As I head out for my last night out in Madrid one thing comes to my mind is how I am greatly going to miss the transportation. It is so easy here and I know I am always a short walk from a metro, bus stop, or even a street that takes me directly to my piso. Madrid's size is deceiving and is completely walkable, but yet it still has great mass transit. I don't look forward to the transportation back home. Pardon my blunt opinion, but it sucks. On the bright side this makes wandering off campus unlikely and means more time on campus and having enjoyable evenings at places that are literally only a few blocks away. That means I can always just dash away without having to figure out any transportation except the form Mother Nature granted me, my own two legs. That will be nice. 
 
In Europe people walk where ever. Their is no rhyme or reason as to what side of the sidewalk you should walk on and people don't step over to the side if they are going to stop, instead they just stop right in front of you and you have to dodge to avoid a collision. The only place where there is a protocol is in the Metro where on escalators if you are not in a rush you stand still and to the right in your ascent to the next level, the space to the left is reserved for those in a hurry who can walk up the escalator. I am not going to miss the lack of reason their is to which side of the street you walk on, I look forward to the rule of when you walk, you walk on the right. However, I am going to miss the incredibly efficient public transportation that is offered in Madrid and throughout Europe (see former blog regarding the ease of public transit). The transportation in Milwaukee, Minneapolis and heck the whole U.S. pales in comparison to that of Europe. We could learn a thing or two from the Europeans. 
 
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My favorite Gaudí masterpiece: Casa Batlló in Barcelona, Spain.
Who would have thought traveling eight hours north of Madrid, Spain to Barcelona would make me feel as if I entered a whole other world filled with beauty, national pride and well, a language that seems to be a mix of French and Spanish. Thursday night at midnight I embarked on my journey to Barcelona and on Friday morning we arrived to what seemed like a whole other world. The people seemed more genuine, the language was unlike any Spanish I have ever heard and the streets and boulevards were the canvas for street artists, Antonio Gaudí and many more.

For our trip to Barcelona we did not really have a plan of attack, we knew we wanted to see the major sites: Gaudí’s master pieces, the 1992 Summer Olympic Games stadium, the beach but soon after a conversation with a woman at the hostel we realized we had a lot more things to fit into our two full days than we thought. I liked it. 

After the eight hour, moderately comfortable bus ride we all were a little tired because the sleep we caught was less than ideal but we knew we couldn’t take a nap because we would end up wasting the day so instead we freshened up and headed out to explore Barcelona.

A common misconception I think about many European cities is that they are too large to cover on feet, that you need to take public transportation or a taxi, but that is not the case. We left the hostel which was located in the southwest part of Barcelona and walked north to many of the sites we would end up seeing for the day. First was the Cathedral of Barcelona which turned out to be stunning. Yes, I say turned out to be stunning because by the end of the first month in Spain we all were tired-out from seeing so many places of worship. But, this was different and not just in the sense that you could take photos of the inside but that it was a basilica with Gothic arquitecture, a rare site to be had. After the basilica we stumbled upon a Christmas market where we found the cutest elderly woman and her daughter who made crocheted, knitted, and beaded ornaments by hand. The two girls and I swooned over them and Tor was mildly impressed. 
Rachel, one of the four girls on the trip and self-declared guide, really wanted to see the lamppost Gaudí designed for the city of Barcelona in the 1870s.  We wandered the streets of Barcelona until we stumbled upon the lamp in Plaça Reial. It was ... interesting, for lack of a better word. I think all of us were expecting something very elaborate and profound and instead were a little disappointed in the simplicity of the street lamp. The red and black colors with the six shades were intriguing and the snakes that were wrapped around the head of the lights were symbolic, but it just didn’t have the oomf that we expected. Nonetheless, it was important to see and Rachel was impressed with her navigation skills, and I must say I was too. 
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Amanda and Rachel in front of the lamppost.
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Six shades of the lamp.
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Snake around lamppost.
At this point it was going on noon and our lack of sleep hit us hard and we headed back to the hostel where we could eat our packed lunches of bocadillos, take a nap and relax.  Much to our surprise our hour and a half break turned into all four of us concking out in our bunkbeads and waking up three and a half hours later. It was deemed a successful nap when Rachel tried to kick me to wake me up and I didn’t even feel it and when we all noticed the drool on my pillow. A girl has got to sleep! 

