Horses for courses This goes up to 11

I'm really struggling to compose an opening paragraph for this blog post. So much so that, as you now know, I've decided to write about that difficulty. How very meta. I blame Helen; she recently went on a course about structuring and delivering powerful presentations, on which she delighted in learning (and subsequently passing on to me) a whole bunch of techniques and rhetorical devices. I thought, OK, I can pick this stuff up easily enough and make my blog better. Turns out it's not so easy to create a punchy grab-'em-by-the-throat intro through the fog of a mild hangover though.

I thought I was mildly hungover on Friday morning, and in all likelihood I probably was, but mostly my dehydration was down to the aggressively hot room. I woke way earlier than the "go do some tourism" alarm I'd set, listened to a podcast and did some narcissism, and figured out how to open the blinds to my room window. It looked pretty nice out there.

A bit different to Frankfurt, that. So come 1030 I was out and following a walking route I'd downloaded off that there internet, courtesy of National Geographic. Apparently - and honestly by total accident - I'd picked a really nice hotel very close to the starting point of an itinerary around loads of old town Madrid big hitters.

Within moments I'm in a little corner store buying diet coke and a pre-packaged sandwich. This is not part of the tour. Seconds later, however, I'm at Puerta del Sol., the centre of Madrid. Literally. In this square is a statue of a horse, roughly a million tourists and a hundred thousand people offering "free" walking tours, a whole bunch of people dressed as statues or Mario or chickens or dinosaurs or soldiers, but most importantly there is kilometre zero: the point to/from which all distances to Madrid are measured. Like the bit in front of Charing Cross station in London. I try and find the actual zero point but fail, and hanging around with so many people vying for my custom and attention is already wearing me down. Best get on with the walk.

First up is a little trek up a street towards a gallery of art. I thought perhaps it was going to be a nice place to look at but no, it's not, and you're actually meant to go inside and enjoy stuff. That's not what I'm here for, so next is a trek back to Sol, past an old cafe which has its year of establishment written in a style like it's a normal number - 1.849 - and along a street whose name I forget until ducking in left and, whoa, here's a hoofing great square with loads of people on "free" walking tours, and another statue of a horse.

This is Plaza Mayor. There's cafes all around the edges and presumably some history took place here but I'm not that bothered about reading what my phone says, nor loitering at the back of one of the tours. Instead I'm interested in descending through the knife-cutters arch to go find the mesons - a bunch of taverns built into caves underneath the square. It really looks like the world's oldest pub crawl.

Just down the way is, apparently, the actual world's actual oldest actual restaurant. It's quite hard to take a pic of because of the walking tours playing tag in front of it. If this is how busy it is on a cold November Friday I hate to think what it's like around here on a high season weekend.

Further down and more statues, then right and right again into another square. So far I am very much enjoying Madrid: lots of twisty turns, narrow streets and wide plazas, really pretty architecture and an insanely high number of places to eat and drink. The weather is great, which helps. Wish I had some headphones though.

Past a flamenco restaurant and round the outside of an old convent where your an apparently order sweets direct from the nuns through a weird little kiosk thing - I didn't try - and then another square with a bunch of buildings from the 1500s all connected to each other. It looks vaguely military. There's a statue of a dude not on a horse.

Here I go off piste, because the guide says to go back up to the road but I go through the arch, emerging into a deeply unimpressive area with a bike rack and nothing else. Perhaps Nat Geo know their stuff after all. Back on the street and past some decent pastry shop, then a memorial to some attempt on someone's life - the king? - over 100 years ago.

Further along Calle Mayor and, whoa, check out that giant cathedral. That looks important.

Apparently it is. Cathedral de la Almudena is Madrid's main cathedral and, er, well that's basically all I know about it. I'm certain no-one reads my blog in the expectation that I'll say anything useful about what I see - there's a whole rest of the internet for that stuff. Me, I just take a bunch of photos from random angles and stumble across the Muralla Islamica.

Some people are crossing themselves in front of some figure on the outside of the cathedral, and lots of people are going in. I can't be bothered.

Round the other side and, oh, there's the royal palace. That's quite impressive. Long queue to get in which I don't join, instead just taking photos through the gates while enjoying the busker playing that music from Dynamite Dan on the ZX Spectrum.

The local busker is playing a table full of wine glasses and goblets filled to slightly different levels. He is excellent. In front of the palace is some garden - oriente, I think? I dunno. There are more buskers and walking groups and a whole bunch of statues of, I think, old monarchs and consorts. They all look quite full of themselves.

There's also a statue of a horse. Come on, Madrid, this is getting silly now.

I'm done with the Nat Geo walk now and am just making it up. There's a square called Opera, so I go on facebook and faux complain about Madrid being a secret and end up checking in from Opera in Paris, like an idiot.

I want to go back to Sol and try again to find kilometre zero, and without using a map I just pick a direction which feels right - up a shopping street called Arenal, past some buskers playing Elvis and some more playing hold music. There's some more excellent architecture, a church, and a fantastic religious iconography shop.

