Málaga: Spain’s Sleeping Giant of Tourism

There’s a lot of buzz around Málaga these days. With a newly christened port, a thriving arts scene and enough Spanish charm to bring native son Antonio Banderas back yearly, my neighbor city to the southeast is being touted as one of Spain’s up-and-coming tourist destinations.

Why Visit Malaga

As one of the most interesting destinations in southern Spain and a true Mediterranean getaway, Málaga deserves mention among Spain’s best spots for international travelers. It’s not a bursting metropolis like Madrid or a renowned party spot like Barcelona—but it’s full of the kind of visual delights and general comforts that make the south of Spain a desirable location in the first place. 

Perhaps the best thing about Málaga is that it’s situated closer to the sea than most might guess given that it’s a fairly large city. There are actually Mediterranean beaches within the city limits, though most tourists seeking beautiful coastline will likely opt to venture 15 or 20 miles beyond Málaga to some of the truly amazing beaches of Costa del Sol. Visit Costa Del Sol has a comprehensive guide to the beaches of the entire southern Spanish coastline, including options like La Malagueta, La Caleta, and San Andreas—all within very reasonable driving distance of the capital of the Costa. 

It’s also worth noting that Málaga is particularly accessible as Mediterranean cities go. The drive from Madrid only takes about five hours (and from Seville, just over two!), and coastal highways make it easy to reach Málaga from just about any Spanish city near the water—or from Portugal, for that matter.

archidona malaga pueblo

The city is also large enough to merit an international airport and sometimes attracts very favorable travel deals from outside of Spain. British Airways is currently listing flights to Málaga from the London area for less than £50 each way, perhaps capitalizing on the likely rush of students to travel following exams. And as the airline’s same page on Málaga travel notes, getting around is also easy once you’re in the city—a rental car gives you access to all of the beautiful surrounding areas and beaches with ease – as well as mountain towns and activities for outdoor enthusiasts.

But so far we’ve only covered Málaga’s surrounding beaches and how easy it can be to get there. The actually city itself is also filled with interesting perks for tourists. It’s one of the most fascinating visual and architectural areas in the whole country, thanks to its links to Moorish, medieval, and Roman culture. The Alcazaba palatial fortress is absolutely a must-visit attraction, and the Roman theater at city-center is also pretty fascinating. Really, Malaga is an interesting city to just look at, which might be one reason that there are multiple hiking trails in the hills and areas surrounding the city. 

a cooking day food collage
And finally, there’s the food! I’ve written about a day of culinary preparation in Malaga, and while that was a great experience, it only touches on the vibrant culinary culture that has sprung up in the city, revolving around all the traditional elements of Spanish cuisine: tapas, fresh fish, olives, citrus fruits and of course, fine Spanish wine!

Sardine month is approaching and I can’t get enough sweet vino de pasas, so between defying death on the Caminito del Rey and the beckon of the beach, I may be finding myself close to home, savoring the city’s renewed experiences for a traveler.

Have you ever been to Málaga? What do you like or recommend visiting in the capital of the Costa del Sol?

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Madrid

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

spain collage

Admittedly, Madrid and I did not get off to a very good start. I’d already been in Valladolid on a study abroad program for a month, and we were rushed around the capital for ten hours – we visited Plaza de España, Plaza de la Villa, Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol and the Prado Museum, and then were given a mere free hour to see something else. I found the capital uninviting, lifeless and a bit dull (Tens-Years-Later Me is kind of mad that I could have cared less about seeing the Prado because I just wanted an ice cream cone).

Over time, Madrid became more than just a stopover between flights for me – I spend more time in La Capital than elsewhere in Spain, have friends and family there and find the city to be the injection of urban life that I need every so often. 

Name: La Comunidad de Madrid

Population: The urban area of Madrid itself is the third largest urban area in Europe, with over 6.3 million inhabitants. 



Provinces: Just one, with the administrative capital located in the Spanish capital.

When: 3rd of 17, June 2005

About La Comunidad de Madrid: Located smack dab in the middle of the country, the autonomous community named for its capital city is one of Spain’s most illustrious, and usually a place where visitors hit.

Before the mid 16th Century, the city of Madrid was little more than a speck on the map and a town principally known in the farming trade. Felipe II (Spain’s greatest monarch because of his choice of haberdashery) moved the capital from Valladolid and made Madrid the center of his extensive empire, as the area had long been a favorite for nobles and was geographically sound.

