|Travelogue: Madrid 1999||
Berlitz European Menu Reader
Rick Steves' Mona Winks
The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
Flew from Boston to Madrid via Frankfurt on Lufthansa. The Lufthansa first class lounge in Boston is a small claustrophobic room. Decided to hang out in the business-class room instead. It is noisier, but at least there is life here.
Flying first class on Lufthansa on an Airbus A340-200. Wow! Walking into first class feels like walking onto a spacecraft. Everything is brushed aluminum and gray leather and vinyl. The service is spectacular. The seats will fully recline into beds (when the time comes) and are electronically adjustable. There are only eight seats in First Class, and only three of those are filled. I am just about to be served a glass of Champagne Laurant Perrier Cuvee Grand Siecle, a champagne that I have long wanted to try. I once read a review that said it was superior to Moet et Chandon's Cuvee Dom Perignon, and I gave a bottle once as a gift to a friend, but I haven't had the chance to try it myself. The review: the bubbles are very nice, small and well distributed. The bouquet is excellent. The flavor is very good, though my failing memory tells me that I think I liked the Dom better. I wish I had them side by side to do a taste comparison.
A beautiful takeoff from Boston. The air is very clear today, and we did a couple of circles around the city, gaining altitude. I donít recall seeing the city so clearly. It is an attractive and distinctive city from the air. The John Hancock building is really striking; a huge, flat, silver monolith glinting in the sun.
The food on this flight is looking to be "first class". We've been in the air some 20 minutes and they just started the non-stop feed. A small pre-appetizer dish of a ginger crusted shrimp and two pirouettes of beef wrapped around asparagus. Not bad. Now on my second glass of Laurant Perrier, I've asked the stewardess if I can do a taste comparison with the Taittinger Brut Reserve. "Of course, anything for our first class customers." Afraid I can't complain. The taste test: the Taittinger is minutely lighter in color, the bubbles are almost identical. The bouquet is slightly stronger on the Taittinger than the Laurant Perrier. Upon tasting the Taittinger, the bubbles explode in the mouth, creating more gas than is really pleasant; it's almost difficult to taste the wine. The Taittinger has a stronger bite than the Laurant Perrier, and has a stronger flavor over all. They are both great, but my nod goes to the Laurant Perrier.
I have to say, flying first class is really fun. Itís just a gas, man. On the other hand, it is kind of embarrassing. It is clearly an extravagance. On yet another hand, flying in a way that is as comfortable as sitting in your living room is a great thing. I will have to give this more thought.
I have put my fresh rose in the flower holder in the arm of the chair, and have just finished the appetizer of Sevruga Malossol caviar with garnishes. This really doesnít suck. Do I want seconds on the caviar? No, thanks, one was quite excellent. Dinner? Nicely done sea bass with an herb pasta, thank you very much.
The flight was smooth and uneventful, I watched Studio 54 on my personal video screen, and when I felt tired I reclined my seat into a bed. However, I just couldnít sleep. I donít really know why not. This is very frustrating, because I know it is crucial to getting onto European time to sleep on the flight. Argh. Oh well.
Frankfurt is a huge, attractive, modern airport. The Lufthansa first class lounge is nice, with an impressive collection of schnapps, but not much in the way of food. Out of interest, I also checked out the business class lounge. It is almost identical, except larger. The lounges have nice rooms off to the side with reclining chairs for "relaxing". Unfortunately, both rooms are placed in locations that happen to be very noisy. Even though I had the rooms to myself, I couldnít relax there due to the noise. I have 3 hours until my connecting flight to Madrid, so this is something of a bummer. I am tempted to drink heavily, but all that would do is make me fall asleep just as I am getting into Madrid. Hmmm.
