How My Two Trips to Madrid Could Not Have Been More Different
My contrasting life stages colored my experiences and perceptions of Madrid–touring as a college grad back in 2006, and then later in 2012 as an expectant mother.
Madrid 1.0: Bust Out the Sangria, You Bachelorette of the Arts
Why We Went
My parents paid for a round trip airline ticket to Europe as my college graduation present. My best friend (herein BFF)’s parents did the same for her, and so we set out on a 10-day summer adventure using London as our home base. While in London, we decided spur-of-the-moment where else we wanted to trek to based solely on our financials and general mood. Amsterdam was a no-brainer as a first pit stop, but after much deliberation between Edinburgh and Madrid, the prospect of warm sunshine won out.
My purse was stolen from in between my legs at a trendy restaurant in Leidseplein (silver lining: passport was back in the hotel! And we got to know some cool but ineffective female street cops, who all wear these hats and who must therefore frequent the same milliner as Heisenberg). Point is, I was relying on BFF to bankroll the rest of my vacation. By the time we arrived in Madrid, she had already maxed out at least one credit card, so we were aiming to spend as little money as possible. Note that back in 2006, the dollar was weak against the pound and the euro, and everything in Western Europe was insanely expensive, although Spain was less so by comparison.
Back in high school, I made the impractical decision to take French, but BFF assured me that her Spanish was good. I came to realize that “good” meant that she could say hola, por favor, and buenos noches with confidence. Just those 3 phrases though. Oops.
We stayed at the Living Cat’s Hostel (Cañizares 6, behind Plaza Santa Ana) for reasons that at the time probably had to do with a) the name (at least it’s not Dead Cat); and b) the fact that Hostel World described it as a “…lively party hostel, with a highly-praised Paella Party on weekends, plus a bar downstairs.”
I recall the coed, steel frame bunks (we rock-paper-scissored for the top, and I won), no air conditioning (though that may have changed) and pretty courtyards with a Moorish aesthetic that I must have stumbled through after one too many, um, paellas.
“They” (travel gurus, historians, art critics the world over, yada yada) have much to say about the venerable Prado. I myself am not a fan of the place because they wouldn’t let us in. There’s a tree-lined park in front of Paseo Del Prado at the steps of the museum, and some local artists peddle knock-offs to tourists.
BFF and I purchased a few posters because the bona fide El Greco and Goya offerings within the museum were about 700 million dollars over our budget. We, along with our sad, flimsy posters poking out of our backpacks, were turned away at the main entrance by Prado security. Don’t take my word for it, though. If you enjoy countless crucifixion depictions in an atmosphere not unlike a mausoleum, by all means, pay them a visit.
Across the way from the Prado is the Museo del Arte Thyssen-Bornemisza, which, despite its long-winded and pretentious name is as accessible as it is marvelous. Especially if you have a thing for Impressionism and Surrealism (Dali!).
Poor BFF and I. How we wished to buy new things. After spending what little she had on her Picasso posters, BFF had only pennies to her name–and I… well, I had less than that because some Dutch thief stole my bag of pennies a day or two prior. But we had to get something. After all, what are two single girls about town supposed to wear to a happening paella party? (Answer: I still have no idea.)
Zara may be at every mall you’ve ever been to, but I’m sure you know it’s a Spanish outfitter with its flagship located in Madrid (Calle Gran Via, 34). I picked up a bolero jacket (as apropos for a crisp night out in NYC as it is for bullfighting), a sundress, and a pair of shoes. And I still remember how enthusiastic I was to make those purchases. Gracias, amigos at Zara! (BFF can help with the translation if needed).
BFF and I were still at a stage in our lives when visions of a disapproving Bubbeleh overcame us if we even thought about tasting the swine. So that didn’t happen on this trip. But as Anthony Bourdain says on Spain’s most loved cured ham, the Jamón Ibérico: “…I don’t know what the fuck is the matter with you. How can you drive across Spain and not eat ham?” He’s totally right.
At that time we were just terrified of the food in Madrid, most especially at the Museo del Jamon, which is literally everywhere. It’s the Starbucks of white meat lockers. Back at the Living Cat we were desperate for a reprieve from pork and went downstairs to the hostel basement to pick up some candy bars. Alas, we were horrified to find AN ENTIRE VENDING MACHINE FULL Of HAM SANDWICHES. And in case you were wondering, they did not look fresh. At all.
Safe bets if you’re a vegetarian and/or not the adventurous type: tortilla espanola (omelette with potatoes–as BFF was quick to point out there are NOT actual tortillas in it), pan con tomate (slices of baguette with olive oil and pureed tomatoes), and profiteroles (ice cream sandwiches doused in chocolate sauce) appear on nearly all run-of-the-mill menus, are cheap, and are innocuous to the unrefined American palate.
Do you honestly think that I remember? I don’t, and neither does BFF. That’s what too much paella will do to you! I have a vague recollection of a brief dalliance with Javier Bardem. Actually he looked mostly like Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men and he may have been missing an arm.
Madrid 2.0: Bust Out the Sangria, Then Watch Your Man Drink It All
Why We Went
On our anniversary at the beginning of last year, the hubs (herein Hubs) and I celebrated by booking ourselves a trip to Spain. Later that evening, I discovered that I was with child.
