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Trip 29 -- Tenerife Walk

Epilogue: Madrid Metro Fare Double Protest Walk
Thursday, January 20, 2022

Las Tablas - San Sebastián de los Reyes - Madrid-Barajas Airport
21008 steps/17.74 km/11.02 mi/2h 49m

When I first visited Madrid, in 1992, I was an exchange student in my last year of high school. A bunch of us stayed in the northern Madrid suburb of San Sebastián de los Reyes. Back then, getting to the city center involved taking a bus to what was then the northern terminus of metro line 1 at Plaza de Castilla and then, usually, riding the 11 stops down to Puerta del Sol.

I recall a few specific visions, conversations, tastes, and sounds from that trip. I was about the same age as Ron Mackay when he ended up in Tenerife for a year in 1960. He published his memoir of that trip five years ago, with astounding detail. You'll probably get most of my memories just in this essay.

In 1992, the price of a single ride on the metro was 140 pesetas (roughly $1.40, actually slightly less, but let's keep it simple). A ten-trip ticket was 400 pesetas. Forty cents a ride! We went into the city frequently. Sometimes we walked around "Sanse" and the neighboring suburb of Alcobendas; a couple of times we took the commuter train out to places of historical interest, such as El Escorial, the site of a 16th-century royal palace and monastery. Once we wanted to leave the bus from Sanse at Chamartín regional station and, thinking we had gone too far, jumped off while the bus was moving -- resulting in a light tumble but hardly a bruise.

I often walked Madrid alone. On our last day of the exchange, I went into the center to say goodbye to the city. Meanwhile the metro workers went on strike, and I walked back from Sol to Plaza de Castilla.

The current metro fare doesn't give the same relative discount for a ten-trip ticket; it takes around seven single rides to make the multiple-trip ticket worth it. The metro has now been extended -- wouldn't you know it? -- all the way to Sanse, stopping right outside the building in which I lived. But these northern stations require a premium fare: €3 instead of the usual €2 for trips of ten or more stations.

The metro goes to the airport now, too, and that costs €3 extra. It's clearly a facility fee rather than a distance calculation: The line through the Barajas suburb is laid out such that the station in Barajas's center -- which doesn't exact that fee -- comes between the two stations for the airport terminals, both of which do.

I've been in Madrid a few times since 1992, never for more than a couple of days at a time. I remember what the city feels like, but with all the narrow roads in the city center I always need a map to figure out where I'm going. This time was no different.

I stayed not far from Sol and, it turned out, not far from the Teatro Calderón, which was presenting "A Chorus Line." The last-minute ticket placed me in the center of the fifth row; the location couldn't have been better. It was an energetic production, beautifully sung. "That ain't it, kid; that ain't it, kid" came out as "No va a funcionar, no va a funcionar," and now you have an idea of how many extra syllables I got for my money by attending a production sung in Spanish.

Madrid is -- I wish I'd come up with this brilliant observation on my own, but I read it in a Lonely Planet guide a long time ago -- a rare example of a capital that isn't built around a major body of water. There's no equivalent of a "left bank" or "south of the Liffey." There are all the plazas in the city center, and there are a couple of magnificent parks on the west and east sides, but other than Sol and the Plaza Mayor, and maybe the Museo del Prado, there aren't a lot of landmarks by which to orient oneself.

So when I walked for a while before the theatre and came upon tempting places for a late-night dinner, they eluded me when the time came to dine. I ate in the Plaza Mayor and then, of course, passed all those places on the way back to my hotel.

But one might as well just wander in Madrid; the steps are never wasted. On my full day I sought out the Mercado de San Fernando. I took this alley and that, generally heading in the right direction but turning wherever it seemed appealing, and came upon yet another market, San Miguel, with wonderful stalls each specializing in a different kind of food. The oyster and sherry bars were next to each other; how could I resist?

I'd love something like that in New York. The counterparts in the United States that I think of immediately are the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Lexington Market in Baltimore, Pike Place in Seattle, and whatever that market is in downtown Los Angeles whose name I can never remember. In New York I suppose there is the food hall at Grand Central soon-to-be-no-longer-a Terminal, but everything costs at least $11 plus tax, before drinks, so the appeal of snacking from various sources is muted. At San Miguel you can have a tapa for €2 and a glass of wine for €3.

