The last time I was in Madrid was April 2003. I was a 19-year-old study abroad student living in London and had just spent the last few weeks backpacking around Europe with a few other American students. We started in Italy and went from Rome to Pisa then to the picturesque seaside towns in Cinque Terre. Shortly after a few of us split off after spending time in the south of France and took an overnight train from Nice on into Spain. I remember sleeping on the bottom bunk of a sleeper car for just a few hours after staying up most of the night drinking beers and playing cards.
We hadn’t really thought the itinerary very well through. I don’t think we ever even looked at a map to quantify the distance. This was still when we were early adopters of the Internet and needed to pay at an Internet cafe to use it. We did not have cell phones and solely relied on word of mouth advice and guide books. All I knew was that I had to get to Madrid by a certain date as that’s where my flight back to London was booked.
At some point in the long journey our train stopped. “Everyone out!” Completely confused, myself and my travel companions got up and tried to urge the conductor that we must continue on! Our train tickets clearly stated that we were booked all the way through. We were told the next free train from Barcelona was in three DAYS!!!
Laura was expected to fly out from Madrid (623km away) that night. If she missed her flight she would surely miss her connection back to the US the following day. But it was Easter weekend. We were too clueless to know that everything shut down for Easter in a holy city. Laura unfortunately had to call her parents to get some money for an emergency flight from Barcelona back to London. Unplanned yet unphased, Kari and I stayed back.
We stood in the middle of Barcelona Sants railway station perplexed but still casually agreed to throw in the towel and make the most out of the unexpected stopover. A new city at least! As we began brainstorming our options two male backpackers who were next to us overheard our situation. “You’re stuck here too? We’ve been here for days.” We got chatting and they suggested we try a cheap hostel in the city center which they had stayed at earlier in the week. Weary, yet considering we had no other option, we went along.
One was a pilot for British Airways. He validated it and all and so with my passion for travel we agreed they couldn’t be all that bad. In fact, they were true gentleman. For the next three days they gave us a personal tour of the whole city. They knew what to do and where to go. We dined along touristy Las Ramblas, learned the history of the famed church La Sagrada Familia, and roamed the parks sipping sangria from giant juice boxes with straws. On the last day they walked our heavy duffle bags to the train, we said goodbye, and that was that. Just simple pleasantries of genuine strangers with no funny business.
As soon as we arrived in Madrid Kari headed straight to the airport. I was left alone. This was my first time traveling truly by myself and I must admit I was a bit scared. I had some confidence from roaming around Europe the past few weeks to give me a boost, but I was also just ready to go home to London.
I remember being very hungry but I was too nervous to attempt to speak Spanish to buy anything. With some remaining credit left on a calling card I had, I went to a pay phone on a street corner and called my mom. Really I just wanted to chat to a familiar voice and pass the time. I was a wuss. Instead of enjoying the city I went to the established Prado Museum. If I’m honest, it wasn’t because I was into art. I don’t even particularly enjoy museums but I just wanted somewhere that felt safe to go.
I remember being ecstatic to come across mega stores Top Shop and Zara. Despite being too broke to buy anything, the familiarity of the stores and the appeal of something I could relate to calmed me. Shortly afterwards my day was done and I was off to the airport and back in London. It felt forever those hours alone on the streets of Madrid but as soon as they were done I looked back proud of myself for staying street smart and learning more about my personal strengths. I had really challenged myself that day.
13 years later I visited Madrid again, but oh how much had changed since that first visit. Both with myself and my confidence to travel as well as what I get enjoyment from when exploring a city. I was lucky this time though, as I wasn’t alone. I joined Alex on his journey driving roundtrip from London to Madrid and we met up at his halfway point.
Having been turned off by Spain since that first journey many years ago I’m now a converted woman. Glorious weather, fabulous architecture, and most importantly, the amazing food. Sure, it’s been a while since I’ve last been in Spain so it took me a couple of hours to feel comfortable speaking broken Spanish and ordering food but my gosh what we ate was out of this world!
Our first night we stumbled across Los Gatos cervecerias and were blown away by the voluptuous olives, smoked sardines and stuffed octopus. The goat cheese salad was sweet with balsamic but warm and perfect with apple and walnuts. The decor, the simple tapas and the cute location on Calle de Jesús made it the perfect first stop. And we might have thought cervecerias was short for ceviche but we were just silly and naive as it, of course, means brewery or more or less a bar.
I’m glad I took the time to explore Madrid on foot. I did some basic research in advance and ‘starred’ some hot spots on Google Maps. Luckily for us Sunday is market day at El Rasto, a local flea market selling everything from shoes, hats and clothes to simple tourist nicknacks. We grabbed empanadas from the side of the market to keep us going. Where the market ends we found a slew of local cervercerias. Unlike most European cities where Sunday finds the whole city shut down and quiet, the streets of Madrid were alive with both locals and tourists, and each tapas bar we visited was busy with regulars having a Sunday afternoon snack with an accompanying beer.
A short walk on we uncovered Real Basilica de San Francisco el Grande, which despite being closed still had spectacular views. From here it was only a few minutes to my favorite building at the heart of Madrid, Palacio Real de Madrid – the royal palace. We sat on the steps of Catedral de la Almudena listening to an accordion player serenade us as we overlooked the magnificent structure.
Walking to the enormous outdoor park Casa de Campo was worth the distance to witness the massive public grounds. Surprised by how much dry dirt rather then greenery was present, the best part was stumbling across the beautiful recreational lake. Families and couples rented row boats and we sat observing in the shade at La Bicicleta taking an escape from the heat. Although there was a huge family celebrating with spurts of laughter and champagne being shared, I was still weary to eat the crabs and octupus sat out in the heat, but the complimentary potato chips standard at most cafes was still appreciated.
Our accommodation was centrally located on the busy shopping artery of Gran Via, which made getting around the city on foot amazingly accessible. The famed cycling race La Vuelta came right past us on Sunday evening and it was incredible to see in person how fast and talented they truly are. Tapas Tapas on neighboring Calle de la Montera may have been a chain but was still delicious and perfect for people watching. The true gem however was Viandas de Salamanca jamon bar that served out of this world cured ham on baguettes, freshly sliced meat to go and more.
Another popular tourist stop is the El Teleférico cable car that overlooks the city. Unfortunately we found out the hard way that it was shut, but that didn’t stop us from walking through some amazing gardens and witnessing another spectacular view of the royal palace. Even better, the hard-earned walk gave us an excuse to go to San Gines, the most popular stop for churros in the city.
Clearly my appreciation for Spain has matured from apprehension to pure love for all things Spanish. Luckily, I’m off to Michelin Star haven and pintxos capital San Sebastian tomorrow.