Long before becoming Spain’s most important city, Madrid had inhabitants dating from Lower Paleolithic and saw a surge in population during the Roman Empire when it formed part of Lusitania. Populaton and importance fell once the Visigoths moved in.

El Oso y el Madroño

Because of its location, sandwiched between the Castilles and Al-Andalus, the region saw power change hands between Christians and Moors – in fact, the name comes from Arabic Mayrit and originated around the 9th Century, forming part of Al-Andalus until the 1083 reconquest allocated it to the Castillian kingdom, where it had territorial independence.

Madrid began to grow after its appointment as the seat of the Kingdom of Spain, and in the 1830s, a province of the same name was founded, shifting the political strong arm from Toledo. This act eventually led to a dispute between the pre-establish autonomous community of Castilla-La Mancha and its northern neighbor, and the Comunidad de Madrid was, in fact, the last of 17 to be created.

Must-sees: Dios, what shouldn’t you see in Madrid? It seriously has something for everyone and is Spain’s pulsing, passionate heart.

Within the capital, there are an abundance of world-class museums – the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen make up the so-called ‘Art Circle’ – as well as historical sites like the Royal Palace and adjacent Almudena cathedral. Spain’s version of Broadway is here. The government sets up shop in Moncloa. Every national highway passes through the Puerta del Sol. The Buen Retiro park is captivating at any change of the season.

mercado de san miguel pintxos madrid

Dining in Madrid is an absolute treat as well, from its typical taverns serving up fried calamari and grilled pig’s ear to swanky gastrobars and fusion restaurants. In Madrid, I get all of my favorite international cuisines, like Thai and Korean, and it’s a place where Old Man bars are the real deal – and vivan las tapas gratis (I don’t care if they’re day-old microwaved bravas – free is free!) If you’re new to Spanish gastronomy, consider a tapas tour or sip a vermouth while feasting your eyes and tummy on a food market.

Toledo Spain

If you’re able, consider a day trip out of the capital. Segovia and Toledo, two medieval cities, are on the cercanías commuter line, as is Alcalá de Henares, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and birthplace of Spain’s own Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes. You can also check out delightfully charming towns like Chinchón or Buitrago, contemplate Spain’s Golden age at El Escorial or reflect on its darkest days at Valle de Los Caídos. If sport is more your thing, the comunidad has loads of hiking trails and a ski resort.

My take:  While most who have made Spain their home claim that there’s far more to Iberia than its capital (I myself am of this camp), there’s no sense in skipping it. Madrid has everything – culture, art, gastronomy, nightlife and a handful of day trips. If Puerta del Sol is Kilometer 0, the rest of Spain seems to spiral around it.

metro of Madrid

I’ve probably spent more than two months in Madrid collectively and in every season. After exhausting all of the touristic options, one of my favorite things to do is pick a neighborhood and spend time popping in and out of shops, sampling treats at bakeries and sitting in sun-filled cafés.

Madrid always seems to embrace me when I’m there, even if it’s just a quick trip to El Diamante for a bocadillo de calamares before hopping a plane back home. I know Malasaña and La Latina as well as I know Barrio Santa Cruz, can name Metro stops and their corresponding colored lines and beeline right to my favorite international food joints. Madrid is an old, familiar pair of blue jeans for me. But the trendy kind.

Outside of Seville, it’s probably the only place I’d willingly move to in a heartbeat.

Have you ever traveled around the Madrid province? What do you like (or not) about it?

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León | Castilla-La Mancha | Cataluña | Extremadura | Galicia | La Rioja

Tapa Thursday: Vermouth

vermouth in Spain

My biggest ambition in life is to become a Spanish abuelo. Who wouldn’t want to spend the days leisurely reading a paper in the bar down the street, sucking down a vermouth while looking adorable? I’ve already got the vermouth obsession down, after all.

My first taste of vermouth was actually on a food tour. I didn’t think I’d learn anything I didn’t know about Spanish cuisine, but an early stop at the Mercado de San Miguel’s vermouth bar proved that I had a lot to learn, and a new favorite beverage.

Vermouth Bar Madrid

Vermouth is making a comeback hard in Spain, much like G&Ts not so long ago. Pop-up bars called vermuterías, tastings and pairings and even the Adrià brothers of El Bullí fame are spearheading a sort of vermouth renaissance. While this beverage never really disappeared, it’s become the drink of choice for hipsters and for me anytime I’m in Madrid or Barcelona.

