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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

(Re)Seeing Spain


I’ve been here before. It’s semi-familiar, but I feel as if I’ve grown so much since that trip that I’m seeing Madrid through new eyes. Now that I have the knowledge to actually compare world cities (I’m loving that, obv…), I can say that Madrid is reminiscent of Buenos Aires, without the port side. Possibly, there’s a little more Soho in Buenos Aires, a little more whimsy. While the Spaniards live their nightlife with reckless abandon, they’re still a conservative people, by nature. The Argentines are a bit more easy-going. Given the choice, Madrid or Buenos Aires, I’d still choose BA. Amongst the many other reasons, starting with the way I felt when I was in BA, the other one essential one is: I can’t be more than an hour, max, from a coast.

Being that Madrid is the first foreign city I’m revisiting after the passage of years (how weird to think that I’ve never actually revisited any foreign city not counting, like, Caribbean islands), I decided that I would base in Madrid and take a day trip or two from here, being that Madrid is so big and there’s so much to (re)see. It started off on a difficult note, as I had to change hotels after a miserable 11-hour train ride where I was in a six-person car sitting up (no recline feature on these suckers...) with six other passengers. My situation was made worse by the fact that my luggage didn’t fit in any of the luggage specified compartments, so I had to sit Indian-style, for the duration of the ride next to two hooligans who were singing Shakira outloud (that Hips Don’t Lie is the song of the Spanish right now) for way too long. Not fun. When I got to my hotel, it was sub-par. Being 7 AM, I figured I’d walk around a bit, find another place, so I went to the café for the “included” breakfast to look over my guidebooks. The “breakfast” was a coffee machine, like you’d find in a hospital, with lit-up buttons from which you choose your hot drink and it mechanically pours out, and…bread and butter. I tried the machine, but didn’t want as much milk as was being added to make my café “con leche” and was rewarded with the milk feature of the machine shooting all over the floor, drenching me, the nearby table, the bread display (who takes THAT MUCH milk in their coffee?) I left immediately, smelling like a dairy farm girl, and wound up finding the little boutique hotel that became my home for the next four days. After wheeling my luggage through the Madrid streets to my new home, I was spent (read: fucking annoyed), and decided to just relax for the day, walk around, and learn my way around Madrid.

It was easy to shake off any annoyance, however, Madrid is amazing. There’s a very historical side (Palacio Real, Plaza Mayor, church upon church upon church, plaza upon plaza upon plaza – all the site of some bloody battle with the French) and it’s easy to get lost. There’s also a very modern side, full of museums, shopping, and parks to while away the hours of daylight, and fabulous restaurants, lounges and terraces to enjoy the nightlife. And, oh the nightlife! For all the quiet of the days, the nights kick into high gear and don’t let up until sunrise. It’s unbelievable. It’s like everyone is out once it hits 8 PM and doesn’t even THINK of turning in before 3 or 4. I partook in ALL of it. By day it was Museo, Museo, Museo. I hit the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Reina-Sofia twice (I forgot HOW much I love to wander through museums), and was lucky to be here for a Picasso exhibit at both the Prado and Reina Sofia that celebrated the 125th anniversary of his birth, and the 25th anniversary of the return of Guernika to Spain from New York. I read in Retiro Park many afternoons, while watching the people in the rented rowboats lazily spend their own time (Nabi! Lukoff!) At night, I drank Riojas on the Plaza Santa Ana with an eclectic group of young professors from the university; I went tapas-hopping through the area of La Latina where I had to ditch a Frenchie and a Yugoslav by feigning tiredness, then danced ‘til dawn with a few Spaniards I met after the fake-out at a nightclub near my hotel; I went to a some new restaurant, the pride of an upcoming young chef (who looked like Eric Pellegrino) I had read about in a Bilbao magazine, who came out of the kitchen when I didn’t eat my soup (it was gross…some fish, ginger ale, cod gazpacho) and proceeded to serve me personally for the rest of the meal, pairing wines with each course. I then stayed while he closed up, sharing nightcaps and chatter in a deserted restaurant with him, at which point he walked me home, gave me the requisite double-kiss and said goodnight (I know…I wish it were a BETTER story than that!!!)

I took a side-trip to Toledo, an astonishingly beautiful old city that served as Spain’s religious nerve in the 1500-1600’s, tolerantly. A Jewish quarter, a Muslim quarter and the Catholic Church all lived in peace and harmony in the center, which was set up on a mountain, surrounded by three rivers, high above the other parts of the countryside. It was breathtaking to look up, or look down, depending on vantage point.

Of course, Madrid, like the Basque Country, wasn’t without it’s gastronomic rewards. Paella, Rabo de toro (oxtail), manchego cheese plates, freshly made gazpachos, sautéed prawns and albondigas (meatballs), all helped keep me feeling like a complete animal. Clara (a beer-lemonade concoction), sangria, and mucho vino kept me quenched. Gyms are only for those with memberships (makes sense, but unlike other cities I’ve visited…), so I was SURE to book my hotel in Portugal WITH a fitness center. I went to the Reebok Club for a mani-pedi, and oogled all the ladies with svelte frames (HOW do they live here and look like THAT?) I probably sound like a recovering Mary-Kate asserting just how much food she’s inputting daily, and just how many calories of sweat are needed to counteract the effects, and I apologize for that, BUT…I cannot stop stopping to eat here!!! And I cannot help being aware of it! ☺

That’s all for now. I’m sitting outside, having some “last day in Madrid” wine, and then will head off on my journey to Lisbon. IN A SLEEPING CAR…finally.

More soon…