By the time we reached Madrid I was feeling pretty good about my relationship with Spain. Like we’d moved swiftly past the small-talk stage of acquaintance to a full-on loving embrace.
Of course Spain had every right to be embarrassed by me; I was still shaking out my map every few paces, striding around in Homyped sandals and inelegantly coping with the heat by collapsing in a red-faced sweaty heap every few hours.
And, while I’d mastered some basic Spanish (hola, gracias, sangria litro), our relationship was still rife with miscommunication. Spain offered me the chance to see the Palacio Real de Madrid; I responded with, “Cool, can I see the fake ones too?” I learned what to expect when visiting a patisseria (pastry), pasteleria (pastry), heladeria (ice cream) and panaderia (pastry). But then Spain would throw me for a loop:
One morning I attempted a breakfast order – “Tostada con jam, please” – and was presented with toasted bread and ham.
“Excuse me, I asked for jam,” I clarified apologetically.
“This is jam,” the waiter insisted, jabbing at the shaved leg ham.
I tried to mime ‘spreading toast with a thick layer of sugary strawberry/apricot/peach conserve’.
“Huh? Did you want jam Serrano?”
At that point I realised that he’d taken my request for ‘jam’ as an Anglo shortening of ‘jamon’. I cursed myself inwardly (“Duh, mermelada!”), tucked my tail between my legs, and quietly set about eating my pig meat. (Thankfully, like that episode of Kath & Kim where Kim commissions a statue of baby Jesus and ends up with a statute of baby cheeses, it was a happy mistranslation. The Spanish know their pork.)
The things I loved about Madrid and its surrounds:
The Museo del Prado
The Garden of Earthly Delights, Las Meninas
I spent 5 hours in D&M with the incredible collection of works by artists like Goya (The 3rd of May 1808, the disturbing pinturas negras or ‘black paintings’, the intriguing clothed and nude Majas…), Murillo, El Greco, and Rubens. I revisited Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights a few times to soak up every detail (too many fruit orgies, coin-pooping people, nun-pigs, glass bubble philandering and musical instrument torture scenes to process in one go…) and got overwhelmed by how much ‘adoring of the Magi’ and ‘Madonna expelling breast milk’ there is in European art. After seeing Picasso’s studies of Las Meninas in Barcelona, and Dali’s appropriations in Figueres, it was amazing to finally see Velasquez’s masterpiece in the flesh.
Palacio Real de Madrid
Mercado de San Miguel
This gourmet tapas market serves up everything from chorizo-strewn paella to boiled Galician barnacles. There’s a dedicated burrata bar, grocer who painstakingly builds a pyramid of cherries each day, and wandering sangria sellers who’ll offer you a tipple as you browse. I was intrigued (though not tempted) by the stall offering baby eel pintxos – I later found out that the maggot-y strands are actually carefully cut fish flesh (which seems to be making a sow’s ear out of a silk purse; or the seafood equivalent of marketing chocolate almonds as roo droppings), but preferred to stick to the tried and tested cheese and cured meat alternatives.
Avila and Segovia
We took a day trip out to visit Avila; an incredible 11th Century fortified town whose 2.5km long wall includes 88 towers and more than a few Roman gravestones; and Segovia; home to the jaw-dropping, almost perfectly-preserved 16km long Roman aqueduct (guys, no mortar!)
Segovia Cathedral, view from Segovia Alcazar
Everything we saw just made me love Spain that bit more, so it was heart-rending to have to leave. That said, it was also kind of a relief. As it turns out, I have a soft spot for Spanish food. And by soft spot, I mean ever-softening paunch (barely staved off by extensive walking). At the end of our 18 day tryst, it was time to say goodbye to Spain, and enter into a dalliance with my new beau, Germany!