At the beginning of a new chapter in a life, along with an apartment empty of distractions and spontaneous consumption of too much caffeine, one gets to thinking. And as a sort of antidote to complacency, or as a byproduct of this idle time, I thought it would be apropos to reflect a bit on the last few months of my Spain. And since I am simple-minded and lazy, these reflections have been reduced to a list of favorites that may read more like a chapter in a Lonely Planet guide than a memoir. Many of these highlights I think of, as I sit at my desk, have stayed in my permanent memory with the help of the people who were with me at the time. As anyone who travels knows, often true life experience is given meaning and significance when there are fellow people there to share it with, people who, by the way, are both none of your business and I assume completely uninteresting in the first place. The experiences one has, in traveling the world or sitting on the back porch, in retrospect can usually best be appreciated truly subjectively. Their meaning is almost impossible to convey purely and effectively. Many times I’ve found that talking about my past experience in travel is somewhat like telling someone your dream, a profoundly boring experience for the listener. So, as you read about these little snapshots of my Spanish life, think about creating opportunities for yourself, grabbing someone you care about, and having a little fun.
Although numbering things has the intuitive effect of prioritization, these are in no particular order.
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1.Walking in El Parque Buen Retiro in the fall. One of the first experiences I had when I came to Madrid, before I had met most of my friends here. Walking around such a quiet place in the middle of car horns and buses, was a private and inspiring experience. I liked watching the little boats rowing across the shallow, green water, over the slow-moving carp, and I appreciated the obvious importance that the city had put on the upkeep of such places of retreat.
2. A caña. The small beer that is easy to order and always easy to drink. Ordering beer has become infinitely less complicated for me here in Spain. No choosing from 48 different breeds and races of beer. There are few little, but pure, pleasures that beat a light beer that is served small enough to stay cold before your finished and force you to order more of them.
3. Eating and drinking at El Fragua del Vulcano tapas bar. In the slightly over-touristy neighborhood of my first residence, near Plaza Santa Ana, this is the place when I actually said out loud that I was in love with Madrid, as I saw a giant ceramic pot of paella and enormous, steaming vat of mussels in white wine sauce. I had my first Cocido Madrileño here, a botched ordering process that at least served as amusement of the very friendly staff.
4. Late night copas in Madrid. Of course late hours socializing is an integral part of Madrid culture, so it was a tragedy to be forced to continue my life-long habit of drinking strong alcoholic drinks until past the point of rational decision-making. I drink less here, however, and the inspiration of my social drinking has shifted, slightly, to fellow people instead of the drink itself.
5. Searching for grafitti in Malasaña. I have always had an interest in creative street art. In my current neighborhood of Malasaña and Chueca, there is a healthy art scene that seems to be on the verge of something great. Walking throughout the narrow streets, one just has to look up to discover little gems of expression.
6. Oysters and cava at El Mercado San Miguel. Yet another food-centered memory. Although most Madrileños will tell you that this place is an overpriced facade that caters to the oblivious tourist (they are right), it is nonetheless a wonderful experience to slurp down oysters (with lemon sauce from the Catalán “nueva cocina”) and drink cold cava or vermut.
7. Watching a Real Madrid game. Although my support is elsewhere, the experience of watching a football game at the Santiago Bernebéu stadium shouldn’t be missed. There is not a bad seat in the house, and it is great exposure to the deep-rooted football culture shared by (almost) every Spaniard. Pictured here is a a close-up of the pitch, taken on a tour of the stadium (held daily).
9. A complete Mallorquín lunch. Mejilliones, pimientos de Padrón, olives, Pa amb oli, and tinto de verano. Call me shallow, but I think to enjoy this might be the single reason we humans are on this earth.
10. Los Gatos tapas bar. One of my favorite places to choose from beautifully prepared tapas, it is a bustling, usually very crowded place at the bottom of Huertas. Good things always seem to happen here.
11. The Roman Aqueduct and Alcázar in Segovia. I have been here twice, and each time I am taken aback, particularly from an American point of view, by the depth of history and brilliance in architecture that is showcased at this place.
12. The cliffs near Soller, Mallorca. A surprising view of the sea on the northwest side of the island of Mallorca. There is a trail up to a lookout that proves uneasy, but worth it, for anyone with even a slight fear of heights.
13. Puerta del Sol in the evening. Although there have been some setbacks in the preservation of the historical decor (the missing Tio Pepe sign), I still like to be here, in the true center of Madrid, especially in the evening as the light hits the old buildings and shines through the water of the fountain.
14. The Templo de Devod. This site of an ancient building, a gift from the Egyptians to Spain, is a great place, again in the evening especially, with plenty of opportunities for post card quality photos.
