(The Trip to Italy (the film) is not to be missed, and while I didn’t enjoy The Trip to Spain nearly as much, I still appreciate the hilarious Steve Coogan and Rob Braydon and the very to-the-point titles). PS, Grazie a Luca, per il suo messaggio, perché stavo pensando delle sue parole in questi giorni, e finalmente, ho fatto qualcosa. Non e’ Un libro per i premi, ma… beh.. 🙂 )
For everything in life, there are phases. Maybe you’re having a gluten free phase, or a rock climbing phase, or a bald guy phase. Maybe you’re spending an inordinate amount of money each month on fresh flowers, or watching a lot of Steve McQueen movies, or experimenting with the many makers of gin. When it comes to travel, it’s interesting how some places call to us at certain times of our lives, in certain phases, and become phases in themselves. Italy, for me, was never, and nor do I foresee it ever becoming, a ‘phase.’ Where would I rather go for a September mountain getaway, Austrian Alps or Italian alps? Italian. Where would I prefer to take a summer by the sea vacation, Croatia or Italy? Italy. Where would I rather go for a January escape from the northeast winter- Seville or Rome? Rome (and booked already, grazie).
So when a June trip to Spain and Mallorca was taking shape, in all honesty, I wasn’t hugely into it. I was secretly worried that the scenery would not be as can’t-stop-staring-at-it gorgeous as la costiera amalfitana, or the clear waters of Sardegna, or Sicilia, or my personal weekend retreat of choice on the Ligurian coast. I wasn’t necessarily counting down the minutes until Spanish chorizo, and I wasn’t budgeting a Spanish shopping spree quite like one would when faced with the temptations of Milan. Actually, the only thing I really wanted were tiles and Mallorcan ceramics, of which I disappointingly discovered, there is no such thing.
Instead, I pumped myself up with ‘this is good. I’ll see somewhere new. The Milanese always talk about Madrid. People go to Mallorca. They must like it. I will see it, I will cross it off the list. It’s cheaper than Italy.’
Here are the things I was most looking forward to, and don’t get me wrong, I was very much looking forward to them.
1. Discovering Madrid, a supposedly very chic city, with a sort of hidden charm and elegance similar to that ‘Secret Milan’ everyone constantly refers to.
2. Staying at the Belmond La Residencia in Deià, because in my experience, and from what I’ve heard from others, the Belmond brand is luxury hospitality the way we dream it, with superb service (the kind that is always in crisp uniform, smiling, appearing at your side with just that item you were thinking of a moment go), marvelous ancient buildings, gorgeous settings and storybook landscaping, and without fail, a piano man.
Arrive, Madrid. Flight, short (comparatively speaking). Luggage, found. Taxi driver, friendly. Hotel first impression: walls of tiles, aka, We’re in Business.
At the Only You Boutique Hotel in Madrid, the service is young and friendly, and the rooms are the size of your suitcase. We were in a good mood, the kind of excited-ness that makes you forget you didn’t sleep at all on the flight, and all we wanted to do was begin the cafe explorations. Off we went to cafe number one: Mision. We walked through a scratchy little neighborhood filled with graffiti, some garbage, and some scruffy looking students. It was worth it when we arrived at the hip Mision Cafe, where we ordered a true hodgepodge of breakfast items on their creative menu. The young girl sat down with us for a moment to chat and translate, and we oohed and ahhed over flavorful roasted chickpeas with a kick, a bowl of kefir cooked oats with homemade granola and sliced pear. The coffee was not Italy, but not to fret, we would make other stops along our walk.
Lunch at El Quintin was a recommendation from a friend, and one can only describe the scene as lively and convivial. Madrilenos in their Madrid finest (again, we’re not in Milan here), streamed in ready for hours-long mid-day aperitivi, much laughter, and bites of Spanish olives standing at the bar. We did as Americans do from our table near the doorway and people-watched for the majority of our lunch, which consisted of the best clams of the trip, served in a tomatoey, peppery sauce with herbs (and there were clams at nearly every meal), fabulous thick, crusty bread, beautiful plates, and other things that I didn’t photograph and therefore can’t remember three months later. (Whoops.)
