We left Portugal on an early morning flight headed for Spain; four nights each in Madrid then Barcelona. I’d been to Barcelona during my semester abroad a dozen years ago (oof, that hurts), and Isabel had been to both places but when she was even younger than that. I remember that semester in London, everyone swapped recommendations where to travel on long weekend trips. Barcelona was painted as the hip alternative to the bougie Spanish capital. At least, that was my interpretation at the time.
Either way, we were both really excited for this next segment of the trip.
Upon landing in Madrid, I was really excited to try out my Spanish. Having traveled around to all these different countries the past four months, it would be great to finally be able to speak the local language, even just a little bit. I took classes back in high school but that was a solid decade and a half ago. I was decent at the time, let’s see what I’d be able to remember.
We stayed in a hotel right near the train station we’d be departing from to head to Barcelona in four days time. With the Eurail Pass you still need seat reservations for each train ride, and it’s not always possible to do online. So I went across the street to the train station to set our minds at ease. I walked up to the ticket window and pulled a number from the system, there were 155 people in front of me. 155 people?! I didn’t think this room could hold 155 people! A solid hour and 15 minutes later, my number was called, and I walked up to the man behind the counter.
Hola. Yo necesito dos reservaciones. Nosotros tenemos los billetes de Eurail, solo necesito las reservaciones, por vamos a Barcelona. En ocho de Mayo, a las once y media, en primero clase, por favor.Translation: Hello. I need two reservations. We have our Eurail tickets, only need the reservations, to go to Barcelona. On May 8th, at 11:30, in first class, please.
Success! I walked out of there with both our reservations as well as a smug smile of accomplishment. I’d be able to read some items on menus, order our food, generally help us get around. It felt great knowing that all these years later I’ve retained some of that knowledge, but even more so just finally being able to speak the language with the locals. Gracias, Señiorita Perciballi!
Turns out, our hotel location was amazing! We weren’t just near the train station, we were also right around the corner from two world-famous collections of art, the Prado and the Reina Sofía museums (would you like a spot of tea to go along with that pat on the back, Mark?). Both museums offer free entrance hours so we took advantage of them! #weonabudget
European cities for the most part implement this great concept of “accessibility” to the visiting public. Unlike the U.S., where the average art museum tickets starts at the low bid of $25 or they grant a free day but once a month, European museums offer daily free admission. Both the Prado and the Reina Sofía offer free admission at specific times all week. So at 6pm, we lined up with a small crowd to see the marvels of the Prado. Surprisingly, the line moved fairly quickly and once we got inside, it wasn’t that crowded. It could also be because we went to a less popular exhibit in the Prado – Franciso de Goya’s Black Paintings. This is one of my favorite collections (I’m a big Goya fan) and one of the many reasons I love art so much. A little context:
These pieces were created between 1819-1823, when Goya was in his 70s. He had been deaf since a debilitating fever during his 40s and having survived two near-death illnesses, was incredibly fearful of a relapse. This anxiety paired with the political turmoil hitting Spain at the time (e.g. Napoleonic Wars) caused Goya to have a rather bleak outlook at humanity. He was a tortured soul who expressed himself by painting on the nearest easel – his house. Goya painted these pieces all over his farmhouse, often with no titles, and with no intention of displaying them to the world. The resulting images are dark, disturbing at times, but absolutely beautiful.
We were a bit limited on time since the museum closed at 8pm, so we hustled to a different part of the museum to check out another one of my favorite artists – Hieronymus Bosch. I first discovered Bosch from reading Michael Connelly’s book The Poet (great book), saw his art in real life and have loved it ever since. He’s famous for his triptychs of macabre and nightmarish depictions of religious concepts and narratives. I was so excited to see his pieces that I forgot to take photos, so here’s some shots from Google.
Since our hotel was literally around the corner from the Reina Sofía, we also attended their free hours, as well. I will admit I am a bigger fan of the Prado, so this section is going to be much shorter. One of, if not the item to see at the Sofía is Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. This is the only painting that has left my brother breathless. It was created in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country town in northern Spain. It’s a huge piece, you can stand in front of it for hours and still be enamored. You aren’t allowed to take photos, so you’ll have to fly to Madrid to see it in person. The highlight of the Sofía for me was seeing some Salvador Dalí paintings and a piece by Alfonso Ponce de León. Autorretrato (Self-Portrait) came about because de León had a dream where he saw his death and so he painted his dream! He did not die in a car crash, but the painting is still cool.
