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Llanes to Madrid: May 22, 2022 121.31 Miles Walked
You Can’t Go Home Again
The vacation is ebbing away. Today we left the beautiful north of Spain and traveled to Madrid where we are going to spend a couple of nights before heading home. For me, this twilight time is always the hardest part of a vacation because you think about pictures and experiences you missed. Also, my Spanish speaking is improving every day because of the semi-immersion and has gotten so much easier for me. I’m still at the speaking stage where I mostly know how the sentence should be structured and most of the correct words but must write the sentence in my head before I can speak.
All through the trip I have been telling Pam that we need to come back for a whole month next time so I can practice Spanish more. She’s not too keen on that because she doesn’t speak Spanish and dislikes being totally reliant on me to get around. She’s been doing Duolingo for several months now, but it is hard for her. I’ve had the same experience in other countries where I don’t speak the language. Someday we will have our Babel Fish that does seamless translation for us. Hopefully, it won’t be so yellow and leach-like in our galaxy. (I hope you got that joke!)
Speaking of Duolingo, if you have any dream of starting to learn a language, get Duolingo. It’s an outstanding free app that has 38 different language learning options for English speakers (including Klingon and High Valyrian for extreme science fiction lovers). I’ve been using Duolingo since 2014 because it “gamifies” language learning so makes it lots of fun. When I retired, I got serious and have been taking Spanish classes at the University of North Carolina – Asheville, where they have an outstanding program. After taking a class each semester for the last five years, I have only one class left to complete a BA in Spanish. I’ve heard good things about the Spanish classes at ABTech as well. My main reason for pursuing Spanish learning so hard is to make up for one of the very few regrets I have in life. A lifetime ago, the Army spent a lot of money to send me to the Defense Language Institute to learn Spanish and I spent a lot of effort to learn it. I worked a while in the Spanish speaking world after that and got to the point where I dreamed in Spanish. After leaving the Army, life intervened and I sadly let those hard learned skills fade away. It’s never too late to fix your regrets.
Our friendly taxi driver, Carlos, who brought us to Llanes a couple of days ago took us to Santander so we could take the bus back to Madrid. Carlos and I chatted the whole way about a whole range of topics. The one thing he wanted to know was what was the problem with America’s healthcare system. He was flabbergasted to find out that health insurance was tied to your job. That cab ride wasn’t long enough to cover that topic of American healthcare issues. However, we did learn Carlos’ 92 year old grandmother’s trick to staying young, just tell everyone you are 29.
After the five hour bus ride to Madrid, it was time for a stroll around the heart of the city. Our hotel was right in the middle of the main tourist area, so we didn’t have to go far. With Madrid in the Meseta, the high central plain, the weather is warmer, and thankfully for our visit, there was a constant breeze. Sunday afternoons and evenings are when it seems every Spaniard gets out and walks around, stopping at outside bars to have a drink. When the summer tourist season starts in full next month, the locals are enjoying their city before it’s too crowded.
After walking around a while, we decided it was time. On our visit in 2017, my wonderful brother in law, José’s wonderful nephew, Ricardo took the group of us to one of his favorite hole in the wall restaurants. Ricardo is a real foodie so when he says a place is good, it’s a guarantee. The tiny restaurant, Bar La Ideal, specializes in bocadillos (sandwiches), and one sandwich in particular: calamares (squid). When the only picture shown on their web site main page is a picture of the sandwich and “El mejor bocadillo de calamares de Madrid” (The best squid sandwich in Madrid), you can see what they are all about. Bar La Ideal is right off the Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s main square so it’s easy to find.
The sandwich itself is lightly breaded fried squid, which was probably caught today, slapped on freshly made Spanish bread. That’s it, there’s nothing else between you and that delectable squidness. It’s handed to you almost instantly after the squid comes out of the fryer. The joke all over Spain is that the freshest seafood in the world can be found in Madrid. If you remember your geography, you might be thinking, wait a minute, Madrid is in the north central center of the country and is nowhere near the ocean, you would be right.
Food in Spain is part of their religion. You’ve read my ravings over Spanish food this entire trip. Everything is fresh and most things are made without any preservatives. Fresh and clean make all the difference. When it comes to seafood, which is beloved all over Spain, the same applies. For instance, in the fishing city of Vigo, on the coast above Portugal, the fishing boats must have their catch in by 2 PM because it’s loaded directly onto trucks and taken straight to Madrid for the dinner meal. It’s odd in Spain how seafood permeates the entire country. Galicia is famous for its boiled octopus, Pulpo a la Gallega. The town of Carballino, way up in the Galecian hills an hour’s drive from the ocean, has a huge pulpo festival that draws over 100,000 people every year. They don’t screw around here with their food and believe great food is a birthright.
