2024 San Sebastian & Madrid, Spain


Excitement & anxiety. Those are the two words that come to mind as we sit at gate 46 in JFK Airport this evening. Our flight doesn’t leave for a couple of hours, but we are where we need to be at this moment. Every time El and I travel there is a sense of excitement as we get closer to takeoff and the beginning of the first leg of our journey. Today is no different, and we sit in the airport thinking about what we want to do first once we hit European soil for the first time in two years. Anxiety when starting a journey, that is a new feeling for me and that is because we are doing something that we have never done before...traveled with another couple. Lisa and Bob are friends of ours that have traveled a little bit and have made many compliments when discussing our travels and with Bob’s recent retirement, El and I thought the time might be right to invite them along for this one. Needless to say, they took us up on the offer and here we are. Planning for four can add some wrinkles to any history of planning for two. Meaning, for example, that if El and I were to fly out of JFK we would probably take the train down from Albany, but for four of us, that option turns out to be cost prohibitive. Leading us to other methods, and today, two, one-way car rentals made the cut for the most cost effective method for us. Allowing ample time to get to Bob’s, drive him to the car rental office, get back to pick up El and Lisa, get to JFK, fill gas tank, drop off rental, monorail to terminal, and get through security, we allotted several hours and got some food to hold us over for a couple of hours. The lunch was completely unremarkable as expected in an airport bistro.

Monday February 19
An on-time departure and a good tailwind helped us arrive in Madrid about an hour ahead of schedule which meant close to 7:15am. At this hour there aren’t a whole lot of passengers in the arrivals hall, making our passport control wait minimal. During our time on the shuttle bus from the plane, El is able to activate the eSIM card on her phone and we are now internet connected. None of us slept well on the plane which means that it feels like 1:00am to our bodies, but we have no illusion that it is not going to be a challenge to power ourselves through until our train departure this afternoon at 2:46- which, by that point will feel like we have been up for basically a straight 24 hours. We can sleep on the train, but until then, keeping moving and getting some caffeine is paramount. Before we leave the airport, we stop at a tourist info desk and pick up some maps and ask pertinent questions about our public transport needs and options. Our foremost concern is getting ourselves to the Chamartin train station where we will depart for San Sebastian on the first leg of our vacation. Essentially, we have about seven hours until we leave, so the immediate thought is that we would go to the train station and walk around that area finding a café/breakfast shop and take care of some other essentials like finding an ATM, and maybe procuring a picnic lunch for our five-hour train ride while we are waiting. El confirms with the info guy that when you buy a city-to-city train ticket, included in the price is a single train ride to or from the Chamartin train station. Which includes, for us, the direct train from the airport to Chamartin. Once we get all the info we need from the info desk, we head to freshen and refresh ourselves up, from changing of clothes to brushing teeth, feeling like we need a shower and a nap we do the best we can to put lipstick on the pig overlooking the fact that we still need a shower. Everyone else takes this time to activate their eSIM cards and we are now all connected. Once we are done at the airport, we make our way to the Renfe (train station) to take our free ride to Chamartin. I had printed all our tickets out for easy access and distributed to the group. We approach the turnstiles and scan the QR codes which are not allowing us to proceed. Asking if we are in the right place, if a printed QR code will work (as opposed to the original codes on El’s phone), are we doing it correctly etc. We noticed a customer service office. El goes in to ask what we are missing and he tells her that the single use ticket is only good within four hours of the main train departure time and since we are closer to seven hours early, we have to come up with a plan B. Obviously, we are not going to sit and wait for the ticket to validate, so we head to the vending machine to just buy our tickets and forgo the gratis leg. The problem is that we don’t know what the exact ticket we need is called. I can locate the English language option on the kiosk, but it asks what ticket we’d like to purchase. The problem is that while some of the options are obviously not for us (monthly passes, intercity tickets etc.) the single use tickets all seem to have abbreviations in the descriptions- which is fine if you buy these tickets regularly you would know what to ask for, but since I am seeing the options for the first time, I find the screen timing out and resetting to the default Spanish language options before I can even start to process what I might need. After a few minutes, we give up and head back to the service desk to ask which we need, and the clerk kindly offers to just sell us the correct tickets for cash. While he confirms our plan with El, he makes a helpful suggestion. He says the area around the Chamartin station is nothing special and instead what we should do is take the train two stops beyond Chamartin to Puerta del Sol and get out and explore that area which will have much more to see and experience. Do that for a few hours, and then when we need to make our way to Chamartin, the free ticket will be valid. That plan sounded good to us, so while we stood on the train platform we started brainstorming and flipping through our guidebooks and research to find things we could knock off the list in the area of Puerta del Sol. Once we had some ideas to get us started and we are on the train to the plaza, we start making our mental to-do list to hit the ground running- or at least waddling as we have nowhere to drop our luggage in the interim and in our current state, surely the exhaustion shows in our gait. We press on to find a café for an espresso AND a coffee. If we are going to make it, we must take the necessary measures. As we stand in the middle of the plaza El is trying to find a café nearby, I spot a walking-tour guide waiting on their group and I take the opportunity to ask a local for a nearby recommendation. She points to a spot called La Mallorquina on one end of the plaza- making sure that we know their pastries are excellent too. We head to the small, two-story shop. Downstairs is more, ordering items to go and/or grabbing a quick cup, standing at the bar, drinking quick and getting out as fast as you got in. We, on the other hand, are looking for the upstairs, sit down, table service option. We take a number and wait to be seated. El Googles the shop and learns their specialty is a pastry called torrija which is Spanish french toast- that is soaked in sugar and milk before being dipped in the egg. We each order a selection of espressos and café con leches. Cheers’ing our first stop in Spain. The torrija is served cold and the milky sugar negates the need for any additional sweetness (i.e. maple syrup or preserves). After our much-needed coffee and pastry stop we head back onto the good sized plaza below. It’s a beautiful day at around 60° F- it won’t stay this warm all week, but it it’s mighty fine right at this moment. Lots of people out and about and we make our next stop an ATM. It only takes a few minutes, and we are now fluid. Bob says he would like to walk past city hall. Unfortunately, there is some sort of official function going on that prompts the police to shut the immediate city hall staircase area off to all pedestrian traffic. We think there is an Atlas Obscura entry around here somewhere, but the crowd causes us to abort and move on. Next up is the bear and the tree statue at the opposite corner of the plaza, but the amount of people trying to get their pictures standing on the pedestal prevents us from getting any wide shot pics without others in it. After we get what snaps we can, we find that we are standing near the sun marker that is inlaid in a paving stone and commemorates the long gone Sun Gate that used to stand here. It took a few minutes, but we found it. 

this bear is the symbol of the city...and tough to get a shot without other people

we made it to the gate of the sun

Next, we want to grab some olives, bread, and wine for our train ride. At first glance, most of the shops on the plaza appear to be either souvenir shops, food/drink places, or retail outlets for companies with enough money to afford the rent in such a prime location (think Apple and Vodaphone etc.) I am specifically looking for a little deli or market where I could get our train picnic ingredients. We just start walking in one direction down a side street, but after a few blocks we decide to stop and try to locate one on the map as our bag weights are beginning to bog us down. El thinks she found something back where we came from, so we turn around, backtracking 200 yards. Once back in the plaza we spy the Museo Del Jamón (Museum of Ham)- a chain that we have read about that we will go on to see many, many more times this trip. They sell quick bites to go or eat at a standing counter, but also fresh cut and prepackaged deli meats and cheeses. Checking the place out makes for an excellent opportunity to include some Spanish ham on the picnic. We head in and are greeted with a stunning array of ham legs. 

what lies on the opposite end of this cloven hoof? gold, pure iberico gold

They offer all kind of cured meats cut to order and pre-sliced/vacuum packed for quick exit. A small selection of cheeses round out their deli offerings. We grab some vacuum-packed ham and head around the corner to a market I spotted down the block for the rest of our train snacks. When all was said and done, we had a hunk of cheese, a loaf of bread and a bottle of white wine, and while I would have liked some olives, I just couldn’t find any with my effort and decided to press on as I know olives are in my future. We sit, soaking in the warm sun until we head out to catch our train. It’s around 1:00pm and we need to start thinking about heading to Chamartin. At this time, it looks the gathering at the city all is over with and we can make a quick pass back to get a picture of a plaque known as the ‘Kilometer 0’, which is essentially the spot that all points in Spain are measured from. The plaque is embedded in the pavement just a couple of feet from the front doors of City Hall and was earlier covered up by the crowd. We head back to Chamartin and wait for our train track to post a bit over an hour later. The train arrives on time, but once aboard, we realize that our seats are not exactly conducive to a picnic, and we will probably have to hold off on our snacks until later in the evening. I have mapped out our route from the train station to our accommodations and hope to get a couple of winks before arriving in San Sebastian at 7:30 tonight. We arrive on time and make our way directly to the pension- which is a type of European guesthouse. Smaller than a hotel, nicer than a hostel- a boutique/budget hotel is the best way to describe it. Earlier in the week I had told Paolo of our arrival time and he was waiting for us at check in. The place was small, so it only took a few minutes to give us the grand tour. He offered up a map of the city and marked it with plenty of stuff to see. He helped us to navigate to a couple of spots we have addresses for and we were on our way. Of the four of us, I am the only one in desperate need of a shower, so we retire to our respective rooms, regrouping in ten minutes to head out for the evening to explore the surrounding neighborhood. Our first stop is a gin & tonic bar I had read about that turns out to be on the same street as our pension! Sadly, after making our way to the bar, we find it closed. We will try again another day. Our first stop is a bar called Teorema. The music is to our collective liking, and they serve verdejo wine by the glass. Their lack of food offerings prevents us from staying longer, so we end after one drink and move on to another place closer to the pension, but not before El and Lisa both negotiate with the bartender to leave with a souvenir in the form of a couple of branded glasses. Literally, across the street from the pension is a bar called Mala Gissona Beer House that serves food. We get an order of patatas (though they do not have bravas) and a plate of iberico ham. A glass of txakoli, Basque wine finishes this stop- as we are in Basque country now. Though we wouldn’t exactly know it…at some point I was in want of some butter. And while I don’t know the Spanish word for butter, I certainly don’t know the Basque word for it either. I open my Google translate and type in “butter,” getting a Basque result. I hold the phone up for the bartender to read and to my surprise, she can’t read it…as she does not speak Basque! I change the result language to Spanish, and she immediately knows what I am after. We could all go for another round but decide to head back to the room instead to eat and drink the picnic that we bought earlier in the day that went uneaten as of yet. It’s now about 10:00pm and we are all beyond tired, but willing to have one more glass of wine and finish the night with some snacks. We have an excellent, low-key end to our first. Very. Long. Day.

