The plane landed at Madrid airport at 10:30am on a direct and blessedly quiet flight from San Juan on Iberia. Entirely forgettable flight. The good kind of flight.
The challenge -as it always is- was to strike the perfect balance between staying hydrated and minimizing trips to the restroom. And that was the only one because getting the flight attendant to bring you yet another mini bottle of wine was not an issue on this flight. The good kind of flight.
Since the only times I have flown business-class was in the golden days of Big Pharma when they were footing the bill, I have had plenty of opportunities to perfect my coach-seat sleeping technique: Window seat (which brings you back to that hydration thing), earbuds, big dabs of Vaseline on my nostrils to counteract the dry air (try this, it works!), Burt’s Bees Wax smeared thick on my lips, and my trusty thin scarf wrapped burka -like over my head and face. Completely ridiculous, but what do I care? It works. I slept most of the flight.
This ensamble also serves the purpose of informing my seatmate that I’m not available for chatting. Sorry. Yes, I’m that person.
There are many cheap and efficient transportation options in Barajas, I could have gotten to my hotel for under €2 by using the metro station in the airport. The express shuttle bus would have been slightly less convenient but could have gotten me to Atocha station for €5.
A word about the Madrid metro: it is awesome! Efficient, safe, clean, fast, and cheap. However, accessibility is dubious. Most stations will have elevators to get you from the street down to the main level, but there might still be a few steps up and down to reach the platforms. Mobility-impaired persons, baby carriages, and rolling luggage might confront obstacles.
Though I’m not a heavy-packer, I wasn’t really traveling carry-on only. It was a 6-week trip after all.
No, mass-transportation was not really the top option for me upon arrival. And for a very reasonable €25 flat fee for a taxi from airport to hotel door, it was money well spent not to haul luggage up and down metro stations or waiting around for the shuttle bus.
I’m a rather frugal traveler but I have recently come to terms with the fact that taking a taxi here and there will greatly enhance the overall experience without breaking the bank.
Of course, the room was not ready when I arrived at Hostal Lisboa as I had not bothered (shame on ME) to inform them of my early arrival. I checked in my luggage into their lockers and I was free to take off. I walked to close by Puerta del Sol, happily joining in a demonstration (there is ALWAYS as demonstration) to support the rights of trans children (a cause dear to my heart and family).
After hanging around a bit and taking pictures of the Tío Pepe sign and with bright blue sky as a background, I went down to the metro to purchase a card and load it with the 10-trip fee.
There was ONE thing I wanted to do on this day: visit Museo Sorolla. When I was working on The Spreadsheet I realized that its location is not convenient to mix and match with other sights. But it fit in with my early arrival and desire to keep a simple agenda on Day 1.
I was excited. Until I saw the humongous line in front on the museum.
Of course I had not pre-purchased tickets. It WAS arrival day after all. Unpredictable. Still wanted to kick myself.
Not having really had breakfast, I went to restaurant next door to grab a coffee and a bite to eat while trying to gather my enthusiasm. The line was huge but, much to my relief, I could see that it moved rather fast as they let in large groups of people each time.
I relaxed and let that good Spanish coffee do its job.
I had visited this gem of a house museum years ago when I was working my way through Maribel’s Guide to Madrid (never fails! Google it). I was short on time, it had been super crowded on a Sunday afternoon, and -though I loved it- I just felt like I had not gotten enough of it. It was unfinished business.
The Museo Sorolla is one of my all-time favorite places in Madrid.
Joaquín Sorolla was a late 19th century Valencian painter known for his dexterous use of the golden light of the Spanish Levante to soften historical, social, and regional themes. He also painted many exquisite portraits, particularly those of his wife and children.
There was also another thing about my visit to the museum. The cherry on top. A temporary exhibit: ‘Sorolla y la moda’ (Sorolla and Fashion), presented in conjunction with the Thyssen-Bornemiza museum.
In the spirit of full disclosure: I’m a sucker for house museums. I just love them. Particularly artist’s houses. So you need to take my ravings with a grain of salt.
I adore Sorolla’s paintings but not being a fashion aficionada, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed looking at the beautiful period dresses, hats, shoes, and elegant accessories. All objects were beautifully curated to match the ones depicted in the paintings as much as possible.
I had not planned to return to the Thyssen on this trip, but the Sorolla Museum portion was so good that I had to see the entire exposition. Not even 12 hours on the ground and The Spreadsheet was already in need of revision.
When planning the remaining portion of Day 1, I had given myself several options to allow for how energetic or brain dead I would feel. I have traveled enough to know that this is unpredictable. But I was going strong! So instead of going back to the hotel, I went down to the Metro and headed towards La Latina neighborhood intending to check off the second ‘inconvenient’ site of the day.
