A BRIEF intermission: The best of … Madrid

I LOVE Madrid. Any traveler who meets me and asks me “D, what is your most favorite place you have visited since you started traveling?” my response is always this:

“I adored Spain. I could live there. And Madrid, mmmm.”

Well, something like that.

I have gotten messages from people throughout my adventure asking my advice on where to go, what to do, etc. so have decided to share my insight with you!

Stay tuned … most cities will have a “Best of …” for your reading (and trip planning) pleasure.

Now, on to the good stuff … Madrid.

Where to … stay

I stayed at two hostels in Madrid, both were nice. But, in Madrid, there are heaps of really great hostels to stay at (just check out Hostel World), it’s just a matter of whether you want a social atmosphere or a place to rest your head. Regardless, location in Madrid is key. There is something to be said when you can open your balcony doors onto Atocha and hear the hustle and bustle.

If that’s your thing, look for a hostel located nearby these major Metro stops:

Gran Via

Sol

Atocha

Chueca (gay district)

La Latina

Lavapies (GREAT if you want some delish Indian food)

Where to … hang out on sunny, beautiful days:

Any day of the week is perfect to hang out at Retiro Park. Originally created as a royal park, the “Lungs of Madrid,” located in the heart of the city features everything from palaces to sport fields to boat-filled lakes to rolling hills perfect for an afternoon makeout or picnic. You can get there from the Retiro Metro stop.

On Sundays, the action is at La Latina. Streets lined with table and chairs fill up early, so stake your people-watching location before siesta. If La Latina is packed, head to Plaza Mayor or Puerta de Sol (both at/near Sol Metro stop).

If you want to play tourist, head to the Palacio Royal de Madrid, the Royal Palace (Opera Metro stop). Yes, if you want to see the interior, you will be inside, but simply strolling the grounds is breathtaking.

Where to … get filled up on tapas

Hands down, my favorite tapas experience was at El Tigre, located in the Chueca neighborhood (Chueca or Gran Via Metro stops).

At El Tigre, you order a glass of vino tinto (red wine) for two euros and then the Tapas God behind the counter hands you a plate piled high with tapas of every kind — tortilla, patatas bravas, jamon, queso … you name it — to accompany your drink. The best part is every time you order your cheap drink, you get another plate of deliciousness to soak up all that alcohol.

For a more varied experience, there is Mercado Plaza San Miguel near the Sol Metro. This gorgeous old building is PACKED with little stands featuring some of the freshest and tastiest food, including oysters, fruits and veggies, and tapas. Lots and lots of tapas.

Again, if you want to snag a seat, get there early. Otherwise, start practicing balancing a plate of tapas and a glass of vino tinto and eating/drinking at the same time.

Where to … get culture

I always like to mention the free stuff first, so the best free place to get culture is the Caixa Forum, a multi-floored art museum with rotating exhibits. This post-modern gallery even has a vertical garden just outside that changes with the seasons. It’s all sorts of pretty.

Then, every night (except Monday when the museum is closed) The Prado opens its doors to the public to take in all of the famous artists housed there for … free. Tuesday – Saturday from 6 – 8 p.m., visitors can enjoy everything the museum has to offer at no cost. On Sundays, entrance is free. Period.

My favorite museum is the elegantly beautiful Reina Sofia. No, it’s not free. But, for a 6 euro price tag, you have access to floors and floors of jaw-dropping 20th century art. Picasso and Dali mingle among notable Spanish contemporary artists.

All of these are a quick walk from the Atocha Metro stop.

Where to … eat the best chocolate you will ever have (outside of Belgium)

The best and most unique chocolates in Madrid can be found at Cacao Sampaka, a modern chocolate/coffee shop that offers up some of the most mmmmgood chocolates taste buds will ever enjoy. Seriously. They’ve got it all — balsamic chocolate, lavender chocolate, rosemary chocolate, liquor-filled chocolate, thick as molasses hot chocolates. It is a must. And, a half-second walk from the Alonso Martinez Metro stop.

Where to … shop ’til you drop

Gran Via has it all … bars, clubs, restaurants, prostitutes and TONS of stores no matter your budget. For those watching the cents, there’s Lefties and H & M, and tons of shoe stores featuring pretty cool shoes and cheapie price tags (I got a pair of knockoff high-top Chucks for 10 euros).

If you’ve got money burning a hole in your pocket, there are also higher-end stores like Miss Sixty, Calvin Klein and some fabulous (non-American) shops, too.

