Back in December, my dearest friend Aaron and I discovered an awesome airfare deal on Delta, round-trip from almost any major city in the US to several cites in Europe for $405! As I live in Chicago and he lives in San Francisco, this was a great chance for us to travel together without one or the other racking up extra costs. Some good friends of ours had moved to Spain about a year ago, so we decided on Madrid and figured that late April would be a fine time to visit. We coordinated our flights so that we would layover in the same cities (NYC on the outbound and ATL on the return) and fly together on the transatlantic portions. We are both Gold Medallions on Delta, which comes with the nice perk of free access to the SkyClubs when traveling internationally, so we were able to enjoy those layovers in style!
Part 1: Magical Madrid
We arrived at Madrid-Barajas Airport around 9 am after our red-eye flight and had to make our way into the city to our AirBnB. The original plan was to purchase Spanish SIM cards in the airport, but there turned out to be only one vendor on site and he had the audacity to quote us a price of €70 for a 2GB SIM! Aaron was able to get on the airport Wifi with his computer to locate a Vodaphone shop near our Metro stop, so we decided to make our way into the city and find a better deal. The Metro ticket machines were a little tricky, but once we figured those out, it was smooth sailing to our destination in the Malasaña neighborhood. We couldn’t quite figure out which way was which once we got there and thus couldn’t find the target Vodaphone store, but after a bit of wandering, I spotted a sign in a bodega helpfully stating “PREPAID SIMS SOLD HERE.” The shop guy couldn’t have been nicer and we walked out a few minutes later having paid €10 apiece for our 2GB SIM cards. So, travelers to MAD, caveat emptor!!
Reconnected to the world wide web, Google maps led us though charmingly twisty cobbled streets and past sunlit plazas to our temporary home, hosted by the delightful Chema (and his little pup Amuka). His English was not much better than our Spanish (in fact, we might have had the advantage on this one) but with a little assist from Google Translate, we were able to understand each other just fine. He gave us a paper map of the city and a quick run-down on all sorts of things to see and do in the area. Knowing that we needed to keep moving or risk sleeping the day away, we changed clothes and headed right back out!
Right around the corner from our place was a lovely outdoor cafe called El Balcón de Malasaña and we stopped off for a beer and some tapas in the sunshine. (We would end up returning to this place over and over for the rest of our time in Madrid). From there, a whirlwind “check-the-boxes” tour of the west side! We walked many miles and saw (mostly the outsides) of many things: Plaza de España! Templo de Debod! Jardines del Cabo Noval! Palacio Real!
We then returned to El Balcón and rewarded ourselves with our first (but certainly not last) tinto de verano of the trip. It’s basically a red wine spritzer, but better. Just trust me. At this point, Aaron was dozing off in his chair, so we decided on a little power nap. Spanish dinner hour doesn’t being until 10 pm or so, so we definitely needed it. We dined that night at Cabreira, where we got a nice bottle of wine and an assortment of meats and cheeses at a very reasonable price (thank the lord for $/€ near-parity, which made things much more affordable than the might otherwise have been). For a post-dinner nightcap, we moved on to El 2D, where we were befriended by a rather intoxicated young man named Borja (it was his birthday!) who tried to convince us he was from the US, and also taught us about levels of law enforcement in the city. The bar owner got increasingly annoyed with him and his rowdy group of friends and before long, called the cops. The local cops showed up and talked to Borjas et al., asked them to settle down, etc., then left. This is apparently a totally regular occurrence, and Borjas dismissed it, saying “Is no problem. Is only first police.” I guess it isn’t serious until things escalate up to the Policia Nacional (second police). We never got to find out, as Borja’s gang moved on and we decided to pack it in around 2:30 am.
In the morning, we brunched at Ojala, an adorable spot just across the plaza from El Balcón. The night before, we had briefly crossed paths with departing fellow AirBnB-ers who gave us some good recommendations, and this turned out to be one of the best! Trying to actually get a table was a bit of a challenge (our coveted window table was snatched out from under us by some British hussies at the last second) but we did it, narrowly avoiding being seated “abajo” which we later discovered was a weird basement beach bar, with a sand-covered floor and cushions on the ground in lieu of chairs.