Tuesday February 20
Despite a bed that is considerably smaller than we are used to, we both slept quite solid, and wake refreshed. Our showers and change of clothes set us off on the right foot for a first real day in the city. We plan to make the Bretxa Market the first stop to get breakfast. We leave the room and get down to the street and map our route only to find that the Bretxa Market is nowhere near where we are standing! We decide to just wander until the first spot that offers coffee and within two blocks Lisa has spotted a place called Tahona. Most of the city is still quiet as the only people out at this hour seem to be construction workers, street cleaners, and kids going to school around the corner. We go into the bakery that offers mostly pastries and a selection of breakfast toasts. I get a grilled multigrain bread with a slather of avocado and tomato topped with Serrano ham drizzled with olive oil. I skip the coffee options and order a cup of chocolate- their version of hot chocolate but made with a lot less milk. It is quite thick and tastes of chocolate pudding. Generally used as a dipping sauce for churros- though today I got the toast instead of the churros. After breakfast we walk up to the beach promenade and walk casually to start getting our bearings in the town. We have a walking tour scheduled for 11:00am, so we have plenty of time to go find the Bretxa Market which is across the bridge in the old town district. The most activity in this area is the old guys fishing off the bridge in the river where it empties into the bay. We walk to the area that we are certain is the area of the Bretxa Market, but we can’t locate it! We are not sure what the layout could be as descriptions say it is an above and below ground market. No matter, we wander a bit in the old town area, recognizing few things, but imagining a much livelier time later in the night. Most things are still closed as we move about. In need of more coffee, we spot a bar that is open for coffee on the terrace. Sitting and chatting and checking our guidebooks, discussing things we’d like to do before we end our time here- it really feels like we are on vacation. The time sneaks up on us and we have to make a hasty retreat to get to the meeting spot for the waking tour. Once I made the booking for the tour weeks ago, I started getting a spam-level frequency of emails from the tour company. Most were either reminding me of my upcoming tour or offering additional services in this city or other cities we would be visiting in Spain or other countries. Nonetheless, I generally ignore most of these communications until I am within a couple days of the tour. So, it was no surprise that I opened the email I got yesterday reminding me of my tour “in the next 24 hours.” It was a recap of the tour we booked, a contact for the guide, address (including a map link) of the meeting place, and of course, links to more services they offer. There was no way we could miss this, right? In addition to these messages from the company, last night I even got a private message from our tour guide making sure that we were still coming and asking for a confirmation. For convenience...she also included the address of the meeting spot. I confirm our attendance. We make our way to the spot, arriving around the suggested ten minutes early for our 11:00am tour. We wait. And wait. And wait. It is now getting close to 11:00 and the guide has not shown. Which, in our experience, is a bit odd as guides are usually the first to arrive, and almost never late. Of course, no other tour takers are here either, which isn’t as uncommon, but at 11:00 I check my phone to see if the guide has reached out to update us, and see nothing. At 11:05 I follow the contact in the email to the company to see if I have any updates. I double/triple check the meeting map and confirm we are in the right spot. Next, I follow the link to the chat where I told the guide yesterday, we would be there. I see that the last three messages from her arrived in the last 10 minutes and went something to the effect of…”Hello Sim, are you coming?”, “Are you nearby?”, “we are going to have to leave?” It is at this moment, I notice that when she sent her confirmation message that I replied we would be there, she gave me a different address- clear on the other side of town as the meeting spot I got from the tour company. By the time I reply, she doesn’t respond, making me think she has a group and can’t worry about rescheduling with me now. We call it a bust and move onto a plan B, which is to start our own walk with the funicular as our destination. Paolo at the pension tells us of a recommended extra part of the walk, but also the bus #16 if we want to ride back from Mount Idalgo. We are starting our own walk on the bridge into the old town section and on this clear morning, we have a good view of the statue on top of Mount Urgull. Although it is a good view, the statue is not Christ the Redeemer size, but small enough that you couldn’t make out all of the features or the pose. As we are all looking up, Bob points out that from this angle, Jesus looks like he is holding a guitar (it really did!)- and the sacred monument is immediately dubbed “Jesus the shredder”- a phrase that would get a lot of milage in our first couple of days as it was a guaranteed belly laugh for each of us within earshot if used at appropriate- or inappropriate as it were, times. 

the problem is that when viewed closeup, it is too obvious you are looking at the hand of Jesus. however, from far away, there was no question he was rocking out from the mountaintop

We start our walk along the promenade that curves around Mount Urgull, winds though the marina and continues along the two main beaches of the city ending near the funicular at the base of Mount Idalgo. There is a famous roller coaster on the top of the mount that we agree to take if it is in operation, though at this time of year we have our doubts. The leisurely walk takes longer than I expect. It’s about three miles and the weather is comfortable. We arrive to the ticket office within 15 minutes of the next ride. The cost is €4.50 each round trip, though you can opt to walk up or down if you wish. We didn’t wish and got the round trip. We learn upon purchase that the roller coaster is indeed closed- though we would go on to learn that the closure should be more temporary than seasonal. Anyway, the funicular (like a cross between a railcar and a cable car) is a single car that is pulled by cables up a track along the side of a hill or mountain. It only takes a few minutes to reach the top, though the scenery is not as good as some funiculars we have ridden. The treelined trackside prevents any meaningful sweeping views of the beach surf below. We would get better photos above. 

the two main beaches of San Sebastian as seen from Mount Idalgo

bob and lisa fresh off their first funicular ride

Spending about an hour walking among the closed down amusement park rides we do understand that the whole park is closed for the season, but that they keep the roller coaster operating as it is a tourist attraction. We go back to take the funicular down and learn the crew is on their 30 minute lunch break, so we have just shy of a half hour to kill. Turns out there is a hotel up here with a bar/restaurant in it. We do have a pintxos walking tour tonight that no one wants to spoil with a lunch, so we head in and order a bottle of cider and a single bag of potato chips. We know we are supposed to try the cider here and this is as good a time as any. The three of us split a liter bottle and agree that a half liter option would still have been more than enough! It is not sweet like the hard cider we get at home, nor very carbonated. I am not usually a cider drinker, but I can deal with it in a pinch. This stuff, though, is like a very flat glass of club soda minimally flavored with apple cider. Essentially, unsweetened apple hard seltzer. We are all good to check it off the list and know we don’t need to do it again. We have a couple of hours before tonight’s tour. So, the plan is to ride down, walk back to the promenade and go to the actual end of the walkway to see something called the Comb Of The Wind which is an art installation made of metal that is anchored into the coastline rocks that are reported to make noise when the wind from the bay hits at the right velocity/direction. We find the iron shapes quickly, and notice a set of blowholes that are drilled into the floor of the promenade, so as the waves crash into the underside of the walkway, that is probably built as an overhang of the rocks below, creating a little bit of a cavelike feature below our feet, then when the wave hits the vacuum underneath forces the air up through the holes creating a geyser for a couple of seconds. Not every blowhole gets the geyser with every wave, so some daring spectators will stand on top of a hole for the duration of a wave and either get completely drenched by the spout or dodge the soaking in triumph. During our time on the promenade, we do see a couple of sizable waves breach the walls and completely soak unsuspecting walkers with tsunami force. Well, not enough to destroy buildings, but certainly enough to knock people over and cause havoc as people scramble to dry their belongings and check on their friends. Anyway, Lisa is very excited to have seen the Comb Of The Wind, though without the described wind noise, I consider the stop a bit of a bust- but we were here anyway and we wouldn’t have known it didn’t work unless we came- so catch-22. 

stopping for a moment to take a photo, hoping no wave will breach the wall in the next few seconds

this far from the surf, it was less likely to get knocked over by a wave

We walk back to the bus stop at the foot of the funicular and the #16 is there and taking off just as we get on. The driver tells El that it is €1.85 per person coins or card and she starts driving as El and Lisa (our coin keepers) pool their coinage to cover the four fares. The problem is that we don’t have many €1 or €2 coins and not being that familiar with the denominations, we must inspect every coin to see if it is a 50 cent or a 20 cent etc. As each €1.85 is reached, I get the wad of coins and set them in the tray at the driver’s window. After several minutes they are on the last fare and between all pockets and coin purses, can only come up with €1.78 out of the €1.85. I drop the handful in the tray and we all walk to seats in the back of the bus. At the next stop the driver counts all the change and immediately identifies our 7-cent deficiency. She looks in the mirror and sees me and yells out, “it’s not OK”. El heads up to the front to sort it out and gets the explanation that she is 7 cents short. El tells her we don’t have any more coins, to which the driver points to the door and tells us to get off. El asks if she will take a bill and is told to use a card. When she originally told us that card was an option, we assumed that it was a prepaid MetroCard kind of thing, but it turns out she does take credit cards returning our entire wad of coins while El satisfies our fares with a Visa. We find the route map online and get off the bus at the stop closest to the room and head back to try to catch a nap before meeting for the pintxos tour. I see we have an email with an actual photo of the meeting point and a hope to avoid a repeat of this morning. Some of us nap better than others, but everyone seems happy with the idea that we will be eating shortly as we haven’t had more than ⅓ of a small bag of potato chips since breakfast. We head to our tour which starts on the sidewalk near Bretxa Market. We get a brief history of the city and meet one other couple that will be on the small tour. Our guide mentions that if we go underground near here you can still see a portion of the original wall that surrounded the city. We make a mental note. The first stop is in the Bretxa Market. As she leads us to the underground portion of the market, the whole above and below ground description makes more sense. Street level is a fresh fruits and vegetables farmers market, while underground are the meat and fish vendors- with a couple of specialty stands thrown in for good measure. The underground also includes a real, full sized grocery store. This is really more of a market for locals to come and buy their personal kitchen needs than a tourist attraction (like La Boqueria, for example). The guide takes us first to a meat stand and serves us each a slice of two kinds of ham, a Spanish chorizo, and a wedge of local cheese. The hams are Serrano and iberico that give us a side by side comparison between the everyday Serrano ham versus the special occasion iberico which is the most expensive ham in the world at about €200/kilo (about $100/pound) for the free range iberico pigs that feast on acorns- enough to affect the taste of the meat. While I absolutely love the iberico ham and looked forward to our return to its land of origin, some of the people in the group preferred the Serrano. Everyone seemed happy with the tastes we got. Next stop is an olive stand with an impressive array of 114 types of olives. First, we are offered our foray into the world of pintxos. While pintxos have come to define San Sebastian cuisine (or at least San Sebastian cuisine cannot be discussed without including pintxos) the concept is not really all that old. You can look up the history of pintxos yourself, but in some local bar in the last century some bartender whose place offered the same olives every day, the same peppers every day, and the same anchovy filets every day was challenged by his customer to come up with a new offering- to which the bartender grabbed a toothpick and skewered a couple of olives, a couple of peppers, and an anchovy filet and had the customer eat the offering in one bite. Someone was obsessed with Rita Hayworth who was starring in a film named “Gilda,” and in that moment the Gilda (or Hilda) pintxos was born (pintxos pronounced pinch-ohs named for the items ‘pinched’ on the toothpick). 

our first pintxos of the first pintxos

these grilled shrimp were so good i could have stayed here and eaten them all night long