I finally arrived in Madrid and checked in to the Tryp Ambassador hotel. It's really not as nice as I expected. My Fodor's book described the rooms as large, with separate sitting rooms and mahogany furniture. OK, so the furniture is mahogany. I suspect they were describing a suite. The standard rooms are quite small, and mine is a noisy room just above the street. Perhaps when I become a "professional" travel writer, I too can be put in unrealistically posh rooms. I looked into switching rooms, but the only thing they had that was better was a suite at twice the price. Given that the standard room rate is not cheap ($140 per night), I'm not excited about the idea. The hotel is very conveniently located, and perhaps I could recommend it if I had a better room, but based on my experience I cannot recommend this hotel at this price.
Totally exhausted, I collapsed for a 1.5 hour catatonic sleep. By the time I was up and about again, it was almost 4pm. Got dressed and headed out for a random walk, just to get the blood flowing. Eventually I found a café that looked interesting, and figured out how to order a black coffee, which turned out to be a demitasse of espresso (what Seattlites would call a "single straight-shot.") The Berlitz European Menu Reader is invaluable!
Somehow I expected people in Madrid to look, well, Spanish. I'm not sure I knew what Spanish was going to look like, but that is what I expected. There certainly are people here that look like what I could call "Spanish", but there is no real homogeneity. Of course, it is no more reasonable to ask what people look like in Madrid than to ask what they look like in New York. Madrid-ites donít look like New Yorkers, but neither do they look like some single thing that you can define. To make a long story short, I'm enjoying watching the people go by.
While sitting at the café I decided that I needed to go to the bathroom, so I looked in the pocket-sized Spanish-English dictionary that I bought at Half-Priced books for only $1.00. Guess what, it didnít have the word for "toilet"! Nor "bathroom", "restroom", or any other synonym I could think of. It was also missing the word "where" and the word "is". Hmmm. Fortunately Fodor's told me it is "Donde los servicios". Afterwards, I wandered over to a big department store because the battery in my currency calculator had died. Guess what, my dictionary doesnít contain the word for "battery". Fortunately I had the battery with me and was able to just show it to people. I finally I got the right battery after being pointed from one department to another. At this point I figured I'd better buy a new dictionary! Guess what, my dictionary doesnít contain the word for dictionary. It did contain the word for "book", though, so I was able to find my way to the Libro department to buy a new dictionary. Whew. I guess you really do get what you pay for, so skip those $1 dictionaries.
Eventually I made my way over to the Palacio Real and sat on a lawn watching the sun set across the valley.
Got a recommendation for a nearby restaurant from the hotel: La Taberna de Cascajares. It was a cheerful looking and brightly-lit place that looked like it was recently built to look old. Started with fish soup, which was very tasty, but also full of bones. Followed by a main course of baked hake (a kind of fish.) It was also tasty but very very bony. Overall an attractive place with good service, a bit pricey for what it is, and way too many fish bones.
Couldnít fall asleep until 2am. Uh oh.
Last night after failing to fall asleep, I made the fatal mistake of pulling the heavy curtains and not setting an alarm clock. In pitch darkness, I can sleep forever, and thatís what I did. Woke up and realized that the clock really did say 1pm. Holy cow. By the time I was up, washed and coffee'd it was after 2pm. By 3pm I was in the Prado ready to do the total-immersion into Spanish painting. But first I needed some lunch in a big way so I went to the cafeteria in the Prado. Had an absolutely heinous paella and a coke big enough to wash out the eye of a sparrow.
Explored the Prado (Spain's most important museum of painting) with the help of Rick Steves' book Mona Winks. Mona Winks provides a guide to a dozen or so of Europe's best known museums. Unfortunately, the Prado is currently undergoing significant repairs to its roof, causing the entire main transept to be closed on both floors. This has three results; first, everything is moved from where it is listed in the Rick Steves guide. Second, it is really challenging to get from one end of the museum to the other, and doing so involves going up and down a lot of stairs. Finally, many pieces are in storage. Nonetheless, the Prado has a phenomenal collection of paintings, and Steves does a good job of discussing the most significant ones. His book is particularly good if you donít have much time to spend in a museum and you really want to hit the highlights quickly (assuming the museum hasnít rearranged everything.)
