In between our long, meandering Camino adventure and our current daily regimen of hiking and scarfing down fresh bread on the island of Tenerife there was an awkward little bubble of time during which we lacked any firm plans. Once we booked our flight to the Canary Islands out of Madrid, however, we knew we would finally get our look at that great old city. Strangely, despite Madrid being far and away the most common entry and exit point for Spain, not to mention a popular tourist destination in its own right, we had somehow managed to achieve the highly unlikely feat of spending at least one night in roughly 67 different Spanish cities/towns/villages/sketchy huts without spending a single one in the Spanish capital. Well, streak over. But did we really need a whole week there? Our attention spans for cities usually run in the 3-4 night range, unless there is a particularly large list of attractions to check off (i.e. Buenos Aires) or we are looking to intentionally slow the pace (i.e. Prague, Cartagena) or, perhaps, really love the idea of getting lost every time we walk out the door (i.e. Syracuse). Madrid fit none of those criteria, and I personally didn’t feel the need to increase our odds of getting stuck sharing a table with Cristiano Ronaldo at a fast food taco place.
So, where else to go? Another of the innumerable Spanish cities we still haven’t seen? After 35 of those back-to-back it didn’t seem like a priority. So where could we fly affordably? Apparently, Amsterdam, Milan, Frankfurt, Zurich and… Nuremberg, whatever that was. We’d already been to the first on two separate occasions, Milan is known more for a cosmopolitan feel and high fashion, neither of which fall in our wheelhouse, Frankfurt, well, I always thought Frankfurt was just one giant airport hub based on how often it pops up in the middle of prospective flight itineraries, and Zurich is expensive. And possibly already on our list for next fall. Nuremberg is old, large without being unmanageable, has a fascinating Nazi history, and, as it happens, is located a mere 3-hour drive from Prague where we have a couple friends with a car. So we chose Nuremberg and, wouldn’t you know it, their car brought them right over, just as planned.
We enjoyed both places, and in hindsight are smugly content with the choices we made. Even if RyanAir did manage to set me off on a whole new set of “ethical” objections thanks to their new policy of intentionally splitting up travel companions in hopes of sucking you into paying for seat upgrades. Never! I’ll spend the entire flight sitting next to any number of sweaty Real Madrid fans with chronically wet coughs before I’ll give in to this shameless manipulation. Does the RyanAir PR department ever have it out with their price algorithm department – are a small percentage of €3.99 seat upgrades worth infuriating a very large percentage of your passengers? I wouldn’t think so, but then again, I wouldn’t think it was good business to let me fly from Romania to Greece for €20 either, yet they did so with a smile, so who knows what those shady pricks are really up to.
As to the cities themselves:
Madrid vs Nuremberg
Language: Spanish vs German. This one is fairly obvious considering I speak passable, if clumsy and limited, Spanish, and all the German words I know are the 5 most basic in any language, plus a couple nastily obscene sentences I learned as a child from my Mennonite friends. And “schmuck”, which was the name of an actual business in Nuremberg, and which we found fascinating. Of course, we later learned that it just means “jewelry”, and the way we use it is based on a Yiddish word for penis. Which made me feel like a real schmuck.
Multiculturalism: Thanks to our standard AirBnB bargain-hunting, both apartments were located in somewhat rough “multi-cultural” neighbourhoods. Which we tend to see as a positive, much preferring to be surrounded by a variety of races, languages and kebab shops than homogenous tour groups made up of French or German tourists in pleated pants and sensible shoes. Plus, you get the convenience of being offered hash on every block, almost always from a guy carrying a small man-bag and wearing exactly the same sweat pants as me.
Madrid lost points for the numerous groups of American girls, like, chilling in Parque El Retiro, but gained points back for the excellent Asian restaurant we found where the delightful Asian waiter spoke English with a Chinese accent and Spanish with an English accent. The tiebreaker was the inexplicable Egyptian temple right downtown, where we ate our takeaway Mexican burritos.
Nazi Monuments: Strangely, while we don’t recall seeing any of these in Madrid, they were quite common in Nuremberg. Apparently, it is not just the place that gave its name to the United Nations definitions of war crimes and hosted the military trials following World War II, but it was, and is, home to the Nazi Party Rally Ground. This was where the entire party gathered each year to convene, discuss, consolidate, and celebrate their racial superiority. These days the coliseum is a fascinating museum with lots of info about how the Nazi Party gained influence, as well as details on how things progressed from the mid-20’s right up until the end of the war. Although much of the information was pretty unsettling, it is generally important to educate people on the worst of history’s transgressions to, hopefully, make it less likely these sorts of human rights disasters will ever happen again. Mission accomplished, I’d say, because obviously no supposedly intelligent democratic society would ever again stand for bigotry, racism, sexism and homophobia among their leaders. Surely, gone are the days when the most intolerant of our society were made to feel special by virtue of being white, or male, or straight, or because their parents still live in the same country where they were born. The kind of lowest common denominator value system that appeals mainly to the uninformed, uneducated and unintelligent. Thankfully that could never happen again.