I found San Fernando eventually. It was pretty deserted, but I had a snack of vegan meatballs -- I'm sure that stall, like the sushi bar next door, wasn't there in 1992.

And then I reached Atocha, Madrid's main train station. I'd stumbled on it 30 years ago and been impressed by how clean, vast, and orderly it was, with international trains, long- and middle-distance domestic trains, and cercanías (commuter trains). Now the services seem to have been expanded, with the security checkpoints for long-distance trains that come with the times.

Just for kicks I took a random bus (number 37) and got off at the end of the line, in the Puente de Vallecas district in southeastern Madrid. I took back roads through pleasant plazas and watched kids come home from school. I climbed up to a park with songbirds, tall grasses, and children playing. Nearby was a cider bar; I had a late lunch of pig's-ear stew.

I took the metro for eight stops (€1.80; the fare in the main zone starts at €1.50 for five stops and then goes up 10 cents for each additional stop up to a maximum fare of €2) and there, lo and behold, was the Museo del Prado, conveniently just after its free hours had just started, the last two hours of each day.

Well, why not? I thought.

To avoid having everyone enter at once, they time the tickets, so my entry wasn't until just before seven. That gave me an hour, not enough to see even half of it, but enough to wander until something caught my eye -- much as I had been exploring Madrid.

That didn't take long, of course. Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "The Triumph of Death" may have been at odds with my carefree frolicking around Tenerife, but it did capture my attention, with its countless skeletons and the inescapability of death riding in on a horse. Fire, hangings, beatings, and swoons of despair are abundant. Card games are disrupted; a meal is unfinished.

Yet in the bottom right corner is a happy lutist, almost resting against the breast of his female singer. I would probably be that musician, too optimistic to fight, unaware of the fiddling skeleton just above.

A room devoted to Tomás de Torquemada, Inquisitor of Castile, and his painter, Pedro Berruguete, connected this trip with my walk around Curaçao. During the Inquisition, the Caribbean island received a number of conversos, or Jews who converted to Catholicism as required, many of whom continued to practice their religion secretly. Torquemada's crusade against dishonest conversos was depicted in Berruguete's painting of the burning at the stake of two heretics.

Happier thoughts were presented in the garlands, fruit still-lifes, and mouth-watering representations of fish and crustaceans of Clara Peeters and one or both of the painters named Catarina Ykens. Among the Prado's 1300 Flemish paintings, their six constitute the entirety of the output by women.

On the way back I discovered the Plaza de Santa Ana, just steps from my hotel. Had I been there before? Surely, but I hadn't remembered it. It was a lovely and lively place, with restaurant seating taking up the whole square. Hemingway whiled away many a night here.

Perhaps cued by Paul de Vos's painting of the Aesop fable "The Dog and Its Reflection," in which the animal loses a piece of beef after going after its image in a river, I dined nearby at a place specializing in grilled meats. The restaurant was almost full. That bustle and a simple grilled meat were exactly what I wanted -- nothing fancy, and I wasn't very hungry after my pig's-ear lunch. All around me people were enjoying giant cuts of meat. I ordered an entraña de ternera -- skirt steak -- and a glass of draft vermouth.

I tried. I took tiny bites and sucked down the juice. But this monster was inedible. I imagined Judge Judy saying, "You ate the steak!" and gave up my efforts after less than a tenth of it.

They noticed. "I'm not sure what to say," I told one of the servers. "But this is almost impossible to chew."

He was gracious and offered to swap it for something else. There wasn't much I was interested in, but I trusted that they couldn't turn a grilled chicken into a mass of muscle that would leave me masticating frantically and spitting it out in frustration and anger at the waste of meat.

And they delivered. The chicken was tender, albeit topped with salt grains so large and intrusive -- I have rolled smaller dice -- that I retrieved them from my mouth, mistaking them for bones. The vermouth was an effective antidote.

I'd passed a bar called Wanderlust, so I had to have a nightcap. It was a small place with no windows and somewhat awkward seating along the edge; a soccer game was being shown in the main area. The only other occupants were a group smoking a hookah at the back and a couple dancing by the bar. It wasn't a place that inspired me to linger longer than for one drink as I contemplated the colorful inscription on the wall: "Enjoy your friends -- Money will be back -- Time won't."

