Monday, April 12, 2010

Impressions of Madrid

It seems as if I have been trying my whole life to get to Spain. I dreamed of coming here as a child and as an officer in the Navy, I was always trying to get orders to Spain. It never happened until now. My wife and I decided to spend her Spring break from school, where she works as a middle school counselor, in Madrid. I schedule my vacations to coincide with that week. As an airline employee, specifically a pilot, I get to take advantage of “space available travel” whenever I can. Spring break is typically a tough time to do it, unless you choose to go where most spring breakers are not going. Last year for spring break, we went to Buenos Aires and loved it, easily taking advantage of “space available” and spending a wonderful week in that lovely South American city. I will write about that in a later post.

This year, we decided that Madrid should be our spring break destination, since seats were available and the “breakers” were not going to Europe. There were seats available and returning looked very good. Finally, I would get to see Spain, or at least the Madrid area. Both of our children had already traveled to and spent time in Spain, once in high school, on an exchange that was coordinated by the Spanish department. They lived with a family in Toledo, the family of the young man we had hosted earlier that year. Then, in their college years, both of them went on separate occasions to live in Valencia for extended periods of time. I had often wished that I could have joined them, I was a bit jealous, but work and finances were preventing the travel at that time.

Easter Sunday

Now it was our turn. We landed on Easter morning, a bright, crisp spring day. After being herded from our Boeing 767 through narrow corridors like cattle being lead to corrals (or slaughter) up and down stairs, through a series of switchbacks until we were finally emptied into a larger area (baggage claim) then finally outside. Our ride to the apartment we had rented for the week was uneventful driving down mostly empty streets. Madrid had not awakened yet and we saw no one on the streets. It was the last day of “Semana Santa", or Holy week, which is a week of holidays for the Spaniards. The city was clean, swept and appeared to be ready to get back to the business of being Madrid after a week of many closed shops and stores.

We arrived at our apartment, located on Calle Fuencarral in a district that has been re-vitalized in recent years, mostly by the gay community of Madrid. We learned that this area was popular with gays only after we decided upon renting it. We surmised that the area would be safe, clean and stylish if we applied all of the stereo types. The apartment is on the top floor of a building that overlooks a small square and has a large balcony that really appealed to us after viewing it on the internet. We thought it would be a great place to enjoy a morning cup of coffee as we watched the city awaken beneath us. I am sitting outside on it now enjoying a coffee as I write. The sounds emanating from below tell the story of Madrilenos beginning their day much later in the than most of us in the States. The city is busy, but not hectic. People move about, but not in a rush. They stroll, rather than walk. They casually notice rather than observe. They always seem to find time for a sit in the park or at a sidewalk café table to enjoy a coffee and a pastry.

We overlook the city from our balcony and in the background there is a large Spanish flag flying from atop a building in the distance. There are no “skyscrapers” as in many large cities, at least not in this section. The heights of the buildings are fairly uniform with nothing really obtrusive. Much of the architecture is influenced by the French style, mainly because of the Bourbon ancestry of the most recent royals, who were French. The history of Spain is an amalgam of invaders and what we Americans would call carpetbaggers, or leaders from outside of the country. This does not mean that they did not love their newly adopted country, just that they brought a profound influence upon it. You can still hear the Arabic influence in the Castilian language of the Moors who occupied much of Spain for almost 500 years. Many Spanish words are of Arabic origin.

I actually speak Spanish pretty well, having grown up around it in my home. Both of my parents were Puerto Rican. Trying to understand a Spaniard with my Puerto Rican background and American upbringing can be challenging. I am able to express myself and make myself understood, but understanding a Spaniard takes a trained ear, something my ear is not trained to do very well yet.

Madrid is a beautiful city. It is impressive to see and exciting to be in. I feel very comfortable in it and getting around is extraordinarily easy. The Metro is safe, simple and extensive. Last night we were running late for our dinner reservations and had planned to take the metro, but opted for a taxi instead so as not to miss our reservations at a renowned paella restaurant. The taxi ride was easy and safe, the taxi itself clean and the driver courteous, taking us to La Casa de Benigna (see separate post) for our late (as is customary) dinner at 9:30 pm. After our dinner, we definitely needed a postprandial stroll as we were both very stuffed. Dinner was amazing (more on that later). We found the nearby metro stop, got on for one Euro each and after one transfer; we were soon at our stop on Gran Via, very close to our apartment. It was less than 20 minutes on clean, quiet subway cars.

I have lived in southern Italy. I was assigned in the Naples area in the early nineties by the U.S. Navy. Naples was at that time (I've not been back since) very chaotic. Everyone was in a hurry to get somewhere and upon arriving at their destination, do absolutely nothing. There was no real sense of order or regulation. Even so, I felt very comfortable with the locals and when I would meet them, they would say that I was not “Americano,” that I was different from the typical American. Then I would tell them of my Puerto Rican heritage and that seemed to explain everything to them. We had lots of fun together, my Neapolitan friends and I, going to restaurants, driving around in the chaos and having them over to my bungalow for dinner and drinks. Getting around southern Italy was often an adventure unto itself. Nothing seemed to run on time or very efficiently. It wasn’t as clean and neat as is much of what I have seen of Madrid. The metro is timely and orderly. There is a sense of order.