My main focus was on the Spanish painters, even though the museum has a great collection of Dutch masters too, for whom I have always had a fondness. I also found myself spending a lot of time with the Raphaels and other Italian works, because I have been reading The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone (a book about the life of Michaelangelo) so my interest was piqued.
The work of Velazquez was truly amazing, and I was as taken by Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) as everyone else is. What a brilliant "candid" painting! El Greco's Christ Carrying the Cross is stunning, though most of his other work didn't grab me. It was cool getting to see Goya's La Maja, which is mostly interesting for its historical context.
When I was all museum'ed out, I went next door to the Jardin Botanica, a lovely botanic garden. Mostly just wandered and hung out. Taught myself the names of several common trees in Spanish.
Walking back to the hotel, I got some lemon sorbet. Outstanding. I noticed one thing about myself at the ice cream place; I seem to be more comfortable with Italian (which I donít speak) than with Spanish (which I didnít speak before Wednesday.) For some reason I always want to say "grazie" instead of "gracias", "piccolo" instead of "pequeno", and "due" instead of "dos". Go figure.
For dinner I decided I would wander around eating Tappas, as is apparently the local custom. Went over to the Plaza Major where many Tappas restaurants are centered. I followed Fodor's advice and headed to Cava de San Miguel, but all the bars there were filled with tourists and looked phony. I decided to head back to several more authentic places I had seen along the way. Spanish waiters are not even a little bit patient. In fact, they are quite pushy and rude. I was carefully working my way through my Berlitz European Menu Reader figuring out what the various Tappas were, while getting brushed aside by rude diners and being glowered at by rude waiters. How pleasant. Eventually I was ready to order, but by that point the waiters were pointedly ignoring me. I left unserved and repeated this performance at another place. Annoyed, I left for a third place where I just gave up, sat down at a table and asked for a menu. I had a fixed price menu of mediocre paella and pollo asado, with an ignorable red wine and bread with no butter. I skipped desert.
Got back to my room and was further assaulted by how unimpressive it is. It is small, dark, and noisy. The carpet is threadbare, the shower sucks, and though I used up the tiny packed of 4 kleenex, the house keeping staff didn't replace it.
The pillow is 1/2 inch thick. This place is not recommended.
There is a group of people having a party out on the street outside my window. Why? They are standing on a random street with grocery bags of drinks, and are drinking and talking and partying. These people look to be well dressed and in their mid to late 20's. Donít they have homes? Why party at a random spot on a random street. I donít get it.
I got up at a reasonable hour this morning and had breakfast at the hotel. It was a pretty good spread, but really fattening. I couldnít choke much down - my body still thinks it's 4am.
Did Fodor's "A Good Walk: Central Madrid". Spent a really long time in the Parque de Retiro, a grand and wonderful park. It was a warm, sunny Saturday and everyone was out having a good time. The post office in Madrid is an unbelievable building. Huge, magnificent, fantastic. Bought some postage stamps for post cards - it was an epic experience just being in the building. Went ack up to the Plaza Major, which is just great. Madrid is a grand old capitol city. Broad promenades, plazas, fountains, and statues. Outdoor cafes. There is just no comparison between a truly grand city like Madrid or Paris, and a relatively new city like Seattle or Los Angeles. Even Boston and Chicago donít really compare. The broad avenues and grand buildings are really awe-inspiring. And Seattle cannot begin to be a real city until it builds its Commons.
On the other hand, Madrid really reminds me most of New York. No one smiles on the street or in cafes, restaurants and bars. There is no eye contact. It really is a lonely place for an outsider. I am trying to speak Spanish and I feel that I am learning very quickly. However, these people are not patient and are not interested in helping a beginner.
As far as surviving in Madrid, the Berlitz European Menu Reader is a life savor. Highly recommended.
