Saturday, September 17, 2016

Madrid & The Pickpockets

My Madrid experience felt at most haphazard.  A classic hit-or-miss, unfortunate-or-lucky kind of experience. It may be because we were in and out of the city on daytrips and no continuous stay. It sometimes happens on these “we are on a vacation, but there is no rest for the weary” vacations. I am usually fairly relaxed and thoroughly enjoy what I am seeing, hearing, and experiencing on these overseas outings, but unfortunately Madrid denied me that important element of relaxation.  Hence, my mixed bag of memories of Madrid.  

Usually one of the first things we do in an unknown city, after we completed the business of finding our apartment, meeting with the owner, and taking possession, are to take a ride on a red City Sightseeing bus. They are in most world cities these days. Tickets are relatively expensive, but I consider it value for money because I feel it is the quickest way to learn the lay of the land, so to speak, or discover areas of a city I did not previously considered, and to get a general “vibe” for the new city.

We found one of the bus’s stops near our apartment and as M was ready to board the bus, a girl bumped into her, cleverly threw a scarf over M’s backpack and tried to unzip the back flap. M immediately felt it and recognized what was happening and quickly pulled away and turned around. The girl seeing her pickpocket plan is not going to come to any fruition, quickly disappeared into the pedestrian traffic at a busy street corner.

About 30 minutes into our ride we got off the bus at The Temple of Debod, an Egyptian temple near the royal palace complex. From there we would walk to the palace’s garden and other plazas around the palace to consume the many statues and building facades of the area. But while casually strolling near the gardens, two girls, I would guess 18 – 20 year olds, in a wide open area with many benches on the edge of the wide walkway, crashed into M from both sides, sandwiching her, while one tried to get to her backpack. This time M violently got out of the sandwich by twisting her body away and the two girls ran away.

The site of the second pickpocket attempt near the royal palace. I think the audacity of the second attempt in an open space in broad daylight while other people actually sat on benches and watched the whole ordeal unfold and did nothing surprised me most about the incident.

The first and the second attempted pickpocketing happened in a blink of an eye, not more than 2 seconds I would guess from contact to escape. Twice targeted in the first hour of being on Madrid’s streets? Not the best introduction to a new city. Coincidence? Or was there a message?  From then onwards M swapped her backpack for a small on-the-belt pouch. Luckily there were no further pickpocket attempts during our trip. But these attempts had negative consequences on the rest our vacation in that I was never really relaxed thereafter, looking over my shoulder all the time.

We hopped back onto the bus and a few stops later we found ourselves in the heart of Madrid, the Puerta del Sol Plaza, where we hopped off again. The plaza was packed with people and a quick look around confirmed that it really is a nondescript place devoid of any real beauty or interest. Very much like New York’s Time Square; nothing more than a traditional place to get together, a hub. Still jittery after our pickpocket experiences, I however, wanted to get out of there and directed M in the direction of the nearby Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s other famous square.              

 Scenes of Plaza Mayor

By now it was late afternoon, tapas time, and we found the perfect place for it at the Mercado de San Miguel adjacent to the Plaza Mayor. Oh My! I have never seen so many delicate, appetizing, mouth-watering dishes together under one roof. Pure food porn! I have been to many food markets on my travels, I love to go to them. I have drooled in Florence’s iconic Mercato di San Lorenzo and in the irresistible Les Halles D’Avignon. I have bought vegetables for a made-from-scratch Bolognaise sauce at the massive street market in La Spezia, Italy, and sharp cheese and black olive bread on the Tuesday morning market in the tiny hilltop village of Gordes, France, and ate strange fried balls and other unknown delicacies on Kuala Lampur’s Jalan Petaling, but Mercado de San Miguel was a culinary feast beyond them all, both on the eye and the palate. Obviously we changed tapas into dinner and unbeknown did the right thing.

 Mercado de San Miguel

Upon exiting the mercado we rested for a few minutes on some concrete balls just outside the entrance and contemplated our next move. We were a bit tired from the travels from Barcelona that morning, but I had plans to join thousands of other Medrileans to watch a Semana Sante.  Suddenly several policemen on motorbikes stopped right next to us and started to cordon off the road and the entrance to Plaza Mayor in front of us. We were aware of the terrorists attack on Brussels airport 2 days earlier, and although not terribly alarmed I asked one of the policeman what is going on.

“Procession” he said.

“Alright!” I said to M and immediate got my phone out and googled which procession was to walk through Plaza Mayor.

 A picturesque little square near Plaza Mayor

It turned out to be a case of being at the right place at the right time for one of the highlights of our Spanish expedition. What a fortuity it was to see a traditional Spanish Semana Sante, a Holy Week tradition.  These processions, a nearly 500-year old tradition, through hilltop villages, coastal towns and the riverside cities of Spain, by highly committed Catholics, some wearing tunics and robes with conical shaped hooded hats and their faces masked, others playing in the band or carry the religious floats, are still revered and going strong among modern-day Spaniards.

More about that in a next post. Click here of The Holy Week Procession in Madrid.

 Plaza Mayor

Fruit Pies in Mercado de San Miguel

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