The luscious lure of the vast landscape of central Spain spread out in front of us; a land bursting with endless possibilities. Not unlike a flirtatious Señorita waiting to tease with her alluring wares, this part of Spain is less explored and full of promise.
From skiing in the Sierra de Guadarrama to swimming in the Pantano de San Juan, "Madrid's Beach," much of this sublime, natural environment often gets overlooked in favour of the magical city of Madrid.
Madrid's magical allure
But we had become victims as well. We hadn't managed to escape the world-renowned charms of Spain's capital city. After four fantastic days and nights of savouring some of the best culture and food that Madrid has to offer, it was time to change our pace. We needed to take it down a notch or two....at least that was the idea!
So we spent our final day in Madrid being civilised! We took out a rowing boat in the city's resplendent Retiro Park, followed by only one pre-dinner cocktail in Del Diego's – undoubtedly one of Madrid's most glamorous haunts.
Of course our somewhat wild but very perfect four days in Madrid had to be finished off in style and what better way to achieve this, than to dine at Sobrino de Botín: the oldest restaurant in the world. Its roast suckling pig found its way onto the pages of a Hemingway novel! The writer felt that, "Madrid is full of literature, poetry and music on all four sides, so much so that she herself is a literary character".
In search of Don Quixote: Alcalá de Henares
The next morning, after the correct dosage of café con leche, we made our way to the train station. A short ten minute journey was our first step in trying to escape the magical spell that the city of Madrid had cast upon us.
We were in search of Don Quixote. But not having the time to travel the one hundred and seventy, or so, kilometres to Castile de la Mancha, we headed instead to Alcalá de Henares: the birth town of Quixote's creator, author Miguel de Cervantes.
It seemed a shame to miss Castile de la Mancha. If we hadn't had such a special rendezvous awaiting us in Barcelona in a few days time, Castile de la Mancha, Don Quixote and the famous windmills would have been ours for a a day or two!
However the hometown of Cervantes is idyllic with its picturesque squares, streets, monuments and museums. The UNESCO World Heritage city was the world's first ever planned university city and is the place to go to trace the life of Miguel de Cervantes from the author's birth. The Cervantes Festival takes place for around a week each year around the 9th October.
But not only this, the city has some exquisite restaurants as well. We had a delicious meal in La Cupula, a restaurant in an old church that offers a few more vegetarian options than many Spanish restaurants do!
We couldn't resist the temptation of some after dinner drinks in a nearby bar. Buzzing, bubbly and full of friendly locals, we ended up staying there a bit later than planned. Someone we were chatting to told us that there are two Irish bars in Alcalá de Henares! Unbelievable ...us Irish seem to end up everywhere!
Moving back into Medieval times in Zaragoza
The next morning neither of us felt very lively or chatty. Trying to get showered, packed and to the train station for the 9 am AVE high speed train was a big effort. We had to run to make the train.
Zaragoza, Spain's fifth largest city, blends some amazing architecture that overlooks the Ebro river, with its tapas that are the city's trademark. Once we had checked into Hotel Pilar Plaza Zaragoza, a stylish value for money option, in a great location, we made our way to El Tubo, the city's famous tapas district.
We had timed our visit to transport ourselves back in time by hanging out in Zaragoza for the few days of the Mercado Medieval de las Tres Culturas (the Medieval Market of the Three Cultures).
Spread out over the Plaza del Pilar and the surrounding areas, this medieval fiesta is superb. It is so easy to feel how the Medieval lifestyle must have been, with around 150 stalls filled with Medieval foodie offerings and handcrafted goods. The three days of the festival are absolutely packed with reenacted activities, including dances, combats, theatrical performances and children's games. The video below gives you a little taste of this amazing experience.
The Three Cultures are the Christians, Moors and Jews. We discovered that if you book in advance at the tourist information point, you can go on a guided tour to the Moorish and Jewish Quarters.
As for the food, well that was just delicious. The tapas bars and restaurants located in the city's centre take part in the fiesta, offering traditional Medieval fare. In typical party-girl Tara form, my friend ended up dancing with one of the local street performers! I tried hard to get her back to the hotel but they were impossible to separate, so I left her to it.
