Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Madrid, Spain. August 2012

This year for my big yearly vacation, I thought about going to Buenos Aires, Argentina. However, I got a last minute airfare discount deal that altered my destination. I ended up going to Madrid, Spain, and it did not disappoint. Having visited Barcelona in 2006, I was a little worried that I was not going to be able to deal with the later dining hours. As it turned out, I adopted to Spaniard's schedule with no trouble at all. The weather was interesting in Madrid: it was cold before 12 noon (55 degrees F), but between 1pm-9pm, it would warm up well into the 90's. I got lucky though, that the weather started to cool off 3 days after I was there and it was perfect. I slept in each morning, grabbed a light lunch, headed out to museums and sites in the afternoon when it was hot, walked for 4-5 hours, went back to the hotel for a nap between 6pm-8pm, got up, headed out to dinner at 9pm when the sky finally gets dark, then hung around until 12 midnight. I must say that I loved that schedule!


Day 1

I arrived in the afternoon after a long flight. I showered, took a power nap, and headed out to the center of Madrid, Puerta del Sol. This is Madrid's Time Square where they ring in the New Year. Hello Madrid, I'm here!

I signed up for a tapas bar hopping tour that evening so I didn't want to eat too much. I passed by this place called the "Museum of Ham" (Museo del Jamón) and ventured in there. It turned out that this is not a museum, but a deli/restaurant.

I got curious and got a simple baguette sandwich with only a slice of Serrano Ham in it for just 1 Euro. This was my first taste of Madrid. After I took my first bite, all I could think of was O-M-G! How could this simple slice of cured ham pack in so much flavor where you don't need cheese or pickles or ketchup. Wow!

Next, I went to Plaza Mayor, another historic gathering place where lots of political events took place.

Interesting facade on a building in Plaza Mayor.

Hola, Madrid! So happy!

While heading back to the hotel to rest for a bit before the tapas tour, I saw these street performers. How are they doing this trick?!

I stayed on the main street in Madrid, the Gran Via. The architecture on this street is stunning. Throughout the entire trip, I loved walking around with my head perked up admiring all the beautiful details on the buildings. This is my hotel!

Then, tapas tour! Our first stop was Sidrería El Escarpín. Their specialty drink is their "sidra" or cider. Here's our guide Brent showing us how to properly pour the cider.

We tried several tapa dishes here, but my favorite was their tuna & veggie empanada. The pastry was so fluffy and you can taste the freshness of the vegetables.

On this tapas tour, Brent also took us around town and told us about the history of Madrid. Here's looking at Plaza Mayor from one of the little streets leading into it.

Before we headed to our second stop, we stopped by Puerta del Sol. Brent pointed out this plaque on the sidewalk that indicates the center of Spain, or Kilometer Zero (Km 0). From here, Spain radiates out. Here I was, standing in the center of Spain!

Brent took us to the Museum of Ham for our second stop. I got to try a refreshing red wine spritzer drink and more yummy ham.

As we walked around Madrid, I couldn't help but notice how beautiful it is at night when these buildings lit up.

The third stop Brent took us to was called El Lacón. They had a delicious white wine. My favorite tapas here are these potato croquettes.

And these blood sausages. I was surprised that the Spaniards eat these too, because we Taiwanese have a similar version but in squares. We call them blood cakes. These were very good.

By now, it was well past 11pm, and we are finally at our final stop of the tour, Cervecería Cervantes. We were all a little tipsy by now. This tapas place is known for its seafood. We got these shrimp scampi marinated in garlic olive oil. We dipped our bread in it. Mmmm....!

My favorite dish from this place was actually these mushrooms with garlic mayonnaise on a piece of bread.

We happily ended our dinner at 12:45am, and there were still lots of people around. What a great way to start my vacation here in Madrid.

