It’s amazing how much of a difference six weeks makes. The weather is warmer, flowers are in bloom, and it stays light later. But in my case, I also had a visitor traveling with me that I didn’t have on my first visit to Madrid, Spain’s capital. On my initial trip there, it had been an extremely cold and wintry weekend (at least by Spanish standards). The hostal (a hostal is cross between a hostel and hotel, similar to an Italian pensione) where I had chosen to stay turned into a mild nightmare. I should have known there would be issues when calling to make a reservation, the woman had asked that I speak in English because apparently my almost fluent Spanish was not cutting it, and yet she could barely put together a complete, grammatically correct sentence in English. While I had private shower facilities, toilets were communal, which I just found strange. Plus I had the added pleasure of having to hear the owners’ toddler child whizz up and down the hallway in a little tricycle into the wee hours of the night (children, the elderly, they’re all nocturnal creatures in Spain). That, coupled with the terrible head cold I caught when in Madrid, made for a slightly terrible, and not at all memorable stay. So as my dad’s visit to Spain neared, I was not at all looking forward to the Madrid part. It was a city that frankly had not impressed me much. There were no awe inspiring buildings, and many of its indigent population were a constant annoyance and sometimes harassing. But seeing as how he was traveling thousands of miles to see me, I didn’t want to be deliberately “rude” to Madrid. I had found that a mediocre meal at a restaurant can be absolutely superb the second time; I decided to think of Madrid like that. I would try to give the city a second chance and hope that my impressions of it the first time around were wrong.
We had spent the first portion of dad’s visit to Spain in Seville, the city where I had been studying for the past two months. Our time there had been wonderful and my dad, usually a snob to any country in Europe that wasn’t France or England, had clearly loved Seville. We had traveled to Madrid on the AVE, Spain’s high speed train between the two cities. Being on a student’s budget, I had traveled to Madrid on the bus, an excruciatingly long six and half hour trip. But now with my dad treating, the AVE brought us to Madrid in almost half the time it took the bus. They don’t call it high speed for nothing.
We arrived at Madrid’s Atocha Station, located near Parque del Retiro, the city’s magnificent park that is comparable in size and beauty to London’s Hyde Park. Our hotel, the Westin Palace, constructed in 1912 in Belle Epoque style and at one time owned by Spain’s King Alfonso XIII, was beyond beautiful. It was also located directly across the street from the Prado, Spain’s most renowned art museum. While our room was magnificent and featured the Westin’s signature “Heavenly Bath” products and bedding, I found the public spaces of the hotel to be the most stunning. The lobby featured a glass roof; not many hotels can claim that.
A restaurant in Madrid my dad and I were both anxious to try was Casa Botin (or Sobrino del Botin as it is sometimes referred to). I felt very “native” when calling on my Spanish mobile to make a reservation for us to eat lunch there. Billed as one of Spain’s oldest restaurants (it dates from the 18th century), its history is illustrious. Located literally a stone’s throw away from the Plaza Mayor, Greco is said to have washed dishes there at one point, and it was a favorite of the great American novelist Ernest Hemingway as well. He even immortalized it in his book, The Sun Also Rises, when at the very end of, the novels’ characters Jake and Brett dine there, feasting on cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig). Although neither my dad nor I opted for the pig, our meal of huevos revueltos was delicious all the same. I had even caused our waiter’s eyes to grow slightly large when my dad, who is not a Spanish speaker at all, placed an order for the egg dish after I had already told him that both my dad and I would be having it. I’m sure he was thinking, “Jeez, these Americans really are big eaters.” After finishing our meal, we proceeded to the Plaza Mayor and had a good laugh when we saw a restaurant whose window signage read, “Greco didn’t wash dishes here.”
The Plaza Mayor is one of those quintessential European sites, similar to the feeling when you see Brussels’ Grand Place for the first time or gaze down at the Champs Elysees in Paris from atop the Arc de Triomphe. You walk into it and are just taken aback by its sheer beauty. The Plaza Mayor wasn’t always host to happy times and beautiful moments. It features a rather dark history. During the infamous Spanish Inquisition, many of the Madrid victims were burned at the stake here, the place where legal matters were brought forth and decided. Although no traces remain of the horrific atrocities that occurred here centuries ago, I still tried to imagine when the Plaza Mayor was once a sight of such importance for all of Madrid society. Even with its architectural splendor, commerce wise it is nothing more than an attraction visited by mobs of tourists and surrounded on all four sides by junky souvenir shops and overpriced cafes.
When people in the United States are asked to name a Spanish artist, odds are their response will be Pablo Picasso. Although one cannot dispute the incredible masterpieces that Picasso painted and his unique artistic style, Spain still has its fair share of other great masters. The Prado is a prime example of this. Its collection is massive as the building spans multiple city streets, but the works by its native sons-Greco, Goya-are some of its most impressive ones.
A museum that I hadn’t known about before and that my dad had recommended we visit was the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, located a stone’s throw away from the Prado. The varied collection which reflected the overall style of the couple’s largesse. There were Renoirs and Monets there along with religious art work of the Middle Ages. There were also a couple of works by Winslow Homer, surprised me. Even though he is extremely well known and beloved in American art circles, I hadn’t thought his popularity at the time this couple was alive would have transcended across the ocean to Spain, and yet it obviously did. I liked one Homer painting so much that I ended up getting a poster print, “Escenas del Playa” (Scenes from the Beach) to take home. It hangs in the front entrance way of my home today.
Our day trip to Toledo, a medieval city where Muslims, Christians, and Jews once existed peacefully together, was a major disappointment, the risk you take when going on an organized tour with too much structured time including visits to stores where the tours get a cut, and too little down time to explore on your own. However, we still managed to have a wonderful “final supper.”
At my host family’s house in Seville, the bookcase in my and my roommate’s bedroom had a bookcase that was packed with books that had been left there by past students. (I kept with the tradition and would donate four of my own books since I had read two terrific novels that had been donated previously). One of the books was an extremely outdated guidebook to Europe. Although listings for attractions in guidebooks certainly don’t change or shut down, with hotels and restaurants you can never be so sure. But when I saw a listing for a Cuban restaurant in Madrid, I definitely wanted to investigate it and see if it was still there.
On our way back from the Palacio Royal (home to Spain’s royal family) we turned onto the street where the book said it was and lo and behold there we found a little bit of La Habana right in downtown Madrid. Immediately we made plans to eat there on my dad’s last night in Spain. Although our stomachs had to wait a bit to eat that night (the restaurant didn’t open until 7:30 PM), the food was absolutely delicious, the décor inside a real treat. When I tasted the fried plantains and yucca that came with my meal of lechón asado (a popular beef dish), two authentic things I hadn’t eaten since studying in Costa Rica the year before, I just sat back and relived in my mind the awesome past four days I had had. With the right weather, the right physical disposition, the right hotel, and most importantly, the right company, any city is indeed magical.
Julie is a librarian by day, die-hard travel fanatic and writer by night. When she’s not traveling, she’s either testing out a new recipe or being a foodie in Pittsburgh. If you're interested in seeing where she travels to or what she makes next, follow along via the links below!