Had dinner at Los Galayos in Plaza Major. It was recommended by the hotel concierge. This is an expensive, mediocre tourist restaurant. No one there was Spanish. I had salad with "fresh" tuna on top. It was tuna from a can. Poor. Had sautéed Fois Gras. Came out cold. I mean ice cold. Have you ever bitten into a piece of ice cold liver? Ugh! I complained to waiter. He gave me a hard time and muttered insults under his breath (in English!) as he carried my rejected appetizer away. Avoid this place like the plague.
Went out to try to experience the famous nightlife at a hip club called "Pacha" at Calle Barcelo 11 at about midnight. When I got there I heard a huge commotion up the street and went to check it out. There in the park and spilling out into the street were hundreds of young people. They all had grocery bags full of booze and mixers. Wine, beer, liquors, drunk from cups or right from the bottle. Lots of kids smoking pot. Basically everyone looked like they were getting hammered as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. I really couldnít believe the crowd. The park was covered in trash and broken glass from the partying, there was graffiti everywhere, and there was the distinct smell or urine. What were these kids doing here? Why here? Odd.
I went into the club and found it almost completely empty. I talked to a couple of girls from Nice, France, in a mixture of English, French and Spanish. They told me that nothing happens until 2am when the kids would come in from the park. Why? Exhausted, I left just when things were getting going.
Did Fodor's "A good walk: Medieval Madrid". Donít even think of trying to follow this unless you have a map. Fodor's did an awful job with this one. They donít distinguish between things that are 100 feet apart, and things that are 1/2 mile apart. They never tell you when you are supposed to backtrack, they never warn you when street signs are missing or hard to find. They never say useful things like "Take your 3rd left", instead they say "Go up such-and-such street". Oh yeah? What is "up", left or right? Is that street 100 feet from the last landmark, or 1/2-mile. When should I start wondering if I've missed it?
I stumbled upon an incredibly hip, happening bar near Plaza Paja. This place was rocking at 5pm on a Sunday. No point remembering the name; next month some other place will be the place to be. I managed to strike up a conversation in a combination of English, French and Spanish with a young couple at the bar. Finally some human interaction!
Had various tappas at a couple of bars near Plaza Major. It was good. All the food here is so fattening. Everyone really ought to be dropping dead right and left. They all eat fattening foods, drink like fish, smoke like fiends, and never sleep.
Figured out how to order a pancake breakfast at the "Cafeteria" up the street from my hotel. Yee ha. It was a yummy change from the fat-filled breakfasts at the hotel.
Went to the museum of modern art: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, located just a few blocks from the Prado. This is the museum where Picasso's Guernica is located. I'm sorry, but I just donít like cubism, and the Guernica does nothing for me. Sorry, there it is. I said it and I feel much better. I know 9 out of 10 people reading this have now fainted dead away or branded me a troglodyte, but hey, that is how I feel. I'm looking at the Guernica, trying to get some feeling from it. It is supposed to be a deeply emotional piece. Finally I decided that I am going to sit there and stare at it until I find something to connect to. Of course, there are no seats. So, standing against the wall, I sit down on the floor to contemplate this painting. Immediately a guard rushes over - I must not sit. Why the hell not? Its not like I take up any more room sitting against the wall than standing next to it. OK, I stand up and walk away. Today is not the day for me to understand the Guernica. The rest of the Picassos do equally little for me. I stand, I look at a painting. What is the artist trying to express? I try "joy". No. "Anger"? No. Pure fluid motion? No. Beauty? No. I try a pure blank mindÖ what do I feel? Confusion. I donít think I need to look at art to feel confusion.
Mostly I didnít like anything at the museum. Up on the top floor there were two or three really great things, but the rest left me cold. Of particular note was a piece by Antonio Lopez Garcia named La Cena, somewhere on the top floor.
After the museum I wandered back to the Parque de Retiro and whiled away more time sitting, reading, and drinking lemonade.
