08/13/2018 - 08/16/2018
At long last we had arrived at our ultimate destination, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in Spain. I had saved Madrid for last to keep us in a state of anticipation even as we were winding down our vacation. As with most large cities, enjoyment of Madrid is a matter of individual taste. Once the initial honeymoon of sightseeing is over, the experience depends on how one interfaces with the city. The energy, the culture, the food, even the weather come into play. This would be my third visit to Madrid and I had already seen all the touristy places like Plaza Mayor and the Royal Palace. I wanted to experience the modern city like a Madrileño, exploring residential neighborhoods and markets and eating like a local. Madrid was one of the forerunners of the food hall movement with the Mercado De San Miguel, which we had enjoyed on our last visit in 2014. Now there were at least three more food halls close to the center and we were determined to try all of them.
Our gamble on an Airbnb outside of the center paid off. The Salamanca neighborhood may not have been as atmospheric as Centro but street parking was relatively easy and our apartment was spacious and comfortable. It took two trips to get all our gear up to the fifth floor via the tiny elevator with a metal gate. As soon as we'd settled in, we jumped back into the car and drove to Mercado de San Ildefonso, the most promising of the new food halls I'd discovered. We found an impressive array of cuisines represented on the two floors of the establishment, with Asian and American-style food alongside the numerous Spanish offerings. The space wasn't particularly crowded but the energy was good thanks in part to an outdoor patio on the upper level as well as a stylish bar/vinoteca that offered a wide selection of wines by the glass and craft beers. We were quite happy with the results of our first dining venture in Madrid.
An interesting development in our trip arose when my brother decided to fly over to Madrid after picking his two sons up from their nanny's home in Italy. This would make us a party of nine exploring the city, with five rambunctious kids. In the morning we decided the best option to feed everyone would be Madrid's largest market Mercado de Maravillas, in the northern neighborhood of Cuatro Caminos. Our enthusiasm was only slightly dampened when I maneuvered our car into one of the low metal posts that was placed along the curb, denting a front panel. I've damaged and even totaled enough cars in Europe that I refuse to let events like this ruin my day, but it was frustrating to have kept our car pristine across thousands of miles of driving only to damage it on the second to last day of the trip. The market was cavernous, as I'd expected, but it was immediately apparent that it wasn't at full strength. At least half the stalls were closed and some entire sections were almost abandoned. Many of the shuttered stalls had signs posted indicating they were closed for most of the month of August, the traditional summer vacation period in Madrid. This was unfortunate but on the bright side the market was so large that we were able to find several appetizing restaurants, mainly specializing in Latin American cuisine. Eventually we settled on a Peruvian stall where we had a satisfying meal of ceviche and anticuchos.
Our next stop was the rooftop bar at the Círculo de Bellas Artes cultural center near Plaza de Cibeles. The drinks were ridiculously expensive and rather poorly made but the lounge chairs were comfortable and the views of Palacio de Cibeles and the rest of central Madrid were spectacular. Atop a nearby government building we could see two impressive black sculptures of horse-drawn chariots, or quadrigas.
Returning to ground level we strolled west up Gran Vía, possibly Madrid's most famous avenue. The classical, ornate architecture was breathtaking but the midday sun was brutal on the wide boulevard and soon we had to retreat to a shadier location.
El Retiro park began its existence in the 17th century as a private retreat for the royal family. While not the largest park in Madrid by a long shot, El Retiro probably is the best embodiment of the spirit of Madrid in green space. Two places in the park that shouldn't be missed are the beautiful rectangular lake, where sunbathers lounge on the steps of the marble Alfonso XII monument right at the water's edge, and the Palacio de Cristal. Unlike the similarly-named location in Porto, there is actually a Crystal Palace in El Retiro. The late 19th century structure is made almost entirely of glass set within an iron framework and now hosts contemporary art exhibitions.
From the park it was a pleasant walk west into Centro, culminating at the enormous Plaza Mayor which is almost double the size of the one in Salamanca. In the cobblestoned square we recuperated from the long walk while the kids played with giant bubbles created by a street performer.
That evening we regrouped at Platea, Madrid's most upscale food hall which offers a selection of high end plates for diners that aren't troubled about their budget. We splurged on a large and very expensive steak, sushi, and an assortment of other dishes in the noisy, neon-illuminated main floor dining area. It was a cool experience but I would rather return to Mercado de San Ildefonso on our next visit.
I'd discovered after our itinerary was already set that our second and last full day in Madrid was Assumption Day, a major public holiday on which markets and many other businesses would be closed. In the morning we decided to try our luck at Mercado de San Antón. The food hall was open although most of the stalls offering anything substantial were shut until late morning. We stuck around long enough to get what we needed but made a mental note for our next visit that this was more of an evening place. Afterwards we drove to Templo de Debod, an authentic ancient Egyptian temple that was disassembled, shipped to Spain, and put back together in Madrid in the 1960's as a donation from the Egyptian government. The temple now stands incongruously atop the Príncipe Pío hill, surrounded by an attractive park filled with palm trees and conifers. A musician in the park was optimistically playing "Despacito" on his clarinet despite the absence of foot traffic on the paths.
We followed a staircase down the hill which led us practically to the gates of the Sabatini Gardens, the official garden of the Royal Palace. Although the gardens seem to complement the 18th century palace perfectly, they were constructed to replace the royal stables in the mid 20th century. The kids enjoyed themselves racing around the manicured hedges and making us chase them until we were all exhausted.
