I distinctly remember a few conversations I had with people about traveling to Madrid. Almost everyone said not to waste too much time there. “It’s boring”, or “Give it two days max to walk around” were usually what other travelers had told me. It’s just the capital of Spain, so according to some backpackers, it’s not interesting in terms of things to see and do. Absolute nonsense. I ended up really enjoying my time in Madrid. It was one of those rare cities I found that I truly felt I could live in. In fact, I was there twice. Once for a whole week after Barcelona, and then again after exploring parts of southern Spain. I really just felt at home there for some reason. Some locals told me that people there are more down to earth than Barcelona. It still has that big city energy, though. My visit there had that perfect combination of things I look for… beautiful old school architecture, great parks and green spaces, good weather, friendly people, a good hostel stay, and delcious food. I can’t believe I almost let people talk me into not going.
For its size, Madrid is really a very clean and beautiful city. I found the architecture to be amazing. Barcelona gets most of the attention because of the Gaudi buildings, but I loved the more classical styles I found in Madrid. A popular spot is Plaza Mayor. There was a Christmas market setup there, and tons of street performers. It kind of reminded of some of the architecture I saw in Prague.
Puerta del Sol… a central part of downtown Madrid. It’s filled with shops, cafes and street performers. I kind of wish I just tipped some of them so I could take photos of them. Some are really good, others are kind of strange and creepy.
In downtown Madrid, there is this wide avenue called Paseo de Recoletos. It has a green space that runs down the middle which creates the feeling of being in a park. I loved walking down the street and would go out of my way sometimes to include it when walking to and from the hostel.
My favorite green space in the city was Retiro Park. This was really a mix of a park and garden along with some palace like places used for art displays. Between both of my trips to Madrid, I was there three times. I tried to make it back on my last day but ran out of time.Palacio de Crystal… Not entirely sure what this was made for. It was a big open green house type of structure.
Gardens seem to be a popular thing in Spanish cities. I’ve found them in almost every city I visited.
While in Madrid, I got my first taste of Spanish tapas. I think in the States we usually associate these with small dishes like appetizers. In Spain, the history of tapas goes back a few centuries when a king ordered that all drinks must include food. According to a tour guide, this was done to prevent workers from spending all their money on alcohol. This tradition is more popular in the south, especially in Granada. However, I did find a good traditional tapas place in Madrid called El Tigre (The Tiger). For 2.50 euros, you got a small beer and a plate of food. I went with two Aussies from my hostel, and we thought the food was a little heavy on potatoes and bread, but still good and really filling.
Traveling in the low season can be nice sometimes. There are fewer travelers to meet, but prices are low. I was in an 8 bed dorm by myself for a couple nights, so I had a private room for a hostel price. Here was the view from the balcony. One of the guys working at the hostel, Pablo, was really helpful in getting people together. On one night, he organized a tapas cooking class and showed us how to make a variety of different types of tapas. The hostel also organized a visit to a flamenco show at a greatly reduced price. However, I have to admit, the show wasn’t at all what I expected. I thought the dancer and guitar player were good, but the singer’s horrible wailing turned me off from the whole experience. I heard from a few people that this was just how the singing was intended in flamenco. I went to another show on my return trip to Madrid and learned this wasn’t true. More on that later.
Fun Last Night in Town
When I was backpacking through California over the summer, I had a great hostel stay in San Francisco. I met a lot of people to go out with, and one of them was Ara from Madrid. She was taking a six week English course, but was also doing some day trips out of town on her days off. We’ve stayed in touch through Facebook, and I messaged her when I reached Madrid. We met on my last night in the city and had some drinks and tapas. Between a mix of mostly English and my minimal Spanish, we were able to catch up. She’s a science teacher in Madrid and is under pressure from her boss to teach her classes in English in a few years. She got a lot from the classes in the States and enjoyed her time there as well. She picked up the check for our meal which I tried to stop. I was a visitor to her city, and she wanted to treat me. I have a hard time accepting gifts from people, and really need to relax and accept hospitality. Thanks Ara… Next time I’m there, it’s my treat and we’ll do the whole conversation in Spanish 🙂
After saying goodbye to Ara, I headed back to my hostel. On the way, I realized I was really close to this well known churros place that I had heard about from a couple sources. I think every culture has some sort of fried dough treat, and in Spain, one of them is the churro. There’s a place near Plaza Mayor called San Gines that serves them up 24 hours a day. It’s famous enough to have its own Wikipedia page. I got in line, and from hearing the two girls in front of me could tell they were American. Five minutes later, we were all sitting downstairs in San Gines with our churros and chocolate. The chocolate is really thick… kind of more like a chocolate fondu than hot milk chocolate. The churros are deep fried sticks of dough which taste even better when sprinkled with powdered sugar and dipped in the chocolate.
