Destination: Madrid, Spain (February 2016 Edition)

Almudena Cathedral at night (Feb 2016).

My first time in the capital of Spain was during my first year as an assistante last year. Although I have since gone back and revisited just this past December during the winter holidays (which you can read about in parts 1 and 2 here), and even though I essentially went to the same places as I’d done the first time around, I thought that I would recap my adventures traveling solo from last year’s visit, as means of offering a comparison with my second visit, which was with my family.

After three glorious nights in Barcelona, I took another bus to Madrid; it was about six, almost seven hours in transit, as I’d left at 8h00 and arrived close to 16h00. Mind you, I’d never been elsewhere in Spain aside from Barcelona almost ten years ago, so I wasn’t familiar with the country’s geography and expected Madrid to be not as far as I’d imagined, perhaps two or three hours away. Boy, was I wrong: basically, it was going from the very southeast of Spain to the north-central, passing through dry, desert land that reminded me of long drives from Los Angeles to Las Vegas back in the States when I was younger. I admit, there was a certain beauty to the rugged, desolate landscape, but at the same time the journey was so long that, by the time I arrived in Madrid, I was ready to get to my hostel and crash.

Once I arrived at the bus station of Madrid in the late afternoon, I took the metro into the center, getting off at the Sol stop which was smack-dab in the middle of Puerta del Sol, aka “kilómetro cero,” or the very heart of the city. It’s where everything comes together– the people, the shops, the monuments– for a bustling (often very claustrophobic) experience. Fortunately, the month of February isn’t one of the most popular times to visit Madrid, so I’d say that it was *slightly* less crowded compared with when I went this past December during the Christmas season.

All the same, I walked over to my hostel, which was very near Puerta del Sol where I checked in, dropped off my belongings, and despite the fatigue headed out to explore a bit of Madrid before it got dark. After all, I would be there for only two nights, so I wanted to make the most of my time.

If the weather in Barcelona was sunny and absolutely warm the first day I was there, then Madrid was the complete opposite. I guess it’s due to the fact that the capital is located inland of Spain, but it was super windy and absolutely freezing when I went out in the late afternoon. So much for escaping the Normandy cold…it felt just as cold, if not colder, in Madrid!

Still, I braved the chill and headed west of the city, passing by the San Ginés church (near which there was a famous chocolateria where I ended up going to the following day for hot chocolate and churros), Plaza Mayor (a large 17th-century square), the Mercado de San Miguel (an indoor market selling all sorts of food and tapas bars), and eventually arrived at the Palacio Real and Almudena cathedral on the east end of Madrid. I was basically passing through most of these places since it was getting late and that the sun wouldn’t be out for long to see everything that I wanted to see that first night in.

El Oso y el Madrono (Bear and Tree statue) at the Puerta del Sol.

Later that evening, I had dinner at a tavern located near the Mercado de San Miguel; I’d researched the place beforehand and saw that it served the cocido madrileño, a local Madrilenian cuisine that consists of a large bowl of what tastes like chicken noodle soup, along with a huge platter of all things meat (ham, chicken, beef, chorizo, etc.) with vegetables and garbanzo beans on the side. It was so much food…admittedly, the waitress did warn me that the cocido madrileño is meant to share for two people, but I was hungry and took no heed of her words. I was super stuffed in the end, but I’m not complaining since it was so good! Usually, I don’t really care for soup, but the one that was served was piping hot and hearty. The meats were excellent as well; not one of them tasted overcooked and each had the perfect amount of tenderness to them.

Funny enough, it was Valentine’s Day when I arrived in Madrid and had that cocido madrileño dinner. True, the dish is normally for two people, but I was traveling solo and really, that was the best gift that I could ever give to myself…no strings attached!

Cocido madrileño.

Super full, I decided to take a walk around town that night to burn off some of the calories consumed (or rather, all of it). I only, however, went so far to the Almudena cathedral again, before turning around the heading all the way back to my hostel, just because it was raining, and quite hard! Again, my intention was to escape rain from Normandy…so much for that in Madrid! It wasn’t too bad, once I returned to my hostel, showered, and turned in for the night.

