The Fernweh-farer: Madrid Redux (Second Chances in a First Class City)
“You can’t go back and make a new start, but you can start right now and make a brand new ending.” James R. Sherman
Madrid required a second chance. I will admit, I needed to grant Madrid that second chance more than she required one from me. My first visit to Madrid five years prior had melted into an afterthought. A visit that crumbled around a foundation of exceedingly high expectations. An ambitious agenda to squeeze in two nights and one full day in the city after an immensely enjoyable week in Barcelona proved too much to ask from the travel gods. Such is the dilemma of the American vacationer. Determined to pack an itinerary as tightly as a cheapskate’s carry-on to max out a two-week allotment of time away from the cubicle.
Arrival to the airport was met those years ago with an extended delay on the tarmac in a sun-baked fuselage, only to encounter a transit strike on the train system into town. This delayed my journey by a few hours as I joined everyone else in an effort to swap onto the resulting overcrowded Metro system. Walking from the station to my Airbnb in the Malasaña neighborhood, the skies opened up and by the time I finally set squishy feet down in the hallway of the building, I was properly drenched. Little did I know, that downpour would mark some of the more tame weather over the next twenty-four hours. The rest of that effort was equal parts folly and foolish, as nothing seemed to work out as planned. Tickets to The Prado booked for the wrong date, camera gear meant to be tethered to my hand for impromptu captures now stored away to avoid a ruinous test of the water-sealing specs.
By the end of the following day, I was resigned to just getting back to the airport and not encounter any further misfortune. In retrospect, to think one full day would have offered any meaningful fulfillment in this city of bursting splendor seems imprudent. Cut to Spring of last year, with no cubicle calling me home this time, my hope was a long-held vision finally fulfilled. Many travelers refer to Madrid in passing, utilizing it as a jumping off point to other locations in Europe. Not me. While I appreciate and explore the more remote regions as much as anyone, I maintain a healthy appetite for cities of note. The neighborhoods of the “Bear and the Strawberry Tree” captivated my expectations. My fascination likely took root via classrooms and couches tucked into literary masterpieces. The likes of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Giles Tremlett's Ghosts of Spain and Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida conjuring vivid descriptions of a time and place where, even in the heart of bloody conflict, romanticism and a creative spirit shone through.
Arriving to the same airport and train platform that greeted me years before, the reception could not have been more congenial. No queue for Metro tickets, no exasperated expressions from fellow passengers and a soothing acoustic soundtrack of a busker leaning against the tile walls plucking Flamenco guitar. The sounds reverberating through the cavernous space of the station. Slowly ascending from the escalators of the terminal and into the heart of Puerto del Sol is akin to being awakened by an overzealous dog licking your face and begging to start the day. It is a little shocking, a little confusing, but also filled with a sense of joy and eagerness. The crescent plaza of Sol presents itself like a “Room of Doors” right out of Alice’s Wonderland, only this time the temptation is which of the roughly five wide fanned-out avenues to take - the promise of discovery led by the leading lines of symmetrically windowed buildings. My choice was Calle del Arenal. Namely, because this was the thoroughfare that housed my Airbnb single apartment. The street, and area in general, is one of the more touristed but the central location is ideal for someone like myself - eager to set out on foot to explore. A cacophony of skilled street musicians mix and mingle with the less welcoming, but typical eyesore of, schtick statuesque illusionist that populate gathering spots in most major cities.
My accommodations were snug but perfectly laid out to make use of every square meter - love that about European floor plans. It would suit my needs well for the week. A space-saving loft bed allowed for a fully stocked kitchen and larger than expected bathroom. A walk-in shower actually accomplished the rare goal of closing off the entire span of shower entry from the rest of the bathroom space - a lacking feature in the majority of Europe that still befuddles me. Do Europeans know some allusive secret to avoid an entirely soaked bathroom floor, toilet and toilet paper roll after taking a shower? Is this skill really worth excluding that extra meter of glass or curtain? The weather upon arrival was a tourism bureau perfect twenty-six celsius complete with high sun and the sharp chiriping of Spanish sparrows. The only breaks in the blue sky resulting from always present intersecting contrails that segment large patchworks of the Madrid heavens.