Well, the flavor combination was such a hit that other bars started offering the same combo, but also developing their own bites different from other bars that they could use to lure customers in to drink their beer. Thus, the eating philosophy was born- “eat a little bit, often.” This plays out practically as you go into a pintxos bar, order a drink of choice and one bite of food, finish your drink, and move on to the next bar and repeat with the house specialty of each place. Word of mouth and some deep research helps separate the wheat from the chaff and with our limited time in the city, narrows our need to wade through a pintxos minefield and beeline for what you hope is a list of greatest hits. Anyway, we are off to learn how it’s done… our first stop is Bar Sport. The place is standing room only and we can’t fit inside, but the weather is cooperating, so the group waits on the sidewalk as the guide delivers our offerings. She first arrives with six glasses and a bottle of...yep, cider. Our faces drop as we hoped to be thoroughly over this drink for the duration of this trip. Anyway, we play along and get a demonstration of the pulled pour that allows the cider to drop into the glass from a couple of feet away which opens the effervescence of the drink, turning the mostly flat cider in the bottle into a drink in the glass with a bit of a head on it. 


this is our guide Arancha, demonstrating the pouring technique for cider that allows the minimally carbonated drink to develop a fizzy texture

It doesn’t seem to change my opinion of the stuff and I hope I don’t get it again- or I may just ask for a water. Our first pintxos is ready as she takes the empty cider bottle in, returning with a plate of grilled chorizo on a slice of bread. As above, many pintxos are served on a skewer, but these days more and more arrive on a slice of baguette that soaks up any liquid and makes for a nice finish to the bite. As we finish our chorizo, we are next presented with a skewer of five grilled shrimp with a sofrito spread on top. Both bites are excellent and a great way to kick off our tour. On our way to the next bar, Casa Vergara, we get some basic history as she points out a couple of churches. At the next stop we are given a choice of a fish dish or a beef stew. I choose the beef and it is served in a bowl instead of a toothpick or bread, which underscores the evolution of the pintxos concept. It is paired with a glass of Rioja red wine that is pretty good and the beef and potato stew are very good, only about two big spoonful’s worth. Our next stop is Txakolina, a place that the owner owns his own winery, and we are offered a glass of rosé txakoli- which is usually white. I like the txakoli and this is pretty decent rosé. The pintxos offering here is a grilled piece of steak with a side of grilled vegetables. Again, not more than a couple of bites, and the seating is capped off by a dessert of a rich, French chocolate tart and a slice of Basque cheesecake. Not sure what makes it uniquely Basque, but who was I to turn it down? It was very good- even if the grilled steak and veggies was a bit pedestrian. We are all full enough from the tour that we don’t need more food. I shared my research options with our guide and asked for a quick opinion from the list of “the 15 best pintxos bars” for good place, great place, or maybe save it for a future visit. I rapid fired the list and got exactly what I was looking for. I had a rock and roll bar in the area that we needed help finding and she dropped us off at the door on her walk back to the train station. The bar was called The Hole Rock Pub and sits underground at the bottom of a steep set of stairs. We head down and are greeted with a Motorhead tapestry and a deep cut AC/DC song on the stereo. I found my place! 

We stay for one drink and use the time to discuss options for tomorrow. By now, the no show guide from this morning has reached out to me and offers to give us a make-up tour. We coordinate with her that we will meet her at 8:30am tomorrow. At some point in our discussion Lisa makes clear she wants time to hike up Mount Urgull to the Jesus statue and during our recap of the day’s plan we have earmarked time between the walking tour and lunch for her to visit to “jammin’ jesus”- which then morphed into “Thank you jammin’ Jesus, give us this day our daily shred” And while I am 100% confident any humor in this situation is solely for the four of us, it does not get old and the hilarity of this moment is part of what is getting this trip off to a great start! After we finish our drink at the Hole, we walk back to Gros neighborhood where we are staying. Hopefully, we can continue with the gin & tonic bar that was closed yesterday. Unfortunately, our bar hop plan is a bit of a bust as the G&T place is closed, as is the place we liked from last night. We walk back towards the room, thankful that our place across the street from last night is open. We end the night with a glass of txakoli. Talking, laughing, and checking off the things we have done in this city already and what we hope to accomplish before we leave. We are in bed by midnight and looking to do it again tomorrow….

Wednesday February 21
Sleep was still pretty good, though I think El was not as solid as she was the previous night. We make an early exit so that we can grab a coffee before meeting our tour guide this morning. After the miscommunication yesterday I want to make every effort to let her know that we were not deliberately missing the tour yesterday and plan to be on time this morning. As soon as we cross the river, we spot a shop selling croissants and coffee. After our purchases, we regroup on the sidewalk to eat and drink and get ready to head down to the marina to meet the guide. As we are readying ourselves, Bob gets into a conversation with a passerby- who turns out to be our tour guide! We wait for her to get her coffee and pastry as we leave to start the tour. Starting our tour with a sincere and mutual apology for yesterday’s miscommunication. We move on and learn a bit about the history and the architecture of the city. Some of the stuff we even saw yesterday and didn’t even know we needed an explanation until you get one and then the light bulb goes off and it makes a lot more sense. At the outset, I explain to Usua (the guide) that, if possible we would like to end the tour near the base of Mount Urgull so that El and Lisa can hike up after the tour. The tour is good- mostly taking us through the Centro neighborhood that we haven’t seen much of. One observation (not a criticism) is that Usua had an amazing vocabulary, but a thick accent that made it pretty difficult to understand her when there was noise nearby or when she would speak while walking in front of us, so some of her information may have been lost. At the conclusion of the tour, El and Lisa are told to allot 40 minutes to get to the top of Mount Urgull, while Bob and I head off with Usua so that she can point out a couple of pintxos bars that have been recommended either by her or found in my research. As we split from her, Bob and I head to the underground garage near the bridge where a portion of the original wall that surrounded the city is still preserved. We head there and find it easily, based on the directions we were given. It was interesting, but only spans about 100 feet. A full on archaeological presentation juxtaposed with monthly parking spots 14-37. It is getting on noon now, and we are meeting at the pension to dress and call our taxi for our lunch reservation at 12:30. We head back to Gros and find our bar from the first night open for a glass of wine. Meanwhile, we get a message from El and Lisa that they have already reached to top of the hill and are on their way back after some fun photo ops. We are able to meet up with them as we finish our drinks, they get a coffee and we head back to the room to get ready for lunch. When we get back, we meet Paolo’s wife who is also the room service. I explain that Paolo had offered to call us a taxi and I had sent him and email taking him up on it, but that I hadn’t heard back. That is when she explains that Paolo gets all the emails, but he is more concerned with making sure he has set reminders to meet the commitment than he is with replying. I explain I don’t work that way, but I also don’t have any illusion that I will change their policies. She calls our taxi to the restaurant Zelai Txiki which is a very well-reviewed Basque restaurant in town. The ride is less than eight minutes, and we are the first people to arrive. 

mmmmm...pigs ears

We are seated immediately, and the menu looks very good. There are several Basque recipes on the menu and other local items including some that we have seen elsewhere on the trip. Before the first course arrives, we are presented with the amuse bouche. Four identical pairings of a glass with pumpkin cream soup alongside a crostini with a slice of ham-looking meat and some chopped raw onion on top. We ask what we are being served and that is how we learn that we will be consuming pigs’ ear for the first time. It is a two-bite piece and once I take the first, I know I will be fine. Even though it is served as a slice, I think it is prepared more like a head cheese to bind the pressed ear pieces together. I like the raw onion component to the bite. I bet a spicy brown mustard would go well with the bite as well. I start my meal with a chorizo tortilla, followed by an appetizer of grilled octopus. While we are waiting for the food to arrive, we are served bread with olive oil and butter. The butter however, is not the butter we expected. It has a sour flavor that I assume is either sheep milk butter or uses a culture that causes the cream to sour. I favor the oil and it is very good. The chorizo was spiced well and the next course was the grilled octopus that had a wonderfully smokey component to it. The main is a Basque dish of hake filet pil-pil style. It is very good, but the portion size was unexpectedly large. We all eat and enjoy our food, but by the end, a cup of coffee rounds out our meal as there is no room to even split any dessert selections. We taxi back to the room and Bob and I nap while El and Lisa head to the Bretxa Market to buy some olives and cheese and some souvenirs to take back. Everyone gets what they want and by 7:00pm we are ready to head out for our own pintxos tour. We all agree to make our first stop a drink only, no food. By now La Gintonería Donostiarra bar is open. We each get something and I get a citrus gin and tonic which easily ranks among the finest I have ever had! And others feel the same about theirs. Our seats are set next to the bar. Instead of seats facing the bar four inline, they have a bar height, four top table abutted to the bar- where two of us could use the bar as an armrest. From this vantage point we can see the bartender working his magic. This is a serious gin bar! A back bar with easily 100 different gins and a menu of mixers, add ins, and infusibles to make most bartenders shudder. Lisa and I can see the mixologist working like a scientist to create the cocktails being ordered, we even see fog coming from glasses and ingredients being added with spoons, tongs and at one point, tweezers? He’s got a freakin’ laboratory going on back there! At one point he notices our interest and Lisa asks what the smoke is. He invites her to come over for a one-on-one tutorial. He explains the science of gin infusion which, and I am paraphrasing since I didn’t get the lesson, he starts with room temperature gin, and in this example a single strand of saffron, then he adds a tea ball with dry ice to the glass which supercools the spirit and allows it to take on the flavor of the saffron without diluting the liquor. He removes the ball of dry ice that was creating the laboratory feel with the bubbling, smoky glass, leaving her with a complimentary taste of saffron infused gin, straight up, but chilled. We all take a taste and think we may have learned a little something- and made a friend in the process. We could just stay here all night (at least I could) but we did want to get some of the pintxos that were deemed non-chaff by our guides. First stop is Bodega Donnosteria for a glass of wine, a tortilla, and a bowl of mixed olives. They call it a tortilla, but it is not the flour or corn wrap that we are used to, here, in Spain, a tortilla is like an omelet where you get your choice of mix-ins nestled within the surrounding baked egg scramble. We opt for a tortilla with ham and potato which we split four ways. So, it would be a super-sized pintxos, but when divided, a reasonable couple of bites does the trick. It’s not long before we are moving on to Ganbaras on an Anthony Bourdain recommendation (sanctioned by the guides). We are told to get the octopus pintxos and/or the assorted sautéed mushrooms served with a raw egg yolk (and a slice of foie gras as a supplemental). The wait is about 10 minutes to get a standing room for four at the bar. We order the mushrooms and octopus, and a round of wine, but the bartender assures me this is not- nor ever has been a place with octopus on the menu! We eat the mushrooms which are piping hot. Just before serving, they drop the egg yolk in the center, and the first thing you do is break the yolk with your fork and as the yellow oozes from the sack, the heat from the mushrooms and the oil they are cooked in start to curdle the yolk- essentially cooking it by the time the fork delivers the bites to the awaiting mouth. 

another one of the best things we ate on this trip. bourdain recommended sautéed mushrooms with raw egg yolk

