“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Madrid: Tapas, Wine, Sherry, and Nun Cookies

We have been in Spain for five days and I've finally found the time to sit down and write. Our arrival routine was typical, dropped off our items at the hotel and quickly found lunch.  A lovely start to our gastro-cation involved an octopus sandwich, carmelized duck liver on toast, and homemade sausage. We napped hard afterward and prepared for our tapas tour later that night.  Our hotel was perfectly situated located in the Centro region of Madrid, equally between the Palacio Real and Parque Retiro. We were steps from the Plaza Mayor which was a great point of reference for finding our way around.  On the way to the tour we swung through the Plaza, and I promptly located a shoe store that has been hand-making espadrilles for nearly 175 years.  I walked out with two pairs. 

My grandparents were ecstatic that we were taking this trip and Opa gave us lots of recommendations, including eating at La Botín, the oldest restaurant in the world, in Madrid.  We found the restaurant for future reference, but never fit it into our schedule. They gave us lots of recommendations, some that we were able to commit to, and some that just didn't fit into our plans.  And I realize that when I give other people advice about what to see and do and eat in other countries or cities, they may never follow through, and it's not personal.  Sometimes the plans just don't coincide.  But I am making a mental list of other locations in Spain to visit thanks to Oma and Opa, which we'll attempt on our next trip here.  Oh yes. There will be another!

I had leaned Castilian Spanish in high school and college and thank goodness.  I was more capable of understanding Madrileño Spanish much better than the Mexican or puertoriqueño Spanish back home.  The Spanish is flowing more easily now and I'm excited when I learn new phrases and words. "¡Una otra ronda!" to call for another round of drinks!

The tapas tour was a great way to start off the trip.  We visited four tapas bars representing the different regions of Spain.  The first was one that served cider, where we learned how to pour it from a great height into a glass.  The higher the pour, the more bubbles are introduced.  Spanish cider is naturally flat.  Much wine was consumed group the night, and olives! I typically hate olives, but the green Spanish ones were very tasty.  We had anchovies on potato chips, dogfish bites, chickpeas with tripe, morcilla, jamón iberico, croquettes, and French fries covered in blue cheese sauce.  The group was merry and we made great conversation.  There were couples that joined us from Finland, Dallas, Canada, and Australia.

The next day we headed out for some sightseeing and a nosh.  Breakfast was at a cafe nearby where I had a tasty bit of toast with olive oil, crushed tomato, and ham.  This would become a theme, tomato on bread.  Lunch was a pop into the San Miguel Market that was a smorgasbord of tapas stands.  Locals and tourists filled the place, and it was a great stop to browse if we didn't know what we wanted to eat.  This was my first sample of Vermut, a dry crisp cocktail best enjoyed mid-day.  Next we headed to the Temple of Debod, which is an Egyptian temple gifted to Spain for their assistance in building the Aswan Dam.  The temple closed for midday at 2, so we had a respite in the shaded park that surrounded the grounds, as the day was hot and sunny.  

We had considered visiting the Palace next, but a snack was in order, and nearby was a tapas bar we had visited the night before and remembered it was quite good.  We saddled up to the bar and ordered white wines, and the barkeep Martín promptly presented us with a plate of paella and two forks.  Delicious!  We got to talking to him (in Spanish) and made a fast friend.  He was so passionate about Spanish food and wine, and we told him of our travel plans.  He approved, and kept feeding us more tapas selections from the bar, the cold marinated mussels being my favorite. As we sat, talked, and laughed with Martín, in walked a couple from Canada that was part of our tour the previous night.  They joined us at the bar and instead of visiting the palace, we stayed for two more rounds of wine and more tapas with our new friends. 

The next stop out of the tapas bar was to find the nun cookies.  There is a convent of cloistered nuns that bakes cookies, but finding the entrance is the first challenge.  The Canadians had a detailed map and we had already done previous research.  We found the front door of the convent.  A homeless lady that was perched on the convent steps had shuffled over to help us, and rang the bell, giving us instructions to wait 5 minutes and assured us the door would open.  Sure enough, it had and she gave us directions to navigate the convent halls.  We found a small door that hosted a lazy Susan with a menu of cookies.  The nun's voice could be heard - but not seen - from behind the revolving wooden door, and she passed through a box of cinnamon cookies.  Just as we were taking our purchase, the Canadians showed up right behind us! We helped them purchase their cookies, and were all giddy with excitement that we had found the elusive nun cookies.  A quick taste before dinner back at our hotel, and we made our way to the Prado museum for the free admission after 6. The major attraction here were the works of Goya ("The Third of May") and other notable Spanish artists, such as El Greco and Velazquez.

At this point, a cold was coming on. Someone at work had a cold just a day before I left, and behold... I caught it.  Again.  I need to be in quarantine at work when someone gets sick.  I was desperately hoping this wouldn't be like a Rome situation where I was barely functional.  But I had my medicinal reinforcements, and hope.  We dined outside on the Plaza Santa Ana on a warm summer evening and planned our next day. 

The next morning, the cold really had set in.  Ugh.  Regardless, we had things to do and places to go.  Back to the shoe store for more espadrilles! Then on to the Palace finally.  Some of the rooms rival those of Versailles.  I have never seen their equal.  It was impressive indeed.  This second evening was a required visit to the Reina Sophia museum.  We had time to kill before the time of free admittance began, so we walked across the street to the Atocha train station.  This is the largest station in Spain and we were surprised at how beautiful it was.  Rain forest vegetation filled the central atrium, and a pool with hundreds of turtles encircled it.  They were entertaining to watch.  This was also the sight of the deadly train bombings in Madrid a few years back that they equate to their 9/11 and England's 7/7.  Yet onward into the Reina Sophia where I had one goal: to see Picasso's Guernica. In 1937, Hitler lent Franco air equipment to practice bombing raids, and the Basque town of Guernika was the guinea pig. The painting depicts the suffering and destruction of the town. Meanwhile, the museum also housed other famous Picasso pieces, including Spain's greatest surrealist works from Dalí and his contemporaries, and Juan Miró. I was pleased.

The night finished with a tapas crawl of our own, no special place in particular.  This time we were really on our own at night to navigate the world of the tapeando.  Our first stop was pleasant enough, and on the way out we passed a wine shop.  It was cute so we stepped in to talk to the proprietor. This conversation was mostly in Spanish, and i have to pause to say that although Carrie has never had a formal lesson in the Spanish language, her comprehension is amazing.  She is picking up lots of words and her ear is keen.  She enthusiastically wants to learn the language now.  The shop owner described the many different wine regions of the country, including sherry, made in Jerez, and suggested if we wanted to try sherry, there was a sherry bar around the corner.  He drew us a little map on a business card and off we went!

This bar hadn't changed since the 1930s.  Stained walls, dusty bottles of sherry on the shelves, and the sherry itself was served from wooden barrel taps.  Two dogs sat behind the counter while an old black cat held court on nearby table.  No photos were allowed, a rule in place since the civil war to protect the Republican patrons from Franco spies.  We enjoyed our sherry (me more than Carrie), and two gentlemen next to us began engaging us in conversation.  Carrie referred to one of them as Phil Collins as he was the spitting image.  They were smitten with us. The night had to come to an end as we finished up with obligatory chocolate and churros.  

Madrid tugged at my heart strings for sure.  It was a very easy and comfortable city to settle into. Everyone was more than friendly and forgiving. The city is clean and certainly doesn't feel it's age despite what the historic architecture reflects. I am happy here, and have many more adventures to come around the country these next couple weeks.