Friday, June 29, 2007

A walk through Retiro (Part I)

I like to think of the Retiro as Madrid's backyard. Living just a block or so away I go for a walk there most mornings. It's always full of people enjoying the open spaces - kids on the playgrounds, cyclists and roller bladers, readers lounging in the sun, people strolling through the various gardens. It's the place where Madrileños can get away from the streetlife they typically live. Earlier this week I took my camera with me to document some of my favorite places in the park.

One of my favorite walks through the park takes me first to the southern end that is covered in winding paths through overgrown hillsides and then to the western edge with its manicured garden. I most enjoy this path because of the stark contrast between the two settings.



Just after climbing up from the southern "hills" I find myself at the rose garden. Roses have never been my favorite flowers - but a garden full of them at the height of their bloom is a welcome assault on my senses. The beds are divided by rose type, color, and age of species - antiguas and modernas.
Along the way from the rose garden to the western entrance I pass two of my favorite trees - two trees that have probably been in the park for decades. The first will surely end up back on the ground at some point in the future as it impresses us with its flexibility.
The other is an absolutely PERFECT climbing tree. I haven't climbed it, yet, as it's only about 20 feet inside one of the main park entrances. But each time I pass I have to fight the temptation.

On the east side of the park there are a number of little buildings that were once residences for the park's gardeners. It must have been a special job - one of the City's gardeners. The little "homes" now serve as storage areas for the modernday gardeners and they remind me of Elton John's Empty Garden (sung in my mind by Speak of the Devil), "He must have been a gardener who cared a lot, who weeded out the tears and grew a good crop."

One other item of interest to me is the little stand just inside "my" entrance to the park. It is an outdoor bookshelf with the sign "Public Library of Madrid," that usually holds only a handful of weather-torn paperback books. Each time I pass I wonder if it was ever full of books. And who leaves the books there? Do people use it? Maybe I should bring some used ones over and see how long they last there...

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Wheel of Fortune

Today, in honor of Gay Pride Day, the Spanish game show Ruleta de la Fortuna had an all-gay theme. The contestants were 3 gay couples and all of the puzzles were related somehow to the gay community - historical events, poets, icons. I think that we can safely say that this is an only-in-Spain event, or perhaps an only-in-Europe. I can't quite imagine Pat Sajak hosting such a show.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Up in Smoke


To celebrate the arrival of summer, Spain was set on fire last night. In small towns all over the country and most famously on the beaches of Alicante, hogueras, or bonfires, were the center of the festivities. We were in Ciempozuelos, a small town south of Madrid, for Nacho’s aunt’s party, when we happened across the town’s celebration. The celebration cannot compare to those on the beaches, but the meaning is the same. They say that if you make a wish as you jump over the bonfire you’re guaranteed your desire. The same is true if you write your wish on a piece of paper and toss it into the flames. That’s quite different from the old saying of something, “going up in smoke.”

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Basic Necessities

Nacho and I went to the bookstore today to find a gift for his aunt. I noticed on the receipt that the IVA, or VAT or sales tax, was only 4% - the "super-reduced" rate reserved for objects of primary necessity. Here they consider the books to be of the same importance as bread and milk. You've got to love that.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A touch of Class?

Over the past couple of days I’ve been confronted twice with the growing “stylishness” of Spain and the definitive interest in catering to the jet-set. For the most part bar service in a “normal” setting is only preferential for regular customers and pretty girls. That must change, however, when there is big money, or big glamour, involved. Note: I must admit that the two experiences I’m about to relate occurred in notably “posh” areas – Palma de Mallorca and Calle Serrano (the most expensive street in Madrid).

While in Palma, Mallorca this past weekend we stopped in at ABACO, a restaurant-bar famous for its luxurious décor, historical building, and fancy-schmancyness. Nacho’s uncle had recommended the place as one where you go if you want to, “pay a lot for the experience.” We didn’t, particularly, but as we were wandering in search of a dinner spot (see post below) we happened past the entrance. Our attention was drawn to it by the crowd of people and the sign boldly proclaiming “No photos.” We decided to step in to see what all the fuss was about. The place is truly beautiful. There is a decadent living-room-type setting (if your living room is the entrance hall to a palace) and then an outdoor courtyard complete with fountain and caged parrots. As one of Nacho’s cousins and I were admiring the birds a waiter walking past said, “Que asco,” How disgusting. I wasn’t certain what he was talking about but when he returned a minute or so later he followed up with, “Idos ya,” Get out of here already. So we did. We didn’t go on vacation to be insulted. We discussed it over dinner and agreed that he probably was sick of people standing around staring at the gilded ceiling and talking to the birds. My take on it is that the bar has an open door policy for admirers. If you don’t want to deal with them go work elsewhere.