The recommendation is spot on and if I hadn’t learned how to do a pintxos crawl, I seriously would probably have stayed in this prime space and ordered from this menu all night. Lisa checks out the menu again and spies white asparagus with mayo- ordering one to check off another “when in Spain, make sure to eat…” item. The single spear of asparagus is served flash fried with a house made aioli. We slice it into quarters and pass the mayo around as we each take our bites. It is very good, but I am not sure why white asparagus makes it on to the list of foods to eat, as a) we can get it at home and b) besides the mayo and the flash frying, there’s just not that much different between this and what I am used to. Maybe it’s less common than I think? The service is very quick even though the place is packed butts to nuts in the standing room, but we are lucky in the corner and wind up next to a group from North Carolina who give us some suggestions for later in the night, though his recommendations of Mexican fusion bars on the other side of the city are immediately registered in the “maybe next time” file. As with all pintxos bars, you want to eat your food, drink your drink, and then move on. If you are not actively ordering or getting ready to order, they kind of want to be in the process of wrapping up. On the way out I see the sign on the door signifying the place has a Michelin Star! Not bad for a small place doing business this brisk- or maybe because of it. Last pintxos for the night is Muxumartin for a glass of verdejo and a single order of grilled shrimp with a vinegar onion spread on top, on top of a crostini with roasted red peppers. They wind up closing and delivering the bill to hurry us along. Once we pay, we head back to Teorema for a wine before heading to Mala Gissona across the street. We get one wine, but they close at 11:30pm, so we wrap up at 11:29, and head towards the pension. Even though it is 11:40pm and the sign says open until 12:30am, the bartender says we are too late and they are closing soon enough that we won’t get any food or drink here, so we go up to the room to enjoy some of our snacks that were earmarked for the train tomorrow, and to finish conversations started earlier. We round out our last evening in San Sebastian in fine style with good food, good drink, good conversation, and good friends before calling it a night.

Thursday February 22

Now, remember yesterday when Paolo’s wife told me that even though he did not acknowledge my taxi request email, he received it and they were fully prepared to call the service for us on time? I thought that was a weird way to handle things, but reluctantly understood- I mean, hey, the taxi was called on time and everything worked out. Last night, I sent Paolo an email telling him we were going to need a taxi to the train station this morning. “Hey Paolo, we will be in the lobby at 8:20 if you get in by then, but you told me you start work at 8:30, so if that is when you arrive, just know, we will need to make the call upon your arrival”. Over the course of the night and morning others in the group ask, “did you hear from Paolo?” I tell them no, but that we aren’t supposed to take not hearing from him as a bad thing. His wife tells me he gets the emails and we have nothing to worry about. We meet at 7:30 to go back to the café from the first morning. My stomach is feeling a bit unsettled so I pass on the toast today and just get a plain croissant and cup of the chocolate. True to our schedule, we are back at the room at 8:20 with bags packed, ready to get the taxi, but obviously, we need Paolo or his wife to make the call. We wait until 8:30 and when no one has shown up, we decide to start walking, hoping to flag a taxi on the way. No taxi drives by and we don’t want to take any chances, so we abandon the taxi idea and walk to the station. I’ll admit that I tend to get additionally anxious around travel. Whether it’s getting to the airport on time or catching the last train out, the whole process makes me edgy and with the list of variables that come with any travel leg, I try to account for all of them, but am not good when things start to look like I may miss a bus or train. Case in point, even though we walked from the train station to the pension that first night, the transport aspect had already completed, so, I was in good spirits- hey, if we make a wrong turn, it’s OK, we’ll find it. Getting back to the train station with a timed departure, that is another story in itself. It’s now crunch time, if he is not going to call us a taxi, we are going to need to walk to the station and we are going to need to leave, like right now! So, we call the audible and hurry along with our bags towards the station. The issue is that even though we have the GPS going, it can be a little difficult to navigate turns when you get to intersections that are not square. Since we arrived, we haven’t seen the train station or walked any of these streets, so it’s all new, for the most part. Everyone seems to understand the urgency of our mission. The train is a five-hour trip and if we miss it, we have no idea when the next one with available seats is- at least not today. We are not panicked but walking with purpose. My anxiety level is heightened by two things...the fact that we have turned onto a street following the GPS that has a considerable amount of construction on it, resulting in closed off corridors and pass throughs. And also, the amount of times someone in the group exclaims “I recognize this” as if that is a confirmation we are on the right path to the station. What no one seems to remember is that we were walking the route backwards and in the dark, making landmarks virtually impossible to remember. We get to the end of the road and find ourselves at the bus station! More of a bus stop, really, but a solid proof that those who believe they recognize anything for sure, are 100% mistaken as we did not take this street when we arrived! I wanted to shut it down, but wanted to avoid confrontation as that wouldn’t benefit anyone here. We know we are close and El asks a passerby how to get across the train tracks and she is able to point us down a shortcut that will take us over the tracks instead of having to walk back to the top of the street and around the block. Lugging baggage up and down stairs sucks hard, but it needs to be done and we arrive at the station in plenty of time to make our train as my high anxiety starts to subside and I can once again join the group as an intrepid traveler and not a leading buzzkill. Additionally lucky, our train runs a couple of minutes late giving us a few minutes to drop bags, catch breath and replay what steps we could have done differently had we had a chance to do it again. Once on the train we buckle in for the journey. A crying/agitated toddler in a stroller with parents on the platform causes every passenger to silently say a little prayer that they don’t wind up in the same car as them, let alone in the seat adjacent to him. Well, I drew that short straw! And I wind up sailing through the Spanish countryside towards Madrid with feet kicking my seat, tiny hands exploring my armrests from behind, continued crying, and general agitation. The main issue is that the family of three is in a row of seats two-aisle-two. Kid is at the window, mom (or grandma) on the aisle, then an unrelated, unlucky chap on the aisle, and papa on the other window. At points along the way, the kid would start yelling for the father, crying to get his way. Why on earth the unrelated stranger or the mother didn’t just switch seats with the father, we don’t know, but everyone in the car was at least a little perturbed by the inactions of this family. Ironically, except me! I had fallen asleep during his kicking episodes and my headphones drown out any amount of noise short of a siren...including this brat. I got no problems. We arrive in Madrid on time, despite the later departure. After some previous discussions we agree to buy a three-day unlimited MetroCard. This will last us Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and we will decide before Sunday if we want to buy a one-day pass for our last day or if we want to take a day trip away from the city and not need the pass. We’ll decide later. From the train station, Chamartin, the Airb&b is 17 metro stops, and since Bob is the contact, he has arranged for the host to meet us at the building. The place is 100 yards from the metro and after introducing us to the features of the apartment, she also points out some local shops and bars that we can see from the living room window. It’s a regular full size apartment with three bedrooms, two full bath, full kitchen, living room and laundry facilities. Bob found it on a recommendation, and it seems fine. We get settled and decide to eat a lunch of our collection of olives, bread, ham, and wine. We also find an episode of Rick Steves and Bourdain where they went to San Sebastian so that we can see where they went now that we are more familiar with the city than when we watched the episodes during our trip prep. After lunch, we take a nap and regroup to walk up to the Prado. In our research, we found that most museums have a free period during the week and the Prado is free tonight from 6:00-8:00. You can start lining up at 5:00. But, It is now 6:30 and there are 500 tickets left with the line stretching down the side of the building. The line moves relatively quickly and we aren’t sure how many more tickets are left, but we are able to each score one and head inside. We have to check our bags, and they are adamant in their no photo policy. As usual, my interest in fine art could just about fill a thimble and if it wasn’t free, I most certainly would be hanging on a bench outside or at a nearby wine bar. Being that I am inside, I do what I have coined the “Mona Lisa driveby”, looking up any super famous paintings in the collection and making a beeline for them and heading to the next, paying virtually no mind to anything in between. I am an art lover's biggest disappointment. The Goya works: The Third of May 1808 in Madrid or “The Executions”, Saturn Devouring His Son, bonus to see 'Witches' Sabbath (The Great He-Goat)', The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch, and a self portrait of El Cardinale by Raphael are it. Now, bring on the wine! The free period ends at closing time and at 7:50 bells ring to let us know that we are ready for wrapping it up. 

a pretty good shot (pun intended) for a covert snap

not from goya's rosy period

As we exit the museum, it is raining and of course, no one has their rain gear on them. El maps a tavern nearby and we are seated upon arrival even though the room is quite full. We are handed menus and all decide on what we want, but no staff ever comes to take our order. They do flit around tending to other tables delivering food, but no one stops to address us. It almost feels as if the waitstaff all have assigned tables and everyone thinks someone else is responsible for our table, so no one checks on us. After a good eight minutes, it is apparent no one is coming over. We agree to give it one more minute and the alarm counts down the seconds until we stand, put on our jackets, and head out to a place that might want our business. Still raining, we don’t want to spend our time wandering and head into the first place that looks like it’ll work. Taberna la Dolores, from the street it looks really crowded, but the bartender waves us in and gets us set up in the corner. There’s no table available and even the standing room is tight, but we don’t necessarily need to be here long. We order our drinks and before they arrive, a standing spot against the wall opens up. We are four with a couple of day packs and the wall shelf at least offers hooks that we can get them out of our way. I find myself standing closest to the shelf while Lisa takes a seat on an empty keg and El and Bob stand nearby. We have ordered a plate of olives, one of cheese, and one of iberico ham which start to arrive, but with a shelf only about 18 inches long and 6 inches wide, even with the three food plates, there is really no room for the drinks we already have. A woman behind me gets Lisa’s attention so it looks like Lisa is talking to me when she says, “yeah no problem”. Not expecting any response I ask her to repeat and she points to the woman behind me and explains, “I just told her she could set her plate there.” At this moment, memories come flooding back of any given Thursday night at Chuck's (my college bar) when we would get a prime seat next to the door and without asking, people who were on their way out, would see our table as the last surface before they exited the bar and would just set their cup on our table and head out. This irked me and others to no end as now it became our job to dispose of their used cups. It was bullshit when I was in college and it’s bullshit today. I look at the plate and I am certain it looks like a small plate of potato chips with a single, spit out olive pit in the middle. I turn around to see the woman is now having a conversation with her partner and it does not look like she has any intention of taking her plate back. Did she just “Chuck’s” me?? Setting a plate of garbage on my shelf for me to take to the bar to dispose of? I don't have any room on the shelf for my drink, let alone her garbage. I look at the couple and said “are you done with this?” And they both nod, yes. So I pick the plate up and set it on the ground at their feet, telling them if they don’t want it, neither do I and they can take it to the bar. I turn back to face my party while they quietly mock my rudeness. Whatever. I think it’s bullshit. At this point a table opens up and El asks the bartender if we can sit once it’s cleaned off. He agrees and we move to take our new places. As we sit, I think it was Bob that saw the plate incident and proposes that he thinks, they may have been trying to give us the plate instead of dumping it. The scene replays in my head- she asks if she can put the plate here, Lisa says OK, I ask if she is taking her plate back, they say no, and I give them their plate back. But, if she was trying to give it to us, when I asked if they were gong to take it back, it would make sense that they weren’t going to take it back and now, I have just realized that I have jumped to an awful conclusion and acted completely inappropriately, if that is in fact, the way it went down. Now, I just look like an absolute asshole and doing no favors in helping dispel any myths of all Americans being rude. As we sit, I see that the couple has moved to our shelf for standing and I walk over to them and apologize for my appalling behavior based on new information and extend an invitation to the two of them to join us at our table. They accept my apology as I head back to our table unsure if they will take me up on my offer. Sure enough, they order another round of wine and come over as we squish together to add another two chairs to the table. They sit and chat with us, and I take a moment to explain that I did truly believe they were leaving their garbage for us to dispose of and he confirmed Bob’s account that they had just eaten dinner and when the bartender delivered a free plate of potato chips with their first wine, they thought they would rather pass them to another group instead of just throwing them out. At this point showing their willingness to let bygones be so. We chatted with them for about 45 minutes and they were a great conversation. She was a little timid and self conscious about her English, preferring her husband to translate into German key parts of the discussion for her benefit. I am really glad they accepted my invitation. By the end, we all got handshakes and hugs as they decided to call it a night. I will be forever grateful for the lesson I learned this evening. Soon after, we metro back to the area of room and grab a last drink across the street at Micasita Buvette Wine Bar. It seems to be a place that is more serious about their wine knowledge and selection than many we are used to. That said, the prices in Madrid are a bit on the steeper side that what we were getting used to in San Sebastian where a round of drinks (two beers and two wines were €12) whereas here we are seeing prices more in line with New York €8-10 per glass. It’s a comfortable little room and we are content to occupy the corner before calling it a night around midnight.