We have mythologized those bocadillo de calamares from Bar La Ideal’s ever since our first bite in 2017. Of course, we had to go back and experience that wonderfulness again. We caught the place in a lull so were able to sit at one of the six tiny tables they have inside. We put in our order and very quickly had the goods.
Were they as good as we remembered? It’s always scary to go back to a place you’ve been building up so long in your mind. The bocadillos are still excellent, but we acknowledge that we built them up so much in our mind that it was almost impossible to meet that standard. Let’s put it this way, the next time we are in Madrid, we are going back. That’s the best rating of all.
After the squid we walked around some more but decided to do some more people watching, mainly because we were still hungry. We ended up in Plaza Mayor, where there are lots of street seating restaurants where we snagged a front row table at Museo de Jamón that was also in the shade. We ordered a jamón and cheese plate and looked at all the people going through the plaza. Interestingly, nearly all the people in the outdoor seating area, as well as those walking by, were Spanish speaking. We did see an American college group and there was a large table of drunk young Brits near us, but it was nice to see all the Spaniards.
Pam had one more thing on her mind: churros. She loves her chocolate desserts and had been looking forward to this Spanish delicacy for the entire trip. A web search showed that it was obvious that we needed to get Pam’s fix at Chocolatería San Ginés, the chocolate institution that’s been around since 1894. They were busy so we lined up to make our order and were wondering where we were going to sit since both the indoor and outdoor seating were full. We got our order ticket and a waiter showed us the line we could wait in for outdoor seating, indoor seating, or we could go have an open seat immediately down in their basement area. We’d already done all sorts of people watching so we were more interested in the fried dessert and chocolate so picked the basement seating. That was a mistake. Walking down the stairs the sweet smell of sewage hit us moderately hard and it was too late to turn around as the waiter was already bringing our order. So, Pam got to “enjoy” the one desert she really wanted in a dank, smelly basement. Not really an auspicious way to have dessert. We finished the fried parts and were left with the dipping chocolate to eat. We each took a small drink of it and decided we were done. For Pam to leave any chocolate dish uneaten, you know there was something wrong. I’d have to say this was a crappy experience. We may try Chocolatería San Ginés again someday, but we’ll wait to eat the desserts outside.
And the disappointment continued! We were going to head back to the hotel and get my evening aguardiente chupito on the way back. We stopped at one restaurant, but they didn’t have any aguardiente. I had to seriously wonder how they even had a liquor license because a Spanish bar without aguardiente, just can’t be real. Pam was tired so I took her back to the hotel. Staying in the tourist area at the Plaza del Sol does have its advantages as there are there are tons of bars and restaurants to choose from. Scrolling through the list of local bars on my phone, I saw the Espit Chupitos, the perfectly name for a bar! It was even somewhat close to the hotel. Off I head through the evening crowds for my date with a shot of heaven. I get to the bar, and something is different. They have two bouncers outside and a velvet roped off area for lining up. There was also some loud thumpy music coming from inside. This is not your typical Spanish bar.
Bars in Spain, like most of Europe, are smallish places that serve as a community gathering area. They have a bar area, one or two draft beer pulls, and a few tables. There are families hanging out, with kids running around. There are always some older local gentlemen discussing the weather, a couple of older ladies at a table swapping gossip, and a bartender working very long hours. Another requirement for a Spanish bar, which must have been dictated by some obscure government ministry, is that a TV must be on in the corner at an inappropriately loud volume tuned to a 24 hour news station. I love Spanish bars!
Espit Chupitos is obviously a tourist bar targeting a, ahem much, younger crowd than I normally hang out with. No matter, I hear my aguardiente calling so I tell the two surprised bouncers that I am there for a drink and they let me in. The music volume goes up a thousand fold, the lights are very dim, but there’s more light flashing in time with the music. I had a flood of memories of me making a fool out of myself at a disco numerous times as a young man so cringed a bit walking in. Winding through some weird hallway/sitting areas, I saw one couple in the place. Heading into a bigger room, I see the bar at the other end with a bottle shelf that goes all the way to the ceiling filled top to bottom. While not the idea place for enjoying my chupito, I’m on a mission. I belly up to the bar, and the two bored bartenders slumped behind it. I’m the only customer in the place, but I still needed to wave at the female bartender filing her nails behind the bar. She leans over and I asked for a chupito of aguardiente. She can’t hear me over the music, so I scream a little bit to be understood. She looks annoyed that she needs talk to me. Though I spoke in Spanish, she responds in bored English, “We don’t have aguardiente.” She slumps to the back of the bar and continues filing her nails which she has not stopped doing since I walked in. All I can think is that I am living in a weird, poorly written, short story whose plot is driven on clichés. I later grabbed a beer from a convenience store instead.
Madrid is still just as wonderful as ever and you should totally visit. Don’t let our odd day bother you. We can’t wait to come back!