When I lived in San Sebastián de los Reyes, I didn't realize how close I was to the airport -- even the old terminals, which are considerably farther from Sanse than the new terminals 4 and 4S. I would fly back to New York from 4S in the evening. Why not check out my old neighborhood, I thought, and then walk to the airport? I'd get in one last stroll and avoid that pesky €3 metro fee. There was the matter of getting across the M-12 highway and crossing between two apparently disconnected roundabouts, but it seemed easy enough.

Along with the metro's extension to Sanse, they've added a light-rail route (known as Metro Ligero) between line 1's new terminus at Pinar de Chamartín and Las Tablas, on line 10 a few stops short of Sanse. It seemed a valid enough way to get up there, but I wondered whether the system would let me do it on one ticket. The straightforward way would have been to take line 10 all the way up, although line 10 is so long that it requires a change of train to get to its northern section. Still, from Sol, two changes would have been required regardless: line 1 to line 10 to the line 10 extension or, the way I wanted to do it, line 1 to the light rail to the line 10 extension.

At Pinar de Chamartín, signage threw me off. An LED sign announced "Las Tablas 00 min," and I interpreted that as the way to the light rail. I soon found myself having exited the system through the turnstiles, receiving messages of "No rides left, you sucker!" when I tried to tap in toward what I now knew was the correct access to the light rail.

I realized that the LED sign had been merely scrolling through the arrival times of all of the trains one could access at that station. But what was it doing above a row of turnstiles that led out of the system?

A worker saw my frustration. "Press the green button!" he said.

That button called the station's communications room. It went unanswered the first time, but when I called again, the gate swung open in front of me, no questions asked.

"Thank you," I said, unsure whether anyone could hear my appreciation. I headed upstairs to the light rail.

My efforts were perhaps not fully rewarded. The light rail ran almost entirely underground, so there wasn't much of that picturesque charm that I normally associate with a tramway running along the street. And the cars were annoyingly wrapped in advertising, as modern transit agencies sometimes infuriatingly do, blocking the crispness of the view.

The terminus at Las Tablas was above ground, and one needed to tap out of the station to transfer to the metro or even just exit to the street. This time the turnstile beeped "No rides left, you sucker, and how the hell did you get back into the system?" Once again I pressed the intercom button; no one answered. I considered climbing around the barrier until another passenger tapped me out.

Downstairs at the metro turnstile, of course, the beep screamed "Someone let you out, and now you want back in again?" But I pressed my luck and pushed the button to summon an agent. She appeared a moment later.

I explained my predicament, knowing I had an uphill challenge of convincing to do. "I came from Sol, then transferred to the light rail, and now I'm trying to continue up to Hospital Infanta Sofía." That's the terminus of line 10; I didn't need to go that far, but having paid the extra euro, I figured I might as well see it.

She took my card and verified that I had run it out of rides. I had noticed that the metro ticket machines show the card's last use. She checked it.

"See, I got on at Sol," I said.

"An hour and a quarter ago," she said. "It's not an hour and a quarter from Sol to here."

"But it was. I had problems with the transfer at Pinar de Chamartín, too. I never left the station."

"It's not an hour and a quarter to here." She handed me my card and walked away.

My mistake had been back at Pinar de Chamartín, where my attempt to reenter the system had been an electronic confirmation that I had exited it. I hadn't needed the card to exit. If I had pressed the green button right away, perhaps the system would have thought I was still within the fare control.

"Well, I'm not paying again," I said, lapsing into English as I do when someone can be helpful but chooses not to.

Could I make the trip without getting back on the metro? I was already most of the way to Sanse. Google Maps showed me an hour and a half away on foot from the neighborhood I wanted to visit. From there it would be another hour and a half to the airport. The flight was at 6:40 and it was now almost 1:30. It would be tight, but I could do it.

The walk up to Sanse was simple except for the presence of the Moraleja Green shopping mall, which was bordered on the east by the A-1 motorway. Logically it seemed inconceivable that there was no way through the mall from south to north, but I had to walk all the way around it to the west and then continue up Carretera de Fuencarral, an obnoxiously busy road with little space for pedestrians. Eventually I got over to the other side and a walking space appeared.