Day 2

The second day, I decided to relax a little after I woke up. Instead of going out to lunch, I went to a supermarket nearby and bought a sandwich, some ham and cheese, and went to the top of the hotel instead. My hotel has a 9th floor terrace overlooking the entire Madrid. This is my view at lunch. Doesn't this just want to make you exhale?

After lunch, I headed out to the famous Prado Museum. Luckily, there was a special Raphael exhibition going on.

I couldn't take pictures inside the Prado, but after walking the entire museum for 4 hours, I learned much about Spanish artists Goya and El Greco. Strangely enough, my favorite collection from the Prado was a series of paintings by Goya named the "black paintings." These were different from Goya's typical style. The black paintings depicted very dark subjects. I read that even psychologists tried to figure out why Goya painted these. They were disturbingly and morbidly fascinating.

Another interesting piece I saw at the Prado was a "copy" of the famous Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. I had seen the original at the Louvre in Paris in 2001, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a copy displayed here. It is speculated that the copy Prado has was painted simultaneously by a pupil as the master painted the original, because it was making the same corrections as the original.

After immersed myself in these masterpieces, I lingered around the sculpture garden at the Prado.

As I strolled along the beautiful Paseo del Prado, I saw a stunning building, which is Spain's main post office.

For dinner, I ventured away from the central district. I went to a place called Casa Mingo that is famous for their cider and roasted chicken. This was the best alcoholic cider I've had; it tastes just like apple cider. The chicken was tender and juicy. All of these for 13 Euro. I took half of the chicken back to the hotel and had it for lunch the next day.

Day 3

Another day, another museum. Today, I went to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. This was the museum I was anticipating to come even before my trip because there was a special exhibition of works by American painter Edward Hopper.

Here are the portraits of the King and Queen of Spain.

Edward Hopper loved to paint light. He loved to paint subjects with directions of light. He also used very vibrant colors. I had a poster of his work in my old apartment with sail boats on a blue ocean (which I gave away when I moved). At the end of the exhibition, the museum set up a studio to emulate the lighting of Hopper's famous "Morning Sun" painting.

You take a photo through the frame, and voila, you get the painting just like Edward had painted it.

After seeing the Hopper exhibition, I spent another 4 hours seeing the rest of the museum. Again, I couldn't take pictures, but I was absolutely in awe of the collection here. This museum was all from a private collection, and it had pretty much EVERYBODY's work in it including my favorites such as Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, and even Picasso.

All the walking was getting me famished, so I headed back near Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor to try some of the famous Chocolate Con Churros at Chocolatería San Ginés. This place has been around since 1894. It's famous for its hot chocolate and churros where you dunk your churros in the hot chocolate. It was so good. The hot chocolate was dark chocolate so it wasn't too sweet, combined with a little salty churro...the perfect snack! I came here three times during my stay.

Now that I had some energy, I headed back to the museum district and visited the Royal Botanical Garden. This place is a little oasis in the city.

I went to the greenhouse and saw they had these insects eating plants. So cool! I only saw these on Discovery Channel before.

The greenhouse imitated the jungle. It was hot and humid in there.

On my way to the Metro station, I passed by another museum (didn't get to visit) called the Caixa Forum. The building is modern with a neat "vertical garden" next to it.

By now, I had probably been on foot for 6-7 hours and I was starving. I don't know if I was getting homesick or what, but I was craving for a nice juicy burger. Weird, right? I searched around online and found a burger joint called Home Burger Bar. They had a location very close to my hotel, so I gave it a try. It was situated on a quiet little side street off of the busy Gran Via. It was not crowded or noisy like the tapas places so it was a nice change of pace. I tried one of their gourmet burgers with blue cheese, pear, and nuts burger. It was actually pretty tasty. I loved the fries also.

After dinner, I decided to walk to the end of Gran Via to Plaza de España. It was 11pm and there were tons of people out. Love it! The plaza had a beautiful fountain, monument, and a reflection pool.

Day 4

Instead of going to another museum, I went to the Royal Palace. I stopped by Plaza de Oriente first.