Back at the hotel I asked for another dinner recommendation. Got the same old list of 3, including the awful Los Galayos. I asked about Lhardy, highly recommended by Fodor's. They said, no, Lhardy serves a style of food that is only eaten at lunch. Uh huh. I said, OK, what is the best Spanish restaurant in Madrid. The woman behind the counter got angry. She gave me some name and warned me that it is very expensive. I said "Cost no object, money is irrelevant, I want the best." She looked pissed and called the restaurant for me. She said they were full up. Sure, early on Monday one single person can't get in. It's possible, but I donít believe her. Anyway, I went to Lhardy. It was very good. The service was excellent and the food was good. Started with a bowl of consommé, which was good if a bit salty, then had a dish of veal with duck liver in a béchamel sauce, and finished with a kind of a soufflé. It wasnít incredible by any means, but was far better than the places the hotel had recommended. I conclude that this hotel only recommends restaurants that they get kickbacks from. I like this hotel less and less. My review of this hotel is now "Avoid". I donít know why it is rated a "****" hotel. You can dislike a place pretty quickly. To loath a place really takes some time.
Had another terrifyingly fat-filled breakfast at the hotel. I donít know why I eat here.
Went to the Palacio Real, one of Madrid's two great gems. For some reason I decided to wait for the guided tour instead of just doing the self-guided tour. Though Fodor's notes that tours are available, they fail to mention that if you want your tour in English, you will have to wait. My wait was about 50 minutes. In fact, the guide was not worth the wait. Her accent was so heavy that it was difficult to understand what she was saying. This difficulty was compounded by the fact that there were a good number of non-English speakers doing self-tours and chatting away amongst themselves, some quite loudly. Clearly the non-English tourists were oblivious to the fact that there was a group of us desperately trying to decipher the Pidgin of our guide.
At the risk of sounding exceedingly chauvinistic, I am somewhat surprised by the lack of accommodation to English speakers in Madrid. This is an international capitol city, after all, and English is the most broadly spoken language in the world. Granted, there are more speakers of Chinese than of English, but English is spoken more broadly than any other language, and is the closest thing the world has to a universal language. This is not just my opinion. It is no accident that English is the official language of airline pilots and air traffic control the world over. And I read that there are more speakers of English in China than in the USA.
As long as I am venting some spleen, while I was passing 50 minutes waiting for my English language tour to begin, I headed out into the expansive courtyard of the palace. The sun was shining, and it was a warm beautiful spring day. No day to be waiting indoors. The courtyard contains absolutely nowhere to sit. However, there are ornate lamps set on stone pedestals that make acceptable seats. So, I sat. A guard came rushing over to shush me off of this block of granite. I was minding my own business, doing no harm, and yet it was unacceptable to be at all comfortable. Things like that just piss me off. Hi ho. Meanwhile the whole city of Madrid is suffering from a bad case of Graffiti. Oh well.
So the palace was stunning. Flanking the initial staircase is a pair of magnificent marble lions. The rooms are ornately decorated, and effectively un-photographable. Huge ceilings covered in frescoes, walls covered with silks and magnificent tiles. Inlaid marble, gilding, paintings, etc. etc. The chapel in the palace is epic. The Palacio Real is truly a "cant miss" Madrid destination. However, donít bother with the guided tour, especially if you can find a guidebook that describes the palace. After the tour of the palace, I entered the Royal Pharmacy museum (also on the palace grounds.) It is basically several rooms full of old medicine jars, pestles, etc. At one point I took a photo but forgot to turn off the camera's flash. Uh oh. After scolding me, the guard proceeded to follow me around for the rest of my visit, scowling. I hate that. I need to look in a history book and find out if I resemble some notorious Spaniard; perhaps Franco. Everyone here is so unpleasant to me, there must be something.