Turns out Sol is only about 5 minutes up here. It's still swarming with people, if anything it's worse now at around midday than it was earlier. I walk a couple of circuits as well as some zig zagging - I really want to find the zero point - and then have a lightbulb moment. If this is the place which defines "Madrid", where all distances are measured from, then surely I can just ask Google Maps to show me where "Madrid" is? Sure enough, my phone says Madrid is about 30 yards away. I think perhaps there's a dinosaur standing on it.

I give up, somewhat crestfallen. By now it's about, I dunno, 1220 or so and I'm not exactly famished or desiccated, but I could eat and I could drink. Rather than pay for anything, I realise there's a bunch of free solids and liquids available to me a few kilometres away in the airport. Time to leave, I think.

It's not quite that simple, though. First my attention is grabbed by another pretty church, then by a ludicrously long queue at a shop that only sells lottery tickets. What?

Further up one of these big shopping arteries, dodging chuggers and beggars, most of whom have at least one limb or extremity missing. The latter, that is. The chuggers are fully formed. I wonder why the beggars are in such a bad way. Military or illness? It's very sad.

Up at Gran Via and along past the theatres and cinemas that I saw the previous night; in the daylight, this street is much less interesting or impressive. I'm aiming for Plaza de España metro station and, oh for gods sake, there's yet more really nice stuff to wander around and take photos of.

I'm meant to be in a vague hurry here. All day I've photobombed other tourists like a boss, justifying it to myself with the knowledge that my time is limited, whereas they're probably spending a bit more tha 3 hours and can just take their shot again. And so it continues, around this nice park with fountains and an obelisk and, of course, a statue of a horse. ENOUGH WITH THE HORSES ALREADY.

Right. I'm done with this now. I descend to the metro and start keeping time, because I want to know for the future how long it takes to get to the airport. On the platform at 1253, there's a couple of guys with musical instruments waiting, and very few other people. A train arrives and I go 4 stops to Nuevo Ministerios, and when I leave I see that those guys are busking in the last carriage. One of the instruments is a double bass! I find this hilarious. Such a crazily unwieldy instrument to cart around on a tube train, ha!

At the platform for the train to the airport I peer into the sidings, and am bemused by a ban on metallic balloons.

The tube ride is nondescript. At T4 I get through security quickly enough, this time actually leaving my selfie holster out so as not to alarm anyone. The gate for my flight is not yet known, but the monitors do say I will be departing from the R/S/U area in the satellite terminal. I've got plenty of time though, so I follow signs to the lounge. Downstairs, past some shops and bars, suddenly there are two signs to lounges and I realise I've been following those to one I can't get into. So I follow the Iberia lounge signs and end up directly back where I had emerged from security. DAMN IT.

International hat had a good day in Madrid.

And then, after all that, I give up and go get the monorail anyway. It's a much longer ride than from T5A to T5B/C at Heathrow, I really do think Madrid is basically 3 separate airports. Off the monorail I go through passport control and then wander through a duty free shop to the lounge entrance.

¡Hola, Velazquez! This is Iberia's main fancy-pants lounge, in the satellite terminal because this is the non-Schengen bit where all the long haul flights go from, plus of course those to the UK because we don't want no part of no stinking Schengen agreement. I've been here before, during my stupid Johannesburg day trip double header, and I hated it. Think I described it as like a Wetherspoons only worse. Well, consider my opinion re-evaluated.

It helps that it's mostly empty. I get a seat next to the window and by the "bar", where all the spirits and water and other drinks I don't recognise are. But first, food. There's a wide range of cold stuff in fridges, cold stuff on plates, and hot stuff on plates. I get loads of meat and cheese and olives and more cheese, and a bottle of San Miguel "selecta".

I think, should I start blogging? And decide against it. Instead, I go for a wander up the other end, thinking perhaps there's champagne. There is a "wine bar" which is just this area with tons of bottles, but nothing looks fizzy. So I take a photo of the LAN plane - like the one I arrived on yesterday - and go to get a beer, when I spot some 25cl bottles of Cava. Aha! I'll have one of those, ta. Back at my seat I try and enjoy the drinking and the view, but apparently the loudest woman in the lounge has decided to perch next to me and take a conf call with her office back home. She totally loses her ability to control volume when shouting "OH, AND HAYLEY!" so loud I have a physical reaction.

While I was standing up I saw the monitors say my flight was boarding. This was confusing on numerous levels. For a start, it was over an hour until departure (at least, I thought it was; half the monitors said the flight was at 1545, half at 1550, the latter being what my ticket said). What's more, no gate number was showing - so how can it be boarding already? And lastly, it said it was from gate area H, which is back in main T4 and not the satellite. This is a whole host of fail.

If it is back at T4 then I need to shift, really, so I neck my drinks and go back to the desk to ask what's happening... by which point the monitor now said it was at gate S23. That's just around the corner from the lounge. Oh, well that's OK then. Sure enough, my phone lights up as numerous apps tell me my flight will "take place" at gate S23 too. I up and leave before the lounge announcement, which I hear is made just as I'm through the door.