Today we went to the nearby Mercado, or market we learned of from Ramiro who manages our apartment rental. It is a collection of different kiosks or small stores that sold everything from fresh meats, fruits and vegetables, cured meats and cheeses, bread, wines and liquors and other sundries. Each merchant we approached was so friendly and eager to help us. The cured meats and cheese merchant eagerly gave us samples of the cheeses we were interested in. We bought several items with the vision of sitting on the balcony of our apartment and enjoying a simple dinner at “home” of cured meats, cheeses, fruits, bread and wine. We found a spice kiosk and purchased some Bomba Calasparra rice, which I use to make paellas and some saffron. Buying these items here is certainly much cheaper than ordering them over the internet or at our local grocery store. We bought some capers to serve with the smoked salmon we got and an herbed salt. The spice merchant, Jesus, gave us a gift of orange marmalade (I believe because we spent quite a bit with him), he was very friendly as were all of the merchants we encountered. My wife saw a scarf she really liked and we purchased that from the merchant who turned out to be an Argentine who has lived in Spain for thirty years. He too gave us a gift after our purchase, allowing her to select two handkerchiefs. The market was a really fun experience. I highly recommend it to anyone visiting as it really exposes you to the culture and the people are so friendly and helpful. It is also a great way to get a nice, simple dinner that you can enjoy on the road or where ever you are staying. It is a delicious introduction to the Spanish palate.

We sat out on the balcony this evening and enjoyed our “Mercado” purchased simple dinner. We opened our bottle of Rioja, Muriel 2006 and I prepared our platter of juicy Spanish pears, grapes, creamy cheeses, breads, smoked salmon with capers (purchased from Jesus at the spice kiosk), avocado, tomato and sliced chorizo. The layout looked splendid as we dined al fresco on our balcony reveling in our wonderful time thus far in this magnificent city.


This morning instead of lolling about and enjoying a lazy morning in the typical Spanish fashion, we set out a bit earlier on the metro to the Atocha train station, where trains depart Madrid to the south. We were taking a side trip to Toledo, where our children had done an exchange during high school. Toledo is the capital of La Mancha, south of Madrid and was the northernmost stronghold of the Moors during their occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. In fact, Madrid came into existence as a fortress protecting the approach to Toledo. It was originally called by its arabic name, "Mayrit" which was later corrupted to Madrid. It is surrounded on three sides by the Tajo river and a fortified wall on the landside approach. It is rich in history and is a city that has the three major religions of the world, Islam, Christianity and Judaism represented in its architecture and culture. The three religious peoples coexisted peaceful for centuries in Toledo.

Taking the AVE trains (high speed) from the Atocha train station, we arrived at the Toledo station in a mere twenty minutes. It was another beautiful day and we could see the city as we approached it, its many spires of the cathedrals standing out on the heights. My wife and I are suckers for the double decker tour buses that we seem to find at our travel destinations. We took one in Buenos Aires last year and found one for Madrid on this trip which we took on the our first full day here. The top deck is open and allows for great viewing and photography. There is also an audio that you can listen via ear buds in your own language that describes the sights along the way. In Madrid, it is a good way to get a feel for the area and you can get on and off as you wish with an all day ticket. We saw one of these waiting outside of the train station in Toledo and for only 5 Euros each, we quickly jumped aboard and got the lay of the land. After basically circling the city, the tour bus dropped us off at the central plaza, Zocodover. We then purchased a city map and devised our own walking tour through its narrow medieval streets and along the river. This is the best way to really see Toledo. It was magnificent and impressive. We really got a work out walking up and down hilly, narrow roads, but it was well worth it. Toledo can be a tourist trap, but it is an amazing place. Known for its steel, shops abound with displays of knives, swords and armor. I have a ceremonial sword I used as a naval officer that was made in Toledo. Most military ceremonial swords of most of today’ armies and navies come from Toledo.

We wound up the day at cafe, sitting outside with a grand view of the Plaza Zocodover, where I ordered an individual seafood Paella and my wife a pizza margherita. We enjoyed the people watching on the plaza Zocodover and eventually boarded the bus back to the station for our return trip to Madrid. It was less than twenty minutes and we were quickly on our metro enroute to the Gran Via station near our apartment. I highly reccomend this side trip. As we walked back to the apartment that evening, the city was so alive and vibrant. It was Thursday night and the Madrilenos were out and about.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Captain,

    I found your blog through Trip Advisor when I was looking for an apartment to rent for a few days this April when my husband and I will be in Madrid in part for a vacation and also because my husband will be attending a conference. Just wanted to connect to confirm your positive review of the apartment at HFT Madrid Attic Chueca-Fuencarral. I note that the kitchen is perhaps a little less than that! The apartment website doesn't provide too many details, but did you find it adequate? What amenities are there (from the looks of it there is a stove top, but perhaps no oven). But I liked that you were able to shop at the market and have a wonderful meal on the terrace one night during your stay. Iin addition to the market, are there supermarkets within walking distance? Did you find that it was a nice central location to be able to walk or take the subway to see all of the main attractions? Did you feel safe in the neighbourhood?

    We also had the good fortune of visiting Buenes Aires several years ago, and also stayed in the Recolletta district and loved the city!

    We will be arriving early in April and wonder about the temperature (although of course it varies).

    Any additional information and advice you are willing to provide would be most appreciated. We are a couple in our early fifties from Toronto, Canada.

    Best regards, Camilla Wheeler

    You can email me at:

    I also just started blogging recently, having embarked on a 3-month "Stuff Diet." You can check out my progress at