Daytrips, Confusions, General Travel Ramblings and a Pizza

Mondays often wreak havoc to compulsive museum-going trip planners. Everything I had identified as Top Priority in The Spreadsheet to visit in Madrid was closed on Mondays.

Perfect for a daytrip, right? Not quite, because most of the things you want to see at the daytrip location are also closed.

Part of the growing up as a traveler (or as big girl) is learning to recognize and accept who you are and what you like.  Hello, my name is Stella, I’m a compulsive trip planner and I am notorious for bailing out of daytrips.

I haven’t even made it yet to Versailles or Giverny, I’m that bad. It took 3 visits to Madrid before I made it to El Escorial (loved it) and the Valle de los Caídos (creepiest place I’ve ever been to which could also double as a set for a Batman movie; has a spectacular setting though).

Armed with this nugget of self-knowledge, The Spreadsheet provided two alternatives for the day: A Daytrip to Alcalá de Henares or, in the highly probable case I bailed out, a leisurely re-visit to El Prado (open Mondays) combined with a stroll through the Parque del Buen Retiro and the neighborhood around it.

But I had been invited to tag along for a daytrip to Chinchón in the company of two very fun ladies. No brainer. Alcalá would have to wait for another day and El Prado was not a high priority on this trip anyway (more on this later).

First in the order of things on a Monday morning (or any morning for that matter) was obtaining enough caffeine within an hour of waking so that withdrawal headaches do not kick in. Museo del Jamón to the rescue. I had a great little ham sandwich, coffee and fresh orange juice for a few euros while chatting with the group of south American construction workers standing elbow to elbow along the bar.

They were all served their coffee in glasses. I was given a cup. They did not know why either. Bar guy was too busy to answer.

Busy Spanish bars are not kind to the shy. Well, busy bars anywhere are not very kind to anyone, lol. But here one really needs to push in these places to get your order in and win a 10” spot on the counter in which to place your coffee.

For a couple of euros you get freshly squeezed orange juice (the kind that is pressed by those super cool machines where you throw in a bag of oranges in one end and the juice comes out the other), a coffee, and a sandwich. Cheap and quick.

Place is wildly popular with public workers. EMTs, cops, suits… everyone walked in. There was a 15:1 male to female ratio along the bar at this Puerta del Sol location. Most patrons were having beers with their sandwiches. Things you notice when you are solo.

A few things about beer drinking in Spain.

In any bar there will be at least one type of non-alcoholic beer; even in roadside 2-table restaurants or whole in the wall joints. And people actually order them. The Spanish seem to take their alcohol-limit while driving very, very seriously.

And no one will think much of it if you have a beer over your lunch break. Or breakfast. Yes, at 8:30am, and I’m not judging either. I have been known to partake freely at unlimited mimosas brunches or during Saturday morning post-run tailgating get togethers. But then, I’m not going back to work after that… OK, maybe I’m judging a little.

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I still had time before I was scheduled to meet with the ladies so I walked over to the Plaza de Oriente. In front of the Palacio Real I caught the rear end (pun intended) of an ceremonial parade as the horses headed back to the stables. Gorgeous animals. And the uniformed guys riding them were not bad looking either.

A short walk took me down to Sabatini Gardens, still a little muddy from the night rain but very pretty to look at. The views of the Royal Palace are worth the walk down instead of just overlooking from the top.

 

 

I met with my friends at the hotel lobby. They were staying at Roomate Mario, great looking hotel and excellent location (though not exactly where Google maps said it was, making me walk up and down the street a few times). We were off to Chinchón (after a few adventures trying to find the way out of the Parkhouse).

Even when I was flying into Madrid I thought it was the greenest I had ever seen the countryside around the city (most of my visits have been in autumn), but wow! The countryside was plush green and bursting with wild flowers. Just to see the open fields and blue skies was joy.

I’m not exactly a city girl. I love nature and the countryside and am willing to go on long trips to enjoy scenery. But then again, world-class museums and top-notch restaurants are seldom located in the boonies.

The drive to Chinchón took around an hour through Spain’s wonderful network of highways and country roads.

We snagged a parking smack in the middle (literally) of the town’s beautiful round main ‘square’. I have been to a lot (A LOT) plazas in small Spanish towns but this one is certainly different, a quality you begin to cherish after a while.

Three story buildings painted white surround the circular plaza, all façades covered with wooden balconies. Very quaint and definitely unique.

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The tourist train was about ready to leave so we just boarded up and got a great ride through town. I thought that maybe after lunch, after saying good by to my friends, I would come back and look at the church in detail.

We got off the train one stop short, next to the restaurant which the guide had recommended, Casa Roque.

Lets take a moment to talk about the absolute best culinary deal in Spain: Menú del Día. Every self-respecting restaurant -from greasy spoons to Michelin-starred- will have a fixed lunch offer which will be dramatically lower than ordering á la carte or evening specials.

