Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Madrid and Toledo, Spain

First impressions of  Espana…


Tapas, vino, blue skies, grand buildings and green parks

We arrived in Madrid close to midnight and took the metro to our hostel, The Mad Hostel. Surprisingly the metro was safe, unlike what we’d heard from some people that had visited before. But over the past year or two, the Spanish transportation system has improved dramatically and it’s safe and convenient to travel on the metro in Madrid and the local trains which connect the major cities together.

After a good night’s sleep we awoke and started planning our few days in the capital of Spain. First stop was Plaza Mayor, a grand square arcade in the centre of Madrid. It was still quite early so the plaza was empty, but it fills up as the sun starts shinning and the people start getting hungry.

Plaza Mayor
From there we walked to Puerta del Sol, where Kilometre Zero resides marking the centre of Spain where all roads lead to this one point. If you ever get lost in Madrid, just keep walking and you’ll most likely end up here! This square is filled with fountains, restaurants, masses of tourists and buskers. A lively place to hang out and soak up the Spanish atmosphere.

Centre of Spain, and the start of our Spanish travels

Next we headed over towards the Royal Palace of Madrid and Plaza de Oriente. 

While we were wandering around the park we noticed a beautiful building off in the distance. We thought we’d go exploring and try and find it… On our Madrid map we figured this building was called the Temple of Debod, so we planned a route to the park where it resided, or so we thought. After a steep climb to the top of the grassy hill of Parque del Oeste, we noticed that it was not the building we wanted to see, but instead it was an ancient Egyptian temple that was rebuilt in Madrid

Temple of Debod

Originally it was built 15km south of Aswan along the Nile, but due to some threats to this site, UNESCO decided to save it. The Egyptian state donated the temple to Madrid, to say thank you to Spain for helping save the temples of Abu Simbel. We never found that original building we wanted to see, but the Temple of Debod is a fantastic monument in itself, with the beautiful reflections off the water surrounding it.


We then walked down Plaza de Espana and onto Calle Gran Via. Gran Via is a famous long street, filled with shopping malls, restaurants and hotels. If you’re just window shopping like we were, it’s great to walk down and admire the grand architecture. There's also theatres showing the big shows, like The Lion King, too bad it would've been in Spanish though... 


By now, our tummy’s were rumbling and calling for some tapas. We were told by a local Madridian that the best tapas restaurants were down Cava Baja and in the La Latina area. So off we went, in search for a place to have our first tapas experience…. After a bit of walking up and down the streets, we started to realise that these restaurants were good, as they were packed with people; but they were also a bit expensive for our budget. Each tapas plate was about 2-4 euros each, but it all adds up, especially with mine and Gaffa’s appetites! We finally found one restaurant called Torra Jamon that did a Tapas degustation menu for only 9.90 euros each. The food was good and very filling! (A more detailed post about this restaurant will follow in the future).

First tapas experience, one of each please!
The next morning we decided to have a relaxing day and spend it chilling out at Retiro Park. This park is the most popular and widely visited park in Madrid. Once you enter, you see why. Wish its lush green landscapes, beautiful statues and a big lake that you can paddle around, you can easily lose a day here. There are a few open air bars to enjoy a drink at and a vast amount of street performers to keep you entertained.

The lake at Retiro Park

Lovers in a bubble
On our last day in Madrid we took a day trip to Toledo. Toledo is 70km south of Madrid and a World Heritage UNESCO site. There is a coexistence of Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures in Toledo, and its grand buildings perched atop a hill make it a nice place to visit to enjoy some more architectural beauty. It only takes about half a day to visit Toledo

The main town is a bit of a walk from the train station, but if you walk up to the top of the hill you can enjoy a view of the whole town before walking down and exploring the small streets below. We had lunch there, and enjoyed a nice 3 course meal with some traditional Toledan dishes, like pollo a la Toledana con patatas (Toledan cooked chicken with onions and French fries) and carcamusas con patatas (pork, tomato sauce, chorizo, bacon, ham, peas and French fries). The pork and chorizo dish was a bit rich, we both preferred the chicken.

Back in Madrid, one afternoon we stumbled upon a great tapas place which we wish we’d found on our first day. The Musée de Jamon, not far from Puerta del Sol near McDonalds; was a packed out tapas bar that sold bocodillos and beer for only 1 euro each! We walked in and squeezed into a space around the bar. Standing room only around the bar, or you can pay a bit extra to sit up stairs in seats. To get the best of the atmosphere here, my advice is to find a space around the bar.

Gaffa enjoying 1 euro cerveza

sangria for me, beer for Gaffa
The numerous waiters were working off their feet and never stood still expect to wait for the beers to pour from the tap. The jamon or chorizo bocodillos, jamon and cheese croissants were already made up sitting behind the bar, and there was a vast array of other tapas dishes you could order off the menu. Over the 3 nights were there, we tried the numerous bocodillos, croissants, garlic prawns, jamon and melon, meat and cheese plates, beer, sangria and red wine with lemon (vino tinto con limon). The prices are very reasonable and the food is well worth it. I would highly recommend this place over any of the tapas restaurants down Cava Baja and in the La Latina area. Our most expensive indulgence at this place cost us less than 25 euros, and we tried heaps of dishes from the menu. Gaffa really liked how every drink order is accompanied by a generous plate of fresh chorizo slices. 

jamon bocadillo
garlic prawns
jamon & melon
meat and cheese platter
At the Musée de Jamon the atmosphere is just fantastic, as the place is filled with very social locals coming for a small bite before a night out. If you want to just have a light snack, guzzle some cheap beer and chat to real locals, this is the place to do it. It’s open from 7am in the morning till 5am the next morning, every day. So go there for lunch, for dinner or for a late night snack! Love this place!

the 1 euro menu :-)
Heading south to Cordoba next!

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