Madrid me mata!
Madrid – December 2012
Hard to believe it, but John and I have now been married for 11 years. I really mean it when I say that time has flown by. I don’t feel like we had our wedding yesterday. But it feels more like 2 or 3 years, not 11. And this is all good. Time to mark the occasion and spend a little time alone, away from the kids, remembering why we are together in the first place. Since John loves Spain, but still had not been to Madrid that seemed a perfect choice. We could stay in a nice place, kid free, and enjoy “la marcha” (nightlife) in Madrid for a couple of days. I could even show him a few of my old haunts from a hundred years ago when I was a student there at the Universidad de Complutense.
We stayed at the lovely Palace Hotel, just off of the Puerta del Sol and half a block from the statue of Neptune. The center of Madrid is always busy, but also very lovely, with tree-lined blocks and lots of green space running in the middle of many streets. Even though it was December, it had almost a fallish feel. Crisp, but sunny. We got there on Friday afternoon and after a couple of rejuvenating glasses of cava in the hotel bar, we headed out. They had recently turned on all the Christmas lights around the city center, including the huge Christmas tree in Puerta del Sol. Apparently the tree is different every year. This year it definitely wasn’t traditional, but very impression and colourful. After a brief paseo (stroll) and a crazy crowded dash through the Christmas Market in the Plaza Mayor, we decided to try a few tapas. It was too early to go to the cuevas just off the Plaza Mayor, so we first hit a small bar nearby. It was called __ (here’s where I was going to insert the name, but I lost the card from the place and can’t find it! Boo!!)____ and it had a small window next to the door, where you could see the bar man slicing up some jamon for a plate of tapas. In Spain (like in Italy) you need to choose whether you want table service or to just stand at the bar. It’s not a matter of a table not being available, but one of choice. At the bar is best if you plan to have a drink and a racion (small serving) and then move on. Table is more appropriate for a bigger meal. We had a nice glass of wine and an even better plate of jamon. We didn’t really chat to anyone, other than each other, except when I asked the older Spanish couple sitting next to us what size plate of jamon they had ordered. Then we moved on to one of my old haunts from student days.
Just outside of the Plaza Mayor is a street of restaurants full of a particular type of tapas restaurant: Las Cuevas. The Caves. I guess they are called this, because they resemble caves….stone walls, usually no windows. Each one has a specialty. One is known for its mushrooms, another jamon. But my favorite is the tortilla one. If you have never had Spanish tortilla, you are missing out! First off, it has zero in common with the Mexican flour or corn tortilla. It’s more of a close cousin to a frittata. Olive oil, eggs, potato and fried onion. Yum! I have made this for years for John and we’ve had it in lots of restaurants across Spain and in the States. So, he was no newbie. But he had never had it here. We sat at one of the small wood tables and stools and ordered up. First bite in, I could see the look on his face….”OH…MY…GOD…this is GOOD!” We ate and drank and laughed and tried to figure out what made this tortilla so much better than the rest. I have my theories, which I will share separately. Maybe in another post. Towards the end of our food, a group of three Spanish girls came in and sat just next to us. They had obviously been shopping and looked like colleges students. When the waiter came over they quizzed him on the prices, then had a private convo about what they could afford, before ordering. We never talked to them, but I was feeling a STRONG pull of nostalgia just looking at them, about my days living in Madrid and being a “studentskate” as my dad would say….the student version of cheapskate….because funds were limited. I told John that I wanted to pay for their meal and he whole heartedly agreed. He’s the guy who carries around extra umbrellas so that he can give them away to people when it rains, so I knew he would be all about it. We walked into the next little room to explain to the staff and pay out of site from the girls. The staff was a bit mystified, until I explained that I went to school in Madrid, a hundred years ago, and knew what it was like to be a budget-conscious student. I wanted to pay for them as an unexpected treat. They seemed delighted by this idea and we paid both tabs. But then they wanted me to stay for “besos” from the girls once they told them. This horrified me! I would be so embarrassed and so would John! We politely declined and fled the scene. Literally. We practically ran. Slowly making our way back to the hotel, we ran into a smaller Christmas market at the Plaza Jacinto Benavent. We bought some gifts and then decided to have a drink at this quirky outdoor bar, which was only there for the market. It was made up to look like a Tyrolean ski chalet, complete with fake snow backdrop and faux fur throws to warm your legs. It was 11:30 at night and it was PACKED. I love Spain. Day one was perfect.
Day two was so gorgeous and sunny; it almost seemed like October instead of December. We headed to the Prado to tick off a few Madrid must-dos: El Greco and Goya. The building itself is a marvel and a beauty, even if the art is not my favorite of the three great museums there: Prado, Reina Sofia, & the Thyssen. We tried to go to the Thyssen next, but a temporary Gauguin exhibit was causing lines out the door and the day’s tickets were sold out. We bought for the next day and instead hopped on one of those red tourist Hop On Hop Off Buses. While they are super touristy, they are a great way to really see a lot of a city in a short amount of time. Plus, the day was so gorgeous; we sat on top in the open air. It was so fun.
That night, John was still thinking about the jamon from the place the night before…the one where we stood at the bar. So we planned to go back and then hit a few more places for a proper tapeo (tapas crawl). But as we approached, the guy at the door saw John and greeted him like a long lost favorite nephew! Shouts, hugs, claps on the back. And it was not a sales technique to get us in (at least I don’t think it was) as we had been there the night before and saw the same guy at the front door with no reaction. He led us to a table, once John said we wanted to eat. As he did, the guys behind the bar had same reaction. Hey! It’s You! I was thinking, wow….did he leave some crazy tip last night? Just as I am about to ask John this, he leans over and whispers to me behind his menu “Do you think that they think I am somebody else?” “I was just wondering about that.” We had a lovely meal (even though I accidently ordered Portobello mushrooms. John’s allergic so we gave them to the table next to us) and thoroughly enjoyed John’s newfound local celebrity. When we left, our waiter stood on a chair and kissed John on top of the head, and announced the whole place “This man is a Marine!” as we left laughing. He had just discovered this, when he noticed John’s tattoo.
I did get to hit the Thyssen on the Sunday. I remembered this being one of my favs, housed in a restored villa of multiple floors. I also remembered that the art goes from oldest to newest, starting at the top floor and that I used to skip down the lower floors. The interesting thing this time was that I spent the bulk of my time on the older art this time, especially some of the religious art that would normally bore me. And it was fascinating! I guess things do change with age. Definitely your perspective. You have more of it. And if you are lucky, your budget. Same thing applies there. The final part of our trip I wanted to highlight was my search for paella. Not just any paella…..but really, really good paella. An internet trawl had led me to www.thetongisneverwrong.com and their entry about paella. So, we tried 54 Boulevard. Excellent. Definitely local. And the whole meal from good from starter to postre. On our last day, we ended up at La Barraca. A place that is famous for its paella (and high prices) that many people call the best in Madrid. Now that I have been to both I will say I think that the paella at 54 Boulevard is better. But La Barraca was also excellent. So it really boils down to budget and what kind of atmosphere you want. Boulevard is family, local, casual, and relaxed. La Barraca seems family-friendly also. More fine-dining in experience and décor. A little serious. But I would take paella from either one, any day! Please! Madrid, me mata. (And apparently, it is MORE Christmas than you, so there. – see below)