Stepping out on my balcony, I took in the energy of the avenue below. White tiles reflected the sunlight and brightened the underside of the trees lining storefronts. My perspective allowing for ideal top-down photography perspective of café tables apportioned with small plates of tapas and cocktails of varying shades of red. Instagram influencers work overtime manufacturing shots like the ones naturally occurring here in the wild. Panning upward, a three-sixty view of adjacent apartment balconies and detailed wrought-iron work takeover my field of view. These are the realized snapshots of Madrid long-promised in dog-eared pages and clattering black-and-white film reels.
Some cities lay claim to colors that instantly set off receptors. Signals that say, “oh yeah, this is that place and I am here now.” For Madrid, those are the blunted shades of dark pinks, burnt oranges and mustard yellows. They begin as standalone islands on the painter’s palette and end up merging into a glorious mix of hues - light catching off one and reflecting across the alley to blend some unexpected result. Sure, other accents make guest starring appearances, but it is these three that draw top billing. With late afternoon setting in, my focus steered increasingly towards sustenance. In Spain, that comes in an abundance of both liquid and plated forms. To begin, vermouth and tapas. One can, and should, veer into other offerings but few combinations make for a superior prolonged afternoon that bleeds into early evening than these two lifelong best friends. My footpath led me to Taberna de Antonio Sánchez. The entryway resting just a few short blocks from the marble steps of my apartment. The tapas bar claims to be one of Madrid’s oldest, and birth certificate of 1787 puts up a pretty good argument. The dark stained wood and slightly dank atmosphere do nothing to dispel a feeling that the establishment has earned the right to be whatever it wants. I adore places like this. Spots so steeped in historical relevance and proven performance potency that, while your visit plays a part, it is an inconsequential and insignificant role that requires no guest-starring recognition that YOU graced its threshold. It is a lopsided relationship squarely in favor of the premises. Embrace it.
This level of respect and self-awareness is imperative for a visit to Madrid. The city has history, prolonged history. The kind of biography that can be humbling for American travelers accustomed to run-ins more recently rooted in time. That is no knock on my home country, just a recognition of an indisputable yardstick that pre-dates our own. One finds themselves stumbling upon innumerable distinctions tied to everlastingness in this city. The oldest restaurant in the world, check (Sobrino Botín est. 1725). One of the oldest shops in the world still in operation, check (Antigua Farmacia de la Reina Madre est. 1578). One of the oldest hotels in Europe, check (Hotel La Posada del Peine est. 1610). Stepping through the doorway, the barkeep gave me an acknowledging nod. We struck up a conversation that managed to proceed rather flawlessly despite my efforts to interject limited Spanish phrases that I was wholly unprepared for responses to. With each attempt, the bartender would give a half-smile while tilting his head slightly as if devoting thought to whatever mangled nugget I had just laid upon him. He would respond with a few words in the native tongue before effortlessly swapping back to English to advance the conversation. Deft and professional slight of hand. A skill likely fine-tuned over many interactions and, certainly, as much a godsend and saving grace to him as it was the well-intentioned counterparts like myself. As he poured the first of what would be countless glasses of locally produced vermouth during my time in country, I admired the scene before me. The unassuming white-buttoned server operating in the foreground of dusty bottles of various tinctures and aperitifs stacked four shelves high. The mirrored bar backing reflecting the bottlenecks and making the tightly lined room feel slightly more inviting. A snapshot would make a serviceable green screen for any Hollywood bar scene aiming for 1920s cool, only minus any wizardry or illusion. He finished off the small crystal goblet with the flourish of both speared olives and a lemon twist. I let it sit a moment to observe the oil spill throughout the glass, mixing perfectly with the sweet undercurrent.
