Spain Snapshots: A Saturday Portrait of Madrid

An eclectic mix of old and new, Madrid is a city that has slowly crept its way into my heart. At first, it was a necessary stop on my way to or from Chicago, but after so many visits, it feels like an old sweater, a city I can navigate just as well as Sevilla, a cosmopolitan exclamation point in my sometimes mundane expat experience.

After all, there is international cuisine in Madrid. And original version movies. And cupcakes.

I must admit that I’m something of a creature of habit in the Spanish capital, often just letting my feet take me down the streets I know and love. There’s the ice cream shop in Plaza Dos de Mayo, the sometimes English-language book carrying book shop off of Plaza Santa Ana, my favorite Thai place on Atocha. As my  trips to Madrid become more frequent, the list of places I love to visit grows longer.

When Kay suggested we meet in another rincón of the city for a midday beer, in Alonso Martínez, we grabbed our umbrellas and set off from T’s house outside of the M-30 ring road. At just one stop from Tribunal – the metro stop closest to the Novio’s childhood home – I was thrilled to find another stretch of street that I didn’t know.

 Calle Fernando VI is a hipster’s dream - barrio fruit shops and tobacco stands are sidled up next to cactus shops, swanky eateries and macaroon shops lie age-old bars. Hayley and I shared a heaping plate of tortilla for breakfast before we sat at the high chairs and shared tables at Lo Siguiente. A Madrid-brewed craft beer is on tap (spoiler: it taste just like madrileño favorite Mahou) and the exposed brick looked like the café could have been in Brooklyn.

Madrid is truly a Saturday city – bars are always spilling customers, and events all around town are full. There are always exhibitions, shows, honking cars, teenagers dressing up to go to discos, traffic, chaos and every other hallmark of my favorite cities.

Later that night, we walked towards Chueca from the Ópera metro, the streets beating with energy and flashing lights. My heart seemed to skip a beat as I bumped shoulders with strangers and breathed in pollution. Madrid always seems to give me a surge of energy and the courage to comerme el mundo.

Maybe it’s being away from Seville and caught up in the frenzy of movement, or just the way the city seems to glisten, even in the rain.

Have you ever been to Madrid? What do you love (or not) about it?

Seville Snapshots: The Sights of Alcalá de Henares

The Spain of my pre-Sevilla had one leading protagonist (perhaps loverboy?) : Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Spain’s most famous author is best known for his chronicle of Spanish knighthood, Don Quijote, Man of La Mancha, and he penned the book while living in Valladolid.

It seemed only fitting to make a day trip from Madrid to Alcalá de Henares, the city in which Cervantes was born and to which his name is commonly associated to pay an early homage to Día del Libro, a celebration of his death and contributions to the Spanish Language and its literature. My sister-in-law Nathàlia just finished up her degree at the famous Universidad de Alcalá, so I took the train early one Friday morning to Madrid and spent an afternoon wandering the old city.

The Universidad de Alcalá is considered to be one of the oldest universities in the world (and several of my blogging friends like Cassandra and James have earned masters degrees from the formerly named Complutense!). Taking a tour with a guide was the best way to learn about the long and interesting history of the campus.

Nath and I walked arm-in-arm through the winding streets of the city, gossiping while huddling together from a biting April day before dipping into a bar near the law faculty for a few tapas. Bars clustered around the university buildings typically serves free tapas with drinks, so we toasted to Nathàlia’s big move to Dublin and one more city to cross off of my list.

If you go: Alcalá de Henares is a quick cercanías trip from Madrid – it will take you 40 minutes on the C2 line from Atocha. Be sure to visit the Plaza de Cervantes, the Casa Natal de Cervantes (free, like tapas in many bars, too), and the university tour cost less than 5€ with a student card. 

Seville Snapshots: Colorful Windows in El Centro

Madrid and I have a complicated relationship: it took me a few years in Spain and several trips to discover what was beneath the flashy Gran Vía, to understand the pulse of the big city that houses Velázquez and Guernica. Then my friends showed me where to have the best Thai on Atocha and Indian in Lavapiés, the metro became second nature.

I’m a city girl. I love walking over grates and feeling the subway thunder under me (or above me back home in Chicago), anticipating the changes of the stoplights and the cacophony of car horns and radios.

But returning to Seville after ethnic food and cañas with friends in La Latina or Malasaña feels like the new me. The car horns are replaced by horse hooves in the city center, and the metro can’t take me as far as my feet or bike. The garritos in Madrid aren’t as lively as the flower-clad iron bars in Seville, and while the orange and stone buildings of La Capital are beautiful, I prefer the crumbling, whitewashed walls of Andalusian villages like Osuna or Arcos. To me, the hallmarks of Andalusian architecture help it stand out from Madrid’s busy streets and high-rises.

Te dejo, Madrid. It’s an inevitable stop for me while traveling or for work, and perhaps the Novio and I will end up there in a few years, but for now, yo soy del sur.

