Vivir la Vida en Madrid

After a few weeks of just work and being horribly ill (and therefore unfortunately away from my blog), this past weekend I went to Madrid! Though I work Monday – Friday, for my 3+ month commitment at the ICTY, I get 7.5 days off, which is pretty sweet. So I took off last Friday to make the weekend a four-day one due to the Netherlands public holiday of Whit Monday yesterday (9 June). My boss is amazing for giving us so much autonomy over our work schedules – so I had banked a few extra hours earlier in the week in order to leave at 3pm on Thursday. 

My amazing friend Katie met me at the Madrid airport at 9pm. She is also a W&M Law student who is attending the Madrid Summer Program and has a summer-long internship at the Constitutional Court of Spain in Madrid. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to go to the Court for a tour, but she told me all about her exciting work. It looks like things should be getting pretty interesting there with King Juan Carlos abdicating his throne for his son. That requires a constitutional amendment, so I will keep bugging Katie for more insider information about it all.

Since my flight had landed late and it took awhile on the metro to get into the city, we went to a lovely local restaurant near her apartment for dinner. It was great to catch up with an old friend and be able to talk about W&M. The Spanish definitely stay out late. I saw so many tiny children on the metros after midnight while I was there. Somehow they also get up early, but I failed in that regard. It was late to bed and late to rise for my three days there. 


The first day, we spent a lot of time walking around. It was great having a tour guide who had been there for awhile so she understood the metro, and speaking fluent Spanish didn’t hurt either. We wandered through the Mercado de San Miguel (more about that later) and went to Parque del Buen Retiro (The Buen Retiro Park, “Park of the Pleasant Retreat,” El Retiro). The park is absolutely gorgeous. It reminded me a lot of parks in Paris, as did the metros, and was such an amazing place to walk around that we went back every day I was there. We relaxed by the lake and caught up while drinking a carafe of sangria, the first of many that weekend.


Two of my friends who are also ICTY interns were in Madrid for the weekend as well so we met up with them for the free entrance time at the Prado Museum, which is right off El Retiro. Free entrance is 6-8pm on Fridays and Saturdays for those heading to Madrid anytime soon. The long line was totally worth waiting in. It moved really quickly and we were inside by 6:15, plus we didn’t have to pay the 23 euro entrance fee. The art was absolutely gorgeous. I have never been a huge fan of Spanish art, but Katie had taken Spanish Art classes and was able to get me much more excited about certain pieces. No one needed to get me excited about the Ancient Greek sculptures. A total Classical Civilizations nerd-out happened.


After the Prado and a quick drink with light snacks, we journeyed to a sketchier part of town where the Egyptian Temple of Debod is located. When the Dam of Aswan was constructed in 1960, Spain helped the Egyptian government and UNESCO save other temples at risk for destruction by the water – so Egypt gave the Temple of Debod to Spain as a gift. Apparently, the temple (and park it is in) was near the Royal Palace, but the way we went there was through a part of town that a man giving us directions was very concerned about. We walked quickly and stuck together. The temple was absolutely gorgeous though. At night it is completely lit up and just magical.


On Saturday, Katie and I got tapas at the Mercado de San Miguel. It is absolutely and constantly packed with tourists and locals, but completely worth fighting the crowd. Different restaurants have stalls set up inside the gorgeous building, and the food was to die for. I wanted to try anything and everything local that I could, but I could only handle three tapas before we got dessert and headed back to the park.


Back in El Retiro, Katie and I went rowing on the lake!! It was absolutely amazing. (That's me above, cracking up because I couldn't keep the boat straight.) The lake is right next to a gorgeous cluster of statues and a half-moon colonnade dedicated to King Alfonso XII. The park was “built” and enlarged by a King Phillip II who wanted a beautiful retreat for his family when he moved the capital to Madrid in 1561, and in the 19th century it became a public park for the people of Madrid to enjoy.


The lake was artificially made to host re-created naval battles. Katie and I did not attack any other boats, but we did have some close encounters, and a few boats with more novice seamen crashed into us. It was all just hilariously fun in the gorgeous sun. The weather in Madrid was definitely a nice break from the raininess of North Sea-adjacent Netherlands.


