Fresh off a week in sunny Copenhagen in the low 70s, and into the fire. Stepping off of the plane onto the tarmac felt like stepping into an oven. It felt good and hellish all at once, made more intense by our stubborn refusal to take a bus or a taxi when we are well within walking distance. Even if that walking distance is uphill, with our luggage, and no shade.
Our Airbnb host Vera must have been through this a time or two, and had fresh fruit and cool juice ready for us as we walked through the door. Over the next hour, we talked and learned all the tips and tricks to see the city.
Madrid Travel Hack: Never pay for a museum or palace tour! Always check if have free hours!
After a much needed shower, we set out for Plaza Mayor and, on a trusted recommendation, to the Torre del Oro (Tower of Gold). This place was gnarly, and just what I needed to see days before heading to San Fermin. First and foremost, it is a restaurant. But lining the walls above the food displays and bar are the heads of massive bulls and razor sharp horns. Waiting for you at eye level are stories in pictures of famous bullfighters whose fights took a turn for the worse. Starting from the left you see the fighters taunting and smiling at the bull. But as you move to the right, the smiles quickly vanish as horns erupt through thighs, faces, and anywhere in between. Having worked up an appetite we moved next door in search of cheap beer and food. Coming from Copenhagen we knew that a night out in one of the most popular parts of town was going to mean PB&J sandwiches for the next six meals. We grabbed the first menu, fully expecting to execute our well rehearsed “faking of genuine interest so as not to appear as broke tourists” act.
At first..we were confused. Did it really say 3€ for a meat and cheese plate? But..didn’t we just spend $20.00+ on one of those in Copenhagen? Then..we were skeptical. It’s probably going to be a slice of cheese with a sliver on meat on top. Taking a chance, we ordered. And finally..we celebrated! Our expected order of a meat/cheese toothpick combo turned out to be the Rolls Royce of meat plates, making our Copenhagen plate look like a Prius. And so began 17 days of 0.50€ beer, 2€ bottles of wine, and more ham than any one person should ever consume.
The next few days were spent visiting the cities many beautiful sights, from the Retiro Park….
to the Royal Palace…
Walking home on our second night from the Temple of Dubod, an Egyptian temple relocated to Madrid block by block….
We happened upon a free outdoor concert that we quickly realized was a small part of Madrid’s Pride Festival!
Deciding to stay for the show, we dipped into a nearby grocery store, grabbed an array of 1€ packages of meats, cheeses, bread, and wine, and found a spot to enjoy the night.
As budget travelers we have come to adopt the philosophy that all things that are free are great. That is..until we came across the artwork of Remy Zaugg. During our stroll through Retiro Park, we walked up to a very beautiful building. Judging a book by its cover, we quickly stepped inside to see what waited within. Now to be fair, I’ve never been an art and museum kind of guy. But what the hell is going on at this place? Thinking that maybe we were missing something, perhaps a pamphlet explaining what we were looking at, we continued to walk around the gallery on good faith. But the more we saw, the more confused we became. A white piece of paper. A blue canvas. A yellow letter “L” in Verdana font framed on a white backdrop. Eventually we couldn’t contain it any longer and began openly laughing at the “art” around us, sharing a smile with other perplexed visitors. While the exhibit cost us nothing, that is precious time I would like back.
Forgetting momentarily we were on a budget, we decided to head to a famous landmark, Botin, the oldest continually operating restaurant in the world. Knowing we couldn’t afford the menu we decided to walk in like we belonged there and made a bee-line for the entrance to their famed cellars. As if on cue a large man in a well tailored suit steps around the corner with two menus in hand. Knowing we just want a glimpse of the place, we ask to order coffees and a small dish. As polite as he can, he knowingly informs us that this is not possible, and unless we will be staying and paying for their 3-course meal, it is time to leave.
Having had our fill of big city life, free concerts, and crowds of party goers, we decided to take a day trip to the beautiful old-town of Segovia. Known for it’s ancient Roman Aqueduct and Alcazar palace, it was a nice break from the fast tempo of Madrid. Stepping into the train station it felt like a ghost town. Having done little homework on the city, we chose a direction and began walking. Thankfully, the reliable little blue dot on Google Maps works with or without an internet connection, and we slowly but surely drifted in the correct direction. We eventually happened upon what looked like a small gutter, but was actually the beginning of the above-ground segment of the Roman Aqueduct. As we followed our little gutter it began to rise high into the sky, until we were standing on the edge of the old town, gazing up at impressive stone arches reaching to the sky. Pressing onward to Alcazar, we slowly made our way across the old city walls, through the Plaza Mayor, while we enjoyed tiny sandwiches and overpriced gelato.
Traveler woes: Pay-for-use bathrooms are surprisingly popular in Spain
On our last night we met up with our family friend, Jesus. Having never met him before, we were uncertain how awkward the meeting would be. But when we found him in the crowded plaza, he greeted us like long lost friends. He immediately took us into a whirlwind of Spanish history, telling us vibrant stories about buildings and landmarks we had passed over many times before. We learned why the people of Spain were known as “los gatos”, as he explained the tiers of late night partying that ended around 8 am. There are the cafes for eating and bars for drinking, then clubs for dancing and finally after hour bars that open at 6 am. After experiencing that Spanish heat, you can’t blame them for enjoying the long, cool nights. Like true Spaniards, we enjoyed tapas at some of the best kept secrets in town. Stuffed mushrooms, Spanish tortilla, pimiento peppers and croquettes, each one more delicious than the last. Jesus also told us a great story about the origin of “tapas”. There once was a king traveling through Spain who stopped for a drink of wine. His servant didn’t want bugs getting in the King’s wine, so he placed a plate on top of his cup. The king asked what it was, and the man said a tapa! Then the genius added a bit of food to appease the king, and the tradition began. While it may not be very good at keeping bugs away, tapas are sure to keep your belly happy. We chatted all night about our families, politics, and life in Spain. When we noticed the servers closing up, we knew los gatos needed to be getting home. We said our goodbyes, knowing this was easily one of the best nights in Madrid! Now where can we get some ice cream?