Madrid, Old Men, and Magical Elixirs.

Shaun and I make DAMN good sangria. In fact, it’s SO good that it won a sangria-making contest at a work event last summer. People asked me for the recipe. It was awesome. If that win was the crowning achievement of my entire professional career, I probably would have been fine – until I went to Madrid and realized we’ve barely scratched the tip of the sangria iceberg. But I’m getting ahead of myself just a tad. I just really wanted to brag.

We spent the first leg of our trip in Madrid, Spain. The only thing worse than an overnight flight is an overnight flight that lands around 5AM local time. There’s not even anything open at which you can sit and enjoy a coffee while you contemplate your exhaustion. Luckily, in Madrid, you can chill on the park benches in front of the beautiful Museo del Prado and watch beautiful madrileños walk their beautiful dogs to kill time. Beautiful.

When you finally wander into a random restaurant at 8AM and ask for “breakfast” in [broken] Spanish, you’ll probably get what was set down in front of us: thick, white toast with tomato jam [tostas con tomate] and two espressos. Tomato jam. Pure heaven. It might sound strange, but bear with me, remind yourself that tomatoes are in fact a fruit, and then check out this recipe from The Talking Kitchen to find out just how simple and perfect this dish is. “Simple and perfect” was the theme of the rest of our stay in Madrid.

Shaun follows Tyler Cowen’s rules on eating out [excerpted here], which include tips like “don’t eat at restaurants on corners” [they’re more likely to survive on location rather than quality], “avoid places with lots of attractive people sitting outside” [trust me, restauranteurs do that on purpose to attract you], and “avoid restaurants with photos on the menu/walls outside.” I added an extra rule: “Eat where the old men are eating.” If you’re truly out to try the food that residents eat and not food catered toward tourists, a restaurant packed with elderly men snacking, drinking, and playing cards is probably about as authentic as you can get without walking into someone’s house and asking for a meal.

On our first day, after powering through siesta [which begins at 2PM and can last anywhere from 5-8PM depending on the type of establishment] with a trip to the Museo del Prado where I showed Shaun works from three of my favorite artists [El Greco, Goya, and Velazquez], we wandered into a tiny place near our hostel filled with elderly men and families. Playing cards. Win. There was only one waiter/bartender, and he ran around the place like a crazy man, serving up delicious food and drink. I’ve got only one photo from Madrid, and it’s of that meal:

A plate of cured meats,* Manchego cheese, white bread, and a bottle of house wine. That Manchego was sharp as a knife, just the way I like cheese, too. P.S., cheap drinks in Europe. Cheap, GOOD quality drinks. This bottle of [delicious] white was 4 Euro, which is roughly five American dollars. Bam.

On our wander back to the hostel that night we stumbled upon a tiny bar that was screaming at us to stop for a nightcap. We agreed, and at Huerta Uno had the best sangria I have ever tasted. Here is my tweet from that night. After befriending the bartender, we learned that the secret to her sangria is sweet vermouth on top of the brandy, wine and fruit. Holy crap. I removed my Sangria Crown and immediately handed it over to its rightful owner. It didn’t hurt that the drink was served with a tiny dish of potatoes roasted with sea salt and whole cumin seeds [in Madrid, you get a tiny plate of food every time you order a drink – it’s a sweet gesture]. Huerta Uno became our evening stop-off the rest of the time in Madrid.

I fear if I detailed every amazing experience we had in Madrid this post would go on for days. We did hit a few snags, including getting lost on a walk back from a restaurant and ending up seven kilometers in the wrong direction [we still have NO idea how that happened], and having one of the places at the top of our list [El Tigre] be closed for “summer vacation” until September. But all in all, there are tons of incredible things in Madrid, and you should try them, too:

  • White wines from either the Rueda or Penedès regions of Spain: Widely available across menus and delicious. I really enjoyed the hint of creaminess reminiscent of my favorite American whites coupled with the citrusy brightness I expect from Spanish varietals. If I were in a wine shop unsure of what to get, I’d keep my eye out for either of these.
  • Parque del Buen Retiro: The “park of the pleasant retreat” is one of the largest, most beautiful and most well-groomed places to lounge. We grabbed some snacks, some books, and chilled it out during the hottest part of the day [did I mention it was HOT?]. Plus, there are two buildings that are actually part of the Reina Sofia inside the park that you can enter for free.
  • Museo Reina Sofia: The contemporary art museum in Madrid that houses one of my very favorite pieces: Guernica by Picasso. This was my second time in Madrid, my second time seeing that work, and the second time I was absolutely floored. I can’t get over it. The museo is worth it for Guernica alone; however, there’s a decent amount of other Picasso pieces and a good chunk of Miro, too.
  • Motha: This cafe pulled the best espresso we had in Madrid and definitely wins a design award. It has a small menu [on a chalkboard] that makes it clear it’s trying to mimic the hip New York cafes [Phila. cheese steaks, New York bagels, swanky salads], but it pulls it off well. Plus, the owner is the sweetest. They did a twist on the tostas con tomate on a whole-grain, rather than white, bread. Shaun claims it’s one of the best breads he had in Europe.
  • El Riconcito de Juan: A tapas [small plates] restaurant outside the city center that our friend Rob insisted we try. Thank god he did, because it was a delicious meal. Rueda wine [of course], tostas con setas y queso [bleu cheese and mushroom toasts], cecinas de leon [cured beef], and chopito [octopus done calamari-style], and great service. It ranks at the top of my list of meals, and not just because of the woman we saw bring two different men over the course of the night to the same table within ten minutes of each other.
  • Cafe Harina: A swanky little place off of Retiro park that gets a plus one for serving its bocadillos on an oat baguette rather than the white bread that would stalk me and my waistline for the remainder of the trip. Amazing outdoor seating along the Plaza de la Independencia. The sweets looked good, but we exercised self-control.
  • El Matador: A tiny bar we called the “red bar” for days until we found the name hidden in small print on the door. It really is red. Good sangria, and a great place to get Mahou beer along with tiny snacks. Sit at the bar so you can watch them slice the jamon while you sip. A few awesome locals even taught us how to pronounce said Spanish beer, Mahou [“mow”], that they serve on tap.

We couldn’t have picked a better city to kick off Tour de Europe. It was SUCH a good city we forgot to pace ourselves for the remaining nine. After one last espresso at Motha and well-wishes from its owner, we trudged through a protest about state budget cuts and barely made our train to Barcelona, equipped with new-found knowledge that old men are the people to follow.

* I guess post #1 would be a good time to bring up that I did, in fact, eat meat on this trip – at least for the first few cities. It was good, but I honestly didn’t love it, nor do I miss it now. At about halfway through I decided to see if I could get away with maintaining a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle for the rest of the trip, which I was able to do until Brussels. The mussels. THE MUSSELS.


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Categories: Travel, Wedding


Courtney grew up in Reading, PA, and has lived in New York City (where she earned a bachelor's degree at NYU), Prague, Philadelphia, and Charlottesville (where she received a J.D. from UVa Law). Courtney and her new husband will settle in Philadelphia following a six-week Euro-trip extravaganza in September of 2012. Courtney's interests include music, writing, criticism, fitness, travel, cooking, and sports. Please enjoy the blog. LinkedIn: Tumblr:


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