Post-brunch, we headed on foot across town to the Museo Nacional del Prado. You should be aware that some people are super gung-ho about museums. You should further be aware that Aaron and I are not those people, but we figured we had to do some cultured stuff to justify all the food and beverage activities that were our primary focus, and this place is pretty famous. We agreed we’d give it an hour and call it good. So, you can imagine our surprise to find ourselves still there 3 hours later and having the best time! Turns out, when touring a museum with your snarky brain-twin, you can turn the whole thing into a kind of MST3000 experience with a running commentary (punctuated by Aaron’s secret attempts to take forbidden photos to post on SnapChat). There are some really incredible works there (don’t miss the Bosch), and some really ridiculous ones as well. Who knew there could be so many iterations of of the Virgen de la Leche? This was also our first encounter with Reina Juana la Loca (Queen Joanna the Mad; 1475-1555), who’s life demonstrates one of the earliest attempts at gaslighting a woman who dared to buck convention.
We finally pried ourselves away from el museo and headed to try out another recommendation, the rooftop bar at Circulo de Bellas Artes, but there was a ridiculous line down the block just to get on the elevator and we decided it wasn’t worth it and instead we wandered back up toward Malasaña through the gayborhood of Chueca and decided to pop in for the (now) usual bebida y tapita.
Further along the way, we stumbled across the most glorious looking ham store either of us had ever seen, Viandes de Salamanca. We weren’t hungry then, but vowed to come back. Sadly, this did not come to pass. We also passed a store calld Fnac, which we would use in place of the word “snack” for the rest of the trip to our continued great amusement.
For dinner that night, we had planned to go to La Sanabresa back over near the Prado, where we had originally intended to go for lunch before the day got away from us. Basically, all restaurants in Spain are closed from 4-8 pm for siesta, so it’s easy to miss your window. It was a bit too early to head down for dinner and all the tables at El Balcón were full, so we went around a different corner and found La Dominga, a truly magical little place where we were able to get a seat in the window (no Ladies of London around to swipe it out from under us this time!).
After few very nicely priced glasses of cava, we decided to try the special, €3,50 for vermouth and a pinxho (kind of a little crostini thing). We were a bit apprehensive, only being familiar with the kind crap vermouth that is generally available in the US (and then only really used as a minor ingredient in various cocktails), but we saw their vermouth came out of a tap and decided to give it a go. What a revelation! If you’ve spent some time in Spain and missed trying Spanish vermouth on the rocks, you have sorely missed out, I’m afraid. We kept trying new things, ordered various items off the chalkboard menu (highlight: a cierdo (deer) stew) and before we knew it, we’d blazed past the dinner hour altogether. Totally worth it.
Part 2: Superb Seville
In the morning, it was time to move on to Seville! Even though it would have saved us a little money to fly, it saved us a lot of hassle to take the Renfe bullet train south. A very pleasant 3 hour ride later, we were there and got a cab to our friend JulieAnne’s apartment. She and her husband Adam moved to Sevilla a little over a year ago to realize their dream of opening a craft beer bar, which had launched just a few weeks before we arrived. We dropped our bags and headed out for a little mini-tour of the back streets on our way to check out Bier Kraft, stopping at a few of her local spots and meeting some very interesting people (including one guy who kept breaking into song and was rather obsessed with the city of Chicago).
Bier Kraft is absolutely beautiful, they have done an incredible job and I highly recommend everyone visit when you are in Sevilla. It’s a bit of an unknown quantity for the locals, who have only ever known the existence of one beer (the ubiquitous Cruzcampo, which a little googling revealed is actually owned by Heineken), so persuading the populace to spend a little more for a vastly superior selection is an ongoing challenge. Word is definitely spreading though, and they had a steady stream of business every time we were there over the next several days.
Good friends that we are, Aaron and I also graciously agreed to eat literally everything on the menu and give our feedback. We’re such givers! (everything was excellent, btw, but particularly recommend the pretzel with hot mustard and the roast beef bagel). We made all sorts of new friends, including fellow Chicagoan expats Angela and Ryan, who are living the dream, running an online business and living all over the world. We shut down the bar, then headed back to the apartment where we stayed up talking and laughing until waaayyyyy too late/early.
Bier Kraft is closed on Mondays, so Aaron and I snuck out to let JA and A enjoy a sleep-in on their one day off. We wanted to tour the Alcazar, but the crazy line deterred us and we decided to do it another day when we could get advance tickets. We also decided to pass on the admission charge to go inside the Cathedral and instead just explored around the outside. Before long, our wanderings led us in to the shopping district — where we naturally had to stop for a fnac – and the obligatory trip to Zara. We met up with JA then headed over to El Corte Ingles to check out the view.
