Just call me Poppins – Scarlet Poppins

Flying into Madrid and with my instructions clamped tightly in my hand I negotiated passport control, the metro and the Cercanias train system to arrive at my destination for the next week .  Senorio de Illescas is a dormitory town which lies bang in between Madrid and Toledo, just 35kms to either on a train or a bus and with the journey costing an amazing two and a half euros.  I had discovered the family who were to be my hosts on the Workaway website – but unlike working on the farm in Portugal my remit here in Spain was to speak English.  And to play with the adorable seven month old baby who I shall call Garban (Spanish for something small like a tadpole or a chickpea)

After the structure of the farm where we had a specific (though flexible) timetable to follow, here there was no such structure.  The timetable was dictated by Garban, but with his ready smiles that was no hardship.

the familiar symbol of Madrid

the familiar symbol of Madrid

I began writing this account of my experiences in Madrid intending it to be factual and objective but as I leave, heading south to Estepona, it is hard to remain composed.

The family that I lived with for three weeks took me into their home and into their hearts. I have met both sets of parents, brother, sister, aunts and uncles, cousins and the amazing grandmother.  We have prepared meals together and swapped recipes, cycled, walked, shopped and chatted late into the night.

Dyana and Hunter have been the ultimate hosts, tour guides and friends and there were tears all around as we said our goodbyes.  They have ‘met’ my parents via skype and they extended an invitation to them to visit them in Madrid which was reciprocated by my parents should Dyana and Hunter return to the UK.

Since my arrival, Garban has sprouted two new teeth, he has begun to crawl and he has started at his nursery.  It was difficult to watch the anguish on Hunter’s face as he walked away from his crying son leaving him with the nursery staff, and it brought back many memories for me with my children.  Perhaps if I could turn back the clock and I had the benefit of hindsight I would maybe do some things differently – but there is no point regretting what I did or didn’t do – they were the right things at the time.

tapas dish of pig's ears

tapas dish of pig’s ears

Anyway, I digress.  It was easy to love Garban and I loved every minute of my time in Illescas – even when challenged to eat tripe (pigs intestines).  With ten pairs of eyes watching me, and the family holding their collective breath, I struggled gamely to chew and swallow.  Feeling rather like a contestant on ‘I’m a Celebrity’ I regret to say that I failed miserably, although thankfully Mario gallantly reached me with a bucket in time!  I felt honoured that despite many of the family not speaking any English they included me in the family birthday celebrations and with sign language and with Dyana and Hunter translating, I felt very much a part of things.

The economic situation in Spain is bad – but Dyana (named after an actress) and Hunter (so called following his wild antics one evening when he chased a massive bug around the kitchen with a tea towel) have good jobs.  Dyana was enjoying her last two weeks of her maternity leave when I rocked up at their door, and then during my third week Hunter took annual leave and stayed home while she returned to work and little Garban began his gentle introduction to the nursery.

I was impressed with Dyana and Hunter’s standard of English and also that of their brother and sister.  It made me keen to persevere with my Spanish lessons. I know that my understanding did improve over the three weeks although I still lack confidence when trying to speak.  Learning a language is a pleasurable pain – or should that be a painful pleasure – for people who want to be stimulated and love learning, and I know that forthcoming experiences will be greatly enhanced if I can understand and make myself understood in Spanish.

So what exactly did I get up to?

Well, no two days were ever the same.

sleepy tigers

sleepy tigers

To begin with, I usually rose at eight-ish most mornings and after breakfast I would usually entertain the baby and chat to Dyana.  We would often go out for a walk or we would go to the shops.  We went once to the weekly market set up in the shadow of the futuristic looking bull ring, where they sold local produce, stopping to study a pair of tigers who were sleepily sprawled out in a trailer which was parked on the street.  They were not a permanent feature of the town but were part of a travelling circus which was in town. We stopped several times for beer or a coke and tapas in some bars and as the temperature was a toasty thirty degrees for the majority of my stay, I often lay in the garden on a sun lounger or I dipped in and out of the little pool.

Garban is totally doted on by his entire extended family and I never once witnessed any irritation or impatience with him.  If he couldn’t sleep then not to worry, it just meant more time with him.  If he refused to eat, no matter, still more time with him.  Perhaps because of the devotion that he received, he had little need to cry or grumble and was ready with his smiles and cuddles.  Dyana’s brother and Hunter’s sister showered him with affection and it never ceased to make me laugh when either set of grand parents arrived and the battle to cuddle and hold him began between the couples.  He was so content and happy to be with me and I earned the nickname Mary Poppins.