Now that we were all energized we decided to take a metro ride north to La Basílica de la Sagrada Família and work our way back to the hostel by walking since we had to meet another girl who was meeting us via train. The metro in Barcelona is cheap, ten rides was 9,50 euro and four of us shared one pass. Cost effective and efficient. 

When we excited the metro at Sagrada Família we immediately turned around and were in awe as to what we were looking at. The detail, ornateness, painstaking and never ending labor, and the sheer size of Gaudi’s cathedral was incredible and proved to be too much to soak in. It was amazing to see something so many of us just read about in our Spanish culture classes and never thought we would be able to see. We could not afford the 16 euro to see the inside so instead we walked around the church and soaked in all the beauty we could. I still cannot wrap my head around the fact that the basilica is undergoing restoration while it is simultaneously still being completed. The group of us consistently asked the question: How did Gaudi have such an intricate imagination? Some say it may have been chemically induced, others say he was just a mastermind. I am going to go with the latter.  
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View of La Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain.
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View of La Sagrada Família from the metro stop.
As we left the ever touristy and jaw dropping Sagrada Família we walked south towards La Pedrera. Along the way we ran into a former Marquette student who transferred my sophomore year. What a small world, we even would see her the next evening. 

When we hit the street La Pedrera was on we couldn’t believe how such a monumental building just fit in with the city. We almost missed the building because it fits perfectly within the city of Barcelona, the only give away was the crowd of tourists and ticket information sign. Again, we didn’t go in because we could not afford the 14 euros.

I had read and researched that if you had to choose between what to go in you should go into the houses of Gaudí rather than La Sagrada Família, but we still could not justify spending that much on a ticket. I think we are spoiled with the reasonable prices and numerous free hours and days for monuments and museums in Madrid. 

After we looked at La Pedrera from the outside and snuck a few peaks through the glass windows and doors we headed to Casa Batlló that was just a little ways down Passeig de Gracia. In my opinion Batlló was the most simplistic and gorgeous of the Gaudí sites we had seen at this point. With the pastel colors making up the facade, a brightly lit indoors made the inside appear to be spacious and illuminated the warped shape of the rooms, ceiling and windows. It reminded me of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and as soon as I realized that there was no denying that it would be my favorite out of the three. 

I would suggest that if you are traveling to Barcelona and want to see Gaudí’s architecture and most famous work that you go to the houses a bit before dusk, when they are turning the lights on inside and illuminating the outside. It makes for a gorgeous photo but also easier to sneak some peaks of the inside without paying the steep prices. 
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La Pedrera, house of Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain.
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Casa Batlló, house of Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain.
After spending a decent amount of time staring at Batlló we continued our walk back towards our hostel to meet the other girl who would be arriving shortly. We didn’t realize we were on La Rambla until we smelt the mixture of waffles, gelato and flowers and heard music from street performers. Barcelona was lively and was lit up not just from the light of storefronts but from the Christmas lights hanging in the streets and on the buildings. We hit Plaça de Catalunya and were overjoyed in the fact that there were snowflake Christmas lights hanging above the entrance to Corte Inglés and an ice rink open for skating. Suddenly, we were overwhelmed by the fact that we were heading home in less than three weeks and would be seeing snow, having to wear real winter coats, and celebrating the holiday season. When we arrived at our hostel for dinner and met up with the final member of the group we ate dinner with travelers from all over Europe, a man from Australia, and one man from the United States. We were the only students there who were studying abroad, the rest were backpacking. We heard some incredible stories and couldn’t believe how many places these people had been to. The man from the U.S. had been to 14 different countries in the matter of five months and plans on coming back and doing it all over but for an entire year. I think it would be an incredible experience to travel the world for a year and live simply, but I also can't help but think why they are avoiding the real world back home.