Today I met some friends for lunch on Serrano at Wagaboo, a trendy mini-chain of noodle restaurants in Madrid. I had read that they go so far towards being “cool” that they border on rudeness. But I’d also heard that the food was good and cheap and the setting a unique one. We headed over there at about 1:30 and when we approached the host he asked, “Tenéis reserva?” Excuse me? A reservation? For lunch? At 1:30? We clearly didn’t but he managed to find a table for us anyway. The service ended up being pretty good although all of the staff wear headsets to better control the setting. At one point two men in their mid-20s came down the stairs and I heard one of the waiters say into his headset, “Two boys (chicos) are coming down the stairs and they don’t look as though they belong.” I wonder what he said about us… When we left the restaurant had filled up somewhat but there were still plenty of empty tables. I guess some of the people with reservations must have cancelled.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Campeones campeones oe oe oe

video

Sunday night Real Madrid played for the Spanish Premier League Championship. We watched the game at a bar in Mallorca surrounded by teenagers. Turns out this weekend was also a big one for the "viaje del fin de curso," or the senior trip (taken around both age 16 and age 18). Part of the time we were annoyed by all the kiddies. But they were quite fun to watch the game with. Madrid won after an exciting 8 minutes or so in the 2nd half when they went from losing by one to winning by two. This is the celebration. It might not compare to the 1/2 million people who celebrated at the Cibeles fountain in Madrid but at least no one got hurt or arrested. At least not that we know of.

On an interesting side note - being clearly the only "adults" in the bar we got preferential treatment from the waiter. He was quick to bring us drinks and we are the only ones he brought snacks too (the ever-present plate of olives). And, we found out later, we were the only ones he kept a running tab for. The kiddies paid as they went. A smart move. About 3 minutes after this video was taken the bar was empty - expect for us. It was nice and quiet for our after-game dinner.

A Mallorca voy con mi cancion

I’ve always been amazed by the vast differences in terrain and climate that exist within the boundaries of Spain. Pine trees and palms, mountains and beaches. Mallorca, it turns out, has those same extremes all within its small island.

This weekend Nacho and I headed to the Mediterranean with his cousins and their partners for some sun and relaxation. We went to an all-inclusive hotel in the Arenal beach area – a typical tourist area with wide, beautiful, white sand expanses, a lively boardwalk, chiringuitos (beach-side bars), and lots of Germans. Arenal is about 6 miles from Palma de Mallorca, the capital of the island and the largest city. Our hotel was a respectable 3 stars with a good-sized pool, jacuzzi, lots of bars, and unimpressive food offerings. So Saturday night we decided to go into Palma for dinner and a walk around the city. Hugging the curving line of the bay, Palma is a pretty city with a cozy historical quarter and an impressive duo of hilltop monuments. Sitting next to each other and overlooking the bay are the Palau Almudaina (foreground, a palace started by the Moors [not Moops] in the 13th century and later adopted by the Catholic Kings) and the city’s cathedral (background, one of the world’s largest – started in the 14th century and finally finished by Gaudi in the 20th).



Unfortunately the neighborhood around the monuments is a tourist hub and the service in the bars and restaurants reflected that. (In fact, in addition to its unique terrain, Mallorca has a unique dialect, mallorquín, which is derived from catalan. Most of the signs in the city are, at a minimum, in mallorquín, castellano, and English.) It was clear that a lot of the establishments in the area had adapted themselves to the most prevalent tourist – the northern European (German and English) – and in the process lost a fair amount of their Spanish charm. Perhaps it was a factor of the sheer number of people looking for dinner but even the typical Spanish act of getting a beer at the bar was frowned upon in a couple of the places we visited. When we finally found a good place for dinner (complete with crotchety old Spanish barman) we noticed that, interestingly enough, a majority of the other patrons were also Spaniards. It was a lesson in culture – the floor littered with toothpicks and napkins and the grumpy bartender put off most of the tourists while, for the Spaniards, those same characteristics promised good food and good prices. About 85€ for 6 of us complete with about 10 raciones, drinks, dessert, and coffee at the foot of the cathedral. Not bad at all.

