Friday, March 16, 2012

Spain trip part 1: Madrid and Toledo!

This is a lot after the fact, but I took notes while in Spain, and we were there for TWO WEEKS so there will be a lot of stuff to talk about. Please bear with me. I will probably have to post in chunks. 

Upon arrival, after a little siesta, mom, Aunt Martha and I went to lunch at a fabulous paella place called Albur in the Malasana area of Madrid. It was our first meal and it was excellent! For starter, we split a delicious salad that had bacon and goat cheese. After, we shared one paella for two, which was more than enough food! Kristen had recommended this place to me as “the best paella in Madrid.” You may remember, I had been here the last time I came to Madrid. It was just as great!

After, we walked around the park on the west side of Madrid, searching for the Temple Debod. Somehow we over shot it and were too far down hill to get to it. However, the park was nice and included a rose garden that was out of season, but I can only imagine how beautiful it is when all the roses are in bloom.

We continued south through Madrid towards the Royal Palace. Did you know Madrid has a king and queen? They don’t really use the palace any more, but it is definitely a symbol of their royal history and grandeur. Apparently Spain’s is the longest running royal blood line. Anyway, we saw a bit of the gardens behind the palace, and then walked up to see the front of the palace and the cathedral, which face each other (representing the tie between royalty and religion). We then hooked east and had tapas for dinner at the Mercado del San Miguel. I had a pinxto with gamba (a thin slice of nice bread with shrimp) and a green sauce (I imagine pesto possibly mixed with a mayonnaise?) as well as an empanada con carne (thickly breaded and baked ground beef).

One thing you will quickly notice about our trip is how much delicious food we ate! The sites in Spain are beautiful, but the food and wine is equally spectacular, and cheap! The main meal is at lunch from 2-4pm and for just 10-15euro (about $12-20) you can have a wonderful 3-course meal with a glass of wine. At night they have a late and light dinner, usually of tapas, which is a small piece of food for one. Traditionally, tapas should come when you order a drink and is meant to compliment the drink. This is quite common in the south of Spain. In Madrid, you still will find that you’ll get a snack with your drink, but often when someone goes out for tapas, they can buy really yummy ones for about $5 each. Often people will go “tapas hopping” meaning they will have one tapa (I think you say “tapa” for the singular, but it could also always be “tapas,” I’m not too sure) and drink (usually a glass of wine) at a bar and then carry on to the next one. So, as you see, you can eat and drink really well for less than $30 per day. In France, that would be completely unheard of!

The next day was Monday. After having some coffee, the weather was gorgeous, so we headed to Retiro Park on the east side of Madrid. This park is famous for being absolutely gorgeous. There is a beautiful spot with a small pond and elaborate fountain with stairs that you can sit on. You can paddle boat in the pond, and therefore it reminds me a bit of Central Park. We continued walking down the park and stopped in a small gallery that is a part of the Reina Sophia. The Reina Sophia is the modern art museum in Madrid and is famous for its Dali’s and Picasso’s (specifically the Guernica, which I’ll talk a bit about later). The exhibit is small, simple, and nice. Better still, we got free entry to the museum Reina Sophia, which is a bit south of the park and usually costs about $10-15 per person. Just a little further on is the Glass Palace. The Glass Palace used to be a green house and now is just a pretty little glass room. Nearby, there was a film crew and it seemed they were shooting a film, though I didn’t recognize anyone there…

We finished walked through the lovely park and headed over to the Reina Sophia. As I mentioned, we had free tickets, so even though none of us really love modern art, we figured we might as well check it out. We saw a few Dali’s, which is always a bit bizarre, and then pretty much headed for the most famous piece: Picasso’s Guernica. For those of you who are really into modern art, I’m sure your cringing and thinking, what tourists! Sorry, that’s just how it is. The Guernica was cool. It is impressive how massive it is. Something new that was there was this huge camera scanner that they apparently use to analyze the piece in a really high-tech way, to see if he had altered it originally and what types of materials he used. It’s great for preserving the piece, analyzing it closely without tampering with it, and understanding Picasso’s artistic process. After, we headed to the rooftop, which has a nice view of Madrid.

Then, we popped over to the Atocha train station, which is just across the street. The train station was really amazing. It’s very clean and modern, and there is a really amazing little forest in the middle of it.

After, we were on the hunt to find a restaurant that was recommended to Aunt Martha, but we just couldn’t find it. So we headed to Plaza Santa Anna, which is a quaint little plaza, and sat at a restaurant called Vina P. Here I had peas sautéed in ham and a grilled salmon. The peas were wonderful and apparently pretty traditional in Spain. It was still so lovely out that we got to eat out on the terrace and worry about sunburn.

