|Sunshine and flowers in Madrid|
We said our goodbyes to Morocco and jetted back across the ocean to Spain - we were headed to Madrid for the next 3 days. After a long day of travel (taxi from our riad to the airport, waiting at the airport, plane delayed an hour, train from the airport to our place in Madrid), we finally made it to the apartment we were renting, freshened up and set out to see what the city had to offer. It was already getting dark and we were hungry, so it was time to find some tapas!
|Tapas and sangria - yum!|
We wandered down the Gran Vía (essentially the Times Square or Piccadilly Circus of Madrid - flashing billboards, chain stores and restaurants, etc.) and eventually made it over to Puerto del Sol and Plaza Mayor where we decided on a place to eat. And what a feast we had! After getting our hands on a pitcher of sangria, we picked out a couple tapas to share. Tapas are basically plates of Spanish appetizers that you order and share between everyone at your table. They can be hot or cold and are all delicious! We got a plate of herb-marinated aceitunas (delicious green olives), calamares (you guessed it: battered and fried squid rings), patatas bravas (fried potato cubes served with a spicy tomato/mayo sauce), a plate of Iberian ham and Manchego cheese, and a mini seafood paella to split. Stuffed full of tapas and sleepy from our long day of travelling, we called it a night, eager to further check out the city in the morning.
We lucked out weather-wise during our trip: every day was warm and sunny! In my town in France, it rains almost daily for at least a little while, so needless to say it was quite refreshing to enjoy some uninterrupted sunshine and be able to roam around without needing a jacket!
|Flowers at Puerto del Sol|
Heading across town, we decided to swing by the Palacio Real, the official residence of the Spanish royal family in Madrid (although King Juan Carlos and his family prefer living in a more modest home just outside the city). Construction began on this massive palace in 1738 - it contains more than 3,400 rooms and includes a modest 1.45 million square feet of living space! The tours of the palace showcase only a fraction of the rooms, but they are intricately furnished and quite a sight to behold. The dining room, for instance, contains a huge table and enough place settings to pack it with over 300 guests! You can also visit the royal armory and marvel at the intricately carved guns, crossbows, cannons and suits of armor which belonged to royal families throughout the centuries. Unfortunately, you can't take pictures anywhere inside the palace - so you'll have to go check it out for yourself!
|At the Palacio Real|
And apparently, a royal peacock also resides at the palace - if you're lucky, you'll get to watch him dance around shake his tail feathers!
|Dancing for his audience|
Directly across from Palacio Real is Madrid's cathedral, Santa María la Real de La Almudena. Rather modern when compared to the much older Gothic cathedrals famous throughout France, for example, construction on Madrid's cathedral begun in 1883 and wasn't finished until 1993. The church sports a baroque façade in two-tone gray and white stone to match the Palace which it faces. While the decor inside the church is rather simple, its stained glass windows cast radiant light on the floor as their vibrant pigments become electrified by the sunlight.
|The cathedral's main altar|
|Its modern stained glass windows are incredibly vivid|
After indulging in probably one of the most delicious baguette sandwiches I've ever had (fresh-baked bread with sweet caramelized onions, slabs of roast chicken, lettuce, tomato and mayo - mmm!) we meandered down the Paseo del Prado, one of Madrid's most famous boulevards, towards the infamous Prado art museum.
Art history fiend that I am, I couldn't come all the way to Madrid and not go to the Prado. Assembled throughout the centuries by Spain's monarchs, the Prado museum's vast collection is based mostly on the acquisitions of the Royal Families, with works spanning the 12th through 19th centuries. Spanish painting greats like Goya and Velásquez dominate the walls. While the collection includes a whopping total of 21,000 works, the museum only has enough space to display about a tenth of the collection at a time - consequently exhibits rotate, works are loaned out to other museums, and the rest are kept in storage. Unlike the Louvre, you can't take pictures inside the Prado, so here's a little slice of what you can see here when you visit:
|Diego Velásquez, "Las Meninas" (1656)|
|Hieronymous Bosch, "The Garden of Earthly Delights" (1510) - for a good laugh, search for a bigger version of this painting about morality so you can see the details up-close!|
|Rogier van der Weyden, "Descent from the Cross" (1435)|
|Francisco Goya, "The Third of May 1808" (1814)|
Google Earth has teamed up with the Prado in order to give you a virtual visit of the museum and an up-close and personal look at 14 of the collection's masterpieces. Click here for instructions! If you're in Madrid and the least bit interested in art, the Prado's well-worth a visit!