The Real Basilica de San Francisco el Grande is not only also a bit out of the way/difficult to group with other attractions, but it also has very limited opening hours. Though I had marked it as a Low Priority visit for Day 1 (it was alternatively scheduled for later in the week), getting to it on this day was highly desirable.
I’ll admit that though I was feeling energetic, endorphins still raging on my Sorolla high, my brain was not quite up to par. I would have most likely bailed out if I had not pre-chewed and written down each step of how to get from Museo Sorolla to La Latina. Score one for pre-planning and Plan B.
Well, but then again, I could have taken a taxi.
Naturally the church was closed for lunch until 5:00pm. More than closed, it was shuttered to the point you would think they had not opened it for visits for a decade. But having been faced with this scenario multiple times, by now I know better.
I was forced to wander around La Latina and have a ‘clara con limón’ (beer on tap & lemon soda mix; a.k.a shandy or panaché) under the glorious blue sky amongst the hip Madrileños enjoying the first nice day of spring.
The Real Basilica de San Francisco el Grande, was finally reopened to visits shortly after 5:00pm. It is a neoclassical church full of works by Zurbarán and Francisco Goya. I loved it, but you really must be a church enthusiast (I am) to seek this one out.
After the visit I wandered through the Cava Alta and Cava Baja until I made it to the Cuchilleros street.
Keeping with personal tradition, on my very first day in Madrid I had to have a ración of stuffed mushrooms at the incredibly cheesy (as in kitsch, not as in the good gooey stuff) Mesón del Champi. It was packed to gills but a big smile combined with pleading eyes finally got me tiny seat on a corner. Score one for solo traveling!
It was quite entertaining to watch people over-order but so sad to see tons of food wasted on every table. I had not really planned to do this on the first day, but I found myself elbowing my way through the mob at Mercado San Miguel. Drop dead gorgeous food porn but just too chaotic on a Saturday afternoon for my taste. As in full body contact to walk through the narrower halls.
I finally had a glass of cava (Spanish bubbly) and amazingly briny Galician flat oysters but only because I found an out of the way corner to order and stand.
After that I got tempted by the smell of a nearby black rice/paella (cuttlefish in their ink). It even looked pretty (well… as much as a black paella can) but I sensibly kept my expectation low. Much to my surprise, it was decent! Excellent taste and texture. I opted to take it at room temperature (as opposed to reheated on the microwave), which helps it not to dry out.
I fully expected to return to the Mercado later in the week to take pictures of all the pretty food, but it never happened. I did walk by, but the crowds never seemed to get any smaller. IMO, there are many other places to get amazing food in Madrid with less aggravation.
I neglected to meet my other ‘tradition’ of having a late lunch at the Sobrinos de Botín restaurant on arrival date, but I’m fine with that; not every tradition needs to be upheld.
Instead I had a coffee by the gorgeous and bustling Plaza Mayor to prevent withdrawal symptoms later in the day (or early in the morning) and enjoy the nice early evening. Prime peoplewatching spot. The overweight Spiderman was a hoot.
I returned to the hotel at almost 9:00pm to retrieve my luggage and check-in. The room was a two-single bed ‘mini suite’ with a separate desk/closet area. It was spacious for a single person and I think that even for two it would have been fine; if one is comfortable sleeping on a twin-sized bed.
The room was immaculately clean. The bathroom was well lit, and the hot water came out with great pressure. A kettle or coffee machine would have been wonderful but at €80 per night in an extremely convenient downtown location, I could not complain. Of course the walls were thin, but that is ubiquitous in small European hotels. I did not hear any street noise whatsoever (and the Barrio de las Letras is quite the party area).
Elevator only makes it to the third floor and I was on the fourth. I lift weights and do cardio at the gym; no problem.
I was tired, but I wanted to stay up until later for two reasons: first to get over the jet lag, but most importantly to try and sync in the outrageously late Spanish dinning times. I decided to roll the dice: I laid on the spare bed, fully clothed, and set an alarm for 1 hour later and started reading through my emails. THEN I would decide if I was just going to crash for the night.
It worked. I rolled off the bed and headed back out to grab a drink and a snack for dinner at the nearby Plaza de Santa Ana. Though it was cold outside (hey… I’m from the tropics!) and every restaurant had tents and heaters going full blast, it wasn’t freezing or raining on a Saturday night. All the Madrileños were out and about. I grabbed the first open table I could find and ordered a drink at Las 10 Tapas de Santa Ana.
The guy did not want to take my drink order without a meal order. What?!?! I stared him down and won. Though I did have to reassure him that I would indeed be having dinner.
I savored my cheap house wine and observed all the comings and goings around me for a while. I eventually ordered a second glass and a garbanzo (chickpea) porridge which came out barely lukewarm. I did not revisit them and I should have read their reviews before sitting down. But since they had the only open table in the plaza, I will not complain.
Having made it up until midnight, I went back to the hotel, took a long hot showered, and blissfully crashed until the next morning.
Saturday, April 5th, Day 1