Madrid on a budget

This summer found my daughter and a girlfriend of hers taking in the sights and sounds and flavors of Spain and Portugal. This post is a recap of their time spent in Madrid. A testament to the abilities to eat well and live well on a budget.

Madrid: a real-life grown-up vacation by Allison Malecha

View of Madrid from Tartan Roof (completely worth the 4 euro entry fee).

View of Madrid from Tartan Roof (completely worth the 4 euro entry fee).

During college, the Barcelona-Madrid duo was popular among the study abroad crowd. The general post-trip consensus was: Barcelona—so fun! Madrid—so much art! (but kind of boring.) This year, as I was planning a trip with a friend who’d traveled around Spain the previous fall, I was a little skeptical to only have Madrid and (in Portugal) Porto and Lisbon on our itinerary. But from my first morning in Spain’s capital city, I loved it, and I soon realized that my priorities weren’t to “go out” or meet fun new people. I do enough of that in New York. I felt tired. I wanted days spent walking along gorgeous old streets instead of sitting at my desk; evenings full of cheap, delicious food, even cheaper, more delicious wine, and comfortable conversation; and a bedtime several hours before dawn. Madrid was happy to provide.

We upgraded from college hostels to an Airbnb, and stayed in a spacious second-floor apartment that doubled as a gallery space for the artist-owner. Mixed media sculptures and moody paintings on the walls. Tea sachets and little bowls of brittle biscuits on the kitchen counter. Fresh, not-entirely-absorbent towels neatly folded in the bathroom. An Ikea-outfitted space right near the center of everything.

Our beautiful Airbnb in Madrid.

Our beautiful Airbnb in Madrid.

My traveling partner and I are both serial snackers, so we easily slid into the eat-and-mosy-and-eat-a-little-more pattern of tapas dining. Tapas (derived from the Spanish verb “tapar,” to cover) are strongly associated with Spanish cuisine in general, but the tradition originated in the southern region of Andalusia, and is not as deeply ingrained in the north, where Barcelona is. In Madrid (Spain’s belly button geographically), many dishes are offered in either small-plate portions (the traditional tapas) or meal sizes (“raciones”), but why have one when you can have four (or five or seven)? We consecrated the beginning of our first morning in the city, a Sunday, with slushed sangria and huge hunks of toast topped with iberico ham and olive oil-soaked octopus from El Capricho Extremeno. My traveling partner taught me her favorite Spanish word, “bacalhau” (cod), and I fell in love with saying it too—the way the l opens into the h. At some point in the day, we stopped for bacalhau with a smear of olive oil on toast and a less-than-two-euro glass of house vermouth on ice at Bodegas Ricla, operated by a mother and her two sons. We ate 2-euro (lightly, barely, beautifully fried) calamari sandwiches just off the scaffolding-smothered Plaza Mayor and a 15-euro skillet of luscious paella at La Barraca. We did the traditional food-march along Cava Baja: vino tinto and queso at Tempranillo, vino tinto and jamón and teeny sardines at Txakolina, vino tinto and tomato-rubbed toast at the place across from a place that ran out of empanadas. For good measure, we ate a plateful of salty ham, with pork haunches hanging all around, at Museu del Jamón. The menu prices in Madrid are reasonable, cheap even, but at each tapas place, with each drink, you also get a freebie of sorts: a tea plate filled with dry sausage slices and pretzel crackers, a dainty wedge of manchego on toast, or patatas bravas (which we never actually got, but apparently they’re everywhere). By bedtime, we had inevitably consumed a small pig and a loaf or two of pure carbs.

From El Capricho Extremeno.

From El Capricho Extremeno.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid.

Seafood paella at La Barraca in Madrid.

Seafood paella at La Barraca in Madrid.

Museu del Jamón.

Museu del Jamón.

Pre-dinner reading break around the corner from La Barraca, Madrid.

Pre-dinner reading break around the corner from La Barraca, Madrid.








To let our stomachs settle, we saw art. Goya, Velázquez, and the deliciously imaginative Bosch at the Prado. A Vogue-sponsored exhibit of waifs in saturated states of dress and undress, in gilt Versailles halls and algae-wrapped bathtubs, in the basement of the Thyssen-Bornemisza. Paintings made melancholy by age and a gorgeously show-offy staircase at the Cerralbo. We rode the glassed-in elevator and played a high-brow version of I spy with the Reina Sofia’s Salvador Dalí paintings (. . . a Hitler mustache . . . . a swarm of ants . . . two tiny humans on the horizon).

