Travels in Spain before Covid: Madrid

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October 20th 2019
Published: October 20th 2020
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MADRID 10/20/19

After an early morning landing in Madrid we taxied from the airport to the Hotel Catalonia Atocha located within walking distance of the famous Plaza Mayor. Our hotel is located in the historic Literary Quarter where Spain’s great literary giants once lived and roamed the streets. The remains of Miguel Cervantes and Lope de Vega are said to rest in this area.

We were met in the hotel lobby by lovely Vera, our Gate 1 guide for the next eleven days. Vera provided us with maps, an overview of the area including shopping tips such as the large open air flea market and places where we might find a nice lunch. Under cool and questionable skies we were off to explore Plaza Mayor and beyond. With a reputed 300 days of sunshine a year, we were optimistic that the rains would not dampen our day.

Plaza Mayor is a spacious portico lined square situated at the heart of Hapsburg Madrid. Dating back to 1619, it is located in the old part of the city and reputedly one of the capital’s most charming districts. The foundations of Plaza Mayor were laid when Philip II's court moved to
Archway to Plaza MayorArchway to Plaza MayorArchway to Plaza Mayor

There are 10 ways to enter the Plaza Mayor
Madrid, on the site of the former Plaza del Arrabal, where, towards the end of the 15th century, the town's most popular market was located. Many restaurants and shops line this popular square and, as we observed, crowds filled the square on both of the days we were there, one in the rain (yes it actually did rain) and the other in the sun. As usual, I waited patiently for an opportunity to get a clear shot of the square as the masses began to disperse.

There are 10 ways to enter the Plaza Mayor, one of these is to go up the steep steps of the Arco de los Cuchilleros. The name Cuchilleros, comes from the cutlers' workshops that were once located here. These people supplied the knives to the butchers in Plaza Mayor. The tall picturesque buildings that lined the entrances to the plaza give a tunnel like feeling due to their height, the building’s leaning façades serve as buttresses. The iconic statue of King Phillip III, as he sits on horseback, is located in the center of the plaza and we were told is one of the most valuable works of art to be found on the streets of Madrid.

The buildings surrounding the square are three floors high and there are 237 balconies that face the plaza. Throughout the centuries major events were held in this square. During these major events, nobles were legally able to temporarily evict the owners of apartments facing the plaza so that they could watch what transpired in style. These evicted owners not only had to leave their apartments but were required to feed and serve these entitled nobles, arrogant by any standards nowadays. After the sun came out I photographed a man who was surrounded by people as he filled the air with his huge soap bubbles. I was told the bubble man, “like King Phillip III”, was a regular in this square.

The Mercado San Miguel was a ten minute walk from our very modern hotel Catalonia Atocha and just off the Plaza Mayor. The Mercado was packed with people and once we had squeezed inside, I felt like the sardines that were for sale. We had to elbow our way to the stalls just to see what they were offering, much less buy anything, but after I caught view of the tapas I was determined
La Casa del Bacalao inside the Mercado San Miguel La Casa del Bacalao inside the Mercado San Miguel La Casa del Bacalao inside the Mercado San Miguel

Siciliana (cod) and Boquerones (cod) on toasts and, my favorite, Tortilla de bacalao (anchovy and peppers)
to taste everything I could, they all looked so good. We began at La Casa del Bacalao where I had Siciliana (cod) and Boquerones (cod) on toasts and, my favorite, Tortilla de bacalao (anchovy and peppers). Each were delicious and inexpensive (1 euro each) so I went back for seconds. My favorite tasting was at MozHeart where I had the creamiest, smoothest, freshest (did I say beyond delicious?) mozzarella concoction ever. The addition of a sweet pepper topping was just out of this world. Oh and to finish off the tastings we elbowed our way into Litesan Chocolates to try something sweet. I couldn’t resist the raspberry cake with a chocolate ganache, worth the 5 euros a piece, 4 euros more than the tapas. My husband and I fought over each delicious bite.

Even after the chocolate and pastry stalls in the Mercado, we had a little room for another tasting and decided to try some churros. We stopped at Chocolate Y Churros Los Nuevos Alpes, near the Plaza Mayor and across from the Mercado. The Churros are legendary in Spain so I had to try this celebrated sweet at least once. I found the fried dough to be, well, doughy, and a little greasy. The cup of hot, thick chocolate for dipping made for a better experience but I think for me, one and done.

Satisfied with our food tastings we began to wander with hopes of finding the flea market Vera had told us about. Just off the Calle Mayor we discovered the historic and unspoiled little Plaza de la Villa, one of the oldest squares in Madrid. The plaza boasts the statue of Spanish noble Don Al Varo De Bazan, renowned as the finest Admiral in Spanish maritime history in part because he protected the treasure ships that brought gold and silver from the New World. I later learned that Don Miguel Cervantes (Don Quixote) lost his left hand as he fought alongside Bazan in the battle of El Manco de Lepanto. Thankfully he wrote with his right hand!

As we walked down Calle Mayor Dave noticed several policemen holding up traffic on the narrow street and suggested we wait thinking some famous personage was about to appear. Instead we heard the bleating and bell ringing of hundreds of sheep led by their shepherds as they passed through the street right in front of
Plaza de la VillaPlaza de la VillaPlaza de la Villa

Statue of Spanish noble Don Al Varo De Bazan
us! We were delighted to see this “Running of the Sheep” that included drummers, an occasional horn or two and the seemingly endless clanging sheep’s bells, along with a few huge oxen pulling carts filled with children. Watchful shepherds with their classic crooks completed this wonderful parade. These unexpected colloquial events are what I love most about travel.

The looming clouds foretold a change in the weather so we chose not to try to find the flea market but instead got totally lost in a sudden downpour. Dashing from shop to street we bought an umbrella and made our way back to the historic Plaza Mayor for something hot and a bite to eat. We chose the Cafe Zarra Bar outside but under cover of large umbrellas and some heaters to protect us from the chilly weather but give us a view of the plaza. Dave had a nice coffee and I chose the classic boquerones, a milder anchovy that resembles a nice white fish often preserved in olive oil and vinegar and eaten on bread. The anchovies were pretty good but the bread was tough and too large. It would have been much better if the fish were on toasts with olive oil (which I later enjoyed and devoured in other parts of Spain.) The rain had stopped and sun came out, and from our seats we watched the waiters push the water away from the restaurant into the larger plaza, but entertaining as that was, I was chilled so we finished and meandered our way back to the warmth of the hotel.

Our first Gate 1 group dinner was located within a 10 minute walk from our hotel at a charming restaurant called Ginger near the Plaza del Angel and off Calle de las Huertas. This street is known for its glittering gold quotes of Spain’s literary giants embedded on the pedestrian walkway. Had I known I would have brought my good camera. Ginger’s Mediterranean and Spanish specialties were absolutely delicious and were a great introduction to our delicious and delightful epicurean adventure in Spain. Seated at a large table we were happy to get to know our fellow travelers Kathleen from New Mexico and Sandy and Ken West from New South Wales at our table. I wish I could remember the delicious meal but I recall a very flavorful and creative soup, a fish and
Cafe Zarra Bar , Plaza MayorCafe Zarra Bar , Plaza MayorCafe Zarra Bar , Plaza Mayor

The rain had stopped and from our seats we watched the waiters push the water away from the restaurant into the larger plaza
a delicious dessert. I think I will have to return to revisit this great restaurant and its wonderful cuisine (and absorb the history imbedded in this delightful street).

Additional photos below
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