On my last trip to the Ciudad Condal, I happened upon a small bottega, or local watering hole, where vermouth was poured from a tap in the wall. No frills, no sky-high price tag, despite being a mere 150 meters from tourist hell. The girl behind the bar filled my glass, shoved a few mussels and a toothpick my way and charged me 1,85€. Other patrons trickled in, drinking the sweet wine by the glass or simply asking the bar keep to fill up old water bottles. 

The Novio even came back from the capital with a gift from my soon-to-be familia política recently: a bottle of vermouth with its flavorless soda water.

Vermouth at Cafe Comercial

What it is:  Fortified wine has been drunk for more than three millennia, often for medicinal purposes. Its name comes from the German ‘wermut,’ or wormwood,  

At its most basic, vermouth is a young fortified wine brewed with aromatic herbs like cardamom and and cinnamon and occasionally its namesake, wormwood. Sweet varieties also contain a fair amount of sugar – around 20% – whereas dry vermouths contain less than 4%.

Goes great with: Vermouths come in sweet and dry varieties, but salty snacks like potato chips, cured meats, olives or mussels in azabeche sauce are tart and will offset the sweetness or bring out the dry flavors. Typically, vermouth is consumed much like fino sherry wine in the South – as a before-meal drink, and most often at the weekend.

Where to find it in Seville: I have yet to find vermouth anywhere but the grocery store, and even then, it’s commercially branded martini mixes. I’ve yet to try smaller specialty shops, though sherry seems to be preferred to vermouth in these parts. You can find it for sale in 2.5 liter jugs at Bodegas Salado in nearby Umbrete for 7,20€.

 Are you a vermouth drinker? Any preferred watering holes, whether in Seville or further afield?

Is a Madrid Holiday Right for You?

You’re destined for Madrid – a city that’s vibrant but demure, traditional but avant-garde, a big city with a small-town feel.

Should I travel to Madrid

Ok, not that small, but per tradition, many madrileños stick to their neighborhood, making Europe’s third largest city feel like an overgrown village.

Madrid is a city that’s got one foot firmly planted in the past and the other, striding forward in the future. From its humble beginnings as a farming town to a bustling capital, this city of more than three million is Spain’s financial and cultural hub, boasting world-class museums, stellar nightlife and plenty of Spanish charm.

Madrid Plaza Mayor

Madrid truly is a haven for just about anyone – if you flipar for art, Madrid has three of Spain’s most celebrated museums. The Reina Sofia is an enormous contemporary arts collection, including Picassos’s celebrate “Guernica.” The Museo Nacional del Prado boasts fine art from Velázquez, Murillo, el Greco and Goya – and those are just the Spanish painters. The private collection at the Thyssen is also noteworthy, and the three make up the Triángulo del Arte perched on the east side of the center. Then add the dozens of playhouses, a world-class symphony and flamenco shows, and you’ll have an art hangover.

If gastronomy is more your flavor, La Capital has plenty of them to choose from. Visitors absolutely must make a stop to the Mercado de San Miguel for an introduction to the art of tapas, washed down with a glass of wine. The city has several fine dining establishments, as well as hole-in-the-wall favorites. The unofficial snack? A fried calamari sandwich from El Brillante, situated just in front of the Atocha train station.

tapas at mercado de san miguel

Shopping lovers should head to Gran Vía or Calle Fuencarral for specialty shops, or catch the el Rastro flea market on Sunday mornings in the La Latina neighborhood. History buffs will love Madrid’s traces of the Hapsburg and Borbón dynasties, its Egyptian temple and the sprawling palace.

Madrid is also a great landing point for visiting other points of Spain and other parts of Europe – all of Spain’s major highways begin and are measured from Puerta del Sol, which also hosts an enormous party on New Year’s.

Madrid Typical Bars

My advice? Ditch your map and choose a neighborhood. Stop into wood-paneled bars for a caña, or small draft beer, a slice of fluffy potato omelet and a taste of Old Madrid. Café Comercial, despite rubbing elbows with some of the city’s hippest bars and boutiques in Malasaña, is a great spot for jazz, great service and a sweet vermouth, a gato’s drink of choice. Or, head to trendy Alonso Martínez and window shop. Take a stroll in the Buen Retiro park and admire Gran Vía when dusk falls before dancing in a disco until six in the morning and ending the night with churros and chocolate at the city’s most loved churros place, Chocolatería San Gines.

I have to admit that Madrid and I got off to a rocky start – I found it a bit too sprawling, too presumptuous and too full of itself. Local gatos, as they’re called, steered clear of tourist-packed Sol and the streets spiraling out from it, and it was a sticky hot day.

metro of Madrid

But once I’d moved to Spain, Madrid became a frequent stopover on flights back home to Chicago. I take the train up for conferences and concerts, to visit friends and new babies. Slowly, the madrileño vibe oozed into my heart, and it’s now one of my favorite weekend destinations in Spain. 

