Last day in Madrid. Last chance to fit in that elusive daytrip to Alcalá de Henares. I tried to muster the enthusiasm. I tried real hard. And then I re-nestled into my cozy (Read: Small. But I like to stay positive.) but comfy twin-sized bed and slept for another hour.
Nope. No motivation. Nothing. Not happening. I suck at this daytrip thing. Which is exactly why we excel at road trips where you just naturally advance on to the next town.
And after 5 days of aggressive sightseeing, I was physically tired. I reminded myself that I travel for personal pleasure. I was not going to force myself into doing something I did not want to do.
Thankfully I do not have this laissez faire attitude towards gym attendance or I would be in serious trouble.
A nice and slow day was in order. Well … At least that was my intention when I finally stopped turning around in bed and set out in search of coffee.
Several times during the week I had tried to go into one of Madrid’s most famous and traditional bakeries, La Mallorquina. Located directly on the Puerta del Sol, it is frequented by locals and tourists alike. This is the kind of establishments where out-of-town Spaniards will not consider a visit to the city complete until they have had a few of their goodies and seems also to be the go-to place to buy sweets to bring wherever you are going for Sunday lunch.
But every time I had tried to approach, the place was packed to the point where I could not even take pictures. I consider myself a reasonably assertive person but fighting it out for counter space on a Sunday requires old-lady-with-sharp-elbows-level skills and frankly, I’m not there yet.
Being my last day in town, my quest for coffee early on Thursday morning led me there. Surprise! It was crowded, but manageable.
Everything in La Mallorquina is beautifully made and picture perfect. I’m sure all their desserts taste great, but I was looking for savory pastries and the selection was not extensive. I finally ordered a tuna empanada which had great texture but too many olives for my liking. Coffee was excellent; though I think I’ve never had bad coffee in Spain with the notable exception of big hotel buffets and their thermos.
La Mallorquina has an upstairs dining/sit down white-tablecloth area. I’m not sure what the ordering protocol is but they have a waiter/bouncer guarding the stairs. He had to get a ‘let her pass‘ nod from the guy that served me coffee before I could go up and use the restroom. Honestly, not my cup of tea (or coffee).
Before leaving the hotel I had taken at the still-uncrossed items on The Spreadsheet: San Nicolás de los Servitas, Casa Cisneros, the San Antón market in Chueca, a walk through Malasaña… all enticing places but too spread out to make an easy route. The Museo de las Américas was also a possibility.
Instead, I chose a place I had never heard of until a few weeks before when I was planning the trip. My desire to visit was based on a casual mention by fellow poster on a travel board: the Cerralbo Museum.
I owe him a drink if we ever meet in person.
The palace houses the art and historical object collections of Enrique de Aguilera y Gamboa, 17th Marquis of Cerralbo, who died in 1922. The building was conceived and built to serve not only as a palatial family home befitting their station, but also -and even more important- to showcase to his prodigious collection.
The number of objects in this palace is mind blowing and nothing is treated casually. The marquis donated the estate to the government on the condition that every object must remain exactly as he had set it up for display. Down to the teaspoons.
There is everything and anything that ever caught the marquis attention: Samurai armors, Phoenician vases, Greek and Roman coins, Iberic weapons, Ottoman tea sets, Murano chandeliers, paintings by Spanish masters, jewelry, tapestries, ceramics, magical clocks, first editions of rare books . Even the wallpaper is original, remarkably preserved, and simply exquisite.
The Marquis certainly did not lack good taste. Or funds apparently.
I even took the optional guided tour (seldom happens) and stuck it out (I usually bail out ASAP). And then revisited the entire palace at my own pace to savor all the details. What an exquisite and utterly fascinating experience!
I never expected to spend that much time on the visit, but almost 4 hours went by in a flash.
Technically, I my visit to Madrid was done. Every Top Priority Item on The Spreadsheet had been covered, and then some. But I still had most of the day ahead of me and I was certainly not going to spend it doing nothing!
Wandering along Bailén street took me past the Royal Palace (been there, done that, had no intention of revisiting) when I saw a sign stating that although the palace was not open to visits for the remaining part of the month, two tours were still being offered: The Armory and The Royal Kitchens. That sparked my interest immediately. I suffer from acute kitchen envy.
There were not more than 5 people in queue (all wanting to see the palace, not believing the humongous signs obviously stating that it was not open for visiting), so I went to see if there was space available for the Royal Kitchens tour. 10 minutes later I had a ticket in my hand for later in the day; perfect timing to enjoy lunch.
After stopping to read menus along the street looking for something to eat on the lighter side, I finally settled on Taberneros Wine Bar. I usually do not like to sit on fully exposed sidewalk tables to avoid obnoxious beggars but the day was so nice that I grabbed one when I saw it available.
The menu for the day consisted of a slice of toast thickly smeared with paté, house salad with chicken on a very nice gingery dressing, and grilled fish with a side of mashed root vegetables and peppers.
