We had first class seats on the train to Madrid, and it soon became clear to us that this is the way to do long-distance train travel in Europe. We were in a non-smoking car with cushy seats, free headphones and movie, and waitress service for lunch. It was comfy.

The day was very clear with light I can only describe as “crispy.” There was no haze or smog of any kind, and even faraway things looked as sharp as a tack. The scenery was very dramatic, full of hills and cliffs and old ruins, and lots of wide open spaces between the cities. It reminded me a little bit of Nevada, with shrubby, stunted vegetation, though it’s probably a bit less dry. We passed two nuclear power plants, one that was some distance from the train tracks and then another that was very close by.

When we got off the train, we were surprised to find it was cooler in Madrid than in Barcelona. We had expected the flat, interior plain to be hotter than the northern coast. The difference was probably due to the to the lower humidity; we definitely did not feel as sticky as we had in Barcelona.

Our arrival in Madrid was marked by a hair-raising taxi ride to our hotel in the Puerta del Sol, one of the major plazas. The Hotel Europa is just off the plaza and right in the heart of things, convenient to the metro, museums, restaurants and such. The plaza was very crowded, and I instantly felt on edge. I continued to get a bad vibe every time we were out in the Puerta del Sol for the rest of our stay in Madrid.

The hotel had very friendly and courteous staff, and was clearly going for the Old World effect: red carpets, chandeliers, ornate mirrors. The floors look like a cross between tile and parquet, made up of small squares which in turn were made of strips of wood, all very highly polished. Our room had a patio that looked out onto Calle del Carmen, one of the pedestrian shopping streets that radiates from the Puerta del Sol.

After we got our bags settled, we went down to the plaza for a snack, keeping it simple by going to the hotel’s bar/cafeteria. Now, this place bore no resemblance to either a bar or a cafeteria that you would see in America. It was more like a café that served small meals. The waiter wore ‘traditional’ dress: black pants, a white shirt and a striped gray vest. Dan ordered coffee and a giant trifle-like dessert with flan, cake, and ice cream for each of us. It was interesting and pretty tasty, but I didn’t eat very much because I still wasn’t feeling too well.

While we were eating, several different street musicians were competing for attention. The group nearest us was playing South American music. One man was playing the guitar, a flute/pipes sort of instrument, and a kick drum. Next to him a small boy was playing a very tiny guitar-like instrument and singing. At the same time, we could hear another musician playing a harp, mostly covers of Simon & Garfunkel.

Many people in the plaza were wearing orange. Orange pants, orange shirts, orange backpacks. Dan and I counted something like ten people wearing orange that went by in just a few minutes. We speculated that orange clothing is the Spanish national fashion in-joke, just like skin-tight red pants seemed to be in Italy.

After our snack, Dan went off to explore the neighborhood, and I went back to our room for a nap. I rested a bit and watched some CNN and BBC World, broadcast in English without subtitles. After a week of being nearly illiterate and having only your travel companion (darling though he is!) for conversation, it’s comforting, somehow, to see almost anything in your own language.

Dan returned after a little while and we went off to find the Restaurante Puerto Rico, which was just a few blocks away, for dinner.

I had my first experience with white asparagus, which I ordered as an appetizer. It was cooked until it was soggy, which I later came to realize was the preparation of choice for this vegetable. It was also topped with salsa and a vinaigrette. All in all, it was a little bit odd. My main course was a very thin fillet of grilled swordfish. It was fine, but a little dry and definitely unspectacular. Dan started off with creamed spinach, which turned out to be more or less spinach dip—more cream than spinach. For his entrée, he ordered something that he thought sounded unusual, but it turned out to be steak frites.

Churros, Art and Flowers

The next day, I finally felt clean after showering in the morning. I’m not sure if it was different water, lower humidity, or something else, but my hair finally stopped being greasy and stringy and started to behave itself. Our first priority was to locate some churros con chocolat for breakfast at the Bar Valladolid on Calle de Cadiz. This little place was recommended in our guidebook, and finding it helped us get our bearings in the city. The street it was on was really more like an alley, which it shared with a number of bars and nightspots. It was pretty quiet in the morning.

I had my first encounter with some ‘gypsy’ kids while Dan was inside ordering our churros. They were begging for money, and really didn’t want to take no for an answer. Once Dan returned with the food, he was able to disperse them. He’s much better at being imposing than I am, and he can muster up a really stern-sounding bellow. The churros were greasy and slightly salty, but the chocolate was pretty yummy, a thickish version of hot chocolate.