I was told by a friend who had lived in Madrid for a while that on Sundays you’ll find madrileños in the parks; learning how to rollerblade, riding bicycles, working on their tans, sat in drum circles. I had enough time to listen to Arsenal lose a match (typical) while I strolled around El Retiro Park, which is as beautiful as it is massive (and right around the corner from our hotel!). Tree-lined paths, gardens and fountains, sculptures and monuments are everywhere. There is a massive pond flooded with row boats, in front of an impressive and grand monument to a former king. The Palacio de Cristal, a glass-encased conservatory popped up out of nowhere, housing a sculpture garden. One of the highlights in the park is the Fuente del Ángel Caído, the Fountain of the Fallen Angel, which has the supposed reputation of being the only prominent European sculpture dedicated to the devil. It is proven to stand exactly 666 meters above sea level. Before becoming a public park in the 1860s, this was home to the monarchy, which explains its elegance.
You can’t visit the capital of a historic European powerhouse without checking out its royal palace. The Royal Palace of Madrid (or Palacio Real de Madrid) has over 3,400 rooms! It was designed after the Palace of Versailles, thereby explaining its blatant resemblance. We didn’t get entrance tickets (#weonabudget), but you’re not allowed to take photos inside anyway, so you’re not missing out on anything either! Across from the impressive courtyard of the Plaza de la Armería is the royal cathedral, which we visited in order to see the crypt where the remains of the royal family are kept.
In front of the Palace is the statue of King Felipe IV on horseback (Spain had a long line of Carlos‘ and Felipe‘s on the throne). All across Europe are statues of historical figures riding horses. There is, for the most part, a significance behind the posture of the horse in these statues:
- If all four legs are on the ground, that means the person died a natural death.
- If three legs are down and one is raised, then that person was wounded in battle.
- If only the back two legs are grounded and the front two are raised, that means he died heroically in battle.
King Felipe IV did not die in battle. Simply not wanting to be outdone by his father, whose statue in the Plaza Mayor is on a horse with one leg raised, he ordered the sculptor to make his statue with two legs raised. (#daddyissues) Fun fact: When it came to finding a spouse, Spanish royalty often kept it in the family, and a number of the kings and queens had physical and mental maladies strongly believed to be the result of inbreeding!
Another item on the long list of things that Madrid does very well would be their plazas. One of the fanciest of these is the aforementioned Plaza Mayor, which is fully enclosed by buildings, and entrance is granted through one of nine archways. Cafes, shops and costumed street performer all compete for your attention and money.
Perhaps the most prominent plaza in all of Madrid is the Puerta del Sol (or Gate of the Sun). The precise center of Spain, there is a plaque commemorating ‘Kilometer Zero,’ the starting point for all of Spain’s highway systems. The clocktower at the top of the Real Casa de Correos (Royal Post Office) serves as the site of the ball drop on New Years Eve. Madrileños gather around and in the last minute of the year it is tradition to eat 12 grapes, one for each stroke of midnight.
There is also the statue of La Osa y el Madroño, the Bear and the “Strawberry Tree.” Legend has it that long ago the land of Madrid was occupied by bears in the surrounding woods. The fruit on these trees would ferment in the sun, so when the bears came to eat the fruit, they got drunk. One night in their sleepy intoxicated state, the people picked up the bears and drove them from the land, allowing the city of Madrid to grow as the Spanish capital (This logo is found all over the city; on sewer drains, as part of the city council badge, even incorporated in the crest of Atlético Madrid, the city’s other major soccer club).
Lastly what helped make our time in Madrid so incredible was the food, our favorite combination of delicious and inexpensive. My ideal meal is to have a little taste of different things, which is basically the concept of tapas, so naturally I was in heaven. My friend Jocelyn told us to go to Pez Tortilla, for what she considers to be “the best tortilla in Madrid.” We walked over there one night, confused if it was going to be a taco or a quesadilla, and why she’d call it a tortilla. Naively, we went to this little bar that was packed with young people and ordered three tortillas from their menu. What we got were three giant slices of … Spanish tortilla. Likening it to a quiche or frittata wouldn’t do it justice, this dish made of egg, potato and onion is somehow cheesy, savory and addicting. So good (Thanks Jocelyn)! Another day for lunch we went to the famous Chocolatería San Ginés for churros and hot chocolate. Unsure if it was just a dipping sauce or supposed to be drank, we enjoyed it both ways. It was literally melted chocolate in a cup. One night we went to a tapas bar dinner and shared seafood paella and a meatball dish, the waiter brought us a free appetizer as well as digestifs!
We absolutely loved our time in Madrid. I guess it sounds like we’ve been saying that about everywhere, and it feels a little like that too, but Madrid was amazing. Beautiful, accessible and inexpensive. We loved the area we stayed in, we ate amazing meals almost every time, and never tired of walking around. Mightily impressed and would love to come back some day. People on my walking tour recommended Toledo, Salamanca and San Sebastian, so whenever it is that we do find ourselves back here we just may need to spread out around Spain a bit more (combined with a greater exploration of Portugal, naturally).
Waking up after our fourth night of sleep, we grabbed our bags and walked across the street to the Atocha train station.