The American girls had both been living in Madrid for over two years and were teaching English. I was really curious about this, because I figured it would be next to impossible to find work in Spain as an American. Apparently a lot of Spaniards are learning English to find jobs outside of Spain in order to escape the economic crisis. The government even funds a program to bring English teachers from the UK and US into the country and provide them with a stipend. I enjoyed hearing their stories of life in Madrid, and travels around Europe. The whole evening was one of those memorable nights of randomness. It was a perfect way to end my first week to Madrid.
So after that last night, I left Madrid for the Andalusia region in southern Spain. Around two weeks later, I came back to Madrid to catch my flight out. The cheapest flight out of Spain to my next destination was Madrid. So, I knew I was coming back. I arrived on December 30 and was hoping to meet people to spend New Years Eve with. Two hours after my bus arrived, I found an event posted on the couchsurfing forums for Madrid. It was a language exchange and hangout. I met a lot of locals there, more than I had on my first trip there. There were various levels of English spoken at the event, and after a drink, I relaxed enough to try my Spanish. I’m really bad, but the little bit I know does help bridge the gap if someone speaks almost no English. Good crowd. I wished I was staying for a couple weeks so I could see everyone at the next meetup. I was starting to feel a connection with Madrid at that point.
So I was looking forward to New Years Eve here, and in particular, Spain’s version of Times Square… Puerta del Sol (Sun Gateway). I met some other solo travelers from the hostel on New Years Eve, and we spent the day together. There’s a Spanish tradition of eating grapes at midnight. The story goes something like this… if you can eat all 12 of your grapes in the final minute of the old year, you’ll have good luck in the new year. I didn’t hear any bells, but just waited till I saw everyone else cramming grapes in their mouths. I think I made it time, but I had to eat the seeds.
A couple days later, I finally made it to another one of Madrid’s famous locals… the Museo del Jambon (Ham Museum) which is really a restaurant. The ham in Spain is kind of legendary. It’s something the Spaniards do really well, and I almost always enjoyed it. The place was packed no matter when you went. Another good cheap eats in Madrid… something like 3 euros for a beer and a sandwich. It was definitely one of those food experiences on my trip that made me glad to suspend my vegetarianism for the time being.
I think the highlight of my return trip to Madrid, and perhaps one of my favorite moments of Spain was seeing another flamenco show. This one cost just five more euros than the previous horrible one I did last time in Madrid. However, it was a 100 times better. It was really a professional show put on by experienced dancers. I went with a few people from the hostel who added to the experience. Everyone had traveled a lot and had good stories to swap. The music, singing, dancing, and company made for a perfect night. It was really something and gave me a good sense of good traditional Spanish flamenco.
Epic night. I love how evenings like that can emerge from hostel stays.
So Madrid rocked for me. It really felt like a place I could live. There were tons of things to see and do. A beautiful city with cool buildings and nice parks to explore. I met so many good people who I had fun exploring the city with and hearing travel stories from. I honestly could see myself living there. That said, it’s obviously not all roses in Madrid. Spain is in the middle of a horrible economic crisis. The youth unemployment rate is hovering around 50 percent, and it weighs heavy on everyone. I still saw a lot of people out and about walking around, going into shops and cafes, and getting ready for Christmas. I’ll have to go back in Spring or Fall to get another feel for things. I hope I make it, though. I know several people there now to catch up with.