The magnificent Catedral de Santa María la Real de la Almudena next to the Palace.

The plaza inside the palace.

I couldn't take pictures inside the palace but the rooms were absolutely breathtaking. They rival Versailles in Paris. I sneaked in a picture of the grand entry stairway. Look at the ceilings!

Next, I went to the Cathedral next to the palace. The intricate details on this door reminded me of the door of the Duomo in Florence, Italy.

This church has a Baroque style. Beautiful ceiling above the altar.

As I walked inside the church, I saw this thing...with someone's blood in it?! Gross.

For dinner this night, I decided to splurge. I ate pretty cheaply the entire trip because I was saving up for this meal. I was having dinner at a Michelin 2-Star restaurant called Sergi Arola Gastro. The restaurant was not located in the central district. My reservation was at 9pm (when the restaurant opens for dinner). As I was making my way there through quiet residential streets, I saw this beautiful sunset.

Ready for my experience!

To start, they served bite size tapas. This was a Pumpkin, feta cheese and nuts grill Coca-Pizza.

With a Negroni of passion fruit to cleanse your palate. It's passion fruit foam with mushed mint underneath.

This little ensemble takes you through a tapas journey throughout various regions of Spain. In the front there were four mini "Patatas Bravas," followed by Crispy cornet fresh cheese and anchovies cream, Sandwich of fried squid and mayonnaise, "Salmorejo" Sphere, and False sandwich stuffed with tomato and ham. They were all amazing. I especially loved the little "Patatas Bravas." They were tiny mini, but the flavor just explodes in your mouth like a nuclear bomb.


One more before the actual courses start: "Morels earth and Shimeji mushroom." Everything besides the rock bowl was edible. How creative was this?! The mushrooms were so fresh, and it was a weird feeling eating the "earth." Normally, when you see something brown and mousse-like with crumbs, your brain is trained to think "chocolate chip mousse pudding!" But no, it was savory.

For the tasting menu, you get to choose two appetizers, two entrees (land & sea), and two desserts. The first appetizer I tried was Sardines served as a "tartar," tomato ice-cream and sea water.

Have you ever had tomato ice-cream hidden inside sea water foam? I have! And it was muy delicious!

The second appetizer was my favorite course out of the entire meal. It was Veal sweetbread roasted with spices, cauliflower puree and smoked aubergine caviar. The veggie portion of this dish was so artistically beautiful that I didn't want to ruin it by eating it. The veal sweetbread...oh the VEAL! It was soooooo flavorful and melted in my mouth! Put the veal together with the rest of the pretty dish...oh was one of the most amazing things I've ever tasted in my life.

For my entrees, first up was the Black grouper with potatoes and sauteed tender onions, coconut soup and Vindaloo curry. The grouper was buttery smooth with a nice crust. The curry was delicious and made for a good soup to go along with the grouper.

For my land selection, I went for the Duck liver prepared as a "Coca" caramelized with roasted vegetables. I enjoyed this dish quite a lot as well. It's hard to see the duck liver and the veggies in the picture, but I could taste all the wonderfully fresh ingredients. They all danced together very well.

After the savory dishes, it's time for another cute little bite size palate cleanser with an edible flower on it.

First dessert to try was the "Rice Pudding" Souffle with cinnamon ice-cream. I've had rice pudding and I've had souffle, but a rice pudding souffle? First time ever. And with cinnamon ice-cream? Yup, probably won't have this combo again in my life. The souffle was so airy and fluffy inside. It reminded me of the Japanese style steamed egg custard but not as dense.

The last "regular" course was the beautiful Chocolate "Gives life." Again, this dish showed the chef's artistic creativity. It imitated flowers growing out of a little flower pot (which the dessert was served in), with a "branch" on top which was licorice. It was pretty to look at and yummy to eat.

