be even more difficult to try and kill. Plus, at that stage I think he's earned the right to screw cows and laze about in a meadow filled with daisies.
We saw one bull make it. Our announcer said that it is very rare. Ole!
The next day my compadre began his trade show. I began my solo assault on Madrid. Walking the streets, my favorite thing to do in any foreign city. Map and go. Immersing myself in the bustling vibe. Having a ball.
I did go to the Museo del Prado, saw lots of priceless art and antiquities. I also bought a scarf for my lovely wife from a street vendor. It became a major Antiques Roadshow find. I saw the same scarf at the De Young museum in San Francisco a year later selling for almost twenty times what I paid. Plus it was a scarf. It folded up into nothing and weighed like two grams. Nothing like the antique brass candle stand I had to break down and take back with me in a box on my second trip to Amsterdam.
Here's a shot of the Royal Palace. We went there together I think on that leisurely busy Sunday. One thing I definitely know, if I ever bought a castle it would need to be in a Mediterranean climate. Those places are drafty!
Since my Bud had Friday off we took the train out to Segovia, to see to see the remains of the Roman aerial aqueducts. We had no idea what we were getting into.
Segovia is Spain and old Castile at its best - twisting alleyways, the highest concentration of
Romanesque churches in all of Europe, pedestrian streets where no cars are allowed, the aroma
of roast suckling pig around every corner - all surrounded by the
city's medieval wall which itself is bordered by two rivers and an extensive green-belt park
with miles of shaded walks. On the north-west extreme of the wall is the famous
source of inspiration to Walt Disney, and where Queen Isabel promised Columbus the financial
backing he needed to discover America. On the south-east extreme is the world renowned
Aqueduct, the largest and best preserved of its kind anywhere.he city from 1455 to 1864.
And we were just going for the aqueduct.
We also encountered a dear little old lady outside the cathedral selling absolutely stunning linens. Incredible stitchery. Fine detail. Would have been another fabulous Antiques Road Show purchase but for some idiotic reason we declined.
Then we had some local color for dinner. It was a pretty upscale establishment with all sorts of military type antiques. Besides shields and swords, there were helmets and boar heads. Heavy timber tables and chairs, all with a nice Armada flair. No Formica there. We had some pork or sheep or goat meat which was prepared at the table. Lots of flashy fanfare. It was almost like we were at a Beni Hana only way different.
We left Segovia about eight that night for the couple hour trip back to Madrid. Packed the next morning and were off for another play date in that most wonderful of cities, Amsterdam.
I think we stayed at the same hotel, but who cares? We dropped our luggage off and were off ourselves within an hour. I have now been to Amsterdam three times. I think the best way to explore the city is by total immersion. Hit a cafe, imbibe and then wander. Or just wander if you don't imbibe. I have done this both with a map and without. That Saturday afternoon we went without. If was fabulous. We easily got lost and didn't care. Lovely neighborhoods interlaced by canals were everywhere.
The good news was at our pinnacle of lost-ness we found a cafe, way the heck out somewhere. I have no idea where. Besides merriment, they also had a wall of hookahs that were available for in-store use. So we did. As we sat there, feeling wonderful about being lost in a simply marvelous city, my eyes wandered over to a bulletin board with a few Polaroids on it. For all you youngsters out there, a Polaroid is the ancient version of an instant photo.
And one of those photos was of international country superstar Willie Nelson. Stoned to the bejeezus. Of course Willie's been known to get "oiled" up now and then, but on this trip it looks like he fell into a whole can of grease. Kind of like we had. And who cared? Certainly not us.
Somehow we found our way back to Central Station, which I swear looks just like Disneyland, especially at night. A little blurry, but Disneyland nonetheless. And then we found the hotel. And the plane the next day. Back to the states, where I got to be a sputtering mess in a time warp for about five days. Once again.
It was a memorable trip with a great friend, and like most excursions there's always a few stories to tell. That's another wonderful aspect of travel. Besides the initial adventure, the memories can be relished forever.