"Vogue, Like a Painting" exhibit at the Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

“Vogue, Like a Painting” exhibit at the Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

I started day three with a 9 a.m. run through Retiro Park (the full Spanish name translates to “park of the pleasant retreat”). Un-hungover, ready for another day of flexing our legs and stomachs and consuming all the wonderful culture of a grown-up city.

Vermouth and vacation reads at Café de Ruiz, Madrid.

Vermouth and vacation reads at Café de Ruiz, Madrid.

Vicki O’Connor

Roxane Gay

Traveling isn’t always attached to a destination. I believe in several of my posts, I have noted that traveling is about the journey and not the destination. Roxane Gay takes you on a journey with her writing style. It is raw, real, necessary, heartfelt and appreciated. You will experience a journey through every emotional and mental state known to human soul.

The Price of Black Ambition by Roxane Gay

Her debut novel, An Untamed State, has opened many eyes, and touched even more hearts. The accolades bestowed on this humble new writer only reiterate the talent this woman is thankfully willing to share with the masses.



St. Petersburg, Part 2: Doing the city right (or wrong, and still enjoying it)

Part 2 of Allison’s guest post on St. Petersburg focuses on the more local experiences and daily life of Russians. Enjoy!!

The Hermitage is indeed magnificent. The vodka, deliciously cheap (if still not exactly delicious). But the first thing I fell in love with about St. Petersburg were the subway stations—or metros, as most everyone besides Americans calls them.

Because Peter the Great decided to build his “Paris of the East” on a river-crossed swamp, the entrances to St. Petersburg’s deeply-dug 60-year-old metros are as elongated and slow as the buildup at the beginning of a roller coaster; so long and slow that the friend I stayed with in the city told me she avoided commuting by subway because the journey into and out of the station was longer than her whole ride. That journey in and out is on an escalator whose bottom you can only squint at from the first step, presided over by a crisply uniformed woman in a glass cubicle at the escalator’s base who booms at commuters—“no running,” “no sitting”—in Russian over a loudspeaker. Little lamps line the handrails; some are numbered. It’s best not to count your way to the end.

Escalator down into the "Palace of the People" - aka metro subway

Escalator down into the “Palace of the People” – aka metro subway

You slide off the last step and are buoyed along by the crowd into a cavern too impossibly gleaming and magnificently rendered to exist only for public transportation. In New York you come to think of subway stations as purgatory before an air-conditioned carriage whisks you off to your glittery destination (and compared to the gum-grimed stations with their perennial smell of candied piss, even a white cubicle seems like a glittery destination). But my friend and I spent the morning of my second day in St. Petersburg just riding from station to station. In one day I saw three zamboni-like sweeping machines at work; in five years I have maybe seen a handful of dirty mops working away at the station floors in New York.

Most St. Petersburg metros have themes fleshed out in mosaics spread throughout the station: Poseidon & co. at Admiralteyskaya (which lies an impressive 86 meters below ground), royal blue bomber jets at Komendantsky Prospekt, a red-and-white-tiled portrait of the Russian Futurist Mayakovsky at his eponymous stop, oranges made sinister at Dostoevskaya. But my favorite was one of our last, and also one of the most famous: Avtovo Station, with its carved white marble ceilings, heavy gothic chandeliers, and series of pillars encased in swirling sheaths of cut-glass, all dedicated to the Leningraders who defended their city against the 900-day Nazi siege during World War II. Running my hand across the stars and wreaths of those glass pillars felt more special than spinning around in the outrageously gilded rooms of the Hermitage Museum. These were objects of beauty dedicated to everyday life—there to prop up tired commuters for a 28-ruble (about 81¢) token fee. During the Soviet era the metros were fittingly dubbed “palaces of the people.”