From there, it was over to Plaza de España, which was amazingly empty so close to sunset. That night, JA & A took us to Depikofino (one of their favorite local spots) for dinner and it certainly felt like we ate the entire menu there as well! After dinner, we went home and again ended up hanging out until the wee hours of the morning (finally causing a downstairs neighbor to shout ‘BE QUIET’).
The next day was supposed to be our big day trip across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier, Morocco. However, despite having booked (and pre-paid) well in advance and received multiple confirming emails from Viator, when we arrived at the ungodly early appointed pick-up, nobody ever arrived to collect us. Repeated calls and emails to the local tour operator went unanswered, so after about 40 minutes, we gave up and set out to find something else to do for the day. (We heard later from one of the girls at Bier Kraft that her mother, who lives down on the coast, said conditions across the Strait were terrible that day, so perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. I also contacted Viator upon our return and they were very accommodating and apologetic, speedily processing my refund, so no harm done in the end).
We swung by the Alcazar again to see if the early bird line might be shorter, but if anything, it was even worse. From there our wanderings took us to the Torre del Oro where we got some great city views and ended up learning a lot about Sevillian history! (We ran in to another reference to our friend Reina Juana la Loca on one of the informational plaques, though now I can’t remember what it was and Wikipedia is not helping). Anyway, well worth the €3 or whatever it cost us. From there, we took a long walk along the riverfront, eventually ending up at the Museo del Arqueológico. Much like our trip to the Prado, we thought we’d just pop in for a look around and ended up staying hours and hours. They had lots of awesome stuff, including tons of Roman statuary, and it was a bargain at €1,50 pp!
Our original plan had been to return to Madrid via Granada, but ultimately it made more sense to leave most of our stuff at the apartment in Sevilla and do an overnight round-trip instead. Our train wasn’t until the afternoon, so we finally got our act together and bought advance tickets for the Alcazar that morning. Definitely glad we didn’t miss it! Originally constructed by the Moors starting sometime in the 1st Century AD, it has served as a royal palace for centuries and the upper levels are still used by the royal family. The gardens are fantastic and you could get lost in them for hours. There is also a massive variety of tile work throughout the whole place (I think Aaron took somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 million photos of tile patterns. Give or take). We stayed there as long as we could before running across town to do some last minute shopping (squeaking in just before the store closed for siesta), and grabbing a quick lunch of tapas and tinto de verano at Bar Alfalfa.
Part 3: Gracious Granada
And then back aboard the Renfe, for what should have been a relaxing ride to our destination! Except for the part where it turned out that the train tracks were closed for construction halfway through the journey and we all had to disembark and board a bus. This came as quite an unwelcome surprise, and in the shuffle, Aaron sacrificed his headphones to the travel gods by leaving them in the seatback pocket. Somewhat worse for the wear, we made it to Granada and decided to find our way to the next Air BnB on foot. Downtown Granada is very cute, but essentially looks very much like Anycity, Europe. As you make your way up and into the steep, narrow streets that climb the mountain, though, it takes on a whole new character. Our path ultimately took us onto solely pedestrian paths and stairways that snaked back and forth up the hill, including a stroll up and through Little Morocco. (Can I just take a quick moment and give another shout-out to Google Maps. How did anyone ever find their way to anywhere before? Including me?)
Our AirBnB turned out to be an adorable little place about as close to the top of the mountain as one could get. Our hosts were Jose Manuel (a half-Spanish American guy) and his wife and baby girl. They could not have been nicer or more welcoming and gave us lots of great suggestions for tapas bars to try. (Initially, Jose Manuel was all gung-ho to head out on the town with us, but apparently his 8 month pregnant wife had other ideas.) We started our evening out my climbing up the last bit of the mountain to the Mirador de San Nicolas, a public plaza that has incredible sunset views of the Alhambra. The plaza was pretty crowded, so we decided it would be worth the premium drink prices to grab a drink at on one the little cafes down below where we could get a front row seat. Totally worth it! Extra glad we got a great view in light of subsequent disappointing events :0( More on that later.
Once the sun went down, we started in on Jose’s list of local taperias. One of the neat quirks of Granada is that most of the bars/restaurants serve real, substantial tapas that are complimentary with your drink. As such, you can totally cobble together a progressive dinner without ever actually having to purchase any food. We started at La Tabernilla del Darro, which overlooks the river and has the most adorable little tables in the window (are you sensing a theme here?) They had some great vermouth, accompanied by a duck paté. From there, we moved on to Los Manolos, where our wine came with a big plate of some kind of meatballs and sauce which was really hearty and filling! Our last stop was Bodegas Castañeda, where we ended up closing the place down (despite the fact we needed to get up stupid early the next day). There we got some little pinxhos and later a scoop of some sort of chicken salad along with more magical vermouth.
