Above: all random corner sandwich shops in Spain have pork hanging from the ceiling. Jeff will explain later, and he will be chiming in throughout as I describe our travels in Spain.
I'm going to give the flight from Chicago to Madrid a charitable B-minus. Positives: the number of empty seats meant bonus bread for everybody; Jeff and I sat in side aisle seats over the wing that was emblazoned with a snazzy Rolls Royce logo; negligible turbulence. Negatives: a newborn I knew was going to be trouble was very cranky indeed; no personal entertainment screens; cabin became stuffy as we made our way across the Atlantic.
We barely dozed throughout the eight hour flight. I read a pretty good chunk of Water Music, T.C. Boyle's first novel, at which I had been chipping away for quite some time. Dickensian but dirtier, funnier, and more swashbuckling, Water Music is historical sorta-fiction about 18th Century exploration of the Niger River. Highly recommended. (But I love pretty much anything T.C. Boyle writes. Like reading about hippies? Try Drop City. Frank Lloyd Wright? The Women.)
Jeff: My book was The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby. Not the most flattering picture of America, so I'd recommend it more if you are leaving U.S. airspace than if you're returning.
We landed in Madrid at sunrise on my birthday, although it felt like 2:00 in the morning to us. Madrid's airport is gorgeous and modern, with wavy arches in sunset hues, and it was virtually empty when we arrived. "This is the quietest airport I've ever been in," I whispered to Jeff on an escalator.
Jeff: Madrid apparently upgraded many of their services in a bid for the 2012 Olympics. They didn't win the bid, but we were very impressed with their exceptional public transportation.
We made our way to the Metro that took us into the city. Our hotel was somewhat centrally located. We got off one stop too soon and ended up pulling our luggage (me) or backpacking it (Jeff) for what seemed like fifteen but was probably more like one mile. We arrived at the Hesperia, our hotel, pre-exhausted, but they managed to make a room up for us and let us check in extra-early.
Jeff: Just up the road from our hotel was the Torre Picasso. It was designed by the same architect who also designed the World Trade Center towers. They're quite similar, and it was an eerie site on the skyline.
The room was lovely with dark wood accents, boasting a king-sized bed/white duvet combo and a good bathroom (albeit one designed for men more than women) about the same size as the bedroom. The tub had a shower and one of those annoying half-glass doors that allow plenty of cold air to circulate while you attempt to shave your legs:
Over the sink, the mirror's lighting came from two tiny but bright halogens that shot down from the ceiling, creating goulish face shadows. And once again I renewed my hatred for European toilets, with their one-ounce water puddles in the bottom. I have never EVER enjoyed the smell of my own urine (or anyone else's) and resent any and all toilets that reacquaint me with it. Sorry world, but that's the way I feel.
Finally, a word about the hotel's name, Hesperia. Because of its similarity to Def Leppard's song Hysteria, I had that song in my head the entire trip. Our hotel in Barcelona was also a (an?) Hesperia, so yes. ENTIRE TRIP. And I like that song, but sheesh.
Even though the cushy bed was calling our names, we went with Jeff's strategy of hitting the ground running and instantly adopting Spain's timetable, which is pretty strange anyway (more on that later).
Jeff: This is my avoid-jet-lag strategy. And drink lots of water to avoid the lag headache. Madrid's tap water, agua del grifo? Also exceptional.
We took the pristine #27 bus from a stop right in front of our hotel to the Prado museum, which we located after some searching. We spotted a sizeable cluster of older women in various furs milling around nearby: this became our visual cue that we were in the vicinity of an art museum.
I've wanted to visit the Prado for 24 years--I had a poster in college emblazoned with its name--and it was one of the few big-league art museums I had not yet visited. The Prado did not disappoint. In fact, it is now my favorite art museum, beating London's National Gallery, the Met, The Art Institute of Chicago, and even the Louvre.
The Prado was, as expected, enormous but not overwhelming. The permanent collection was devoted largely to paintings, and we explored it chronologically. Its many, many pre-Renaissance religious paintings started to give us "annunciation fatigue," as we began to call it. At the same time, this period's conformity of style made the breakout works a few galleries away seem to hum with originality and genius.
