Friday, April 4, 2014

The Reluctant Capital

Madrid has never been on my personal traveler wish list, people, which is odd because I have a really long list. Spain? Certainly. As in Andalucía, Barcelona, Galicia and Rioja? Yes, yes, yes and yes. But Madrid? Don't know why, but not so much.

Well I obviously need to rethink that whole list "thingy" - check for any other glaring omissions - because last December, 2013, my mother and I met some other family members for a chilly but sunny week in Madrid, and I simply loved it. Ate it up and drank it up. Walked it up and metro'd it up!

Thus I will now share a few simple reasons why a weeklong trip to the Spanish capital should be on your short list, if it already isn't. You can stay longer if you'd like, experience more of the country, of course, but you don't have to if time is an issue. I'm talking about getting your butt to Madrid, and Madrid alone, for a quick look-see. Jet over and jet back. Hell...a five day trip, a long weekend, including those two days of travel (two kinda' tedious days if you're starting from the west coast of America). Three full days on the ground; that's all you need if you can't spare more. Point is, you should go. Definitely, because it's worth it. Especially if you are into art and art history, and specifically especially into painting. Or into food and wine. Even better? All three: the art, the food and the wine.

Let's begin with the "Golden Triangle of Art" in central Madrid, a trio of museums that will leave you (left me, anyway) flabbergasted. Stunned. In a good way.

Museo Nacional del Prado. I had, of course, heard of the Prado and knew it was considered world class, but I had no idea it contained such a massive, monumental, must-see collection of painting masterworks, including room after room of towering El Greco (40+ paintings, alone worth the price of admission!), royal Velázquez (50 paintings), prolific and moody Goya (140 pieces, do not miss his "black paintings"), plus Murillo, Zurbarán, Ribera and so many more. And that's just the Spanish dudes! Go ahead...think of an artist from the 12th century thru the early 19th (British, Dutch, Flemish, French, German, Italian) and he/she is probably represented with an iconic work or two, in many cases more. The museum's painting collection is absolutely awesome, and I absolutely adored our morning and afternoon of discovery, including a surprise (just one of many) that literally stopped me in my tracks: The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Did I mentioned stunned. I'm telling you I would go back to the Prado tomorrow if I could.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Jean Miró, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso epitomize the über impressive cache of modern art in this über modern building a stones throw from the Prado. I'm not a huge fan of the architecture, but there is no doubting the artistic treasure within: upwards of 20,000 pieces in the collection, from the end of the 19th century thru the mid-1980's or so. I've always found pleasure in Miró, I had never before seen a Dali painting in person (amazing!), and several rooms overflow with Pablo Picasso sketches and paintings both iconic and obscure, including his 1937 room-sized über masterpiece Guernica. Wow! Once again, that's only the superstar Spanish artists. Think of a modern "-ist" or "-ism" and he/she/it is represented in spades.

Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Okay, here's an idea: Have the good fortune to be born into a family that's made lots and lots of money thru a generation or two of Industrial Revolution-age innovation and commerce (and I mean LOTS of money), and then, when you become head of the empire, use some of your dough to purchase an artistic work (sometimes two) from pretty much every single major artist in the last 900 years (and counting). Sounds nice, eh? but here's the kicker: Toward the end of your career donate the entire collection to Spain. The Thyssen, as it's known, is relatively small (compared to, like, the Prado), very personal (naturally, as it's the vision of one man), and (here's another great idea) displayed chronologically from the earliest artwork to the most current. It is lovely. It is unique. It is worth a visit.

Time for a break, and for the next reason you should visit Madrid.

Tapas. I'm not sure why, but I feel as though America has a hard time capturing the true essence of tapas culture. Perhaps we work too hard at it, try to make the whole phenomenon something it's not. Sure, there's a few Spanish chefs dishing up designer fare in designer spaces, but tapas in Madrid (at its best, for me at least) is meant to be casual, crowded, full-flavored, bustling, jostling, quick-tempo'd, full of lively discussion and bas cuisine. Hopefully that last term means low cuisine, as opposed to haute cuisine, which means high cuisine, which means highfalutin, which means fancy or pretentious. But whatever...back to Madrid and a few tapas experiences you gotta put on the list.

First must-do is Mercado de San Miguel, an old, wrought iron-framed building in La Latina (a hipster Madrid neighborhood) that's been converted into a food emporium full of individual stalls hawking their goodies. Some of the product is to go, like in a regular market, but most of it - beer, wine, and tapas in all its glorious shapes and sizes - is meant to be consumed on site, if you can squeeze in and vie for some service, and if you can snag some realty at one of the communal tables (it's extremely popular, and it's extremely crowded). The second experience is totally different, is equally authentic, and is called Calle de la Cava Baja: an entire street full of individual tapas joints, also in La Latina and also extremely popular. The idea, and the Madrileños do it with mucho gusto, is to spend an entire afternoon or evening meandering from tapas bar to tapas bar - a bite here and a sip there - meeting old friends and making new acquaintances, walking the street and people watching the entire way.

On the menu of must haves: 
Boquerones con vinagre - Spanish white anchovies marinated in vinegar.
Jamón ibérico de bellota - D.O. protected cured ham from a breed of Iberian black pig finished on a diet of acorns, usually served in paper thin slices (so rich and nutty and intense and complex and lingering it'll blow your mind!).
Croquetas de bacalao - salt cod fritters.
Patatas bravas - fried potato fritters served with spicy tomato sauce or aioli.
Tortilla de patatas - omelet containing chunks of fried potatoes and onion.
Callos a la madrileña - traditional tripe stew with all sorts of variations, but expect the likes of Serrano ham, blood sausage, chorizo, tomato, garlic, onion, chili pepper, saffron, bay leaf, perhaps garbanzo beans.
There's so much more…small plates of octopus, shrimp, chorizo, olives, cheese, and probably the most flavorful roasted red peppers I've ever tasted.