these guys treated us nice and i would 100% make a return visit next time i am in town

Friday February 23

We are up and out by 7:30 everyone comparing notes on their sleep and discussing our first stops for the day. We have a 10:00am walking tour that meets at Puerta del Sol and we want to walk through the Retiro Park on the way. Of course, we will have our eyes peeled for a coffee stop before finding a sit down breakfast place before the tour. It’s just 7:30 and the first breaks of sunlight are just starting to show. Most everything is still closed, but once a block or so you will see a place open or at least with activity indicating impending service. We spot a place called Parisia, though there doesn’t seem to be anything remotely French about this place other than the picture of the Eiffel Tower on the door. A relatively quick stop for some café con leche and a doughnut prep us for the stroll through the park. Afterwards head to the nearest park entrance. It is 7:59 and the gate is still closed. We see a security guard milling about nearby, thinking she will open the gate at 8:00 on the dot. However, we spy a sign that says that the park is closed due to a “weather emergency”. We are guessing that either a water pipe broke or an electric line came down or something. We abandon the idea of visiting the park this morning and head to the metro to go to the monastery for the nuns cookies. We arrive to find that they don’t open until 10:30am- when we will be on our tour. We press on and find a place with a better breakfast offering it’s a chain called Tea & Coffee. I order an avocado toast, with tomato and serrano ham topped with scrambled eggs and drizzled with olive oil on toasted multigrain bread. Afterward, we metro up to Sol to meet our tour guide for our free walking tour. The tour lasts about two hours and the guide, though a bit over the top in terms flamboyance and enthusiasm, is quite genuine and makes the information we are learning fun, funny, and totally worth the time spent getting our introduction to Madrid in this way. Throughout the tour, he gives us some good tips for places to eat and drink, and even take in a flamenco show in town. One of the pit stops on the tour is a flamenco theater (not sure what the venue is actually called) and as we sit in the seats he explains that many of the flamenco shows in Madrid are designed to be money makers and are held in theaters with hundreds of seats where they need to amplify the activity on stage for everyone to enjoy it. The room only has 40 seats and is completely natural sound and if anyone needs help securing a reservation, we should talk to him after the tour. As I sit in the seats, I realize that this hole-in-the-wall theater is the specific one on my list of places to check out real flamenco in Madrid. I inquire about a reservation for Saturday night? 6pm is sold out, but they can fit us in at 8:00. We are in. After the tour, we realize we are only a few blocks from the nuns and have about 20 minutes before they close for siesta. We, again, walk purposely back the monastery and are set to enter as one man is exiting as well as a group showing up to go in. We scoot in front of the group (comfortably, not like we knocked them out of the way in a mad dash) and head inside. The deal with the nuns is that they bake cookies and can’t have any contact with the outside world. The people who have just finished their purchase tell us that of the nine types of cookies they sell, they only have three kinds left. El steps up and facilitates our transaction as the turntable is spun around to either take in the money or deliver cookies and/or change. As we go to leave, the group behind us asks if El will help facilitate their order, and she does. Hungry for lunch, a place that was pointed out to us called La Casa El Abuelo for a traditional calamari sandwich. We head there, but El is following the GPS and her and Lisa walk fast enough, that we can’t even get their attention as they jet ahead. At some point, Bob and I find ourselves unsure of which direction they went in. I am confident I know where the restaurant is and instead of pulling out my phone to follow directions, we just press on through Plaza Mayor and go direct to the restaurant. Assuming they would already be there, we are surprised that we are asking for a table with only half of our party present. Waitress is good about it. We order some wine and wait. And wait. And wait. At some point I realize I have no cell service in the back of the restaurant and walk outside to call and check the holdup. By the time we connect it turns out they are five minutes away. Once they arrive, we order paella, fresh tomatoes, patatas bravas, and a plate of shrimp in olive oil with parsley and garlic. We also order one of the calamari sandwiches to knock another “must try” food off the list. We pretty much split everything four ways including the sandwich. I eat my portion with a squeeze of lemon juice and salt, and although I think it is good, it is a little dry and could use something to moisten it up. After lunch we walk around the corner to Restaurant Botin to make a reservation for tomorrow after the flamenco considering it’s next door. This is one of the most popular restaurants in the city, so getting a spot for four on Saturday would have been a miracle, and as expected they are fully booked, but offer us a slot on Sunday at 8:00 and we jump on it. Next up, we head out of the center to the San Antonio de la Florida chapel with a ceiling painted by Goya. Many of Goya’s paintings are particularly dark and gruesome, but I guess he had a bit of a lighter period and worked on this place during that time replacing the demonic imagery for cherubim and other heavenly sights. It’s small, but the chapel is a bit out of the way and presumably missed by a lot of visitors to the city. Again, a no photo policy makes it difficult for us to get any good shots, and couple of covert pics will have to do for us. We don’t need all that long here and before heading back to the room for an afternoon nap, we go back to the bull bar on Plaza Mayor called La Torre De Oro which is a Rick Steves recommendation. This is the first opportunity that I have noticed to drink sweet vermouth on tap. It’s one of the food/drink that you are supposed to have here, so why not? It is served poured over a single ice cube in a small wine glass. Not a sherry glass, but about half the size of a common wine glass. Most of my experience is with dry vermouth, but fully expecting to hate this drink, I am pleasantly surprised how much I like it. Retrospectively, I guess most all of my experience with sweet vermouth is as a mixer in drinks I don’t care for- never considered the single cube pour over. This is basically a place where people come to watch bullfights on television. The walls of the small bar are adorned floor to ceiling with the losers from days gone by. Not only of the stuffed heads of bulls, but photographic documents of some of the times that the bull got the upper horn, if you will. Some are pictures of bloodied matadors getting carried off the field on a stretcher, some are action shots of matadors mid-air after being flung by the bull, and still others catch the man actively being gored- in the leg, crotch, or one unfortunate soul through the face. While we understand that matador somehow survived, I can only imagine he developed a severe speech impediment as a result. 

i was trying to get a serious shot with a stuffed bull head, but el had a different idea

i wonder if his dad ever said the words "you play with the bull son, you get the horns"

We split up so El and Lisa can visit knitting shops while Bob and I head to Plaza Colon to see the Statue of Christopher Columbus. On our way we snap a picture of the giant frog and head back to the room for a nap before dinner. Meanwhile, I check my email and the restaurant has sent me three emails trying to get me to confirm our reservation for tonight, lest they cancel our booking! Why on earth would they cancel my reservation if I made it just a week and a half ago? No matter, I reply to the message in hopes they get it before disqualifying us. We leave the room at 7:45 for our 8:45 reservation. Not knowing where we are going, and in a neighborhood we haven’t been to yet, we try to give ourselves some extra time. After walking past the place a few times, we finally locate the door down a dark alleyway. The room looks a bit dark, but we arrive about five minutes early and walk in hoping to be seated. Near the door there is a single table seated and eating as we enter- all of the people are dressed alike and many of the lights in the dining room off, I quickly realize that we have walked in on a staff dinner and will need to retreat before returning for our actual reservation time in about eight minutes. Today is pretty cold and just standing outside does sort of dampen the situation as El and Lisa walk to stay warm and Bob and I stand in one spot chatting about where we’ve been and upcoming plans. When we can see the entire dining room lit up as you would expect a restaurant during service, we take that as our cue to try again, this time greeted by a welcoming room and staff. My name has made it to the list of confirmed reservations, and we are seated promptly. We order a round of cocktails and my gin and tonic is poured tableside, and while made with top notch ingredients, has me longing for the citrus version I had in San Sebastian just days ago. The recommendation from the waiter is to order appetizers that will be split four ways- as many as we wish, but they will come out of the kitchen one at a time. Then everyone will order their own main course. We take his suggestion and the first dish served is a plate of white asparagus served with a bowl of mayo and also a bowl of garlic & herb olive oil. Instead of being fried as we have had in the past, this arrives perfectly steamed and then chilled and served as such. The spears are soft, but not mushy and both dipping sauces are excellent. A great start to the meal. 

an intensely delicate crabmeat lasagna. another one of my trip favorite dishes

Next out is something called Falsa Lasagna de Txangurro (“fake crab lasagna”). That is the way it is written on the menu, and as I am savoring the wonderful crab together with the delicate pasta, I am certain that in this instance “fake/false” refers to lasagna and NOT the crab as it is 100% real. For my main, I choose the Kokotxas a la Importancia which is a traditionally Basque dish that was sold out when we went to the Basque restaurant the other day. I figure, if they are preparing the hake cheeks pil-pil style, this place is not going to do it poorly. The plate is cheeks (basically the meaty portion under the jaw in the throat region) of hake fish served in a sauce that is made by heating olive oil in a clay pan and gently swirling the fish pieces in the liquid until the warm oil slowly extracts elements of the meat and as it infuses with the oil turns it a little gelatinous. Garnished with some parsley it is an extremely simple dish, but deceptively so. The technique is well executed here and I am glad to have knocked off another “must eat” food off my list. The fish is very mild and cheeks just meaty enough that 5 cheeks constitute a full portion. I wasn’t planning to order a dessert, but the offering of mandarin oranges in caramel sauce whispers to me and I succumb to its temptation. Everyone loves the food and gives me a thumbs up on my pick. Full from dinner we walk to the metro to get to Arguelles for Bastard Heavy Metal Bar. Whenever El and I travel I try to find some version of a heavy metal/hard rock bar to visit. My research tells me there are several in this city and the group is game to give it a shot. It takes a few minutes to find, but when we do, the music is loud, but not all the selections are great. As I could have predicted this is more of a sloppy beer joint than a place to get a drinkable glass of verdejo. Bob and I get a beer, while El and Lisa chance it to order a glass of red wine. The bartender pulls the two drafts and grabs two tall glass mugs. I certainly don’t expect the ladies will be served a full half liter of wine, so I keep my eye on the drink in case she misunderstood the order. I asked if that was the right glass for red wine and she realizes that I have in fact NOT ordered a Devil’s Blood and gets a much more appropriate glass. Now, I remember from our last visit to this city 19 years ago, that Devil’s Blood is a popular mix of red wine and Coca Cola. I wouldn’t drink it, but enough do that in this place it is assumed that it is a preferred drink over just plain wine by the glass. The music is hit and miss for the duration of the drink. I give Lisa super kudos for enduring what, although could have been worse, was probably pretty removed from her interest in music. She could have opted out, but she didn’t and I hope it wasn’t the worst night out she’s ever had. I think Bob liked the music about as much as I did. It is getting very late and we are all tired, and add in the fact that we know the metro stops running at some point in the next hour, we pass on another drink and head back to the room and call it a night. It is 3:07am as I turn out the bedroom light.

