Our first few days in Spain were busy with exploring Madrid and reconnecting with Ben’s (very large) family. We arrived in Madrid after a quick 50 minute flight from Lisbon on the morning of Saturday, February 23nd. Ben’s tio (uncle) Emilio greeted us at the airport and took us back to his home where he and his family have kindly offered to host us for our two week stay in Madrid. The weekend was mostly filled with seeing family that Ben hadn’t seen in seven years or more. After arriving on Saturday and settling in our new ‘home’, we headed out to his abuela’s home (the home in which all six of her children, including Ben’s father, were raised). Her home is a central Madrid gathering spot for family and many uncles, aunts, and cousins joined for drinks, catching up, and sharing memories. Amanda did her best to keep up with understanding what was going on (with her little but growing knowledge of Spanish). It was a ‘traditional Spanish’ gathering with many people taking fast, loud, and all at once. Afterwards we joined Ben’s cousin Paloma and her boyfriend Tarik for some cervezas and bocadillos at 100 Montaditos (a chain but great for good low priced bocadillos and beers anytime) in Pozuelo near Emilo’s house. What was expected to be a mellow evening catching-up quickly turned into a typical Spanish night out as we migrated across the street to Maloney’s for more drinks and dancing until 4am. Waking up on Sunday for the hour-long drive to the outskirts of Becerril to visit Javier and Miriam and their fifteen month baby girl Paula wasn’t easy.
We spent the afternoon as a large gathering of cousins (Robbie, Ricardo, Paloma, Ben and Javier) along with their partners (Tarik, Amanda, Clara and Miriam) and with baby Paula sharing good food at El Rincón de Casa Vieja Restaurante in Fresnedilla de la Oliva (where we got to share many amazing traditional spanish dishes) and then headed to El Escorial just as it started snowing. In only the first 48 hours of our arrival in Spain we had visited with almost 15 of Ben’s aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents and already gotten to enjoy some of the amazing local dishes.
On Monday we packed our bag with some homemade bocadillos and headed out toward central Madrid to begin our first real day of exploring the city. We had planned to visit the Museo de Thyssen upon opening because it is free on Monday’s from 12-4pm. While we were waiting for the museum to open we checked out the turtles at the indoor garden at el Invernadero de Atocha train station. This is the station that had been bombed by a terrorist attack in 2004.
From there we headed over to the Museo de Thyssen where we spent a couple hours taking in the artwork. After we strolled into the nearby Parque de Retiro were we picnicked on some fruit and people watched for a while.
Without any solid plans for the afternoon we explored some of the smaller streets and checked out La Gran Vía (a main throughway in Madrid filled with shops and some neat architecture) and el Banco de España (one of the older buildings in Spain with some history behind it, more for just viewing outside). On the recommendation of many friends we found ourselves at El Tigre a bit later to fill our wandering appetites. We had heard this was ‘the place’ for the best tapas deals but neither of us expected the free plates of mounding food we got with our caña (small beers). It’s very likely we will find ourselves here once more before parting ways with Madrid.
Afterwards, we headed over toward El Conde Duque (which we discovered is closed indefinitely) and then walked to the nearby neighborhood to find Ben’s old apartment (check out the google street view at the link to share in the experience) where he lived during his studies in 2006. Tired and ready for a siesta before dinner (at 9:30pm) we headed home feeling we had a successful first day in Madrid.
Tuesday was the first day (among others later in the week) we had to reformulate plans due to businesses and museums closing in the afternoon. After a morning running into many changes in plans we headed to a cheap local Kebab place to get one of Ben’s favorite local spanish ‘fast foods’ — the Turkish Kebab (as they call it). With a little food in our bellies we headed to the Mercado de San Miguel to check out the broad array of local cuisines and other exotic delicacies.
We then took a stroll through the royal gardens at the Palacio Real and found a nearby café to relax, practice Amanda’s spanish, and do some writing. After taking our own little ‘siesta/descansa’ over some coffees and beers we ended our day at the large Museo del Prado (which is free weekday evenings from 6-8pm).
Wednesday we joined Ben’s abuela and tio Lore for lunch in a much calmer setting with only the four of us. We had a local soup, Fabada Asturiana, along with other traditional favorites (chorizo and turrón). Abuela/grandma is 92 years old and while her vision and short-term memory may not be as sharp as they once were, we are both amazed at how much love and spunk this Madrileña has in her.
After a very filling and warming lunch (on such a cold Madrid day) we headed over to the Palacio Real de Madrid. We had some confusion as we had thought it was free on Wednesdays. We soon discovered that it was only free Wednesdays to those in the EU. So if you do ever visit on a Wednesday and they ask where you are from just keep that in mind ;o) . The palace was beautiful but what we really enjoyed the most was the Museo de Real Armería which may not be noticed at first as it is somewhat hidden (it is located in the back left corner after entering the palace plaza) and is included with entry. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take photos of the really cool armor collections from various stages throughout the middle ages, but it is definitely worth visiting or exploring photos online. We ended up staying in this section until the palace closed. Since the Parque de Templo de Debod was nearby we headed that direction to take in the views of the temple, palace, and city before heading home for the evening.
We decided to start our Thursday outing exactly where we ended Wednesday — at the Templo de Debod — this time exploring the mini-museo inside the temple. We then took our time to soak up the Madrid life (and the frequent rain showers) while walking toward a business district and the Torre Picasso (designed by the same firm as the Twin Towers) to meet Emilio and Ricardo for lunch.
It was amusing to see all the young professionals gathered in the covered outdoor spaces smoking and chatting in their business suits. It really was just like a scene from The IT Crowd. Ricardo was able to have a couple cigarettes as well while we walked the semi-covered passageway (since it was raining) to a near-by restaurant, Lateral (a great place for reasonably priced traditional spanish shared dishes). With the rain coming down harder and more frequently we decided to end our day early and grab a bottle of wine and some cheese (on request of Amanda) from the infamous El Corte Inglés and head home to enjoy the sound of the rain from under a warm blanket.
We managed to get a good fill of the main Madrid attractions in our first few days mixed with many family gatherings and reunions. Madrid definitely has the mixture of city life with some of the old tradition and architecture still present. While getting all the sight-seeing in at once can be more practical (with 2-5 day metro passes) and efficient it can also be exhausting. We have already learned that having our ‘slow days’ and taking time to relax and do nothing is a definite necessity since we are in this for the long haul (kinda like the marathon of traveling). Stay tuned for a ‘slower paced’ and more ‘off the beaten path’ of events in the following days!