Typically these daily deals will include a first course, a second course, and a coffee or dessert. Sometimes they will even add a ‘bebida’ which could be soft drinks, beer on tap or even open wine. Guests can expect to pay around €10 for this belly-buster deal at small, family owned restaurants.

In Valencia we (well, the hubs, he is the restaurant whisperer) had a full menu for €5 with bebida. The closest I’ve come to challenging his record is a €6,50 lunch in Málaga. We have been to places where they have set down a bottle of open wine and never charged a cent more if we drank the entire thing.

Usually several options will be offered, and one can mix and match (two first courses instead of a first and second). Truck stops might have just one first and one second. One should never sneer at truck stops, we’ve had amazing meals in some.

A full Menú del Día will often be way (WAY) too much food for one person. Even a plate of a very rich Ensaladilla Rusa (a common first) is enough lunch for two if neither is a big eater or you are just looking for a snack. Here you need to be careful, you will be tempted to share. And it can be done. We have done it. But it should be handled diplomatically.

The hubs and I are not big lunch eaters; we know that the rest of the day will be shot if we eat too much. A big lunch can take away the joy out a road trip if one is struggling to stay awake. And I tend to fall asleep in cars anyway, big lunch or not.

When the situation calls for it, we have very politely asked the waiter beforehand if we could share, stating upfront that we will gladly pay for the extra drinks and coffee. Sometimes they have even offered to split both dishes in the kitchen so that we can sample.

I cannot stress enough how responsive Spaniards are to courteous behavior and polite straightforwardness.

OK, back to Chinchón and Restaurante San Roque. We did not share. We probably should have, lol.

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Everything ranged from good to excellent. I had calamares a la Romana (fried calamari) and a meat-heavy garbanzo porridge. The other ladies had some outstanding artichokes, patatas, ensaladilla. Yup, tons of food for something close to €9 each if I remember correctly.

I had planned to walk through the town after the ladies departed for their long drive back to Valencia but in my food-induced coma I really did not feel like it. See what I tell you about lunches being sightseeing-killers?

After saying our goodbyes I just plunked down at the stop (conveniently located across from the restaurant) to wait for the next bus to Madrid. Shamefacedly I will admit that I slept most of the way back to the city and missed the beautiful countryside.

I’m sure that my post-prandial deep slumber contributed to my being completely discombobulated when we arrived at the final stop and it was not where I expected to be. There is more than one bus hub in Madrid, duh!

OK, first course of action: walk with the crowd. Always a good idea, and much better than to just stand in the middle of the sidewalk trying to wrangle your brain back into action. Around the corner I saw metro station ‘Conde Casal’. Never heard of it. Hummmm…..

I stared at the metro map for 10 minutes looking for Conde Casal until my brain finally woke up enough to realize that I could google directions ‘from current location’ to anywhere downtown. Duh!

In my defense, I belong to the paper-map generation and this was the very first time I actually have had a data plan on my phone during international travel. Weird, I know. Until now we have made do with free wifi and a non-smart prepaid local phone. I’m sold.

But I’m not letting go of my Michelin paper-maps for trip planning!

I was also utterly confused because Line #6, where Conde Casal is, is circular and figuring out direction was not exactly straightforward. Besides, I wasn’t even sure of where I wanted to go.

The only reason I’m bringing this up is because something like this situation, where I had no idea even in which part of Madrid I was, would have completely thrown me off 10 years ago and potentially ruined my evening due to unnecessary stress. I guess I’m a resourceful big(ger) girl now, lol. And not too broke to take a taxi back to the hotel and reboot. Triple lol.

So I’m standing at Conde Casal, looking at a picture of The Spreadsheet to see what miscellaneous things sites I could visit. It was early enough to go back to what was the original Plan B for this day.

Twenty minutes and a line change later I was by Banco de España. Have I mentioned how much I LOVE the Madrid metro system. The buses are great too but they take some more figuring-out effort to make sure you get off at the correct stop.

 

 

First was a visit to San Jerónimo el Real. Located behind El Prado, this church comes up frequently on all those posh weddings, first communions, and funerals featured in ¡Hola! Magazine.

Time for another shameful confession: I grew up being grocery-line reader of ¡Hola! until they started putting the magazine inside those stupid sealed plastic bags. I entirely blame my Spain-loving yet very frugal grandmother for this habit. And a few other childhood traumas as well but that does not belong in here, at least not right now.

The exterior of the church is simply magnificent. The golden afternoon sunlight made it glow. I did not even take pictures of the interior so I guess that it did not make a big impression.

 

 

So there I was, across from El Prado at around 5:45pm. Do you know where this is going? Free admission starts at 6:00pm….

My main interest in Museo del Prado this time was to go see the ‘new’ cloister at the Jerónimos extension with its limited opening hours. And for free!?!? What was not to like about this plan.

Hello, my name is Stella and I’m a Cloister Junkie.

My husband has accepted this fact and does not question it (much) anymore. Even when I make him drive for hours to visit a lonely monastery in the wastelands behind the boondocks of rural Spain. I’m a great cook, I get away with a lot of stuff.