Photo courtesy of Ten Zaragoza
Barcelona and love on my mind...
The next morning I got her up in plenty of time to shower, have café con leche and make our way to the Zaragoza Delicias train and bus station. I just love that name as all I have to do is think of the Chinese rice dish, Arroz Tres Delicias (Rice Three Delights) to remember the train station's name. I was already both nervous and excited about that afternoon's romantic meeting at Barcelona Airport. Luckily we could take the high speed train a bit before 1 pm, so there was time for some pampering.
Afterwards we started our walk to the station, with what seemed like too much time on our hands. But my sense of direction, which is famous for all the wrong reasons, led us astray. By the time we realised, and doubled back on ourselves to re-trace our steps and go the right way, we had to start running to try to get there on time.
We entered Delicias at 12.52 precisely: the departure time of our train. Two puffing, sweaty messes. Red faced and rather unattractive, we dashed to the platform to catch the AVE, only to see it pull away without us.
I flipped. The AVE high speed train would have got us into Barcelona Sants with enough time to get the train to El Prat Airport, where I was meeting a gorgeous Portuguese guy, on his way back from Lisbon. Panic set in.
Tara, who wasn't about to let me miss such a special romantic rendezvous, was more composed than me. She started checking the trains on her mobile, only to discover that the next train to Barcelona wasn't until 13.46 not getting us into Sants until 15.30. An arrival time that denied me those special, sweet moments that I had been playing over in my imagination for weeks. I started to feel defeated. Fed up and super stressed, I looked around to see where I could buy cigarettes. I hadn't smoked for three years.
Then Tara cut across my rotten mood by thrusting her mobile in front of my face. Between the sweat and the tears that had been welling in my eyes, I could barely see what she wanted to show me. She seemed to be waffling on about some great value deal. Then my eyes settled down on the screen in front of me. There it was, this amazing solution that meant we could still arrive on time to meet my perfect Portuguese from his flight.
Renting a car in Spain
Tara had found a great car rental comparison site, Easyterra, that meant we could see super quickly what was available nearby to where we were. I couldn't believe it when we found out that we could actually pick up a car at Delicias straight away and drop the same car off at Barcelona El Prat Airport three days later, before catching our flight. Not only that, but when we started to calculate the costs, it was superb value for money taking into account that we would have spent around €120 on our one way train tickets anyway. The Seat Leon was only going to cost us €258.12 for four days, including extended insurance cover and the one way surcharge fee. Brilliant!
So once again, I started to visualise how Joao and I would run to meet each other in the airport. Hungry for each other, our mouths meeting after long weeks apart. Our first romantic rendezvous since he had uttered those three amazingly important words to me over dinner in Valencia, in the wonderful Basque restaurant, D. Donosti.
The drive to Barcelona was sublime. My heart was overflowing with anticipation. With the sounds on full blast, we drove as fast as we could on the A2 without breaking the speed limit. The car had that lovely new smell and the 300 kilometre journey to El Prat airport passed by so pleasantly, as we sang along to the radio. It was as if the DJ knew all my favourites and played them especially for me on my special day of promised love.
Our Seat Leon got us to the airport with enough time for me to freshen up, so that I felt sexy and ready for the romantic rendezvous that had been the subject of my dreams and imagination for weeks. And Joao certainly didn't disappoint. Looking more gorgeous than I had remembered, he ran to meet me, taking me in his arms and I melted....my heart thumping, my face glowing and my lips impatient.
Photo courtesy of Bona Vista Apartments
After we had enjoyed being reunited after too long a time apart, all we had to do after checking into our hotel was look forward to our first ever night of San Juan together. The amazing fiesta on the night of 23rd June, that celebrates midsummer in true Spanish style, by partying on the beaches with bonfires through the night.
At midnight when we walked into the Mediterranean sea together, to do the ritual of cleansing from the year gone by, I knew at that moment that this was a love to last forever. But maybe if we hadn't been able to rent a car in Spain so easily, might the ending to my love story have been different?