Shortly after Emirates announced the launch of their direct flight to Madrid, we knew Spain is where we wanted to spend our summer holidays this year. Angel’s no direct flights from Dubai to home suffering has finally come to an end. YAY!
We spent the most wonderful three weeks in July between Madrid, Barcelona, and Gran Canaria. The latter was a customary bonus ride to visit my in-laws, which will have to remain a story for another day…
This wasn’t my first time in Spain, I briefly visited Madrid and made a couple of stops in Andalucía few years ago. However, I always felt that I ought to familiarize myself with my husband’s home country just a little bit more. Also, I was getting slightly tired of answering the question “Which one do you like more, Madrid of Barcelona?” with “I am not sure, I’ve only been two days in Madrid and never to Barcelona!”.
What was becoming even more annoying is everyone’s apparent expectations of me to kind of pick a side. Somehow, I kept finding myself getting pulled into opposite directions while planning this trip. People I spoke to, other blogs, travel magazines, my mother’s neighbor, everyone seemed inclined to favor one over the other, and insistently urging me to do so too!
I blame La Liga for this predicament…
It came to a point where I was so conscious of it that I had to put my guard a little up, and protect myself against bias reviews of places I have not yet seen or had the chance to make a personal impression of.
In this post I aim to present the highlights of my own experience and articulate my own views. No favorites, just what I saw and did. Comparing Madrid to Barcelona is exactly like trying to make apples taste like oranges, which is not very smart! Each of them has its own special flavor, things that I thoroughly enjoyed and others that I didn’t feel as much.
Angel is a dedicated Real Madrid supporter. For the sake of my own sanity and the solidity of my marriage, now I am too.
All these years he’s a fan, yet it didn’t occur to him to take the Santiago Bernbeu Stadium tour until I was visiting. I chose to believe that this is a sign of a good husband, who likes to share his most prized possessions with his beloved wife! He even got me to sign up for a Madridista membership that day. I hope it doesn’t equal a verbally binding agreement to sit through all the football and pizza nights in our house.
This was my first stadium tour. Surprisingly, I didn’t hate it! I enjoyed the digital experiences at the museum and found the field architecturally impressive. It does help to have an image of it while watching a big game on TV and trying to put up a believable intransigent fan performance.
On this particular front, I am going to need to take a side I am afraid.
After all that excitement, I was ready for lunch. In fact, I’ve been ready for lunch since before I even got on that plane to Spain. Eating my heart away in Spain has always been my main goal from this trip. Madrid is certainly a good place to start.
We found ourselves strolling down and window shopping at La Gran Via street. We were lured into the Mercado de la Reina following an excited crowd. Two rules to finding the right dining spot in Spain (or anywhere else really) if you don’t have a fixed plan, follow the noise and the smell. If the locals are eating there, you’re up for a good time.
Besides nothing makes a good meal taste even better than a great restaurant atmosphere I think. This place was just that, we kept ordering and sampling more of the items on display and on the menu, just because we were happy to spend more time there. The food and the service were not bad neither.
I was completely out into a food coma afterwards. Oddly, all I kept thinking about was, what’s for dinner?
I did think I was done mindlessly munching for the day, but Angel had already made a rendezvous with friends to catch up over drinks in the evening. We were staying in La Latina area, one of Madrid’s oldest neighborhoods that come alive with vibrant street bars and tapas hangouts, especially at night.
The promise of a lovely night out (and more yummy food) around the corner was greater than my waning energy.
We met our friends at one spot, then we moved to another with more friends, and to another with even more people, some I believe we met along the way. This became the trend of the night, which I think is the best way to sample and enjoy what La Latina has to offer.
I am not sure how that night ended, but I do very well remember how the next morning started, with the world’s most delicious churros con chocolate breakfast at Chocolateria Valor.
If you have never had Chocolate con Churros for breakfast, do yourself a favor and book that ticket to Madrid now. Life is too short you guys, this is what you need to be doing now to make the most of it…
Gastronomically fulfilled thus far, I was now in shape to explore another essential side of Madrid’s touristic offering, the art scene. I can’t pretend to be typically the artsy type, but when in Madrid checking out at least one of the pillars of the golden art triangle (if not all) is somewhat a must!
We picked the Museo del Prado, which is Spain’s main national art museum, and reputed to have the best collection in the country. Despite my modest arts knowledge, the Prado did not disappoint. The content here is mostly what I like to call consumable – by the “average person” – ie. yours truly.
Later that night, a friend invited us to join a spontaneous outing in Chueca. We were both super intrigued to examine Madrid’s infamous nightlife there. In equal measure, we were anxious of standing out as the most underdressed couple in the block, something I learnt later not be taken lightly in the face of that kind of pretty crowd. We dragged our bruised egos along anyway. It was an action-packed night that got louder and more intense with time. Including a couple of passionate proposals that I received from the wrong gender.
Great great fun..
In the morning I braced myself for another day of boyish fun at Parque Warner, a short drive outside Madrid. This was the midst of summer, around the time when locals flee to cooler outskirts and coastal vacation locations, so it wasn’t that crowded. Not at all complaining about the lack of queues at rides or eating outlets, but it did take SPF 90 to keep me from turning blue.
