Love and travel are two things you shouldn’t hurry. And if you love to travel, then detours are the elixir of delight.
That’s why, whenever I fly somewhere, I look for the worst possible connection. An eight-hour layover is enough to explore part of a city. Overnight interruptions are even better, whether or not the airline picks up the hotel tab.
I got into this habit when I worked in Kenya from 1995 to 1998 and had to commute to Vermont semiannually. It didn’t take long to figure out that the KLM night flight out of Boston got into Amsterdam in the early morning hours, missing the single daily connection to Nairobi by six hours. That translated into 14 hours (even allowing for passport control and a train from Schiphol International Airport into the city and back) for Vermeers, canals and window-shopping in the red light district.
I spent most of the day laughing on the inside about being a brief interloper on European soil. I walked and walked, haunting bookstores, department stores and galleries and gawking at the street life. I was primed for a good upright sleep on the second leg of my flight.
The layovers in the other direction were shorter but still allowed for a walk and a Dutch meal. By then I knew the city well enough to feel more secure about getting back to the airport without stress.
So when I took my son for a CouchSurfing (that’s the name of a Web site) tour of Europe upon his high school graduation, I couldn’t have been more pleased to learn that the Iberia flight from Prague to Boston required an almost 24-hour layover in Madrid. We had to claim our bags. Depositing them in a locker involved an X-ray security check, but it didn’t take long. Then, with a day pack and the address of a woman whose couch we had arranged to surf, we spent the entire afternoon and the next morning exploring a sliver of the city.
Don’t ask me where we were. We had just spent a few days each exploring Munich, Vienna, Prague and Ostrava, Czech Republic. Madrid was an interlude. We didn’t research restaurants or museums. We emerged from the Metro in the city center at a station called “Sol” and started following our noses. We never went indoors except to eat or sleep. We just walked and walked with our heads usually tilted up at a slight angle, drinking in the architecture. Balconies with a brilliant sun raking gilded balustrades framed narrow streets. At eye level, a Fernando Botero sculpture of a cartoonishly large and voluptuous nude woman stretched out on her stomach and peering into a diminutive round hand-held mirror demanded attention.
I snapped pictures the entire time so that I could later identify famous places we had seen. I was struck by the grandeur befitting the hub of an erstwhile global empire.
Dinner was at a simple restaurant that served paella with sangria. It had a TV in the corner for the all-important European soccer championship semifinals in which Spain trounced Russia, 3-0. Spain went on to beat Germany three days later to win it all. Massive television screens had been erected in parks and plazas. We heard the collective roar go up for each goal.