|The equestrian statue of King Alfonso XII overlooks a pond where boaters enjoy the sunshine|
Next stop: Parque del Retiro! Eager to take advantage of the sunny day, we went for an afternoon stroll through Parque del Retiro, located just a few minutes away from the Prado. It felt great to relax for a while with a cold drink on a bench overlooking the pond in the middle of the park. We spent a while people-watching and soaking up the sunshine before taking the metro to Las Ventas for a tour of Madrid's famous bullfighting arena.
|Memorial statue on Plaza del Toros|
Regarded by many as the home of bullfighting in Spain, the Las Ventas arena has enough room for 25,000 spectators. While I don't think I'd ever want to go to a real bullfight (I've been to a bloodless one in southern France that involved pulling ribbons off the bulls horns instead of stabbing it with swords...dangerous enough!), the tour of the arena was interesting and gave insight into the world of the sport.
|The entrance to Las Ventas|
The bullfighting season runs from late March through October, and there are bullfights scheduled every Sunday during this period. Seats start as cheap as 5 Euro (although you'll be far away from the center of the ring and have the sun in your eyes) and get progressively more expensive the closer you get to the action and the more shade you want, all the way up to 149 Euro. There's even a special box for the royal family, in a prime location of course!
|Panels inside the arena commemorate famous bullfighters|
|A view of the arena - note the Royal Box to the left|
Over 210 feet in diameter, Las Ventas is one of the world's largest bullfighting arenas. The tour takes you through various parts of the stands and even lets you go down to the center of the sandy stadium to stand where all the action takes place. I can only imagine what it must be like for the toreador to be down here and to have all eyes on him as he goes head-to-head with his bovine opponent.
|Enjoying the view from the center of the ring!|
That wrapped up our short stay in Madrid, for we were travelling back to Paris once again the next day. We hit the ground running, and after quickly checking into our hotel and getting dolled up we had to beat it over to the Moulin Rouge where we had tickets for the 9pm show. Taking in a show at the Moulin Rouge had been on my Paris "Bucket List" since I lived there in 2011, so needless to say I was very excited when my parents suggested that we all go together! I was skeptical at first - "cheap" tickets cost 110 Euro, including half a bottle of champagne per person - was the show really going to be worth it? I'm happy to report that it was! Dazzling costumes, complex choreographed dance routines, acrobats, strong men, contortionists and comedians make for a very amusing show. And the theater is gorgeous inside to boot! I don't want to give away any of the spectacle's many surprises, but if you're in Paris and on the fence of whether or not you should splurge to see a show there, don't hesitate!
|Waiting for the show to begin!|
It just happened to work out that my friends from home, Jared and Emily, were going to be in Paris at the same time my parents and I were - they were on a whirlwind trip through Europe and our paths happened to cross! I thought it rather funny that I'd spent 6 months in France without seeing anyone from back home, and then both my parents and friends were going to be there with me at the same time. We met up after the Moulin Rouge and spent the rest of the night swapping stories and catching up over mojitos in Montmartre!
|Jared, Emily and I, reunited at last!|
The stars aligned again the next day, and we were all able to go out for brunch together before heading our separate ways - my parents and I were going down to Forbach for a few days, and Jared and Emily were bound for Dublin where they'd explore before flying back to the US.
My friends and I had recently discovered a great place for brunch in Paris, a cute little restaurant called Les P'tites Indécises. Located in the 11th arrondissement not far from Place de la République, you can really stuff yourself all for only 14 Euro! After enjoying some fresh-squeezed orange juice, creamy hot chocolate, tartines with jam & Nutella, eggs and bacon, and the world's crumbliest (but delicious!) apple crumble, we said au revoir to Jared & Emily and set off for the train that would take us to Forbach.