Should you travel to Madrid? Sin duda – it’s one of Europe’s most complete destinations.

Please check out this quiz to see if going to Madrid is right for you. Wyndham Resorts that are in Spain could be great for your next holiday vacation to get away from the normal and visit the extraordinary.

This post was brought to you by Wyndham Resorts, but my MAD love for Madrid is all my own.

I’ll be spending quite a few weekends in Madrid as the Novio works there for a few months. I’m looking for hidden gems to add to my list of favorites, so leave me comments below por fi!

Love and the Art of Flamenco Guitar Making: A Visit to the Guitarrería Mariano Conde

The sawdust on the floor gave it away: this was actually a living, breathing sort of workshop, not one where the workers are tucked away, out of sight for appearances. My ears perked with each twang of the six strings of a flamenco guitar. There was a few hollow knocks, followed by a bit of sanding.

That’s where the sawdust came from. 

Growing up, I played the clarinet and learned music theory while perfecting trills, scales and my embouchure. Upon taking a flamenco course in Seville, I discovered that I shared the innate rhythm bailaores possess, the internal metronome that allows them to recognize palos and styles, then spiral into dance. My ears picked up the 2/4 and 3/4 counts and set my feet into motion with a firm golpe using my whole foot.

There are three big parts to flamenco – el cante, or the song; el baile, or dance;  el toque, or the guitar. The guitar is what accompanies  the cante, and sets rhythm to the bailaor. 

To learn about how flamenco guitars are crafted, Tatiana took us to the Mecca of guitarras flamencasGuitarrería Mariano Conde. Tucked away from the Ópera area on Calle de la Amnistía, this workshop has existed since 1915 and is operated by a third-generation craftsman and his son. 

Mariano hardly looked up from his work as he welcomed us into the bi-lever taller. He was sanding down the intoxicating curves of a flamenco guitar, crafted from cyprus and a century-old design. There was a muttered holaaaaa bienvenidas and a quick dos besos for Tatiana as she led us downstairs into the dimly lit belly of the shop. 

The tools of the trade stood against the wall – picks, sanders, measuring sticks, protractors. Nearly two dozen guitars in various stages of development, each showing just a fraction of the work that goes into crafting a lightweight flamenco guitar. In all, about 300 hours of labor go into producing a single instrument.

Mariano descended the stairs, carrying a soundboard over his shoulder. Made of thin strips of cypress or spruce, this part of the guitar provides for the reverberation and the sound that is transmitted when strings get plucked. Once this part of the guitar has been crafted, the sideboards are affixed, followed by the fretboard, or neck.

Just as a painter signs the bottom of a masterpiece, Mariano’s signature comes by way of the carving on the top of each fretboard – his is a minute, gently sloping “M.”

Many of the guitars we saw were in their final stages of production – applying coat after coat of French shellac, drying, or ready for the strings and bridge to be attached. Around the sound hole, Mariano adds another signature of his workshop, one which is solely dedicated to flamenco guitars: the rosette.

Made from carved and dyed pieces of wood, the color and pattern of rosettes changes regularly, and his current design pays homage to the first generation of flamenco guitar craftsmen in his family. The costs begin at 2800€ and rise steadily from there, depending on the wood used and hours of craftsmanship.

Unless, of course, it’s a Sonata.

A list of about 30 names of guitars, named for the poems that accompany the tag, are specially crafted for famous names in flamenco (including the recently deceased flamenco great, Paco de Lucía) and specialty buyers, including musicians who do not perform in the flamenco style. The Sonata guitars are pricey, but done solely by el maestro himself.

Mariano himself was hospitable, answering my questions between teens looking to replace nylon strings and other curious buyers who walked into the shop.

To say the Conde Hermanos, sobrinos de Domingo Esteso, are household names when it comes to flamenco guitars, would be an understatement. I’m not a flamenco aficionado, but can appreciate the discipline and attention it take to perfect an art, be it el cante or el baile or el toque.

The Art of Making, Alma Flamenca from Deep Green Sea on Vimeo.

I visited Guitarrería Mariano Conde as part of the ‘Origins of Flamenco’ tour with OGO Tours. Check out their website for loads more, from food to walking tours to excursions. Javier and Tatiana graciously invited my friend and I free of charge, but all opinions are my own.