So I thought my meal was over...nope! This amazing experience concluded with some sweets: hard candies that looked like pebbles (aren't they cute?!), delicious bite size financier and truffles that looked like they were lying on dirt, and fried banana chips with dipping sauce.

That was an awesome meal. One of the best I've ever had in my life!

Day 5

I didn't budget for this, but I heard from couple of people from the day 1 tapas tour group about taking a half day trip out to Toledo, Spain's original capital. My boss had told me about this place too, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to go. Well, I'm glad I changed my mind. Toledo was a short 1-hour drive away (on a tour bus), and it was such a charming little town that I wished I had spent a whole day wandering around.

The old part of Toledo is on top of a hill.

The bell tower of the stunning Catedral de Santa María de Toledo.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to go inside on our tour. :(

We got to see the famous El Greco painting done in 1586, "The Burial of Count Orgaz." After being educated on Spanish painters from the museums I've visited so far, I was able to appreciate El Greco's skills a lot more when looking at this masterpiece.

Wandering through the cobble-stoned streets of Toledo.

I was in a goofy mood when we got to Victorio Macho museum located atop the Tagus River.

The beautiful and serene garden at Victorio Macho museum (was his home) overlooking the Tagus River. I would have loved to live here also!

I loved these little alleyways in Toledo.

Without seeing the inside of Santa Maria Cathedral, on this half day trip, my favorite was the Santa María la Blanca Synagogue. While admiring the carvings and details in this building and the exotic Moorish influence in design, I learned about Spanish history. When the Romans took over, they forced people converting to Christianity. The Jews were either forced to convert, or they had to leave the country. Because of this, there isn't a large Jewish community in Spain today. While I'm a Christian, I am not in support of forced conversion because that in no way demonstrates the love Jesus had for people. I felt sad that these people were driven out of their homes.

Our final stop on the tour was the Iglesia de San Juan de los Reyes Monastery. As we were walking in, I noticed this skeleton on top of the door frame. WTH?!

The designs in this monastery had a Flemish influence with elaborate details. No wonder I felt the design of this church was a bit "off" not like the other Spanish churches I've seen.

The monastery also had a Moorish influence because the Arabs controlled Spain for a period of time as well.

The outside of the monastery hung the chains that were on the hands and feet of those who went through religious persecution. They hung these outside of the church as a reminder.

I should have done the full-day tour here!

After getting back in town, I went searching for a place that, according to a friend at church, served really good calamari. Well, I couldn't find it because she couldn't remember which area the restaurant was nor the name of it, but I found a place that served calamari sandwich. It wasn't bad.

Next, I wandered over from Plaza Mayor to the San Migeul market.

I checked out the stalls here to see what type of tapas they offered. Look at this HUGE fish! Quit staring at me! I didn't kill you nor do I want to eat you!

I stopped by a fresh oyster stall. The guy opened up this oyster right in front of me. It was oh so fresh and oh so good.

To finish off my afternoon snacks, I got a delicious chocolate yogurt shot.

I decided to walk the other direction on Gran Via and check out the rest of the busy section. I found out there was a Telefónica flagship store (Spanish mobile service provider). They had a little telephone museum inside. Very cool.

I was impressed by the staircases that turned into a live ad space.

After walking off my afternoon snacks, I had a dinner reservation at the world's oldest restaurant (according Guinness), Sobrino de Botín. This restaurant started serving in 1725. I was seated in the basement that felt like a cave.

While this place gets a bit touristy, it actually is known for its suckling pig which Ernest Hemingway made famous. And it was very good. Surprisingly, the locals come here, too. The skin was crispy and tasty, and the meat fell off of the bones and was flavorful.

I am a tourist and I am not ashamed.

After dinner, I headed over to Chocolatería San Ginés for some dessert. I saw a full moon rising over Plaza Mayor. It was breathtaking! I lingered around for a good 20 minutes and didn't want to leave.

Full moon over Puerta del Sol around midnight. See all these people? I wish we had a place like this to hang out in Los Angeles.