Sunday we rented a car (well, a huge 9-person Mercedes Vito for the 6 of us – extremely comfortable) and headed to the northwest coast of the island. We went in search of the calas – small, secluded beaches – that pepper that coast. We headed on the highway towards the town of Valldemosa passing olive groves as we traversed the interior of the island and then began to climb the hills of the Sierra de Tramontana. We headed to the picturesque town of Deía and its famous cala, stopping along the way at a mirador for a glimpse of the ocean and its characteristic rocky formations. Unless you follow a winding road down to the water’s edge most of the coastline in this area is set on top of sharp cliffs and the views of the ocean below are breathtaking.

The first time around we passed by the handwritten sign directing us down a “road” to Cala Deía. But when we turned back and found it the trip was well worth it. We got to the cala at about 11:30am which was, though we didn’t know it at the time, perfect timing. There were only a handful of people then and the sun was warm but not burning yet. The beach was small and rocky, painful for the feet, but easy on the eyes, and the water was a perfect cool temperature. We stayed for a couple of hours and had our aperitivo (pre-lunch snack) there on the beach. By the time we left the beach was filling with people and the beachside bars were packed.



We continued along the coast to the beachside town of Sóller and its harbor and boardwalk. The town is set around a natural bay and harbor filled with sail boats, colorful houses, and citrus trees, giving it an air of the French Riviera and St. Tropez. There we got lunch and found some shade during the peak of the day. The boardwalk is lined with small cafés and restaurants that overlook the bay and the train tracks of the trolley that parallels the beach. Hugging the cliffs above the beach and the first line of buildings sit multi-million dollar mansions, with flower-covered terraces and hidden entrances.


Refueled from lunch we continued our trek towards the north in search of our final stop – Sa Calobra. We think that means la culebra, or the serpent, and refers to the hair-raising 6 mile road that leads from the mildly less hair-raising highway down to the beach. I found a picture of a portion of the road on Google Earth. What you can’t quite get from the picture is that each switchback and hairpin turn is on the edge of a cliff and the road is only just wide enough for two passing cars (on more than one occasion those two cars being our 9-passenger van and a commercial bus).

The trip down to the beach took about 30 minutes and we passed one minor accident on the decent. The entire way down we kept saying, “This has better be worth it.” It was. The cala at Sa Colobra is smaller than that at Deía but just as rocky. We arrived at about 5pm and, again, had perfect timing, as most of the people had already left for the day. I’ve since read that the beach can be quite touristy with the gift shops and restaurants and daily boat trips in from Sóller, but we escaped all of that and almost had the beach to ourselves. The highlight was a raised concrete dock, designed for the boats, and perfect for a good leap into the water. One of our companions, Peri, was by far the most graceful and I managed to snap this incredible picture.




From Sa Calobra we headed back towards the highway and on to our hotel. Even when you aren’t looking for anything in particular, you follow a curve in the road and come across another incredible sight, like this mountain lake. We snapped a quick shot and then moved on. After all Real Madrid was playing for the championship later that night…

Sunday, June 10, 2007

History lessons

Today we went to lunch at Nacho's parents’ house. We were joined by Nacho's abuela, Brigida, who recently turned 95. At that age you can’t really expect much, but the señorita is lucid and spry as can be. Somehow we got on the topic of the Spanish Civil war and Brigida began to tell stories about her memories from those years. She remembers spending two days in one of the metro stations during a bombing of Madrid and even when the explosions were farther away her house shook from the impact. People fought over food and ate what they could find. With my recent interest in Spanish history it was a fascinating lunch.

When we left their house and headed home we changed buses near the Puerto Toledo. As we strolled down Ronda de Toledo we passed a small park that holds the Chiminea del Gasómetro - the only remaining part of the old gas factory built in the mid 1800's and closed in the late years of the 20th century. This picture doesn't do justice to the impressive height of the tower. With the factory producing coal gas the output of the chimney would have been an ugly smoke. Menos mal that the chimney was tall enough to give the residents below some breathing room. Take note of the graffiti at the base of the chimney. It's a shame. (I went searching on the internet for some additional information about the chimney and the factory. I found it here: http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showpost.php?p=7179028&postcount=60. The page is in Spanish but the pictures are interesting and give a better idea of the size of the chimney.)

