With a lovely mix of careful planning and complete whimsy, Tracy and I headed off to Madrid, Spain, for a quick weekend away. Here is my *very long*, detailed report for that trip. It probably took me longer to write than the actual trip itself, but that’s okay. I’ve enjoyed reliving the details. The complete photo album will be on Facebook, but my top 12 pics are included here too.
Living abroad as an expat who is trying to assimilate is exhausting. You don’t want to stand out. You want to communicate in the language of the land and you feel shame when your rudimentary knowledge only gets you so far. And as much as you may want to be a perpetual tourist, life gets in the way with its demands. Many days, just the mere task of making it all work in a foreign country is enough. There’s tons that I have yet to do here in Munich. There are things I may never do here in Munich, and that’s OK. The one thing I do make a concerted effort to do while here in Munich is travel.
When I travel I enjoy being a tourist. I love exploring what cities have to offer and I love seeing what makes them stand out. The more I visit a city or a region, the more comfortable and confident I am with mimicking the locals. I try staying in neighborhoods or apartments of actual residents. I try to eat and shop and cook like locals. But my first few visits I am in full on tourist mode!
When my friend Tracy visited, we decided to have a whirlwind visit to a city neither of us had ever seen. With a lovely mix of careful planning and complete whimsy we headed off to Madrid, Spain. Madrid offers the perfect opportunity to embrace being a tourist. Full tourist mode in Madrid for us meant tapas, sangria, flamenco dancing, paella, palaces, and squares. We visited many famous places, both historical and gastronomical, some deliberately, some quite by accident.
We took a taxi from the airport to our hotel. There are more economical means to get to the city, but because we were so limited on time, we opted to get there as soon as possible. We checked into our hotel, the Real Madrid, and then went out in search of lunch. It almost felt like we had the city to ourselves. It may have been the gloomy weather forecast or because our arrival was mid afternoon — siesta time — but there were no real crowds to contend with. The Huertas neighborhood felt like it was holding its breath. It was quiet and still but had every appearance of coming alive around 10 or 11 at night.
We were not bold enough or acclimated enough to brave the highly rated restaurant La Venencia. Likely we were hungrier than the light tapas and sherry that we would have had there, but the place was PACKED with locals and the bartender didn’t seem too bothered with a couple of tourists. It was dark and narrow and a little intimidating. If we had had more time I would have loved to have gone back. It looked and felt like the kind of place you could get a better feel for the city.
Instead we found Max Madrid. The interior looked very inviting. The menu board had enough items that we sort of recognized to assure us we could eat heartily. And that we did. Delicious cocktails, scrumptious food, friendly service, and so reasonably priced. Our timing allowed us to wait out a rain storm and plan our approach to Madrid.
Tracy took the lead and headed us on foot past the fountain of Neptune, past the memorial of the fallen heroes and the naval museum over to the Palacio de Cibeles. There is a wonderful overlook of the city here, but unless you know that it’s actually located in the building you could very well miss it. The views were lovely and it’s well worth the trek.
From there we continued on to the Parque de El Retiro. We toyed with the idea of renting bikes, but got a little skittish of having to enter a passport number into the kiosk there on the street. For our limited time, it was ok without a bike (in fact, better, because many of our paths were for pedestrian only) but if I go again, I may research and register ahead of time to have the option of renting a bike. The city is large and a bike could be a pleasant way to get around. But we stayed on foot and wandered through the most beautiful public garden I’ve ever seen. Even in the pre-spring drab season, it was stunning. We wandered in the direction of the Palacio de Cristal, passing the large manmade lake, the Palacio de Velazquez, and men in the middle of Madator Training. (That one required a double take.)
Dusk was upon us as we made our way to the Monumento del Angel Caido, the monument to the fallen angel, one of the very few sculptures of the devil in the world. Located 666 meters above sea level, it was our last item on our list in the park for the night. It was getting dark, and cold, and wet, so it was time to move on. We headed down the hill and out of the park.
Another area that I would love to visit when I return was the little alley of booksellers we accidentally found while navigating our way back. Reminiscent of the stalls along the Seine, these small market buildings were shuttered and closed, all but one or two. I later learned that the area is called Cuesta de Moyano, and it looked like I could spend hours upon hours there. We powered on through the increasing rain, taking more direct streets back towards our hotel. It was well and truly dark, but stores were still open, their warm light spilling out onto the sidewalks. We started walking uphill, and our eyes were caught by a very inviting guitar shop. Tracy and I both love men who love stringed instruments so we stopped in.
La Guitarreria de Madrid was warm and cosy. The shopkeeper had very little English to match our very little Spanish, but he was kind and friendly. He showed us different guitars used for the traditional flamenco music. We were the only people in the shop for a while, but then another person came in. He and the shopkeeper engaged in conversation and we got the privilege of hearing the man play his guitar. It was a lovely place to warm up and rest.
