Madrid, museum heaven–oh, yeah, and good food, too

With only four days left and pretty darned tired we arrived in Madrid…Spain’s New York City. We had been given somewhat complicated instructions to the apartment which did not correspond to the Metro maps we had, and spent maybe 30 minutes in the airport-sized train terminal looking for a tourist information desk. It was late afternoon on Saturday and no luck until we decided to just go to the Metro and figure it out. Voila, an information booth where the young woman marked exactly where our apartment was, just four or five blocks down Calle Mayor–“look for Casa De La Villa,” so simple after all.

Our destination stop was Sol, smack in the middle of madhouse Plaza Del Sol. One of those heaven-sent ticket machine aides helped us buy the card and explained we could put two riders’ worth of trips on one (like the lovely T-10 card we used in Barcelona.  Unlike our mistaken albeit inexpensive purchase of 2 rides to the airport on one card in Porto and had to buy a second card…which, when we got to the Porto airport we found there was no turnstyle exit anyway. Whatever.)  For all the complicated instructions we’d had from our Airbnb host re looking for particular routes, it turned out there is just a single metro train running through the Madrid train terminal, and in about 8 minutes we were coming up the escalator into crazy Plaza Del Sol.

Yikes. A large and crazy plaza where several streets crisscross at acute angles, both pedestrian and not, a gazillion people, but all we had to do was make sure we remained on Calle Mayor and in 10 minutes we were at our address. Alas, we were early by about 45 minutes–Roberto would meet us outside and take us up but not until 7:30. We were so tired and hungry and thirsty…looked up the street a short block and there was a bar where people were sitting in a little enclosed patio smoking and drinking.

Yeah! We sat at a small table with luggage heaped around us but there was ample room and in a quick minute David had a large beer and I a glass of cold white wine. Relief. I got up to see if I could get a menu as we really needed a snack. The waitress was very apologetic but the kitchen was closed. All I could order was one of the salads. Poor us. We had the most delicious burratta salad with cherry tomatoes and arugula, so refreshing and ample with a ball of burratta that more than generous. With a basket of bread we couldn’t have been happier and then it was 7:30 and Roberto was there.

The apartment was just as expected; we settled in and then went looking for dinner. The rather crazy tapas bar scene was just a few blocks away, but everything looked crowded and hipster. Hungry and now hungrier, we knew enough by this time about food in Spain to drop into a narrow little bar/restaurant that was anything but hip, the front section all folks drinking and watching soccer, squeezed through to a table in the back and perused the now relatively familiar array.

I had one question-what was tripe Madrid style?  It means cooked with chorizo and blood sausage. David ate the sausage and I tried my best to finish the delicious, meltingly tender tripe but it was altogether too much…half portion of course. David, with a bit of help from me, finished a half portion which was most generous of anchovies in vinagre, what we call in the US white anchovies. So good. And a small order of patatas bravas to round out the flavors. Staggered home to bed as we had a busy Sunday planned.

I think on this trip we have eaten about 200 anchovies.  Not complaining about that.

It was an accurate introduction to Madrid. We spent the next three days walking, eating, and being dazzled by the Royal Palace (10 minute walk): the Prado (20 minute walk) and the Thyssen (across the boulevard from the Prado).  All in all, though we had some complaints about the apartment itself the location was fantastic.

David had sussed out all the information about tickets, free times, and locations of our 3 sightseeing goals.  On Sunday nights the Prado is gratis from 5 to 7. We decided a visit to check off a few boxes was worth it, and it was, because we knew Tuesday was reserved entirely to see everything there. Mondays the Thyssen is gratis 12-4 but closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  Our plan was set and we filled our last 3 days thusly:


Sunday morning, El Rastro, a rambling outdoor market where basically everything is available from antiques to socks to batteries to pots and pans.  As we started down one of the side streets of the market area, lined with a hodgepodge of junk shops and antiques we passed a corner joint advertising bocadillos de calamares.  Okay, will be back for that!

