Wednesday, January 9, 2013

11 Madrid, Spain


Twenty Eight. The number of days in February, usually. The number of dominoes in a standard set. And in May 2012 it was the number of months since we had returned from our honeymoon in January 2010. At this point the travel bug was in full viral overload. It was time again for international travel.

Katrina was already heading abroad to visit Ghana as part of a work trip and since she was connecting in Europe it was the perfect opportunity for Patrick to meet her.  There were about 10 possible connection cities and we settled on Madrid because... well, its Madrid.  Who could say no to spending a week in spring under the warm Spanish sun noshing on all the jamon one could eat? Certainly not us.

It was tough to say goodbye to our little man.  Jack was just over one and neither of us had been away from him for more than 2 or 3 days.  Luckily we had grandparents salivating at the opportunity to tend to his every need. And let’s be serious: he was 15 months old--he would've be happy with anyone with an arsenal of bananas and bubbles at their disposal.


The first order of business once we rendezvous'd in Madrid was sleep. Those transatlantic red-eyes are definitely a lot harder the older you get! We made a quick stop at a restaurant across the street from our hotel, Hostal Gala, to chow on a few varieties of pig and then entered a blissful food/jet lag coma. A few hours later were were awoken by bustling activity in the square below.  Though it was 11pm, we pulled ourselves together and hit the town ending up at one of the many nearby outdoor cafes for more ham (sensing a theme) and some cañas, Madrid's ubiquitous offering of draft beer in a small glass to ensure that it is always crispy cold in the aforementioned Spanish sun.

-Sightseeing-

Our first destination while in Madrid was the beautiful Palacio Real. Though the maze through the notable salons of the estate is typical palace fare we never grow tired of the opulent decor and and imagining extravagant soirees of yesteryear that took place in those very rooms.  
Almudena Cathedral
Next stop was the adjacent Almudena Cathedral where we stumbled upon a massive crowd waiting outside as recent La Liga champions Real Madrid blessed the trophy inside. Being a fan of European soccer, it was pretty amazing for Patrick to stumble upon the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Iker Casillas emerging from the cathedral to the roars and swoons of the adoring Madrileños.  

The cathedral itself is definitely worth a visit but two notes of caution. First, if you are expecting an ancient, historic cathedral you are in the wrong place: Almudena was constructed in 1993.  Second, there is a museum entrance directly across from the Palacio that charges admission which we thought was the only way in.  It wasn’t until after we surveyed the museums many many vestments, and took in the view from the top of the Cathedral (Madrid does not need to be seen from above, sorry Madrid but you know it is true) that we realized that there is an entrance on the side of the cathedral that is free of admission charge.  It is worth a look around just to see a modern take on a major Catholic cathedral, flat screens and all.

Madrid is home to impressive art museums including the Prado and the Reina Sofia. We’d read that the Prado rivals the Louvre and Hermitage as one of the best museums in the world--we’re not quite sure its on that level, but the collection is massive and they really do a wonderful job of highlighting Spanish artists like El Greco, Goya, and Velazquez. And if you go after 6pm, admission is free! The highlight for us was the collection of Goya's Black Paintings. The Reina Sofia was a nice change of pace with its modern art collection--and seeing Picasso’s Guernica in person is worth the visit alone.

El Retiro
A great spot to visit in conjunction with the museums is the nearby gem El Retiro. This beautiful park formerly belonged to the monarchy and was opened to the public in the 19th century. A highlight in the park is the Monument to Alphonso XII which is surrounded by a large pond by which you can explore via rowboat. We passed since it was midday and the pond has no shade and instead spent a good deal of our time in the Rosaleda, the park's large rose garden, which was cooler and much more fragrant.

Another outdoor space worth a visit during a longer stay in Madrid is the Casa de Campo. Another piece of former royal land, in this case a hunting estate, the sprawling park is perfect if you are looking to escape the clatter of the city for a little bit. There is a metro stop on the outer edge of the park or better yet there is cable car, that runs from the northwest part of Madrid to Casa de Campo. We are absolute suckers for cable cars and though this one was scary-old and had a cheesy narration during the ride it was fun nonetheless. There is an amazing network of trails both beaten and not that criss-cross the park, perfect for a day of bike riding or a long run as Patrick can attest.

We are sorry to say we had a few sightseeing disappointments during our stay. The El Rastro open-air flea market is billed as a must-visit Sunday morning event, but aside from being massive (it really never seemed to end) we found the goods being sold lacked character and it would be more appropriate for getting your errands done than snagging unique fashion finds or artisan crafts. We woke up early that morning to make sure we could visit before catching our flight home...and rather wish we’d skipped it and maybe enjoyed a leisurely breakfast instead.

