Marvelous Madrid

Following our fabulous stay in Barcelona (which you can read about here ) we boarded the high speed train and settled in for a quick and comfortable ride to Madrid. I am not usually a train person, but this couldn’t have been easier. Upon arrival at the train station we were met by our driver Constantin (who would remain our driver throughout our visit) who promptly delivered us to our hotel.

After some deliberation we decided to stay at the Mandarin Oriental Ritz, and we were so glad we did. Dating back to 1910, The Ritz Madrid was the ultimate in luxury hotels, on par with the Ritz Hotels in London and Paris. Following a 100 million dollar overhaul, the newly crowned Mandarin Oriental Ritz reopened in 2021, so it is still virtually brand new. From the moment we arrived every single aspect of our stay was perfection. The location, decor, staff (in every department), food and beverage service were all sublime.

We had booked a Junior Suite, but were very happy to have been upgraded to a full suite which overlooked the Obelisk in Retiro Park. Not only were we steps away from the park, but the Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums were literally right out our door. I was in love with our room, they even provided us with personalized pillow cases. I had never stayed at a Mandarin hotel before, but now I need to try another!

As soon as we explored all the nooks and crannies in the room and quickly unpacked, we set out to grab a quick bite. Although they served lunch on the train, we decided to hold out until we arrived. Having been inspired by the recently aired Somebody Feed Phil episode which showcased Madrid , our first stop was to the Mercado de la Paz to sample the world renowned Tortilla de Patata at Casa Dani. When discussing Tortilla de Patata, we found that many people seem to agree that Casa Dani is one of the best examples. It may be that we were both starving (and a little cranky), or that the service was TERRIBLE, but we did not see the allure.

The Mercado itself dates back to 1882 and is right in the middle of a desirable shopping area, so it was not too much of a hardship to find ourselves there, but to be honest, after a few bites we decided to point ourselves in the direction of another of Phil’s must visit spots, La Casa del Abuelo.

Having absorbed just enough calories to fuel our journey, we set out walking across town. There is no denying Madrid is a city that embraces art, it is everywhere.

Phil raved about La Casa del Abuelo on his show, particularly the garlic shrimp. We held out hope that this recommendation would be better than Casa Dani. In truth there are several outposts of La Casa del Abuelo in the same small neighborhood, so we weren’t exactly sure where to go. It seems as though they all offer the garlic shrimp, so we took our chances and grabbed a free table outside. The waiters seemed to serve all the patrons no matter where they sat, and they were a good deal friendlier than those at Casa Dani. My husband was really excited for the garlicky shrimp, and Casa del Abuelo did not disappoint! The patrons were a mix of locals and tourists, and everyone seemed to be treated equally, which was refreshing. After a bit of vermouth, some wine, the shrimp and a large plate of excellent Manchego (gone before it was photographed) we walked back to the Mandarin in order to get ready for our evening’s event.

We had been advised that if we were in Madrid we needed to spend an evening watching Flamenco. I was afraid it might be touristy or “fake” somehow, but once we settled in to our seats at Corral de la Moreira we were blown away by not only the beauty of the dancing and the music but also the unbelievable athleticism the dancers displayed. Corral de la Moreira has the reputation as being one of the best places in the city to experience Flamenco, which although I have nothing to compare it to, I can believe. They also have a Michelin starred kitchen turning out food to enjoy while you watched the show, but we decided to just watch and enjoy drinks. We grabbed a light dinner afterwards.

Wow! We loved experiencing the show from such a close vantage point. The dancers and musicians were amazing.

Following the show we walked to Mercado de San Miguel which was jam-packed with others who had just the same idea as we did. After perusing all the booths which offered a tremendous variety of alluring treats, we settled on Arzábal Market for a generous portion of Octopus and some tasty Spanish wine.

After finishing up, we took a quick walk back to our home away from home for the next 5 days. As you may have noticed we walked everywhere whether day or night in both Barcelona and Madrid. There was not a moment that we felt unsafe, or even looked over our shoulder. Perhaps we can attribute that to the late night culture in Spain, the streets were literally teeming with people up until midnight, or maybe we were lucky. I do think Madrid in particular felt especially safe.

Following a great nights sleep we found ourselves dazzled by the Mandarin’s breakfast display. There were choices in every category, both healthy and indulgent, but the pint sized display for children was especially adorable. I’m not going to lie, we availed ourselves of a couple of those pink marshmallow confections to start the day off right.

Fueled up and ready to go, Teresa, our guide for the day met us in the lobby. As it turns out, the day we had reserved for in-depth museum exploration also happened to be the Fiesta Nacional de España (National Spain Day) , a day dedicated to celebrating the pride and history of the country and it’s people. Because the King and royal family were in residence at the Palace, driving was a bit of a challenge, but nothing too unmanageable. There were plenty of fly-overs and a parade as well. Everyone, including the adorable little boy below were in the spirit.