A few small plates accompanied and collaborated to offset the final bitter notes of the vermouth. At this stage, I was gladly left in the capable hands of my new acquaintance to pull complimentary dishes from the modest kitchen. A small rustic bowl of callos a la madrileña served on a saucer surrounded by a few cuts of crusty bread. On its heels, a plate of three freshly fried croquetas de jamón.
The callos is a traditional warm stew of tripe, blood sausage and peppers that bathes in a red stock bath. The kind of arrangement that comes in two acts: the stew itself and then the bonus process of tenderizing of the day-old crusted loaf in the awaiting broth. The croquetas served flawlessly crisped and browned on the outside, then cracked open to reveal a still smoking and creamy béchamel puree with flecks of floating Serrano ham. This was the culinary start of legends. Like seeing a favorite band live and getting your top five tracks at the outset. I was in heaven, and eternally hopeful that this strong kick-off was indicative of a sustained week to come. The next few days brought a balanced blend of cafés, art galleries, markets, siesta, tapas…rinse and repeat. My timing brought me to the city during the annual Festival of San Isidro, so the streets were alive from sunrise to sunset. After sunset, the party shifted to the tabernas. During the day, traditional dance exhibitions filled the floor of Plaza Mayor. The symmetrically lined windows looking on along with the rest of us as twirling white skirts and flowing red sashes intermingled. Musical processions and traditionally clad revelers marched through in waves in the afternoons. Parade participants as cheerful as the onlookers.
One unexpected benefit is that the festivities seemingly drew a portion of the city away from the “Golden Triangle of Art." This name refers to the three world-class institutions that straddle either side of the Paseo del Prado. The trio of installations housed within the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Museo Nacional del Prado and Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza have long drawn art enthusiasts to the city, and I am no different. Rare is it to find a place blessed with just one museum of this caliber, but this represents an embarrassment of riches. Between them, one has their pick from the full scope of art history. The Reina Sofia houses masterpieces from Miró, my personal favorite, to Dali and Picasso. The latter’s most famous work calls these halls home and to view it is the polar opposite of the squinted and neck-craning experience of Da Vinci’s counterpart in Paris. A large airy room of clean white walls frames the masterpiece, Guernica. The true communicative power of its depiction of war and savagery requires toeing up to the demarcation line and taking your time. At close range, the expansive 11x25 ft mural pulls you into its orbit and the stark cubist imagery leaves one with the sensation of a flashing nightmare. The Prado is the most renowned and largest of the three. It comes heavy with the likes of Goya, Velázquez, Hieronymus Bosch and Degas. I was lured by the disorder and slightly confusing layout of the building’s wings. They seem to encourage my cherished museum going style of getting lost versus shuffling through in some predetermined Ikea-like floorplan.
However, the last addition coming into my trip that ended up the stone-cold stunner was the Thyssen-Bornemisza. Along with the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona, this is the museum that will dominate my aspirations of a return trip. While originally a palace for Spanish aristocracy, the grounds manage to give off an intimate vibe which allows one to feel like a visitor in a stranger’s home - sheepishly exploring the rooms and hidden nooks while they tend to something upon your arrival. Spanish masters share the walls with Rubens, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Monét, Munch, Hopper, Pollock, O’Keefe and more. I was dumbfounded. Conflicted with eagerness to discover what awaited in the next hall while still planted to linger with the masterpieces in the current one. It reminded me of that youthful exhilaration any boy of a certain age recalls when opening a foil-lined baseball card pack and discovering a murderer’s row of rookie cards and rarities you just knew would fetch a small fortune someday. One wants to take it all in and keep going at the same time. Leaving the museum in somewhat of an euphorically daze, I knew I needed to get some air and sun. If nothing else, to let my senses recover and to absorb what I had just seen. A spot availed itself in close proximity: the city’s El Retiro Park sat just across the busy lanes of afternoon traffic. With a cache of olives, bread and Jamón ibérico picked up from a local gourmet shop earlier in the day, I set out across the green space of roughly three-hundred fifty acres. It was warm for May, but rows of tree-canopied colonnades provide shelter from the afternoon sun. The sculpted branches like a processional saber arch. Benches are plentiful to setup one’s own pathway perch.
