Back when I was in the planning stages of my January break I knew that I was going to spend some time in Portugal with Kiara but I didn’t know how I should get back. She had to return to work at Les Grands Ballet in Montreal 3 days before I had to return to France. 3 precious days. In Europe.
Well thanks to some flight cancellation snafus 3 days turned to 2 which wasn’t a problem because it meant more Mafalda time in Lisbon! (and the extra day we used to go to Sintra which I loved). Using my superawesomely-honed flight search skills I compared Places to Go with Places that are Cheap and Easy to Get To and the matrix settled on Madrid.
To be honest Madrid has never loomed large on my list of places I wanted to go. I’d been to Barcelona and it became my first favorite city (a distinction now shared with New Orleans and Paris) but somehow it’s demure big sister Madrid never called to me. But then again neither had Prague and I ended up adoring Prague.
Being the third largest city in the EU I knew I had my work cut out for me with only 36 hours. But after all those steep Portugese hills (14% grade!) and vegan buffets (yes- you can get overstuffed on vegan food) I was moving a little slow. I embraced a casual pace and still managed to cover a ton of ground in quite the eclectic manner. Generally a trip falls into a certain category like food, adventure, culture, relax/ leisure. Mine was all of those things rolled into one still leisurely package. I even took an hour long joyride the wrong direction on the metro! (The Madrid metro is fantastic by the way). Some days are just longer than others. The only thing I didn’t do was take part in Madrid’s famous nightlife culture or you know, ride a duck boat, but to be honest those things are probably never going to be on my list.
So let’s get started!
My AirBNB host gave me a very strange look when I asked him on my arrival (this was 9pm) if there were restaurants still open nearby. “Yes everything will be open until midnight.” Well I didn’t know! I live in a country where things are shuttered at 7pm. Anyway, he was giving me weird vibes so I dropped my bag and headed out to the closest vegetarian restaurant I could find, a place called Viva Burger. It is always when I am in a country that does not speak English or French that I realize that my French really has come a long way! Looking at the menu in Spanish (they don’t cater to English tourists with English menus like they do in Portugal) I just gave up because I was in a vegetarian restaurant after all. I just pointed to whatever and it was seriously amazing.
My first stop on my one full day in Madrid was coffee (duh) and I ordered the traditional tosta con tomate for breakfast. I was surprised that the tomato was not sliced but more of a marmalade in a tiny jar. Then it was off to my epic walking tour to hit up all the “must-see” sites in Madrid. Many markets, some palaces and about a million plazas. And a nice respite in the Parque del Buen Retiro as a highlight.
On my walking tour I decided that Madrid is basically plazas, parks and palaces. And statues. At one point I stopped at La Mallorquina, a famous bakery that has been open since 1894 and for good reason. This napolitana is the best thing I’ve ever eaten. Except maybe that salad up above. Seriously the only thing more rampant than my love for sweet foods is my love for vegetables. This place was bustling with locals and tourists. You order at the counter when you can elbow your way in and stand there and eat at the counter. This was like the best warm chocolate chip cookie you’ve ever eaten but with a flaky, buttery croissant texture. Heaven.
After my walking tour of the sites I chunked Madrid out into neighborhoods. In Chueca, the so-called gay neighborhood, I really had to go to the bathroom so I went in the closest place near me. Turns out that sometimes the call of nature brings you to unexpectedly delightful places. Bee Beer was a cozy brewpub where I ended up talking to the daughter of the master brewer for quite a long time about different types of beer, lifestyles in Europe vs the Americas (she is originally from Venezuela and like me, took time adjusting to the slower pace of European life) and our dreams for life.
Earlier in the day I’d stopped in at the cultural museum. Now I was going to hit up the Prado Museum, Madrid’s biggest museum and considered the finest collection of European art in the world. Best of all it’s free from 6pm- 8pm. I didn’t mind waiting in the long line for free admission- it made me happy that so many people wanted to get their art on! Once inside I immediately made a beeline for the temporary exhibit of Cai Guo-Qiang, a Chinese artist who uses gunpowder to create fascinating pieces of art.
My stomach was not feeling so hot on this trip to Madrid – possibly because of all the hunks of animal parts that seemed to hang from every window. My trip to a reputedly “radical feminist vegan cafe” was underwhelming. It seemed like an ordinary cafe with a few …anatomically womanly…pictures on the wall (if you know what I mean). But I persevered and got the famous churros at Chocolateria San Gines and was treated to a spectacular street performance. The buskers in Madrid are so over-the-top and passionate, I love it. One woman even threw herself to the ground in a passion while she was singing.
My legs were a bit fatigued after nine days of adventuring in the sun so before dinner I took a stop at a hammam- a traditional Turkish bath. I was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t nude but I’ve already had one experience in Spain where I was naked when I wasn’t supposed to be so…. The rental suit was too big however so I may have flashed some derrière after all.
After an hour soaking in hot baths I strolled down the famous Calle Cava Baja in La Latina district to find tapas. I ended up in this perfect little tapas restaurant where my glorified grilled cheese and Spanish wine put the perfect cap to my time in Madrid.
Madrid is known for tapas, flamenco, bull-fighting and football (that’s soccer to you Americans). I didn’t partake in 3 of those 4 things so maybe I didn’t get the true flavor of Madrid. It seemed to me like any ordinary City. I can’t help but see a city in relation to others. Having just come from the crumbling beauty of Portugal where relics from the 1100s still stand, Madrid seems positively new. Streets full of shops like H&M and Taco Bell didn’t put me in the mood of wow European grandeur! But hey, it’s a modern city and we can’t expect it to remain a fairytale village just to suit my American tourist dreams. And also that’s a little unfair- there are definitely plenty of beautiful and old sites in Madrid. Some cities you just vibe with and others you’re like, OK I’m glad I went but I’m not going to rush back.
Side note: One thing that is really cool about Madrid is there are free climbing walls dotted throughout the city- on underpasses, on the sides of buildings, anywhere you can drill a few holds! It’s really neat!