Saturday February 24

Everyone was asked to come up with two items that they wanted to make sure we got to during the trip. One of Lisa’s picks was the Royal Palace. While I am of the opinion that if you’ve seen one royal palace, you’ve probably seen them all. We agree to split up, for at least the first part of the day. When I asked for the 2 items, I didn’t say everyone would do them, just that I would do my best to allot time in our trip to check it off the list. El, Bob, and Lisa head up to the Royal Palace, trying to get there as close to opening time as they can. I choose to do something that I want to do for myself...visit some art and a neighborhood. I have discovered a circular metro line. I thought all of the metros were a point A to point B track and sometimes you had to transfer from one line to another once or more to reach the destination. But yesterday we found that one line is just a continuous loop that can make getting from one side of the city to the next transfer stop a lot faster. I walk to grab it to head up to the Salvador Dali Plaza. The plaza is pretty easy to find and it includes the only public sculpture designed by Salvador Dali. It is called El Dolmen de Dalí and stands in one end of the plaza. At first, I thought it was just the figure that he designed, but when I sat and read about the piece and its history, I learned that the Stonehenge looking monolith is part of the installation too. Once I look at it, remind myself that Dali was a weird dude, and take a couple of shots, I decide it is too cold to just sit here spending much time learning about my next stop. I do find a corner of the plaza splashed in sun where I can figure out my metro route before entering the station under the plaza. I am on my way to Lavapies, which is a neighborhood not too far from the apartment. Lavapies and La Latina are two adjacent neighborhoods that are considered the more artsy, progressive, culturally forward sections of the city. Not sure what is here, I sit in the plaza (on a sunny bench) to read about the area and see if there is anything of specific interest here. I learn quickly that La Tabacalera is temporarily closed, so I know this is the younger, artsy district of the city and expect I will see lots of boutiques and markets. I map out a route to the San Fernando Mercado, figuring that on a Saturday morning at 10:00am, it should be in full swing. I walk in and there are literally only two vendors open in an entirely else shuttered market. It is unclear if the place will open later today or if the market is generally closed on Saturdays with these two merchants bucking the system. It isn’t worth spending any time here as I am not in the market for sausage or books. I exit as fast as I arrived and head direct to the Basilica of San Francisco El Grande, that is said the have a painting by Goya that most people would miss...even if they do come to this church. It costs €5. This place is pretty nicely painted, especially the ceiling, earning it the nickname, the Sistine Chapel of Madrid. 

i can see why it's called the sistine chapel of madrid

I sit in the pews for a few minutes, reading about the church and the history of the ceiling. I knew I had read about it when we saw the Goya painted ceiling yesterday, so was this a Goya ceiling too? I had to figure out what was going here. I sat, read, admired, and took in the sights and sounds of my surroundings. I see that there are six alcoves off the nave and learn that one has a Goya painting in it. Again, not necessarily from his dark period, the scene of a sermon with followers below (one being a self portrait of Goya himself) is certainly a nice addition to the collection housed in this chapel. Frankly, after taking in the ceiling and the Goya, I am good to move on as I’m starting to get hungry. On my way out, the ticket seller, a friendly old, bushy bearded guy, opens the velvet rope to let me out. I say thank you and he asks me if I saw the rooms behind the altar in the sacristy? I respond in the negative and he all but puts his hands on my shoulders to turn me back inside to view the rooms that I missed. I oblige and beeline for the sacristy. I do see a long, wraparound hallway with side rooms all lined with old paintings. None Goya. None remarkable. All dark. All boring. Basically, it’s a Mona Lisa driveby to the exit. Of course I thank him for turning me back, though, unless there are bones in a crypt below, I hope that’s it. On the way to the church I saw the Mercado de la Cebada which is a two story market in full Saturday swing- so I head back there. Like Bretxa Market in San Sebastian, many of the vendors are selling meat. Some exclusively poultry or beef or other, but mostly, pork- legs of ham hanging from the ceiling to indicate their offerings from 100 feet away. I wander through the market taking in the sights and smells that remind me I am in a foreign space. I stop to read about the market and see if there is anything super-remarkable about it. As I see where I am on the map, I realize that I am only a short way from the Royal Palace and maybe I could meet up with the group for lunch. I start my Whatsapp message to touch base with them as I get started on this market. 

this is a random statue near the city center of an angel crashing face first into a roof

Having not grabbed more than a single cookie for breakfast, while not in the market for any raw meats or produce, I could certainly go for a snack of some kind. I turn the corner at a sign that reads paella and pause in front of a display, of what looks like a large pan of the dish. As I inspect the contents, something looks off. I grew up on my mom’s paella and this doesn’t look exactly like what I am used to. The stand is manned by two young men, one who sees my curiosity pause as I try to determine if this is a variation on paella I am not used to or what. He starts speaking to me, but my headphones prevent me from hearing anything he has said. As I remove my earbud, enough just to say “just looking”, he realizes I speak English and he pivots to my language and now I can get some answers and he can make a sale. I point into the case and inflect my “paella?” to which he says “no” and proceeds to introduce a new dish of Spanish cuisine to me: migas manchegas. He goes on to explain that where paella is a rice dish, this is a dish primarily of bread crumbs, not fine ground crumbs, and much smaller than cubed, but more or less roughly rice sized which allowed the subterfuge to last only long enough to pique my curiosity. He explains that besides bread, I am also looking at pieces of chorizo, ham, chicken, pork belly, and probably some parts unknown (you know, the pieces that qualify as meat that some people wouldn’t choose to eat if it was set on a plate in front of them, but when mixed in a bigger dish adds enough flavor and texture to the dish that we forgive its presence). While, interesting, I ask where is the paella that his sign advertises, and the reason I am here. He says he does not have any paella yet, but that the migas manchegas, he assures me is just as good. He goes on to explain that he will have paella after 1:00pm and that if I come back well after noon, I can get some paella to take to the salon. Needing more explanation, he continues that after noon many of the vendors will be selling their raw before noon products, cooked for take away, and that there is a seating area upstairs that you can take your purchase to eat without having to leave the building...and as an added convenience each stall has offerings of beer or wine should you need something to wash your purchase down. Willing to test this idea, I am sold and confirm, if I buy a plate of his migas manchegas and a cup of wine I will go upstairs now and eat? He affirms and motions to his partner to prepare my order. While my order comes together, we exchange the obligatory: “where are you from?” “how long have you been in Spain?” “do you like Madrid?” etc. I have a couple of questions of my own- the foremost prefaced with the fact that we only have one more full day in Madrid and if he too, only had one day would he choose a day trip to Toledo or Segovia. He explains that he has been to both many times, and for his money- he would suggest Toledo. I add another tick to the Toledo column on my mental tote board and with that his partner relays the price and I am handed my €12 migas manchegas and plastic cup of wine and march on to find the seating area upstairs. I find it easily, and get set up in the empty room- one that within the hour will be standing room only. The food is pretty good and I reach out to the rest of the group to let me know when they can talk on the phone. Knowing that everyone liked our visits to the Bretxa Market, I thought it would be interesting to show them what a full, working market looks like- and with the added bonus of providing lunch options, maybe they would want to come and explore this market with me? El is able to call when they are done at the palace and once I explain this market, tells me they are 12 minutes away and will meet me soon. I continue my stroll and spot a counter with a display of pintxos. I ask if I can buy a single skewer of bread, tortilla (potato omelet) and sliced ham. She tells me that I cannot buy one, but that if I buy a glass of beer or wine, one skewer is free. That is a bargain at any price! I order a verdejo and the bite and wait for the group. They arrive and explore on their own. I spot a fish/seafood seller and decide I am ready to try his offerings. I always like octopus and this guy has quite an array including fresh and also cooked. Not knowing my options, or the language, with a line gathering behind me, I point, hoping for some preparation to magically occur, alas, this requires more work than pointing and simple yes/no answers. I point to the bin of cooked octopus, and he grabs a Styrofoam plate and starts transferring the bite sized chunks, looking to me for a “no mas”. A couple of scoops do it and now he hands my plate to his assistant who puts the cooked, but chilled meat into a colander before plunging it into a waiting pot of boiling water. After just a few seconds the meat is warmed through and she hands the plate back to the man. In the meantime, I spot a plate in the display case of what looks like mussels with a topping of an onion, tomato, peppers salad mixture. I hope he is going to add some to my plate, but he stares at me waiting for direction, but I have no words. I point to the mussels, specifically to the salad on top, but he thinks I am giving him the next part of my order and starts a new plate with mussels on it. When I say no to the mussels, he starts looking to the coworkers to see if they know what I want. After, what must have felt like an eternity to the people behind me, I pull out my Google translate and say, I want this salad on top of my octopus- so he points to another part of the display case with octopus salad that is already premade with the veggies among other things. I add a scoop of this salad to my order and he sprinkles some smoked paprika on my warm octopus. A cup of white wine completes the order and I spy a standing spot at a nearby counter where customers of this guy are all going instead of upstairs. Both octopus plates are tasty, the warm smokey, salty, warm version and the cold, three bean salad tasting plate. The wine is fine. By now the others are done exploring and starting to buy their own stuff to stand next to me and eat. Lisa decides she really wants shrimp. But, as usual, the cooked shrimp come with the heads on and full shell. She spots a guy nearby who bought a large plate of boiled shrimp and is working to clear the plate leaving a pile of exoskeletons in their place. She is not sure how to navigate this culinary stumbling block and for the many Americans who have never seen a full, head on, shrimp, “how do you actually eat them?” is not an unreasonable question. She stands trying to learn from the group nearby. At one point I suggest that she puts a message in the translate asking for a tutorial and to go make a friend. To her credit, she did exactly that. Walked up to the group holding her message for them to read that she was looking to learn their technique before buying some of her own. Of the four in the group, she was shown four slight variations as each wanted to show why their method was better than the last. By the end, they are offering her some of their shrimp. Wanting more, Lisa goes to buy her own plate of head-on shrimp from the merchant. It was a fun series of events to witness as she went from “how do they do that” to showing us her own technique within minutes. After shrimp, octopus and the olives that El bought, we head back to paella guy who now has freshly made paella in his display case. After a few minutes with the same guys as before, we walk away with bowls of paella, more migas manchegas, and some croquettes, as well as more wine- heading upstairs to sit and eat. As we enter the seating area we see that it is packed as all the locals seem to have the same Saturday plan! We are able to squeeze into a standing spot to enjoy our purchases. The paella is good, but not as good as my mom’s! We are all pretty full by this point and start to make our way back to the room to rest before going out tonight- starting with our flamenco show. We take the metro to the Retiro stop and get our bearings and see that the gates are open, so we can assume that the “weather emergency” has lapsed. Basically, this is a rather large public park/garden that used to be a play area for royals, but today has just become a leisurely area for locals and tourists alike to stroll the paths, taking in the sights and sounds not unlike most urban parks. We are consulting the map to be sure to hit the two points of interest for us. One being the Crystal Palace and the other being the Fallen Angel statue, which is said to be the world’s only public monument to Satan! 

