Reconnecting with Madrid 

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!

Los Gatos, Madrid

Los Gatos, Madrid

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.

El Rasto, Madrid

El Rasto, Madrid

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.


Garden and view at Real Basilica de San Francisco el Grande

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.

Palacio Real de Madrid

Palacio Real de Madrid

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.

La Vuelta, Via Grande, Madrid

La Vuelta, Gran Via, Madrid

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.


Viandas de Salamanca, Madrid

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.


San Gines Chocolateria

San Gines Chocolateria

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.

London Calling

“Dad, take me to London,” I demanded as an assertive 13 year-old.  He turned right back around and said, “Lisa, save $500 for your airfare and I’ll take you.” Little did he know I’d been saving all along. In fact, I picked up pennies on the street, saved birthday money and hid away change after a trip to the mall. Far sooner than expected I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Dad, I have $500, when are we going to London?”

My love for all things English was irrevocable. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind about the ‘why’ behind my gravitational pull to the city nicknamed “The Smoke.”

Yes, I might have had an above average obsession with the British band Oasis. I watched documentaries, bought B-side and unreleased tapes from independent record stores and had my walls plastered with concert posters while other girls my age wrote teenage heartthrob JTT (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) love letters each week.

It started even earlier than that though. With an English grandmother, I have a particular fond memory of her brother, Great Uncle George, reciting this poem and the comical rhymes of “absoid” and “boid” in his posh London accent:

Spring is sprung, the grass is ris

I wonders where the birdies is

They say the birds is on the wing

Ain’t that absurd?

I always thought the wing was on the bird

Finally, on a cold, autumn night in November 1996 I was on my first British Airways flight from Philadelphia with touch down at Heathrow.

I was wowed at the cultural elegance over high-tea at Harrods, fascinated by eating greasy fish and chips out of a newspaper in the Cotswolds and drank too much tea it kept me up at night afraid of the ghosts that must lurk in the old bed and breakfasts. And I wanted more of it all!

When I applied to university my minimal requirement was that there was an exchange program abroad to London. Even when the study abroad advisor aggressively nudged me to try something ‘different,’ I let her know her efforts of persuasion were wasted on me. I was going to London. In fact, I was going to go earlier than suggested (second year instead of third), so I could go back again my fourth year.

I arrived in 2003 with a big grin, a chest full of anxiety and feigned confidence by shaking hands with every person residing in my Nottinghill flat. I was 19, and had the whole of London at my fingertips.

I knew to pretend to be asleep on the night bus so I didn’t have to pay the fare, drank Fosters with Aussie and Kiwi boys who swore it’s not a beer that’s drunk in Australia (it’s true, it’s not), and tried to re-assure my lecturers that although I was leaving class early, it was crucial that I couldn’t miss my flight over to Barcelona for the weekend yet I would have my assignment handed in on time.

In a span of 4 months I had visited 8 countries, fallen deeper in love with London than I could have anticipated and had a very hard time acclimating into routine university life once back in America. There was only one solution, I had to go back.

In 2005 I participated in a mini-mester (short semester) in Edinburgh studying global communications at Napier University. I lived in a hostel, stayed up way too late, drank too many pints, and traversed nearly the entire country. Today I’ve been to the Edinburgh Castle at least 5 times in my life, which frankly, is too many. At the end of the course my class boarded a plane to Baltimore while I boarded a different plane to London. Just a quick trip to just double check…yup, it’s still there.

When everyone asked about post-graduation plans I had my mind made up, I was going to move to London. My sister produced luggage tags as my graduation announcement and then the questions started flooding in. When are you going? Do you have a job lined up? A visa? The thing is I didn’t have a plan. I couldn’t get a visa without sponsorship, and I couldn’t get sponsorship without a visa. I just didn’t have enough experience behind me to get a job abroad.

Defeated, I took a backseat for a while. I got a job in marketing, related to my career goal, check. But, I lived at home. There were fewer and fewer friends in town and life was truthfully, boring.  I sat in a Starbucks one afternoon and tried to get my head around what I could do to change things. I re-read my old diary from my time studying abroad in London. There were stories of a 48 hour bender in Dublin to catch an Oasis gig, meeting the president of Sony entertainment at a bar in Leicester Square, and passing time napping on the grass in Hyde Park. Simply reading about the excitement and buzz I felt when traveling abroad was all I needed to motivate me to find a way to get there again.

After months of eating the Great Wall of Chocolate dessert from PF Changs to drown my misery, I partnered with my old friend Google and came across the Mountbatten Institute. A very different program than what it is today, Mountbatten offered me every opportunity I was looking for: sponsorship, a job, friends, higher learning and a visa. Cha-ching.

That next year changed my life forever. I met life-long friends who are still my trusted travel companions today, all while making our mark from the northeast corner in Maida Vale and Kilburn Park far across to East London to hang with our new South African friends (read about it here). I had it all, a marketing and event job that had me planning events in Tower Bridge, Paris, Amsterdam and Portugal, educational courses on international business across England and in Paris, and weekend adventures on budget airlines all over Europe with a crazy new group of friends. From 2006-2007 we visited 14 countries.

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I had thought I knew all there was about London from my quick study stint in 2003, but it wasn’t until I had a whole year that I discovered there was so much more to enjoy – curries on Brick Lane, live music and too many more pints to count. Sitting on the crowded Tube each morning, a commuter with the rest of them, London was my home. Sadly, another visa expired and it was back to life in America.

You can read about the vow I made to myself during the 4 years I lived across the river from New York City in Hoboken, New Jersey to visit the rest of the world – anywhere but Europe. In the meantime, I gathered documents and paperwork up to wazoo and was granted a European Union passport in 2012. You know what that means, right? I can legally live and work in London, or anywhere in Europe for that matter.

So why am I telling you all this? London is calling and in just a few hours I’ll be boarding a plane that’s landing at Heathrow. Albeit a short visit to my favorite city in the world, I’ve never been more excited!