Metro station at the Komendantsky Prospekt stop

Metro station at the Komendantsky Prospekt stop

Mayakovskaya metro station

Mayakovskaya metro station

A glass pillar the Avtovo metro station

A glass pillar the Avtovo metro station

For all of its stunning art, outside and in—both of which I discussed in last week’s post [LINK]—St. Petersburg is just as much about the experiences as it is about sightseeing. There are the subways, and of course, there’s the vodka, which I first experienced in the form of a $13 half-liter bottle taken down shot by shot at a Soviet-style bar called Kafe Mayak, at 20 Mayakovskaya. From a book my boss had recommended to me, a 1973 sociological portrait of Soviet Russia by a former New York Times Moscow bureau chief called The Russians, I had learned that 1) Russians never leave an opened bottle of vodka unfinished; 2) mixers are not an option; and 3) the hard-core survivors of the war-time famines chased their shots with only a sniff of black bread. We stuck to lemon slices and open-faced sausage sandwiches. Mayak, which means “lighthouse,” closes at 11 p.m., but we had more than our fill by then.

Vodka drinking at Mayak with open-faced sandwiches and lemon slices

Vodka drinking at Mayak with open-faced sandwiches and lemon slices

Russia’s gastro-delights don’t end with vodka. I was surprised to find a number of cafes and restaurants—from Biblioteka on the famed main drag Nevsky Prospekt, to Teplo, a dinner spot hidden inside an apartment courtyard—whose cappuccino foam art and light-wood interiors wouldn’t have felt out-of-place in my Williamsburg neighborhood in New York. I enjoyed their mouth-watering twists on classics like borscht and beef stroganoff just as much as people-watching the young and stylish at the faux-rustic tables. But one of my happiest experiences was at an anti-café—a uniquely Russian invention by Russia’s not-so-unique hipster set. The “anti,” is misleading, for these places have seating similar to most cafes and serve coffee, but instead of paying for your latte you pay for your time and have as many lattes, teas, and store-bought cookies as you want during that time. My friend and I paid 180 rubles, or around $5, at a place called FreeDOM (dom means “home”) for 90 minutes, two drinks each, a bowl of snacks, and the nicest customer service I had in Russia. We also brought our own picnic lunch to its Turkish-inspired room—just one in a labyrinth of themed spaces, from a techno-y video game lair to an old-timey room outfitted with faded wallpaper and an upright piano.

The friend I visited in St. Petersburg enjoying a cappuccino at the anit-cafe FreeDOM

The friend I visited in St. Petersburg enjoying a cappuccino at the anit-cafe FreeDOM

And then there was the botched but still well-worth-it experience of watching the bridges go up. My friend had first spent a year in St. Petersburg with a host family on a study abroad program—this time around, she was teaching English there for a year—and on one of her first nights in the city, her host sister took her down to the bank of the Neva River with a tote bag of beer after midnight. Every night, the many bridges along the Neva are raised up to allow larger vessels passage down the river. The particular bridge we chose was supposed to rise at 1:25 am, and we got down to the waterfront, wearing winter coats and nursing dark beers, a good 10 minutes ahead of time. 1:25 passed. Then 1:30. At 1:35 we peeked out from the stone stairwell in which we’d chosen to wait and saw a lit-up V down the river—a bridge that was supposed to go up after ours was already raised. What was wrong with our bridge? We decided to give it another 10 minutes. And then we saw a big ship pass effortlessly in front of us. “Hold on,” my friend said and scrambled up the stairs. Our bridge had already gone up—such a limited part of the bridge was raised up and it had happened so quietly that we hadn’t even noticed. Some other experiences that week had made me unsurprised that the bridges wouldn’t go up when they were supposed to, but this time, the goof was ours alone. We snapped a photo on my iPhone and ran home, laughing the whole way.

Watching the bridges rise of the Neva

Watching the bridges rise over the Neva

Lastly, in terms of classic Russian experiences, the ballet is justifiably a celebrated one. We saw the communist-era “Legend of Love” at the historic Mariinsky Theatre, a late-18th-century confection of mint and sea-foam greens. Women still wear dresses and heels to the show, and the panoply of coatrooms is in itself a thing to see. But no matter how magnificent the setting, what happens onstage is the highlight—in our case, an oriental-inspired morality tale conducted almost entirely en pointe. I will never forget it.

Mariinsky theater showcasing the Russian ballet

Mariinsky theater showcasing the Russian ballet

Russian ballet being performed in the historic Mariinsky Theater - circa 1873

Russian ballet being performed in the historic Mariinsky Theater – circa 1783

Dressing up to attend the Russian ballet at the historic Mariinsky Theater

Dressing up to attend the Russian ballet at the historic Mariinsky Theater

I will never forget a lot of things about St. Petersburg, but in my short but jam-packed time there, one observation seemed to rise above the rest: that St. Petersburg is essentially a city of opposites, of Germanic efficiency and bureaucratic senselessness, of big and small pleasures, of the over-the-top and the humble—from the Church on Spilled Blood’s rainbow-colored onion domes to a 10¢-bundle of fresh dill. And of the opposition between the tsarist and communist legacies, though one stroll through Petersburg’s streets makes apparent how similarly monumental each side aspired to be.