After having taken a bunch of flights during the week, it was a relief to just be taking the train to Forbach - no need to waste hours travelling to and from the airport, going through security, waiting forever at the gate, etc. Just show up and hop on the train! Two hours later we were in good ole' Forbach...
|Parents' first impression of Forbach: rusty, crooked sign perched precariously over a brown "garden"! Things can only go up from here!|
I was happy that my roommate Meike was going to be around when my parents were in town - they were anxious to meet her, as she figures prominently in many of my adventures, and as I had been able to spend some time with her family, I was glad she could meet mine! We spent the afternoon relaxing in my apartment, happy to put our feet up for a while in somewhere other than a hotel room. My parents were eager to try some local food, so we all went out for some of Forbach's best flammekueches and some regional wine - it was a hit!
|Dad and his "Alsatian pizza"|
The following day we went for a little tour of my town, including a hike up to the schlossberg (and a riveting visit to the grocery store, Cora, that is practically our second home)...
|My mom, Meike and I at the schlossberg|
...and my dad couldn't help but try out the mining equipment that's in the schoolyard where I live!
We made a quick stop for some delicious kebab and fries at lunch time (it's a shame that these yummy sandwiches don't really exist back home!) and then jetted across the border into Germany to shop and grab some ice cream in Saarbrücken for the afternoon.
|Hallo from Germany!|
And once again, it was time to repack our bags - back to Paris the next morning! When my parents had come to visit me in Paris back in 2011, we made 3 separate failed attempts to go visit the catacombs - Paris' underground ossuary. Upon our arrival back in the city, we headed there straight away and ended up being able to circumvent the long line (with an estimated wait time of 2 hours!) by signing up for a guided tour that was beginning only half an hour after we arrived - score! While I had studied the catacombs during my Paris Monuments class and had previously visited them myself, it was fascinating to have a knowledgeable guide who could even further enlighten us. Armed with a flashlight, she was able to point out different things along our way that made our visit very interesting.
Not for the faint of heart, your trip through the catacombs will bring you through a mile or so of tunnels inside Paris' former stone quarries which are filled with the bones of an estimated 6 to 7 million Parisians. 20 meters below ground, you wander through dimly-lit, damp passages, marveling at the artfully arranged skulls and long bones which line the walls. The rest of the smaller bones (ribs, vertebrae, remains of hands and feet, etc.) were dumped behind the "walls" that you see, and as our guide was able to point out are between 20 and 30 meters deep in some spots.
Created out of necessity during the late 18th century, the catacombs hold the earthly remains of all those who were formerly buried in some of Paris' most crowded cemeteries. If you weren't rich enough to afford a burial place in or directly outside of a church, you were put in a "public" grave with up to 2,000 of your fellow residents. These graves weren't closed or covered over until they were packed to the brim - instead, planks were placed over the top so they could be easily opened when the next wave of sickness claimed its latest victims. Needless to say, the stench and disease emanating from these burial places was causing major problems in the crowded city. The icing on the cake came when a family was dining in the cellar of their home and had one of their earthen cellar walls give way, causing a sluice of rotting corpses to invade their basement - yuck!
|One of the catacombs' famous pillars of bones|
So the city decided something had to be done, and thus the catacombs were born. Graves were reopened and remains were transported in the cover of darkness from the burial grounds to the former mines far below the city - with so many bones to transport there was no way to identify everyone, thus the bones are simply grouped by the cemeteries from which they came. If you've never been to the catacombs, it's definitely worth waiting in line to go - you'll be impressed, if not a little creeped out by what you'll see!
|"Bones from the Cemetery of the Holy Spirit, deposited November 7, 1804"|
The time had finally come for me to say adieu to my parents - we had a great vacation together and I was so glad that they were able to come do some travelling with me. Six months away from familiar faces is a long time, but now I only have 6 weeks left until I'm home for good. With that being said, I still had a few days left of vacation, and as I'm always anxious to go exploring I had another trip up my sleeve...next stop: Belgium!