By Abdessamad Benameur
Some people say Vegas is the city that never sleeps,
well I believe
can give the gambling mecca of the world a run for its money. Staying
awake and taking in all the scenes and spirit of the city of
finally caught up to me as I returned home and slept for two straight
days. With the hundreds of
expressways and highways crossing the city, I spent hours walking and
’s many monuments and park. The
best way to discover and explore
is to have no plan and serendipitously move about the city through its
many safe roads and sidewalks.
I got up before the city did and was out of the hotel by 4:45 AM in
the morning. There were only a
few people out (though to their credit most Madrilenos,
natives, don’t eat dinner until 11:00 PM at night and go to bed late).
One early morning I passed a beautiful woman in a suit walking her
dog, an elderly gentleman in a perfect fedora feeding a troop of pigeons,
and a jogger taking in the early morning stroll in the crisp air. Everyone
I ran into returned my “Buenos Dias” with a smile or a nod.
As if each of us had won a contest, I found most
people happy and friendly as if congratulating each other on the good
fortune of being alive and living in
At a quarter to six everything changed, suddenly.
The city exploded from every direction with people, cars, taxis and
doors opening every which way. I
walked past Panderias (bakeries) that wouldn’t open until 9 AM which was
criminal because the smell coming out was incredible.
I often slipped into a local cafe to get something to recharge and
continue my daily exploration. It
was typical of the city, tiny, 8 seats, great cafe
con leche and, of course, a breakfast of the prerequisite churros
and porrras, this is officially,
a great morning.
During my last trip to
, my eyes would be distracting by the beautiful ornate facades and general
historic architecture of the downtown area.
As I walked down the Gran Via this time, I realized behind the bas
relief were beautiful museums and churches such as the Museo
Chicote a relic of bohemian Madrid and the graceful Oratoria del Caballero
de Gracia, Juan de Villaneuva’s church which celebrated the eighteenth
century. If you don’t have a
guidebook or are little lost ask one of the many friendly Madrilenos in
your best Spanish, as they covet their language as much as their
architecture. I walk pass the
Plaza de Callo a graceful semicircular plaza adorned with towering
hand-painted movie posters from the early twentieth century Capital
Cinema. Time passes quickly as
I get lost in all the
beauty and a quick double espresso helps my rush through plazas and down
streets to the Plaza de la Lealtad and the regal Hotel Ritz.
This legendary hotel looks out over many trees to the rushing
waters of the beautiful
fountain. The Ritz never has
lived up to its name more than in
. I am told that King Juan
Carlos and Queen Sofia frequent this hundred year old classic (though
I’m secretly more impressed that King Hassan II of my
Ford have stayed here too). Although
I am not in the class of Kings and
, you will be treated by the staff at the hotel like royalty.
I ask a bellman to point out the restaurant and, in true Ritz
style, he politely walks me through the grand lobby into a lightly
perfumed, perfect flowering garden that holds about 40 guests including my
group of five who have graciously waited for me.
I seamlessly settle into the conversation about the Moorish history
in the city.
The Moors invaded Christian Hispania in 711 and,
after an eight-year campaign, brought most of the Iberian Peninsula
(including present day
) under their rule. The first
historical information of the city comes from the 9th century
when a small palace was erected at the order of Mehmed I on the same
ground that the Palacio Real occupies today.
The Muslims named the nearby Manzaneres River Majrit, which brought
the name of the site, Majerit, which
eventually became the modern day spelling,
. They were incredible city
planners and architects and the southern Spanish city of
in the 10th century had almost 500 mosques, 300 public baths
and street lamps that glowed above their streets at night.
The intense Moorish influence in
comes from the centuries that they occupied the area until they were
finally expelled at the close of the 15th century.
There are many remnants of their habitation and Moorish influence
echoes throughout the city.
Back to the present and our lunch at the Ritz Terrace
and gardens where each course sings more sweetly than the last.
Chef Jorge Gonzalez Carmona has prepared a tasting menu for us and
Sommelier Javier Gila has added wines to complement each course.
There are a couple of dietary considerations at the table,
including mine (no pork), which Chef Carmona deftly accommodates.
Originally, from the Basque region, Chef Carmona is a true talent,
and has incorporated a French influence into his food.
He shares my philosophy on food and changes the menu about every
other day depending on the best ingredients the purveyors can supply.
A couple dishes which stood out included the crisply sautéed wild
mushrooms and slow-roasted pigeon with cornmeal pasta.
While lounging over each delicious entrée and being engrossed by
the rich conversation, I missed the opportunity to personally thank Chef
Carmona on the symphony of food prepared.
I went back to my hotel for a regular
event, the midday siesta nap. This
may well be one of the most important aspects of truly enjoying your trip
, because the siesta fuels you for the late night action of the city,
which is jumping until 4:00 AM.
I have yet to mention my hotel, the amazing Hotel Puerta American a
true work of art. The
minimalist design approach to the exterior suggests a simple yet elegant
style to this amazing hotel. Designed
by 19 different talented architecture firms and design studios from 13
countries around the world, each of the 12 floors of rooms are different
creating a stylistic avant garde design.
But more importantly, it is amazingly comfortable.
I stayed on the 8th floor created by Kathryn Findlay, a
21st century white sci-fi dream.
Another great feature in this hotel was the lounge friendly
pool/spa on the roof with the therapeutic, multi headed shower that
serenely looked out over the city.
Though I am a bit embarrassed to say, the fact is
that I never really cared that much about art.