Then we meandered about on the lovely streets of Spain. One thing I love about Spain is the architecture: it’s just so magnificent. We wandered into the Ritz to see how much a cup of coffee costs (10euro!!!) and to see how gorgeous it is. On another recommendation of Aunt Martha’s, we went to the Centro de Bellas Artes. For only 2euro, you get to go on the rooftop for a beautiful view of Madrid. Normally it also includes a viewing of the wonderful exhibits there, but they failed to mention to us that on Mondays the exhibits are closed. So we sat in the lovely café there and had a coffee, a hot chocolate, and a milk shake. One thing that surprised Aunt Martha about her hot chocolate was how thick it was. In Spain hot chocolate is so thick, it’s like a dessert and not really a drink. Often you eat it with a spoon or by dipping churros into it.

We then headed to the other very famous museum in Madrid: the Prado. The last two hours it is open, it is free, so we also got to go to that museum for free! Famous artists in the museum include Goya, Valasquez, Ruben and el Greco. It is very impressive how large the museum is; we only spent time on one floor!

For dinner, we had tapas at the Cerverceria Cervantes, which was recommended in our Fodor’s book. We had tapas with cod, salmon, and shrimp. The shrimp one is specifically known and is highly recommended!

After, we headed to Malaspina, near Plaza del Sol, to have a few more tapas. Here we had a bit of chorizo and an empanada de carne. They also brought us real tapas with our drinks (ie, FREE!): Spanish tortilla (egg with potatoes) and olives. I highly recommend this tapas place. The tapas are about 5euro each (which is a bit pricey for tapas) but they are quite large and for three people 2 is definitely enough (but if you’re hungry, three is good!).

The next day, Tuesday, we went to Toledo. Toledo is a quick 30 minute high-speed train ride from Madrid and great for a day trip. If you do go, be sure to book your tickets in advance as the train often fills up. It is only 20euro each roundtrip to take the train and I would suggest leaving early in the morning and taking an evening train back as there is a lot to see in this beautiful, former capital of Spain! Also to note: your train ticket has assigned seats! We didn’t know that and only realized on the return trip that we must have stolen peoples’ seats!

Toledo is a wonderful city because it was the first capital of Spain and was the head of the Spanish church. It was known as the city of the three cultures where Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together peacefully. Toledo was often fought over between the Muslims and Christians as the seat of power. (That’s the history of Toledo very, very generally! You might want to look up more info!!!)

First, after leaving the beautiful Atocha train station, we arrived at the beautiful Toledo train station. This station has gorgeous tiles and brown, earthy walls. We then took a bus for 2euro into town (it’s is definitely too far to walk). The town is extremely beautiful with earthy hues and old fortified walls.

We headed to the cathedral there which is expensive, but not to be missed. At first we were really shocked by the price, but once inside we realized it was well worth it. The cathedral is massive and breath-taking. No cost was spared in building this. Not to be skipped are the sacristy and treasury. In the sacristy there are incredible works of art, particularly by el Greco, who came from Toledo. In the back rooms there are beautiful tapestries and garb that had been worn by different high members of the clergy. In the treasury are astounding gold and jewels. There is also a lovely cloister where the monks could walk and contemplate the mysteries of the world. In it, there are orange trees and frescos that I believe were being refurbished.

After the cathedral, we went to one of the two synagogues there. At one time, the Jews, Christians, and Muslims all cohabitated in Toledo (and Spain in general) quite peacefully. The one synagogue we went to was made into a museum and is fairly interesting, though a little disappointing after seeing the massive cathedral. Kristen tells me the other synagogue is better. Oh well… Anyway, the synagogue has several artifacts from the traditions of the former Jewry here and the style of the building is interesting. There is a small courtyard with the stone sarcophaguses of passed Jews.

After, we walked a bit in the Jewish quarter to look at the shops. One shop we liked was small and run by a father and son. You could actually watch the son making the different pieces for the shop as the father deftly brings you through his shop. They recommended to us a restaurant across the alley. The food was not the best, but not bad, however the courtyard where we sat was beautiful. It was really an atrium type of room: it was in the middle of the building but had an open roof. The whole room had beautiful tile work and I found it to be quite peaceful. It was also really cheap: for about 10euro we got a bottle of wine for the three of us plus a three course meal. I enjoyed a lunch of paella for appetizer and quail for the meal, which was quite interesting. We also had delicious marzipan and chocolate mousse for dessert.

Already we had to start thinking about getting the bus to the train station. We wandered the streets, stopping in a marzipan shop where nuns made the marzipan. We also mailed postcards from the post office (also very beautiful) and window shopped. I think we could have definitely spent more time in Toledo. It would have been nice to see the fortified walls that you can actually walk on, and there is a fort/ castle there as well.

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