Day 8: Madrid + Zaragoza

Today instead of hitting the road right after breakfast, we hit up Spain’s capital city of Madrid. However, before reaching the center of the city, we stopped in a plaza to pick up a few new members of our tour group. Another cool thing with this tour company is that you can join and leave the group wherever you choose since they operate on a circular route. Most people stay for an entire loop, but you can also just stay for a few days.

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Normally, everything runs right on schedule, but miscommunication delayed us here a bit. Turns out our new tour members mistakenly loaded their luggage on a different Chinese tour bus, and that tour bus had driven away! (They got their luggage back eventually though since the other tour group was conveniently spending the night in the same city as we were.)

After that situation was all sorted out, we were off to the city for real! Passing through the Plaza de Cibeles, we first visited a James Bond museum, but we didn’t actually go inside to look at the memorabilia. Our guide just wanted to show us a large wall map near the entrance that illustrated the years of Columbus’ voyages. Outside there was a statue of Columbus gesturing to the west.

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We then reboarded the bus and were driven to the Royal Palace of Madrid. On the way, our guide explained to us that although it was the largest palace in Europe, the interior collection wasn’t particularly spectacular, the reason being that Napoleon had stolen whatever he thought was valuable when he fought his way into Spain and that those treasures consequently reside in the Louvre today. We didn’t judge for ourselves though because from here we walked towards the Plaza Mayor, which in the past had been used for a variety of things like public executions and soccer matches. When we arrived though, it was a quiet square surrounded by restaurants where you could pay a few bucks to take a photo behind the body of a mannequin in Flamenco-style clothing.

A little further down, we reached the Puerta del Sol, a much larger and livelier area with rays of avenues converging upon it. Here our tour group first clustered around the “0 km” mark, the spot from where distances from Madrid are calculated. Then our guide pointed us towards the statue of The Bear and the Strawberry Tree (although it’s really a cherry tree). The statue is iconic of Madrid because according to legend, early settlers coexisted with these bears back when Madrid was still a forest.

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From here we were given a few hours of free time, and we were off on Mission Churros Con Chocolate! There was a shop right on the edge of the Puerta del Sol, but Crystal had done her research the night before and found a place in a less touristy part of town. What made her choose this cafe was that their chocolate dipping sauce was supposedly not overly sweet, being made from dark chocolate. After a few twists and turns, we arrived at a near empty street that led to the cafe, but boy was navigating worth the effort! As anticipated, the thick and steamy, deeply hued chocolate was silky smooth with just the right sweetness level. And the perfect partner, the plain churros weren’t greasy at all but rather crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. While we briefly waited for our churros con chocolate, we were even treated to free cookies! On a trip where bread and water weren’t free at the restaurants, that made me as happy as my cookie.

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With dessert down, we were now on the look-out for lunch, but since we were already half full, we ended up just grabbing a savory snack at the familiar KFC. You might be thinking, “What a waste to be eating KFC while in Madrid!” But actually I like trying fast food chains in other countries because they’re always slightly different to adapt to local preferences. At the McDonald’s in England, we had tried their curry chicken wrap, in France their macarons, and in Italy their assorted cheese fritters. At the KFC in China, we had tried their mango egg tarts, and now here at the KFC in Madrid, we tried the Box Master.

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“A warm tortilla wrapped around a delicious [chicken] fillet… a slice of cheese, hash brown, crisp lettuce, fresh tomato and a dash of Colonel dressing.” — KFC website

After window shopping through the streets, we very briefly popped inside the Mercado de San Miguel on our way back to our tour group’s rendezvous point. The market was packed at this hour with people sampling gourmet tapas. I say gourmet because everything sold here just looked fancier (and pricier!); cherries were a whopping 17 € per kg!

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After meeting up with our group, we off to the city of Zaragoza for the night. Here we visited the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar. In the plaza outside, preparations were being made for some sort of military ceremonial event (a security guard stood watch on the colorful roof of the church) while inside a wedding ceremony was taking place! The bride was Chinese while the groom appeared to be Spanish, and the priest fluently alternated between the two languages!

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Our tour guide actually organized the one-and-only group dinner for tonight at a Chinese restaurant. We had eaten at an Asian buffet within walking distance of our hotel the night before, but unlike the relatively Westernized food we ate there, the food here consisted of simple but classic, traditional Chinese dishes in a private, family-style setting. It was actually one of my favorite dinners of the trip and really reminded me of being in China. The four of us were joined by an older couple from Georgia; they were both Chinese, but the wife was actually born in the States whereas the husband was born in Vietnam. It was nice to get to know a few of our tour mates over this home-y meal in a place over 4,000 miles from home.11407127_10153397897279603_2052269066396666570_n

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