We were still on the hunt for coffee and a teeny bar, Bar de Ca’ Kiko, called to us.  If this had been our first day in Iberia we would have passed, but we knew it would be a safe and interesting experience and it was.  This place was filled with a shifting crowd of men from (probably working) the market, and there was plenty of high spirited morning commotion. Every time someone left he’d (I was the only woman in the place) slap the small counter and with a “Chicos!” and was out the door.  Behind the counter were two gruff looking men making coffee and handing food over the high counter–their specialty is tostas as shown in a long handwritten menu on the wall.  Piled on a back ledge and under plastic covers on the counter were mysterious (to us) toppings on thick slices of bread, presumably toasted.  As we drank our cafes con leche (delicious as usual, and served in small glasses as usual) I tried to puzzle out what the I was looking at paired with the list on the wall.  I knew every person I asked about food, in both Portugal and Spain, would be happy to explain in Spanish I could largely follow, and the men behind the bar were as friendly as they could be proudly explaining what was what adding “Muy rico” after each.  Every few minutes an arm with a plate of more tostas was thrust through a rough hole the size of a small window in the door to the kitchen, and one of the men took it and added it to the inventory.  I kept asking, what’s this? What’s that? They even had something listed as barbacoa, a food word that has many many definitions depending on where you are in the Latin world.  (In one city I visited in Mexico has a string of “barbacoa” stands outside of town–where barbacoa means grilled goat.)  Anyway. a strange melange on bread turned out to be that, and when I asked them what kind of meat they looked at each other and said “Ternera?” (beef) so perhaps it’s beef. It all looked so good…but we weren’t at all hungry and knew those bocadillos de calamares were waiting for us when we finished at the market.

We wandered, I bought some earrings and David bought a leather billfold, and then we started looking around for that corner joint we’d seen on the way in.  It was only 11am but hey, we’re on vacation–and with some backtracking and hey-didn’t-we-come-down-this-street’s we found it.  Joint is the word, with soccer games on one tv and a weird kind of Latin candid camera show on another, and “decor” that hasn’t changed since 1960, and people standing or perched at the counters eating bocadillos, and drinking beer.  We joined in, David having beer and I a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice that you can get anywhere, anytime, and our bocadillos de calamares, a Madrid specialty sandwich comprising a long crusty roll filled with tender fried calamari rings, on which you can squirt either mayo or aoli.  A perfect brunch!


After I ordered a fellow called out to me “You speak English!”  He and his wife were from Toronto (that’s in Canada, he explained) and had just finished a group hike on Majorca.  They didn’t speak or understand a single word of Spanish, and seemed very surprised that I did.  We had a small dish of patatas bravas, gratis with our drinks, and the woman asked what it was.  How can you have been in Spain for more than 1/2 a day and not know that?  Anyway, I gave her a piece on a toothpick which she reluctantly ate.  Poor people.

We headed to the Royal Palace and took the audio tour.  We liked the tour very much, but it was funny/tiresome that almost every explanation came around to how this or that painting or decoration “demonstrated the legitimacy of the Spanish monarchy”.  But surprisingly interesting–it includes such amazing decor as several rooms where the walls and ceiling are entirely porcelain!  As we left we heard the music of pipes and castanets outside–it was the tail end of a demonstration/parade we had seen on the walk back from El Rastro, a Basque protest, with music, costumes, enormous oxen pulling huge wooden carts and even a Green Peace sign, all demanding an end to agribusiness destroying great food and village life.  The marchers, in costume and periodically breaking out into castenet routines, all looked somewhat grim but the crowd seemed on their side with smatterings of applause.

Free night at the Prado, 5-7pm!  We headed over and joined a two block and growing queue and at 5 the line moved and we were part of the crowds inside where we got our bearings, sort of, and readied for a quick dose of art. Wow. We couldn’t wait to get back.  It would have been immensely frustrating if we didn’t know Tuesday was Prado day.

