In the February school holidays we spent four nights in Madrid, which I’d first visited in 1986 but hadn’t since. We stayed in an Airbnb in the Lavapiés district, handy for Atocha station, the Prado and other downtown sights. In the Prado I caught up with my 18-year-old self’s doppelgänger, hanging right next to Las Meniñas. Later we wandered around Retiro, the royal park near the Prado, and visited Plaza de San Miguel to hop from stall to stall for tapas.

Churros at El Brillante

The most dramatic moment of the trip was in the Metro on the way to the old town. I took a photo of J. and the kids on the platform after she took one on her phone, and put my camera in my coat pocket. Once we were safely on the train, I instinctively felt for it—and it wasn’t there. Cue sinking feeling, thoughts of Madrid being one of the worst cities for pickpocketing, and the awful prospect of losing our photos from the last couple of days and £300 worth of camera.

However: I’d noticed a guy passing close to me as we got on the train, and immediately suspected that it must have been him; and after we’d rearranged ourselves and were holding on to poles between the doors of the carriage, I found myself looking right at him. Facing him, in fact, without even anyone in between us. He was standing against the door, scrupulously avoiding my gaze, looking first this way and then that. I figured it had to be him, and when he finally, inadvertently caught my eye, I found myself saying, “You have my camera.” (I didn’t attempt to translate it into Spanish—this was all instinctive.) He grunted noncommittally. So I repeated, even more firmly, “You have my camera.”

I don’t know what might have happened if he’d pushed back. Things could have turned bad fast. But suddenly I heard a “clunk”, and he looked around and then down; and I looked down too, and there was my camera, lying at his feet. As I bent down and picked it up, he moved to the other door, ready to make a hasty exit. I was patting my pockets just to make sure he hadn’t managed to lift anything else (I kept my wallet in a pocket well inside my coat... one of the best things about travelling in winter is having plenty of inside pockets). Then he got off the train, at the same stop we did, and disappeared into the crowd.

I was massively relieved: I may have had something lifted, for the first time ever, but I’d managed to get it back right away, which can’t be too common. I suppose he calculated that it was better to ditch the camera this time and live to pickpocket another day than to have a pissed-off foreigner make trouble for him. I was just lucky I had a good idea it was him, that he hadn’t headed right down the carriage but instead stood nearby, and that my instincts kicked in before I could start doubting and second-guessing myself.

That experience ramped up my paranoia for the rest of the trip, but I tried not to let it ruin it; I just took even more care than I had been. It didn’t help that we emerged from the Metro into Plaza Mayor, the main square in the old town, which was packed. But we were okay there.

Madrid Metro

The next day we visited the town of Cercedilla in the Sierra de Guadarrama, full of walking trails in the woods, and El Escorial, the monastery/palace complex where the kings and queens of Spain are buried. The trains from Atocha station to both towns pass through Villalba, so doubling back to there from one makes it easy to get to the other. We headed for Cercedilla first.

After emerging from the small local station, we took a wrong turn halfway up the hill and ended up in the town itself rather than at the start of the trails. By the time we figured this out and doubled back, we’d lost 45 minutes, and it took as long again to walk along the Fuenfría valley road to the Education Centre at the start of the blue trail. But once we reached that, the skies cleared, and we spent a pleasant couple of hours walking through Spanish pine forest, with views of the snow-covered Sierra in the distance. Somewhere around there is a Roman road, though I don’t know if our trail took in part of it—some of it was along old cobbled road, so maybe it did.

At the end of the trail we climbed down a path towards the train station, only to emerge at the very end of the platform we had stopped at in the morning. If we had turned left along the platform and joined the trail rather than exiting through the station itself, we’d have saved ourselves an hour of being lost. We would have done the blue trail in reverse, but could have walked back along another trail through the woods on the other side of the road, rather than having to follow the road.

Back at the train station I misunderstood a guard’s instructions about the right platform (my Spanish is pretty rusty), and we missed the hourly train back to Villabla, so by the time we got there we just caught a taxi to El Escorial, to save enough time to see it properly. We timed our visit for the end of the day because entry is free for EU citizens from 3–6pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and we may as well make the most of that while we can. It’s a grand building with an austere, monastic exterior, and palatial apartments inside, some lined with old masters (many by El Greco) and others with tapestries by Goya. Down below are the marble tombs of dozens of Spanish kings and their wives, including some I knew from their Velasquez portraits in the Prado.

On our last day we’d planned to take the kids to Micropolix, a theme park on the edge of Madrid where kids can play at being police, doctors, and other occupations in a realistic mini-city. It sounded like fun, but when checking times on the entirely Spanish website before heading out on the Metro I realised that it was only open that day from 5.30-9.30pm, when we would be heading to the airport. It turned out they were only open during weekday hours during local school holidays, and in term time only on weekends and Friday evenings, except to pre-booked school groups. So we went to the science museum instead, which was a bit dusty and fusty and full of animals and dinosaurs, before wandering back through the Salamanca quarter, collecting our bags from a luggage locker at Atocha, and making our way out to our flight.

It was only a short trip this time, but I always like seeing Spain. We ate churros and tapas, drank a couple of delicious bottles of supermarket rioja, and enjoyed the sunshine and the mix of city and rural sights. And I didn’t lose my camera, which means there are now photos of Madrid, Cercedilla and El Escorial at Detail:


22 June 2017 · Travel