The third week of my travels got off to a bit of a rocky start in Madrid. I arrived late on a Thursday evening and had had a couch surfing host all lined up, but due to miscommunication, when I arrived at the host’s apartment he told me that he wasn’t able to host me after all. Trying not to be upset, I went to the first hostel I came across and ended up paying 40 euro for a single night’s stay. I sent out a few emergency couch requests, and from 9am until about 3pm the next day, I was walking around the city with my huge backpack, just waiting to hear back from someone who was willing to let me stay with them. I started getting really down about it and started thinking that the rest of my time in Madrid was probably going to be a bummer, but a miracle happened: I was offered a couch by a guy named Herman, who ended up being my favorite couch surfing host I’ve ever had, and of all the places that I traveled in those three weeks, I had, without a doubt, the most fun in Madrid.
I barely took any photos in Madrid. The city is really large and spread out, so most of what I saw of the city was from the passenger seat of Herman’s Mini Cooper. With the top down. Just sayin’. We spent an entire afternoon just driving around so that he could show me all of the landmarks, and later we picked up Natasha, a couch surfer that he was hosting from Russia, from the airport. The three of us went up to the viewing deck of the Ayuntamiento de Madrid (the City Hall) for a really lovely view of the city center, then out for tapas and drinks in the evening, and then later met up with some of Herman’s friends and went to a seven-story dance club called Kapital, where we stayed until 6am when it closed. It was absolutely crazy.
After Madrid, I had planned to take a quick day-and-a-half jaunt to Alicante (on the coast of Spain), and Natasha was going to come with me. However, we met a Turkish guy named Zahid at Kapital and he told us that he was leaving the next day for Valencia (also on the coast) because there was a huge celebration/party taking place that weekend, and that we should go to Valencia instead of Alicante and stay with him and his friend Adrian. And so we did.
The city was in full celebration mode when we arrived. The celebration is called San Jose, for the city’s patron saint, and it’s the city’s way of welcoming the beginning of spring. Apparently there’s an artist that designs these incredibly detailed large-scale art installation pieces, and he works all year with a team of builders to create these pieces. There were over four hundred of them this year, and they’re put on display throughout the city for four days before being burned to the ground. During the day, people just walk around the city center and set off fireworks in the street, so we were constantly being startled by loud explosions, but after a couple hours we were used to it. We set off a few firecrackers ourselves, sticking them inside oranges that had fallen from the trees or throwing them into an empty alley way and then running to hide behind a car. We had so much fun.
There was a parade in the street, and in the procession there were people twirling fiery batons, men dressed in indigenous headdresses and Arab robes and turbans, as well as little girls in enormous traditional Spanish dresses. It was so surreal. Adrian took us to the most amazing sandwich place called Mare Meua (which translates to “Oh my Mother!”) that had the most delicious mini sandwiches and tinto de berrano (red wine and fizzy water) for 1 euro each. Natasha and Zahid and I each vowed to open a sandwich place like Mare Meua in our respective countries.
We decided to camp out at an art installation that featured some monkeys dressed as humans and wait for it to be set ablaze at midnight. Since there were so many installations throughout the city and none of them could be set on fire without a fire crew at the ready to keep the flames from getting out of control, it ended up being 2am before our installation finally started burning. By 1:30am, it had started raining and we were worried that they might forego burning this installation all together, but after a few small fireworks were set off from around the front of the installation, we watched as the largest piece began to burn from the inside out. The flames grew higher and higher and the fire crew sprayed their hoses on it to keep it contained, and there was so much heat coming off of it and everyone cheered as the giant monkey’s head burned and burned and finally fell to the ground. There was something sort of magical about it, and I felt a strange solidarity with the crowd of people that surrounded me. It was definitely one of the coolest things I experienced while in Europe, and definitely worth spending a single day in Valencia to witness.
Reykjavik was my last European destination before returning to the U.S. When I was booking my airfare a month earlier, I just knew that by the end of my travels I would be almost out of money, so I made plans to stay in Iceland for only one night. I definitely want to return to Iceland in the future, to go camping out in the wilderness and see more of the natural wonders of the little island, but since I was only going to be there for a day, I only got to see a bit of the city. Reykjavik is more like a small town than a city, really: it’s very quaint and quiet and has a wee population of 200,000 (which, interestingly enough, is two-thirds of the population of all of Iceland). I spent most of my time at the Blue Lagoon, which is a geo-thermal spa about forty minutes outside of Reykjavik. It was pretty fantastic. The fifteen or so steps I had to take to get from the inside of the guest center to the edge of the water were absolutely freezing, but once I was submerged in the water, it was like instant heaven. The water was so warm and soothing and steam was rising up from the surface, and there was a soft breeze rolling down from the hills that blew the steam across the water in the most ethereal way. I wanted to sit in that geothermal pool forever.