With new hair, and a new-found confidence among the people of Spain I caught a train direct to Madrid for my last three days before Paris! I arrived at Madrid’s station, and was immediately lost. Despite some success in Barcelona, my Spanish hadn’t improved much, and directions proved difficult. In the end I manged to find my bearings and get myself out of there, and onto the Metro to town. I got off at a stop right by my hotel and checked in quickly. I connected to the hotel’s wifi and got in touch with my cousin, Sarah, who was also in Madrid for a couple of days. Travelling alone can be….well, lonely, so I was incredibly happy to have company again!
If I thought it was tough finding my way out of the train station, it was even harder finding Sarah’s hotel. Even those people I asked in small shops in the area weren’t sure where to send me. So it was down to my own sense of direction, and trusting my gut (my inner compass). After wandering around for over 40 minutes, I FINALLY found the place! Hooray! Sarah met me in the lobby, then we both caught the metro back into the city centre. It was dinner time, and we were on a mission to find some incredible tapas that Spain is so famous for. One thing I have found in my travels is that you rarely find a great place to eat along a main street. The best finds are in back streets, or around a few corners, so taking the time to walk around a while usually pays off! We didn’t have much luck for the first while, until we stumbled upon a small square that had charming restaurants running around the edges, and a stunning hotel at one end. We browsed the menus, then took a table at ‘Turf’. The staff were very friendly, and considering we were seated right outside, service was incredibly prompt! The food was delicious, offered great variety and generous portions, and we loved the contemporary vibe of the place. Unbeknownst to us (until our walking tour the following day) it was no wonder we’d found such a great place to eat, as we had actually made our own way to Plaza Santa Ana, which is famous for great dining.
After dinner we made our way back to our hotels, so that we could sleep before a big day of sight seeing the following day. I had been on a couple of tours with New Europe Tours in previous cities, and was really happy with them! So had made the recommendation to Sarah, who was so excited to sight see she was in without hesitation!
The day of our tour, Sarah made her way to my hotel after breakfast and we set off to the meeting point. We met up the rest of the tour group at Plaza Mayor, surrounded by restaurants and street performers. We walked all over the city, for over 5 hours, on one of the hottest days but we loved every minute of it! Our guide was full of life and quirky tales and managed to involve us as much as she could with what she was telling us.
We stopped for lunch at a small sandwhich bar, where you could get a small roll for as little as 1 Euro! Giving our names for the orders proved the hardest part, and it took a few goes for them to understand my name. In the end, my order receipt showed ‘Brut’ instead of ‘Brooke’. Close enough? While everyone had settled down to eat and drink, we walked to the end of the street, where our guide had pointed out an infamous chocolate and churro bar – Chocolateria San Gines. I can’t even begin to describe just how good this was!! We ate so many churros we could barely move and we struggled a little on the second half of the tour (grateful we had the chance to walk all that chocolate-y goodness off).
Later that evening we made our way to the Museo Nacional del Prado and had a leisurely wander through the galleries for a while. After that, we made our way to Las Carboneras, to see our very first Flamenco performance – during our tour we were given cards for discount entry (with complimentry drink) and we decided we couldn’t pass it up! It was certainly one of the more touristy spots we could have gone too, but the dancers put on a fantastic show in the small, intimate venue, and made for an electric atmosphere with their fiery passion. The menu selection wasn’t too bad either, snacking on fresh olives, croquettes and washing it all down with sangria!
Right around the corner from Las Carboneras are the Mercado de San Miguel (Markets of San Miguel). There are a number of delicatessens, bars, food and drink specialists, where you can buy and eat food of all descriptions in here. Unfortunately we didn’t have the time to stop and go inside, but I would definitely recommend doing so if you get the chance! It’s on my list for next time.