Highlights included some major El Grecos--tall, complex compositions with his trademark elongations and Mannerist palette.
Velazquez and Goya were also prominently displayed. "Las Meninas" was a huge thrill. The light in that painting is something that reproductions never quite do justice. After explaining this masterpiece to students for seventeen years, I was so happy to finally see it.
Goya's work from royal portraiture--that piggy king and his awful wife--to his disasters of war, to the really dark and scary work of his later years: it was all there, including his emotional masterpiece, "The Third of May." This was more moving in person than I expected, and I also enjoyed seeing details like the line describing the side of a boot, the variety of grays in the soldiers' uniforms, etc. And we were unprepared for the gut-punch of this painting of a trapped dog:
Jeff was justifiably happy to see Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights," and so was I. What a tour de force of weirdness and tiny details, many of them disturbing or disgusting.
A crowd gathered around it, spellbound. I enjoyed seeing the other sides of the left and right panels of this triptych. When closed, they create a stylized, transparent planet earth in white on a black background.
A few other Bosches were in the same room, and I could sense his isolation from the rest of the art world in the way he painted angels with bizarre insect wings and other ideas that were uniquely his own.
I think the painting that moved me the most during my entire tour of Spain's artistic treasures was, oddly, Durer's self-portrait as a young man. I had also taught this painting many times, but seeing it in person was a revelation, and it took me by surprise as I rounded a gallery corner. It's small, no bigger than 11"x14", and it invites the viewer to come closer. And that exquisite, kind of sad but still very confident face...I felt a sudden kinship with the man. Durer, a German, was also isolated from the real art scene in Italy, and had he lived there he would have been considered a genius like Leonardo. But in Germany, artists were craftsmen, not geniuses. I could sense his frustration, and it moved me to tears. He seemed to be saying to me, "I believe that you are one of us--keep on" (words of praise I had once received from a judge at an art contest when I was sixteen).
Durer's life-sized Adam and Eve were also on display in a main-drag hallway. Adam resembled a kind of stoner dude, and Eve was cearly the brains of the operation and up to no good.
We had a snack midway through the Prado--the first of many jamon sandwiches we would eat in Spain. I can imagine my family in Illinois looking at the above sandwich and thinking: NOT MUCH. Where is the mayo, the lettuce, the cheese? Just dry crusty bread and a couple of slices of ham?
Oh, but WHAT HAM!
We had sampled jamon Iberico a couple of months before we left for Spain--at a ludicrous $100 per pound--and it was like no other ham we had ever tasted. Complex and nutty, its taste seemed to evolve with every chew. So to slop some mustard on it would be an insult to the ham. I asked Jeff, who has become a sort of ham geek, to elaborate on the glory of this Spanish delicacy:
Ham, or "jamon" in Spanish, is a religion in Spain. It's dry cured, usually for many months, and is more similar to Italian prosciutto than the ham you'll find in an American deli. Like French wines and Belgian beers, they even have designation of origins to protect the names of their varieties.
Jamon Serrano ("mountain ham"), made from white pigs, is the lowest and least expensive designation, and it can be found nearly everywhere in Spain. Order a bocadillo (sandwich) de jamon serrano, and you'll receive 1-2 slices of a thin meat with large, visible fatty strips on a six-inch crusty baguette. Nothing else. No condiments to spoil the stunning flavor. Tear into it, and you'll likely find yourself converted to the cult of jamon.
However if you truly want to experience Spanish ham, then order Jamon Iberico which is made from black, Iberian pigs. There are three designations to it, and all are magical. We tried all three, including Jamon Iberico de Bellata, the highest designation. Bellata means acorn, and it's so called because that's all the pigs are fed during the last weeks of their lives. When the thin strips first hit our tongues, the texture felt like a simple jerky, but, as we chewed, it exploded into complex layers of sweet and salty nuttiness. A true game-changer, and the ham by which all ham will now be judged.
Thank you, Jeff, and thank you, Spain for ruining ham for us!
Back to our first day in Madrid.
The Prado forced us to endure over four hours of The Museum Walk: a few slow steps forward, a couple back, pause, look, start up again. It's surprisingly tiring, even moreso than regular long-distance walking. My feet were killing me by the time we left the museum, but we had two more items to cross off the day's itinerary, so we made tracks for the Plaza del Sol.
