Story and photos by John Blanchette
adrid, Spain This was my first visit to Spain, but I felt Id
been preparing for this day all my life. As we descended on Iberia Airlines
into Madrid airport at 7 a.m., I woke from years of dreams about this
The sun was also rising as I thought of Hemmingway,
and the country he wrote about and loved so much.
I thought of Cervantes Don Quixote,
the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, artists El Greco, Goya, Velazquez, Miro,
Picasso and Dali, musicians Segovia and Pablo Casals; even the Gypsy
Kings, Flamenco dancing and tapas,
the wonderful appetizers that are so renowned in Madrid.
And I also thought of the murderous dictator Franco,
who collaborated with the Nazis, allowed the blitzkrieg bombing of his
own people and repressed the artistic and social development of the
country for 36 years, until his death in 1975. Thankfully, Spain has
now taken its place as one of the leading economies in Europe.
lies upon a high baking plain surrounded by burnt out desert in the
very heart of Spain. It is not uncommon for summer temperatures to rise
well above 100 degrees. Europes highest capital at 2,200 feet,
it is a green beacon in this arid terrain, in fact the second greenest
capital in the world, next to Brasilia. It is full of parks, forests,
tree-shaded lanes, fountains, pools and lakes that cool it during the
hot summer months.
In the Plaza de Cibeles, a fountain dedicated to
the goddess of nature protects the Palacio de Communicaciones (main
post office), presumably from rain, sleet, snow and dark of night
all roads lead to Madrid, the political, cultural and social capital
of the country. About the size of Los Angeles, it is a sprawling city
with close to four million inhabitants. The surrounding communities
bring the population to about six million. Segovia and Toledo
are less than an hour away by car and in one and a half hours you could
be skiing in the Navacerrada mountain range.
Madrids main thoroughfare, the Gran Via, is
popular for shopping and clubs
Unfortunately, as in most large cities in Spain, the
fringes are the prey of unconscionable developers who are raising brick
and concrete apartment structures with no redeeming architectural value.
And these hideous developments are stretching their ugly, bony fingers
across the beautiful face of Spain.
To understand life in Spain you have to familiarize
yourself with the social nature of the dining regimen. The Spanish eat
constantly into the wee hours of the night. Similar to the Hobbit diet,
the day often begins with two breakfasts, the first coffee and toast
and the second, mid morning, is often a slice of Tortilla de Patatas;
a potato, onion and egg frittata, accompanied by wine or beer.
About 1 p.m. businesses begin to shut down for three
hours and the tapas bars open. Tapas are a wide variety
of small snacks that originated over a hundred years ago when bartenders
began covering drinks with saucers (tapas) to keep out the flies.
They began putting cheese, olives, nuts and bits of meat on the plate
to accompany the drink. The practice has progressed to a whole creative
gastronomy of hot and cold appetizers, costing from one to two euros.
Following tapas, the main meal of the day, la comida,
begins about 2 p.m. and may include a nap.
Around 4 p.m. business resumes and continues till 8
p.m. The cafes and tearooms open at 5:30 for snacks and pastries. Beginning
about 7 p.m. bars are again serving tapas with sherry, wine or
beer. Spaniards go out to diner beginning about 10 p.m. Americans will
find very few restaurants open before 8:30 p.m. and certainly no customers,
except fellow travelers who have not adapted to the local customs.
The Spanish party late into the night. It is not uncommon
to see whole families, including children and grandparents, eating and
drinking in the citys thousands of tapas bars and cafes
well past midnight.
Street entertainers are everywhere at all times
of the day and night
No visit to Madrid is complete without attending the
museums, which hold some of the greatest art of Western Civilization.
When I walked into the Prado it was like opening my college art history
book. The first painting I spotted was Fra Angelicos Annunciation,
right next to some Botticellis. There was Boschs Garden
of Earthly Delights, Durer self portraits, whole rooms of Goyas,
El Grecos, Miros, Valazquezs and Raphaels. They
were so accessible they seemed vulnerable to harm. You can walk up within
inches of unprotected masterpieces, neither cordoned off nor sealed
from close inspection and possible mischief.
Entrance to the Prado Museum, which houses some
of the greatest treasures of European civilization
Nearby are the Museum Reina Sophia, which specializes
in modern art and houses Picassos huge and magnificent Guernica,
and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, one of the most important privately
assembled art collections in the world.
Always carry some Euros. A surprising number of shops
dont honor credit cards or travelers checks, because of
the exorbitant fees, and most wont accept American dollars or
checks. Confer with your bank regarding Spanish ATMs, which may require
a special code but often deliver the best exchange rates.
Also as a general rule, dont fly into Miami from
Madrid during hurricane season or you may find yourself sitting in the
airport for 28 hours waiting for the next flight out. Yes, I know from
The charming Old Madrid section of the city is best
traversed on foot and can be navigated in less than an hour, but there
is also a hop on, hop off, double decker bus service, Madrid-Vision.
For 10 euros you can travel for 24 hours through its barrios and past
the citys great monuments. Madrid
cards are 1-3 day tourist cards that include admission to 40 museums,
buses, the Madrid-Vision, and discounts for shows, shops and restaurants
(28-55 euros). Although the city has taken great strides against crime,
watch out for the Gypsies and pickpockets at the Sunday flea market.
Madrids vast and luxuriously decorated royal
palace (Palacio Real) is no longer the home of King Juan Carlos 1, but
many state functions are still held here
The city has thousands of tapas bars, cafes and
excellent restaurants preparing traditional Castilian cuisine (Casa
Santa Cruz is one of the most charming) roast suckling pig (Casa Botin,
a Hemingway hangout) and even Spanish/Asian fusion at Intercontinental
Castellana Hotel, washed down with pitchers of sangria or excellent
One of the best tapas bars I visited was Cervantes,
a very popular mid-day stop for locals. Look for Panos and Company,
Spains answer to Subway, with inexpensive and great tasting hard-crusted
sandwiches. Have a late night drink at Chicote, 12 Gran Via, a favorite
watering hole for Frank Sinatra, Eva Gardner and of course, Hemmingway,
who seemed to manage a drink at nearly every bar in town.
Look for the Museo del Jamon, a great deli with everything
porcine, and the El Corte Ingles, the citys largest department
store, sells everything from olive oil to Spanish leather, at great
Madrid nightlife often goes into the early morning.
Hemmingway observed that nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they
have killed the night. For information on clubs and shows consult
En Madrid, Whats On magazine and dont miss Flamenco
dancing at Casa Patas or Tablas.
There are a wide range of housing options in Madrid,
from five-star hotels (I stayed at the beautifully restored Villa de
la Reina Hotel in the heart of Madrid) to inexpensive pensiones. Accommodations
are almost always spotless; cleanliness is a point of national pride.
Tourist Office (323) 658-7188 or in Madrid
publishes a number of free pamphlets and maps with information on events,
guided tours, and places to stay and dine.
of Madrid; Madrid
and the Art of Armor; Madrid's
Ourselves Crazy in Spain; Toledo;
Rose of Saffron Festival; The
Land of Caballeros