I crossed the street and approached the Jerónimos entrance thinking I was going to outsmart everyone and be able to just walk in as there was no one in line. Nope. Free admission only through the main entrance. Oh, and after 6:00PM this is the only kind of admission. Or so I thought.

Okay…. Off I go around the building and find the beginning of the line. But the end? Uffffff. There must have been at least 500 people in line. While I’m looking in slack-jawed horror, still debating what to do, 20 more people have joined the queue while I stared.

‘OK, time to act. Get in line and THEN figure out what you want to do.’ (My inner thoughts speak with my grandmother’s voice)

I asked the attendant (the queue is organized by museum staff) how long it would take. He said about 20 minutes from where I stood. Ha! That seemed reasonable and I really did not have anything planned for the late afternoon (in Spain it is afternoon until 8:00pm).

He was off by 2 minutes. I walked in at 6:22. Not too bad. I approach the concierge and ask for the shortest route to the cloister.

‘Sorry madam, the cloister is closed for a radio program.’

WHAT? No Mary for me at the Descalzas and now THIS? Nonononono….’access denied’ was becoming a theme.

But I was already inside so I could not wallow in my misery, there was ART to be seen.

What followed was a completely disorganized but thoroughly enjoyable walk through the Italian Masters (my all-time favorites) and the rest of the first floor. I visited Goya’s Maja Desnuda and Maja Vestida for as long as I wanted (measured in about the length of 5 tour group presentations).

By the time I was ready to tackle the ground floor the staff began to clear the rooms for closing.  Though I had not even included this visit as a priority in my itinerary, I was surprisingly disappointed to leave without seeing some El Bosco’s masterpieces or admiring the plump women on Rubens’ big canvases. Neither had I achieved my goal of visiting the cloister. Massive bummer.

Maybe I would have to do something about that. About everything. ‘Access denied’ my a$$.

But it was time to find refreshments. Museum visits are thirsty business.

I headed into the Barrio de las Letras and plunked down on the first restaurant with available comfortable-looking chairs I could find to enjoy a nice cold beer and rest my weary feet. Around 10:00PM I wobbled (out of tiredness, not drunken stupor) back to Plaza de Santa Ana.

I randomly picked a pizza place to enjoy a glass of wine and a perhaps have a bite to eat, if that was the price for sitting at a table. The humongous lunch I had was not leaving much space for anything but a mouthful or two. I figured that, aside from the waste, something I despise, it would not do much harm if I left a €7 pizza margherita half uneaten.

The waiter was very nice and even poured me an extra (and rather unneeded) glass of wine after I helped him out translating for a nearby table as his English was rudimentary at best and he was not comprehending the guests questions.

What they wanted to know was if the sangría was pre-made or if they could request it with less sugar. They mentioned that they had found the sangria everywhere to be overpoweringly sweet. He said it was premixed in batches so he could not alter it. They ordered it anyway.

What the waiter should have suggested to them (and I did not think of at that moment) was that they should order Tinto de Verano instead of Sangría. Tinto de Verano (Red for the Summer) is what most Spaniards drink anyway on hot days if they do not go for beer. It is red wine cut down with sparkling water or lemon soda. No sugar or any other liquor added. It is served with ice and there might be a fruit or two in the fancier places. This is the hubs go to drink for sunny afternoons in Spain. He even likes the bottled kind that can be found in supermarkets.

Me? I prefer a cool and crisp white wine. A verdejo or an albariño anytime, pleaseandthankyouverymuch.

Since I’m endlessly rambling anyway, let’s talk about pizzas in Europe for a little bit.

They seem to be an incessant source of disappointment to people from the US, who order a pie thinking that will get a familiar meal. And it is. But not quite the same if you are used to Domino’s or Pizza Hut.

I’m a diehard pizza enthusiast. The hubs shares this addiction. We go out once a week for pizza because there is no way I can get a decent crust on my wimpy oven at home. We WILL go way out of our way to get a good, thin, crispy pizza.

When you order pizza at a restaurant in Europe it is usually thought of as an individual dish, instead of a S-M-L-XL pie intended to be shared. Therefore, it will not come pre-sliced into triangles nor will you get extra plates unless you ask for them. You will need to cut the pizza yourself with your table knife.  Most Europeans will eat it with knife and fork anyway, at least the older ones.

The big exception being the sold-by-slice/take-away, pizza al taglio joints which seem to be popping up everywhere.

The pizza you receive will look huge, but you will be able to eat it the whole thing because the crust will be wafer thin, it will not be overladen with cheese, and any ingredient requested will be sparingly distributed on its surface.

The very nice guests sitting next to me commented on every single one of these points. We had a nice chat anyway.

After eating more pizza than I should have and that third glass of wine I wobbled (no comment this time) back to the hotel and drifted to sleep within seconds of head touching pillow.

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Day 3, Monday, April 16th


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