Over President’s Day weekend in February, Jonathan and I led NoVA Travelers on a whirlwind tour of Madrid.
This was my second trip to Spain since Autumn and I found Madrid to be quite different in landscape, cuisine, and culture than what I experienced in Barcelona in October.
We had a lovely group of 10: Jonathan, myself, Literary Elly May, David, Sharon, Matt (son of David+Sharon), Bridget, Janice, Susie, and Whitney. None of us had been to the city before so it was a new and exciting experience for us all. The thrill, of course, was predicated on actually arriving in Madrid, which appeared to be beyond possibility at first glance due to a freak snowstorm in the metro DC area that mucked up our flight schedules. I spent at least an hour on the phone wheeling and dealing with the Delta platinum desk in order to get our entire party rebooked on same-day available flights (when just about everything was reportedly oversold). We ended up on a DL ticketed, KLM operated flight with a free upgrade to economy plus. Not bad, not bad at all!
Because we are a group of self-helpers we opted to make our way into downtown Madrid via public transport, shunning the taxi. The metro (tube/subway/train) is generally a great introduction to the local ‘flavor’ of an urban enclave, no matter the country.
Once we made it to our hotel (Villa Real, a lovely property) we dropped off our things and hit the streets for a full evening of sightseeing in Old Madrid. We began at Puerta del Sol (Gate of the Sun) which is a large common square (think of Campo de Fiori in Rome, but much larger) where the gates of the city once stood. Restaurants and shops abound and the square swells with pedestrians.
Puerta del Sol
Past the Puerta del Sol, we entered and traversed the Plaza Mayor- a spectacular architectural gem. It was especially beautiful at night. (You can read more about the Plaza’s history here: History). I love the sky in our picture below.
We walked past the Palacio de Santa Cruz, Colegiata de San Isidro, Basilica Pontificia de San Miguel, Casa de Cisneros and Plaza de la Villa as well, stopping before each to take photos and learn a bit about these sights.
We spent about an hour shopping at the famous Mercado de San Miguel (large indoor farmers market) where we sampled olives, cured ham, Spanish wines, and had a great chance to brush elbows with the locals.
For dinner I’d planned a tapas crawl to highlight the best of the casual Madrid scene. In the states Tapas are a trendy item, usually overpriced, and always underportioned. But in Spain…ah in Spain…this culinary tradition is played out perfectly in little dives and bars all over town with generous portions, cheap prices, and boisterous company. Every Tapas bar has different house specialties', flowing beer and wine, and very few seats. The patrons stand and laugh and relish the evening, while they order delectable dishes and alcohol on the honor system to share with their companions. The tab is paid when one is ready to leave, but with so many patrons in the bar you have to make an effort to be ethical and hunt down a bartender to remind him what you had.
Our first Tapas bar was Museo del Jamón (literally: Museum of Ham). House specialty is of course, HAM. So many varieties and even the cheapest (small sandwich of ham between fresh bread @ $3) is of a finer caliber than any you’d commonly find in the States.
Next we moved on to Lhardy Pastelería, a shop of meat pies/turnovers, serve-yourself-soup, and savory tarts and quiches. Quite delicious as well.
La Casa del Abuelo was next and served up the most delicious fresh seafood I’ve ever had. Succulent stone crab claws, shrimp in spiced olive oil or fried on a stick, and several more treats. SO GOOD.
Our final stop was Oreja de Oro (literally: Golden Ear). House specialty is pig ears. Read that again: pig ears. When in a foreign country I find it is most beneficial to open yourself up to new culinary experiences. So I opened myself up to pig ears. The taste is reminiscent of bacon of course but a lot more greasy and fatty. I made it through perhaps a tablespoon of ear before I called it quits and we ambled back to the hotel for a good night’s rest.
The next morning we assembled in the hotel’s dining room for a leisurely breakfast. Something great about Europe is that almost every hotel in practice is a bed and breakfast with the meal incl in the rate. This was the morning I fell in love with the Spanish Tortilla. Served as a light meal in Tapas bars, it also makes it way onto the breakfast table. It’s similar to a baked frittata with thin slices of well cooked potatoes woven in as well as Spanish cheese. Really delicious, and has now come into regular rotation here at our home in the states. Recipe <<HERE>>.
We spent the first part of the day exploring what is known as Bourbon Madrid (so named after the Bourbon kings who built up the area). As an aside, let me interject that the political history of Madrid is complex and fascinating- occupied since prehistoric times the city has been settled, conquered, re-conquered, and declared independent several times in several cycles. A very restless society when it comes to political organization. In any case, the Bourbon area is beautiful – a mix of luxury hotels, splendid museums and quite possibly the most beautiful post office on earth, the Palace of Communications.
Palacio de Comunicaciones (Post Office)
One of the many beautiful fountains in the Bourbon district
In the afternoon we explored more of old Madrid, including the Royal Palace. Imagine our surprise when we ran into a Chinese New Year parade on the way!
Once at the palace we had to wait a short while in line (lines are hours long in the summer; in the winter it’s less than 30 minutes). After passing admissions, we toured the building and grounds- very beautiful.
View of the palace from outside
Jenni and Dani pose in the Palace Courtyard
After our afternoon tour, our group sat down for lunch nearby, enjoying what can only be described as Spanish shish-ka-bob.
We moved onto the modern art museum (the Sofia) next, and that was quite an adventure in ridiculousness. Paper towels hung by paperclips on a thin wire to signify despair and hopelessness (uh…um…). Giant balls of tin foil. Etc. I suppose I will never be able to truly appreciate modern art. Still, I did find a few art installations I enjoyed:
Jenni stands among the naked Spaniards
I posed Dani to create my *own* art…here I have her thinking outside the box *snicker*
Later that evening (after an unremarkable dinner) we were treated to a Flamenco show. It was one of the best dance performances I’ve ever attended. The women had the intensity of the lead dancer in the infamous Flashdance scene (80s movie throwback reference) with the footwork of river dance and the grace and beauty of Spanish passion. I speak confidently for the entire group when I write it was entrancing. You absolutely cannot visit Madrid without taking in a Flamenco show; it would be criminal.
The next day (Sunday) was our final full day in Madrid and we spent the morning perusing the El Rastro flea market picking up mementos and gifts for friends back home before we dropped in for a quick bite at a local Paella joint. Can’t say I’m a big fan of paella, but I thought it important to take the group there since it’s a notable dish of Spanish origin. Plus they seemed to enjoy it, so it worked out well.
The afternoon was devoted to the Prado, a cherished museum holding a collection of some of the most highly regarded European artwork. I’m especially fond of Flemish painters and fell in love with a paintings-within-a-painting oil on canvas by David Teniers.
Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Picture Gallery
by David Teniers
We dined that evening in the world’s oldest continually operating restaurant. Botin was established in 1725. It’s signature dish is cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig) and is mentioned in the closing pages of Ernest Hemingway's novel, The Sun Also Rises (citation: wikipedia). The thing is, when you order the pig, you never know which portion of the pig you will get. Table neighbors to the left had the tail, to the right had the face, but Jon (the only one to order the pig at our table) got an Americanized doesn’t-really-look-grotesque cut of the pig. Still, it was delicious.
We concluded our evening with fine caviar and wine (enjoyed with a dip in the hot tub in our hotel room). Jon can confirm it’s quite fantastic to be one of the few men on an international trip – surrounded by women.
NoVA Travelers is likely to head back to Spain in 2012 to tour Barcelona and I’m looking forward to it. New members and travel lovers are always welcome.