\m/      satan      \m/

There are a couple other points of interest in the park, but none trump our interest in getting in a nap before we go out tonight. As a group we have agreed to take a side trip tomorrow to Toledo and El gets on the phone to try to secure the train tickets. While some of us are more tired than others, we each agree to regroup at 6:45 to head to our flamenco show. Once I wake and the four of us are in the living room together, El announces that she has not been able to get our train tickets and describes her frustrations using the Renfe train app. We will stop at Atocha on way to flamenco to see if we can find a cashier that can help us buy hard train tickets or help us to navigate the kiosk. Our show is at 8:00, so we head out, moving quickly when possible. There are three distances of Renfe trains: local, medium, and long. We need medium distance train tickets and the first counter we see is long distance and they point us to the next office. When we get to there, it’s a local train office and not the one we need! We press on through the Atocha Station upstairs to a ticket machine, and instead of waiting for a cashier, we try the machine. El is able to navigate the menus quickly, but then it asks for our individual passport numbers. Unfortunately, none of us has our passport on us, fortunately El remembers she has an email with all of our numbers in it from an exchange during our planning stages. I type all of the info as fast as I can and we are able to secure our tickets relatively quickly, in about 10 minutes, though with so many trains sold out, we wind up with 8:30am to Toledo and a 1:30pm back to Madrid. That doesn’t give us all that much time, but if we do some research and prioritize the sights, we should be fine. Once we are done at Atocha, we just hop back on the metro and head up to Tablao Flamenco La Q’uimera. The room is located just off Plaza Mayor, but this has been recommended as a good, authentic and traditional show- though since we have never seen one, I suppose they may all look the same. We are seated immediately, and the show starts just after 8:00. The room is small and only holds about 40 people. The stage is unamplified allowing for us to hear the natural sounds coming from the voices, guitar, hand claps and snaps, and the wooden heels on each of the dancer’s shoes. The performance tells a story, though I don’t understand anything that is going on. I make up my own mental narration to what I am witnessing to make it make sense to me. The dances were visually beautiful with the grace of ballet and the intensity of tap dance. As the story is being sung, the seated dancers are all using their hands to clap and snap and their shoes to tap incredible rhythms at a machine gun pace and with remarkable coordination. 

this flamenco show was a surprise hit. i guess we thought it would be alright, but everyone thought it was way better than 'alright'

shot glasses made of biscuit and chocolate. after you shoot the liqueur, you eat the cup

The show lasts a bit over an hour and is deemed a fun experience by all in the group. My initial thought was to head to another metal bar for the evening before making our way back to the bar across from our apartment. With our train tickets to Toledo in hand, we know we will need to get up early and I have reservations about staying out so late. I pivot to skip the metal bar, favoring a stop at the El Madroño around the corner for a chupito of madroño liqueur- a local alcohol made from arbutus berries. We are set up at a standing table along the wall and motion for a shot each of the house specialty. As we see the shots on the tray Lisa and El reach out to customers near us to ask if this is a shot or a sip. They all answer with a resounding (insert Spanish word for “shot” here)- complete with charade of tipping it back and all additionally reminding us that once the shot is gone, you are supposed to eat the “glass”. We all take the directions and get busy...a quick cheers, down the hatch, and in a scene straight out of Willy Wonka, devour the chocolate lined cookie cup in one bite. Settling up at the bar we head back to Micasita, the bar across the street from our first night. The owner remembers us and is super friendly. With a few more people inside tonight, he can’t spend as much time with us, but he stops by when he can. We order a couple of plates and wines around. We spend good hour and a half before retiring for the night in prep for our early train to Toledo in the morning.

Sunday February 25
Our train leaves from Atocha station which is much closer than the other train station (Chamartin) where most of the long distance trains leave from. We arrive early enough to allow time to grab a coffee and pastry while we wait for our platform announcement. Once the track is posted we head to security check and to the car. The ride to Toledo is only about 35 minutes and uneventful. We arrive in town around 9:00 and have a few hours before our 1:30 train back to Madrid. As we leave the train station it is raining a little- though a little warmer than where we came from. Toledo, being the former capital of Spain, is strategically perched upon a mountaintop, which, while good for medieval security, sort of required a lot of steep uphill climbing made trickier by the rain slicked streets. We happen to be next to a bus stop and expecting we can just buy tickets from the driver, we wait the couple of minutes for a ride directly to our first stop, the cathedral. As we get off the bus, we find ourselves walking with a man who is travelling alone. We find out Sam is from Texas and here for a short time today- in fact returning on our same train. He too is looking for the cathedral and seems to be backtracking just moments before we do. I’m thinking he is as lost as we are! Without either party even making a conscious decision we start following each other. We find the church just fine but can’t seem to find the front door to get in! We circle the gigantic building using our phone maps and asking people who seem to be pointing us in conflicting directions. Eventually we spot the open door and head inside as mass is underway. I can hear it and you can’t take pictures inside while mass is going on so my interest dwindles quickly. I find an empty pew and work on my journal while listening to the mass that I don’t understand in English, let alone in Spanish. After a little while we regroup and try to discuss our next stop. There are a couple of Atlas Obscura entries for this city. Our first stop is, according to Guinness as the smallest window in the world. It certainly is a window. And it certainly is small. A window smaller than a hand palm. Not sure who contacted Guinness to see what the previous record was and flag this specimen as a true contender, but whatever the trajectory, here we are taking pictures of something out of PeeWee’s Playhouse. 

my resident goofball trying to open the world's smallest window. i had to remind her that the window opens from the inside

Next, we head to the Bitter Well- which is a bit harder for us to find than it should have been. This stop is less about superlatives and more about myth & legend. The well itself is sealed off from the top, but what we do get from the Atlas Obscura entry is the entire story recounting a father’s dislike of his daughter’s suitor and essentially had the guy killed leaving the daughter distraught and crying at the well they used to meet at. She eventually cried so many tears that as they dripped into the well, it turned the taste of the well water bitter. All before her final act of hurling herself into the well, killing herself- which I bet didn’t do anything to improve the flavor of the water either! Next up is the Jewish Quarter to find the synagogue. We find the street marker denoting the Jewish Quarter, but the synagogue proves to be extra difficult to figure out. We wander the streets expecting that we are just around the corner from the building just about every time we round a corner. Toledo is built on top of a sizable hill and sometimes we take streets that head on a steep decline, knowing that if it’s not correct, we will have to walk back up. At some point we come upon a scenic overlook with great views of nearby hilltops, the river below and a robust looking bridge. We use this chance to take some group photos- taking advantage of having Sam with us to be our photographer- though I clearly have to set the shot up for him before sitting back down to be included. We turn around and when we get to the top of the street, we spy the synagogue! I opt to sit and journal in the courtyard while everyone else pays their €4 to enter. They exit, seemingly just as fast as they entered. As she comes out, El tells me that she just figured out that there are two synagogues here, and this is NOT the main one! We seem on the right path now and arrive at the main synagogue in a matter of minutes. Seeing the length of the line to get in, I am checking my watch to figure when we have to leave the synagogue to get back to the train station on time. They are letting people in by groups, so even though the line does not seem to move, once in awhile they will let the next group in and everyone moves up 25 feet at once. Bob and I skip going in and El and Lisa do wait it out to get in. Bob and I map out the route to the train station and which bus numbers will get us there…on time. The best route includes a 16 minute walk to the bus. El and Lisa finish in the temple and the five of us walk quickly towards the center plaza. There are a lot more people visiting this town now than when we arrived this morning, so weaving in and out of pedestrian traffic adds some chaos to our route. As we bob and weave through the throngs, I am reminded, as we pass through shopping districts, that one of the products Toledo is known for is marzipan- which I love, but now don’t have any time to stop. If I thought of it, I would have found a shop while the ladies were in the synagogue. We make it to the plaza just as our bus pulls away. Seven minutes until next bus gives Lisa and I time to run into the marzipan shop to grab a couple of pieces, though the line of customers inside eats away at the wait time for the exiting as the bus pulled up just as we exited the shop. I am loving that all drivers on the public buses are happy to make change for cash paying riders. This makes it so much better than places where you are required to have a MetroCard or exact change. Once we get off at the station, we have a half hour before the train departs which is enough time to grab a coffee and snack before the train at 1:30. 

looking from the jewish quarter into the river valley below toledo

Train leaves on time and we arrive back at Atocha station around 2:00pm. Before leaving Atocha Station we stop and see the botanical garden inside. We don’t need much more than a few minutes here as it just looks like they installed a full size park inside a large train station hall. I suppose it’s good for a lot of purposes (cutting down on noise, cleaning the air etc.), but besides providing a quiet place to sit while waiting for your train, the practical use seems limited. We head back to the room to nap and pack for tomorrow. At 6:45 we leave for tonight’s dinner at Sobrino de Botín. On the way we stop again, at Atocha station to confirm where we have to catch the train to the airport in the morning. Even with the stop to get pointed to the airport train tracks, we are 45 minutes early before they open at 8:00pm. Instead of waiting at the door, we head back to El Madroño around the corner for another chupito of madroño liqueur. It tastes as good as the one we had last night- like a large Whitman’s chocolate filled with a gush of liqueur when you bite into it- only the burst sensation comes first and the chocolate second. There are less people in here tonight than were here last night. The round of shots only takes us about two minutes from ordering to settling up the bill and now we realize we still have another 43 minutes until dinner! That’s enough time for a glass of wine and a brief chat with the bartender. We spy a small bottle of the madroño on the shelf and ask to compare the label with the 100ml maximum TSA regulation for liquids in carry-ons. This bottle, at 20cl, fails. Though the lament quickly turns into the realization that we know from past experience that while this is a great moment in time for us, recreating the feeling of this moment is impossible and what seemed like a good purchase at the time will turn into a dust collector in the shelf that the we struggle five years from now to even remember why on earth we own this bottle of something in our liquor cabinet. 

