My First Landing in Europe – Spain via Amsterdam

Back in early 1992, a couple of friends and I had the flash thought that we needed to go to the Olympics in Barcelona that summer.  Why not, right?  As we started reading about Spain we decided we needed to check out a few places besides Barcelona which was bound to be zoo-like during the Games.  I, having studied high school in a Latin country, knew a lot more than my peers about the historical cities and buildings in Spain (El Alhambra in Granada; la Mezquita de Córdoba; and the importance of Sevilla in the discovery and colonization of the New World by Spain).  I recall one afternoon setting out a large map of Spain on the floor of one of my friend’s apartment and with a book of Spain at hand, set out to plan an itinerary of sorts.  Our third friend wasn’t there but he would be fine with whatever we decided.

Planning the trip

OK, that was the extent of our planning.  Those days being pre-Internet, expensive international long distance and 3 of us very busy guys, we did not further planning than our route and the car rental (if memory serves me right on that last bit).  No hotels, no tickets to events, nothing.  We got our tickets but I was to fly a day earlier and from JFK given where I was at the time.  The two of them would fly in together the next day on a direct flight from Atlanta (I was connecting through Amsterdam for a cheaper flight – important back then as I think I ended up paying on the cheaper flight about $900!).

Crossing the Pond

This was my first time in Europe but not my first time abroad.  I had already been to Panama, Mexico, Chile, and Argentina.  Leaving out of JFK was then, as it still is today, an experience.  What a zoo.  Right after our KLM 747 pulled away from the gate, a TWA plane taking off had to abort the takeoff and crashed (no one died mericfully;  A sort of benefit from this event is that I now can remember the day I flew to Spain for the first time! (July 30th, 1992).

Anyway, on with the story…  This event resulted in planes not taking off for a few hrs but JFK airport being JFK, people and flights kept piling on so we were not taken back to the gate.  Instead, we sat on the tarmac for about 4 hrs.  The crew decided to go ahead and serve dinner during the period.  The plane was hot and this Norwegian woman around me kept talking non-stop.  I was not a happy camper…  Mercifully, after the dinner service, the plane’s doors were open and staffed by flight attendants (so no one would jump off, I suppose).  This helped make the plane a tad less warm and likely prevented someone from slapping the Norwegian silly.

Of course, this meant I would miss my connection to Madrid in Amsterdam.  I didn’t miss it by much and that probably irritated me more.  But I have to say the travel gods were smiling upon me.  Can you imagine if my first landing in Europe with a missed connection had been in CDG??  That would have been a dreadful experience and I am glad I was at beautiful and efficient Schiphol!

In Madrid – Olé

KLM properly took care of putting me on another flight to my destination so I boarded an Iberia flight a couple of hours later to get to Madrid.  Of course I was jetlagged but the excitement of being in Europe carried me through.  I don’t recall at this point how much I may have slept on the trans-Atlantic flight (I am not a big plane sleeper) but I remember dozing off on the way to Madrid.  I had done some research on how to get to town and had ended up booking a hostal for my first night in Madrid (we were to leave Madrid the next day after my friends landed).

An easy bus ride from the airport to Plaza Colón dropped me, off for little money, a few blocks from my hostal.  I don’t know if it was technically a hostal but it was like a massive apartment (or several) that an older couple ran (Hostal Principado, near the Thyssen Museum).  The room was small but clean and efficient.  However, it got loud outside late at night and I learned my first lesson on bringing along earplugs!

I used the rest of the day to walk around and explore.  Thanks to trip notes I took at the time, I remember that I walked around the Parque del Retiro then headed to the Puerta del Sol and ended up having tapas at the Cervecería Alemana, back then recommended by my guide book.

Parque del Retiro

The next day, I took the same bus back to pick up my friends at the airport.  These not being the days of international ATM’ing, we headed to the American Express office to exchange currency prior to heading to the Chamartín train station to book our train tickets for the overnight ride to Barcelona.  One of my friends didn’t speak anything but English and the other, son of Colombian parents raised in the U.S., understood some but couldn’t speak Spanish much which meant I did a lot of the talking – which was fine by me!  By the way, we did all this carrying our bags with us (shoulder bag for me)!

We explored some of Madrid that day to keep everyone awake and since we had no accommodations in Madrid as I had checked out of the hostal.  (Thinking back, why didn’t I ask them if I could leave my bags and my friends’ bags during that day???)  We went to the Palacio Real, Madrid’s awesome Plaza Mayor, and walked to the Gran Vía (a main avenue in Madrid; a great bakery in Puerto Rico which sourced many a birthday cake in our family!).  We walked back to the Paseo del Prado (the road where the Prado museum is located) and we decided to just head to the train station from there.

We got lucky that we got a 6-bed compartment (two bunks of 3 beds) just for the 3 of us so we could spread out.  Not having been in a real train before, much less overnight, I didn’t sleep soundly but well enough for the purpose.

Our Olympic adventure in Barcelona, subject of my next entry, was about to start!


  1. I enjoyed the story, Raul. 🙂 What is it about Madrid that makes it such an adventure to get there? I missed my flight, you got delayed due to – out of all things – a crash… Great city, though. I look forward to the rest of your Spain posts.

    • At the time, no Internet, only travel books as a guide, hadn’t traveled to Europe before, etc. Everything was about discovery and I am so glad of the memory that I got there on my own! It was a great adventure, Pola!

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