Based on its scale and proximity to the freneticism of the city, it often draws comparisons to New York’s Central Park. Similarly, this oasis of gardens, statues and gazebos summoned me back on multiple occasions. Wandering off-path leads to worthwhile finds like the Glass Palace. Originally intended as a greenhouse, the multi-room windowpaned structure rips directly from the fictional manicured Gatsby grounds. It now houses exhibitions from the nearby art museums. Any talk of Madrid and the central region of Spain would be remiss in not mentioning the various ways to devour the culture. None more memorable than wake-up calls for one of Madrid's grandest morning traditions: churros and chocolate. My accommodations were a gut-bustlingly dangerous two blocks from renowned Chocolatería San Ginés. I may have made an encore appearance to verify that my tastebuds had not deceived me the first time. It is an epic combination that awakes the senses. In operation since 1894 (did I mention this city has history), the establishment stays tucked away down the twists and turns of alleys that branch from the city’s beating heart. The freshly piped rods of fried dough are joined by a warm and unabashedly thick chocolate syrup. The notes straddling the line of dark and milk chocolate. The key element is the subtraction of any hint of bitterness from this formula. Served on a saucer and heritage mug against an interior of white tiles, marble tables and green wood accents that seem largely unchanged over the years. The place exudes old world pharmacy aesthetics, only the prescriptions here are for a decadent potion meant to enlighten the soul.
Forget what you think you know about bastardized churros of the carnival variety that go double-fisted on the sugar scoops. These simple sticks shine a light on the dish in its purest form. No granulated sugar or cinnamon to be found here. Those only serve to mask subpar dough. No, Spanish churros, and San Ginés in particular, highlight ingredients and expertise in the form of precisely timed fryer pulls yielding crispy, warm and muted craggy sticks. The straw-like pockets serve as a sopping vehicle for transporting melted chocolates one foot journey from cup to mouth. No matter how greedy you are with double-dipping, count on being left with a half-cup of sweet dark “cocoa soup” after the churros are gone. Do not fret and do not waste. Drink it up. After all, chocolate is good for you. Any morning involving such a sinful breakfast should net hours of making up for the voracious start. No time for that in Madrid. Headline grabbing dishes await and require close encounters. Matchmake a café con leche with a Ponche Segoviano as I did one late morning at El Riojano. This dessert masquerading proudly as “morning pastry” offers more layers than can be counted on one hand. Thick syrup cements foundations of creamy custard, cake and marzipan. The top brandished with criss-crossing lines reminiscent of seared grill marks. Hailing from the Segovia region just north of the city, the density puts up just the right amount of fight as the fork slices through each component.
Like a junkie in need of a fix, the single dish that called me repeatedly was, thankfully, one of the best bargains in town too. To locate the best, one must slip past the hoards of photo hobbyists, tour groups and fast-chatting locals packed into Plaza Mayor. Look to the southwest corner of the square for a small alley off the portico. To one’s right is the small storefront of Cervecería La Campana. A sidewalk window display grants you a first peek, and would leave any department store holiday effort drooling for gawking expressions of the onlookers. The view is of a small serving station where movement does not stop. Hands furiously constructing simple, yet highly addictive, bocadillos de calamares. Angel dusted calamari breaded and fried to a consistency on par with the best I have enjoyed, and placed into a simple handheld roll. The size perfect for keeping the alternate hand free to man an ice cold Mahou beer.
A squeeze of ripe lemon is the only addition warranted. It is a hand grenade of flavor, and called to mind my beloved fried seafood po-boys of New Orleans. The shop interior is just a handful of stools and patrons standing elbow-to-elbow. Most debating whether a second, or third, sandwich should be line-itemed on the bill. At only three euro, why not? When a vino and vermouth pause is called for, seek out a taberna slinging Spanish cider. I can still taste the residual tartness of the Trabanco cider from a moody tapas establishment. My ability to recall the name of the place likely suffers from the strong cider glass count. The apple notes of the Spanish variant are claimed from the bitter rind of the fruit versus the more sugary flesh notes most Americans would recognize. The table-side serving presentation is worth ordering a bottle alone. The vested server engaged in a full wingspan stretching pour meant to aerate the flavors in the final glass. My server informed me it takes some practice and I would assume so. It rivaled some yoga positions yet is accomplished with zen master accuracy.