It was kind of like golf, I always thought I would get around to it
and never did. I always
seemed to find other ways to spend my time when traveling.
I was able to get a private tour from the Spanish Board of Tourism
by Pilar, who had the most charming accent.
She had an amazing knowledge of the artists and their works.
At the Museo del Prado I saw works from Picasso, Goya and Bosch
that were mesmerizing. I
realized after spending a little bit of time in front of Goya’s
disturbing Dog on the Leash and The
Shootings of May 3rd or Picasso’s The
Aficionado and it all became very clear: these artist’s captured
dreams. Beautifully built in
the late 1700s as a hospital, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina
building narrowly escaped demolition and was declared a historical
monument in 1977. Later, it
underwent years of restoration before being crowned the Queen’s museum
in 1986. If you have the time,
it also houses an incredible library of historical books and art.
Everyone will be able to find their favorite work of art.
Three art pieces stood out for me:
by Pablo Picasso, Cubista Self-Portrait and Girl in the Window by
Dali. I can’t wait to
return with more time and knowledge because the city offers so many
masterpieces; it’s hard to imagine how long it would take walking around
the Prado to properly see them all. It
also worth mentioning that the Prado is one of the few museums that allows
photographs of their entire collection.
Another masterpiece of
is her Tapas, those small hors d’oeuvres are often consumed with a glass
of wine. Their origin dates
back to the 7th century during the Moorish presence on the
and their love of small and diverse delicacies.
Originally a piece of ham or cheese used to tapar
(cover) a glass of wine or gazpacho in a roadside tavern to keep out the
flies and guard from premature intoxication. The
Madrilenos have made an event out of a eating tapas and drinking wine by
creating a bar hopping version or tapeo.
If you are at a bar partaking in wine and spirits, the tapas are
free. In fact, the more rounds
you order the better the tapas served.
Other than the tapas bars, most restaurants serve tapas as
part of their menu. For the
health conscious diner, this is a nice way to test the food without
committing to a full meal. One
of the advantages of tapeos is you get a chance to try out more of
’s restaurants than you normally would.
I met Melita, a Madrileno who was going to guide my first tapeo, at
the Plaza Mayor around 9:00 pm and headed to Casa Paco. We
stood at the bar and each had a glass of Albarino
with which she had jamon curado,
traditional house-cured ham. I
had the large grilled prawns which balanced the flavors of smoky and
sweet. My second glass of wine
brought cod fritters which were expertly cooked and had the most amazing
mashed potatoes texture with a light crunchy exterior.
We moved in our tapeo to the next bar, the upscale La
Taperia de la Abuela which was a family owned business which that also
supplied artisanal products of southern Spain to Madrid’s best
restaurants. This restaurant
and bar received the creme de la crème of meats, cheeses and vegetables
including the best ox and boar meat used in the delicious Cabrales.
La Taperia de la Abuela building was originally one of two jails
built in the late 1500s after King Philip II decided to make
his capital. The other is the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs though ours has great views of the San Pedro
tower, the second oldest Mudejar (Moorish tower) in
and the Palacio de Anglona. This
restaurant is a little hidden from the main street allowing for more
privacy and anonymity. Melita
and myself decided to have a formal dinner and started off with a glass of
Rioja, a 1999
Monjes Reserve. The
delicious salad asadillo manchego was made of tuna, roasted peppers, garlic and
olive oil. The next course
consisted of the surtido de pates
pates of duck, boar, partidge formed into balls and served with grilled
bread. The biggest hit
was the carne a la piedra made
from wild Boar. This
dish is the Spanish version of Shabu-Shabu.
A red-hot stone is brought to your table with the raw meat and a
bowl of sea salt. You sprinkle
the salt on the stone, lay the meat over the top and cook it to your
taste. We also put the sliced
bread on to toast. The
combination of flavors, textures and the pairing of wine was magnifique!
Although I was getting a little full, Melita ordered a plate of the
amazing Cabrales and their
signature, jamon Iberico, red
dry ham made from a special breed of pig that is fed a diet of acorns.
I made a perfect sandwich of warm crusty bread spread thickly with
We ended at a bar close to the Plaza de Oriente where
there were Flamenco performers
on center stage. The scene was
right out of movie. On stage
dancing the Flamenco was a stunning classic beautiful women with her black
hair pulled back into a tight bun and tight seductive dress.
The guitarists and supporting cast of dancers made it a
memorable exotic Spanish evening. Melita
told me that after the performance a hat would be passed for tips.
I gratefully tossed in 10 euros to show my appreciation.
The food was less impressive here though we did share a plate of
remarkable alcachofas fritas, fried anchovies.
We watched a few more performers before deciding to work off some
calories at a nearby nightclub. The
long line, velvet rope and over-sized bouncers all reminded me of clubs in
. This is
, though, and although the lights were low, you can still see the 18th
century architectural details that would break the budget of designers in
LA and NY. The place was
packed with many good-looking Dutch, French, American and Spanish youth
dancing hard to music that was a similar mixture of American, French,
Spanish and Brazilian sound. The
wine and food fueled us for the next couple of hours until we left the
still-crowded club around 3:30 AM out onto the streets echoing the sounds
of a dynamic city far from closing time.
Although it is not situated along some warm ocean or
great body of water,
captures all the essence of the country.
The multi-cultural influences through history and its gentle beauty
and grace has made
one of top cities for tourism. It
is a city where you can let your imagination flow and let the city
transparently guide you through the streets capturing each moment and
experience into memory. It is a place where you can continue to return to
without ever feeling that you have seen it all.