That being said, I guess we all are living in a fantasy world here in Spain, and the fact that we slept in until 12:30 p.m. the next day didn’t help our case either. However, in our defense once we were up we were on the go and out the door. First on the agenda was checking out the waterfront. I didn’t think Barcelona would have such a large quantity of green space, but we ran into several parks next to the bay area where there were several boats at the docks waiting to be taken out on the water. It was a perfect day for sailing but none could be spotted out on the water. As we walked we found statues and monuments that were simply just plopped in the middle of the streets and roads. First we saw a sculpture that had, in my opinion, a half-eatten banana on top (no one agreed with me on that one), it is called the Barcelona Face and built for the Olympic Games then we saw a lobster statue where we obvisouly had to stop and take a picture and make lobster claws with our hands. Then we found the Mirador de Colón where people were mounting the lion statues for photo ops. We obviously partook in that as well. 

This still amazes me though, the fact that you can climb or go very close to national monuments in Europe. In Budapest when we stumbled upon Heroe’s Square and then were able to climb the main statue, I thought we were going to find ourselves in a snag, but we all realized that it is acceptable to be up close and personal with monuments and sculptures here. A relaxed approach on the government’s side that I think the U.S. could use at times.  
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Banana statue, aka Barcelona Face.
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Rachel on a lion at Mirador de Colón.
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Andrea (top), Amanda (bottom) with lobster statue.
After relaxing by the water for some time we headed back to the northern part of Barcelona and spent a solid chunk of time at El Park Güell, a public park designed by Gaudí and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here I realized why a close friend of mine who studied abroad in London, England last semester fell in love with Barcelona. She told me that was her favorite city she visited and I can see why. With the mosaic benches, lizards and walls, the columns where you can peak out from and reinact childhood games, the view of the city and all the languages you hear walking along the dirt paths make for a surreal experience. Never did I think I would be at Park Güell with some of my favorite people but I was and we looked out at Barcelona with smiles on our faces, happy that we were able to share this trip together. 

After relaxing at Parque Guell and agonizing over what gifts to get for people and how much money we were willing to spend on a miniature lizard figurine, we stopped for some delicious and cheap paella on our way back south to the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc. As we walked, Amanda, Rachel and I chatted about the things we are going to miss in Spain and the things we aren’t. We talked about how much we are going to miss our señoras and their hilarity but how we also cannot wait to be home with our families and friends who we miss so much. It is a tradeoff, of course, but we all realized on this trip to Barcelona that we are ready to go home. 
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A look out from the top of El Park Güell.
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Sign of El Park Güell in Barcelona, Spain
As we walked to Montjuïc we stopped at Escribá to try a pastry, it wasn’t easy to split but it was worth every bit of sticky chocolate that ended up on our fingers. Once we arrived at the entrance to the fountain we realized it was more than just a fountain, it was a procession of fountains on each side leading to one incredibly large, elaborate and well lit masterpiece that had the most beautiful backdrop of another fountain and Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. The view was nothing short of stunning and romance was obviously in the air as Amanda and I hugged one another during the magic fountain show. If you visit Barcelona and miss this, your trip was not complete. It occurs every night from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. At Montjuïc I realized I was in love with Barcelona. As we watched the fountain show, that now has given me high expectations for Las Vegas, we listened to the music playing and observed as people around us smiled, hugged one another, and even danced as they sat on the stone steps watching the breathtaking show. As I sat soaking in the culture I had to pinch myself to make sure that I was in reality, I couldn’t believe the beauty of this city. I can safely say I think it is prettier than Madrid in many ways, but is much more touristy than Madrid. 
We left after about twenty minutes and walked back to our hostel, I said I wanted to leave before it ended so I could just pretend it lasted forever. I think that is a decent philosophy. That evening for dinner you wouldn't guess what we had. Paella, of course. Complete with eyes and all. After dinner we headed out and had a glass of wine and Rachel, Amanda and I headed to the infamous Espit Chupito and partook in taking the best tasting shot of my life. I know this blog is supposed to be PG-13 so all I will say is that Rachel and I took the Boy Scout shot, where you roast a marshmallow on the bar, dip it in the shot, eat the marshello, drink the shot and are done, and Amanda took the Harry Potter shot, where the whole glass and slice of orange covering the top of the shot is lit on fire and carmelized, then you drink the shot and suck on the orange. Best 2.5 seconds of my night. 

