Well, i’m back from adventures in Spain with Mr. Os. We both agree, the trip was a mix of fun, culture and wonderful, unexpected things along the way. There is so much to share, beginning in Madrid, then on to Seville and wrapping up in Barcelona. Yep, there will be lots of Spain-related blogging in the upcoming weeks. Spoiler Alert: Spain is a must-see destination, and when you realize that it was once the ruler of the seas, and the seat of world power…well, why wouldn’t it be?
Before i jump in, there is one thing that i wanted to share immediately. Why? Well, aside from the obvious sites we’ll visit, I thought “which one moved me the most?” When i look back on this trip, this experience was one of my fondest memories—and it improved the rest of our experience.
As you can imagine, there is a ton to do in Madrid. Like any major city, although the highlights can be fit in to a week, to truly uncover the gems and understand what makes a city “tick” it can take months, years, a lifetime.
But, me, I just want my holiday to start on the right foot. And for that, there’s nothing like a local. Take my advice, a good start is the Madrid Food Tour. I stumbled across this company while i researching walking tours for the city (another thing to do to kick off any city visit—you’ll get a lay of the land, hit major sights, and feel less like a fish out of water). They have several options for tours so review them and decide what appeals most to you. We did the tapas, taverns and history tour which was absolutely fantastic. They had me at tapas, and Mr. Os at history…and taverns, who are we joking? While i cannot speak to the company’s other tours, after having been on this one, i cannot imagine they would be anything less than stellar. That said, it may also depend on the tour guide, and there we lucked out.
I am going to respect our guide’s list, and withhold the names and locations of the pubs we visited. I feel like it could take business away from his company. Besides, if you’re just going for the tapas and taverns, you’re missing the point. It’s about learning the finer points of how to behave in a tapas bar, where to put your olive pits, how to engage the bartender, and learn about the history of the city while winding through narrow streets that lead to hidden gems you’ll be hard pressed to find again. Like a place to buy handmade leather bags at great prices.
I will say we were at first taken aback by the price, and concerned about the price/tapas ratio. Before you get sticker shock, remember you’re getting four hours of not only a guided tour (and our guide, James, *really* is a student of history, not just a student fluent in Spanish and can point to a tourist site). The drinks were plentiful and ranged from vermouth, wine (your choice: red, white), beer was available and in one spot we tried a flight of Sherry. The food was also plentiful and delicious. We ended the tour very well fed and extremely satisfied with our monetary investment.
Instead of naming names and places, i will elaborate on why i think this is the first thing you should do in Madrid. James was waiting at the designated meeting location with an easy-to-spot sign. Right away i knew we were in good hands. James was personable, engaging and welcoming. Being from New Zealand, his English was flawless (i mention this because many people in Spain understand English but have a hard time speaking the language. You can imagine how interesting the tour would be under those circumstances.) Once our group of eight assembled, which seemed to happen almost instantly, James gave us a short introduction of what we’d see, what to expect, encouragement to ask questions, and with that we were off to our first stop, seconds away.
Here James introduced us to Spain’s best kept secret. The country’s Vermouth (known as Vermut in Spain) is not anything like what we’re familiar with from Italy. In fact, it’s very drinkable—immensely quaffable, as a friend of ours says—and in the instance of our first stop, it comes from a tap. I did not know that Spain makes vermut and it’s not uncommon to get it as an aperitif, and James confides that just like keg beer, it’s better from the tap. The drink consists of a (in most cases) healthy pour, over one ice cubes (generally two to three large ones) and a slice of orange in the glass. It tastes very, for lack of a better description, “even”: not overly strong, not too sweet, or bitter. Just a smooth beverage that goes well with olives and orange peel, or with tapas like that delicious jamon…or really anything, according to Mr. Os, who developed an instant taste for them.
While we sipped vermut James explained the history and tradition behind the tapas. We also learned -at least depending on the person’s point of view- that in Madrid tapas are a bars way of thanking patrons for visiting. Another historical rendering of this is that way back when the working class lacked the money for drinks AND food. So, during the midday break they would visit a bar and leave completely snookered because they opted to drink and forego the food. As a result, a King passed a law saying bars had to serve food any time they served alcohol. He felt this would curb the drunkness that was plaguing the noon hours. So, enter the tapas: a small food item, maybe olives, maybe jamon or tomato on bread. As an aside: bread is very big in Spain. In fact, they probably would offer you a side of bread with bread, if you asked, and not look at you twice. But note, that at times there is a “bread charge,” so if you aren’t going to eat the bread, ask them to take it away. And double check the bill. It’s not a big deal, but now you know.
During our tour we traversed the old city, going into its history as we hopped from one tapas place to the next. It’s a truncated version of a walking tour, but it covers the basics and you become familiar with key streets. This is a great way to familiarize yourself with Madrid and it gets you thinking about what you want to visit again in more depth and detail. You will also discover unique bars that you would likely never find on your own, or you would blow right by them because they’re on a narrow side street. James, and by extension our group, was warmly welcomed but not catered to especially. We were treated as locals who could enjoy the vibe and conversation.
And of course there were significant but meaningful “extra touches,” to back up my first-thing-to-do-recommendation. At the end of the evening, we each received an insiders guide to Madrid, compliments of Madrid Food Tour. This included restaurants and hidden adventures to consider while in town. It also had some quick and helpful Spanish phrases (beyond “donde esta el bano”). And, as if James wasn’t fabulous enough, he guided us to the Metro, called our hotel to confirm we were on the correct line and then double checked the location on his phone, showing us the route to walk when we got off the train.
This was an all around excellent way to spend the evening, and a great way to begin a trip in Madrid if you want to get an instant feel for the city and a general sense of direction. I recommend this type of approach generally as a good activity when you visit a new city, and if you’re traveling to Madrid, then this group has my stamp of approval.