Dipping Churros and Artistic Disappointment

Waking up on the first day of vacation, when all the adventures are still ahead of you, is a wonderful thing…. given two things: how kindly jetlag is treating you and whether you need to set up an alarm for waking up.

My staying up late the night before paid off. I woke up before the alarm went off. Not that I really needed to do much early in the morning but after the infamous ‘sleep in a little’ incident when I almost missed an early afternoon flight, I always set an alarm when traveling.

(In my defense I’ll state that Madrid was entirely blanketed in thick fog when it happened and it looked like early morning light until noon. My error was not questioning the time until the 3rd time I woke up after a week of intense work.)

I was up and ready to find coffee before 9:00am. Yes, I’m a morning person.

My visit coincided with the Meninas Madrid Gallery public art installation . These fiberglass ‘Meninas’ sculptures are named after the young girls in Velazquez’s 1656 painting of the Infanta and her ladies-in-waiting (‘meninas’). Each piece is sponsored and painted by different entities to depict a veritable cross-section of modern Spanish iconography and are placed throughout the city.

 

The first item on The Spreadsheet was a visit to the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. This in one of the museums that is barely given a mention in Madrid guidebooks but only because the city is filled with top-tier, world-class museums.

I mean, really, next to El Prado, not many places can compete.

I found it to be incredibly interesting and containing something for all tastes. The first floor has paintings by various Spanish masters and a few pieces of sculpture. Of particular interest to me was an outstanding polychromed wooden bust of a Mater Dolorosa by Pedro de Mena. I was very excited to see this beautiful variation on the subject as I expected to see (IMO) his masterpiece on the same theme later that day.

The second floor of the museum had all kinds of fascinating objects, ranging from some very intricate wax carvings to the original approved plans signed by architect Idelfonso Cerdá for the expansion of Barcelona.

I had the wonderful modern paintings on the 3rd floor basically to myself. Loved the visit! Highly recommended for art museum buffs.

Though this was a Sunday, it was still early, and I had ‘penciled it’ into The Spreadsheet, I had no real interest to go see El Rastro market. I have seen a lot of Spanish mercadillos with their piles of used clothes, moldy paperback books, new underwear, stacks of sport shoes, and useless kitchen knickknacks. Nope, never met a mercadillo I loved.

Now, give me a food market and I will sing an entirely different tune.

I had also wandered the day before through the areas I had tagged for visiting on Day 2 so the day had unexpectedly opened up. After one quick look at The Spreadsheet, I bumped up the next high-priority item: the Descalzas Reales Monastery.

Why I did not pre-purchase tickets for this? I have no real explanation. I fell into the ‘April is shoulder season, how bad can it be?’’ trap. Let me tell you one thing: Madrid was packed. Perhaps not overrun, but certainly there were more visitors than I expected. Mostly older tourists, there must have been great airfare from central Europe!

Mistake Level: Travel Rookie.

I managed (and only by a couple of seconds) to snag one of the last 2 tickets available for the day. Oh, and the monastery is closed on Mondays and there were none left for the following Tuesday. I was only able to get the one because of a last-minute group cancellation. Ticket in hand, crisis averted.

Now I had some time to kill until 2:00 pm.

I took a walk around town and eventually made my way into San Ginés. Chocolate con Churros anyone?

This is one of the few archetypical Spanish snacks that I seldom eat: I do not like sweets for breakfast (though this chocolate, though rich, is not cloyingly sweet), we do not snack, we do not do desserts often, the heavy fried churros fill up you stomach and kill the appetite for the rest of the day, it is best eaten on cold days, etc….

But today -at 10:30 am, on a cool spring morning, and without firm plans for lunch or dinner – all the planets aligned.

Oh, and the line was only about 30 people long. I have seen that line go around the block.

The system at Chocolatería San Ginés goes like this: you get in line, order at the register, go find yourself a place to sit, the waiter takes your receipt only when you are seated, and finally brings the goodies to the table.

It is best if you know what you want to order before you reach the register, they get understandably annoyed.

Do not forget to order water if you are not carrying a bottle around, you will be thirsty after eating all this rich, gooey, fatty goodness. Parched.

Also, waiters will not be too happy if you occupy a table for more than 10 minutes to hold it while the other person makes the long line. They won’’t tell you to leave, but they won’’t be happy. The things you notice when you are by yourself, lol.

There are multiple options in the restaurant, but one is here for one reason and one reason only. So really comes down to two choices: chocolate or coffee, and churros or porras. The obvious answer in a chocolatería is to go with chocolate. Now the second one is not as easy.

Never heard of porras? Don’’t worry. Neither did I until my umpteenth visit to Spain.

As far as I know, the batter for churros and porras is the same and (IMO) has not much taste. The difference is all about the texture and absorption properties. The only purpose of the fried dough is to convey the chocolate from the cup to your mouth; and for this, churros and porras work in very different ways.

If you are a dipper wishing to retain some of the outer bite/crunch of the dough when it is lightly covered in a layer of chocolate, go for the thin ropes of churros. If you are a soaker, porras will work much better as they have a cakier texture and can absorb larger amounts of chocolate.

