Days 70-77: Good people, tasty tapas, exquisite art, and a bullfight!
11.12.2016 - 11.20.2016
Greetings from the United States!
We arrived safely to North Carolina in early November, and have immensely enjoyed our down time eating, drinking, and being merry with friends and family. This has also given me some much-needed time to process some of our final adventures on our EuroTrip!
We left off in Dublin...
Wednesday, October 12
We arrived in Madrid by way of flight from Dublin on Aer Lingus. We had an easy ride into the city by way of the Metro, and were at Dave and Karen Brush's flat around 9:30pm. We walked through the door and Karen greeted us warmly, "Bienvenidos!" They'd already eaten, it 10pm after all, but she didn't hesitate to dish us up homemade spaghetti and meatballs - her grandmother's recipe no less. Dave was settling into a cup of coffee, which gave us all the chance to catch up and discuss plans for the week.
As some context, Dave and Karen Brush are good friends of my parents. It started with Dave and my mom working together, and then the Brush family moved to Sierra Madre and we hung out all the time. Their oldest is just a smidge younger than me, and naturally we were the best of friends growing up. Dave's career took the family to New York and then London, and now Dave and Karen have been in Madrid for the past 2 years and their 4 kids are scattered around the US as young professionals and college students. Since the Brushes left LA, I'd probably only seen them a handful of times, so to get a whole week to catch up was a real treat!
Thursday, October 13
Maybe we were tired from the travel, maybe the drizzly weather, or maybe the sumptuously comfortable bed - but we totally slept in. We emerged around 10:00, and Karen was in the breakfast nook working away on a crossword puzzle. She'd set out fresh berries, to go with granola and greek yogurt for breakfast - YUM!
Karen headed out to do her morning workout, and Stephen and I walked to the Prado museum - Spain's national museum of art. It features one of the world's finest collections of European art, dating from the 12th century to the early 20th century, based on the former Spanish Royal Collection, and unquestionably the best single collection of Spanish art. We bought a very helpful guidebook at the museum, and found a comfortable bench to sit and read about the Spanish masterpieces by Goya, Velazquez and El Greco before exploring the collection of Spanish art. In addition to the great material in the El Prado guide, the paintings had informative placards in both English and Spanish with a bit of history/analysis of the painting. We leisurely explored and studied the Spanish art. Reading the guidebook and thoroughly enjoying the Spanish collection took us about 3 hours.
We took an extended lunch break at the museum's cafe to rest our legs, and study up on the works we'd discover on other floors of the museum. The museum highlights their masterpieces in the free map they provide, which makes for a fun sort of treasure hunt. There are about 40 masterpieces, from great artists like Raphael, Rubens, Caravaggio, and Titian, but the painting that was a real highlight was Bosch's Garden of Earthy Delights. Here is a description of the piece: The three scenes of the inner triptych are probably (but not necessarily) intended to be read chronologically from left to right. The left panel depicts God presenting Eve to Adam, the central panel is a broad panorama of socially engaged nude figures, fantastical animals, oversized fruit and hybrid stone formations. The right panel is a hellscape and portrays the torments of damnation.
We really enjoyed the collection, and all-in spent 5 hours at the museum! By that time it had started to rain, and we headed back home. We reunited with Karen, who was at work preparing another delicious meal from scratch - chickpea and chicken stew with olives and artichoke hearts. We sipped on some wine while she worked away on dinner, and we had a really nice chat over dinner. I still need to track down that recipe...it's a keeper!
Friday, October 14
In addition to exploring Madrid, Stephen and I had to book our lodging and travel for the last few weeks of our trip. We woke up and got to work on exploring options for how to spend the last week of October. The original plan was to spend that time in northern Spain, but we decided we wanted something different. We kicked around a few ideas, and at Karen's suggestion looked into Amsterdam. We did some more research, and then put a bookmark in our work to head out for lunch.
We walked to the San Anton market in Chueca, Madrid's chic gay neighborhood. The area had fantastic signage that facilitated finding the 3-story building that housed the market. On the first floor independent vendors sold fresh fish and meats, fruits and vegetables, Iberian ham and cheese, bread and so on. The second floor had small stalls serving tapas, and the top floor was a rooftop terrace with a fancy restaurant. The second floor was where we found happiness. The tapas were reasonably priced (1-2 euros each), and there was a bar with red vermouth on tap. It was a delicious and budget-friendly meal out!
Fortified by tapas and vermouth, we went to the Reina Sofia - Spain's national museum of 20th century art. We were a bit disappointed with this collection in general. I'm not a huge fan of modern art, and the collection has a lot of early, abstract works by Spanish artists. Perhaps we'd seen too much good, classic art the day before.