We met my brother's family at Plaza de la Armería, between the Palace and the splendid bluish-grey Almudena Cathedral. The cathedral was only completed in 1993, although its Gothic revival architecture makes it appear much older. We got the kids some ice cream and beers for ourselves and then we had to take a long walk back through the searing afternoon heat to our car. At least we could console ourselves with more beautiful classical architecture along Calle de Bailén.
We took custody of my brother's kids for the afternoon and brought everyone to Parque Madrid Río, on the bank of the Manzanares River. I didn't even know Madrid had a river despite several previous visits to the city. It's hard to imagine being unaware of the Seine in Paris, the Thames in London, or even the largely-ignored Tiber in Rome. Nevertheless, no tourist guides to Madrid make any mention of the Manzanares. Part of the reason for this is that the M-30 highway was constructed alongside the river in the 1970's, making it difficult to access and unpleasant for those who tried. In the early 2000's, the highway was rerouted underground and the reclaimed river bank was converted into a long chain of parks connected by bike paths. The largest section of park extends from the Puente de Toledo to the Puente de Praga, in the Arganzuela district south of the center. The park was very crowded due to the holiday with hordes of kids playing in the splash fountains and on long metal slides. The Arganzuela footbridge that crosses the Manzanares is an amazingly creative blend of form and function.
We had to tear the kids away from the slides because we didn't want to miss the Assumption Day festivities back in Centro. The silver lining to the market closures was that there would be a parade, street food, and possibly rides for the kids as part of the holiday celebration. The problem was that I couldn't find anything official providing details of locations and times and I therefore had to rely on information I'd gleaned from message boards. Our best bet seemed to be a square called Plaza de la Paja, but once we arrived in the area many of the streets were cordoned off and traffic was extremely slow and heavy. We eventually found a parking spot a half mile away, and we were lucky to find that one amid a dense thicket of cars occupying every single possible space. We joined a stream of pedestrians headed towards the square, but instead we ran into a huge crowd at Puerta de Toledo that was obviously waiting for a parade. The kids worked their way to the front, oblivious to angry grumblings from mostly elderly locals, while Mei Ling and I resigned ourselves to catching glimpses of them through the packed crowd. All we saw of the parade was the tops of some banners passing by. We realized that some white canopies further up the road were likely food tents and decided to prioritize that over the parade.
Once we reached our destination we found some very appetizing grilling going on. I saw a sign for gallinejas which I assumed were small grilled chickens and turned out to be chicken intestines once I received my order. Fortunately I've eaten intestines of practically every farm animal but chickens before so I had no problem completing my sweep. They were pleasantly chewy and savory.
Somehow my brother with his kids managed to find us in the huge festival. He ordered way too many sausage rolls and then we treated the kids to cotton candy and a couple of rides before calling it a night. Although Madrid overall had been anticlimactic, it had been a satisfying ending to our long journey.
Amazingly, it's taken me almost a full year from the end of the trip to complete my travel blog. While some memories have already started to fade, the passage of time has shaped my perspective on how this sixth major European road trip compares with the others. While I had expected most of our great experiences to revolve around food and wine, what actually stood out the most was the number of beautiful and walkable cities we discovered over the course of the month. Most of the best meals we had were at the night markets and food halls rather than at restaurants, so I combined the top ten list for food and experiences on this trip.
10. Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica in Zaragoza. Some of the best and most interesting tapas we had on the trip, all in one location.
9. Winery Airbnb in Lamego. Eating breakfast under a canopy of grapevines laden with heavy bunches of fruit is an experience I'll never forget.
8. Dune du Pilat. A natural wonder and an amazing experience for the kids.
7. Laguardia. The most enjoyable and lively of the many tiny medieval villages we visited in Spain.
6. Aqueduct of Segovia. A breathtaking structure that doesn't get the recognition it deserves among Europe's unmissable sights.
5. Bilbao. San Sebastian gets most of the tourist love in Basque Country, but this much larger city has the best architecture and character.
4. Bordeaux. A sharp contrast to the refinement of the wine region, this gritty and intriguing city is unlike anywhere else in France.
3. Dordogne night markets. Particularly at Montignac and Saint-Amand-de-Coly, these riotous celebrations of food and community are unmissable.
2. Valencia. My favorite city in Spain. A beautiful old town, amazing architecture and street art, a pleasant coastal climate, and the home of paella.
1. Porto. Possibly the most underrated city in all of Europe. Absolutely magical, beautiful, and full of energy. We will be back.
Although I expected Salamanca and Madrid to give us a huge ending to the trip, both cities proved disappointing this time around. I'm confident that the main culprit was timing, in that August is very lethargic in central Spain due to the heat and the migration of many business owners to the coasts. We enjoyed Madrid much more on our previous visit in March despite the freezing weather. There's still plenty left for us to see in central Spain, including major cities such as Valladolid and Burgos and countless alluring small towns, which means we'll be giving Madrid another shot at a better time of year. We might combine that with a return visit to Portugal during the September wine harvest, or dedicate a special trip to the area. Either way, it will have to wait until our kids are all in college which is at least thirteen years away. Definitely a back burner project. In the meantime, I expect our next visit to Spain will most likely be a Spanish language summer immersion for everyone in Valencia.
I've fallen way behind on my travel writing, in large amount due to the sheer amount of traveling we've been doing. My next project will be to write up the six week trip in China and Japan we just returned from, followed by the shorter trips to Yucatan and Uruguay we took in 2018. Stay tuned!