Now, as I sit on the bus heading back to Madrid I stare out at the scenery of Spain and can’t help but have one regret; exploring the country more. With the mountains in the background, open fields with windmills poking up here and there, and the sun setting I can’t help feel I have neglected the country of Spain a bit and took it for granted. Barcelona turned out to be a wonderful trip, quite possibly my favorite (or a close tie to Lisbon, Portugal), and I know that other cities such as Sevilla and Cordoba would have been in my top five as well had I gone to them. I guess it is just another reason to come back to visit and explore a culture and country that has been so kind to me. Five year reunion, anyone? 
 
This week has been the longest week for me I think, that includes the grueling two weeks of mid-terms, and after a long week what do you do when you study abroad? Travel, of course. 

Tonight four other students and I are heading to Barcelona, Spain for the weekend. We will be taking the bus tonight and arriving in the city tomorrow bright and early around 8 a.m. and will have two full days until we leave Sunday afternoon to head back to our home base, Madrid. 

Emily, a friend of mine and student here, went to Barcelona with her family a few weeks ago and she gave us a list of things to see and try. Although I knew what I wanted to see before Emily's assistance, I can't help but think how nice it is to have advice from someone who has already traveled to a city and wants others to get the most out of the trip as much as they have.

Now, unlike France I think I will be a wee bit upset if I don't see most, if not all of these:
  • If I continue my streak of tripping over my own two feet because I am in awe of Gaudi's architecture I solemnly swear to not be embarrassed.
  • La Rambla: I hear people watching on this world-famous boulevard is incredible. As a journalist I feel obligated to partake in this and listen to the music and watch the dancers. 
  • Because I know I have the potential to be an Olympic athlete and just have not been discovered yet it is obligatory to visit the buildings from the 1992 Summer Olympic Games.
  • Sagrada Família is absolutely necessary, if I don't go here I will never admit I have been to Barcelona because it is the one place you need to go. 
  • In every country I sample the sweets so why should this time be any different? I plan on eating some delicious chocolates from Escribá and then ... 
  • ... Grab some chocolate y churros from La Granja
  • If there is time bargain shopping at La Roca Village just outside of the city would be great for the four of us girls, but Tor, the only male, may use his veto powers on this.   

As you can see I am OK with being a tourist this weekend. In addition to those listed above I also hope to follow in the footsteps of Emily and do the following:
  • Eat at the hole in the wall, La Xampanyeria and try the Rosat Cava that cost 2,30 euro for a bottle and a sandwich with ham, grilled onions, cheese and roasted red pepper. With a dash of the red sauce that is apparently on every table in the restaurant. And no, the red sauce is not ketchup. 
  • Check out Carrer de Ferran, just off of La Rambla, for local shopping and unique gifts.
  • Look more closely at Gaudi's architecture at Casa Milà, better known as La Pedrera and Casa Batlló, two of his most famous apartments in Barcelona.
  • And what wouldn't be a college study abroad trip without going out in the evening. We plan on going to a bar called Espit Chupitos, an experience that is impossible to pass up when you know the significance of the word "chupito" (shot) and when you hear that it is packed every weekend with locals. We will be taking Emily and her father's suggestion and trying the "Boy Scout" and "Harry Potter" shots. 

Overall, the weekend is going to be extremely fun but also incredibly cheap. We are coming to the end of our time here and we are all pinching pennies, as a result we have chosen a hostel that costs 20 euro per night with a dinner included, as well as choosing the cheapest means of transportation: the bus, costing 58 euros round trip. Now all there is to do is to embark on our journey this evening, sleep on the bus the whole night and see what Barcelona has in store for us! Stay tuned for a recap and a post on our upcoming trip to Brussels, Belgium! 
 
Oh Ryanair, how I love you so. 

Last week I came across an article in the business section of Time and what caught my attention? Three words: Ryanair, standing, flight. 