Our guide Teresa proved to be engaging, informative and entertaining. She was terrific. We started at The Prado (we were the first ones in) and we went through some of the museum’s greatest treasures before the crowds descended. While we could have literally spent DAYS in the Prado, we were satisfied with the very enlightening overview we received, and without a doubt we will return for more. There was absolutely no photography allowed so we were actually present and able to really take it all in. We started with Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, and could have stayed for hours if Velâzquez , El Greco and Goya weren’t calling out for equal attention. Wanting to spend a bit more time with Picasso, we added a stop at the Reina Sofia to view his masterpiece Guernica.

We stopped for a bite to eat at Reina Sofia’s outpost of Arzábal (where we enjoyed the octopus in the market the night before). Teresa had made sure to book a table as by lunch time it was filled with weary museum goers. It was quick and tasty and allowed us to get back out to catch the wonderful Picasso Chanel show at the Museo Thyssen – Bornemisza. I was able to capture some photos of the Chanel and Picasso masterpieces side by side at the Thyssen. This was such a clever exhibition, as both Coco Chanel and Pablo Picasso collaborated on two ballets in the 1920s, and their friendship flourished from there. There is no doubt that they shared similar influences, and perhaps influenced one another. This show runs through January, so if you plan to be in Madrid, it is worth getting tickets.

It was at this point that we said farewell to Teresa. She really brought the works of art to life and was able to provide us with fascinating insight throughout the day. Please contact me directly if you would like her information.

After a quick rest at the hotel we were ready to dine at the oldest restaurant in the world (according the the Guinness Book of World Records) Sobrino de Botin, in continuous service since 1725. This restaurant also was featured on Somebody Feed Phil, and we hoped it would not disappoint. Our reservation was for 9, and the restaurant was full. We were led to a table upstairs, but thankfully it did not feel like Siberia. There was a good mix of tourists (Americans) and non-tourists (maybe not locals, but not Americans).

The waiters were not only very efficient and highly professional, abut also quite agile because it is a tight space upstairs, and the tables are very close together.

Without a doubt the star of the show at Botin is the roasted suckling pig. As I did not partake in the piglet, I focused my attention on the cheese (Manchego) which was delicious, the Gazpacho (a seasonal item which luckily was still available) and a house specialty, scrambled eggs with asparagus, which was so simple yet truly delicious. For dessert I couldn’t resist the rice pudding, and I am glad I didn’t. It was fabulous.

Do not overlook Botin because you think it might be a tourist trap, the food was excellent, the setting steeped in history, and the service professional and pleasant. Best of all, the prices were incredibly reasonable.

If you are squeamish (or a vegetarian) pleas quickly skip over this video. If not, please be aware that there are a tremendous number of piglets that pass through Botin’s ovens on a daily basis.

The following day we booked a tour in nearby Toledo to see not only the Synagogue of Santa Maria dating back to the 12th century, but also to see the Toledo Cathedral, eat some marzipan and wander around the picturesque town (a UNESCO world heritage site)..

Constantin was behind the wheel as we left Madrid and drove an hour through some unappealing landscape. When we made our initial approach to Toledo, it was indeed quite beautiful.

Many make the trip to witness the confluence of religions that have left their mark in Toledo, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Our first stop in the Jewish Quarter was poignant when you realize that the Synagogue (whose design was heavily influenced by the Moors) itself went through several iterations, after the Jews were driven out of Spain in the late 1300s the temple became a church. Our guide was very engaging, but sadly was battling a tremendous cold, so we spent the day attempting to maintain a six foot distance at all times.

Juxtaposing the simplicity of the Synagogue with the Gothic excess of the Toledo Cathedral made quite an impression. The scale and grandeur is something to witness, and it is interesting to note that the church itself was built atop a Muslim Mosque. It was filled with tourists the day we were there, but it also is a busy Church in that there are daily services which are attended by many locals.

El Greco’s masterpieces also feature prominently in Toledo. The Burial of the Count of Orgaz is one of his greatest works, and it is stunning in person.

If you happen to be a marzipan lover (like me) you will be thrilled to know that Toledo is home to the world’s largest marzipan sculpture measuring almost 12 feet tall, at Santo Tomé where they have been making marzipan since 1856. I can attest that the marzipan was as delectable as you might expect.

Toledo is a destination for a lot of reasons, but aside from the marzipan, I don’t think food is at the top of the list. Once we finished with our tour (and washed our germy hands off thoroughly) we found ourselves at Meson La Orza. Several people pointed us in the direction of La Orza, it even is recognized by Michelin as worthy of a stop, The location was nice, and there was a pleasant outdoor patio, but the food was fairly underwhelming. It was fancy for the sake of being fancy, and I kind of wish I had just loaded up on some more marzipan. Our day in Toldeo ended at 3:00 pm and Constantin was ready to drive us back to Madrid where we planned to do some shopping before dinner.

After perusing the high end shops on Calle de Serrano, and enjoying the strength of the dollar, we got ready for a much anticipated dinner at Sala de Despiesce, an innovative upscale Tapas bar, and another recommendation from Phil. The restaurant was styled after a butcher shop, and the dinner consisted of terrific food, and lots of interaction with the chefs and servers. We asked them to craft a menu for us, given our dietary restrictions, and they did a wonderful job.

