This past weekend I had the pleasure of spending 2 days in the Spanish capital. The primary reason I was there was to audition for a summer music festival. They unfortunately don’t hold auditions in the UK (or they didn’t this year), and Madrid was the cheapest place to get to, and probably the cheapest to stay in as well. The added bonus was that I’ve never been to Spain!
I went with memories of my stay in Portugal a few years ago fresh in my head: winding streets, cheap wine, beautiful scenery, absolutely roasting temperatures, and no idea how to pronounce anything. (Maybe this should really be its own separate blog post?) I can say this for Madrid at least: I found it to be less beautiful than Porto and Lisbon, but the people and the food completely won me over.
Rather than describe my experience in detail (because that mostly just involved walking around, taking pictures, and eating stuff) I thought I would write about some of the things that stuck out to me instead. That’s more fun anyway, right?
1. Spanish apartments are built to keep the heat out.
My Airbnb host lived near the Concha Espina/ Colombia metro stations, in what seemed to be a slightly older building that had been refurbished. The place itself was really nice, but I noticed something in my room that I’ve never seen in southern Europe before: a metal blind fitted over the outside of the window, which looked like it belonged more on a storefront at night in the Bronx. My host lives on the first floor of her building (that’s the second floor for the Americans out there), so I assumed that it probably wasn’t for security.
In the morning I looked across the courtyard to see that all of the other apartments also had these metal rollers! Surely, I thought to myself, there must be practical point behind them, because otherwise they’re really sort of an eyesore. I also noted that one or two of the apartments had awning fitted over their windows, but I didn’t think much about it at the time.
My suspicions niggled at me until I got home and did some research, only to find that those metal rollers are actually called persianas, and their main purpose is to keep the head out in the summer since many places don’t have air conditioning. You can get them made out of wood if you’re ~fancy~ but most are aluminum because it’s cheaper, and they’re operated from inside the residence, even though they’re fitted on the outside of the window. The more you know…
2. Madrid is a “newer” city, at least by European standards.
I actually didn’t think about this much until I was watching a Wolter’s World video in bed on the night before I left. Madrid, is certainly an old city, with plenty of history and interesting architecture to hold your interest for years. But compared to the other major capitals of Europe, Madrid is relatively “new.” Sure, Casa de Cisneros, Madrid’s oldest building, is from the 1500s, but overall the city isn’t full of old, beautiful churches that you can wander into at your leisure, Roman ruins that you stroll by in the city center, or even street names that harken to a grittier past (a la London). For the truly old world feel, where you’re surrounded by monasteries and vineyards send among 600-year-old streets, you need to go elsewhere.
3. Paella isn’t a Madrid thing.
When you ask anyone who has been to Spain what food you should try on your trip, they’ll probably tell you that you need to eat paella. It’s obviously an amazing dish, and if you’re in Spain you should definitely try it, but be warned, it’s not a native Madrid dish.
I read of this online before I even set foot in Spain. “You’ll only get microwaved rice!” on website warned. “You’ll overpay for bad quality!” another shouted.
I actually wound up seeking out a Murcian restaurant that had gotten good reviews on TripAdvisor, only to find that what I thought was going to be a traditional Murcian dish was actually only rice completely drenched in sauce and salt with a few little shrimps added into it. Waste of time, waste of money! Lesson learned, if you’re in the Spanish capital, go for the tapas!
4. Spaniards like their chocolate!
This is an absolutely AMAZING thing if you’re in Spain and you have a sweet tooth. There are dozens of chocolaterias around the city, but I went straight to what is arguably the most famous, Chocolateria San Gines, and ordered myself 6 churros to go, along with a cup of hot chocolate. Pro tip: if you want to really feel like a Madrileño, take your churros and dunk ’em. You won’t be sorry.
Anyway, this chocolate wasn’t your typical Hershey’s affair with tons of sugar and milk. The cup of hot chocolate I had could have been a melted bar, thick and creamy, but not overly sweet, and also not bitter. It was, in a word, perfect.
I also made a specific trip to La Casa Inglesa to buy some torrones for myself and Ivan. Unlike the Italian version, with more nougat and fewer nuts, the Spanish ones come in long bars and are hard and crunchy… and many are actually just plain chocolate with different flavorings.
Point being, if you like your sweets, Spain should rank high on your “ideal vacation” list.
5. The people are really friendly and helpful.
I was really pleasantly surprised at this. After having been to Portugal I was expecting service and friendliness to be about the same, which is to say, not great.
What I found was completely the opposite. The lady at the post office tried to hold a conversation with me after I asked for international stamps in broken Spanish. A guy on the metro tried to talk to me after both of our valid tickets were rejected at the entrance tills. Even the street artists will talk to you, and it doesn’t matter whether you give them money or not.
Maybe my heart is turning cold and English, but in retrospect I shouldn’t be so surprised. On my last flight from Baltimore I took I must have looked so nervous around take-off time that the Spanish gentleman next to me held my hand, and then proceeded to talk to me partly in Spanish, partly in Italian, and partly in English for the proceeding hour. The guy I sat next to on the way home from this trip filled me in on Spanish politics and the Catalonian independence movement.
Really, I can’t say I’ve ever met a Spaniard that wasn’t nice to me, and that should inspire all of you to go someday if you can. I rarely visit a county and decide right away after leaving that I want to go back and see it again, but Madrid captured me somehow, and I would jump at the chance to go explore other parts of the country too.