So, the main attraction in Granada is The Alhambra, a massive Moorish palace on the hilltop above the city. We did not find out until it was too late that advance tickets were selling out 1-2 months in advance, so we were left with no choice but to get up well before sunrise to hike up the hill and get in line with the hope of scoring one of the few spots available for people who failed to plan ahead. We had read all sorts of strategy articles about how to maximize our chances, and felt pretty confident when we arrived around 6:30 am (the ticket office opens at 8). I stood in the regular line and Aaron joined the credit card line. It was quite cold and about 20 minutes in, a steady drizzle started up. I was lucky to have ended up near one of the few umbrellas set up over the queue and huddled under there with my fellow poor unfortunate souls. The time passed slowly, but just as the rain was easing up, we started to see some signs of life around the ticket windows. We were moving! Apparently there is a ticker up near the front that shows how many tickets are remaining as the line moves, but I couldn’t see it from my spot and since we had split up, there was no one to hold my place while I checked. About 20 minutes in, an announcement came over the loudspeaker that there were no more tickets to the Palace available, only for the gardens. This was disappointing, but still we pressed on! Every once in a while I’d overhear someone else come back and update how many were left. I was about 10 people from the front when I heard there were 18 more spots, Aaron was also messaging me saying he was very close to the front. We inched forward and suddenly I was being waved toward a ticket window! We were going to get in! And literally, right as I stepped up to the counter, the announcer came over the PA again saying there were no more tickets available for that day. So close, but not close enough.
The drizzle started up again as we began trudging down the hill, dejected. It soon started pouring rain and we managed to duck inside a café just in time. This made us feel a little better, as wandering the gardens in the rain wouldn’t have been that fun, probably. Once the rain let up, we headed back to Jose’s place to share our tale of woe (and take a little nap). Thereafter, suitably refreshed, we sent out for a wander to see what we could see before our afternoon train. Just down the hill, we came across a little museum devoted to the Spanish Inquisition and decided, why not? Once again, two non-museum people found themselves spending hours in a museum! The replicas of various torture devices were the primary draw, of course, but we also learned all sorts of interesting things we never knew about, particularly how Jewish people were dealt with during that time period (spoiler – it wasn’t very nicely). Also (surprise!) confiscating the property of “heretics” was a YUUUUGE moneymaker for the crown and in all likelihood, that stolen property is what paid for Columbus’ exploratory voyages to “discover” this very nation of ours. So, that’s awesome.
With our last few hours, we revisited a couple of our faves from the previous night, wrapping up with one last lovely vermouth at Tabernilla del Darro, squeaking in just under the wire before siesta started. It was sad to have spent so little time in Granada, but since we failed in our primary mission, now we’ll just have to come back! We did the bus to train journey in reverse and arrived back in Sevilla to discover that the rain had beat us back there. We had been invited by some expats to a local #resistance party that night, but with the rain, decided to blow it off and spend out last night hanging with JA and A and the crew at Bier Kraft. We had such a great time with them, it’s awesome to see how well things are going and I am already scheming for my next visit!
In the morning it was back up to Madrid for our…FINAL DAY/NIGHT IN SPAIN! It’s a sad travel truth that, no matter how much time you have, there’s just never enough time.
Aaron had cashed in some of his Chase points to get us a hotel for our last night, and we checked in to an adorable little apartment in Malasaña with its own private roof deck. We sat in the sun and did a little reading (with a lovely €5 Euro bottle of Rioja), before making our way back out. We swung by Ojala and this time managed to score the prime window seat! We shared a pitcher of sangria and watched the world go by for a good long while. We moved on to Macera, a very hipster little place nearby, to try some jalapeno and cilantro-infused gin (verdict=excellent) before heading home to rest up for dinner. For our final night, we managed to get a 10 pm reservation at Botín, which bills itself as the “Earliest Restaurant in the World” and is supposedly famous for its roasted meats. We knew it was likely to be pretty tourist-trappy, but decided to give it a go anyway. The food was fine, I guess, but the servers were inattentive and snotty, plus they really nickel-and-dimed you for everything, down to charging for bread and butter per slice and pat. In the end, it was our most expensive and least favorite meal of the entire trip and I’d advise future travelers to take their business elsewhere.
One last nightcap at El 2D marked the end of our trip, and while I don’t think either of us were ready for it to be over, I think we agreed that we could hardly have done it better.
Viva España! Now, where’s next?!
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