There is an ever-changing menu of Tapas which details the origin of each item, the cooking method, and the ingredients so that helped to avert a lot of questions. Our favorite dish was the fried artichokes, they were incredible. In fact, everything was delicious, and fun to eat, with the weak spot being the potatoes which we insisted on adding, even though our server said we didn’t need them. They were too homely to photograph.

Lots of work went into the Pig
Crystal Prawns
Pepper ice cream “Sushi”- very fun

We loved Sala De Despiece, it had a great energy and everyone there had a good vibe. It was not all tourists by any stretch. There was one other table from the US and they impressed us by eating literally the entire menu. The prices were very reasonable, and you got to enjoy some theatrics as well.

We had one more day in Madrid, and we decided to spend the morning touring the Royal Palace. We had failed to book tickets ahead of time, but it was so beautiful out we weren’t concerned if we had to wait on line. After 30 minutes we reached the entrance, but then were told they needed to pause admission because the Palace had reached capacity. One more hour passed before the let us in, and then because we had a tour booked for the afternoon we were only able to enjoy a quick peek into each of the rooms.

The Palace is tremendous, one of the largest and most ornate in Western Europe, so it was a shame we had to rush through. In addition there is almost no photography allowed inside the palace, so it was all sort of a blur. If you are heading to Madrid, I would most certainly include it in your itinerary, just be sure to get tickets in advance.

Following our sprint through the palace we had arranged for an afternoon food tour of a local neighborhood, sort of an unofficial Culinary Backstreets tour (they currently do not offer a tour in Madrid). Our guide Margit met us at the palace and we took a quick taxi to the Malasaña neighborhood we were going to explore.

Our first stop was R. Garcia, a neighborhood specialty shop dating back to 1960. We had a wonderful sampling of meats (my husband) and cheeses (myself) and learned a little about Margit and her company. She is an American who moved to Spain many years ago, and has an infectious love for all things Spanish. The best part about R. Garcia? The Jamon Barbie!

Our next stop was Casa Macareno which actually may have been the best Tapas we enjoyed in all of Spain. Located in Malasaño, Casa Macareno is a real neighborhood spot with passionate chefs who turn out their perfect interpretations of the top Tapas. The interior was perfect, the Tortilla sublime (it blew away Casa Dani), the blistered peppers greaseless and tasty, and the Jamon Croquette was proclaimed by my husband to be ethereal, All these tastes washed down by some Vermouth and a couple of anchovies made for the perfect lunch. Little did we know this was just a warm up for our actual lunch.

We should have had will-power and proclaimed ourselves too full for another meal, but we entered into Dolores y Lola , a small neighborhood spot owned by two passionate foodies and the dishes just started coming. This was also a hyper local restaurant, and the food was terrific. The hands down winner here was the chocolate mousse with fleur de sel and olive oil “caviar”.

We loved our time with Magrit, and gave her a big hug as we parted ways. We have been fortunate to meet some of the nicest people on this trip to Spain, really striking gold (for the most part) with our guides.

It might have been wise to call it a day with regard to the eating, but it was our last day in Spain! We had a reservation for dinner that we had to work for weeks to finagle, and we weren’t going to miss it. Juana La Loca is a Pinxtos bar (Pinxtos are similar to Tapas, but frequently served atop bread, and often speared with a toothpick). Juana La Loca was not recommended by Phil, but consistently appears on the best of Madrid lists. It seems as though they hardly answer their phone, so scoring the reservation was challenging. Our hopes were high, but alas, we were disappointed. Although very crowded (we were the only Americans we could see) , the there was literally no energy at all in the restaurant. It was strangely sedate for the amount of people present.

The menu choices were appealing, but truth be told, I was still stuffed from lunch. My husband rallied for the both of us, and especially liked the Softshell Crab Bao. The tortilla ranked between Casa Dani and Macareno. While the food itself at Juana La Loca was well done, the restaurant itself was missing the magic.

We headed back towards the hotel, but knew there was just one more place we had to try, Chocolatería San Ginés. Serving Chocolate and Churros since 1894, we had passed by earlier in the day and were deterred by the line stretching down the street. It happened to be on our way home, so we challenged ourselves to find room for just a taste. At 11:30 pm it was still busy, but we didn’t have to wait on line (it is open round the clock most days). I thought the chocolate was very good and bitter, and my husband gave the churros two thumbs up.

When I look back upon the ungodly amounts of food we devoured on this trip, I am consoled slightly by the average daily steps clocking in at around 11 miles per day. We really loved Spain, and regret not visiting sooner., but it seems like we have our work cut out for us, as there are so many alluring destinations to travel to in the future (Granada, the Pyrenees and San Sebastian top the list)..

In comparing the two, while they are both wonderful, we both agreed that Madrid was our favorite. The beauty, sophistication, culture, food and outstanding hotel experience earned it five stars. I am glad we planned it the way we did as well; starting with Barcelona was a great introduction to Spain, while Madrid just knocked our socks off.

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