Monday, January 11, 2010

A Walk About Town

Location, location, location. Its more than just a three word sentence that repeats itself slightly. When traveling the location of your hotel or flat can make or break the quality of your stay. Even small difficulties such as exploding toilets can be overlooked given the correct circumstances. On my recent vacation in Madrid, Spain my travel agent, who for the purpose of this story we will code name "Mom," was able to score us some digs right in the very center of what is an incredibly walkable city.
In fact, let's go for a stroll about Madrid right now - that way I can introduce those of you who have never visited to the sights and allow those who have seen the aesthetically-pleasing Spanish capital to reminisce a little bit.
Only a couple of blocks from our apartment is our first stop, the Palacio Real, or Royal Palace. The structure was first built for King Phillip II of Spanish Armada fame (a fiasco not listed among the finest moments of a long, largely successful reign), when he decided to move the Spanish capital from Toledo to Madrid, which was only a small military encampment at the time. The current irrelevant Spanish monarchy/ royal welfare recipients still uses the building for ceremonial occasions. Tours of the immense structure are available if you don't mind waiting in line for an interminable period of time. Adjacent to the Palace is an impressive garden, which is open to the public if you get into flowers, shrubbery, and other such nonsense.
Head out onto the Calle Bailien towards the Plaza De Espana where you can either turn choose to turn left and check out the Templo de Debod, an Egyptian temple donated to Spain and reconstructed piece-by-piece in the center of Madrid. On second thought, screw that, if you wanted to see Egypt you would be climbing the pyramids or gambling at Luxor. Let's turn right instead and see some of the country we came to see.
Walking past the statue of Miguel Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, we turn onto the Gran Via.
The "Great Way" is considered the heart of the city, a wide avenue lined with theaters (the street has been called the Spanish Broadway) and shops, where the past meets the present as Victorian and Art Deco architecture shares space with Rolex advertisements. Shopping malls are replacing many of the theaters nowadays as the city is dragged kicking and screaming, for good or for ill, into the realities of the present day.
Passing the Metropolis building, we tumble off the Gran Via and arrive at the Plaza de Cibeles where we are again faced with a directional conundrum. The fountain that dominates the center of the plaza is the gathering point for fans of the great soccer side Real Madrid. They congregate here whenever the team wins another championship. Since they, along with rivals FC Barcelona, are the New York Yankees of Spanish soccer (I hate them already and yet I bought a hat, what a tool I am) titles come with some regularity.
Back to our dilemma. Should we turn left onto the Paseo de Recoletos and visit the monuments to Christopher Columbus at the Plaza de Colon?
We could spend time cursing his famed expeditions, which resulted in the death of millions of Native Americans from violence and diseases previously unknown in their part of the world. I think he gets a bad rap though - Columbus never meant all of that to happen. His intention all along was to rob and murder the Japanese, Chinese, and Indians. The Americas just happened to be a populated speed bump in the explorer's way.
Let's turn right instead and check out the Paseo de Prado. The Prado is home to the Golden Triangle, not to be confused with the East Asian opium producing area of the same name. And no, I 'm not carrying. This particular three-pronged attack features a triumvirate of art museums, led by the most famous, the Prado, which holds works by El Greco, Goya, Bosch, and Velazquez. The Reina-Sofia museum across the street proudly displays Guernica, perhaps Picasso's most famous work. Finally, the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum is known for being completely unpronounceable.
My favorite museum on the Paseo de Prado, however, is the Museo de Jamon or museum of ham. If I learned anything during my visit, I learned to respect the Spanish ability for turning meaty pig parts into steaming plates of deliciousness. Porcine carcasses dangled from seemingly every corner of the shop. My friend John wondered aloud at the sanitary issues related to this peculiar method of storage. I ignored him and sat back, reveling in my luck at stumbling into this porktastic porn palace. I just wanted to rip one of those ham hocks off the wall and (explicit content deleted by editor).
Moving on, we run into the Atocha train station at the end of the Paseo de Prado. The largest railway terminal in Madrid, Atocha was designed in part by Gustave Eiffel, known for erecting a large hunk of metal in the center of Paris. Take a moment to stroll around the plaza inside the station, admiring the plant life, which rises nearly to the ceiling hundreds of feet above. If you've had enough, just hop walk over to the adjacent metro station and ride back on Madrid's subway - the cheapest, cleanest, and most reliable system I have ever used in all my travels.
Those of you who haven't gone home to rest can head across the street and take Calle Alfonso XII (yes they have had twelve kings named Fonzy) to Retiro Park, Madrid's answer to Central Park. The park was probably my favorite spot in all of Madrid, a lovely sprawling collection of ponds, statues, fountains, and gardens. I had heard the term "landscape artistry" many times before, but I never really understood what it meant until I roamed the grounds of Retiro. Even the great Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of Central Park and Biltmore Estates among other projects, would have been impressed, particularly with Retiro's centerpiece, the sublime Crystal Palace.
Built for the Phillipines Island Exhibition in 1884 by Ricardo Velazquez Bosco, the palace is an homage to one built in London earlier in the century. I haven't viewed the English version, but I think without question Velazquez outdid those he imitated. Every tree seems to be in just the right spot, everything is arranged so that the light seems to shine at the proper angle, and the waterfall off to the side adds a certain bucolic touch. I'd never experienced such perfection - a master of feng shui would have been gaping in awe. The Palace, and the grounds which surround the building, is as much a work of art as any masterpiece hanging in the Prado.
Knowing that nothing could top Buen Retiro and needing feet transplants all around, we head back to the house to get ready for a night out in Madrid. Madrilenos, as the natives are called, don't get started until late in the evening and party hard until very early in the morning. On New Year's Eve, as we discovered, the party doesn't even begin until after midnight. Plaza del Sol, the Time's Square of Madrid was also located quite close to our apartment and we joined in the festivities there, eating the requisite twelve grapes at each strike of the plaza's clock while we chugged champagne in the streets.
The late night mindset means that restaurants don't even open their doors until 9 p.m. or later. Many people don't go for the traditional dinner out as we know it in the United States, but prefer to go from bar to bar having tapas.
Tapas are usually shared by groups of people and can be composed of almost anything. We had mushrooms, potatoes, croquettes, ham, cheese, chorizo, vegetables, among other things during our trip. Seafood is also very popular, especially the ubiquitous calimari, but Madrid is just too far from the coast for my tastes. I admit to prejudice on this front - as a spoiled former Charlestionian I will only eat seafood if I can see the fishing boats coming into the pier as I dine on crustacean carcasses.
Cava Baja is one of the main tapas districts in Madrid and we frequented the area, which was only a couple of blocks from our flat (did I mention our location kicked ass?). While dining. try some of the Spanish wine, a trusted expert/red-cheeked wino recommended the riojas and temperanillos to me and I was not led astray. There is Spanish beer. Cruzcampo, Mahou, and Estrella are some of the most prevalant. Avoid them and stick to the wine, there is a perfectly good reason why you have never heard of Spanish beer. Leave the hops and the barley where it belongs - in the hands of the Irish. Now leave me alone, this newly minted wine-lover has to stumble back to the flat.
Next Up: A Day Trip to Toledo

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