There are, of course, times of day in Madrid that did not seem appropriate for an alcohol buzz. Mornings, and frequent afternoons, were not complete without exploring Madrid’s cafê and coffee culture. Like any other major city in the last five years, the mustached and intentionally disheveled counterculture have setup shop to bring high-quality roasting experiences to the masses. In Madrid, they do it exceedingly well.
Toma Café in the Malasaña neighborhood stood out above the rest. Ironic that, years before, it was this same area which had left me feeling so unsatisfied. This section of tightly lined alleys and streets just north of the heart of the city center is a bohemian hub. The name derived from the historical record of a 15-year old girl who was unceremoniously executed by the French during the 1808 uprising that eventually led to the Spanish War for Independence. Appropriately, this area is now a center for creative youth and those at university - which always yields delicious and innovative outputs. Toma Café is nondescript from the street. I walked past it twice the first time I sought it out. If at first you do not succeed, rest assured it is worth finding. The inside is clean with subway tile backing. It draws a perimeter for pleasantly mismatched seating that eschews the recent fad of tailbone bruising metal for contours and fabrics comfortable enough to linger for a moment.
It is the type of café that does not think so highly of itself to tell you electronics are not allowed, but delivers on an authentic vibe that makes one feel a little guilty for introducing a screen into the equation. I took it as a welcome break to people watch and jot down notes and accrued observations. Floating in the middle of the space under skylights is the coffee bar. Well placed greenery transports just enough of the outdoors to the indoors. Swept up in the inspired confines, I was easily sold on the “Cappuccino Especial” and pinned my hopes on finding something truly “special” and sans gimmick. The resulting “Orange Cappuccino” remains one of my best-loved roast creations. Local produced and roasted espresso paired with orange-infused milk that somehow removed any hint of cloying sweetness or rough acidity. The reduction result was pure orange essence cream. It was magical. I was tempted to ask for a takeaway pint of the stuff, but was convinced doing so would ruin all efforts to blend in as a local. You know, the guy who just moved into the neighborhood. I kid, but I do not joke about this milk. Move over cereal milk, there is a new infused icon in town. Plated next to this scene-stealing elixir was my first pan con tomate. Crusty rough oval slices of loaf bread massaged with garlic, grated tomato, salt and extra virgin olive oil. It was as simple as it sounds and as skillful as could be. I made a note to add this to my growing list of recipes to take back in my carry-on. Thankfully, it would not be my last encounter with one of Spain’s signature breakfast dishes as I hopscotched the country.
Alas, the inevitable stroke of midnight approached for my encore in Madrid. I decided to spend my final night on the balcony of my Airbnb, taking in the street scene below one final time with the aid of the last few glasses of vermouth at my disposal. Like a date where every moment from pickup to drop-off just seems to flow in harmony, this redemption visit had effortless dialog each page of the script. Every sight, every meal, every walk, every interaction and memorable exchange perfectly lit.
The next morning’s ride to the airport was marked by cloudy skies and a persistent drizzle. The first departure from perfectly sunny skies timed with my departure from this city to the next destination. I could not help but look out the window and smile at the luck. It was as though the city was sending me one final paradoxical reminder of just how perfectly it all played out this time. Turns out, five years ago was not meant to be. Unbeknownst to me, Madrid demanded then that I come back when I could give it the attention it has accrued over time. A hard-earned regard born of a hard-earned history. Like most things, we do not often recognize or respect these signs in real-time. In the moment, it seems like the worst possible outcome when it really is an opportunity to reset and have another go at it. I know it now. I know I love this city. I am certain I’ll ask her out again.
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