Our next stop was the Prado. It was large, disorganized, and disappointing. They were out of English language maps, which in itself was not such a big deal. It’s not like I expect a museum in a foreign country to cater to me, and thanks to all the Latin I took in high school, I can muddle through signs in most Romance languages. The problem was that the maps that were available in Spanish bore no relationship at all to the location of the paintings in the museum. We found Las Meninas by Velasquez, but is was much more impressive from a distance than it was up close. Other than that, my impression of the Prado was that it was a massive building filled with rooms and rooms of dark, dusty old paintings.

Partway through our visit, we took a brunch/snack break at the museum café. Dan had a chickeny onion soup and some flan, which he reported to be surprisingly good. I snacked on a roll with honey and butter, simple but satisfying. After lunch we tried fruitlessly to find Goya’s paintings of the 2nd and 3rd of May because Dan was interested in them. After a while, we just gave up and left the museum.

The Real Jardin Botanic, originally Charles III’s botanical garden, was adjacent to the Prado, and I wanted to take a look around. It was a peaceful and relaxing stop, with many shady paths and flowers in bloom. I had fun photographing the dahlias.

After we finished seeing the garden, we were hungry for a more substantial meal.

We stopped at the Bar Museo, across the street from the Prado, for a fairly late lunch. This strategy worked well for us in Spain, since dinner tended to be a late-night affair. I had a lentil and pork stew that was stick-to-your-ribs satisfying. Dan ordered something labeled as “ox fillet” which looked and tasted suspiciously like steak frites.

After lunch we headed back to the hotel, since I was still feeling poorly. Dan went out to explore again, while I napped and watched TV in the room. It was the anniversary of the attacks on September 11, so we were both a little bit worried that more terrorism might happen.

Dan was very shaken and unhappy when he returned to the room a little bit later. He’d nearly been pick-pocketed by a group of young street girls just off the Puerta del Sol, and I guess he’d chased after them and confronted them about it. After all the warnings we’d read about Barcelona, it was ironic that Dan had trouble in Madrid. On the other hand, I’d been getting a bad feeling every time we were out in that plaza. I guess it’s good to trust your instincts about things like that.

By this time, we were ready for some dinner, so we headed off to look for one of the places recommended in our books. Dan decided give the GPS another try, but it crashed. We got lost. Hungry and lost are not a good combination for us. We were both getting frustrated and a little cranky, but when we looked up to try to get oriented, we saw the restaurant we were looking for. Sigh. After all that, the place didn’t look very appealing. We decided to eat at the nearby Taberna Miranda instead. This was a pubby-looking tapas place, and we had a pretty good meal there: sausages, bread with tomato, vinegar and olive oil, croquettes with ham and cheese.

The next day started off with some errands. We left some laundry to be done at the hotel, and then went to book train tickets for the rest of our trip. El Corte Ingles, the large department store you’ll find in most Spanish cities, has a travel agency, and the agents usually speak English.

We had concocted an elaborate itinerary for the rest of our trip, going to Toledo for the day, then onto Cordoba and Sevilla, from there to Salamanca, then a couple more stops in Portugal before getting to Lisbon. We were fortunate to speak to a very friendly and patient travel agent!

More Art

After the errands were done we had more art on the agenda, so we walked back over toward the Prado to get to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. It was a fairly small collection, but it had good, chronological layout covering paintings of the 19th and 20th centuries. Since we were in the neighborhood, we decided to have lunch at Bar Museo, again. It was yummy, again.

After lunch, it was on to the Reina Sofia museum, which was larger and had more of a focus on modern art. Their prized possession is Picasso’s Guernica, and for good reason. It’s a massive painting, with a lot of impact. I’ve seen reproductions in my art history books, but it was a very different experience to see it in person. The rest of the collection was nicely and thoughtfully arranged, in a lovely, modern building. We saw a lot of Miro’s paintings, some by Dali, and also some interesting cubist sculpture.

When we were through at the museum, we took a different route back to the hotel.

It was an interesting walk along Calle Atocha, a little less touristy and a little more gritty than the other parts of Madrid that we’d seen. We saw a pet store with some very cute kittens, lots of sex shops, and many other small stores that were a bit less glossy and upmarket than the ones closer to our hotel.

The Meal from Hell

We had decided to have a “splurge” dinner that evening, so we headed toward one of the streets south of the Plaza Mayor known for its fine restaurants. The one we had earmarked was a little tricky to find, and we once again had trouble with Dan’s GPS. When we got there, the menu seemed expensive and not very interesting. From there, we wandered down the block to see what else was available, and ended up choosing Casa Julian de Tolosa which had a very limited, Spanish-only menu.

One school of thought about eating out when you’re abroad maintains that it’s a good sign if the restaurant doesn’t have menu translations. Also, Dan thought that one of the entrées was roast suckling pig, which sounded good, so in we went. The hostess was very friendly and we were seated right away. The interior was upscale in a modern, minimal way, with lots of wood and metal and sparse decoration. It all looked very promising.