The article, "New Low for Flying? Standing-Room-Only Flights Possible," informed me that the European low fare airline is currently attempting to launch a standing-room-only section on their aircrafts for short-distance flights within Europe. The cost you may ask? A whopping 1.50 USD without the airline administration fee, and with the fee flying one way the cost would most likely come out to be around $11.00 -- drastically less than even its cheapest flights currently. 

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about an airline who has a habit of having technical difficulties allowing standing-room tickets, but the student in me thinks it is a great idea. With the creation of a stand-room-only section the cost of all tickets will decrease, bring more name recognition and popularity to the airline, and maybe even make them a profit so they can fill the plane all the way with gas. It seems like a win-win in my mind. 

That being said, I do have my reservations about how safe it would be during the takeoff and landing but I think, like any student who wants to travel Europe, they would install some sort of handle bars both vertically and horizontally so you can brace yourself. I would hope. Then again I will contradict myself and say I recall reading that Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, did say that if an aircraft did crash a seatbelt would not save you. He is correct, but I just wonder what else he may skimp out on. Time will only tell, but for now I wish my flights all cost $11.oo. Viaja con Dios, lucky ducks. 
 
Generally when I wake up in the morning my apartment complex and surrounding area are quiet as a mouse, the only sounds you hear are the swirling of a spoon in a coffee cup, a hairdryer going off a few apartments above and the creaky floorboards. Today was different. Helicopters, chants, and whistles overpowered the hairdryer and floorboards - I woke up in the middle of what will soon be history come the end of the day. 

Today marks the second general strike in Spain of the year incited by Cumbre Social (Social Summit) comprised of over 150 groups nationwide including trade unions (police, Guardia Civil and military) as well as the Confederación Sindical de Comisiones Obreras (CCOO), the Spanish Worker's Commission, and Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT), the General Union of Workers. The European Union attempted to coordinate all austerity protests across Europe for this Wednesday to voice the overwhelming sentiments that the governments are shafting their citizens. 

It is no secret that the European Union, and more specifically the southern EU countries such as Spain and Greece, are in an economic crisis. Spain has seen a substantial rise in unemployment rates, a recent increase in taxes that simultaneously coincided with a decrease in pensions and benefits all to lower the public debt. In Cataluña it is not only about the injustices against the new living standards and personal rights but also a way to take a stance against political figures in the farthest northeastern autonomy of the country where regional elections are to be held in less than two weeks on November 25. 

With almost 100 percent of workers in the energy, construction, automobile and shipbuilding industry heading the efforts and taking part of the nationwide halt there have been severe disruptions in travel. In a recent email from the Marquette University program director for Marquette en Madrid, it was stated that IberiaAir Nostrum and Vueling  have cancelled a combined 473 flights, while Air Europa cancelled 92 flights; and EasyJet has cancelled 26. The numbers are only to rise. 

Local transportation in Madrid, as well as in other cities in the country, are running on minimal service and citizens are being urged to pre-book taxis or rental cars and leave time on either side of your commute if you are embarking on an important journey. 

In addition to travel strikes, universities have also closed for the day as professors and faculty are protesting their drop in wages and lack of compensation with the rise in taxes. Dani, my intercambio, said he would not have come to school anyhow if it was mandated because with the general strikes he would have to leave at 6:00 a.m. to get to his 8:30 a.m. class, a trip that usually takes no more than 45 minutes. He also said he and other Madrileños avoid the metro because extremist are likely to act out. One method is putting glue on door handles to the metro and other transportation services, while riots and invasions in commercial city centers and malls is not uncommon. 

In Madrid alone there have been 32 arrests and 15 people treated for injuries, according to an Associated Press report, and are likely to rise as the day goes on with protests planned outside prominent buildings and plazas such as Puerta del Sol and Plaza de Atocha. Currently, the wait between metro rides is 20 minutes, which is not terrible, but because of the length in lines and number of people waiting to get on, the norm is to wait for three or four trains total until you can squeeze your way on. 