With encouragement and plenty of hints and tips from Dyana and Hunter I set off on some mini-adventures and I explored Toledo, Madrid and Sergovia – and you will get in-depth reports from these amazing places in the future I met some lovely people including a lady from New Zealand, travellers from Colombia and Poland and of course from Madrid itself, and amazingly I also met up with friends from the UK who happened to be in the area.

the local bull ring glows under the sunset

the local bull ring glows under the sunset

As I now bowl south on the coach I can see an intriguing looking castle on a distant hill which is flanked by a row of old fashioned windmills.  The rain that accompanied our departure from Madrid has stopped and the windmills gleam in the sun.  The plains of Spain are truly enormous.  Stretching for as far as the eye can see, crops and dried grasses wave golden yellow in the sun and with far away mountains propping up the sky on the horizon this is certainly no place for the agoraphobic.  I have loved every place that I have visited so far on my travels and Pollyanna-like, I always try to find beauty or something of interest.  Madrid felt very special to me.  The centre is compact – even more compact than Lisboa and contains a diversity of sights all within walking distance to each other.  The metro system is sleek, modern and inexpensive and there is a range of eating and drinking places to suit all tastes and budgets.  Most importantly of all for me, it felt safe.  When the lights come on at night it takes on a whole new persona but still envelops and welcomes its inhabitants.

I am very excited to be moving on and to be meeting up with friends at a wedding in Estepona but I am also very sad and truly sorry to leave an amazing family.  I know that I have made some friends for life.

4.  UK to Portugal by Train

4. UK to Portugal by Train

Just a month after we had excitedly unfolded the piece of paper which would dictate our fate we were off. It was hardly an auspicious start, tramping through the deserted streets of Plymouth at midnight to catch the bus to London, but that couldn’t dampen my spirits because my adventure was really about to start. The winning ticket was taking us to the Optimus Live music festival in Lisbon by rail.

I soon realised that my rucksack was far too heavy weighing in at 14.5kgs and with my daysack weighing in at an additional 7.5kgs I decided that I would have to take substantially less items to Peru!! From the bus, the new morning sun, an intense burnt orange, ponderously dragged itself up over the horizon and colour-washed the sky, first with a delicate shade of blue and it then added a sniff of rose pink to the palette which increased in richness until the misty fields alongside the speeding bus were bathed in golden rays. Arriving in London we took the Tube to St Pancras station where we boarded our Eurostar train which would take us to France.

The trains travel in the Channel Tunnel (the Chunnel) for 38 kms underneath the seabed of the English Channel between the UK and France making it the longest undersea tunnel in the world. Obviously there was no view, just blackness outside the windows whilst we were under the sea, but I found it quite strange to think about how much rock and water was above our heads.

Arriving in Paris we made our way via the Metro to the Gare de Austerlitz where we chose a bar to sit and wait for a couple of hours until our train was due. But there was a treat in store for us when what seemed to be the entire French air force started to display in the skies above us with their equivalent of our Red Arrows, jets, big fat transport planes and helicopters. Nobody else on the street or in the bar batted an eyelid, and most people kept their heads resolutely down despite the terrific noise. My schoolgirl French was understood when I questioned our waiter about what was going on. He explained that all eyes were being kept firmly down so as not to spoil the surprise when the air show would all happen for real on Sunday the 14th July which was Bastille Day. This was just the dress rehearsal and I thought it quite sweet that the Parisians wouldn’t take a peek because they wanted to enjoy the full display on Bastille Day.

A little later, at fifteen minutes to six, the station board clicked over to announce our platform and we went to find our seats. Our reclining seat for the night on the TrenHotel actually proved very comfortable. We settled ourselves in and ate our picnic tea, and then we shared a cheeky bottle of red wine – of course in France one must do what the French do best. At the crazy early hour of 7.30pm some guests settled down for the night, blankets tucked in and eye masks firmly on. Despite no sleep for 34 hours, my travel partner wanted to play and he successfully rounded up anybody in our carriage who admitted to speaking English or who had not got their eye mask on quickly enough, then like the Pied Piper he led a pack of us along the train. Out of cattle class, through the posh restaurant and down endless swaying corridors past the couchettes which we had been unable to book because they were too full to….the bar. And there Chris orchestrated a party.