 

The San Ginés chocolate (and lots of others Spanish hot chocolates)  will be so thick as to be almost undrinkable because it is not really meant to be drunk. It has been specifically designed for covering the fried dough. You can also spoon it directly spoon it into your mouth. No one will stare too bad if you water it down. And then who cares if they stare.

And if you still care, grow up! You will get much more out of travels. And life in general.

Anyway, I had the churros. But half of them I broke into pieces and put them into the cup so that they could soak up the chocolate. Because sometimes you CAN have it all.

They were great, but later in the trip I had better in Málaga (the chocolate was just as rich but more liquid). And if you want to know, most days I’ still prefer to have the much lighter horchata and fartons in Valencia over chocolate con porras.

Thus properly fortified (marathon anyone?) I was ready to go wandering around town until it was time to go back to the convent.

BTW, before you walk up to the convent, you can use the restroom at the nearby Corte Inglés because the gate keeper won’t even let you in for that before your allotted time slot. And the jewelry section is worth ogling over even for non-shoppers like me. I did not buy anything. But slightly regret it.

The Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales is one of the greatest treasure troves of 16th/17th century religious art and architecture in Spain. Founded by Juana de Austria (daughter of Carlos V) it was meant to house the wealthy daughters of only the highest nobility that chose (or where forced into) a life of contemplation and prayer.

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Only guided visits allowed, and the no-picture rule is strictly enforced. They don’’t even want you holding your phone in your hand. There is a guard holding the group together from behind so there is really no chance to straggle behind to enjoy the masterpieces longer. They watch you like a hawk.

As you come in, the grand staircase will take your breath away. History comes to life as the veil between centuries is briefly torn apart. From then on its one wonder after another.

If you are not familiar with this place, google it. And go see it even if you are a only lukewarm admirer of religious art.

Now, of all the things I wanted to see there was a specific piece I wished to admire once again, the main driver for my revisit: a 17th century polychromed wood bust of a Mater Dolorosa by Pedro de Mena. I cannot tell you why but ever since I first laid eyes on this sculpture it had burned into my heart.

The bust depicts a young Mary, tears streaming down her face, eyes slightly swollen and red from crying, and her gaze seemingly focusing off into the distance. But it is her expression of courage, a complete acceptance of destiny, which captivated me. In my mind it shows the exact moment when she surrenders to her pain and transcends. She has swallowed from the bitter cup.

(Yes, I was raised Catholic but I do not practice and do not identify as religious. But I admit ungrudgingly that the iconography still gets to me. But then good art and human emotion are universal.)

And then the unthinkable happened. Halfway through the tour the guide announces that the Choir is being prepared for a recording of choral music and was not available for visits.

WHAT!?!? No. NONONO. Noooooooo……….

No Mary for me. All other marvels? Yes. But not MY Mary.

Anyway, the place is awesome and I survived my disappointment. But I did not enjoy the rest of the tour as much as I could have.

By the time I left the convent my stomach was finally ready to consider a late lunch. Given the location I thought I would try to do a ‘walk-in’ into one of the premier old school restaurants in the city where the Cocido Madrileño is an institution: La Bola.

 

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Place was packed on a Sunday afternoon with both regulars and tourists. Once again, a pleasant smile, courteous behavior, pleading eyes, and some flexibility paid off. I was told to come back in half an hour and they might have a table available for me. Score!

Ten years before I had had a Cocido Madrileño at La Bola. It was outstanding. The only problem was that it had been in late August. And it was 105F degrees in Madrid at 9:00pm. I literally almost fainted in the metro from overheating.

Every region of Spain has a typical ‘plato de olla’, a soupy stew or stewey soup usually involving 5th quarter meats, some type of bean and a vegetable or two. Cocido Madrileño in particular is served in two steps. It comes in a jar: first the cooking broth is poured as a soup with a few accompaniments and then the meats, garbanzos, and sausages are plated. Cabbage is served on the side.

 

It was just as good as I remembered. And as robust.

Though it was nice and cool outside, I did need a nap after consuming in one seating enough calories to feed a small village. I was so lethargic that I asked them to call a taxi for me.

But the day was not over for me.

Through the magic of the internet it had come to my attention that a friend was going to be in Madrid during my stay. She was coming from Valencia where she lives, because she wanted to see a performance from the great flamenco dancer María Pagés.

A show I had already planned to go see later that week at the Teatros del Canal!

Of course we made arrangements to go together and I was able to purchase a seat just behind hers! To make this even sweeter, the admission price was a completely ridiculously low €17. A fraction of the cost of the traditional flamenco venues.

I cannot even begin to describe the artistry and lyricism of this master of flamenco and her ensemble. To witness such a performance is a gift and a privilege.

After the show we took a cab to restaurant Taberna del Alabardero in Plaza de Oriente where we had a few outstanding bites and many laughs to finish the evening off. My friend graciously invited my to come along the next day as they would be making a lunch stop at Chinchón on their way back to Valencia. I could then get back to Madrid by public bus.

We wanted to go to a terrace for coffee but rain interrupted and we had to cut the evening short. I took a cab back to the hotel and completely crashed until the next morning.

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Day 2, Sunday, April 15th


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