One of the best parts of traveling is the people that you meet along the way, many times leading to unexpected and amazing experiences. We had a bit of an unconventional stay in Madrid because of our new friends Marcos and Anna, the couple we met in Valencia at the best Sepia al la plancha place ever. But more on that later!
We arrived to Madrid in luxury, or at least it felt that way. The high speed train from Valencia was so roomy and updated it felt as though we were in business class of a nice airplane. A great treat from previous modes of transportation (I sometimes felt like we were going through the summer 2016 septa train fiasco all over again – hello graffiti and worn down upholstery). Arriving later in the evening there was not much to do but get our bearings and head to dinner at Restaurante Sando in the theatre district. We were lucky enough that it was Madrid’s version of restaurant weeksaving us half off the regular tasting menu price. The food was good – like jamon croquettes that actually tasted like wonderfully cured ham and the zucchini “ravioli” filled with Iberian pork shoulder – however to us, the beautifully decorated interior far surpassed the food. The highlight of the meal, much to our surprise, was the dessert – an incredibly airy lime mousse with wrinkled tuiles, fresh fruit sauce, and violet jelly – a perfect harmony of sour and sweet and a great way to end the meal.
It is impossible to pack all the major sites in this Spanish New York City in one day. We set out in the morning to chip away at the exhaustive list of must sees. The first notable stop was Plaza Mayor, since it was just up from the apartment. Although the plaza is now over run with tourists and people trying to sell you light up trinkets, the grandeur of the space is quite impressive and Calle de Toledo leading up to has kept its character with local restaurants and shops, including a go to place for Espadrilles. Wandering down Calle Gran Via (Broadway Avenue NYC? Including the Starbucks every couple blocks) we eventually found ourselves on the western side of town, making our way through lovely parks and squares until reaching Palacio Real de Madrid, or the Royal Palace and its gardens. A massive and impressive 18th century palace with a great viewpoint over gardens and the western part of the city.
Throughout our minor explorations of the city there were two spots in which we knew we had to stop to eat. The first was Botin, the oldest continuously ran restaurant in the world and one which specializes in whole roasted suckling pig. We were immediately escorted into the basement where we sat directly in front of the cellar entrance with views of bottles so encrusted in dust, they must have been placed there at least a hundred years ago. The suckling pig dish arrived (a smaller portion than we were anticipating) along with baby squid in sauce made with their own ink, garlic and herbs. The skin on pork was so crispy and the squids incredibly flavorful. Well done for a restaurant which has been running since 1725.
The other was San Miguel Market, a wonderful collection of small tapas “restaurants” with a center bar. Each stall specialized in a different dish or cuisine, allowing diners to browse and sample a variety of items for minimal cost. With long lines formed at each register, this market was popular with both locals and tourists looking for regional specialties. For dinner, since we had eaten sporadically throughout the day, we had the pleasure of discovering Madrid’s “buy a drink and you’ll get a tapa” concept at a couple dive bars in the area. While the food wasn’t great, each place sent out huge plates of their version of patatas bravas and pintxos. It truly was the perfect budget friendly and casual option after many weeks of eating out.
Our second and final day in Madrid we met up with Marcos (unfortunately Anna had to work) and he took us on a day trip outside the city to Embalse del Atazar, a lake about a hours drive north. This region is not commonly visited by tourists, which made it all the better for us. Filled with trails, you could walk for miles around the lake’s somewhat arid but beautiful terrain. We did not see another person once while walking but Marcos informed us the area is full of Madrid locals during the summer, just trying to escape the city heat. Another highlight of the day was the restaurant we went for lunch, El Picachuelo Restaurante Asador. Situated on the hill with a terrace overlooking the lake (and friendly donkeys in the field next door) we shared the reasonably priced 3 course lunch menu which was actually quite good. After a full day in the sun, we headed back to the city and connecting with some of Marcos’ friends for more drinks and tapas. They were excited to introduce us to typical Sidra from the Asturias region, a non-carbonated alcoholic Cider. Normally poured from bottle to glass between outstretched arms, this bar provided a shortcut of an electronic aeration machine which may have been more fun to operate than effective. Hours later the 6 of us had stuffed ourselves full of plates of food and 6 bottles of Sidra, and much to our surprise the bill was only 45. I guess it helps having locals around who know how to order. By 2am it was time to call it a night, as we had a long drive to Seville the next day.
If we had a crystal ball and knew how our time in Madrid was going end up, we certainly would have spent another couple days. As Marcos advised – “In Spain, don’t make plans!” Until next time, our new-found friends.
Our Stark Perspective (Tips) –
- Entrance to Royal Palace is free after 4:30 everyday (although it may be unexpectedly closed for a private event)
- Avoid Calle de la Cruz late at night. It’s filled with young drunk kids and promoters trying to get you into their bar/club. Also many places charge a cover.