Have any photos of Spain or Seville to share? Sunshine and Siestas is looking for contributions from readers for the busy summer months ahead. Get in touch with me through Facebook with your ideas, photos o lo que sea!

Sleeping in Spain: A Guide to Accommodation (and 30€ Voucher Giveaway!)

If there’s one thing that’s weathering the Spanish economic downturn (no doubt tied to the weather itself), it’s the tourism industry. Accounting for nearly 11% of 2012’2 GDP, Spain constantly pushes the envelope within the tourism industry and has grown to be the second-largest in the world!

Where will you be pillow hugging tonight?

One aspect that sets Spain apart is its ample offering of accommodation and luxury brands. Iberostar, Melià and Bareclò hotels are considered some of the best brands in the world, and backpackers can find a haven nestled on cobblestone streets or just steps from a private beach. Still, in an ever-changing industry, there’s quite a bit of confusion as to each type of accommodation, and sometimes where to find it at an affordable price (don’t worry, there’s an entrance to a voucher at the end of this explanation!).

The view from the rooftop bar at Seville’s Hotel EME.

Hotels, like in any country of the world, are plentiful and of varying quality. There’s also been a recent surge of new hotels offering boutique accommodation, quirky decor and plenty of character. Spain’s tourism board has instituted a nationwide ranking, using the Q of quality and between 1 and 5 stars. Hotels are marker with a white H and the ranking below. High season is during the summer months, local festivals and Christmas time, so expected steeper prices and less availability.

The Spanish government now controls a network of historic buildings converted into luxury hotels, called paradores. From castles to convents, a night in the sumptuous lodging will typically run you more than an average hotel, but booking during the low season can ensure a one-of-a-kind experience in a historically important building.

Tiles on the outdoor terrace of the parador in Carmona, Andalusia.

Hostels and Albergues  are often considered a common type of backpacker accommodation, they are as varied as one could imagine. Typically, they can be found in city centers and offer beds in shared or private accommodation, shared bathrooms and common areas such as living rooms, rooftop terraces or kitchens. Most beds in a shared dorm are less than 20€ a night, making it an ideal place to meet other travelers through free events and walking tours.

A typical dorm room in hostels. This one is Grand Luxe in Seville.

Slightly nicer than hostels, pensions (pensiones) are more budget-friendly than hotels and are typically smaller, too. Most similar to boarding houses, one can expect loads of hospitality and often meals!

Thanks to Spain’s varied landscape, rural accommodations are becoming popular, particularly for families wishing to escape city life.

A bed at Almohalla 51, a luxury rural house in Archidona, Spain

Apartment Stays are also becoming a popular way to live like a local in larger cities. Available for days, weeks or months, a piso turístico will allow travelers the privacy of their own space while having access to amenities. Typical rates for a month can be between 500 – 800€, depending on the season.

Camping remains a cheap and popular option for staying in Spain, particularly on the coast. Rates are low, even during the summer season, and most offer on-site food and washing facilities.

No joke, I spent a night here in the Islas Cies.

I’ve been fortunate enough to stay in a tent on the pristine Playa de Rodas in Galicia, an ancient piso in front of the Basilica Santa María del Mar in Barcelona and a friendly pensión within earshot of the tingling churchbells of Santa María la Blanca in Seville. My head has rested in sumptuous hotels from Toledo to Valladolid, as well as old fortresses, which is why I’m excited to present you all with my newest giveaway.

I’m teaming up with Your Spain Hostel to offer a giveaway of a 30€ voucher to be used on Your Spain Hostel on any property in any city you’re interested in visiting in Spain. Simply enter by leaving your email address and telling me in the comments where you’d like to travel to in Spain should you win the voucher (extra points if you send a postcard!), or otherwise!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

From a bungalow on the beaches of Ibiza to a casa rural in Cangas de Onís, Your Spain Hostel is your one-stop destination for unique and quality accommodation around Spain. The site also provides discounts on tours, entrance to sites, food and even taxi pick-up! You can win extra entries by following both Your Spain Hostel and Sunshine and Siestas on Facebook and Twitter.

Happy travels for 2013! Where are you headed, and where do you like to rest your head at the end of a long day of tourism and tapas? Got any great recs?

 

Tapa Thursdays: The Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid

When I came to Spain to study, my first meal was far from memorable – a slop of mayonnaise, potatoes and nothing else discernable. I was convinced that I didn’t like Spanish food, nervous to move back and not whiddle away to nada.

Turns out, I like Spanish food, and a little too much.

I was invited on the Signature Tour of Madrid Food Tours, a relatively young business venture designed to showcase the Spanish capital’s culinary treats. Mercado de San Miguel was one of our locations along a route that included several stops and twice as many tapas.

The market was bustling, even at 11:30 in the morning. Stands ring the outside of the glass-plated hall, with high tables in the middle, making the market an idea place to mingle. Vendors sold everything from vermouth and Spanish wines, to pintxos and paellas that were ready to eat, to dried legumes and fresh seafood. A treat for both my eyes and my stomach, as we stopped to sample several foods along the way.