When it was time to move we paused very briefly at a charming tattoo parlor next door. We ended up only a couple doors down when a small tea shop caught Tracy’s eye. Tekeré was filled with wonderful smells and kind people. We spent another half hour or so in there happily sampling tea, accepting origami gifts, and buying souvenirs. We crossed the street and bought souvenir umbrellas which naturally meant the rain would stop shortly thereafter. We peeled off the main road, and started wending through the back streets. We came across a little corner restaurant with covered, outdoor seating, complete with heat lamps. We were close enough to our hotel, and dinner reservations that we felt okay in lingering over a cocktail and doing a little people watching. The rain had stopped and it was 9pm on a Friday, so the streets were starting to come alive. The Restaurant was called Miranda, and it was an absolutely perfect spot to sit and sip. I imagine it is a prime spot in the height of summer.
After cocktails we continued through the neighborhood. The cobbled streets were wet from the rain, and it resembled a movie set with the winding alleys, the warm lighting from quaint stores, the happy noises from tempting restaurants. After dark the neighborhood unfolded, opening slowly like a blooming flower. What was sleepy and shuttered when we left was vibrant and welcoming upon our return.
Back to the hotel and to the restaurant therein. East 47 was the name, and either we were exceptionally early, or they do not have much business. The sangria was stellar, the waitstaff was terrific, but the food was less impressive. But it was conveniently located for us to head upstairs and crash at a relatively decent hour (although completely out of step with the locals), but all the better to get an early start on our one full day in Madrid.
The day started out promising enough, weather-wise. I went out in search of coffee and a little breakfast nosh to bring back to our hotel room. It was relatively early, at least for a city known for keeping late hours. No tourists out, but there were plenty of working folks. Street sweepers, truck drivers, delivery men on bicycles and scooters. The streets were humming with a different energy than any I had seen so far. Vans and trucks maneuvering in impossible spaces. Shop owners sweeping their stoops.
I came upon Brown Bear Bakery and wished I had brought my camera. The tiles, the wooden details, the display cabinets overflowing with freshly baked goods were all so picturesque. I had the place to myself and it was a wonderful feeling. I ordered two coffees to go. I also chose pastry. The one I selected was somewhere between an eclair and a croissant, but fried. Seriously. Fried cream filled croissant with a chocolate dip. I bet they serve it in heaven. I’m glad I only brought one back for each of us because they were so delicious I’m sure I could have destroyed at least 6 of them.
After our amazing treat we headed out. With Tracy as our guide we headed towards Puerta del Sol and then Plaza de Mayor. I made a quick detour into a quaint, cramped stamp and coin store that felt as old as its collections. As we wandered with a vague idea of the areas we wanted to see, we came upon Casa Hernanz, one of the many amazing and seemingly timeless stores of Madrid that would have fit in perfectly in Diagon Alley. This store made and sold espadrilles — canvas shoes with braided soles — and has done so since 1840. Waiting in the queue we appreciated all the colors and styles. A local overheard us speaking English and chatted happily with us about Madrid until it was his turn. Tracy found a couple darling souvenirs while I overheard a private tour guide tell her English clients how quintessential this particular shop was and how they were fortunate to find it open and with a relatively short queue.
Joyous with the experience we continued on, feeling the streets start to fill more, and trying to take in all the architecture and the details that made up the city. We cut back through the Plaza de Mayor and found ourselves outside the Mercado de San Miguel. Time for tapas! One of my favorite thing to do in all new cities is find the markets — indoor or out. I love them. I love the variety, the color, the sounds, the smells. This market was fantastic! We were there early enough that it was not absolutely packed. We each selected a little something to nosh on and some regional vermouth to sip. The olive vendor was one of my favorites. There was such an incredible array of olive skewers to choose from. I selected a stick with olives, sardines, pepper, and egg. I wish I had ordered more because by the time I realized I was still peckish a tour bus had unloaded and all lined up for olives. After a while we moved on, but not far. Right across the street was a sign advertising one of the things were were told was a must while in Madrid: Chocolate and Churros. We pushed our way in to Chocolate Y Churros (CH&CH) and proceeded to wait, and wait, and wait. It was a frustrating and slightly confusing situation, I think made worse by a group of 16 women who were all together and who were all taking up the very tiny seating area. We scored a seat in the crowd. The Chocolate and Churros, once procured were yummy, but the over all experience left me restless to be out into the city.
Turns out, we were not the only one who wanted to be out. By noon on a Saturday, the streets were brimming with tourists. Above the crowds raised umbrellas, silk flowers, and colorful scarves tied to sticks shepherded the various groups. The number of people was rising but the temperatures were dropping. Since the market the sky had become overcast and a biting wind was making its way through our clothes. Following the major street, Calle Mayor, we explored Plaza de Villa a found a couple more souvenirs before making our way to the Royal Palace of Madrid, which was certainly impressive and worth the wait. It was the wrong season and the wrong weather to explore the Royal gardens, so instead we headed back in the direction of Plaza Mayor determined to find Restaurante Botin.