The most memorable clams are at El Quintin
After lunch we wandered the neighborhood, an upscale area where designer shops have found a home beneath beautiful Madrid apartment buildings. Surprisingly, many designers are missing from the Madrid scene. Again, we’re not in Milan.
Dinner was outstanding, once we arrived. Do not underestimate Madrid traffic. Also double check your restaurant names, as there seem to be multiple locales with the same name, and once you’ve spent 40 minutes in traffic to arrive at your reservation, and you are now 40 minutes late, it is heartbreaking to learn you have to sit in that same traffic once again. But arrive we did at Triciclo, and once we tucked into a table in the quiet, very civilized dining room, and were offered all different types of homemade bread, we devoured the best tuna tartare we’d had in, perhaps, ever. Dinner for three, with incredibly fresh seafood prepared with just enough innovation to be interesting but not overlabored, all with exceptional service, was a steal. (10 points for Madrid’s restaurant affordability).
Unforgettable tuna tartare at Triciclo
The humble, charming Triciclo
The next day we slept late and set out towards Acid Cafe, found in a cute neighborhood where we also discovered Patisserie Motteau. Across the little cobblestoned street lives the only ceramics shop I was able to find, and it did not disappoint. At Acid, we were blown away by the still warm from the oven chocolate/orange/walnut cookie. If I lived in Madrid, I would subsist on these cookies. The neighborhood felt the most ‘neighborhoody’ compared to anywhere else we had walked thus far, and it being Saturday around noon, it had that slow to start vibe, with Madrilenos sitting outside of the bakery enjoying a quiet moment with their dog, or strolling back from the Saturday market with plastic bags of vegetables in hand.
After a walk through the Prado, we high-tailed it to the massive Retiro Park, eager to beat the ominous rain clouds in the sky. Do not underestimate the enormity of this magnificent park, 350 acres situated in the center of the city. It is not to be missed and deserves at least an hour or two if you’re just walking through it. The rose garden is divine. Imagine over 4000 roses in different colors and varieties, and iron trellises to walk through and play out your regal Spanish fairytale. Never have I ever seen so many roses in one place. In another part of the park, there are extraordinary peacocks to be found. No one was expecting those.
Retiro Park, not to be missed
Sunday lunch at El Pescador was bustling. Families of 4, 5, 6, 7, or more were making their way through platters of lobster, shrimp scampi, clams, pastas, and divine homemade desserts. The menu is large, the tablecloths are blue and white checkered, the waiters are impatient with non-Spanish speakers, and the plates are purchase-worthy. This is a restaurant that does decor and ambience very well. 10 points for atmosphere. It was, decidedly, the most expensive restaurant we chose in Madrid.
Unbelievable beauty in the Retiro Park
The storybook-like rose garden in the Retiro Park
That night the rain finally poured, and we ducked our heads into a taxi towards El Lando on the other side of the center. Upon arrival, the door was covered with a curtain on the inside, and two men were standing outside. One would drive right on by if one did not know any better. We said our excuse me’s to the men and shook off the rain in an entryway lined with framed photos of celebrity guests. The men stood around us, chatting nonchalantly as if we had just entered an old, family home. Down one level, the dining room is long and narrow, the waiters are all male aged 60 or higher (probably having worked there all their lives) and there is a platter of very thinly sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil covering little toasted bread on our table. Not knowing any better, and quite hungry (shockingly), we dived right into the tomatoes. Only later on, once more regulars arrived, did we see that the waiter serves the tomatoes. They were one of the best things we had throughout the whole trip. I do not think I will ever forget those flavorful slices, that peppery olive oil, how easily we finished off two platters between us. Our waiter was gruff but friendly, the type that seems stern but warms up to you after a few moments, like a tough high school teacher. He pushed the fried asparagus, and we thanked him for it. We had tiny clams, a fish stew, and a meat dish which was actually quite disappointing (more tomatoes and bread please) before we took our photo with the man of the house and crossed our fingers we’d make it to the wall of fame.
A Madrileno family chowing down on Sunday lobster at El Pescador
Fish for two at El Pescador
More clams, El Pescador
Mixed seafood at El Pescador
Part Dos: Mallorca, Coming Soon