The market has a long history – from the times of Napoleon when it was an open-air market! The market then moved indoors, as an iron and glass structure was made to house it. In 2009, it reopened as a gastronomic capital, becoming popular with tourists who visit Madrid for its proximity to the historic center.

If you go: the Mercado de San Miguel is mere steps away from the Plaza Mayor and Calle Mayor in a square of the same name. From Sunday – Wednesday, vendors are open from 10am until midnight, with hours extended until 2am on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Go with an empty stomach for nibbling!

I was invited as the gracious guest of Madrid Food Tour, but all opinions expressed are my own.

Places with Encanto: Casa Hernanz Alpargateria

Calle de Toledo stretches from Madrid’s crowning Plaza Mayor all the way down a hill past La Latina’s churches and bars to the Glorieta de Toledo, where I first spent the night a weekend in Madrid. Alvaro and I hiked up and down that weekend as he took me to his favorite places for a caña-tapa.

I’ve spent countless days around the Plaza Mayor, snacking on bocadillos de calamares, browsing souvenir shops. In the quest to spend a few hours before the Novio came to meet me in Madrid, I climbed up Calle de Toledo, on my way to Mercado San Anton in Chueca. Remembering an article about shopping in Madrid, I was delighted to stumble across a Madrid institution, Casa Hernánz.

Wedged into a small workshop space just a block of Plaza Mayor, I peered in the windows showcasing the dozens of raffia-soled shoes, a popular folk style called espadrilles or alpargatas. Standing on my toes, I found a pair of beige ankle-strap sandals with a broad pink strap across the toes.

“You should take a picture to show at the mostrador,” the black-clad woman behind me said to her daughter. “This line is so long, you won’t even remember the style you want by the time you’re attended to. My company in line were two Americans with suitcases, a Crocs-wearing priest and an endless array of older madrileñas. I sighed and pulled out my smartphone, settling in for what was sure to be as long a wait as the bank.

The line inched along. To pass the time, I looked into the display windows immediately next to door which were lined with a rainbow of linos, the thin thread that used for the superior part of the shoe. The soles are made of esparto, a coarse, vegetable thread that is woven together and glued onto another thin rubber sole. The lino is then hand-sewn onto the sole, called the plantilla. This type of shoe is typical in many regional costumes, come in colors as diverse as salmon or turquoise, and are often made with ribbons that lace up the calf. I myself swear by them during the Feria, as they keep my feet cool during the long nights of dancing.

As I inched closer to the shop doors, the woman behind me tried sneaking in to sit on a long wooden bench opposite the counter, which stretched from one end of the workshop to the other. The priest put up his hand, a look of anger on his face. “Senora, I’ve been waiting in line all morning. Do. Not. Pass.”

She shrunk away, probably clutching a rosary, and cursed the priest. I couldn’t help but laugh. Now that I was within the door, straddling the hot street and the even hotter workshop, I was surrounded by shoes, fabrics and the plantillas, stuffed into bookshelves behind the counter. Some were bare, while others, separated according to size, already had the fabric attached. Shoes climbed up the wall, from finger-length baby sizes and on up. Even more styles than I’d seen outside were showcased in wire cases, and miles of different types of rope snaked across the counter. An old fashioned phone called in special orders por encargo and a woman attended to them, scribbling notes and measuring soles for whoever was on the other end of the line.

The priest was there for new alpargatas in a simple black style (good, throw those Crocs away, Padre!) and a white twisting cord for his robe. The two Americans opted for simple lace-up styles in royal blue, and I suddenly had Rosary Lady pushing me to the end of the counter.

The lady on the other side of the mostrador smirked at me. “Que querías?” I fumbled for the words, wishing I had snapped a shot of the sandals I’d been eyeing. I pointed to the baby shoes just behind me. “Um, my friend has a baby. He’s small. I want some of the shoes for him,” I managed.

“Well, how big is he? How old?” I can barely remember my own shoe size in Spanish, let alone Baby Jack’s, who I had never met. I got him Cubby Blue to make his parents happy and motioned to a white pair of strappy heels for my sister. When it came time to explain the ones I liked, she knew immediately and went to fetch them.

Phew.

In the end, my wide feet wouldn’t make it into the shoe, and I knew I couldn’t cram anything more into my bag. Between my sister’s tacones and little Jack’s shoes, I paid a mere 34€  - far less than the priest and his miles of cordón!

Casa Hernanz is located on Calle de Toledo, numbers 18-20, nestled just next to the sprawling Plaza Mayor. Hours are 9:00am -1:30pm and 4:30 – 8:00pm Monday through Friday, and Saturdays 10am – 2:00pm. Lines can get long, so be sure to arrive early. Products and services can be consulted on Casa Hernanz’s website.

I’m looking for ideas for two new categories for Sunshine and Siestas – Typical Espaneesh (think, the mid morning cafelito, carrito de compras or finquillo) and Places with Encanto. If you’ve got a place to suggest or are interested in guest blogging about it, leave me a message in the comments, or write me at sunshineandsiestas @ gmail . com.

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