The gate looks moderately chaotic. I walk around in circles and then they announce priority boarding, so I weave through the crowd and am directed into the left hand side of the segregated airbridge, and stop. We're all just queueing up in this corridor, and a very angry American man drags his noisy wheely case back towards the gate. A member of staff stops him because, well, just hang on mate, and he shouts WHY DON'T YOU TELL US WHAT'S GOING ON, PEOPLES! at them. I'll tell you what's going on mate: we're queueing to get on a plane, pretty much on time.

I think perhaps his mood was so bad because the airbridge stank really badly. Someone had dropped a very large air biscuit. Whew.

Anyway, soon enough we're onboard. I'm in seat 3A for this Iberia operated flight from Madrid to London Heathrow. And this is the second centre piece of the trip, because forearmed with knowledge about flight schedules I have got myself booked on the one flight a day which Iberia use a long haul plane on. Just as with the flight yesterday, I've got me a fully flat bed and stuff for a 2hr flight. Huzzah! And it cost me £17.10 and a 12,750 Avios. I'm very pleased with myself, as always.

Boarding is still taking place after scheduled departure time and they're having to offload some luggage too because some people have gone missing. Grr. There's pre-departure Daily Mails on offer, but no drinks, boo. The crew seem a bit harried and stressed, and the cabin is really hot. The inflight entertainment system is showing the wrong flight number. I'm impressed to discover there's wifi, but it's expensive so I don't intend to use it.

Every airbridge at Madrid I've ever used is REALLY LONG.

The seat is wide and comfortable.

Obligatory legroom shot is obligatory. Lots of space. I will enjoy this on a longer flight one of these days.

The animated guy on the safety video is permanently happy, and breaks into a huge smile when the oxygen masks come down. Really mate?

The inflight entertainment system and other seat amenities are all great and responsive. Headphones are distributed before take off and I start watching Ghostbusters.

We're rolling around 10 minutes late, and the ATC tower looks pretty.

There's some great views out of the window, though mostly photos are harder to take than ever because this plane has the most reflective glass in the world. I do manage to get a half decent shot of an ex-Formula One track though.

Ghostbusters is hilarious. I love it. Apart from the fact they're all women, which is fucking outrageous and ruins everything. What is Hollywood thinking? Etc.

Service starts. It's not hugely salubrious - do I want pasta or chicken? I opt for chicken, and get a tray with everything except the main still wrapped in cling film. And a sparkling wine please, thank you.

It's very nice though, honestly. And in the battle of leaves, Iberia win hands down: the salad is gorgeous, helped enormously by the lovely balsamic vinegar. The only real downside is the bread roll I get separately, which is hard as a rock and totally inedible.

Ghostbusters makes me laugh even more with what seems to be badly dubbed anti-swearing measures. "Forget this!" "Burning hell!". Then I'm offered some tea or coffee, which I decline in lieu of some more sparkling wine. Then, before I've even finished the first let alone started on the second, the says "would you also like some spirits? Gin, vodka, whisky?". Go on then, I'll try a whisky, why not.

Moments later - I've finished the first wine, not started the second, am about halfway through the whisky - she offers me a top-up. I mean this is getting silly now. Have they had a bet on whether they can make me refuse some alcohol? Because they succeed. Who saw that coming?

I get online for a while, just because I can, because they've given me a free coupon for 4mb of data. Four whole megabytes! This is enough to send a few messages on facebook and one tweet before the rest is all used up by emails arriving and other stuff I thought I'd turned off before connecting. Ah well.

The mega-reflective windows stay mega-reflective, such that all my photos - which don't tend to be great anyway - are mostly of my knuckles. Grr. The Isle of Wight looks exactly like the Isle of Wight does on a map.

We land pretty much on time, at just gone 5pm. I'm angry because we're at T5C. Every airport experience, apart from actually inside lounges, has frustrated the hell out of me on this trip. Maybe I should give up this stupid hobby?

There's a big crowd of us down at the monorail platform so fuck it, I'll walk. I wonder how long it takes? I've done it before - from T5B only, I think - and it doesn't seem that long. I enter the tunnel at 1724 and am at the border in T5A at 1732, having had the corridor entirely to myself save for 3 members of staff. Screw you, T5 monorail. MonoFAIL more like! Ha! Zing!

Through the oyster gates nice and quickly, out and I'm back in the UK. I change hats to my domestic hat - literally - and a diet coke is purchased for £1.99, holy smokes, at WH Smith. I wander towards the lifts to the Piccadilly line station. Absent-mindedly I am whistling Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps for no apparent reason - not like I've recently watched an episode of Coupling or anything - and a guy peers out of the lift and holds the door for me. I'm like, sorry mate, I wasn't whistling at you! But he hadn't even heard me, he had headphones on and was just being kind. What a nice man.

I miss a tube by seconds, again. On the next one, at T123 people get on with incredible amounts of luggage and eschew the vestibule, preferring to totally clog up the seating area. Twats. I get to Hatton Cross and wait for a bus, a 285 which takes forever. But my reward at the end of this journey is a nice Nepalese curry and bunch of beers with Owen and Jas, who are visiting for the evening. Good night.

Created By
Darren Foreman
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