I approached Sanse and nothing looked familiar until I was directly in front of the apartment building where I'd lived, which is now just behind the Baunatal metro station. Then everything made sense: the colorful row houses across the road, the intersection to the right, the somewhat angled plaza with seating where we'd sometimes chat and the guys would give the girls motorcycle rides. I had no idea where the school was that we'd attended; all I remembered was that the Spanish students were, as was the custom, rude to their instructors, and that I had been as polite as possible when pointing out an error made by their math teacher.

I stood outside the building on Avenida Lomas del Rey, trying to remember as much as I could. The building had a lobby and stairways going up on both sides; I had lived up one flight on the left. While I stood there, people came in and out. Then one person went in, and I noticed that she didn't use a key for the first door, only for the second one.

When she had gone, I went through the first door. This put me in front of the mailboxes, which showed the corresponding occupants' names. Surely Joaquín didn't still live here, 30 years later, did he?

But there was his name on the mailbox.

I went back outside to write a note, since there was a ledge of sorts that I could sit on. I was the student who stayed with you; now I live in New York. I'm on the way to the airport now, but here are my e-mail and phone numbers. And I miss your mother's cigala (langoustine) soup.

I pushed on the door to drop my letter in his mailbox, and now it was locked. No one was going in and out. It was now 3:15 and although I was checked in for my flight, with an electronic boarding pass, I didn't want to get to the airport after five. It was almost 3:30 before someone entered, seemingly returning from an athletic workout. I followed him through the first door.

"I'm just leaving a note for my friend," I explained.

He smiled...and headed up the stairs to the left. Could he have been Joaquín? The thought didn't occur to me until he was out of sight.

I left the note and hastened out of there. Since then, more than a week has passed, and I haven't gotten a response. We weren't particularly close, even living together for a month, and maybe he doesn't live there after all -- perhaps he's a landlord for the apartment. Or perhaps the note went unnoticed in the accumulation of mail.

Google Maps showed me how to get to the busy roundabout at the intersection of highways M-12 and R-2, before continuing on Calle del Alto to the airport. But it seemed a parallel road out of Sanse would be much more pleasant.

What looked like a road on the map wasn't a road at all but a dirt path, with people strolling and walking their dogs. It was glorious and tranquil and seemed to have nothing to do with the nearby presence of a major international airport. At various points I could have headed back to the main road, but a posted map -- this was apparently an established park -- showed that I could follow this path over R-2 and then through Pinar de San Isidro before merging onto Calle del Alto. That would doubtlessly be more appealing, and what a wonderful way to approach an airport!

The overpass over R-2 required a bit of a detour north, but there was a shortcut in the form of a graffiti-festooned concrete drainage pipe under the highway. It was large enough to crawl through easily, even if I couldn't walk upright. Getting through took under a minute, after which I climbed over a short wire fence to rejoin the path through the pine grove. A tiny white church appeared on the left. Again I thought: Somewhere around here there's a major international airport?

I reached Calle del Alto, the first segment of which ended at a roundabout clearly inserted to prevent drivers from whooshing along this side road to circumvent the €1.80 airport toll. This roundabout had no exits apart from a U-turn. But I was able to continue easily along this isolated road, to the next segment, enjoying the grasses and farms and greeting bikers coming the other way.

Where's the airport?

I finally saw it at the next roundabout, which marked the extent of the long-term parking. I walked along the lot for a short distance and was suddenly separated from the airport gates by a mere fence. A few minutes later and I was in the airport. It was just before five o'clock. By 5:15 I was in the satellite terminal, ready to board. Heck, I could have stopped for a meal in Sanse.

Including the walk I'd taken from Sol to Plaza de Castilla 30 years ago, I've now walked from the Madrid city center to Sanse to the airport, except for the 6.5 kilometers between Plaza de Castilla and Las Tablas. Perhaps that is an endeavor for a future trip.

I leave you with a picture of a few verol plants from Tenerife. Something about the exquisitely dense symmetry of these particular specimens caught my eye as I was walking along TF-12 toward Santa Cruz. Cars would have passed too close and at the wrong angle for their occupants to notice them. Cyclists going uphill would have been huffing and puffing too strenuously to glance down; cyclists going the other way would have been moving too fast to see them.

So I share their beauty with you, so that we may enjoy it together.