The following day we were up early and caught the metro out to Parque del Retiro (Retiro Park). This park was built (along with a palace) in 1632 as a retreat for King Philips IV and the Royal family (retiro meaning retreat!), then was opened to the public in 1868. The grounds cover 130 hectares, with some parts drawing on the formal French style, and others more natvie to Spain. There is a large lake in the centre of the park, which is where Sarah and I decided to test our rowing skills, taking out a small row boat on the water. We found we got our rhythm in no time and were making our way across the water like pros! Easily some of the best fun on my trip.
From the park, we went back into town for lunch. All that rowing meant we worked up some serious hunger! On our tour the day before, we had stopped outside Restaurant Botin. Founded in 1725, it is the world’s oldest restaurant, and is a benchmark in traditional cuisine. We were a little early for lunch, so we walked a few doors up to Kitchen Stories for some sangria and a snack while we passed the time. They served up the most incredible glasses of sangria, a basket of a variety of delicious fresh breads with oil and balsamic, and some corn chips with the best guacamole I have had in my life. The service was incredible, our waitress super friendly, so while we were there we made a dinner reservation for that same night!
It’s hard to believe we were still hungry after that, but we were determined to find room. Botin was incredible. The smells of fine food and history, the classic decor, the immaculately dressed wait staff and warm service had us even more excited to see what was going to come out of their kitchen! There are small replica dioramas around the dining room, showing what the restaurant looked like when it originally opened – not much has changed at all, so it felt a little like we had stepped back in time! The food…oh the food. We at like Kings (or in our case, Queens) dining on white asparagus with mayonnaise sauce, Chicken Fricassee, drinking sangria from an old, hand-painted pitcher and finishing our incredible meal with pina fresca al caramelo (fresh pineapple with caramel). We played tourists in the bathroom, etching our names into the back of a stall door. I’m not usually one to write anything on bathrooms walls, but this place had been around for so long, how could we not leave our mark?
After lunch, we took a short walk and stopped in at El Madrono to try their famous madrono shots, which were served in small cone shot cups, that were chocolate coated on the inside. Not often you can shot and then eat the glass after!
Our busy day carried on that evening, when we caught a train out to The Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas to see our very first bull fight. We purchased tickets out the front, and took our seats up in the nose bleed section. It was was an incredibly hot evening, and we were seated in direct line of the sun. I will admit right away, that Sarah and I were both incredibly naieve when it came to bull fighting. The only times I remember seeing anything to do with it was in cartoons as a child, so as far as I knew, there was a matador in the area who taunted the bull with a large cape. So you can imagine our reactions to what actually takes place. I’m not going to delve in the politics of the sport, or other peoples beliefs about it, however I will state that I don’t plan on seeing another ‘fight’ in my lifetime. It was increidbly hard to watch, and we didn’t stay for long. The atmosphere however, was incredible, as was the arena itself! That alone is what I decided to take from the experience.
On our way to dinner, our train stopped at one particular station where hoards of people boarded (mostly men and young boys). You could tell by their clothes they were on their way to a football match, and each and every one of them was as excited as the next! ‘Packed to the rafters’ doesn’t even come close to describing just how full our carriage was. But it didn’t stay that way for long. Soon enough, we arrived at the stop where they all disembarked – and we copped more than a few laughs and jokes at the fact that we were staying on, and obviously not going to watch the game the rest of the city was!
Dinner at Kitchen Stories was just as delightful as our pre-lunch had been! They were incredibly busy that night but found a table for us upstairs in a separate room where they were hosting a private party. With so many people to look after, we were incredibly impressed at how well the wait staff looked after us both, and the food that came out was delicious! (as was the sangria – what meal was complete without it really!) When we left to pay, we had a long chat with the owners of the restaurant, who were incredibly warm and friendly. We left having no problem immediately recommending this place to as many friends and family members that we could! (I even jumped online and wrote up a review, which I rarely feel the impulse to follow through with).
So that just about sums up my Spanish experience! I could go on and on, but I think this post is now long enough.
Spain – Te Amo!