Hubs has an internal compass (if he went skydiving he could determine both his exact coordinates and best local gastropubs before hitting the ground); a tour-guide alter ego (often doubling as a drill sergeant); and most importantly, an unapologetic obsession with jamon that will leave him chained to the inner gates of purgatory forevermore.
That last trait meant that I waddled several hundred feet behind him while he gunned it for the best carnivorous fare in the village. Needless to say, he was kept quite busy in Madrid.
I’m pleased to announce that I’ve moved on from bunk beds. But even if Hubs had millions of dollars, hotel centrality will always be the biggest priority for him. Comfort and cleanliness rank a distant second and ninth, in terms of importance. I’ve learned to agree with him on this point through our many trips together.
We stayed in a no-frills boutique hotel just behind the Plaza Mayor. Our room was about two-thirds the size of a standard midtown Manhattan studio, and I kept knocking Fetus into furniture corners and doorways. She’s fine now.
Thyssen was closed and Hubs was indifferent about the Prado (good man). We went to the Reina Sofia, primarily with the intention of seeing Picasso’s Guernica. This epic painting depicting the strife and chaos resulting from the Spanish Civil War is one of the most awe-inspiring and moving works I’ve ever seen. I’m no art aficionado, just an opinionated laywoman.
Other, Like, Cultural Stuff
By all means check out Sandeman’s. I used them in Paris too. Their tours are free, but don’t be a cheapskate. Tip your guide nicely. I especially liked our tour guide because he made some boys in our tour group play out a scene from Spanish monarch history. Hubs was exclusively chosen to play this guy, who’s best known for being a culmination of centuries of Habsburg inbreeding. His wife also killed herself. True story.
Hubs’s remarkable tourist instinct led us to Parque del Buen Retiro, behind the Prado. It is a sprawling, beautifully manicured public park dotted with fountains and a large lake (picture the Central Park Boathouse, only way bigger). Great photo ops exist at a large fountain at the front of the park overlooking Paseo del Prado and a regal cityscape. Earlier that morning, Hubs and I went to Mercado de San Miguel (Plaza de San Miguel, 28005) for what else–jamon. This market is of the modern variety, not scrappy, and it is the perfect pre-picnic destination.
Palacio Real is a big-ass palace. The Grand Stairs were… grand stairs, and fun to look at, but I could have done without the inside as a whole. What I enjoyed was the Plaza Oriente, a plaza in front of the palace surrounded by gorgeous and vibrant yellow 18th century buildings. The view from behind the Palacio (you can just walk around it without paying) of Campo Del Moro was also really pretty.
If I had to pick the theme of my stay in Madrid with Hubs, it would be soccer. Hubs isn’t American so he likes it. I don’t. But you can’t help but lose your mind with excitement when hordes of rabid, red-blooded Spaniards take to the streets after winning a game. If you find yourself in the midst of a throng, just prepare yourself to be dry humped by whoever’s around you. Just go along with it as it’s not even sexual. It’s the physical manifestation of victory.
Which brings me to the Puerta del Sol, a central plaza with a commercial flair. Some very well-attended political demonstrations happened here, and there were many of them going on when I was in town. Wonder why? Maybe because 52% of Spaniards under age 25 were unemployed as a result of the financial crisis. Puerta del Sol might be an Angela Merkel effigy burning ground by day, but by night it’s a meetup spot for the young’uns, especially after the Spanish emerged victorious in the Eurocup by crushing their Italian nemeses.
Hubs and I watched the game at the edge of our seats in the basement of a bar on Plaza Santa Ana, and then took to the streets along with the humping, pulsating masses, car horns blaring, Spanish flags waving, wet t-shirts exposing ample chests of college girls–wait, what? Where did that last part come from?
Oh, right. Hubs jumped into a fountain, fully-clothed, in Puerta del Sol to celebrate the Spanish win with a bunch of piss-drunk American hooligans. He let me videotape it. It was funny.
Sadly, 6 years isn’t enough time for Madrileños to change the way that they eat. Which is to say that they still ate a shitload of ham, and I was still hungry. As a reward for enduring thrice-daily trips to Museo del Jamon, Hubs graced me with a beautiful lobster dinner at El Paraguas (Calle de Jorge Juan, 16). Some heads of state (not sure which state–I guess an important one?) were dining there at the same time as we were, and the place is expensive. I was pretty unapologetic about ordering the priciest entree, though. Fetus and I had earned it.
I know what you’d ask me if you could. Did I have a better time with BFF? Or with Hubs? I can’t answer that. It’s like asking whether I like peanut butter more than chocolate–which I don’t, because they are both spectacular, and even better when combined (sorry, I’m still having pregnant food fantasies).
One thing is certain, though. You could be trolling the basement of your hostel with your bestie and one-armed hookup on a quest for munchies at 4 AM. Or schlepping your burgeoning bump to the local fountain to be mooned by your life partner as you film him canoodling with toned blondes during a futbol post-win psychosis. It doesn’t matter, because Madrid is fun. Especially if you like jamon.
Top photo for How My Two Trips to Madrid Could Not Have Been More Different by Unsplash.