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THE REAL MADRID

By Abdessamad Benameur

Some people say Vegas is the city that never sleeps, well I believe Madrid 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 Madrid 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 exploring Madrid ’s many monuments and park.  The best way to discover and explore Madrid 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 Madrid . 

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 Madrid , 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 Madrid 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 Neptune fountain.  The Ritz never has lived up to its name more than in Madrid .  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 Morocco and Harrison Ford have stayed here too).  Although I am not in the class of Kings and Queens , 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 Spain and Portugal ) 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, Madrid .  They were incredible city planners and architects and the southern Spanish city of Cordova 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 Madrid 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 Madrid event, the midday siesta nap.  This may well be one of the most important aspects of truly enjoying your trip to Madrid , 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 Sofia 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:  the Guernica by Pablo Picasso, Cubista Self-Portrait and Girl in the Window by Salvador 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 Madrid 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 Iberian Peninsula 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 Madrid ’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 Madrid 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 Madrid 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 the cheese.

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 Los Angeles and New York .  This is Madrid , 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, Madrid captures all the essence of the country.  The multi-cultural influences through history and its gentle beauty and grace has made Madrid 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. 

Story Edited By  Albert Hayashi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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