We were also none too impressed by Puerta del Sol, a public square that came up in every guidebook. Now this place is probably fantastic when there is a major event or celebration going on. But when we visited it seemed like just a big open concrete space...kind of like City Hall Plaza in Boston. And if we ran into some tourists in Boston we certainly wouldn’t be like, “You know what you really need to check out, City Hall Plaza.  Thank us later.” There are plenty of more alluring small plazas sprinkled throughout the city that would make a more pleasant oasis while sightseeing.

-Bullfight and Soccer Match-

We were lucky to be in town during the festival celebrating Madrid’s patron saint, San Isidro, which included bullfights every night at the famed Plaza de Toros. Patrick had perhaps what will go down as his best exchange in Spanish ever at the ticket office with two elderly Madrileños. We were a little concerned before we arrived in Madrid that the bullfights would be sold out, but as Patrick gathered there were tickets available for every night during the festival, albeit some nights were a lot more pricy than others. We opted for the cheapest ticket which was that evening's novillada bullfight, basically novice bullfighters and younger bulls. Despite this we feel like we got the full bullfight experience and even if we didn't it was our first so we didn't know any better.

In our research before the trip we had read that it was common for people to bring in their own picnics so before the bullfight we went to a local market to stock up on beer and ham. We also picked up a bag of sunflower seeds which we found were a very common snack among Spaniards at sporting events.  

Both of us had our reservations about the bullfight....watching an animal be toyed with and subsequently killed seemed like an odd thing to pay to see.  But once the event started those reservations were swept away by the artistry and grandeur of the event.  On the docket were three bullfighters, or torreros, each fighting two bulls a piece.  The first torrero was actually a torrera who was immediately overshadowed by the ineptitude of her henchmen, or whatever the technical term is for the bullfighters assistants.  One had his cape stripped away by the bull and then was chased into the boards and nearly gored.  After a quick leap to safety over the outer boards of the ring the bull then proceeded to roam menacingly around the ring with a unmistakeable aura that read “Who else wants a piece of this?”.  It took 15 minutes for everything to sort itself out....eventually the bull was escorted off to what we hope is a lifetime of safety on a ranch to tell the tale to younger generations of bulls of the night it owned the ring at Plaza de Toros.
Bullfight at Plaza de Toros
The next torrero and his team also didn’t seem up to snuff and as the second intermission began you could certainly tell the crowd was restless. We don't know the first thing about bullfighting (actually, yeah we do....don't get gored) but we could tell that the first two torreros had not performed well. We took some time to scarf down some food during the intermission and it quickly came to our attention that Patrick is not very graceful at tearing bread.  Combined with a slight breeze from our right it resulted in a bread crumb shower for the women seated in front of us and they seemed none too pleased. Americans, right? The worst.

But ineptitude and crumbs were all soon forgotten as one Gonzalo Caballero took the stage for his Plaza de Toros debut.  Decked out in a pristine white and cream traje de luces (“suit of lights”) Caballero’s boyish good looks and silky smooth moves quickly charmed the crowd including Katrina who was suddenly day dreaming of the life of a matador’s wife. Caballero’s maneuvers were precise yet elegant and were met with crescendoing olés after each successful pass of the bull. Once the fervor had reached a peak he plunged his sword into the bull for the kill, the bull’s knees buckled and the matador’s attendants rushed in to finish the job as was needed for the previous two matadors.  But Caballero knowingly waved them off....extended his arm towards the bull and performed some sort of voodoo mind trick that willed the bull to the ground and his ultimate demise. The triumphant matador took a victory lap around the ring collecting bouquets and women’s scarves with which he would swiftly wipe his glistening brow and return to his new devotees.  A star had been born.

Being Spain, Patrick was also very intent on taking in a soccer match while we were there. He was disappointed however to discover that the season for Spain's top soccer league, La Liga, ended the day we arrived. Determined Patrick scoured the internet for alternatives and found that the Liga Adelante was still in season. There are usually a number of teams in this league on the outskirts of Madrid, reachable by the suburban rail network. He settled on AD Alcorcón and though the ticket prices were La Liga prices and the town itself didn't have much to offer, it was still an unforgettable experience as we sang and cheered with the faithful in the diehard fan section right behind the goal.

-San Isidro-

Jack in his best chulapo gear
The actual saint day for the patron saint of Madrid, San Isidro was one big party. Can’t say that we learned too much about San Isidro but we certainly enjoyed celebrating his sainthood.  We started the day by enjoying some tapas on Plaza de Santa Ana, watching families emerge in their chulapo/a outfits, traditional Spanish clothes that are worn on special occasions.  (We made sure to get Jack one before we left). After tapas we found a stage that was hosting concerts with traditional Spanish music and dancing.  We sat back in the midday sun and enjoyed the entertainment as we sipped cañas and our new favorite drink, tinto verano, which translates to ‘Summer Red Wine’.  It is basically a quick and dirty sangria made of red wine, carbonated water and a sugary citrus element such as lemonade.  Mighty refreshing on a hot day. Towards the end of the evening we were riding the metro and noticed the train was unusually crowded. Then we arrived at the Retiro stop and the train became unusually empty. We immediately remembered the old travel adage..."Follow the crowd", hopped off, and secured a prime spot at El Retiro for magnificent fireworks over the statue of Alfonso XII to cap off the day's festivities.