Theme parks is another territory where I am often reluctant to venture into while travelling. I don’t really like to waste precious vacation time in places where there is not much for me to do. This one was fairly adult focused though, and it was fun watching Angel get dizzy in tall roller-coaster.
For the next couple of days, we decided to get out of the city on day trips to nearby interesting locations, such as Cuenca, Toledo, and El Escorial. You can see some of my favorite moments from these places on my Instagram account.
My first impressions of Barcelona took shape as soon as we came off our AVE train. The Barcelona Sants Train Station bustled with faces, languages, colors, and life of a vast variety. We knew right away that our days here were going to be faster than those we spent in Madrid, hopefully not that hectic. We decided to lodge centrally. We stayed in the Plaza Catalunya Area, which has great access to main attractions either on foot or by metro.
About 200 meters away, the famous Las Ramblas oozed high energy. A perfect introduction for the first timer likes us. I now believe that this place says it all about Barcelona. Let’s say you had few hours to spend in the city while on transit, this is where you’d come to touch the beating heart of it. It has it all, delicious food, souvenirs, street performers, and of course the famous La Boqueria Market is not to be missed. You can even get your pocket picked here for the first time, Barcelona style.
My favorite feature of this passage is the pavement Mosaic del Pla de I’O, which the master Joan Miró laid on the floor for thousands to trample on daily since 1976.
At the end of Las Ramblas the statue of Cristóbal Colón (better known as Columbus to most of us) stands around 50 meters tall, pointing towards wherever he thinks he wants to be.
We climbed to the top to take in the high city view. It is tough trying to move around or get a good viewing spot at the crammed room up there, but we were rewarded with a magical sunset that covered Barcelona with a soft golden blanket. Definitely worth getting your feet stepped on a couple of times.
Our evening program consisted of a spectacular Flamenco/Opera fusion show at the Palau de la Musica Catalana. The show was great, but the real attraction was the architectural wonder in which it took place. Curved and detailed in the captivating typical Catalan Modernism style, it was a treat even without the show.
The next day, we took a more organized approach to sightseeing. Our main objective was to ensure that we tick out some must sees. Our first stop was at the one and only Sagrada Familia; Gaudi’s masterpiece that keeps him alive in the eyes of his fans. It was bigger and far more fascinating than I have heard or imagined. The queues to the tickets window wrapped around the building at least twice, but once we were inside it was easy to see why. The hard thing for me to do then was put my camera down.
We climbed one of the eight finished towers. If the interior of the building wasn’t spectacular enough, try the view of the city from up there.
In keeping up with the Gaudi spirit we visited Park Guell next. I really loved how this place seems to harmoniously blends originality with nature. Initially built as a housing complex, it is now one of the most visited attractions in the whole of Spain. It was full of life and activity when we were there, but we could still find quiet corners to relax and just be there.
On the opposite side of town, we explored the Montjuic hill. We started at the Montjuic Castle, which provides great views from high above the city as well as an insight into part of the military history of the place. Nearby we took a peaked at modernist arts at the Fundacio Joan Miro, where the artist’s work is exclusively displayed. We caught the scenic Teleferic Montjuic ride back to the city, it was pretty panoramic and fantastic!
Finally came another moment of truth when we toured the Camp Nou Football Stadium. Subconsciously (I think) our intention was to compare it to the Bernabeu! I mean the first one was impressive, just wanted to see what this one stands for.
Guess who was feeling sort of guilty-ish just standing at the enemy’s gate. Oh, this stuff is good!! These Spaniards take their football too seriously, I tell ya. I did have to reassure my husband that it was perfectly ok to go in at one moment.
We missed the guided tour, so we were asked to show ourselves around the common areas. It was a bit rushed, and I am not sure we left with the same satisfied impressions.
Most visitors would opt to chill by a gorgeous Catalunya beach on their last day in Barcelona, get tanned and look the part. not my thing, so we decided to take it easy and just roam the city’s streets freely with no schedule at last.
We ended up crisscrossing the narrow alleys of the Gothic Quarters, marveling at beautiful neo-gothic architecture and taking in the charming settings. While there, we couldn’t pass on a visit to the Museo Picasso, where we got acquainted with the artist’s Las Meninas series and his love affair with the city.
There was some great window (and real) shopping to be done at various boutiques, antique and souvenir stores in this area, and in close by El Born. It took a lot of self-discipline and restraint to stop me from getting into every single one of them.
Before catching our night flight we had time for one last hearty tapas meal at the Mercat de Santa Caterina. I found this one more genuine and relaxed than La Boqueria. The prices were also more reasonable since it’s less popular and frequented by mostly locals. I also like my food markets fully wifi connected, this one was; hence it made for a perfect long late lunch location.
Well, that was fun! There was still so much to see, do, eat and a bunch of other reasons to consider returning one day. And If you ask me again, I will give you the same answer. It isn’t a matter of comparison between the two grand jewels of Spain. Overall, they’re both so wonderfully Spanish.