Becoming Madrileño – Madrid, Spain.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when I shed the trappings of a tourist and began acting like a local. Maybe it all started when I went to the bar opening on the second night without my camera in tow. Or perhaps it was more to do with the fact that I knew enough Spanish to get me by.
On my third day in Madrid we hit one of the city’s major art museums – the Museo Reina Sofía. Along with the world-famous Prado and Thyssen-Bornemizsa museums, the Reina Sofía is part of Madrid’s “Golden Triangle of Art”. It is raining outside and there is a long queue snaking out from the entrance. After about 15 minutes of waiting we meet up with another friend and begin our self-guided tour in the temporary exhibition galleries.
The childlike squiggles and empty canvases do not really appeal to us, but we make up for it by taking turns deducing ridiculous concepts from the art pieces. After a few bouts of laughter we move on to the more serious – and more famous – paintings. The one painting that you cannot miss at Reina Sofía is Picasso’s Guernica. Commissioned as a protest against the horrors of war and the deliberate bombing of civilian targets, it is so special it has its own room in the museum. I was in the town of Guernica almost exactly a year ago so it was mindboggling to see the painting for real.
When I travel I often find that the best moments happen off-camera. This was the case on Saturday night, when we were invited to a farewell and birthday dinner at Restaurante José Luis near Nuevos Ministerios metro station.
Chelsie and I meet up with a few of her friends and we are seated around a long table – there are perhaps 10 of us and I am fooled into thinking that that is the final number. But as is always the case in Spain, the party only gets bigger. When everyone shows up we squeeze along the table until we are literally sitting shoulder to shoulder. For a moment I look around and I am awed by the diversity of our group. Made up of a heady mix of Spaniards, Hondurans, Bulgarians and other nationalities, we would not look out of place at a UN meeting.
José Luis is well-known for its tapas, and rightly so. I order one portion of solomillo al Roquefort, pork tenderloin dressed in Roquefort cheese, and the meat is so soft it seems to melt in my mouth. I also experience the best tortilla de patatas that I have ever tasted – it is unexpectedly creamy, moist and cooked to perfection.
But for me the pièce de résistance is the restaurant’s pulpo a la gallega. Seasoned with olive oil and paprika, and then boiled to just the right consistency, the octopus is so deliciously tender even non-seafood enthusiasts would be blown away by the taste.
When I am halfway through my tapas, someone asks me, “How do you like the food?”
I pause and search for the best verbal expression I can think of.
“Esta es la comida del cielo!!” I say emphatically. This is the food of heaven!
Half of the table bursts out laughing at my seemingly profound remark, but for someone who has subsisted off oven meals and easy cook pasta for the past 6 months, it really was nothing short of ambrosia.
After our dinner from heaven we take taxis to a fancy-looking club by the name of bisù lounge. They call the Madrileños “Los Gatos”, or “the Cats”, due to their ability to stay out all night, and this seems to apply to a broad range of age groups. The club was filled with a crowd of 30-somethings and middle-aged single women, and at one point we even saw a grandma grooving it out on the dance floor. We stayed there until the wee hours of the morning, leaving only when our feet became exhausted.
For the authentic Spanish experience, the barrio of La Latina is hard to beat. After catching the tail end of El Rastro, Madrid’s famous Sunday Market, Chelsie and I head over to the Taberna Almendro 13 for some lunch. We order huevos rotos con jamón – literally broken eggs with ham – and the giant bagel-shaped rosca de lacón con queso. The former is a Madrid specialty and this taberna does the best ones in town.
With our stomachs full, we take the metro to the Prado Museum, which has free entry on Sundays. At home my mother has a thick volume on the works of the Prado, so I have grown up with the understanding that this is one of Europe’s greatest art museums. Unlike the Louvre I find the Prado surprisingly intimate and easy to navigate. We ooh and aah at the famous Goya collection, and I am enthralled by the grand historical paintings such as Las Meninas (Diego Velázquez), The Surrender at Bailén (José Casado del Alisal), and The Third of May 1808 (Francisco Goya).