After a three hour train ride, we arrived in Barcelona. A quick trip on the metro and we were at our hotel in the El Poblenou neighborhood. By this time in Barcelona we’d fully embrace the Spanish lifestyle and relaxed our pace significantly; no morning alarms, waking up around 10, not eating breakfast until noon, dinner at 9, going to bed well after midnight. This is normally very unlike us, but staying in such a residential neighborhood where you can feel that local vibe, Barcelona gave us a chance to slow things down. The fact that it’s become an expensive tourist city also played a role, as high priced entrance fees barred us from seeing some of the main tourist attractions. We’d both been here before so we were okay saying no a little bit.
We spent our days wandering the city, admiring the architecture, people watching, eating samples at markets, and generally just enjoying a slow-paced life. The best place to begin is La Rambla, a 1.2km tree-lined pedestrian street filled with souvenir stands, tourists, food stalls, and pick pockets. Don’t worry, we didn’t get targeted! As touristy as it can get, it’s a great walk, especially with the beautiful weather we experienced.
Off of La Rambla is Mercado de la Boqueria, a large market full of delicious, delicious food.
After La Rambla, we meandered our way down to the water to check out the views. We were in Barcelona right around the Spanish Grand Prix, a Formula One race, so Port Vell was full of fancy yachts! I’ve never seen so many yachts in one place, and so massive, one even had a helicopter on it!
As I mentioned earlier, the weather was stunning while we were in Barcelona, so we wanted to spend as much time outside as we could. Park Güell was a perfect way to accomplish this! Designed by the architect Antoni Gaudí, the public park system has small trails, gardens, architectural elements, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (you thought we forgot). Originally, Gaudí envisioned Park Güell to be a modern housing estate far from the chaos of the city, but when that didn’t pan out, it became a park! The designs are based around nature so there are no straight lines in the works.
If you aren’t a fan of Gaudí (Barcelona is all Gaudí), I recommend visiting the park anyway. Much of the park is actually free and there are beautiful trails throughout that slowly take you up to a gorgeous view of the city. The park was planned to work with the mountainous terrain, not against it, so there is no intense hill climbing. You have to pay to see the “monument section” which is where the bulk of Gaudí’s work is.
We also spent some time in Parc de la Ciutadella (Citadel Park), a twenty-minute walk from home, next to Port Vell (and all those insanely large yachts). We sat on a bench and read our kindles (I started Paulo Coelho’s Hippie, and Isabel read Flights by Olga Tokarczuk). There were hippie chic-dressed groups sitting in circles on blankets, guys balancing on slack lines, and women riding their bikes along the main path. We got up from our reading and walked to see the centerpiece of the park, an impressive and beautiful fountain with a small lake in front of it. Built in the mid-19th century, for decades this park was the city’s only green space.
As always, we ate well in Barcelona. Although it’s more expensive than Madrid, we worked hard not to break the bank. Since we were waking up later in the day, we went for brunch down the street at a chic place called Little Fern. This place was super hip, modern, and pulled its aesthetic straight from “New Zealand’s thriving cafe culture”. Move over LA, Barcelona is way trendier than you! I was finally able to get a cup of hot coffee (dream #1) and we started with a magnificent banana bread that is making me drool just thinking of it. Mark opted for a healthy smoothie granola bowl and I chose a pea and avocado smash with cashew mint pesto and poached eggs (dream #2).
We ate more authentic cuisine for dinner at a local restaurant called Kalamata. We started with pan con tomate, (toasted bread with oil and tomatoes) and patatas bravas (potatoes with spicy sauce and mayo). Both were very simple, but very good. Our attempt at a healthy decision by ordering a salad was foiled when the dish came and it was a giant sphere of goat cheese surrounded by tomato slices, on the tiniest “bed” of lettuce. Naturally it was amazing, and we shared that along with oxtail meatballs over mashed potatoes. Everything was ¡muy increíble!
Back in college I had a number of friends who spent their semester abroad in Madrid. Due to my previously mentioned vacuum of propaganda, my overarching thought at the time was “Why Madrid, when you could go to Barcelona instead?” Silly me. So young, so naive. Not to take anything away from Barcelona, the capital of Catalunya, it certainly has a distinct personality of its own. I recently read that “if Barcelona is the party, then Madrid is the grown up after party.” Barcelona has the beaches, the bumping clubs, the massive yachts, it’s a place to be seen, a wild summer destination. It’s an “in” place, for those who are looking. Barcelona is us a decade ago, Madrid is us today, in our early 30s.
Madrid is definitely more our pace. The museums are accessible, the food is delicious and comparatively less expensive … it certainly has its own nightlife that doesn’t get going until after midnight, but it ALSO provides the perfect setting for a leisurely stroll. My self-appointed walkability score would be sky high; the narrow streets are draped in tapas bars on both sides, the architecture is stately and awe-inspiring. For a capital, it was approachable and personable. It’s a very livable city, and one of the stops along our trip that in retrospect feels more robust than the mere four days we spent there.