The highlight of the collection is Picasso's "Guernica," which I had studied in an art history class I took studying abroad in Spain. Here's a description: The painting, which uses a palette of gray, black, and white, is regarded by many art critics as one of the most moving and powerful anti-war paintings in history. The painting was created in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country village in northern Spain, by Nazi German and Fascist Italian warplanes at the request of the Spanish Nationalists.
Dave and Karen planned a superb evening for us! We started at "El Mismo," a cozy hole-in-the-wall bar where Jesús prepares the most impressive gin and tonics with boutique Spanish gin. He asked what kind of gin we like, and when I responded that I usually drink Tanqueray he protested, No no no! He pulled down all the bottles of Spanish gin he had, and presented each one with its ABV, origin, and tasting notes.
After much deliberation we each picked our gin, and Jesús got to work. Each of the gins were accompanied by unique garnishes to highlight the characteristics of each particular gin. I had Nordes gin from Galicia, and my gin and tonic came with dried poppy and rose petals, licorice root, and lime zest. Stephen's Gin Mare from Catalunya got a whole dried tomato and dried basil leaves, Dave's Ginsef from Valencia an orange slice, and Karen's Masters gin from Madrid had the classic lime as well as lemon to highlight the citrus notes. We shared tastes, and each one was so different and so good!
From there we moved onto the main event: dinner at KultO. This NY Times-reviewed tapas restaurant serves up Mediterranean/Mexican/ Italian/ Asian fusion cuisine. Each of the dishes we ordered came as its own course, and we shared everything. This family-style approach made for a comfortable ambiance and allowed for lots of yummy bites! Fermented and raw seasonal vegetables, tuna tartar, tuna "tacos", braised octopus, slow-cooked lamb shank, a fabulous bottle of Rioja red wine, and for dessert 7 textures of coffee. The friendly staff presented each dish along with instructions for consumption to maximize enjoyment. The decadent, delicious food, the comfortable ambiance, and great service provided the perfect setting for our visit. What a fun, memorable evening!
Saturday, October 15
We all had breakfast together at home, including fresh-squeezed orange juice courtesy of Karen's morning trip to the market for fresh produce. Dave and Karen took off to take care of some errands, and we spent the morning booking our travel and accommodations for the following week's journey to Bruges, Ghent, and Amsterdam. Then, we met up with some friends in Retiro Park for a picnic.
While in Paraguay as Peace Corps Volunteers, we had the pleasure of meeting Carlos through the entrepreneurship initiative "Paraguay Emprende." At the time he represented a large financial institution on the board for the initiative, and subsequently he won a grant from the Paraguayan government to study Governance at one of Spain's top universities! He and his wife arrived an hour late, keeping the tradition of "Paraguayan time" alive. We found a nice patch of grass in the sun and sprawled out over a blanket they brought. They raved about their experience living abroad for a year, and understandably seemed a little anxious about the year almost being over. We had a great visit, and walked through the park a bit before saying goodbye.
For the second double date with the Brushes, we had dinner out at La Maquina. We had an epic brigade of oysters, scallops, shrimp and boquerones (anchovies) as appetizers, and well-prepared main courses from braised rabbit to steak. For dessert we indulged in the vanilla souffle.
Sunday, October 16
After another lovely breakfast at home with fresh doughnuts from a local bakery courtesy of Dave's early-morning jaunt around the block, we went to an impressionist exhibit at the Caixa Foundation together.
The Phillips collection from Washington DC was on tour, and we got to enjoy some of the world's best impressionist paintings up close.
The Brushes had plans to drive out to their Spanish teacher's home in the countryside, so we parted ways after touring the exhibition. We continued on to Spain's busting (and crowded!) Sunday flea market, where I found a wool scarf to keep me warm on our upcoming trip to the Netherlands.
We went to Madrid's bullfighting ring "Las Ventas" to buy tickets for that evening's bullfight. The arena is divided into sun and shade seats, with the sun seats being the cheapest. There are 4 tiers of seats ranging in proximity to the action, from the equivalent of court side to nosebleeds. We were able to get first row seats in the third level, which was definitely close enough! We had an unobstructed view, but were also far enough away not to smell the bullfight, which I'm told can be nauseating.
There are 6 bulls and 3 bullfighters in a typical "corrida," with each bullfighter taking on 2 bulls. The first bull emerged and the bullfighter was waiting for him in the center of the arena on his knees for a "paso a las rodillas." The bull almost followed the matador's red cape to the side, but instead gored the matador with his horn. Here is a video I captured, but don't worry - I stopped it when I saw things weren't going well for the matador! His team rushed to distract the bull and remove the matador from the situation. After assessing the damage, which ended up being a 1/2-inch puncture in his chest, the matador decided to continue to the fight. The picador emerged on his blindfolded horse, and incites the bull to charge the horse. Fortunately the padding protects the horse, and the picador uses his spear to jab at the bulls back.
This continues until the matador waives him off, and then the 3 banderillos have their turn. These guys hold 2 barbed daggers, run at the bull, and try to stick them into the nape of the bull's neck. After striking the bull, they have to run fast!
