Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Buenos Dias, Madrid

It takes a lot to get me up for a sunrise, but flying to Madrid will do it.

Watching the brilliant red ball inch its way up over the curve of the earth while my body thought it was more like midnight was just the start of trying to put myself on Spanish time. My cab ride from the airport to the hotel was notable for two things: I believe it's the first manual transmission taxi I've ever ridden in and the driver and I exchanged not a word beyond confirming the price of the ride.

Partly, it was a language thing and partly, my mind was mostly shut down since it was under the mistaken impression that it was nearly 2 a.m. (which it was in Richmond). In any case, a quiet ride gave me the time to do my initial gawking at Spain on the drive into city center, marveling that we came in on Calle de O'Donnell - incidentally my mother's maiden name - which I found awfully Irish sounding for these parts.

I felt like my official introduction to the city was seeing the big Plaza de la Independencia, with its central neo-classical triumphal arch - actually five arches leading into the city - with an assortment of soldierly sculptures lounging atop it. A statement piece about arriving in Madrid, for sure.

My driver deposited me and my luggage at Hotel Liabeny with a minimal farewell and someone immediately slid into the back seat I'd just vacated, which had to still be warm.

Determined to re-orient myself to Spanish time, I took a quick nap (after only two hours sleep on the plane, I think a 3 hour nap qualifies as quick, don't you?) before heading out into blinding sunlight bouncing off white and light-colored buildings. My goal was to soak up some neighborhood color and eat, well, lunch technically (it was after 2), but as far as my belly was concerned, breakfast.

It had been waaay too long since my last meal.

Without the energy to do my usual 4 mile walk today, I instead decided to use the hotel staircase, not only because of the six flights of stairs but to check them out architecturally given the hotel's age and pedigree. Made of white marble, carpeted in the center and with shiny brass handrails and leaded, stained glass windows in a "modern" early 20th century style (not to mention a "Vertigo"-worthy view when you look up or down at how they corkscrew), they were worth a look.

Taking Rick Steves' recommendation for a good lunch, I headed to the bar at Restaurante Europa, one of only four people balancing on the backless stools to eat at that hour when any decent Spaniard would be siesta-ing.

Twice, I was asked if I wouldn't rather sit in the dining room, but Rick's assurance that the "fun, high-energy scene with a mile long bar, old school waiters, local cuisine and a fine prix fixe lunch menu" - yes, one of the courses is a choice of wine or cerveza - had sold me on a stool meal.

Besides, it was only from a bar stool that I could see the enormous ham behind the bar, draped with a cotton towel, which was removed every few minutes when a server needed to cut paper thin slices from it and arrange them on a plate, in a pattern like petals on a flower.

My first choice was gazpacho which arrived as a creamy, orange chilled soup. The bowl had barely hit the bar when a server eager to show off his English was at my elbow offering me guarniciones. His tray held bowls of chopped cilantro, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers and bread and he wanted to know which I'd like scooped into my gazpacho.

Constitutionally unable to eat something as unripe and nasty tasting as a green pepper, I opted for onion, tomatoes and cucumbers with a soupcon of cilantro, eschewing the bread bits only because of the stellar crusty roll I was already dipping in nutty olive oil.

My main course, enjoyed with a glass of local white wine, was Bacalao (that's cod to you) in salsa verde with potatoes. It's not that the generous piece of fish wasn't perfectly cooked, but my idea of salsa verde doesn't involve a white sauce with green peas in it, though it was tasty enough, just new to me.

What was challenging was convincing my stomach that it wanted all that food at what it still thought was breakfast time. Trust me, we'll get the hang of this soon.

Not long after I finished eating, I was being offered dessert and tea or coffee, but feeling my energy waning after a hearty meal, I thought it best to do some walking to further assure my body we weren't in Kansas anymore. Every calle I walked down meant another piece of monumental sculpture or an elaborately decorated building facade, always with church spires pointing skyward in the near distance.

The sun had shifted behind the buildings when I went out later, making it far more pleasant to stroll the wide pedestrian streets (with an occasional cop car) without sweltering. People watching in Madrid had already proven to be an eyeful, none more unexpected than a guy in a Municipal Waste t-shirt.

I gotta say, it did my heart good to see a Richmond band on a stranger's chest.

And speaking of strangers, I always get a kick out of being some place where there's almost no chance of running into someone I know, or even recognize.

Turning off one wide calle onto another, I stopped in my tracks when I heard music. It turned out to be a quintet - two violinists, two singers and a conductor in an enormous paper mache head (probably a politician but not one I recognized) - performing Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus." Using a small speaker to project the other instruments, the enormous sound of live and recorded music bolstered by live hallelujah vocals bounced off the surrounding buildings and up into the sky.

It was a remarkable thing to witness, even if most tourists were watching it through their phone ratehr than simply taking it in fully.

El Corte Ingles, a multi-floor store that was part department store, part ABC store, part Starbuck's and part grocery store, I couldn't help but smile walking in when I heard Fleetwood Mac's "Gypsy" belting out of the sound system as people shopped.

Over near the fruit and seafood sections, I spotted another Richmond connection: a big display of Duke's mayonnaise with a sign reading, "Probablemente la mejor mayonesa del mundo."

Now, I may still be brushing up on my Spanish (I did manage to ask for the check in Spanish at lunch, a proud moment considering my brain was flat-lining), but I'm pretty sure that display was telling the Spaniards that Duke's is the best mayo in the world.

Although surely the guy in the Municipal Waste t-shirt already knew that.

Walking home, I scored an empanada de pollo and side of fruit, took them to a bench near some trees and ate it all, trying to convince my stomach that it counted as dinner because, with every step I took, I knew I was that much closer to an epic night of sleep. All I needed to do was see the sun set to bookend my first day in Espana and I was good to go.

Good and ready to spend my first night in Madrid anyway. Te veo manana.

No comments:

Post a Comment