We stopped at La Plateria for a yummy dinner of judios verdes con jamon, paella (both half portions meaning of course they were huge) and still hungry (!) we each had a plato, David the hake and green salad, me grilled beef with salad. Enjoyed a bottle of wine with dinner and strolled home through the still busy streets, I guess normal for 9pm on a Sunday in Madrid.


On the chilly and refreshing Monday morning we started with a long walk past the palace and up to Gran Via, the sort of main commercial street, very big city with huge buildings, Times Square style signs, and lots of people. We were on a quest to find a pair of shoes for Hannah which were summer style and only could find them on sale racks…hence store after store had maybe one or two, but not in her very common size 39. It was fun to have a mission and an excuse to speak Spanish about shoes…and then pretty sure we wouldn’t be successful…we found them!

We had had a late breakfast so went to the Thyssen museum for the free opening at noon.  This is a very lovely, somewhat quirky assortment as museums based on a private collection tend to be.  Unlike the Prado, the collection ranges into some 20th century art which was great to see but surprising to SFMOMA members as there was basically no modern artists that in the US we consider iconic–no Jasper Johns, no Thiebaud, no David Smith, no Diebenkorn, one Lichtenstein.  We also saw so, so many artists we had never heard of–several times I thought like “Oh, that’s Braque” but it was someone totally unfamiliar.  Even the Impressionist collection was surprising, with only two small Renoir (never saw them before).  Two Edward Hopper, neither of which I’d seen before anywhere.  So Fun!

We took a midday break for a quick lunch in the museum restaurant, a beautiful, no stunning, ultra modern setting outside with okay food, then finished up till almost closing time (4pm). We were so tired, and a bit nervous about our stamina for the following day’s plan to see everything at the Prado. But we perked up with a tapas supper at Txirimiri where we not only had great food but fun conversation with the guy behind the bar and a buddy of his, both enthusiastic about explaining some food terms and menu items to me. I had so much fun talking food in Spanish! And a few glasses of cava made me feel almost fluent.  They had a wonderful array of pintxos including one that David ordered twice, thick slice of bread with a slab of smoked salmon.


Tuesday, our last day, and we were happy to have a plan to carry us through. We decided to wander our way to the Prado as it doesn’t open until 10, and stopped in a panaderia for superior croissants. Gosh they were good, and as fresh a can be–this is an on-the-premises bakery and I watched as a fellow was baking them in the back. A suitable ultimo desayuno.

We hit the museum at about 10:20, skipping the line as usual due to David’s going online for tickets. With audio guides in place off we went.

I cannot begin to describe the breadth and depth of the collection. It is a marvel, a joy, a revelation room after room after room…3 floors plus a small circular room at the top holding the treasures of the dauphinois. While I could probably live without seeing any more bloody crucifixes, everything was worth seeing. They have, for example, rooms of enormous paintings of historical and mythological events. Huge rooms that hold just six canvases, other rooms with exquisite landscapes, family portraits, royal portraits. Go to Madrid and give it two full days. It did, combined with all we had seen to that point, inspire us to read or audiobook the history of Iberia.

Two artists I’d never heard of and fell in love with, Marin Rico (1833-1908) and Mariano Fortuny (1871-1949).  The scene of the Alhambra below is Rico, the charming painting of his two children in the “Japanese room” by Fortuny.

We ate at the Prado restaurant, really very good, and at around 5 we stepped outside in a daze.


For supper we decided to try El Sur, which was maybe a 25 minute walk away into a neighborhood we’d not visited before.  We finished off a lovely bottle of wine–“3 Tempranillos” which is a blend of, what do you know, three tempranillo grapes all from the Duero valley but from 3 different elevations.  It was delicious.  A nice, homey place, nothing at all fancy, and we ate our fill, went home, and packed.

Up at 3:15am, driver arrived to take us to the airport at 4…flight to Amsterdam at 6.  All without a hitch!