Check out some of Allison’s published poetry:

Learning to love poetry

I was one of the students who struggled through the poetry section of high school English classes. Finding the hidden meaning in a line-up of words that seemed to have no more connection to each other than oil and water, just wasn’t clicking for me. Not until I came across the poetry of a young writer, Allison Malecha.

Yes, Allison is my daughter, and yes by the laws of unconditional parenthood I am obligated to read her writings AND to LOVE them – all! The amazing part is I do, love them all – but not because she is my daughter, but because the writings resonate with me. Now I get how one is supposed to feel after reading poetry – moved by the element of combining simple every day words into a compilation of moods, emotions, adventures, scenery.

Allison is first on my list of ‘Favorite Writers’ to showcase another genre’ of writing and that is different from my style of writing. But yet shows another way of transporting a reader through words. Allison takes you on journey after journey to travel through time, through fairy tale lands and through some of the most beautiful scenic settings.

A recent graduate of Columbia University with a BA in Comparative Literature, Allison now works at a publishing house in NYC. She has had multiple poems published in her young career, with her first poem published at the age of 9. I have attached several of her poems and links to other poems. I hope you will enjoy them as I have.


More published poems

A link to two published poems at YARN (Young Adult Review Network):


Clutching the corner of a forlorn meatball,

The rat waltzes through the slit of a door

Into the shelter of a tin roof and

Cracked windows painted with dirt,

It leaves a bloodlike stain, the epitome of

A gunshot wound, but it’s food.

Her eyes barely hesitate at the rodent’s

Intrusion, not the first, not

The last.  She understands the hunt

For a way to survive.  L-I-L-Y

Spelled out in block black letters,

The corner of the nametag is

Peeling away,

She pins it on anyway.

Snakeskin stilettos pierce the

Marble floor of Maria’s home – all

7,000 square feet.  Floors never

Touched by the clack of a rat’s nails.

She glances at the clock, unapproving

As the maid flies in, two minutes, thirty seconds

Late.  She does not say a word to the

Lady, cannot for the life of her remember

The name.  Milly? perhaps

Trusting what’s-her-name to find the

Kids, Maria glides out through the slit

Of the door.  She is late herself, but

Only fashionably so.  The restaurant will

Wait, everyone waits for her, on

Her.  Smiling, a cold smile, a million dollar

Ice queen smile at her economic equals


Around the room.  Caviar adorns their

Plates, diamonds adorn their rings.

She picks at her meal, her appetite gone

Long ago.  After all she did not marry

The man across the table for his looks,

But the obesity

Of his wallet.  Holding the plate away from

The bleach white of his uniform, a busboy

Scrapes the ice queens meal into the garbage

Out back.  And later, a rat, with a circle

Of red dying his chest,

Crawls into heaven – another mans reek.

Circle was published in the Eastern Kentucky University Literary Journal

Life as the City

Life as the City

The day wraps around itself – graying petals raise the walls of a secret garden

around the sun, baring their water-plump underbellies to the world. 

The sky tips back in tremors of laughter, water draining

from its eaves, spreading the city over a lightless sky and dousing it in shades of


A puddle of silver satin sheets squirms beneath me.  Knees rolled

into my chest, arms draped around them, my eyes averted past the tear-

stained windows.  A tube of beer-battered light tunnels from the streetlamp,

the edges siphoned away, leaving a haze where warmth meets damp night. 

The sheets follow my feet to the floor — they don’t make it

past the bedroom.  A bellow of thunder greets my hand at the front door. 

Night and rain replace my skin in folds.  I am the city. 

I taste the perspiration fill my lungs, feel thousands of lights embed themselves

in my body, hear rippling voices tuck the kids away from the storm. 

The cool rain drips through thick fingers

of tar into my veins, and my heart beats erratically, in sync with a million others.

Tangerine wicker claws at the back of my legs, and I’m drawn back

away from the world.  The wicker chair is new, not broken in yet – like this 

Minneapolis life.  It needs to be tested, sculpted, softened.  A private smile

creeps out into the city; and I let the people do the breathing for me.