The following morning, I headed out to visit the Estación de Madrid Atocha (a train station with a botanical garden inside…and lots of cute turtles!), the Museo Reina Sofía (a museum dedicated to 20th-century art. Didn’t go inside, though), and then the Museo del Prado, which is Spain’s national art museum and home to centuries of European paintings and other art work, including those from Spanish artists like Goya and Velázquez. It turned out to be much larger than I’d thought, for I ended up spending two hours wandering all over the museum. I couldn’t take photos inside, unfortunately, but it turned out to be a very comprehensive, if not absolutely exhausting, visit!

Outside the Museo del Prado.

After the museum, I headed over to the Retiro Park, where I got lost wandering around the massive area, but all the same coming across some beautiful, tranquil ponds, bridges, and the well-known Palacio de Cristal (which is more of a greenhouse than an actual palace, but still spectacular).

Crossing a bridge.
Among the trees.

After passing by the Monument to Alfonso XII, I exited the park, and made my way down past three plazas: Plaza de la Independencia (where the Puerta de Alcalá is situated), the Plaza de Cibeles (where the Cybeles Palace is located), and the Plaza de Colón with the column statue of Christopher Columbus centered on the roundabout.

I headed back down Calle Mayor (“main street”) to get to the Chocolateria San Ginés near which I’d visited the eponymous church the afternoon before. This time, I was set on getting its famous Spanish hot chocolate and churros since I heard the place itself is famous in the city. Not surprisingly, it was crowded when I arrived but, considering that I was traveling solo, I was able to get a small table downstairs and soon after I’d ordered, the waiter brought me the chocolate con churro which tasted absolutely glorious. Now, I had hot chocolate back in Barcelona, but this one in Madrid was on a whole different level: it was so thick that its residue held up along the sides of the cup, clinging to the piping hot and crispy churros which I dipped into. It was delicious and for only 4 euros (one cup of hot chocolate and six churros), it was a great deal!

Chocolate con churros.

With an afternoon snack accomplished, I walked over to see the Almudena cathedral once again, this time entering it and being blown away by the interior, decked out in gold with an amazing altar of the Holy Mary; you could even walk up to the top to see it up-close, in all of its embellished glory. Definitely one of the highlights of Madrid!

I was feeling a bit tuckered out afterwards, so I headed back to my hostel to rest before going out again later that day for a quick bite at the Museo del Jamón (a chain charcuterie specializing in the famous bocadillo de jamón, or “ham sandwich”). It was quite busy that evening, and I admit, I received some rather terrible service because the waiters didn’t know English very well, to the point that one of them just turned away and ignored me when I tried to order. Eventually, I got my food (bocadillo de jamón and beer), scarfed it down, and headed out to catch a flamenco show at a bar near the tavern that I’d eaten at the night before. The Couchsurfer whom I’d met in Barcelona had been in Madrid beforehand and had recommended checking out flamenco, so I decided to go for it. I’d paid for the show from my hostel’s deals and was entitled to a complimentary drink (sangria).

The show started at 21h00; it was a small stage with four dancers (three women, one man) and three singers. Quite intimate, but it was a new experience; never did I think that flamenco could be so intense, channeling the theme of heartbreak and sadness into a tap-stomp kind of rhythm, and I admit I was sucked into the dizziness of it all while watching the dancers (…or maybe it was the sangria? Who knows.).

Flamenco show.

At 22h00, the show ended, and afterwards I made my way back to the hostel where I showered and went to bed. I had to waked up super early the next day to check out and head to the airport for my next destination on my vacances.

Overall, I found the two nights in Madrid to be rather short, but sufficient. Even though I did see a good amount of sites and monuments, at the same time I felt like there wasn’t much to see in the city itself. In a way, I felt a bit bored whilst there, and unfortunately, that feeling remained the same when I visited again this past December.

Nevertheless, it was an experience visiting the Spanish capital, and I do admit that the food there was amazingly good. Even if the monuments themselves weren’t anything to write home about, at least the food was!

We’ll be leaving Spain in the next post for the warmth and beauty of Lisbon, Portugal!


— Rebecca


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