Fuente de las Cibeles in Madrid's city center, aglow at night.
For a city known for nightlife, Madrid's residents sure like to sleep.
Don’t expect to accomplish much in the land in la mañana. I remember hearing stories during a city tour: it took city workers 170 years to remove a foreboding human skull from a street corner, and after nearly 500 years the ayuntamiento of Sevilla had only half of the detailed inscriptions finished on its walls. Thus, things don’t seem to start in Spain until mañana.
Madrid had never really been an ideal vacation destination of mine. When discussing the trip with friends, I was often told to forget Madrid and visit Barcelona, which I would have done if not for impending obligations. I had to go to Madrid, two weeks in Getafe, than off to explore the more anticipated southern coast.
American perceptions lend few qualities to the capital of Spain. Bull fights, flamenco, fútbol, Columbus. The former applied by Hemingway and the latter not Spanish at all; historians say Christopher Columbus was probably a Jewish Italian. But I digress.
So what is uniquely Madrileño? The city center, montaditos, la gente and parks.
Little known fact: Madrid has the largest population of trees of any major European metropolitan city. Large parks revive one's soul from congested paseos and honking scooters. Not majestic – or even pretty parks – but parks nonetheless. The city center, Puerta del Sol, is the hub of congestion. Masses of Madrileños loiter about, flooding the streets, forming an eclectic ocean of people.
The streets of Madrid are a melting pot of cultures young and old. Take a chance to sit at the fountain in Sol and people watch. A summary of the world’s inhabitants will pass by while listening to street music performers playing anything from heavy metal to mariachi. Variety best describes the Madrileño population.
As you sit, you’ll notice a phenomena common in many Latin destinations: la siesta. Waves of people are washed away as the tide ebbs daily around 2 p.m. Streets empty, storefronts close and the city sleeps. A bustling metropolis grinds to a halt. From the hours of 2-5 p.m., it’s national naptime. From a perch on the fountain, you’ll witness puzzled tourists circling the streets finally able to cruise the calles and see sights the city has to offer. But beware, markets, banks, hospitals (joking, I think), everything/everyone is asleep.
Don’t go looking for a montadito at 3 p.m. in Madrid. You won’t find one. Speaking of montaditos! They’re sandwiches – small sandwiches. Bocadillos are big sandwiches, and sandwiches are, well, sandwiches. The only difference is size. Just like two shrimp on a piece of bread is a tapa or pinxto (depending on where you go).
Anyway, the best place to eat in all of Madrid on a dime is Cien Montaditos. It’s a chain of sandwich shops that offer a variety of sandwiches, montaditos, bocadillos, pintxos and tapas (they’re all the same thing, don’t let the names fool ya). On Wednesdays, everything, even beer, is only 1 euro.
A warning on Spanish beer: unless you’re one of those guys into Michelob Ultra, you may be disappointed. There’s Mahou, and Cruz Campo. Both compare to Pabst. Nothing against Pabst, but when one comes from San Diego and has acquired a pallet for Stone & Strauss, a Mahou just doesn’t cut it, especially for upwards of 4 euros a pint!
Something I do recommend isn’t Spanish at all, but Italian. Lumbrusco is an Italian sparkling red or rose wine. It’s great for a hot summer picnic or aperitif, and a bottle is generally only 3-5 euros.
While picnicking, one must try the ham. Before arriving, I never imagined the love Spain had for pork – all sorts of pork. Chorizo, salchichas, lomos, serrano, ibérico are just a few types of ham the Spanish devour. There are even museums dedicated to the delicatessen.
Museo del Jamón is a chain of small restaurants as frequent in Madrid as coffee shops in Portland. Beware!! Our country's wonderful customs regulations prohibit the introduction of Spanish cured or smoke meats (unless if bought in Ralphs, Vons, Albertsons or any other large commercial vendor). A little tip: don’t declare it.
You’re noticing an increase in life in the center of town. The bell has rung, and national naptime is over. Time to stretch out those legs and abandon your place at the Puente. The best thing to do in Madrid is join the masses and flow with the crowd. Go wander; the public transit system is great, and the majority of Madrileños are quite friendly. If you get lost, just stop and ask for directions.