Day 6

This was my last full day here in Madrid and this city has started to grow on me. I learned that there's an Egyptian temple "Templo de Debod" right in the city and went to see it.

Egypt gave Spain this temple thanking Spain for helping them preserving these temples. This temple was rebuilt stone by stone here. While there is another temple like this at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, this one is actually a museum inside.

There were cool carvings all over the stone walls inside depicting their worshiping of the gods.

This was the most sacred inner temple where the idol resided. Only the highest priest could enter back in the day.

This temple and the artifacts inside are 2,200 years old dating back to 200 B.C.

What a contrast. The ancient and the modern coexisting. That's why I love Europe so much.

For lunch, I found a cute little restaurant called Con Dos Fogones on a quiet street off of Plaza de España. I tried their Duck confit with red fruits chutney, potatoes in its own juice and pears stuffed with gorgonzola cheese. It was excellent and only 11,50 Euro. The meat fell off the bones and the pairing of the sauce, the pears, and the cheese were superb. Who would have thought that I could have duck confit for lunch?

On my last full day in Madrid, I had to visit a museum. The Reina Sofia Museum has free admission on Saturdays from 2:30pm - 9pm, and all day Sunday. I took advantage of it.

The museum has a serene garden with water fountains.

And modern art.

I checked out their special exhibition that documented the Spanish art revolution.

Being a nerd, I liked this Fibonacci sequence piece.

I'd put this in my home.

Yes, the day has come when typewriters officially belong in museums.

After checking out the special exhibition, I went to see the permanent collection. The treasure piece at this museum is Picasso's masterpiece, "Guernica," depicting the terror, the horror, the anguish, the deaths affecting the people in the village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. I couldn't take a picture of it, but I stood in front of it for a good half an hour taking in the powerful emotion Picasso was conveying through his cubism style.

But before Picasso went wild with Cubism, he used typical painting techniques.

So did Salvador Dali before his Surrealism.

Then Dali went crazy with his Surrealism.

I really liked this sculpture by Dali.

There was another special exhibition by an American female artist, Sharon Hayes, called "Speak" (or "Habla" at the Reina Sofia). She had couple of interesting stuff like this room with a collection of famous speeches in vinyls.

And a room full of signs. I thought this was timely given the election season. Here are a few amusing signs I found.

More Picasso in his early days. Cubism started to shape up.

This is my new favorite painting by a Spanish artist named Luis Feito. This piece is called Number 179 (no idea why) painted in 1960. For some reason, it really stood out in the room and spoke to me.

Picasso, last years.

Riding in the glass elevator at Reina Sofia overlooking the city.

For my last meal in Madrid, I went back to San Miguel market to sample tapas. I started with a cup of gazpacho from the big dead fish stall, then I got myself a 2 Euro Sangria and a little plate of paella. The paella wasn't that good...maybe it's because it was late and they were running out.

But this Spanish omelet or "tortilla" was great!

Next up, 1 Euro/each small bites. Smoked salmon, Octopus, Codfish mayonnaise with caviar, and codfish with tomato and basil. All good.

Then croquettes: Squid (the black one), ham and cheese, codfish, and shrimp. Delish!

For dessert, I went back to the yogurt place for a small cup of yogurt with figs topping. As the grand finale, I went back to *drum roll please* Chocolatería San Ginés. Yup! I was a very happy (and full) girl.

I came home the next day and put up the magnets of the two Mona Lisa's I got from the Louvre in Paris and the Prado in Madrid. I'd say that the student got a B+, what do you think?

I am so glad I came to Madrid. I enjoyed the history, the architecture, the art, the food, the people, and THE FOOD. I'd definitely want to come back again and spend time exploring more local neighborhoods now that I've seen all the major tourist spots. I feel there is a lot more to see and experience in this city. Madrid has lots of layers and it's fun peeling them off one by one.

View the entire photo album here:

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