Shopping: In Madrid you can buy basically anything. Including shiny blue Adidas sneakers (which I can personally vouch for). In Nuremberg you can buy a lot of stuff, but in the accessible tourist areas around the old town you’ll find mostly just high-end clothing and fancy pens.
Night Life: In Madrid, one night we went out for drinks (one English pub, one random Spanish place) and tapas (some secretly good restaurant) with Jesse, from Saskatchewan, and his Spanish wife, Elena. It was a good time, and the tapas Elena chose for us were amazing, although at the bar our waiter threw a bizarre tantrum, knocked over a chair, broke a wine glass, which he simply left there until someone else came out to clean it up much later, then spattered wine on our table while pouring in an inadvisably angry manner. So that was sort of unconventionally fun. The other nights, however, we found ourselves back at our apartment, stuffed and lazy, by no later than 9.
In Nuremberg we had Costa and Renata’s more or less undivided attention all weekend since they were also visitors like us. We spent our afternoons drinking beer, watching soccer and doing Nazi stuff, as one does, but when it came to night life, come dark we all got suddenly old and lazy and ended up staying in at our gigantic rented apartment, ordering pizza and drinking. Wait, I don’t know why I said “but”, that was actually awesome. I am 45 after all.
In Madrid, our apartment was on a busy little street. I don’t really know why it was busy, as there didn’t seem to be any shops or bars or restaurants on it. Just apartments, really, and all the people from those apartments constantly wandering around outside smoking and bellowing and laughing and screaming and, apparently, moving furniture around on sidewalks a lot. Not sure if that counts as night life, but we could hear it most of the night, so…
Nature: They are both large, busy cities so nature isn’t the first thing you notice. Madrid, however, does have the massive Parque El Retiro, inundated with North Americans though it may be, with its quiet, tree-lined lanes, beautiful lake and colourfully changing leaves. We also spent an afternoon walking along the Manzanares River, which is really pretty small, and strangely full of grass, but has a decent path, a few nice bridges and one section of nearby road that literally passes right through Estadio Vicente Calderon, the former home of Atletico Madrid. Nuremberg’s river also had nice bridges and a small path next to it, but not nearly as much grass and practically no reeds. In Madrid, it was obvious that far too many had decided to pee in the tunnel under the stadium, but El Retiro still tips the scales their way.
Public Transportation: We took the metro a lot in Madrid, and other than a couple stressful moments – one in particular involving a ban on buying metro tickets using credit card starting November 1st, which just happened to be the day of our very early morning journey to the airport – generally found it easy to use and pretty cheap.
Our few bus excursions in Nuremberg were simple and completely panic-free in comparison, and upon arrival we dashed down the stairs to catch the train just as the doors were closing, and would have, had this fat dude not slowed us down, which would have also provided us with a cool Jason Bourne moment. Maybe even both jumping on at different spots and cagily eying each other up across the length of the train car. Even though we didn’t pull that off, though, it still gets the edge.
Local Charm: Speaking of Bourne, in Nuremberg (and, presumably, all of Germany) police sirens make that piercing wailing noise that immediately reminded us of epic Bourne car chases in cool European cities. It did make us a slightly edgy about being on the sidewalk whenever we heard one because in the movies they always end up driving some tiny, boxy car right down the sidewalk, and the pedestrians never seem to notice until the car is almost on top of them, usually just diving out of the way in the nick of time. Anyway, the point is, every time we heard another siren, which was sort of disturbingly often, I kept my eyes peeled, and usually moved a little closer the buildings. Just to be safe.
One day we went for a big breakfast that included an absurd amount of cheese, which was pretty neat. The castle wasn’t anything special but the old town was littered with these outlandish sculptures – one with a crazy amount of weird frogs, and another of an apparently badly wounded rabbit with a bulbous, veiny eyeball. You could even climb on that one. Also, our apartment featured a warning that throughout the entire town on Sunday noise is to be kept to a minimum which, besides the obvious things like no loud music and no drunken Cards Against Humanity, also included more mundane activities of questionable disruptiveness, such as vacuuming or emptying your recycling. Then, at one restaurant we had a waiter who sounded exactly like the German voice on Heimlich’s Chew Chew Train at Disneyland.
Madrid, on the other hand, was chock-full of Spanish folks.
So, that leaves us all tied up at 4-4. So I guess I’ll spontaneously make up another category to break the tie.
Weather: Madrid was warm and sunny. Nuremberg was cold and windy.
Congratulations, Madrid! Feel free to boast about this exciting victory on any promotional tourism information you choose.
“Madrid: Slightly Better Than Nazi Headquarters”
“Madrid: Even People Who’ve Been to Germany Like it Here”