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Madrid, Spain

It was time to make our way to the capital, Madrid, but really I wished we had stayed in bed. The sat nav was working again and calculated that it would take about 3.5 hours to make it to the city. It took us five. But that's not the end of the story. Then we had to find our destination.

Our aim was to head to a suburb just south of Madrid to where a camp site was located. Our TomTom wasn't the most up-to-date piece of technology going around and it didn't have a lot of roads in its computer. Because of this, we ended up missing a total of 10 (ten!) turn-offs within a two hour time period. It was incredibly misleading as to which road we were supposed to take and we always ended up getting off too early or missing the exit, then having to make a huge detour to get back to where we wanted to be. It was quite easily our most frustrating day of driving yet. Luckily there weren't many toll ways in Spain or we would be have been broke by now.

 

We eventually arrived in the town we wanted, however we didn't know exactly where the camp site was. We stopped to ask a couple of people, who gave us directions (in Spanish) but this didn't help. We even saw signs to the caravan park but still no luck. After going around in circles for what felt like forever, we stumbled upon a McDonald's and stopped to use their WiFi to download a map. (Side note: they sell potato wedges in Maccas in Spain – patates deluxe – with herb mayonnaise. Great idea).

 

We followed our map to reach the road the camp site was located on. This led us down a pot-holed dirt road for a couple of kilometres (which wasn't great when our van was carrying glasses, plates and, most importantly, bottles of alcohol) then came out at an industrial park. We drove around the edge of this estate until we finally arrived at the camp site, seven hours after leaving Zaragoza. We were exhausted, hungry and extremely irritated. 

 

The scenery didn't make up for our long day on the road. The countryside of Spain was mostly dry and bare, with small hills and occasional trees. I think in four hours we passed four towns. There was really nothing to look at, making time crawl by at snail pace. On a positive note I drove for two hours along the motorway, with heaps of roadworks, and didn't stall once. 

We checked in to the camp site only to find out that they didn't have internet (their connection was down) and our electricity cord didn't fit their connections (despite not having a problem in any other camp site we had stayed at). A maintenance man came over and found an adapter for us so we could have electricity, which was much appreciated. We then bought alcohol and chips and pigged out in the van for the rest of the night, trying to erase today from our memories.

Over the next few days we hit Madrid (P.S. we love the Metro). Here's a quick rundown of how touristy we were:

  • Gran Via. Equivalent of the Champs Elysees, full of churches, palaces and amazing architecture.

  • Palacio Real (Royal Palace). Each of the 20 rooms we walked through was the size of a small house. The dog armour was cute. It seemed there was no expense spared: lots of silk and velvet walls, gold stitching, silver chandeliers, frescoes on the roof and porcelain sculptures on the walls. It would be a nightmare to clean.

  • Prado. Madrid's biggest museum, similar to the Lourve but a billion times smaller. I prefer my art a little more modern. They did have a painting of the Mona Lisa by Da Vinci, wearing a different dress and with a different background to the one in the Lourve. Same expression on her face. This one didn't have 100 people standing around it, which was nice.

  • Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Artworks from 13th-20th centuries. Not too big, easy to follow, lots of big names, overall fantastic.

  • Retiro Park. A big lake, row boats, street artists, market stalls, palaces with art exhibits, fountains, a waterfall - well worth the visit.

  • Atocha train station. No longer in service, so it had been converted into a giant greenhouse containing a tropical garden. If you like turtles, head here, there are thousands.

  • Reina Sofia museum. Modern art, with a heavy focus on Spanish artists. I think I saw enough Dali to have nightmares for a month.

  • Caixa Forum. Gallery dedicated to short films, mostly in English.

  • Rastro. Sunday market, 80% clothing, not that interesting for me. I did find someone selling cassettes - we only have a tape player in our van, so I thought I would pick up a few to listen to some music when the radio didn't pick up a signal. Most of the English tapes were pretty old (60s and 70s), however I did discover one Pearl Jam tape, plus some other random ones that looked bearable. 

  • A sherry bar (for Danny, not me, but served with free olives which kept me happy).

  • A multitude of plazas. Sitting down with a glass of wine, more free olives, and listening to the buskers was how we spent many afternoons.

  • We restrained ourselves from joining in with the rollerbladers, which is still popular here. I felt like I had stepped back in time 15 years.

  • Various parks (each with an abundance of statues, fountains and peacocks). At one I decided to wash all the mud off my jeans, picked up from my cross-country trek that morning (in search of an apparently amazing view that didn't exist). The best place to do that in Madrid? In one of the thousand or so fountains scattered around. It was a little embarrassing, although not quite as bad as the woman washing her hair in the fountain. 

  • Several churches, one containing a cool crypt. 

  • Numerous street and indoor markets, of the food and souvenir variety (Spanish-themed boomerangs anyone?)

​Everyone in Madrid seemed so relaxed, never in a hurry, always time to sit about and take life easy. My impressions might be skewed because we too were more relaxed in Madrid (compared to Paris or London), not trying to cram so much into one day. There were also plenty of buskers and street artists who actually have talent and were worth stopping for, which made for a nice change. 

​And on the food front:

  • Churros were one food we had been keeping an eye out for since we arrived in Spain. A tip for anyone buying churros: make sure they are cooked fresh. After having fresh churros in Paris, it was a severe let down to eat the ones that had been sitting around for hours. They just didn't compare.

  • Danny's favourite spot in Madrid was a museum of a different kind, Museo del Jamon. It sounds like a museum of ham but it was a chain of stores/cafes serving dozens of different types of meats and cheeses. We stood around the bar like the locals and ordered a jamon croissant (for Danny) and cheese sandwich (for me), which were only €1 each (bargain). Danny also ordered a beer (another €1) and it was delivered with a free sample plate of a few meats. Danny was in heaven. We both returned twice that week.

  • For dinner one night we found a buffet restaurant that cost just €9 each, including a glass of wine and unlimited non-alcoholic drinks. We couldn't resist a deal like that. It was only once we sat down that we discovered it wasn't very Spanish. In fact the only Spanish foods were the tortilla chips on the salad bar and the chorizo on the pizza. But we stuffed ourselves until our stomachs hurt, then walked around the streets of Madrid at night to help digest our food (it didn't help). 

  • We walked through an indoor market, Mercado San Miguel, which contained the usual food vendors (fruit, veggies, deli, bakery) but also included cafes, wine bars and more tapas than you could count. The place was packed and once again, Danny was in heaven. If we hadn't just stuffed ourselves at the buffet we would have stopped to buy something. The thought of eating again made us feel sick, so we left with plans to come back another day.

  • We did go back, and sampled chicken skewers (Caesar and tandoori), a mini hamburger, mini jacket potatoes with dipping sauce, more free olives, cheese, baguette, free jamon on bread, sherry (Danny), sangria (me), strudel and macarons. I think we did pretty well. 

  • Lonely Planet recommended a bar, El Tigre, where we could buy a large beer/cider or a pint of Sangria for €3.50 and receive a free plate of tapas. And I'm not talking about one or two bite-size morsels of dried out food - it was a whole plate, full of fried potatoes in paprika sauce, a variety of meats and cheese on bread, garlic chicken wings, frittata, crumbed cheese balls, chicken pieces in sauce, plus more. It. Was. Sensational. Between us we had three drinks with three large plates of tapas for under €10 and we were stuffed full. El Tigre was our favourite spot in Madrid. We visited three times in four days. 

We passed a few flamenco venues and at one point Danny asked me, "Is it flamenco or flamingo? Oh, wait, a flamingo's a bird, right?" Yes Danny, a flamingo is a bird.