movie shot.MOV

Best to savor the moment now. We drink our wines and head around the corner for dinner. They haven’t quite opened yet, but they are starting to sort out the parties for quicker seating once the doors open. We are nearby to a guy who sounds like some sort of tour guide telling his people that even though the house specialty here is roasted suckling pig, one is too much for one person and he recommends splitting one per couple or more. I hadn’t considered that...before now! We are seated in the downstairs area, in what can only be described as a dungeon...a dry, well lit dungeon. Now one of the things we have learned about on this visit is that this is a Guinness record holder as the oldest restaurant in the world, proudly displaying their certificate in the window and plaque at the foot of the front door. The plaques are a Madrid thing and commemorate businesses that have been open for 100 or more years, performing the same function, owned by the same family, and in the same location. Though not the oldest business in Madrid, it is the oldest restaurant...obviously. This is an old timey looking and feeling place. Waitstaff are all old men in black slacks and white coats. As we are seated, we laugh that we have been seated in the “English speaking room”. There are only (1) two top and (2) four tops in this little dungeon alcove. The ten of us all speak English and are presented with English menus and tended to by an English speaking waiter. Once we are seated, we order a pitcher of white sangria and we each order an appetizer to split and we also get the specialty of the house to split between the four of us- in what turns out to be the absolute right move! First out is an order of six croquettes- ham and cheese, that we each take one and cut the remainder in half for additional divvying up. This kitchen wasn’t fooling around and before we are done with the poppers- our Salad Botin is served. This is a salad of mixed greens, but also heartier vegetables like beets, artichoke hearts, and green beans with the odd addition of shredded chicken. It’s OK. And before we are done with those two, now our order of white asparagus with mayo comes out, but our small table is so crowded that we are trying to stack the cleared serving dishes just to make room for new arrivals. Eventually, we are able to get the table bussed and know that we are waiting on our order of sauteed mushrooms with iberico ham. It turns out, they will serve the mushrooms as a side dish to the pork instead of on its own or with the other openers. The house specialty is roast suckling pig. It is cooked- or at least finished, in a wood burning oven that is said to have the same fire burning since they opened (more than 100 years ago)! So important is the fire to the restaurant and so important the restaurant to the city that during the Covid pandemic, they were granted special permissions that allowed for someone to keep the fire stoked from the inside while the rest of the world burned outside. The pig arrives pre-sliced and we each dig in. To my palate it tastes of pork chops, only the most incredibly tender pork chops you’ve ever had. The skin, when roasted in the oven takes on a very crisp quality that allows it to crack when a fork (or a hand) exerts pressure on it. It is easy to see why this is a house specialty, but I probably only need to eat here once. The mushrooms do make for a nice side dish. We are all full and pass on desserts. On the way out, El asks if she can have a peek at the oven, and not only was she told yes, she is able to get some shots with the chef posing with his next culinary presentation. 

an artist showing off his work...his very tasty work 

After dinner, we head back towards the room with one last pitstop along the way- Micasita Wine Bar. It’s the place that we stopped at our first and third nights, and now our fourth. By now the staff knows us and when we walk in Georgia sees us, smiles and motions to a couple on the back side of the bar where we had sat our first two times. She speaks to the two patrons through the beer taps and as we stand, scanning the room for a place to sit, all of a sudden, the two customers get up and move to the other side of the bar- leaving a place for us to sit. A little confused why she would just tell people to get out of their seats, so we could sit, she smiles and tells us they are her friends, so we should not worry as they seem all too happy to make the space for us. The idea was to stop here for one glass of wine before heading back to get the bulk of our packing done, but the night went a bit later than we expected. Once the owner Suell, had taken care of his priorities, he came over to chat with us about our trip to Spain, our day in Toledo, and of course, US politics. There was nothing heated and just a good conversation between people with different opinions on some aspects of living in a world society. I find it interesting to hear how people in their countries view my country. He seems well educated and world knowledgeable. Without a complete rehash, the conversation hits topics such as gun control, the possibility of a Trump re-election, immigration, and patriotism in all forms. A good evening was had by all until Georgia tells Suell it was time to leave, so we took that as our cue to head back after a final photo with the most hospitable couple. Back to the room, we realize that most everyone has already packed enough to use this opportunity to decompress, digest, and debrief over the last of our olives and wine we bought but will not be bringing back to the States with us. Some check emails, some play games, some peripherally contribute to the conversation and all speak of things they enjoyed about the trip or how they will return home with a new knowledge about a place we had only heard of until now. A little after midnight, we are calling it a night.

Monday February 26
We need to make our flight at 10:45am. We agree to leave the room at 6:45am and we start the journey to the airport. We have to buy a train ticket to the next metro stop and then a transfer to the next train from Atocha Station all the way out to the airport. One at a time we insert our cards, select one journey (from Menendez to Atocha) with an add on for the Atocha to airport leg. It costs €5 each and gives us a chance to use up our coins in our individual change purses. We are on our way. As I thought might happen, at this hour (about 7:00am) the metros are a bit crowded with people heading to work on a Monday morning. We are able to spot a car with the least passengers and get right in. It’s only one stop. We exit the metro and walk over to where we were told to catch the airport train last night. All four of us walk to a different turnstile and sequentially see the words we feared…”no validation”! So the three of us look to El to head to the info desk to find out what we are doing wrong. Luckily we all grabbed the receipt at the time of our purchase. We go to the customer service booth and El explains, we just bought these passes 10 minutes ago and it is telling us “not valid”, how is that possible/what do we do? The clerk looks at the receipt and proudly stated, “no, these tickets you bought are only good for February 26!” The four of us ponder for a moment, before El says to her, “yeah, and today is February 26!” Now she wants to inspect our cards, so she puts it in the reader and after a few minutes, cannot to put her finger on the problem and I guess believes El, and/or takes some pity on us and tells us to meet her at the turnstile as she exits the booth to activate a manual override and opens the gate for us and points us to the track we need. We are on our way! The trains come about every ten minutes, and this is no exception. We get on the train...next stop, aeropuerto Terminal 4. We head into the terminal recognizing the surroundings as where we left upon our arrival (remember we were so early that we had to buy an extra ticket??) We head down the hallway and are confronted by a line of turnstiles that are the kind where not only do you have to scan your ticket to get on the train, but also to exit the system! We were able to get the manual override in Atocha, but now these turnstiles are staffed by Renfe employees watching everyone’s exit. With a bit of nervous laughter, the possibilities of the next few seconds are multifold. Either our card is going to magically work, the card won’t work and El’s explanation will get us another manual override, or something worse, up to and including a fine for riding a train without a valid ticket- which could be steep. Let’s hope for one of the first two. Well, the magic didn’t happen and our cards scan as invalid. The staff comes over to inquire. El shows him our receipts, tells him we had to be let in at Atocha and hopefully he can help us out. In a grand total of three seconds of inspecting the receipt, he declares, this is not a Renfe ticket! This is a metro ticket!” So essentially, we purchased a ticket to get to the airport using the metro (which also services the airport), but we took the commuter line that would get you there in about half the time! As El and Bob keep reminding him that the lady in Atocha let us in, he was hearing none of it. Now, my question is if we are getting out of here without a substantial fine. El and Bob follow the guy into the office and emerge €12 lighter as he only makes us pay the fare from Atocha- which, while distasteful, still beats the alternative. On the way to our gate, El spots a metro customer service desk with a clerk whose English is great enough to plainly and thoughtfully explain what the issue is here. Suffice it to say, we accidentally bought the wrong tickets and it only cost us a couple of Euros instead of a lot more. No way we will remember this for the next time, but a lesson in foreign travel nonetheless. We are through check in, security, and at the gate in time and grab some overpriced, shitty coffee and snacks in lieu of one of the nice breakfasts we’ve enjoyed over the last week. We’re not in Spain anymore. One final disappointment was that as Lisa and Bob went through the customs and border protection screening, because of some swine flu outbreak, their legally carried packages of ham and chorizo were confiscated and destroyed as they exited the airport. Incredibly frustrating and angering for sure. Our drive home was uneventful- though we were all a bit beat from the cumulation of the past 8 days. Everyone looking forward to sleeping in their own beds tonight!

While I am somewhere over the Atlantic working on my journal, I can’t help but think back to 2005….
In 2005, El and I were not the travelers that we are today, by a long shot. We were still young and honing our basic travel skills and busy being tenderfoot explorers. We were busy learning from our rookie mistakes- like not using an alarm clock. This prevented us from beating crowds at tourist stops and watched us piss half a day away “sleeping in” because we were on vacation, and in retrospect missing out on a lot of what places we were visiting had to offer. Then, in 2007, I had an epiphany. You see, in 2005, El and I visited the city of Madrid for three days and it was a short two years later that a friend of ours said, “hey, you guys went to Madrid a couple of years ago, right? Well, we are heading there soon and hoping you could give us some recommendations of places to stay, things to see, where to eat, etc” And while I was only too happy to help out a fellow traveler, I embarrassingly had to admit, that our experience in Madrid was so unremarkable- not in that the city didn’t offer the remarkable, but that we failed spectacularly to take advantage of it! I was unable to come up with even the bare minimum of recommendations for them. Here we were, embarking on international travel every year, a trip that many could consider the trip of a lifetime, and here I was at a loss for what we experienced. It was there and then that I decided to start keeping a journal when we travel to prevent me from actually forgetting what we did in a particular location. Today in 2024, I have occasion to revisit some of these old journals and even in my notetaking and travel narration, I can easily see the maturity we have developed over the past 25 years and can proudly recognize the strides we have made growing from those green tourists into ever evolving experienced travelers. I will be optimistic that any time after this particular week, if someone asks about my experience in Madrid- I will surely have an answer.

One last thought about excitement & anxiety. As I remarked at the beginning, this was our first real trip with others. I would not say I was worried, we wouldn’t have asked them to join us if we were. I was more apprehensive of the added challenges that come with additional people. Would they be late for dinner reservations? Would they be interested in the places that I wanted to go or would they be looking for ways to move me in different directions. When presented with a pigs ear on bread, would they say, “OK, here goes” or “no way I’m eating that!”? Lisa and Bob have done some traveling in their time, so it wasn’t like they were fish out of water, but I think there were some parts of this trip that they were comfortable that El and I were able to use our experience to put minds at ease. And, as I finish this trip, I can thankfully use this experience if we are to travel again to increase my level of excitement & diminish my sense of anxiety. They turned out to be exactly the kind of companions I hoped they would be and hope that maybe we could do it again sometime. A special cheers to the two of them for helping to make this trip as good as it was. Here’s to the prospect of a next time.