Arrival in Madrid, Spain after a 15-hour plane trip is a relief. I’ve never been so far from home, and I realize that jet lag is real. The cab ride to our inner city apartment rental allowed me to see much of the landscape surrounding Madrid, which I hadn’t expected to be so dry. Dry, arid, and lacking a significant amount of greenery. I realize that Madrid isn’t near the coast, and the temperatures are about as hot as they are in Texas, so this makes sense to me. We’ll be traveling to Barcelona in a few days, and I look forward to a more tropical environment. Entering the city, Madrid feels ancient. Some of the buildings have been there since the 1500’s, and many are renovated rather than torn down and rebuilt. The streets are paved with cobblestone, which gives even the most modern areas of town a rustic, medieval feeling. Our apartment is located near the Plaza Mayor, which is also near the Plaza Del Sol, which appears to be the main center of town. Our cab driver told us that each street in Madrid stems outwards from a center plaza and are all one ways that don’t cross. This is confusing to me, but our cab driver seemed confused by the concept of cross streets. The neighborhoods are mixed, new and old, diverse ethnicities, with well-kept areas within blocks of run-down apartments. I had hoped to venture out by myself at night or go for an early morning run alone. It doesn’t look like we’re in the safest neighborhood for that, so I think I’ll hold off until the next stop on our journey.
Our first day we explored the town, and our first Spanish meal was at the oldest working restaurant in the world, El Botin. We were told that Ernest Hemingway used to frequent the place and that Goya spent some time as a dishwasher there. The restaurant was beautiful, ancient (Est. 1725), and displayed original Spanish architecture and stained glass windows. The menu was comprised of traditional Spanish dishes, rather than tapas, and we each got a full meal. I recommend the roast suckling pig, as my Dad really enjoyed it, and the chicken dish I ordered was underwhelming. The place was rather fancy, and the prices reflected the atmosphere. All in all, I don’t think I’d eat there again, but it’s worth checking out for the history.
Further exploration took us to Plaza Mayor for coffee where we had a good time people watching. Highlights included a fat man in a Spider-Man costume (dubbed Spider Clause) and the creepy yet beautiful paintings on the side of the Plaza Mayor Apartments. Outside the Plaza was my personal favorite part of the day, Mercado de San Miguel. This market was chock full of all that is good. Cured meats hung from the ceiling of a shop selling fresh prosciutto, across from a vendor selling fresh fruit. Next to that was my absolute favorite vendor who sold individual fish tapas for one Euro each. Sashimi salmon with dill sauce atop toasted flatbread was my favorite, but I also had cod with caviar and seared calamari toppings. Other shops had all manner of fried foods, fresh fish, cured fish, cured meats, sweets, ice cream, mixed drinks, and all of them looked delicious.
Day two’s expedition was a day trip to Toledo, a medieval city about a 30-minute train ride from Madrid. The great thing about Toledo is that the majority of its inhabitants live amongst the original architecture from the Middle Ages. The city is on a hilltop, with a bridge leading into its fortress-like walls. Apparently Toledo was a hub for religious activity back in the day, with Christians, Jews, and Muslims living together peacefully (a rare occurrence, especially back then). The Catholic cathedral was probably the most beautiful structure, although I opted to visit an ‘Inventions of Leonardo Di Vinci’ exhibit and tour a torture chamber in lieu of seeing the inside. We visited the Jewish quarters, visiting a synagogue and passing a Franciscan monastery. The monastery was placed arrogantly within the Jewish barrio and displayed the chains of the Catholic martyrs that were freed from Grenada. We wanted to check out the mosque but chose to have tapas and wine at a little restaurant instead before hopping a train back to Madrid.
The third, and last, day in Madrid was spent shopping downtown and doing the typical tourist thing. We got to visit the Prado, which is one of the largest collections of masterpieces in the world. Raphael, Goya, El Greco, and countless other Spanish works were displayed, as well as tons of Greek statues and sculptures. It really was a privilege to get to see such famous works, although, we opted to take advantage of the free hours (only from 6 to 8), so we didn’t have time to see everything. If planning to visit the Prado and medieval and Renaissance art is of high priority, I would recommend paying the fee to allow more time to explore. It’s wasn’t a high priority for me. It was, however, liberating to compare those artists idea of beauty to today’s waif-worshiping beauty standards. Almost every woman was depicted as plump, fertile, and soft. I knew this was the case already, but something about standing amongst them and seeing them for myself was an excellent reminder that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes.
Madrid is the flamenco capital of the world, so naturally we had to catch a flamenco show. I chose Tablao Flamenco La Quimera because I heard that they placed a significant focus on the music, rather than just the dancers. The tiny club was definitely a good choice. The troupe consisted of two male dancers and one female, accompanied by a vocalist and guitar player. Honestly, the singer impressed me most, with an almost Moroccan sounding voice as he belted the tribal tunes. The dancer worked up an impressive sweat as they stomped the floor, a violent tap dance of sorts, as the guitarist strummed along. Each member was so incredibly passionate about their art, inspiring the crowd as true performers. The package we ordered was about 30 euro each and included a glass of wine and tapas. Our seats were right up front in the packed room, and the décor had a decidedly gypsy flair, which I loved. I hadn’t eaten much that day, so I was a little worried the pre-determined tapas menu wouldn’t satisfy my hunger. I was so, so wrong. After filling our wine glasses with a tasty red, the waiter brought out a salad with strawberries, tomatoes, and the one of the best cheese I’ve ever had in my life (not sure what it was, creamier and milder than feta, but feta-like) and a large Spanish omelet. Thinking that was it, we chowed down. 15 minutes later they brought out a generous portion of delicious smoked salmon and giant crackers. After that, they brought thinly sliced ham with mini baguettes and finally a large bowl of paella. By the end of the hour-and-a-half long performance, we were stuffed, and there hadn’t been a disappointing dish in the bunch. I highly recommend Tablao Flamenco La Quimera for a flamenco performance; it really was an authentic experience.
Now, after hopping an early morning train to Barcelona, I’m taking in views of the Spanish countryside and reflecting on the last few days. I’m reluctantly learning to eat like a Spaniard, which involves very little breakfast, a larger lunch at around two or three, and a small dinner or tapas around 9 or 10 at night. I’m a huge breakfast/brunch person, so it’s taking some adjusting (although the food is delicious). Another observation in the use of space in Europe (from the apartments to the streets, to the restaurants). Everything seems so small! I realize how extravagant Americans ideas of ordinary living really are in comparison with those abroad. Europeans don’t appear to be bothered by tight quarters, which makes me feel a bit spoiled and wasteful. Perhaps this is just because we were in a large city, and I’m accustomed to the abundance of space in Texas. While I was navigating my way through the streets, struggling with the language barrier, and finding myself generally lost most of the time, I thought it best to learn the phrase "No se nada", I know nothing. I used it often.