At this point, the bull has 2 stab wounds from the picador and 6 barbed daggers hanging from his back. After all this, the matador returns to the arena. He leads the bull in a series of tight passes, cheered on by the crowd when he can guide the bull through 4 tights passes in a row.
Two of the matadors had good luck with this, which I caught on video here and here. Once the bull has basically bled out and lost the will the fight, the matador stares down the length of his swords to the spot between the bull's shoulderblades. His goal is to get the bull through its heart, at which point it would die almost instantly.
After the bullfight, we met up with Dave and Karen at home. We debriefed our experience over a bottle of Rioja wine jamon iberico and manchego. Before calling it a night I prepared myself a cup of tea, in the perfect mug:
Monday, October 17
Karen embarked on a quick trip to London in the morning, and we ventured into the rain to take advantage of free museum day at the Thyssen Museum! We had to wait a bit in the rain outside, but soon enough we were immersed in a superb collection of art spanning from pre-renaissance to modern art.
We had a late lunch on the way back to the condo, at a cute cafe with a magnificent 3-course menu. I had a salad with jamon croquettes to start, baked merluza as a main, chocolate mousse for dessert, and a glass of red wine for 12 euros!
Especially after his stint living in London, Dave is quite the soccer fan; naturally, he and Stephen got along! Liverpool and Manchester United were facing off that evening, so we met up at The James Joyce Irish pub to watch the big rivalry game. The game did not live up to the hype and ended in a disappointing 0-0 tie, but we had some delicious stewed meat and Guinness so we were still happy
Tuesday, October 18
We went to the Spain's National Archaeological Museum, located an easy 5-minute walk from the condo. At this point in our trip we'd really become connoisseurs of archaeological museums, and this is definitely among the best in Europe! There was a cool multi-media presentation at the beginning that projected major historical events and migrations over a map of Spain, following a chronological timeline and showing pictures of archaeological ruins recovered from Spanish sites and where to find them in the museum. Also, at the beginning of each major transition point in history (neolithic, bronze age, roman empire, visigoths, Islamic conquest, etc) there was a subtitled 5-minute video that provided great historic context.
We had a late lunch at home, and rested up for our evening entertainment: Real Madrid vs. Warsaw Poland in a Champions League match. Stephen had been trying to get us to a soccer match all trip, and we got unlucky enough to always visiting a city when the home team was traveling on the road. When the opportunity to go to a Champion League match in Madrid emerged, we did not hesitate. We go tickets for the 3 of us via Europe's equivalent of StubHub called Viagogo. We arrived at the stadium 30 minutes before the game, found our gate, then had issues scanning our tickets. The staff directed us to a customer service desk, where we discovered we'd been sold fraudulent tickets! The website supposedly vets the tickets, but in this case the vendor had sold multiple versions of the same ticket and we had the bad luck of not being first the first ones at the stadium. We heard the chants of the crowd, and the kickoff whistle. The game was happening and we were missing it. While Stephen was on the phone with Viagogo, Dave rounded the corner in pursuit of customer service. We caught him up on the situation, and decided to watch the game at a bar nearby. We ultimately got our tickets refunded, but would have much rather been at the game!
Wednesday, October 19
We braved the most touristy areas of Madrid and took the metro to the Royal Palace. We arrived just in time to catch the change of guard, with all the corresponding pomp.
We walked through the gardens at the Royal Palace and down to the Manzanares River. The park along the river was lush with trees, some of which marked the arrival of fall with their orange leaves. We also got a nice view of the palace from the river.
We walked back up to the royal palace, caught another change of guard, and stopped for tapas at Mercado San Miguel on our way to Plaza Mayor. The building that housed the market was originally built in 1916, and had been refurbished as a culinary pavilion with a bunch of specialized vendors offering tasty tapas.
We passed touristy shops selling all kinds of kitch, and realized how fortunate we'd been to basically avoid tourist infrastructure for the majority of our week in Madrid. We passed through Plaza Mayor, but did not linger for fear of being harassed by one of the many costumed characters shaking down tourists to take pictures with them.
The final stop was Puerta del Sol, Madrid's central plaza and #1 meet up place. Again, we did not linger long as most of the walkable areas were occupied by tours. We walked one side of the plaza, and caught the metro home.
Karen had returned from her trip to London, and we had time to touch base on dinner plans. For our last supper we had delicious, fresh trout at home with a nice bottle of albariño.
Thursday, October 20
We headed to the airport mid-morning to catch our flight to Brussels, after being fortified by a solid breakfast at home. After our trip to Belgium and the Netherlands, we flew back to Madrid. So, we got to downsize and travels in just our normal backpacks and tucks our mega backpacking bags in a closet. We had smooth travels to Brussels, which I look forward to telling you about on an upcoming post!