15. Nurturing my latent architect. Time and time again, I remember to look up as I walk the streets of Madrid, and I’m always surprised by the lines, symmetry, colors, and diversity of the buildings, old and new, particularly in the center of Madrid.
17. Horses at Ctr. del Pardo a Fuencarral. When my horse-obsessed niece came to visit, we were able to rent a horse for her to trot around on. It was nice to see her smile and check ‘Andalucian horse riding’ off of her equine to-do list.
20. Mechanismo. It is always a great time to watch our good friends Merv and Sebas and their burgeoning band Mechanismo, as they slowly grow in deserved popularity. I wish them the best in the future.
22. Soller, Mallorca. After a beautiful, winding road though forest and steep cliffs, there is the small bay and marina at Soller, on the island of Mallorca. This day was one of the highlights of my experience in Spain, if not my life.
23. San Lorenzo de El Escorial. Emblematic of the kind of trip one needs to take to relieve the claustrophobia of a city, this old monestery is only minutes away from Madrid, but a quiet escape well worth the time.
26. Gin and tonics at bar Ave Fenix. There are many places to enjoy this wonderful drink, usually prepared with care and attention at most bars in Madrid. But this bar in Malasaña is has a well-deserved reputation for making the best from your gin-derived poison.
27. La Mariscada and quemada at Ribeira do Miño. A giant pile of crunchy, seafood goodness, this is a concentrated representation of the best of Galician cuisine. Add some Ribeira wine and flaming pot of flammable alcoholic coffee, and you’ve got a big chunk of heaven.
28. Paella Valenciana at Arrocería Gala. There are many places to have good paella, of course, but this restaurant in the neighborhood of Cortes is one of the best. The staff is a group of miserable, unhappy people, but they somehow still produce wonderful food that makes the gastronomically obsessed person return. Here I discovered socarrat, a Catalán word for the wonderful burnt part of the rice that you can scrap off the pan. Add a jarra of Sangría for easy consumption.
29. Plaza de Castilla. As a small reprieve from the antiquity of old Madrid, the Calatrava’s Obelisco and the office buildings of Caja Madrid will do. Many Madrileños complain of the uselessness of this ostentatious moving structure, but it is at least interesting.
30. Jamón Serrano. For most Spaniards, this is as much a part of life as oxygen or sleeping. I have come to consider this as one of my all-time favorite foods, especially with complemented by Manchego cheese and Ribera wine.
31. The Spanish Revolution. It started out strong, on May 15th, an ever-growing group of young people who were unhappy at the current economic situation in Spain, particularly with unemployment, and the beginnings of a collected effort to make change. At the height of the excitement, they had the world’s attention. I just wish they had said something.
32. Toledo. An excellent day trip to the old capital of Spain. After a walking tour of the ancient buildings and cathedral, down the winding narrow pedestrian streets, and a wonderful lunch on a terrace, I was reminded of my fortune and blessings once again.
35. Bilbao and San Sebastián. On a great weekend trip with co-workers from school, I got my first exposure to the Basque Country. The food is amazing and the beach and architecture of San Sebastián rivals that of any city I’ve seen. Bilbao was great as well, although less impressive to the eye at first. I suspect both cities to be better appreciated over time.
41. Plaza Santa Ana. One of the first places where I learned the simple pleasure of eating and drinking on a terraza in the open air. It never gets old. This is one of the most important parts of Mediterranean culture, in my opinion.
43. A road trip over the Sierra Guadarrama. A trip best taken by car, thick forests, river rapids and a great view of the city of Madrid are within easy reach. There was even snow on the peak in May, as we drove through the chilled air.
47. Spring thunderstorms. In Madrid, there are the kind of arid, mixtures of hot and cold air that make wonderfully violent thunderstorms full of dark clouds, lightning, wind and hail. I miss these storms that I knew growing up in a desert environment.
48. Huelgas. I won’t say I particularly like it when essential workers in a society collectively abandon their jobs at critical times, but these strikes are a great window into meaningful conversations and cultural awareness.
49. Free exhibitions of art. Everywhere in Madrid there are art exhibitions, some of local art others of famous icons. After a little bit of research, one can discover endless cultural, spiritual and intellectual satisfaction in Madrid. Here is pictured a free show of pencil drawings by Dalí and Goya.
50. Wine. An integral part of the day, this gift from the heavens is obviously very well made in this part of the world. Often serving as my surrogate girlfriend, partner, companion and complement, I add this to dark chocolate and black coffee as one thing I could not live without.
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Now, in the interest of peeling myself away from the computer and enjoying the outdoors, I shall continue part 2 of this collection of experience later, as there is much more to include….