I am writing this post from a taberna where I had to seek shelter from the rain, sipping on a freshly pressed zumo de naranjas (which is somewhat of a Spanish tradition – they sell fresh orange juice almost everywhere here, and it’s so good!). We all tend to associate Spain with sun and warmth, or at least with a sunnier and warmer climate than in our parts of Europe, so it’s a little bit gutting that it’s been freezing, raining and even snowing pretty much the whole time I’ve been in Madrid!
I haven’t let this deter me from exploring though, so here’s what I’ve been up to in the first four days of my trip:
I was well inspired to start my visit of the city with a walk around the Parque del Buen Retiro on Tuesday, because this coincided with the only rays of sunshine that day, which allowed me to enjoy the park with its lake, fountains and statues at a leisurely pace.
The park’s claim to fame is a rather bizarre one: it ‘boasts’ the only statue of The Fallen Angel (a.k.a. Satan or Lucifer) in the world!
After leaving the park, I continued on to the Atocha train station, which has recenly been turned into a tropical garden, complete with a colony of turtles:
I walked around the Huertas barrio and rounded up my tour later that evening with a not-very-enjoyable visit of the world’s second-biggest museum in the world, the Museo del Prado (you can read all about my experience and my controversial views on classical art here).
Over the next two days, I went on exploring the city in between snowfalls and rainshowers. I took in the centre’s main landmarks – the Puerto del Sol, Plaza Mayor and Plaza del Oriente, where the Palacio Real towers -, had a much more envoyable visit at the Centro de Arte Moderno Reina Sofia (more on that soon) and discovered the cool shops, cafes and tapas bars of super-trendy Malasana and Chueca, the gay barrio.
On an impulse I also went to the cinema to see Amour, which I’d failed to catch both in the UK and in France. Not exactly the quintessential Spanish experience I know, but hey, at least I got to practise the language reading the subtitles..!
Mas tapas, por favor!
I have to say the highlight of my stay has been the food, especially the tapas, and the many inviting cafes, bars, and restaurants that serve it. If like me you have memories of going to a tapas restaurant expecting it to be cheap, and choking on your gambas when presented with a much heavier bill than anticipated, the good news is that tapas in Spain are cheaper than anywhere else, the rations are bigger, and it’s easier to control your spending.
Within just a couple of days, I had tried several of the hangouts around my neighbourhood (and beyond) and picked a few as my new ‘locals’. I discovered a great cafe in Chueca serving a range of fresh food and drinks, Diurno, which doubles as a DVD shop (on Calle de la Libertad). Nearby (on Calle de la Hortaleza) is also Areia, a lounge bar with a colonial theme which does cocktails, exotic food and Moroccan tea (their motto is actually ‘colonial chill out’!). After a visit of the Reina Sofia modern art museum, I would also recommend stopping for a bite and a sip (or many!) in one of the old tabernas or arty cafes of Calle de Santa Isabel.
If you’re spending any time in Madrid however, your first stop on the food trail should be at one of the two covered markets, Mercado de San Anton and Mercado de San Miguel. The two spaces act both as traditional markets and as open-air restaurants, so you can devour your choice of pinchos and raciones while people-watching. And when I say ‘choice’, I mean you’ll have to select from pretty much any type of tapas known to man (or at least to the Spanish)!
I’m proud to say that, having just had breakfast, I managed to resist all of these temptations (not too difficult in the case of angulas) and headed straight to the fruit stall to buy a fresh kiwi juice and a fruit kebab.
By the way: if you ever get to feast at the Mercado, just remember to save some room for churros con chocolate, another local specialty, which you can grab from Chocolateria San Gines just around the corner!
Back to camp!
Of course, one of the challenges of the first few days has been (re-)adapting to communal living.
I find it amusing that I wrote about summer camps on my About page a few weeks ago as one of the main experiences that have taught me independence and prepared me for solo long-term travel, because that’s exactly what living in a hostel reminds me of! Except that this time, my mother hasn’t labelled all my clothes with my name, I can choose my own activities, and there’s no one to tell me off for chatting with my roommates past midnight or because I’m not wearing my sun hat…
Those details aside, sharing a dorm with seven people is very reminiscent of those old days, with all their good and bad sides. I had a bit of a difficult start – I got one of the top bunk beds and went a little crazy trying to make my bed! – but am quickly finding my feet, so shall be a veteran dorm-sharer soon…
What’s next? Tomorrow I am leaving the grey skies of old Europe for caliente Argentina, which I will spend a whole month exploring from Iguazu to Patagonia. I have just been informed by a new roommate, freshly arrived from Buenos Aires this morning, that it’s currently 40 degrees there (!!), so am looking forward to some sun (though a bit worried about the EXTREME heat!).
Once I get to BA, I plan to visit the city and take a few day trips to neighbouring sites of interest, and I’ve also signed up for some Spanish classes. I’m really excited about my time in Argentina and can’t wait to tell you all about it!
But first, a 12-hour flight awaits…
Did you visit any of the places I did in Madrid? Are you a fan of tapas, or have you had any good or bad experiences room sharing in hostels or elsewhere? As always Id love to hear from you, so let me know in the comments below!