El Oso, las Uvas, y Don Quixote: Madrid and Toledo

 

After reluctantly leaving the Ginger Monkey behind, Griff and I arrived in Vienna. After deciding that our last night together for months warranted a total elimination of personal space in the name of traveling on a budget we split a hostel dorm bed at Hostel Ruthensteiner, a super hip spot with colorful walls and an outdoor courtyard with a giant chessboard. We took the tram to the old town at sunset and explored the Stephansplatz, the Hofburg palatial complex, and the Musiemsquarter.

A combination of Zurich and Budapest, our adventure yielded a grand city full of glamour and glitz. An outdoor festival was taking place on the palace lawn at sunset, and it was a great, impossibly romantic scene to share with my partner para la vida. Our Last Supper was a curried stir fry with rice and beans back at the hostel, and we ended the night in a bar watching AK Wien advance to the Champions League with a win over Dinamo Zagreb (sorry Big L).

I grabbed a few hours sleep next to Griff and departed well before dawn to catch my flight to Madrid.

 

After an early morning adventure through the Vienna metro and airport complex, I somehow caught my flight to Munich and then to Madrid. Following a tram into the city and a decent walk in the afternoon Spanish heat, I settled into my lodging for the night, a small room in a flat occupied by a girl named Ana in her mid 20s and her mother, Maria. Exhausted after a long travel day, I walked around the neighborhood, had dinner in a small tapas chain and turned in early.

My first real day in Madrid offered a welcome reprieve following consecutive travel days. A morning workout followed by a long run in el Parque del Buen Retiro shook off my cobwebs and was a great intro to the city. The park, situated on el Paseo del Prado near the heart of the city, is a biological haven of diversity housing over 7000 different species of flora.

It is a runners’ haven with an endless maze of dirt paths winding in between dense sections of forest, spectacular flower beds, and numerous fountains and statues of all kinds. I completed the day’s triathlon with a 45 minute midday trek up the hill of the Prado to the hotel where my study abroad program was to begin. I met my roommate for the semester Miles Gloria, a Filipino from Los Angeles who reminds me of Manny Pacquiao. We hit it off instantly, and I couldn’t be more enthused with my luck. Unfortunately he was still dealing with jet lag, so I set off by myself to explore a bit and grab a bite to eat. I made it to Plaza Mayor, a sweet square ringed by a combination of cafes and tourist shops.

Nearby, however, was a foodie gem that I instantly fell in love with: El Mercado de San Miguel. A closed building occupying a square block, the “market” is a collection of tapas stands, offering every Spanish food imaginable, in portions both large but mostly small and very affordable. There were stands selling fruits and veggies, gazpacho and smoothies, heaping amounts of fresh mozzarella, manchego, and a host of other Spanish cheeses, all kinds of seafood from oysters, bacalao (cod), gulas, not to be confused with the various types of Eastern European goulash, an interesting creation of stringy noodles made of whitefish, to pulpo (octopus) and gambas (prawns), pinchos of olives, beans and fresh breads and wines. There were massive stands full of desserts, jamon, all kinds of tortilla, paella, and sausages, and tapas joints offering mini delicacies such as “hamburgers” and little creative bocadillo sandwiches of all kinds. The selection was dizzying, and it took me almost 45 minutes to check out all the options, each one seemingly more tempting than the last, with tapas costing no more than 2 or 3 euro each. Every corner of Spain was represented in the small market, and it was crammed with hungry locals and tourists alike. I could have easily spent about 100 euro without thinking twice, but In the end I settled on La Casa de Bacalao, a stand run by an old Galician man selling tostas, pieces of toast topped with various seafood concoctions, many of which included the namesake cod and some olive oil for a euro each, a stupid bargain.

I asked for his favorites and was given four selections, cod with olive oil and tomato, tuna belly with an anchovy, and smoked salmon with a little dill and EVOO.

Writing now I am simply at a loss trying to describe how good they were. Food prepared so simply, cleanly, and honestly is really unmatched in this part of the world, and American cuisine would do well to copy this model much more often, offering integrity and value to food, prioritizing flavor, enjoyment, and tradition rather than commercial profit and mass production. After soaking in the pure sense of satisfaction yielded by such a perfect lunch, I headed back to the hotel, where we had our program orientation and headed out for a late Spanish dinner at 10pm. A group of us found a crowded restaurant (always a good sign), albeit with a menu partially in English (never a good sign). With new friends in stow and a great meal of chicken, potatoes, and veggies, my first day in Spain had been quite an embarrassment of riches.

Day two in the capital began with a huge spread at the hotel offering an array of pastries, fresh fruit, a yogurt bar, eggs made to order – it was my kind of breakfast.

We then toured El Prado and El Museo de la Reina Sofia, a morning full of artistic masterpiece.  The Prado is a royal collection housing numerous works by, among others, the famous Spaniards El Greco, Velasquez, and Goya, and the Reina Sofia offers a more modern set of works, including those of Picasso, Miro, and Dali. The trio we viewed at the Prado produced classic works commissioned in the name of spreading Catholicism and the royal name, although I was both fascinated and horrified by the later works of Goya, a dark melange offering a warped view of humanity obviously painted in a state of mental imbalance at the end of his life. Easily my favorite, however, was Picasso, whose Cubist works give the viewer an infinite amount of angles and viewpoints to explore spaces and figures.

