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
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.
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.
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).
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.