We officially kicked things off almost a week ago with a flight from NYC to Brussels, Belgium, on Jet Airways. Yeah, we'd never heard of them before, either, but they had the cheapest deal to get us to Europe. Turns out that they are an India-based airline, which means we got Indian food for our dinner on the plane. That made it pretty much the best international flight I've ever taken.
Also, there were the little TVs at every seat with a decent selection of both Hollywood and Bollywood films. I chose to finally watch "Up," and therefore spent the first couple of hours of the flight almost bawling in my seat. (Oh, and marveling at how they totally ripped off Angel Falls and the Gran Sabana in Venezuela for the fictional setting of the movie!)
Anyway, on to Brussels. We spent 7 hours there, and that was quite enough time to see pretty much everything there is to see in the place. Not the most exciting city in Europe, but not a bad place to spend a long layover, either.
We found this guy outside of the comic strip museum. We assume that he is a famous Belgian cartoon character--can anyone confirm this?
The cathedral was free, and it was freezing outside, therefore we visited it. It was stately and, you know, cathedralesque.
Brussels's top tourist attraction is probably Manneken Pis, a statue of a little boy peeing. Or I should say fountain, since the water comes out of his weenie. Andy had been hearing about this statue for a long time and was seriously disappointed at how small it was. I had warned him not to get his hopes up!I had been to Brussels with my sister (hi Brooke!) in 2002, so I had seen a lot of this before, but I don't think Brooke and I ever made it to the EU Congress building. Andy and I did. You can't really tell from this picture, but it's super-modern and looks kind of like a giant space vessels plopped down in the middle of more medeival settings. Also, it has a duck pond out back, probably so that the French have a constant source of fresh foie gras.
So, add in some chocolate and Belgian fries, and that was Brussels. We jumped on our connecting flight that night and arrived in Madrid around 10PM. Then it was off to our couchsurfing hosts, Melanie and Serge, who are awesome. And not just because they had a gourmet dinner on the stove (people eat late in Madrid!) and insisted we partake. We had so much fun getting to know them, that suddenly we realized hours had gone by since we'd arrived, and it was time for bed.
It was raining in Madrid the night we arrived, but the next day was mostly clear. After stopping by the cathedral (free, so we went in) and the Royal Palace (not free, so we passed), we headed for the Retiro, Madrid's huge central park.
Some of its highlights were the Palacio de Cristal, a beautiful glass palace...and the troupe of peacocks that roams in the northern part of the park.
Madrid also has fantastic art museums. Melanie and Serge turned us on to the Caixa Foundation museum. In addition to having an amazing free exhibit of the contemporary Spanish artist Miquel Barcelo, which we loved, it has a neat vertical garden outside. It also afforded us our very first elephant siting of the trip!
Nearby is the Atocha train station, which has a mini botanical garden inside. You can check out the turtles while waiting for your train.
That night, we visited the Prado during its free hours, and went out for tapas at a few different places. More on that in the food post. The next day, we did a day trip to Toledo, a medeival city an hour away from Madrid.
The cathedral cost a whopping 7 euros each to visit, but it was pretty impressive. Note the famous stained glass window.
It also has this very cool structure in the center. We forget what it is called, but it was very fancy.
We also visited a synagogue in Toledo (they had a thriving Jewish population until Spain threw the Jews or forced them to convert out during the Inquisition), went to a couple of museums with lots of El Greco paintings, and I ate marzipan, for which the city is known. Yum.
That night, back in Madrid we hit the Reina Sofia modern art museum during its free hours (we love the free museum evening hours!) I forget the artist, but these were some fun ballet costume concepts on display, along with many Picassos, Dalis, Miros, and other works.
Here we are with our hosts, Serge and Melanie. Their apartment really felt like home for the three nights we were there. Serge is an incredible chef, hence the wooden spoon held aloft. We hope that they will come cook for us...I mean, visit us, one day in America when we have a spare room!
Then we took off for Granada, which I'll have to post about another time, because my time here is up. We are off to Morocco in the morning!