I was absolutely enraptured by the intricacies of his paintings, and could have spent the entire day in his exhibit. We saw Guernica, a massive depiction of a German bombing during the Spanish Civil War that is one of the most famous works in the world and cannot be removed from Spain. Following the duo of museums Miles, Steve and I (the only guys in a program of close to 30) set off for another lunch at el Mercado de San Miguel (I had to go back) for my first Spanish gazpacho (to my father – made with bread it’s much thicker and heavier) and a trip to the Palacio Real and adjoining cathedral. 

The opulence of the Spanish royal family was overwhelming, with each room in the palace a different collection of colors, precious metals, and ornate tapestries and paintings.

We saw the sun set under the statue of Carlos V in the middle of el Buen Retiro and headed to the hopping old town to watch the Supercup, a win for Munich over Chelsea, in a French restaurant.  Over large tostas (mine had smoked salmon and melted Brie) it was a great night. 

The nightlife was just beginning when we walked home well after midnight, really tired after a long day.

Saturday we left Madrid and toured Toledo, the old Capitol of the Umayyad Caliphate from 711 to the early Middle Ages, and subsequently Spain until the 16th century when the royal palace was moved to Madrid. Perched high on a hill overlooking the rolling, tan hills of Castilla-La Mancha, with the Rio Tajo (Tagus in Latin) snaking around it, it is an old fortress city with tiny, narrow, cobbled streets.

There are echoes of Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim culture in Toledo, and we saw the synagogue, main church complete with an original El Greco, and the Alcazar, the Muslim fortress.

We had a tapas lunch of fried eggplant and honey, gazpacho, and salad, and following a siesta and academic meeting I had dinner with Kristen Seidel, an old friend, and Natalie Charney, a new one, at a sweet restaurant on a terrace overlooking a gloriously lit Toledo.

We had a salad with local manchego cheese and veggies, topped with olive oil and vinegar, and carcamusas, a local specialty that is a tomato-based stew with meat, potatoes, and peas. It was a great, leisurely, memorable meal spent in the land of Don Quixote. I am really drawn to the legend of the intrepid explorer, and these hills exude a dry, simple aura of wandering that he and Sancho Panza nobly embraced. As we drive south to Granada, the hills have steadily become larger, more green, and filled with olive trees and rich red soil. It is essential, however, to not lose sight of the Quixote spirit as I venture into lands more lush and plentiful than those surrounding Madrid. The aimlessness and entirety with which he roamed the barren yet intimate landscape around Toledo is one I wish to replicate, spending time meeting new people, sticking to one’s convictions, and constantly reflecting on the life at hand.

The abrupt end to my backpacking travails and the subsequent beginning of study abroad brought an accompanying change in lifestyle that provided a shock to my system that I am finding interesting to manage. I arrived in Madrid with various, complex bug bites (it really has been an adventure – at this point I would guess I’ve had spider, bed bug, and maybe a cockroach, in addition to probably 10 different species of mosquito), skin toughened from untold hours under the sun and probably fewer showers than appropriate, a backpack filled with slightly (a generous term) dirty clothes, small trinkets and souvenirs from all over Europe, and an infinite amount of stories and memories with my BFF and countless new friends from across the globe. The Madrid experience began in a four star hotel that was extremely luxurious, and I felt like a king compared to the previous month on the road. While it is more relaxing not to be constantly planning where to sleep and what to eat on a given day, I thoroughly enjoyed the unpredictability, the resiliency and adaptability required, the freedom of not having an Internet connection, and the pure bliss of a perfect sunset overlooking an ancient city, a picturesque countryside, or a shimmering ocean with the best of friends following a long, hot, sweaty day. I am bursting with le joie de vivre and am belatedly content, sad to be done with easily one of the best months of my life but invigorated to be beginning a semester sure to be full of new friends, great experiences, untold opportunities for learning of all kinds, and most importantly, lots of both football (soccer) and food. Life lived without stressing about the trivialities of lesser consequence can be devoted to discovering the wholesomeness the multifaceted world we occupy has to offer. The pursuit of joy I have embarked on in the wake of my experiences last spring has completely consumed me and has filled me with an inexplicable sense of excitement, vigor, and trust in the potential opportunity the future holds. Go Broncos.

From underneath the Alhambra,

Max

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One thought on “El Oso, las Uvas, y Don Quixote: Madrid and Toledo

  1. Dearest Max, I am finally able to write to you in detail. I have followed your wonderful experiences with joy and happiness for all you have done. Your photos are great – I go back and look at them after I have “digested” all of the food and fun you are having. I guess it’s now that you have to work and learn that language. Madrid sounds interesting and educational.

    I wish you a wonderful New Year – L’Shana Tova – from your loving Nana. Keep up the good work and blog for us here in the States to revel in. Can’t wait till you come back and share your experiences in person. Have a good time and keep up your positive attitude, dear Max. Aside from the bug bites, etc. it seems as if you are back to your enthusiastic self.

    Love, Nana

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