-Toledo-

Visiting Toledo is a popular day trip from Madrid...and for good reason. It’s just a half hour direct train from Atocha station to get to this fortified, hillside city full of history and charm. The cathedral is hands down the main attraction and for good reason. Upon entering this gothic marvel one is immediately taken a back by the sheer magnitude of everything inside. Though one could spend hours viewing the altarpiece alone make sure to save some time to explore the various chapels and other rooms as they all have remarkable pieces.

Toledo
Toledo is also known for being the home of the painter El Greco during his later years and you can find his work scattered around town in the most unassuming places. Our favorite was the magnificent Burial of the Count of Orgaz housed in the Iglesia de Santo Tome. At night, Toledo transforms from a bustling tourist destination into a peaceful little town powered by the hum of the outdoor cafes situated in every nook and cranny of the maze of cobblestone streets. We stayed just one night at the well-located and very affordable Santa Isabel Hotel.

Apparently Toledo is known for its sword construction, so shops really push them as the must-have souvenir. Since we didn’t think we’d make it through airport security, and had no idea what one does with a souvenir sword, we opted for the #2 Toledo item, the Spanish-style almond confection Mazapan. Yum!

-Eating-

La Latina Tapas
Now finely for the main attraction...food. La Latina is Madrid’s go-to tapas neighborhood, so we did it justice with a full-blown tapas crawl. One street in particular, Calle Cava Baja, is tapas joint after tapas joint. We spent two hours walking around, popping into places that were busy and interesting, and filling up on delicious morcillio, patatas bravas, croquettes, and other items whose identity we were unsure of now and then. Thinking we were fully satisfied we started back to our hotel, but 10 minutes later we found ourselves tempted by the Mercado de San Miguel.  The mercado, a modern indoor marketplace, hosts 15-20 vendors serving artisan treats from ham (of course) to flan and other sweets.  We picked up some delectable ham chips and a local favorite, white anchovies.

For a lower key tapas experience, head to the Bodega De La Ardosa: a tiny place on Calle de Colon serving up the best croquettes we had in Spain. If you can’t snag one of the handful of barrel tables in that tiny hole in the wall, walk a few blocks to Lateral for an expansive menu and chic ambiance. We strongly recommend the Pimientos del piquillo rellenos de carne.

Another favorite stop of ours was the chain Cervecería 100 Montaditos, which serves a bevy of a little sandwiches, or montaditos, with basically any combination of fillings you can imagine.  Add some papas fritas and one euro cañas and its the perfect place to finish off a long night of drinking and eating.  Another great place to finish off the evening is at Chocolateria San Gimes, just off Calle Mayor and down the block from a Montaditos; this place has specialized in serving creamy hot chocolate and churros since 1894.  Definitely super touristy but super delicious nonetheless.  And one final shout out to Museo Del Jamon--Madrid’s McDonald’s if you will.  Here the value menu is a must: for a solitary euro you can get a full plate of ham or other tapas favorites.  The place is called Museum of Ham...how can you go wrong?

One note of caution about restaurant dining: a lot of stuff closes early, even on the weekends.  We were under the impression that Madrid was a 24-hour metropolis where the party never ends.  We basically found the party ends unless you want to go to a club.  On a Friday night around midnight, we were stunned to go from establishment to establishment that was either closed or closing, including Montaditos.  Eventually we resorted to a charcuterie that was closing up shop for some ham and bread and a beer from a man hawking beers from plastic bags on the street.  The bag beer was very satisfying though.  Also the metro doesn’t run all night, we were lucky to catch the last train around 2am one night.  

-Accommodations-

We spent most of our nights in Spain at Hostal Gala, an incredibly charming little place with big windows looking down on the small square below. This was a great location for sightseeing, eating, and generally accessing Madrid. Don't let the name fool you....all the rooms are private with a bathroom ensuite that has an awesome shower.
Plasma Floor at the Puerta America
We also spent two nights at the very unique Puerta America design hotel thanks to a successful priceline bid. While further out of the city, it was fun to stay in these highly stylized rooms, each floor by a different designer. The elevator would open on one floor to white plastic hallways, the next to a lobby covered in lights. Our floor was 3D, reflective, geometric walls and the room shared the same theme.

 

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