Madrid is surrounded by mountains from which rain clouds seem to sprout from the slopes at any time of the year. Somewhat fittingly, as I returned from the southeast on a high, the dark clouds rose up again. It should’ve been a sign, I guess, for the days to come.
My last day in the Catalan speaking area of Spain started with a visit to the Museo de las Ciencias Príncipe Felipe and the L’Oceanográfic, part of a massive urban redevelopment going on in the old industrial hub of Valencia. Designed by Santiago Calatrava (of the Athens Olympic Sports Complex), the series of buildings are still under construction, but the ones that were complete were grand monument buildings.
Given my (distant) background in building design, I found it interesting to observe the finer details of the structures. They were large, clunky buildings, yet they felt organic. I felt a certain level of Gaudí in the influences, but with a significant difference. I ultimately came to the conclusion that as a designer, this architect was fantastic at designing big public spaces that were visually imposing on a landscape, but when it came to the finer, pragmatic details, he seemed uninterested, and seemed to have added some essential aspects more as an afterthought, than as part of a holistic design concept. The toilets were all subterranean, embedded in the floors of each level, and had fittings that would be very difficult to clean (stainless steel basins and urinals, which for some reason, stain easily in wet areas), and the lack of adequate ventilation meant they stank of urine. The buildings that were open were only a few years old, yet already the white structural elements were looking tardy—streaked with mud on the outside, and dust and cobwebs on the inside.
The architectural critique aside, many of the exhibits in both of the places I went to were either closed (in the L’Oceanográfic), or broken (in the Museo de las Ciencias). Given the inflated prices I paid for the tickets to these places (nudging AUD$60), it definitely wasn’t worth the money. The L’Oceanográfic in particular, had numerous displays closed either for repairs or because they only had specific times and/or days when they were open—none of which was made known to me prior to buying my ticket. If you’re thinking of going, check their website thoroughly for the times and days when the displays will be open, otherwise you won’t get your money’s worth. Next time I come here, there is a very remote chance I’ll be conned into buying another ticket, but I’ll make sure I have several days in Valencia so I can get to the different exhibits when they’re working. The Guggenheim in Bilbao was far superior.
In a sense though, it may have been fortuitous that so many exhibits were closed, as had they all been open, it would’ve been getting dark by the time I left Valencia and drove back towards Madrid, and I had a long detour off the main roads to Cuenca.
I’d read about the hanging houses of Cuenca before coming to Spain, and so was keen to take the opportunity to see these houses that are supposedly perched on the edge of a deep ravine. As it turned out, they weren’t worth such a major detour. I managed to get some half decent photos, mostly in the evening when it was overcast, and the lights of the town cast an eerie orange glow in the images. There is only a handful of these houses that actually face out into the ravine, and with the exception of perhaps two of them, they don’t so much “hang” over the edge of the ravine, as perch close to the edge.
I returned this morning to try and find the real hanging houses that I guessed must have been further up the ravine, as well as explore the ruins of a castle at the end of the bluff; but when I arrived, I have to say I was quite disappointed. Last night, as I walked along the edge of the ravine, I could see a large monument high above, lit up with floodlights, and assumed that it was the castle. Today I found it was a Jesus statue on another hill, and that all that remains of the castle is the wall near where the gates once stood. The rest of it seems to have been carted off by the residents over the years to form new houses.
The sky hung low and a fine drizzle drifted in the air, and a strong, cold wind blew. Driving the car up through the old town, I found myself thinking that had I visited here in my first weeks in Spain, the narrow cobbled streets and old, crumbling stone houses would have wowed me. Now, I was only interested in highlights, and I regretted staying a night here, when I could’ve had an extra day at Valencia.
This time, with nothing to hold my interest, there was no risk of me getting to Madrid in darkness. The little shitroen had, to this date, remained fairly clean, and I thought I’d be able to get through to the end of the hire period without washing it. That was, until I hit the M-30. Normally, the M-30 is a ring road that enables residents and visitors alike to circumnavigate Madrid easily, spinning off to the various arterial roads and suburbs like drunkards on a centrifuge. I’ve had some limited contact with it before, both in returning to Madrid from Barcelona a month ago, and in departing for the north over the past few weeks.
In the north, the road is intact. In the south, driving the M-30 is closer to driving in a car rally on a back-road, except rather than dodging trees, you’re dodging construction equipment. There is no sealed road, and it lurches through the construction site (it’s not multiple sites, just one big long one) at obtuse angles, with the exits emerging suddenly from amid the concrete barricades and earth moving equipment. Do the locals slow down? Only a little bit, and it’s only the most aggressive, lane-changing-without-indicating, horn blaring goons that get their exits easily (and the first time). I missed several exits, and found myself backtracking through the equally frustrating regular back-streets of Madrid, cursing at the shitroen when it stalled or the gears crunched, or just because it was French and being luxury biased, should’ve had a GPS as standard, because these friggen Madrid streets weren’t signed and my sense of direction kept pointing me back to Valencia.
It had been raining (again) prior to my arrival—enough to turn the grey, ash like gravel to mud that sprayed our from the wheel hubs of other cars and trucks, over the shitroen and stuck to it, changing the colour of the car. Of course, the rain that had generated the mud in the first place did not return to wash the shitroen clean.
Numerous roads that are marked as roads on a map, no longer exist near the M-30, and what appear to be ways of cutting through are abruptly sealed off. The only benefit, parking restrictions aren’t enforced. Though keeping that last point in mind, you do need to park in places where you can’t be boxed in by double-parkers, who seem to have come out in force since the parking restrictions were relaxed. Eventually, I found my way back to the hotel, pulled into a side street, and walked around to the entrance to check in.
I think this is the first time I’ve been checked into a hotel in daylight hours for the entire trip. But then, I daren’t be late, as I am going off with a friend to stand in a queue for a few hours to attend some signing by an Italian singer at El Corte Inglés in Goya.