If you’re interested in more Madrid and flamenco: My Perfect Madrileño Day | Mercado San Miguel | Where to see flamenco in Seville

Do you like Flamenco?

Tapa Thursdays: Yakitoro, a Chicote-run Dining Concept in Madrid

Faced with a lunchtime dilemma in Madrid, I was thrilled to get a message at the very moment my stomach rumbled from my friend Lauren, a self- and media-professed foodie and an insider in the Spanish capital chow scene (jo, she’s one of the co-founders of Madrid Food tour. When I say expert, I mean it!).

Though we were trying to find a time for a drink, I had to ask: We’re in Chueca. Where do we eat?

Lauren offered up a few choices, but we were closest to Yakitoro, Alberto Chicote’s newest restaurant. Much like Anthony Bourdain or Gordon Ramsey, this madrileño chef is riding a wave of immense popularity after appearances on Spain’s version of Top Chef and Nightmare in the Kitchen, called Pesadilla en la Cocina.

Welp, our minds were made up on that rainy Saturday afternoon – we’d be wannabe foodies and celebrity stalkers. I came into Yakitoro with high expectations and left slightly let down, to be honest.

Let me start with the good stuff:


Yakitoro is a Japanese-Spanish fusion restaurant (with food reminiscent of Nazca in Seville). The kitchen prep area is behind a large glass wall, and you can imagine my surprise when I saw Chicote himself making the food. The first question we were asked upon sitting down was Chopsticks or a fork?

I’ve been mildly obsessed with concept restaurants since a sixth grade project where we were asked to plan a restaurant, from decor to menu to price to sustainability. Ours? OJ’s Cyber Cafe, where the 1995 trial took center stage in our menu and chalk outlines were the hallmarks. Morbid.

The tapas – an eclectic mix of vegetarian, fish and meat dishes – are then cooked over a fogón, or a large stove, in the middle of the restaurant in plain view. Polished wooden tables spiral out from the central stove, meaning patrons are grouped together, sharing a cooler in the middle with bottles of beer and chilled wine.

We were sat at a low, steel bar next to the window and filled with succulent plants. The servers wear flight suits that reminded me of the Communist theatre I went to in Harbin, China.


There were easily 50 dishes on the menu, glued to wooden boards, and a small but thoughtful wine list. We chose an entire bottle of rosé to detox from copious amounts of tinto during the week and I ordered for Laura.

The sardines in tempura with a sweet chile sauce were up first. Laura was put off by having to peel them, so I dug in. Those that were cooked were exquisite, and the sweet ñora sauce was an excellent touch, though a few of the fish came undercooked.

I’m not a mushroom fan, though Laura raved about the cooked-to-perfection shiitake mushrooms with dried mackerel shavings and a garlic sauce. The smoky taste of the dried mackerel added depth and distracted me from the texture of the mushroom. The portion was rather generous, as well.

The grilled shallots – a signature dish in Catalonia – were browned on the fogón and crowned with tangy romescu sauce, were a nice break between our heavier dishes. They came speared on a brochette, thus the basis of Yakitoro’s menu.

We chose two meat dishes to finish off. The chicken in tempura was delicious, particularly with the thick and sweet Pedro Ximinez reduction for dipping.

The braised short ribs were cooked to order, glazed with a sweet sauce and a perfect ending to the meal. 

The tapas, while small, were an excellent price – from 2,50€ and up – and we ordered an entire bottle of wine and five tapas for well under 40€.


I mistakenly thought that the less-than-desirable service at Yakitoro was due to it being a brand-new venue – pues no, Yakitoro has been open for business since June. When we arrived just after 3pm, the place was packed, so we got our names on a list for an hour later. 

The kitchen didn’t close midday, which is more common in Madrid than in Seville, but the restaurant wasn’t nearly as buzzing when we arrived at 4:30. We were sat right away, though it took nearly ten minutes to get a menu and another ten for our bottle of wine to be opened. Thankfully, we weren’t in a hurry and enjoyed the sobremesa on Laura’s last day in Spain.

As we left nearly 90 minutes later after a long lunch, Chicote was standing at the door and said goodbye. I fibbed a little and told him the sardines were exquisite – they would have been, had they been cooked for a minute longer. Every restaurant has its kinks to work out (haven’t you seen his show?!), so I’d be willing to try Yakitoro in the future.

Yakitoro is located on Calle Reina, 41, just steps off of Gran Vía in the Chueca neighborhood. The kitchen is open daily from 1pm until midnight, and reservation are accepted. You can check out their website for more.

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