After the Palacio, I decided to go back to the Prado to view their collection of 15th - 16th C. Flemish paintings. This is one of my favorite periods in painting, and I had mostly missed them the other day. Stopped in at a bar on the way to get some food. The place is called Taberna Real, and is located across the plaza from the Opera house. Had an OK beer, a huge plate of really good green olives, and some over priced ham on toast. I wasnít really satisfied, so I ordered the Empanada de la Casa, which my menu book describes as a pie or tart with a meat or fish filling. It turns out that at Taberna Real, the Empanada de la Casa is filled with oysters. I have to say that this was the worst tasting thing I have ever put in my mouth. That's really saying something too, because I have eaten Uni (raw sea urchin) in Sushi bars. This thing tasted like the bottom of a stagnant pool of dead shellfish. I felt like someone was playing some kind of stupid schoolboy trick on me: "Let's get Mikey to eat it, he'll eat anything." Even after washing my mouth out with the rest of the beer, the taste clung to me for at least a half an hour. Uhhhh. I shudder at the thought.
So get this; since last week the Prado has opened the main central rooms on the first floor, so now you can get from one side of the museum to the other. They have also rearranged the locations of the early Flemish paintings, and put several of them away in storage! It is now even harder to find the paintings I was looking for. On the other hand, they have unearthed the Titians (or, at least, I was able to find them this time.) The Titians are wonderful, especially "The Worship of Venus", which I spent considerable time admiring. I bought the museum's guidebooks (in English) on Bosch and the early Flemish painters, and on Titian. Had a great time studying these wonderful collections in detail.
After the Prado, I walked back towards my hotel, and stopped in at a sweets shop to buy some pretty looking pastries and candied fruits. I walked back around the Palacio and down to the Campo del Moro (the huge formal gardens behind the palace.) They provide a spectacular view of the back of the palace, and are wonderful in and of themselves. I sat there and sampled my sweets, which while lovely to look at were just as disappointing in taste as everything else in Madrid.
Finished up the evening with more Tapas at the Museo Jamon and packed it in for the night. Actually, thatís not quite true. After a while at the hotel I decided that I wanted just a bit more to eat, so I headed down to the café and restaurant in the hotel to get a cup of soup or some such. I had a look at the menu which included vegetable soup - just the ticket. I sat down in the café, but they informed me that soup was not on the café menu. Adjoining the café was the restaurant. I walked into the restaurant and told the waiter that all I wanted was soup. He looked annoyed and informed me that he couldnít seat me for just soup. The place was half empty. I told him that I would be happy to eat in the café, but they won't serve soup. Reluctantly he seated me. To make a long story short it took me about 45 minutes to get a cup of soup and some bread (no butter.) This hotel just gets better and better.
Got up and before starting to pack I decided that I wanted to get a cup of coffee. I headed down to the café but found that it was closed so I went over to the breakfast room. I told the maitre d' that I only wanted coffee. He told me that he couldnít give or sell me a cup of coffee, it was full breakfast only. Can you believe that! I walk away, but then decided this was stupid and went back. I told him that I had been a guest at the hotel for 6 days, and the café was closed, and all I wanted was a cup of coffee. He refused. Well, I was damned if I was going to pay these bastards for a full breakfast for just a cup of coffee. The cheapest Motel 6 in the USA would have treated me better!
I went to reception and told them how awful I thought their hotel was. "Reamed them a new asshole" to quote Kurt Vonnegut. Let them have it with both barrels. This place is pathetic, and I made sure they knew it.
Went to the cafeteria up the street for me coffee, then went back to the hotel to pack up to check out. Somewhere in this process I discovered that the CD-roms I carry with me for my computer were missing! I'm pretty sure a hotel maid rifled my suitcase and stole them. Like I needed another reason to hate this hotel. OK, lord, lesson learned. If you check into a hotel and it sucks, check out and go somewhere else. It isn't going to get any better.
Got the hell out of the hotel and took a cab to the airport. Today I fly to Paris via Frankfurt.
Madrid is a big, exciting, interesting capital city in the grand tradition of ancient European cities. The Prado museum contains very significant paintings, the Palacio Real is stunning. The beautiful buildings, grand plazas and broad boulevards are wonderful. However, the people are incredibly unfriendly, and the food is mediocre at best. Whoever said that the French were rude never spent a week in Madrid. I am not rushing back.
Round the World: [Back to Florida]
© 1998, Andrew Sigal
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