Google Maps has difficulty with cities like Madrid. Narrow alleys forking off of a main area are so close together that often you’re halfway down one before you realize your little blue dot is moving away from your destination. We had to wander up and down a little bit but eventually came to the famous landmark. We popped in on a lark and were lucky enough to get a table without reservations. We had arrived just about 30 minutes before they close for the afternoon break, and we were hungry. The restaurant is famous as a favorite haunt of writers and artists, but it’s also considered the oldest restaurant in the world in constant operation. Opened in 1725, they are famous for their suckling pig. They have a pantry full of them, actually, but we didn’t see them until after we ordered the signature dish. Tracy and I giggled in horror at the thought of a whole baby pig being placed in front of us. Luckily, it came to us recognizable only as succulent pork, not as porcine on the hoof.
After our fill we retraced our steps back towards Plaza Mayor, which by now was jammed with tourists, street performers, beggars, and peddlers. Not usually one for street performers, there was one that caught my fancy. Best described as a multicolored, tinseled, goat with bells, his clacking kiss and joyous shimmying dance upon receiving a coin made me so incredibly happy. It was intoxicating.
Like salmon going upstream, we pushed our way back the way we had come. La Catedral was a very attractive establishment we had noticed on the way down. Because there was a shop nearby that Tracy wanted to go to before it closed, I offered to wait at Catedral with the packages while she ran that errand. Inside felt very much like it belonged in Hogsmede. Dark, hardwood vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, backlit colored bottles to the ceiling. Tracy later joked that it was the best drink we never had. I sat unnoticed and unapproached the entire time Tracy was gone. There were people there, customers, waiters, and a bartender, but no one seemed too concerned about me, so I got to rest and charge my phone while Tracy shopped.
We got into our neighborhood where instantly the crowds were less. As we made our way past Plaza de Santa Ana, we got to witness the strangest sight of police removing a man who, with the help of two of his buddies, had just climbed into a large paper recycling bin. It’s hard to imagine why he was in there, but the police didn’t seem too impressed.
We passed by Cardamomo, a theater that specializes in Flamenco dance. On a whim we decided to ask if there were any tickets available for the 8:00 show that evening. The man at the door, said that unfortunately there were no tickets available, but that he would ask his boss. He walked 20 feet away, started talking with a lady who shook her head, so we figured no dice. He returned to confirm that there were no tickets for the evening, but if we were interested, there were two seats still available for the show that just started 8 minutes ago. Would we like to attend now? Absolutely.
He escorted us through a heavy, velvet curtain, through the darkened room. The only lights were low lit on the stage as guitarists and singers were performing soulfully. He led us to a tiny table. Somehow we end up with the best seats in the house. The show was wonderful. I may have been skeptical and expected something corny or playing to tourists, but the performers were genuine and full of feeling. The dancers were emotive and vivacious. The musicians were mindblowingly talented. So different from what I am used to, but similar in conviction and style to the Fado music in Lisbon: Beautiful, powerful, emotional.
We returned to our hotel room for our own version of a siesta. We had a very early fight in the morning, made all the worse by day light savings time. (Poor Tracy had to put up with DST in the US and in Europe!) We canceled our late dinner reservations and instead decided that we would venture out one more time in the evening for a last round of tapas and dessert at the Mercardo. The vibe of the neighborhood was again different. Now it felt alive and vibrant. People were everywhere, talking, laughing, eating, and strolling. The path was now a familiar one for us, and we made our way to the Mercardo. It was silly that I worried if it would still be open. Of course it was still open. It’s Madrid on a Saturday night. Everything was open. It wasn’t even 10pm. God, I felt old. Old but well fed. We enjoyed sampling more of the food and then returned so that we could get a few hours of sleep.
In a blink, the wake up call shattered the silence and we were up and out for a sleepy return to the airport. The only complication came when Tracy was stopped by security. Apparently jam is not allowed. Sadly, Tracy had to forfeit her nun-made pear and cardamon jam. Had we been less groggy, I might have encouraged her to eat it all there and then. Instead she snapped a picture and let the nice agent throw it away. Then we were on the plane and asleep until we landed back in Munich. Back to where I am trying hard not to be a tourist.
I am not sure what exactly I was expecting, but Madrid surprised me. I loved the green spaces, the walkability, the architecture, and the refined air. If you pressed me to compare, I’d say it felt more like Vienna than Barcelona. There was a pride of place in Madrid. A quiet confidence in itself and in what it has to offer its visitors. I hope I get to visit it again soon.
I also hope I get to travel again with Tracy. She and I make great companions. We each have our strengths and we both are easy going but willing to make decisions. We balance well, I think. I love her company and her friendship, and I miss her terribly. Capturing this weekend in such detail meant I got to spend days reliving our time together. I’m a little loathe to stop. Guess it’s a good thing I leave for Sicily in a few days and she for Puerto Rico. A little parallel wanderlust play. 🙂