Shortly after Emirates announced the launch of its direct flight to Madrid, a swift decision was made to spend our summer holidays in Spain this year. Angel’s no direct flights from Dubai to home suffering has finally come to an end.
We spent the most wonderful three weeks in July between Madrid, Barcelona, and Gran Canaria. The latter was a customary bonus ride to visit my in-laws, which has to remain a story for another day…
This wasn’t my first time in Spain, however I always felt that I ought to familiarize myself with my husband’s country just a little bit more. Besides, I was getting slightly tired of answering the question “Which one do you prefer, Madrid of Barcelona?” with “I am not sure, I’ve only been two days in Madrid and never to Barcelona!”.
What was becoming even more annoying is everyone’s apparent expectations of me to kind of pick a side. I kept finding myself getting pulled into opposite directions while planning this trip. People I spoke to, other blogs, travel magazines, my mother’s neighbor, everyone seemed inclined to favor one over the other, and insistently urging me to do so too!
It came to a point where I was so conscious of it that I had to put my guard a little up to protect myself from bias reviews of places I haven’t seen or had a fair chance to make a personal opinion of yet.
Have you ever found yourself in this situation?
Here, I aim to present the highlights of my own experience and articulate my own views. No favorites, just what I saw and did. Feel free to be the judge if at all needed…
Angel is a dedicated Real Madrid supporter, and even though they are not showcasing their best talents lately (my opinion), for the sake of my own sanity and the solidity of my marriage, I am now one too. All these years he’s a diehard fan, yet it didn’t occur to him to take the Santiago Bernbeu Stadium tour until I was visiting. That’s a sign of a good husband, who likes to share his most prized possessions with his beloved wife I suppose. #positivevibesonly.
This was my first stadium tour. Surprisingly, I didn’t hate it at all! I liked the museum and the digital experiences bit. The sizable field itself was very architecturally attractive, and it does help to have an image of it while watching a big game on TV and trying to put up a believable fan performance.
On this front, I am going to need to take a side I am afraid. eeeekk
After all that excitement, I was ready for lunch. In fact, I’ve been ready for lunch before I even got on that plane to Spain. Eating to my heart’s content in Spain has always been my main goal from this trip. Madrid is certainly a good place to start.
We found ourselves strolling down La Gran Via street. We were lured into the Mercado de la Reina restaurant following an excited crowd. Two rules to finding the right dining spot in Spain (or anywhere else really) if you don’t have a fixed plan, follow the noise and the smell. If the locals are eating there, you’re up for a good time. Besides nothing makes a good meal taste even better than a great restaurant atmosphere. It was a couple of hours of ordering, sampling, and eating almost everything that was on display or in the menu. Yet to learn the art of pacing myself through a tapas meal I am afraid.
I was completely out into a food coma afterwards. Oddly, all I kept thinking about was, when can we do it again?
I did think I was done mindlessly munching for the day, but Angel had already made a rendezvous with friends to catch up over drinks in the evening. We were staying in La Latina area, one of Madrid’s oldest neighborhoods that come alive with vibrant street bars and tapas hangouts at night. The promise of a lovely night out (and more yummy food) around the corner was greater than my waning energy.
We met our friends at one spot, then we moved to another with more friends, and to another with even more people, some I believe we met along the way. This became the trend of the night, which is probably the best way to sample and enjoy what La Latina has to offer.
I am not sure how that night ended. I do very well remember how the next morning started though, with the world’s most delicious Chocolate con Churros breakfast at Chocolateria Valor. If you have never had Chocolate con Churros for breakfast, do yourself a favor and book that flight to Madrid now. Life is too short you guys, this is what you need to be doing to make the most of it…
Gastronomically fulfilled, I was now in shape to explore another essential side of Madrid’s touristic offering, the art scene. I can’t pretend to be the artsy type or by any mean have a serious interest in the subject. I mean, I AM into photography as a visual art, but you wouldn’t normally find me hanging out in art galleries or that kind of museums. Nevertheless, when in Madrid checking out at least one of the pillars of the golden art triangle (if not all) is somewhat mandatory .
We picked the Museo del Prado, which is Spain’s main national art museum, and reputed to have the best collection in the country. Despite my modest arts knowledge, the Prado did not disappoint. The content here is mostly consumable by the “average person” like yours truly.
Later that night, a friend invited us to join a spontaneous outing in Chueca. We were both super intrigued to check out Madrid’s legendary nightlife vibes there, and in equal measure anxious of standing out as the most underdressed couple in the block.
We dragged our bruised egos along anyway, and were we in for a pleasant surprise. It was defiantly an action-packed night, including a couple of passionate proposals that I received from the wrong gender. We checked out few places, the later we stayed the flashier it got, and boy was that crowd pretty!
Great great fun..
On our last day in Madrid I braced myself for another day of boyish fun at Parque Warner, a short drive just outside Madrid. This was the midst of summer, around the time locals flee to cooler outskirts and coastal vacation locations, so it wasn’t that crowded. Not at all complaining about the lack of queues at rides or eating outlets, but it did take SPF 90 to keep me from turning blue.
Theme parks is another territory that I venture into reluctantly while travelling. I don’t really like wasting precious vacation time where there isn’t much for me to do. This one was fairly adult focused, and it was fun watching Angel get dizzy in tall roller-coasters (Kidding, maybe!).