Pintxos


Friday night I saw the light. Literally. We went out for tapas and drinks with some friends and the first stop was a Basque bar up near Santiago Bernabeu. It was the most well-lit bar I have ever seen in Spain and the food was wonderful. I didn’t have my camera with me so we’ll make due with a shot of the napkin. With so many words on the napkin I’m not 100% sure what the bar’s name is. But I THINK it’s Taberna Algorta and it’s up by Torre España - around Calle de la Reina Mercedes, 25 (metro Santiago Bernabeu).

The bar specializes in pintxos – slices of baquette with a variety of toppings – and they are laid out in glass cases around the bar. My favorite was huevo de cordoniz con txistorra – three fried mini chorizos wrapped in thinly sliced potato and topped with a sunny-side-up quail egg. I also had one with fried bacalao (cod) topped with roasted red peppers. In addition to the pintxos they have some of the best croquetas I’ve ever had. They are incredibly creamy - but not overwhelmingly so - and have a unique flavor. I recommend trying them for sure.

And with such a well-lit bar, you’ll be able to eat with your eyes as well as your mouth.

Also, the bar serves a house red wine that is truly delicious. And it's bottled especially for the restaurant. The label looks just like the napkin and there's no telling where it comes from for sure. But it's by far the best house wine and one of the better red wines I've had.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Crock of...


Most of my friends laughed at me when I told them I was bringing my Crock Pot with me to Madrid. Heck. Most of them laughed at me for using it back in the States. But that's just because they didn't realize what a godsend it can be. In order for the magical cooker to work here I had to buy an electrical converter while back in the States. Having been unable to determine the exact wattage of my Crock Pot I bought the biggest converter available at a reasonable price. When it arrived at the office I was shocked by the size and weight of the monster. 700 watts and probably 10 pounds. It alone put my suitcase overweight (see My Hero, the Porter" entry) but if tonight's dinner comes out nicely it will be well worth it. I'm attempting to cook in the Crock Pot for the first time since arriving. Coconut Curry Chicken. Keep your fingers crossed that we don't end up calling Telepizza!

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

A BBQ

Last weekend we had a barbeque at Nacho's cousins' apartment. They live in a new and modern attic apartment on the northeastern side of the City center. From it I took these pictures of the growing Madrid skyline.


Above are the four new skyscrapers being built north of the City, on the old Real Madrid practice complex. One of them (I THINK the one on the left) will be the tallest building in Spain.


Later that evening I took this picture of the sunset over the City. You can see the four towers on the right of the shot. Underneath the sun is a new hotel in Avenida de America that apparently holds rooms done by famous designers (it's the one half lit up in tons of red and orange). Behind the hotel is the Torre Picasso - the tallest building in Madrid until the towers are finshed. The Torres Kio are hidden by the building in the middle of the picture. But all in all it's a nice panorama of the City.

Back to the BBQ - a nice mix of Spain and America on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon. After starters of mussels, potatoes and sausage, olives, and small fired fish, we went on to feast on steak, chicken, and sausage with a variety of sauces. There was, of course, a lot of wine and a ton of food and we finished lunch hours after we'd started. After the barbeque came the timba. (My dictionary defines timba as a "gambling party." For once I think we've found a word in Spanish that doesn't have a good English translation.) Before I arrived Nacho had taught his cousins (2 + 2 "spouses") how to play poker. So they were all ready to gamble once we had full stomachs and a slight buzz. we played for about 7 hours, I think. But it was hard to stop, sitting out on their gorgeous terrace on a perfect night, with good friends and good drinks.

The star of the night were the poker chips that Nacho and I found. We decided that morning to go on a hunt for some respectable chips - being used to the clay chips found, now, in every 20-something's game room. It turned out to be a difficult task. First I found out that a likely place was the corner bookstore. Apparently because they also sell novelty gifts. No such luck. But the kind shop owner sent us to a nearby store that specializes in board games. There we did find the chips. But they cost a smal fortune. About $140 for 200 clay chips! That's almost 10 times the cost in the States. We went on to El Corte Ingles, our last hope, and finally found some plastic chips in their tourism department (I know, don't ask). They might not make the nice clunk that the clay chips but they served us well.

Newsworthy

When you buy a newspaper here in Spain, you are not just buying information, you are also buying a certain poitical viewpoint. In general, in the States the papers don't have such political connections. And there's rarely such diversity of choice. In St. Louis you buy the Post Dispatch. In Broward County, South Florida it's the Sun-Sentinel. But in Spain that's not the case. On Sunday Nacho came home from buying the newspaper and noted that he must be the only one in the neighborhood who buys El Pais, which carries a notably left-wing slant. And he got a few looks from the elderly gentlemen around him.