“El Prado” means “the Meadow”, so after 1½ hours of museum walking it is apt that we lie down on the grassy slope behind the former palace. We soak up the rays of the afternoon sun and unwind to the mellow tunes of a busker and his acoustic guitar.
Eventually the clocks hit 8:00pm and we return to La Latina for dinner at an outdoor café with some friends. Over more tinto de verano and arroz a la cubana (Cuban rice) we exchange stories of living abroad and the most hilarious encounters with the local people. Within those 2 or 3 hours I exhale what seems like a month’s worth of laughter.
My last day in Madrid begins with a search for a camiseta roja, the Spanish team’s football jersey. Just up the street from the Puerta del Sol we find a sports shop that sells everything you could ever want out of the World Cup. I spy a rack of camisetas rojas in my size and we take a look at price tag. In bold black letters, it says “60 euros”. I baulk and decide that it probably isn’t worth buying for that price.
After some shopping at the nearby H&M, where I buy a pair of cheap sunglasses, Chelsie takes me through the cobbled streets to have lunch at a chic terraza in Plaza Santa Ana.
Among our edible delights we have croquetas con gambas (shrimp croquettes), piquillos rellenos con salsa roja (stuffed piquillo peppers with red sauce), and solomillo con cebolla confitada (pork tenderloin with caramelised onion). I savour every bite, knowing deep down that this will be my last meal in Spain for at least the next few months.
Perhaps the most touristy thing we do in Madrid is visit the Palacio Real (royal palace) in the centre of the city. There is a long queue to get in and ominous storm clouds are gathering above our heads. The second we get inside the visitors’ entrance we hear two peals of thunder and it starts to rain. Heavily. The brief rainstorm makes for a unique photo op and I join several other tourists with big cameras to record the scene.
After dodging the puddles in the palace arcades, Chelsie and I check out the royal pharmacy and armoury before strolling through the beautiful state rooms. We admire the lavish decorations and pieces of furniture, all the while being sandwiched between gaggles of American tour groups.
At one point Chelsie turns to me and says, “This is really beautiful. I prefer this palace to the French one.”
“What, you mean Versailles?”
“Yeah, I guess that one is just too big. And the decorations here are nicer.”
I am caught off-guard. In most books Versailles is considered the queen of European palaces, so when someone believes that any palace is better, that’s something significant.
By the time we finish the skies have cleared above the palace and we spill out onto the expansive Plaza de Armas to take a few more pictures. It is late in the afternoon and I have no choice but to head home and pack for my flight at 9:00pm.
Chelsie sends me to the airport and we part ways with a few big hugs. I thank her for this most unforgettable trip and wish her the best of luck. “See you sometime in Hong Kong!” I tell her. She smiles. “Maybe. You know how much I love Madrid, it’s like paradise here.”
After check-in and security I have some time to spare, so I wander over to the duty free shop for some last-minute souvenir shopping. To my delight I find a polo shirt and sports scarf with the Spanish colours – together they are quite a bit cheaper than 60 euros so I am instantly won over.
Satisfied with the purchase, I walk to the nearest departures screen, where I am confronted with big red letters that say, “RETRASADO”.
For the first time in my entire life I am happy that my flight is delayed – it is a gift to be able to spend an extra 2 hours surrounded by the dulcet tones of the Spanish language.
As I sit near the duty free shop I can hear some of my favourite Spanish songs being played over the sound system. I look around at all the signs and posters in Castellano and sigh deeply. The truth is, within 3 hours of being in Madrid, I was so enamoured that I could not even comprehend the thought of leaving.
Eventually those 2 hours pass and we are called to the boarding gate. Clutching my passport, camera, and a whole host of beautiful memories, I go through reluctantly. Like a robot I make my way to the back of the cabin and sit down by a window.
As the plane takes off I am treated to a grandstand view of the city glimmering under the night sky. In the darkness of the cabin I blow Madrid an affectionate goodbye kiss. I have only been here for 5 short days but it is incredible to see how attached I have become. The city disappears from view and in my sadness I am reminded of the words of an Estrella Damm commercial:
“Lo bueno nunca acaba si hay algo que te lo recuerda.”
A good thing never ends if there is something you remember.