Making Memories in Madrid

I had never been to Madrid even though I had spent over a month in Spain at one point so for me the capital city of Spain would all be new to me. This was also the first stop on a multi-month trip so I just wanted to get my bearings straight, make sure work started off well and get to see the city a bit. I didn’t have many expectations but I left really enjoying the city and the many different aspects and neighborhoods to it.

It’s always tricky to arrive somewhere on an overnight flight. You haven’t slept well, if at all, but you arrive in the morning so you feel like you don’t want to waste the day. For me, that is a perfect time to see the touristy sites as they are worth seeing but also probably won’t be the highlight of the trip. That’s exactly what we did when we set off from our hotel to see the Royal Palace and Plaza de Mayor. It was a frigid 40 degrees, slightly raining and very overcast but that didn’t stop us from walking miles all over the city. We saw the major sites and checked off a few more boxes but it was coming up on lunchtime and I was excited to begin to experience that excited me most about being in Spain, the food.

The food scene is everything I like about a cuisine. Small plates that are easily shared, a great mix of seafood and meat, exotic dishes you can’t find anywhere else, and cheap booze to wash it all down. Madrid has the best of both worlds. You can walk down the main promenade teeming with hundreds of people but still quickly pop into a store to taste their famous Iberico ham. At the same time, you could wonder a few blocks in the opposite direction into a little alleyway and stumble upon a tiny local bar with a handwritten menu and not a word of English in site. This became what I liked about Madrid so much. As a city founded 1,000 (yes 1,000) years ago and the capital of a major European country, it has had to modernize and grow to support its 3+ million population. There is an expansive metro system, every shop you could ever think of and all of the other doldrums of a modern 21st century city. Luckily, there are still little pockets here and there where you could still find its old charm down alleyways too small for cars and a winding system of streets lined with old houses that all looked the same where you could get lost in. Here, you could find the little hole in the wall restaurants that you wouldn’t pop up on google or yelp but would surely serve the most authentic food around.

Over the years I’ve developed a system to find these quaint little restaurants from locals. If you normally ask a local for a recommendation they give you 2-3 generic places that pop right up on google. The first thing I do is find a local place that serves craft beer mainly because I enjoy sampling the local fare but also because those who work in the craft beer industry are usually pretty nice and love to eat. In order to get around the generic recommendation response, I ask very specific questions in order to extract a restaurant or bar they normally wouldn’t recommend. Here in Madrid I did just that asking, “Can you tell me the name of a tiny local restaurant, where there is no English menu, the food is unique and when I walk in people will definitely stare.” By asking that question, he immediately thought of the complete opposite recommendation he might have been thinking of. Less than 10 seconds later he says, “I’ve got the perfect place but it has no sign so I’ll have to show you”. Before I could blink, he started walking out the door expecting me to follow (mind you he was the only worker there and other customers were waiting to be served). I scurried to catch up and we go down a few alleyways, take a few turns and points and says “There, that’s the spot.”

It just goes to show you how receptive people will be if you ask the right way. He literally dropped what he was doing just to ensure I went to the right spot. My eyes lit up as I went back to our Airbnb to tell Hannah that I not only found my beer spot for the week but found the perfect spot for dinner.

We arrived early for Madrid standards, around 7pm, because we had to get back to work and locals don’t eat until 9 or 10pm so it was “happy hour time” if you will. We open the door, grab a couple of barstools and watch as every patron slowly turns their head thinking, “How the heck did these people find this place.” The barman comes over and puts a tiny bowl of nuts in front of us and mutters something in Spanish. Now I took Spanish in college and would say I’m fairly adequate at it but I had no idea what he said. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say “Cerveza y Vino Tinto” so that’s what we did and a beer and glass of red wine quickly came. When I looked at the menu I was shocked. I’ve read hundreds of menus in Spanish and am able to decipher them 95% of the time but with this one I had no clue. This was the type of old school place that was so authentic that they didn’t even use the same words to describe their dishes as other newer restaurants.

The barman didn’t speak any English and even google translate didn’t understand the words on the menu so I pointed to 4-5 dishes and said that’s what we wanted not knowing what the heck we were getting. What came out was one of the most memorable and delicious meals I’ve ever had. The dishes included Crispy Pig Ears, Grilled Head-on Shrimp, Razor Clams, Steamed Octopus and Snails. It finally made sense why I couldn’t read the menu as these were not the types of food or animal words you learned in Spanish level high school. All the small plates came together to make the most magnificent meal. Savory mixed with Sweet, Spicy and Salty. Many different textures and a combination of hot and cold dishes. The sauces accompanying each dish was so unique and tasty that I can still taste the one that was poured over the crispy pig ears. It was a very fun experience and one of my favorite kinds; a stranger suggesting a strange restaurant that serves even stranger food. This was only our third day on our trip but I was already hooked – this whole thing was going to work itself out

The rest of our stay in Madrid led us to drinks on our amazing rooftop porch, wandering around their main central park, Parque Retiro, getting cocktails at Instagram’s “Coolest bar in Madrid”, stumbling upon free art galleries, and chasing droves of peacocks around in order to see their feathers pop up. We explored in the mornings, worked in the afternoons and nights with a quick dinner or aperitif break and thus began our weekday routine. We’d walk to the local market or coffeeshop for breakfast and wonder around for a few hours before lunch and then work. We weren’t in a rush and usually didn’t have a plan but that was part of what made Madrid so fun for us. I’d certainly like to go back since we definitely didn’t see everything we could but it was an important stop for the first week on our trip. For one, I ended up getting my luggage back 2 days later but we also eased into our new work routine and were swept away by the thoughts of the endless food, drink and excursion options we had in front of us. When people ask what my favorite city on the trip ended up being, I don’t think I ever say Madrid but it was the perfect first stop for us and I did really enjoy it and would go back someday. Just 4 days after we landed, we were off again, this time to catch our first high-speed train to Barcelona.

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