Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Spanish break

The very moment I learnt I was assigned to travel to Spain in business I knew I had been given the opportunity to combine the business trip with some private sightseeing and cheaply overstay there (flight back paid by the New Factory anyway plus I was eligible for abroad travel allowances) for a few days and I seized it!

The last decade of January was maybe not a perfect period for tourism, but as the old saying goes, never look a horse gift in a mouth. Central part of Spain has warm continental climate, but in winter it means it seldom rains, sunshine is abundant, but temperature fluctuations are high. Mornings (sunrise after 8:00 a.m.) on many days were frosty or with temperature little above zero while in the afternoon (the warmest moment of the day around 3:00 p.m.) temperature could reach nearly +15C, so temperature could soar by fifteen degrees within five hours. Fortunately, over the week spent there, only one day was partly rainy.

Getting to Spain regardless of the season is generally easy and rather inexpensive. Choice of low-cost and regular flights is decent. Polish Airlines (PLL LOT) operate one return flight per day to Madrid, besides, Lufthansa offers several flights each day with transfers in Frankfurt or Munich whose duration is around an hour and a half higher than of LOT-operated direct flights. For business-related reasons I had to opt for Lufthansa connection via Frankfurt, the airline in terms of being class of its own, way superior to PLL LOT.

Accommodation in Madrid at this time of year is cheap, with prices of hotel rooms comparable to rates offered in Warsaw. A two-night stay with breakfasts included in a two-star hotel for the business part of my trip set the New Factory back EUR 125, while for overstaying I booked a room in one of well-located (less than ten metro stations from the city centre) Ibis Budget one-star hotels for less than EUR 45 per night & breakfast. Depending on the city, prices soar in March and decline in October (with Barcelona being the most dreadful example), but if you look out well, finding a double room with breakfasts in a cheap (yet clean) hotel for EUR 50 should not be out of reach.

In terms of transport, Spain can boast of very decent infrastructure, although it has to be noted the country fell into the trap of over-investments co-funded by the EU. The biggest flop were toll roads built under PPP scheme whose operators (who had underestimated traffic volumes) struggle to make ends meet and service loans taken out to finance those projects. The very Madrid has excellent system of underground trains (Metro) consisting of 12 lines which can take you to nearly any part of the city. To get about Madrid I purchased right away a Tourist Pass, a ticket valid for 7 days around Spain’s capital, including airport ticket zone for EUR 35.40. Not extremely cheap by Warsaw standards, yet giving a lot of comfort to a frequent traveller. To travel around Spain, I recommend ALSA buses – journey durations are longer than by ultra-expensive trains, but the price makes up for this (my return ticket from Madrid to Toledo cost me less than EUR 10).

For the record – inhabitants of Spanish cities are skilful drivers when it comes to parallel parking – they can fit their cars into gaps wider less than half a metre than length of their vehicle… The art I will probably never master (although I easily park a car between two other vehicles so that you can’t open door on any side).

I would find it hard to put up with and get accustomed to work style Spanish people have (but most of them do not enjoy it) – they tend to stay long hours in the office (many work from nine to nine) regardless of how much work they need to complete, take long afternoon breaks (also in the winter), but their working efficiency is low, also because they come up with manifold time-fillers, such as numerous meetings and calls. In Poland a reasonable boss in a corporation expects from their employees to get their done and if they are able to make it within eight hours, they can knock on at 9:00 a.m. and call it a day at 5:00 p.m. In Spain, it is unthinkable, even if you are at the loose end…

The language barrier was not a shock to me. I had known well Spanish people are positioned at the very bottoms of rankings of command of foreign languages. Nevertheless, the phenomenon is astonishing in a country which to a large extent lives off tourism. Over those days I had to harness Google Translator to take a crash course in basic Spanish and the upshot was that in many situations I talked in English while my interlocutors responded to me in Spanish. Generally, if you open your mouth and speak English, expect to behold dread on your interlocutor’s face. Chances of communicating (and nothing beyond it, since quality of English used in Spain is abhorrent) are the highest in tourist areas and with young people (the country’s authorities have recognised the problem and have put emphasis on linguistic education of youngsters). Even workers of international corporations have problems speaking decent English, make lots of mistakes, come up with words being a mixture of Spanish and English and often sincerely admit they need to omit part of they want to say since they do not know how to say it in English… In this respect I am proud of Poland!

It would be a gross understatement to say I am not a gourmet, yet I regardless of my indifference to what I eat and inability to take delight in tasting, I have not grown fond of Spanish cuisine. Some claim Spanish food is hearty. For me it is simply stodgy. Had no problems with my digestive system after any meal, yet I felt my stomach was chock full of stuff I had gorged on. Apart from shunning light meals (which is kind of strange given weather they have to endure in summer) they tend to eat small breakfasts (which was reflected in quantities and choice of food produces served for breakfasts in hotels), sizeable lunches and huge suppers. Exactly the other way round than how I prefer to eat (large breakfast, decent lunch, small last meal at least 3 hours before falling asleep).

Sights-wise, the biggest attraction was the trip to Toledo. The city is magnificently picturesque, yet strolling around it requires some fitness, since you constantly walk either uphill or downhill. The weather the day I visited it was perfect despite large temperature swing from frost to +14C.

To the right – the city’s most famous tourist attraction – the cathedral on a sunny midday.

And one more snap – a view to the other, southern bank of the river surrounding the city. Absolutely splendid.

If you want to visit (tick off) all sights in Madrid, two days might be fair enough, yet if you are fond of arts and history and want your trip to be more conscious, reserve two more days. During my stay I visited only the most renowned Prado Museum. If you want to see all painting exhibited there and contemplate them, a day-long visit is probably recommended. Me, not being an art connoisseur, dashed through the collections during the two-hour free admission open-doors period in the evening.

Because of understaffing in the office, the next holiday break is planned for… hell knows when, but sadly not before long… For the time being I’m down with some throat infection and fever, working from home next week.

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