Another thing we enjoyed doing in Madrid is day tripping to nearby cities such as Cuenca, Toledo, and El Escorial. You can see some of my favorite moments from these places on my Instagram account.
My first impressions of Barcelona took shape as soon as we came off our AVE train. The Barcelona Sants Train Station bustled with faces, languages, colors, and life of many sorts. We knew right away that our days here were going to be busier and faster than those we spent in Madrid, hopefully not that hectic.
We decided to lodge centrally in the Plaza Catalunya area, which has great access to main attractions either on foot or by metro.
About 200 meters away, the famous Las Ramblas passage oozed high energy. A perfect introduction for the first timers like us. I now believe that this place says it all about Barcelona. Let’s say you had few hours to spend in the city while on transit, this is where you’d come to touch the beating heart of it. It has it all, delicious food, souvenirs, street performers, and of course we can’t forget the famous La Boqueria Market .
You can even get your pocket picked here for the first time, Barcelona style.
At the end of the Las Ramblas stretch, the statue of Cristóbal Colón (better known as Christopher Columbus) stood around 50 meters tall, pointing towards wherever he thinks he wants to be. We climbed to the top to take in the high perspective vistas. The tiny mirador room was fairly crammed, so it took us a while to get a good viewing position. When the sun leaned down, it melted into a thin golden blanket covering the horizon of beautiful Barca..
Our evening program consisted of a spectacular Flamenco/Opera fusion show at the Palau de la Musica Catalana, that integrated young and mature talent. It kept us on our feet for few minutes cheering in utter contentment at the end. The real attraction was actually the architectural wonder in which the show took place. Curved and detailed in the captivating typical Catalan Modernism style, it was a treat to be there even without the show.
The next day, we took a more organized approach to sightseeing. Our main objective was to ensure that we tick out some must sees. Our first stop was at the one and only Sagrada Familia; Gaudi’s masterpiece that keeps him alive in the eyes of his fans. It was bigger and far more fascinating than I have heard or imagined. The queues to the tickets window turned around the building at least twice. Once we were inside it was easy to see why. The hard thing for me to do then was to put my camera down.
We climbed one of the eight finished towers of the church. If the interior of the building wasn’t spectacular enough, try the view of the city from up there.
Next, we checked out Park Guell in the Garcia district. I loved how this particular Gaudi creation harmoniously blends originality with nature. Initially built as a housing complex, it is now one of the most visited attractions in the whole of Spain. It was full of life and activity when we were there, but we could still find quiet corners to relax and just be there.
Although I have to mention that one disruptive moment when we were almost trampled by a number of street venders fleeing the scene as the police arrived. Ops, someone didn’t get their legal documents in check!
On the opposite side of town, we explored the Montjuic hill. We started at the Montjuic Castle, which provided great views from high above the city as well as an insight into part of its military history. Nearby we took a peak at fine modernist art at the Fundacio Joan Miro, where the artist’s work is exclusively displayed.
We caught the scenic Teleferic Montjuic ride back to the city, it was pretty panoramic and fantastic!
Finally came another moment of truth. We decided to take a tour of the Camp Nou Football Stadium. Subconsciously (I think) our intention was to compare it to the Bernabeu! I mean the first one was impressive, just wanted to see what this one stands for.
Guess who was feeling sort of guilty-ish just standing at the enemy’s gate. Oh, this stuff is good!! These Spaniards take their football too seriously, I tell ya. I did have to reassure my husband that it was perfectly ok to go in.
One step at a time we finally entered the premises, but we were late for the guided tour, so we were asked to show ourselves around the common areas. It was a bit rushed, and I am not sure we left with the same satisfied impressions.
Most visitors would opt to chill by a gorgeous Catalunya beach on their last day in Barcelona, get tanned and look the part. I don’t do tanning, so we decided to take it easy and explore more of the city’s popular neighbourhoods.
We ended up crisscrossing the narrow alleys of the Gothic Quarters, marveling at beautiful neo-gothic architecture and taking in the charming settings. While there, we couldn’t pass on a visit to the Museo Picasso, where we got acquainted with the artist’s Las Meninas series and his love affair with the city.
There was some great window (and real) shopping to be done at various boutiques, antique and souvenir stores in this area, and in close by El Born. It took a lot of self-discipline and restrain to stop me from getting into every single one of them and buying everything of course.
After all that walking we rewarded ourselves with one last hearty tapas meal at the Mercat de Santa Caterina. I found this one more genuine and relaxed than La Boqueria. Perhaps the prices were also more reasonable since it’s pretty low key and frequented by mostly locals. I also like my food markets fully wifi connected, this one was; hence it made for a perfect long late lunch location.
And so, this brings us to the end of my mission to discover Madrid and Barcelona this summer. We left filled with Joy and with an extra suitcase. There was still much to see, do, eat and a bunch of other reasons to consider one day going back.
For now, I’ll put aside any silly thoughts of comparing Apples to Oranges, because that’s just not very smart. Each of them has its own distinct flavor, things that I thoroughly enjoyed and others that I didn’t feel as much.
Overall, they were both so wonderfully Spanish.