Where to … meet locals and other people who speak English

Madrid is packed with English speakers and nearly every night of the week there is a mixer/language exchange where you can meet locals who want to speak English with you.

On Tuesday nights, there is Hello Lola at Ole Lola;  Wednesday and Thursday nights it’s J & J Books and Coffee; Friday check out El Seiscientos.

Where to … go on a day trip

There are a few places under two hours away from Madrid to check out that are worth the bus (or train) fare — the two most popular ones (and the ones I visited) were Toledo and Segovia.

Toledo, the former capital of Spain, is south of the city and treats visitors to a medieval city perched on a hilltop with stunning views and packed with history.

Then, there is Segovia, a slightly longer ride (unless you take the high-speed train), but worth every minute to get there. Segovia not only has a castle that draws comparisons to Cinderella’s digs, but also an ancient Roman aqueduct that cuts through its center. If you like pork, be sure to try the roast suckling pig, which is so tender and fresh it is sliced with dishes instead of knives. Truth.

To book travel:

Alsa — the major bus line in Spain and the cheapest option for short-distance travel

Renfe — the train

AVE — high-speed train

Want to add your favorite places? Leave a comment below.

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Day tripping from Madrid

Madrid is nearly dead smack in the middle of Spain, so naturally, day trips from the capital are easy both in terms of closeness and bus/train schedules.

There are two main options for traveling in Spain — the bus and the train. Recently, a high-speed train was added, and while it gets you places far faster than traditional transport, it is a bit pricey.

The bus was the best option for me — not only was it pretty inexpensive, but it also gave me the opportunity to see the countryside of Spain (the high-speed train is underground, so gazing out the window affords you nothing).

The week between VaughanTown programs, I spent most of my time in Madrid, hanging out in the city with Anthony and Emma. But, two of the days I traded the bustling city and packed Metro for the more peaceful towns of Toledo and Segovia.

I didn’t really plan either trip. I went to the bus station early Tuesday morning (the wrong bus station first, of course), and purchased my ticket (in Spanish, at a kiosk … I was really proud).

The bus from Madrid to Toledo is fairly quick — maybe 90 minutes — and the drive is magnificent.

I sat on the bus — the first seat since that’s where you see everything — and was thrilled when I saw the town crawling up the hillside and the powerful Catedral.

Toldeo, located in the Castilla-La Mancha region, is packed with history. Walking down the winding streets, you can stumble upon ancient synagogues, Roman walls and more.

I got off the bus and looked up, up, up to the buildings rising above my head. I decided to wing it — no map — I could see exactly where I wanted to go way up top the hill, I just needed to get there.

I walked around Toledo for hours, exploring the old narrow streets, wandering into stores, standing at the top of the hill, jaw agape, staring out into the brilliant green plains.

Admitedly, it would have helped if I had a tour guide, but I like to think I saved the tour guide for when it was really necessary — Segovia.

I hadn’t noticed the mountains surrounding Madrid before my adventure to Segovia. I had seen them, but they never seemed quite so picturesque as they did they day I sat on the La Sepulveda bus as it powered down the highway to Segovia.

Out my window, I could see perfectly the snow-capped mountains looming over the city. Then, we were next to the mountains. And then, we were in them.

The sun had disappeared as soon as we hit the mountains. Clouds rolled off the jagged tops and plummeted down the slopes, chilling me inside the warm confines of the bus.

I watched as the outdoor temperature gauge in the bus dropped from 14 to five to four to three and thanked my lucky stars I had placed my fleece next to the heater the night before and had the idea to grab my jacket … just in case.

When I got off the bus a little more than an hour later, I was happy to be at least greeted warmly by JC, a student taught by Jess and Deanna at a previous VaughanTown.

They had e-mailed introductions to us earlier in the week and JC had so kindly volunteered to show me around his home town in Castilla y Lyon.

Segovia is a remarkable city known for three main attractions — El Acueducto, the remains of a Roman aqueduct that cuts right into the heart of town; Alcazar, a gothic castle perched atop a hill that draws comparisons to Cinderella’ castle; and the grandest cathedral in the region, Catedral.

Having JC as my private tour guide and new friend was amazing. He had  taken care of everything — reservations made for lunch, a complimentary entrance to Alcazar, a hike down to the bottom of the town to look up at the castle and even coffee in the afternoon.

Suffice to say, I slept nearly the entire two-hour bus ride home.

The next time I would be on a bus was Sunday en route to Monfrague … enough time for me to get back into Madrid life and then sadly exit it once more.

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