What we had hoped would be suckling pig turned out to be T-bone steak, which didn’t interest me very much. The only other choices for entrées were battered and fried hake or grilled monkfish. Dan, who’s not really big on fish, went for the T-bone. I chose the hake because it was a fish I’d never tried before. We also ordered a dish of white asparagus and one of red beans as accompaniments. At the hostess’s suggestion, we also ordered the grilled peppers to go with our entrées. She claimed they were the best thing on the menu. Little did we know that she wasn’t kidding.

The beans came out first, and they were fine, if a little bland. The four fat stalks of white asparagus (which cost 12 euros!) were soggy and also bland. The texture made me a bit queasy. Meanwhile, the service was poor and snooty at the same time, a very unpalatable combination.

The maître’d and waiter, who were both middle aged, and both wearing black leather aprons, managed to make us feel improper every time they came to the table.

The first half of Dan’™s steak arrived fairly promptly. We’d been told that it was served in two parts so that it could be eaten hot, but my hake and the grilled peppers were nowhere in sight. Finally Dan grumped at the waiter and my entrée appeared: two pieces of battered fish, alone on the plate with no vegetables and no garnish. It is tasteless, and even worse, it squeaked in my teeth when I eat it. My only hope for salvation was a droopy slice of lemon. It didn’t help.

By the time I choked down half my fish, Dan was done with most of his steak. We informed the waiter that we did NOT want postres or café. He cleared the table and returned with two small glasses and a decanter of vibrantly red liqueur. It looked, smelled, and tasted just like chilled Robitussin. We are still convinced that this was a practical joke played on foreigners, rather than something meant for drinking.

The tab for this dreadful meal, accompanied only by a half bottle of house wine, was 85 euros. Ack.

We returned to the hotel, and discovered that about half of our laundry had not yet been returned. This caused us some mild panic, but the front desk assured us that the missing items would be located. We were still concerned, since we had to change rooms the next night. Would my pants find their way to the right place?

The next day, our plan was to head for Toledo by train.

The Heavenly Meal

After we returned from Toledo, we took a short rest in the hotel, and then went off for dinner. Since I’d been really missing vegetables, we figured our best shot at finding some would be a vegetarian restaurant. Luckily, our guidebook listed one fairly near the hotel, Artemisia II.

What a great choice! This was one of the best meals so far on the trip, and that’s saying a lot. We even had a friendly waiter, to boot. I got my vegetable fix by starting with a large Greek salad. It was delicious, even without any dressing. There were lots of tomatoes, slices of cucumber, chopped onion, and slices of mild but salty feta, all lightly sprinkled with dried oregano. I’ve since replicated this salad for workday lunches many times. Dan began with Catalonian-style spinach, which came with a reasonable amount of cream sauce (unlike at the Puerto Rican restaurant) and chunks of apple, raisins and pine nuts. This was another interesting variation on the spinach he makes at home. The apple and cream were nice additions.

My main course was canneloni, made with spinach pasta and filled with spinach, cheese and almonds. They were baked in a bechamel sauce, and they were delicious! Dan also raved about his chicken entrée; apparently, this restaurant wasn’t entirely vegetarian. The sauce was the real star, made with roquefort and some kind of liquor, perhaps whiskey. We had a really nice white wine with our meal, recommended by the waiter. I wish I’d noted what it was.

After dinner, we walked around town a bit, enjoying the quietness of the streets after dark—such a contrast to the constant thrum during the day and into the evening. We came across a singer with a guitar who was being mildly hassled by a guy in a suit. I noticed him as we went by, but it took me a little bit to realize he was making the singer uncomfortable. Dan picked up on this too, and we agreed we should go back. So we just stood and listened to her play, and after a little while another couple joined us, and then the smarmy guy went away.

After her song was done,  one that Dan knew by Leonard Cohen, we chatted with her a bit. She was a German named Silke, who had quit her office job and moved to Madrid to busk because, as she said, her life was too “formal.”

When we moved on from there and began looking for the chocolateria that Dan had seen while exploring on his own on our first evening in Madrid. I was feeling exhausted, and not up for wandering, but he really wanted to find this place. We looked around for a while with no luck, so we returned to the hotel and asked the concierge for directions. After that, it was a hop, skip and a jump to get there.

I’m glad we persevered. The chocolate was REALLY good, almost as thick as pudding, like the book said. I guess I’m just not crazy about churros, though. I felt the same way about this batch as the first ones we had in Madrid: too greasy and salty. After the churros, it was off to bed to rest up for our journey to Sevilla.