Sated and stoked for more? Okay then…Back to the arts, and some history.

Palacio Real de Madrid. Envision the over-the-top splendor of Versailles in France, then rein it all in a notch or two (especially the palace grounds and gardens) and make it much less confusing to tour. Keep the building in the capital city center as opposed to a train ride away, and decorate the whole shebang according to the whims and fashions of the ruling Habsburg dynasty kings and queens of the 16th and 17th Century. Regal, royal, wonderfully opulent, at times so jaw-droppingly ornate it'll make your head spin: the palace is a peek into another time and world, but one the government still uses for State functions. And a good peek is not that time consuming, as one ticket fits all three areas of the palace grounds open to the public: the Royal Pharmacy (very unique, and pretty cool), the State and private rooms (holy crap!), and the Royal Armory (considered one of the finest historic collections in the world).

Now here's a totally Ginger (mom) story. Below, pictured with the two of us, is a Spanish gentleman named Jorge. Now mom and Jorge met maybe 20 years ago in Cleveland, Ohio (perhaps longer), as he dated my cousin for a bit. The courtship didn't last, but Ginger kinda stayed in touch as Jorge moved here and there about the USA, then finally back to Madrid. Thus, lo and behold, one afternoon we rendezvous with Jorge at a tiny, family owned tapas joint for a glass of Rueda and a snack (Bodegas Ricla, loved the place!), then walk down the street for more chat and a more substantial tortilla de patatas. The encounter was a blast (I had never met him before), totally unexpected and fun! Mom had emailed him in advance for a current picture; it had been so many years she didn't know if they would recognize each other. Even better: during our lunch Jorge reminded mom that, way back when, he didn't just show up for family meals with my cousin but actually spent a week sleeping on the couch in my parent's house after the relationship fell apart, before his travels continued. What a trip down memory lane!

Okay, then...back to the task at hand. The following may not be actual reasons to visit Madrid, but once there they sure don't hurt. First, the people of Madrid, los madrileños, are very friendly, very talkative and passionate, and love the evening neighborhood walk about (they also love a good smoke, so prepare yourself). Second, el Metro de Madrid is extremely modern and clean, and it's extremely easy to understand and use. Third, the city of Madrid is a great walking town; it isn't totally flat, but it's not that hilly either, especially within the central tourist areas. And finally, Madrid is more or less smack dab in the middle of the country, which makes the city conveniently and centrally located for day trips (or longer trips).

Case in point. Even though it's a bit of a trek (okay, a major trek for a single day) I felt that I just couldn't spend a week in Madrid - not knowing if and when I'd be back - without traveling to La Rioja, one of Spain's most traditional, and most world renowned, wine growing regions. Thus, on our last full day in Spain, mom and I zipped north on the bullet/local train combo for a very brief look-see around the region, complete with a lovely tour, tasting and luncheon at CVNE (Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España), a personal favorite producer of mine. It was a whole lot of travel for a seven-hour visit, but very worth the early wake up call and 10:00 p.m. arrival back in Madrid. Which, as any authentic madrileño will tell you, is the perfect time to meet your other traveling companions for tapas and drinks on Calle de la Cava Baja!

My mother Ginger lured me to Madrid, but it was my cousin Betsy and her daughter Julie that lured my mother. Julie, you see, was finishing a college semester of study in Salamanca, the university town 200 kilometers northwest of Madrid, and Betsy was heading to Spain to meet her for a mother/daughter week of playing tourist before their return to the States. Somehow Betsy invited mom, and mom invited me. I hemmed and hawed about it for a while, but then my December work schedule opened up and I realized I had the time.

But did I have the desire?

Madrid? Really? Ah, what the hellsure. Why not?

Then I got there. Then I experienced the vibrant city, rubbed shoulders with the handsome, passionate madrileños two weeks before Christmas when it seems like the entire populace is out walking, celebrating. Immersed myself in the world-renowned art scene; roamed the broad boulevards and narrow alleyways; feasted on really tasty (well-priced, too) Spanish food and wine. And then, on top of it all, I realized what a poignant trip this was for Betsy and her daughter! Because wait, there's more…You see over three decades ago Betsy had done the same as Julie, but Betsy spent a whole year at university in Salamanca. Since leaving Spain she'd kept in touch with friends and with her host family, but in all that time she'd never been back! I know…pretty cool, eh? The first two days Betsy and Julie spent in Salamanca, reconnecting in person, while mom and I hoofed around Madrid by ourselves. The final four days we attacked the Spanish capital in unison, and it was a blast!

For someone who had to actually talk himself into going to Madrid, after seven days I departed a huge fan of the city. Surprise! Loved the joint. Loved the travel with mom, of course, and with Betsy and Julie as well; it was an extremely special trip, for many reasons and for all involved (including those roasted red peppers, pictured below), and I feel honored to have been a part of the adventure.

It was an extremely special month, as a matter of fact. One that I'm now fondly calling a December to Remember, because a few days after my return from Madrid to San Francisco I flew to Cleveland, Ohio, for Christmas with the family. Then, a few days post holiday, I hopped another plane from Cleveland to Orlando for a week-long road trip in south Florida, which included snorkeling with manatees in the Crystal River, an overnight in Naples on the Gulf, multiple hikes in Big Cypress and the Everglades, and New Year's Eve in Key West with my sister Molly, friends and cousins. All of which we shall explore in upcoming posts, so stay tuned.

Hasta la pronto, amigos.
Peter J. Palmer