First stop upon our early morning arrival in Madrid: Hotel Atocha, on Calle Atocha near the old train station.
The hotel is a beautifully restored “palace” (mini-version) that has all the amenities you could want, with beautiful architecture and white marble throughout the hotel. The staff is very pleasant and helpful. Plus, it turned out to be well situated near the Prado, one of the most renowned museums in the world; the city center, and a barrio (neighborhood) with plenty of places to eat and drink.
The day we arrived, quite fatigued from our overnight trip, we decided to stay in the Atocha barrio and just wander around. Although we were in a big city, this area of Madrid seemed more like a small city to us. The buildings were not very tall; many of the streets parallel to the main routes were very narrow and quaint, there were many small shops, cafes and bars to visit, and life seemed to be happening at a reasonable pace. This suited us just fine, as we were not yet ready for the hustle and bustle of a major urban experience.
We stopped in a local cafe for a bite to eat. The server was a young woman who spoke barely any English and did not seem interested in being helpful. We ended up with a small plate of fried dumpling-like somethings which were not very good. After some persistence, we were able to order the fried squid bocadillo (sandwich on a baguette) which was more satisfying, with a tasty local beer.
After a short while we found ourselves on what seemed to be a major pedestrian shopping street, filled with Spaniards and tourists. It was starting to get warm and we were low on energy so we found a place to have a bowl of gazpacho (cold spicy tomato soup) to help us cool off. We enjoyed people watching for about half an hour, then resumed our walk and encountered a very old church right smack in the middle of the shopping area. They are just part of daily life here.
We stumbled upon a tiny handcrafted-jewelry store and found a sweet handmade ceramic necklace to bring home to our daughter. I love finding gifts that will remind me or the person I am gifting of the places I visit. By the way, she loves the necklace!
Our promenade ended at the Botanical Gardens, right next to the Prado. We sought the shade and meandered through the garden. In my opinion, it was nice but does not compare to many of the same here in the New York area.
We ended up having dinner on Calle Moratin, a quaint street just around the corner from where we were staying at what looked like an authentically Spanish bar/restaurant called Taberna Meson, which advertised a very affordable “menu del dia” ( menu of the day) for a reasonable 2 euros, including 3 courses.
It turned out to be a real local hangout. Some local patrons sat in an adjacent room at the bar watching a bullfight (a favorite pasttime for many men in Madrid), while we dined in a cute dining room with red and white checkered tablecloths and pictures of Matadors on all the walls.
Our waiter spoke very rapid, local Spanish, but it was fun to engage with him using my very limited Spanish. He was clearly pleased at my attempts.
We chatted amiably with a woman sitting alone at a nearby table, who complimented me on my ridiculously limited Spanish. This would never happen in France! I was beginning to fall in love with Madrid. The gazpacho was delicious, the grilled fish perfectly done, the cava (bubbly wine )was tasty and the flan was perfect.
Before leaving the restaurant, we stopped at the bar to watch the bullfight for about ten minutes because we were curious.
When the final, handsome matador entered the ring to kill the bull we didn’t care to watch the inevitable ending so we left.
We felt very satisfied with our first day in Spain, and went to bed exhausted and earlier than usual to be ready for our city bus tour the next morning. One of the best features of the vacation package we bought turned out to be the tour of each of the three cities we visited.
More about Madrid next week.