With my Christmas market-filled weekend in Germany over, it was time to head back to France. However, I wasn’t going to stay there for very long, since I would soon be on my way to my next destination: Spain!
From the chilly weather in Germany to the warm, sunny climate in Spain, I was looking forward to the change (not to say that I didn’t like Germany, but after living in cold weather in Normandy and then visiting that in Germany, a little bit of sun was much-needed). That said, I took the train back to Paris, where I spent the night with a friend who was a former assistant. Together, we spent the night out, attending an underground band performance where one of his friends were performing before getting a late-night dinner and going over to his flat where I crashed his couch for the night.
The next morning, I made my way out before 6h00 to catch my flight to Madrid at 8h00. It was still nighttime dark when I left; I saw the sun rise as I took the RER B metro line over to the Charles de Gaulle airport. Arrived at my gate just in time for boarding, and before I knew it, I was off to Spain! The flight went smoothly, and 90 minutes later, I arrived at the Madrid-Barajas International Airport.
Upon arrival, though, I ended up staying inside the airport for the next three to four hours, since I would be waiting for my family (mom, dad, sister) to be coming in with their flight in the afternoon. This was a family vacation for us, as we would spend the next week or so traveling around in Spain together. Not only would it be great to see them again since I’d left for France, but also I didn’t have to figure things out on my own, let alone pay for housing and transport accommodations. Call me spoiled, but hey, at least I could save money, right? Plus, family time!
My family’s flight came in around 14h30; I saw them as they were exiting the welcome gate, and I met up with them. Shortly afterwards, we got a shuttle into Madrid’s city center, and we were dropped off at our hotel near the Palacio Real, or “Royal Palace of Madrid.” Checked in, got settled in our rooms, and soon headed out again to check out the city before the sun went down.
Now, I’d been to Madrid back in February during my first year as an assistante, so with my experience of having visited before, I showed my family the sites and monuments that I’d been to. Starting at the Palacio Real, we chose not to go inside of it because of the queue, and instead we just took photos of it from the outside. Thankfully, there was a bit of sun shining as we did so, since it was an on-off kind of weather that afternoon.
Right across from the Palacio Real was the Almudena Cathedral which, unlike many of the cathedrals which I’ve been to in Europe, is very new, having just opened in 1993. I’d visited it the last time I was in Madrid, and I absolutely loved it. What particularly struck me was the altar inside, decked out in gold with the Holy Mary: there are stairs to head up to see her up close, which was fantastic. Truly, one of my favorite cathedrals that I’ve ever visited in Europe.
We exited the Almudena Cathedral and after a bit of pottering around the cathedral’s corner to check out the sunset that was happening over the other side of the city (beautiful, by the way) and checking out the exterior of the Royal Basilica of San Francisco el Grande (closed by then, unfortunately), we headed down Calle Mayor, the main street (literally, it means “main street” in Spanish!) towards the heart of the city. We passed by the Mercado de San Miguel, a large, indoor market selling just about any kind of food you can imagine, even completed with tapas bars, before heading over to Plaza Mayor for the Christmas markets. Super crowded there, but shouldn’t have been surprised since it was a Sunday that day smack-dab in the middle of the holiday season. It was too dark for me to take photos, but I guarantee you that it was quite nice, albeit a bit frantic!
Finally, we tried our best to head over to Puerta del Sol, which is a large plaza known as being “kilometer zero,” or the very center of Madrid where everything comes together: the streets, the people, etc. In fact, we actually couldn’t quite reach Puerta del Sol, because again, it was the holiday season and there were so many people there. Seriously, it was a mob: the streets were so backed up that we couldn’t really squeeze through at the risk of losing each other- it was that claustrophobic. In the end, we gave up and decided to head back to our hotel, since it was getting dark. Along the way, we popped into a bakery for a quick bite to eat, since we were starving- let me tell you, Spanish pastries are heavenly, especially on an empty stomach!
We returned to our hotel, where we rested a bit before heading out again for dinner; my parents had made reservations at a restaurant just right next to the Palacio Real, so it wasn’t a far walk for us. We showed up at 20h00, our reservation time; it was the earliest time that we could get; the Spanish really do eat super late! Normally, I eat dinner at 18h00, so I had to remind myself that things worked differently in Spain. There was actually a slight problem with our reservation, since the waiter couldn’t find us on the list. But after talking with them in a kind of broken Spanish-English mélange and my dad showing proof of our reservation on his phone, we were lucky to have scored a free table inside for the night. Mind you, the restaurant was a tavern, with its underground seating infrastructure and, literally, perhaps 60 to 70 seats maximum. That said, a reservation has to be made.
The dinner was one of the best ones that I’ve had in Europe…and I’m not exaggerating. We started off with bread and olive oil, the latter especially being Spanish olive oil (ooh, fancy…). I’ve tried tons of Italian and Greek olive oil before, but would’ve never guessed Spanish olive oil to be just as delicious, if not even more! It’s funny that I’m obsessing just over olive oil, but I’m serious: super fruity and fragrant, it blew me away, and I found myself coming back to it again and again, dip after dip. If it weren’t for the fact that I had a cold then (it had been festering since I’d gotten back from Lyon two weeks before), I would’ve double, even triple-dipped my bread into that heavenly, oily bath of perfection!
On to the actual dinner, though: my dad and I ordered a pitcher of sangria to split (love sangria; you can’t go wrong with it!) and our whole family ordered several plates for us to share. To start, we ordered a couple of traditional, “madrileños” dishes: the huevos rotos (literally, “broken eggs,” which are served on top of lightly-fried potatoes and chorizo) and the callos a la madrileña (beef tripe stew). We also ordered calamares, or squid, along with some tapas and grilled vegetables to complete the meal.
Let me tell you, Spanish food is so good: warm, hearty, and filling, it is seriously underrated. Having spent so much of my time in France, I’ve grown tired of the usual cheese-butter-cream medley found in so many of its dishes that getting Spanish food again revitalized my taste buds. Forget French food- Spanish food is where it’s at!
On top of that, the service was great: professional and friendly. Our waiter spoke English to us as well, which pleasantly surprised me. From my last visit in Madrid, I’d come across some not-so-great service, paired with a communication barrier from the locals themselves.
Now, my Spanish is pretty much non-existent (aside from “hola,” “como estas,” “gracias,” and “adios”), but the locals don’t speak much English, either. It’s interesting that such a big, touristy city such as Madrid doesn’t have a lot of people who speak English, but to prevent myself from sounding like an ignorant, American tourist (I’m afraid that I already did), it can be difficult to communicate with them, especially at restaurants and other service-based places. Even worse, I’ve had waiters just completely ignore me when they didn’t understand me, even when I tried saying a few words of *heavily-accented* Spanish to them. It’s one-part discouraging and one-part frustrating.
Rant aside, it was a good dinner with good service. With our bellies full and happy, my family and I returned to our hotel where we relaxed for the rest of the night. We only spent a couple of hours visiting that day, but got a lot in before the sun went down; we would continue visiting more of Madrid the following day.
Considering that this post would run for too long if I continue writing, I’ll save the second part of our visit to Madrid for the next post. Stay tuned!