As we wandered the Plaza looking for some kind of bar Jeff had researched, the low, early afternoon sun warmed us. "Here it is," Jeff said, steering me into a tiny place packed with men and women drinking mini glasses of beer and munching on what looked like pieces of fried fish. They were, in fact, croquetas de bacalao, a.k.a. cod croquettes.
Jeff: This was Casa Labra, and it's been serving food for over 100 years. If you want to find the best places to eat while traveling, check out ChowHound.com. Those tiny glasses of beer are called "cana." They're only 1-2 euros. I usually drink only Belgian or Irish beer, if I drink it at all, but Spanish ale was fresh and sweet and a pleasant surprise.
The croquetas here are famous, and inexpensive too. I bit into a croqueta, expecting little more than Filet-O-Fishiness, but I was rewarded with so much more. The cod was in there, but along with it came a dense, rich creaminess--a casserole-iness, if you will--that made me weak in the knees. Jeff and I looked at each other, stunned. Huh. Fish can do this? I could have easily eaten about a dozen more, but we took off in the direction of San Gines Chocolateria...
....to gorge on chocolate con churros. Like so:
What you have here is deep-fried dough (batter piped into hot oil using a pastry bag fitted with a star tip) and a small cup of molten chocolate, in a thick, near-pudding consistency. Objective: dip dough into chocolate and consume.
After being awake for nearly 24 hours, this was exactly what we needed. We sat at a corner table, listened to American pop music (which was everywhere in Madrid and Barcelona), and groaned with delight before hobbling back to the hotel. We slept for about three hours, waking up at 7:00 p.m.
I don't think we ever truly acclimated to Spain time, and here's why: they have a cuckoo eating schedule. Breakfast seems to be whatever you can grab between 9:00 and noon. We usually ate croissants crammed with chocolate or more of those jamon sandwiches. Lunch is around 2:00-4:00, and it's typically the big meal of the day. If you miss it, lotsa luck, buddy, because everything good closes at 4:00. Then supper starts around 8:30 and goes way past 10:00.
If I may? That is WEIRD ASS.
So we tried to adapt to this schedule--we who typically eat like dieting senior citizens--and it truly messed with us. We'd roll into our hotel after 10:00 p.m., full of food and good times, and we would be unable to get to sleep before 4:00 a.m. So the late night food plus the jet lag plus the WE DON'T EAT THIS WAY made Spain's timetable a challenge.
Our first foray into late night eating in Spain took place at a small and eventually crowded Basque-style restaurant/bar called Txirimiri (cutely pronounced, we think, "cheery-meery"), which we located after a couple of Metro rides and a little where-the-heck-is-it. Spoiler alert: this was the best food of the trip. We arrived around 8:00, and after some English/Spanish confusion, we learned that the kitchen wouldn't open for another half hour. We hung around and drank (Jeff) and nursed (me) some sparkling wine while we waited at the bar.
While we waited, the following reality began to sink in: they speak a whole lot of Spanish in Spain. They don't know what to do with English speakers. Jeff had studied Spanish for a few years in high school and college, but I only knew a handful of words. You see, when I was in high school, "art" counted as a foreign language, and that's a real hole in my education. We were able to get by in Spain, certainly all thanks to Jeff, but not as easily as we had in other European countries.
Anyway, thanks to our enthusiasm for the food, our waiter/bartender warmed up to us, even moreso when we asked to take a photo of him. Txirimiri serves pintxos, which are the Basque equivalent of tapas. These are small plates of snacklike food, served kind of like appetizers. Since they are so small, you can sample a lot of different, gorgeous items from the cramped-looking kitchen. Such as...
...beautiful mini burgers made from beef cheeks, deep fried and served with mushroom sauce atop a baguette slice (so good we mopped up the sauce with scraps of fallen lettuce)...
...Jeff's favorite, seared foie gras with a raspberry sauce (he moans whenever he sees this photo)...
...and more croquetas. I am going to have to figure out how to make these. Non-negotiable.
And that was our first day in Madrid. Don't worry; future blogs will be shorter! But as anyone who has ever visited Europe can tell you, that first day is a doozy.