On the 2nd of March, I took a plane to Madrid. One of my favorite singers, Dodie, was going on a tour around Europe in late February/early March 2019. Although she unfortunately didn’t include Portugal in the tour, there was a date in Madrid, to which I’d never been. It was the first time that I traveled out of country by myself. I didn’t take anyone with me, and I wasn’t meeting anyone there. I was completely alone. It was something I had wanted to do for a long time, and it felt like a personal achievement to finally put it in practice.
I admit that traveling to a neighboring country, where you understand basically 95% of what people say because of similar languages, where you understand the culture, and where you’re just going to spend one night is not that big of an adventure. But for me, a quite cautious and nervous girl, it was the perfect first step to acquaint myself with the concept of traveling alone, and feel more secure when planning a bigger solo adventure somewhere in the future.
The first day
Since I work Friday nights and the cheapest flight on Saturday morning departed at 6 am, I slept for maybe two and a half hours (the half hour was on the plane). Very tired but extremely excited, I took the metro when arriving and exited near Parque de El Retiro, a huge and beautiful park.
I had decided not to see any museums, as I only had two days to see the city and I wanted to walk around the streets as much as possible. But in the middle of the El Retiro park I found the Velázquez Palace, which was showing Dierk Schmidt’s work, a small but very interesting exhibit. And right next to it is the Crystal Palace, which was holding an even smaller but beautiful exhibit called Invisibles. The entrance was free in both and I spent maybe 30 minutes in both of them combined. Although I believe you should strive to make the most of the little time you have during a weekend trip, going with your instincts and deviating from the plan can give you some happy little surprises. I’m very glad I gave these a chance instead of writing off all museums due to a “lack of time”.
After lunch, I went on an improvised solo tour through some of the Plazas that several people and travel blogs had told me to see: Plaza de Cibeles, Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor, and a few others. These parts of the city were absolutely crowded with tourists. In some of the most famous places, it was hard even to walk around. After a while, I decided to stop following Google Maps and walked around with no clear direction. That’s when I started to run into empty streets and plazas with more locals than tourists – I started feeling like I was actually in Madrid.
I don’t want to go into much detail about the concert, but I feel like I should say it was wonderful and I’m not ashamed to admit I even shed a tear or two… or ten. After the concert, I enjoyed a beer and some calamares at the bar right below the hostel while still reeling from the wonderful glee that only listening to some of your favorite songs on a live performance can bring. Due to the lack of sleep, though, my brain quickly started begging for some rest, and it didn’t take long for me to go to my room and collapse.
The second day
As I’d seen most of the north part of the center the day before, I went south this time. After spending almost an hour just to get through a small part of the El Rastro flea market, I visited Puerta de Toledo and Puente de Toledo. Heading back north, I quickly checked out the Santa Maria a Real de Almudena Cathedral and the Royal Palace. The line to get in the palace was huge, and I didn’t feel like spending the whole day there, so I decided just to see it from the outside.
After eating the small sandwich I called lunch while sitting in front of the palace, I went on my merry way to see Plaza de Oriente, Plaza del Callao, the Sabatini Gardens, Plaza de España, and then headed to Parque del Oeste to check out the Temple of Debod.
Parque del Oeste was another wonderful park, full of people relaxing in the sun and having some drinks. I had previously thought that I would keep walking around for a couple more hours after seeing this park, but I was extremely tired and the thought of walking for just one more minute gave me psychological cramps. Instead, I laid down in the grass and enjoyed the warm winter sun for the time I had left before I had to leave to the airport.
I found Madrid to be a colorful city, full of life and movement. What I enjoyed the most (beside the concert, of course) were the parks I visited and how they were completely brimming with all kinds of different people. People of all ages taking a stroll, riding bikes, jogging, roller skating, drinking cheap sangria, reading, sleeping, having picnics, playing sports, and, of course, tourists like me carrying a camera and looking everywhere around them.
Now, reflecting on the experience of traveling alone, I did learn a few things: 1) it’s surprisingly much more tiresome; and 2) it’s incredibly stupid to forget to bring a book.
I definitely wasn’t expecting 1), but it made perfect sense after I thought about it. First, because when you’re walking with someone, it’s normal to have a tendency to walk more slowly than when you walk alone. After two hours of walking slowly, you’ll be less tired than after two hours of walking fast.
Second, when you walk with friends, you talk. Maybe not all the time, but mostly you’ll be engaged in conversation, whether about what you’re seeing or something entirely unrelated to the city you’re visiting. And talking distracts you. This means that when visiting a new city alone you are perhaps more attentive to your surroundings, but it also means that you are more attentive to your feet/legs/back pain after walking for hours.
Moreover, when traveling with other people, there’s a tendency to have more breaks – not only will you take a break when you want to, but also when they want to, and both combined will happen more often than the breaks you take alone. Especially if you are stupid like me and forget to bring something to entertain you in those breaks, which brings me to number 2).
Since I was only going to have two days to see the most of Madrid, I never once considered the possibility that I would need something to kill time – more time was what I thought I’d be needing. I forgot to account for the time I would spend resting because my feet were killing me. Using google maps to guide me basically 80% of the time (because my spatial orientation is complete crap), my phone ran out of battery quite fast, so there was no reddit or instagram or other phone apps available.
Being entertained by your own thoughts is perfectly fine for a while, but after a whole day you start to crave some external stimulus. People watching is fun, but you eventually grow tired of it, especially when 99% of people you see are tourists doing the exact same things as you were just doing. Taking pictures is obviously wonderful, but it doesn’t help much if you bring a film camera with just two rolls of film because you’re on a budget.
Resting at Parque del Oriente during the last hours of the last day was when I felt the peak of my frustration for not taking a book with me. I can mumble some “Portuñol” (a kind of mix between Portuguese and Spanish that both Portuguese and Spanish people mostly understand) and understand enough Spanish to get by. However, reading a book in Spanish is asking too much of my brain, especially during such a tiring couple of days. And, while it makes perfect sense, I could only find books in Spanish in the two bookstores and one book fair that I visited. Next time, there will be no question – a pocket sized book will definitely be the first think I pack.
Overall, I am extremely happy with this little trip. It was close enough to home to make me feel safe, and far enough to make me feel like I wasn’t home. It was quick enough as to not feel lonely, and long enough to visit everything I’d wanted. The center of Madrid can easily be seen in two days, as long as you don’t spend hours inside museums (which I admit I usually do in my travels). I feel like I have learned quite a bit about traveling by myself, and I plan on using this knowledge for my next solo adventure – which I’m already planning!