After rowing, we explored the colonnade and then headed to a Flamenco show in another part of town. Flamenco was absolutely amazing. The passion and intensity shown by the singers, guitarists, and dancers really highlighted how deeply the performers cared about their art. Katie and I picked a show that had been advertised at Mercado de San Miguel, and it was just perfectly small and well-run. flamenco

Post-Flamenco, we were in desperate need of food. With all the walking in Madrid, we often didn’t realize how hungry we were until it was too late. Luckily, we had already decided we wanted to go to when we were near the Mercado earlier in the day. Restaurante Sobrino de Botin was founded in 1725, and is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest still-running restaurant in the world. That should have given us a clue that we should have made a reservation earlier. There was no space for us. So we stood outside looking in the guidebook figuring out where we wanted to go, and trying to control our rumbling stomachs. We decided that we should make a lunch reservation for the next day so I could still get my historical excitement on. The host flat out told Katie “No” when she asked if she could make a reservation. He quickly followed that up with “Ahora.” There had been a cancellation in the five minutes since we first walked into the restaurant! It was incredibly lucky and just awesome. We were seated in the cellar, which is the oldest part of the restaurant and actually the original 18th century cellar. I had one of the house specialities: roast lamb. It was absolutely delicious. And the waiter was great and let me go explore the incredibly old wine cellar, which was right next to our table. He also photo-bombed our photo by making it a selfie.


After dinner, Katie showed me the Royal Palace which was very pretty at night. It was right behind the Opera House, and surprisingly did not have very many guards or a huge fence blocking it off like Buckingham Palace. Just as huge though.

 Sunday was sadly my last day in Madrid. The cheap European airlines are pretty smart about only making 7am flights affordable and afternoon flights in the thousand(!) dollar range. We definitely made the most of that day though!! First stop was El Rastro – an outdoor market that I expected to be like any of the other outdoor European markets I had previously explored. Nope. Not at all. This market spanned dozens of blocks, separating at each intersection to squiggle like the tentacles of an octopus through an entire neighborhood. It was amazing! There were, of course, lots of cheap knock-offs of things and random Madrid souvenirs, but also handmade silver jewelry, traditional Spanish leather products, and fun local fashion.


Post-market, we were hungry again, of course. So we made our way to the Chocolateria San Gines. It is the oldest churros con chocolate location in the city. Clearly, I like going to the oldest of things. The churros were nothing like they are in the States, but I actually really liked the more basic flavor of it as opposed to the grease-dripping, heavy churros from Costco. They serve them with a cup of hot chocolate, and you just dip the churros right in. You can get these anywhere and everywhere in the city, but I wanted to try this 24/7 location. They were not filling though, so we went back to the Opera House and had a delicious lunch outside on a terrace overlooking the plaza.

Day 3 of El Retiro (Park) was next. Though the Crystal Palace had been on our list of things to do since before I arrived, we hadn’t looked at a map of the park to figure out exactly where it was. Right near the lake, as a matter of fact. We had been right next to it the previous two days – but the trip back just to see that was worth it. The “Palace” was made entirely of panes of glass, and was so beautifully set in amongst the trees of the park. We went inside of it, where we discovered that there is a reason greenhouses for tropical plants are made of glass. It was so hot! After a few quick pictures, we were out.


The last stop of my trip was the barrio of Chueca. Katie did an awesome job of making sure I got to each of the four barrios or neighborhoods of Madrid during my visit. This area was known for being very fashion-forward, but unfortunately on a Sunday afternoon, everything was closed. It was fun to sit outside in another plaza though and have one last pitcher of sangria. Plus, a fire dancer did a performance right near our table, which was pretty awesome.

It had been over four years since I had last been in Spain, and I had such an amazing visit. Katie is coming to visit me in the Netherlands in less than a month to climb the world’s tallest rock-climbing wall (yes, she is that cool) – so you will get to hear more of our travels then. My next stop is Cologne, Germany this upcoming weekend. Stay tuned for churches, beer, and schnitzel!!