With Spain's unemployment standing around 24 percent of the workforce, or 5 million citizens, and the projected plan by the government to further cut spending in the coming year the country can expect several more of these strikes in the near future. For now I will have to cherish my mornings with the hairdryer, creaky floorboards and swirling of the coffee spoon and wear earplugs when the days for the general strikes arrive. 
 
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Map of Madrid's Metro. Click the image to take you to the online map.
We all know the drill when it comes to transportation that isn't reliable: arrive ten minutes before the bus in case it is early and don't be surprised if you have to wait ten minutes after the bus is scheduled to come. That is the case for Milwaukee, and sometimes Minneapolis, but here In Madrid, Spain I have never waited more than eight minutes for a metro or bus and when I do it is because I  am running late. 

The public transportation is clean, efficient and fast. There are 13 metro lines with over 213 stations, more than 170 bus lines with stops less than a block apart from one another, and the InterBus and 10 Cercanias lines take you from the city center to the suburbs and other communities within the Community of Madrid.  The most commonly used if living in Madrid however are the Metro and the EMT buses

The Metro: 
The Metro is extremely easy to use. The lines are identified by both number and color, so knowing Spanish is not even necessary and if you miss one the odds of one coming in the next three minutes are high. The Metro trains run from 6:00 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. and the frequency of the trains depends on the line, time of day and day of the week. On average the trains come every two to three minutes and every five minutes during rush hours: 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., it is not recommended to travel during rush hour, unless you want to feel like a sardine in a can. At night and on the weekends the metros run every 10 to 15 minutes. It's all very convenient and when in doubt hop on the main line called the greysix, or circular, which continuously goes in a circle around the city center. All lines, at one point or another, connect directly with this route and if they don't they connect to one that does. Also, if you are directionally challenged, don't worry. There is a new application Madrid Metro iPhone application that calculates the easiest route to your destination for you, it even estimates the time. A personal treasure of mine.

The EMT buses: 
Buses come all the time in Madrid. The stops are equipped with electric signs that countdown the minutes for the next four approaching buses. All EMT buses are air-conditioned as well, which is a great thing in the hot Spanish summers. They are fast, frequent and if one is completely full you won't wait more than five to ten minutes for the next bus. The most common buses in Madrid are the C1 and C2, the Circular, just as the frequent Metro line is Circular. The route runs in a wide circle around the city, stopping at major Metro stations such as Atocha, Plaza de España, Moncola, Retiro, Argüelles and more. During the night the day buses do not run, but there are 24 Búhos (owls) that run from 11:45 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. every 15 to 30 minutes and are numbered N1-N24. They all begin from Plaza de Cibeles (metro stop is Banco de España)  and go to the suburbs and within the city, while Metro Búho, weekend night buses, leave from the bus stops closest to the 11 central metro lines. They are L1-L11. For all night buses the times vary though you should never wait for more than 15 to 30 minutes. 

Safety:
If you are worried about your safety, don't be. If you are conscious of your surroundings you will be just fine in the Metro and on the EMT buses. At each Metro station there are also guards and plenty of security cameras to ensure that you are safe. 

Demonstrations:
Spain is in an economic crisis and one way people in Spain are showing their opinion of the matter and actions made by the government is through strikes. The unions representing Madrid's public transportation companies have followed suit and have both planned and spontaneous demonstrations. In the past two months I have experienced delayed and packed bus rides and hot and uncomfortable Metro rides during the times of 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. and from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.. On the days of the strikes the Madrid Metro operates at 50 percent of the usual services, and though the EMT buses only strike for two hours on the designated days, you never know what time of day it is going to occur. 

The cost:
I use the metro and bus more than three times a day and wouldn't have it any other way. If I had to pay for each individual use I would mind but Madrid makes it cost-effective with an Abono. An Abono is a transportation card you renew every thirty days and it is valid for all modes of public transportation except the InterBus and Cercanias, but you rarely, if ever, take these. The cost is 52,20 euros for adults (ages 23 and up), €33,50 for 22 and younger and €11,80 for the tercera edad, or senior citizens. If you break down any of those prices and take the metro twice a day that is less than a single euro round trip, the price of single trip is 1,50 to 2 euros. I think you have a bargain on your hands with the Abono.