When I got on a plane to Ecuador one year ago, the announcements in Spanish terrified me. I haven’t even left Los Angeles and I felt a slight sense of terror at what I was about to get myself into. My few semesters of Spanish in high school and university weren’t going to save me now. A year in, after so many countries where I don’t even know a little bit of the language, all of a sudden Spanish is comforting. At least I can say the basics, count, and ask for things. That only left the culture shock for me. This is a land of both ends of the spectrum.
It is a country of strong family and social ties. One could hardly imagine there is a recession if you just walked around, the cafes and bars are constantly full of hip young looking people. Much like when I lived in San Francisco and Los Angeles, I constantly want to scream “doesn’t anybody work around here?!” Except unlike in America, the answer is probably no, they don’t. Once you talk to the Spanish, that is when you realize the cutbacks many of them are making. How many of them live with their parents? Many wonder if they’ll have to leave the country soon for work.
It is both a relaxed, joyous city and a depressing place. Madrid is full of streets of designer stores and yet it is a glorious town to be in for the art inclined but wallet light. There are so many free things to do in this town if you time it right. The sunday morning flea market is a great place to stroll and people watch, stop for a drink and a bite, or just buy all sorts of junk. The top notch museums are free for a few hours in the evening and some for whole days on the weekend. Boscos, Picassos, Dalis, Magrittes, and Kandinskys for free? Oh my!
This was a place where I tried to meet more than one Couch Surfer. In big cities, I find it harder to get my head around what it’s really like there. Standing in the Plaza Mayor with a brass band blasting as tourist swarm into cheesy restaurants, info offices and posing for pictures with dirty looking Puss in Boots, one can hardly imagine this was a site of the Spanish Inquisition. The slice of every day life did mean a glance into the harsh realities of belt tightening but also the creative speed of the city.
I wandered the twisted streets not knowing where to go as I didn’t understand Spanish hours. Lunch is between 1-4 and dinner from 8 or 9 onwards. This meant I was hungry a lot as I couldn’t find food when I wanted it except in the touristy spots.
It usually takes me a little bit to hit my stride and find the good bits anywhere and big cities just make that more difficult. At least Madrid was tasty as I worked my way around it. Much like in Vienna I discovered there was often menus of the day that were the most affordable option to try many things. So I stopped in La Botilleria de Maxi and tried to understand the untranslated daily menu. I stopped to try the main entree of Cocido Madrileno and my eyes caught on the duck ham.
Getting to Madrid involved a full day of two buses, two trains, two subways, two planes and lots of walking so I had managed to catch a vicious flu from the people who kept sneezing and coughing on me. I really wish I didn’t mean literally on me, but that seems to be ok here to infect others openly. So with this phlegmy mess, it was probably good i didn’t realize wine or another drink came free although I did partake in a lackluster dessert. Luckily Spain has amazing desserts I will cover in another post. Onto the many other savory goods!
Although my Spanish dreams of food were the expensive San Sebastian fresh goods of the north, I am equally pleased by the heavier simple fare I found.
On Sunday afternoon after strolling around the flea market I attempted to go to a popular local tavern. This is perhaps the only time on the trip I’ve had to walk out of a restaurant as it was so crowded I didn’t really have any place to stand. I felt bad waiting around with the groups to take up a four top when everyone was eying every available seat like vultures. I skipped on the huevos rotos and round sandwiches and decided to investigate patatas bravas, or potates in spicy sauce.
The Las Bravas mini chain is known for more than delicious spicy red Bravas sauce. Tapas are difficult for one person or even small groups as they are most affordable and fun when split among large groups so you can try a little bit of everything. Luckily Las Bravas has 3 and 5 plate tapas degustations for the solo traveler.
Sadly my last meal in Madrid of a calamari sandwich was pretty dry and awful. Skip El Brillante and go next door where they’ll at least put some spicy red Brava sauce and charge you a good Euro or two less. This place reminded me a lot of Canter’s Deli back in Los Angeles. It’s open later than most and people rave, but I just find it barely acceptable for the overpriced goods. Luckily I’ll need to fly out of Madrid so I can make sure my last meal is better.
On the last day I attempted to catch a bus to Seville and experienced the joys of Spanish efficiency. After I finally got to talk to the aloof clerk after the bus I wanted had already left, I wandered outside and discovered the observatory and IMAX park. This was the south end of the city and although not a particularly sight filled area, it was fun to see the people scurrying around the business park and out on their daily runs and walks in the tree lined park. After the chill of Madrid I head south to Andalucia. As one Couch Surfer I met put it, “You just got here and you’re headed to the most exotic part of Spain?” Yup, the Moors liked better weather.