Everything was tasty enough that I would have even considered going back to the restaurant had I had more time in the city. There was a duck dish on the menu which I would have loved to try.
The tour of the Royal Kitchen starts with a long (loooooong) walk through the palace grounds. The group is tightly herded by palace guards and there was no straggling allowed. Do not forget to take a jacket along if you ever do this tour. It was cold! At least 15 degrees lower than the outside.
Once you are there, you find out this is not a tour per se, it is an escorted visit. This means that you are on your own; you must read the placards for information. I enjoyed tremendously the visit, but this is an entirely biased opinion (are there any others?) as I love cooking and kitchens.
The kitchen -in its current form- was used from the mid 1800s -when it got renovated with every technological bell and whistle available- until the 1970s. All very interesting. There was also a display of china which I’m not nearly as interested in.
The visit was over in less than an hour and we were left by the main courtyard to make our way out by ourselves. I was able to walk to the back balcony to take pictures.
It was 5:20pm. I was not (too) tired and it was still early to call it quits but too late to really explore a new area. As I’m literally sitting on the curb in front of the Royal Palace a sudden flash of inspiration stroke. I still had the chance to get to see the one thing I had been denied access to in Madrid.
Time to head back to El Prado. Again. A place that had not even been included in the Top-Priority list.
Pay attention because this is an actual touring hack: I knew that El Prado is free after 6:00pm, but I was not aware of what I think is the real deal: admissions to temporary exhibit are at half price AND you get admittance to the museum with it. Entirely bypassing the 1,234 people on the free admission queue.
Not that full admission price would break the bank, but its the principle that counts. And after 6:00 you cannot even pay the entry price even if you wanted to.
My visit earlier that week, sadly cut short as I approached the Flemish masters, had left me hankering for some Rubens (well, and the Jerónimos cloister which had been the main reason for the visit). So I was more than happy to purchase a ticket for the ’Rubens Painter of Sketches’ exhibit.
I was second in the Exhibits line at 5:55pm and heading at full speed towards the cloister at 6:02pm.
When the museum started working on its massive expansion, the Jerónimos Cloister was completely disassembled, moved to a workshop in Alcalcá, subjected to massive restoration, and rebuilt on its original site before it became exhibition space.
I made it as far as the escalator. The two ladies in charge of closing the cloister at 6:00pm were just ahead of me. Nononononono!!! I would not be denied a second time.
Once again, pleading my case politely (and reasonably) paid off. They let me in for a quick peek, all I asked for.
The baroque cloister is simply beautiful and elegant. Erected within that new hall, it is tall and airy, though fully enclosed. I was very happy to visit but it lacked that je ne sais quoi that attracts me to cloisters. I must have been a happy cloistered nun on a past life, lol.
The Rubens Painter of Sketches was interesting beyond my expectations. I am not a diehard fan of Rubens but I was mesmerized by the raw power of the studies on canvas. I will go as far as to say that I actually preferred the sketches to the finished work. I found the exhibit very educational and well curated. And a bargain at half price.
It was not even 7:00 PM, so I had time to go visit Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Delights and made it all the way to Goya’s Black Paintings before getting kicked out at 7:59:59 PM when the staff starts their incredibly efficient herding operation. I think the museum is cleared of visitors in less than 10 minutes.
Still giddy from my ultimate success at -for the first time EVER- getting to see every single Top and Mid Priority Item on The Spreadsheet without major hustling and still fully enjoying each visit, I headed for a stroll through el Parque del Buen Retiro. I was by the pond (well, sitting at the outside café with a glass of wine at hand) when the golden hour hit. It was picture perfect!
I figured I had nothing to loose and went to Restaurant Arzabal and see if I could get a table as reservation-less walk-in. Place was packed but it worked! I was given a high table in the bar area and close to the door, but I was seated.
As an amouse bouche I got a slice of Spanish potato tortilla which was scrumptious; firm potatoes loosely bound with an almost custardy egg mixture. We were off to a good start. I only ordered dishes in which half-portions were available. My first course was a slice of perfectly seared foie with a fig and garnacha wine reduction. Heavenly!
Second course was a thick stew of venison with root vegetables. Sounds simple but the flavors were expertly layered achieving a delectable complexity. I decided that I had space for one more: a soupy stew of lentils with partridge. All earthy goodness in a tiny pretty pot. All this with two glasses of Spanish cava for 47. Highly, highly recommended.
I walked through the Puerta de Alcalá on the way back to the hotel, fitting I guess, since that is how close as I ever got to that daytrip to Alcalá de Henares on this visit.
And that was it. A week in Madrid gone by in a flash.
This was the longest solo trip I have taken. And it was an enlightening experience. Yes, I would have preferred the Hubs company (I still kinda like him after all this years!) but on the other hand, he would have absolutely and profoundly hated my museum-intensive itinerary.
And that is the wonderful thing about solo travel: you get to do exactly what YOU want to do, for as long as YOU want to do, and as many times as YOU want to. No compromises required.
Day 6, Last Day, Friday, April 19th