I have previously partied on a plane on the way home from Turkey and now I have partied on a train. There was me, Chris and four other intrepid travellers at varying stages of their journey. A young Aussie lady from Perth, a student returning to his home town of Madrid from his university in Canada, a Canadian (not connected to the Spanish student) and a very articulate, young German. They were all travelling solo so we swapped travel tales and got into a very earnest discussion with the very lovely German who, it transpired, carried the guilt of Hitler upon his young shoulders and was concerned that we should not view him or his nation in a bad light. Before you jump to any conclusions I am well aware that politics and religion should not be discussed whilst travelling but the German himself opened the conversation and I am happy to report that following an intelligent and sympathetic discussion and despite or perhaps because of the amount of beer consumed, our young German was happy.

Our impromptu party eventually had to end because the bar ran out of beer so leaving behind an artistic display of our used cans in a pyramid on a shelf we successfully negotiated the swaying corridors and attempted (unsuccessfully) not to wake our other carriage occupants whilst we adjusted and played with our electronic seats, unwrapped our blankets which were wrapped in the noisiest plastic known to man and whispered goodnight to each other.

We were rocked to sleep lulled gently by the clicketty click of the train tracks and amazingly only one of the twenty people in our carriage snored; and because that was me it didn’t disturb me at all!
I did wake briefly at about 4am as the train negotiated the Pyrenees, twisting slowly through the mountains with wheels and joints screeching and creaking on the bends and then I woke again at 7.30am to another stunning sunrise as we careered across the Spanish plains which stretched on forever outside the windows of our TrenHotel.

After a fourteen hour train ride we sleepily landed on the platform of the Madrid Charmartin station, and after a little hunt around we found the left luggage office. Airport style x-ray machines and reassuring uniformed personnel were more than we could have hoped for and leaving our bags safely there we set off to explore the city.

Madrid was very hot that day and it was experiencing higher than average temperatures so we whizzed around some of the major sights, or at least, strolled as fast as we could. It was a fine balance between speeding up to get out of the sun and not going so fast that one would self-combust.

The Palace was impressive, the market was amazing and the traffic horrible, but I would return several times in the future and explore Madrid properly. What struck me was that everything was gigantic. They didn’t go in for delicate fountains or neat buildings. The planners must have had competitions – we want a statue – so let’s make it three times life sized. Let’s build a museum – and that of course must be enormous so that the oversized exhibits will fit in. We need roundabouts -make them the size of small countries so that the vast quantity of traffic can circulate with so much noise that it is impossible to think straight. Eventually we conceded to the heat and settled under a parasol for a very long, lazy Mediterranean lunch.

Then it was on to our next sleeper train. Oh dear! We had been properly spoilt the previous night. We were crammed into the carriage on seats which hardly reclined, there were no blankets or free water and it was HOT. They didn’t turn the carriage lights off until 1.30am when most people finally did drift off into a restless sleep – but then – at 3am some officious little upstart flicked all the lights back on and insisted on us producing our tickets again. Tickets which had been locked away in rucksacks and suitcases and stored in the luggage racks had to be located by some very sleep deprived individuals. Luckily for the officious little upstart it was too hot to start any sort of social rebellion and we all eventually complied with his request but grumbling is grumbling in any language. We were glad to finally roll into Lisbon albeit just two hours late, but we could unravel our limbs and stretch out.

A quick breakfast at a backstreet station cafe consisted of amazing coffee and some very dodgy indescribable meat in a roll: imagine the taste and texture of a mixture of corned beef and salami; and then we set off to find a tram to our accommodation.

We had reserved a room in a fantastic apartment owned by a lady called Guida. There were beautiful parquet wood floors throughout and our bedroom had a balcony, the tram to the city stopped on the street opposite and the Optimus music festival site was just ten minutes walk away. We each had a very welcome shower and took a siesta before heading into Lisbon for some sightseeing. It was the best feeling in the world to feel clean and fresh again. Wet wipes are fine but we needed a shower to remove the grime of three days of travel in temperatures of forty plus. We could finally pause and draw breath before the festival.

You can read about another of my epic travel trips in my book, ‘Reflections from the Camino’ which is available at this link https://payhip.com/b/ZvVe

This post has been checked and updated in June 2024

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