It is a benefit of working in Switzerland to have 5 weeks vacation a year and also to get 100% of our overtime hours back in vacation time (hours above a 41 hour week). Given our busy seasons, we arrive at quite a high amount of time off whenever we can manage it with our work schedules. Also, taking long vacations is entirely supported and applauded by pretty much everyone we work with. Something we wouldn’t experience in the U.S.!
As a result, we are now on a month long vacation in Europe! We just started the first leg, which is two weeks in Spain and Portugal. There’s not enough time to see it all, but we are going to make it to Madrid, Granada, Sevilla, The Algarve and Lisbon. So far we just spent three nights in Madrid. Here are the highlights!
Accommodation: We stayed in a one bedroom Airbnb apartment in the Centro neighborhood about 2 blocks from the Sol metro. Our spot was perfectly situated and within a 20 minute walk of all the sites and shopping on the Gran Via and maybe 5 from tons of restaurants and bars. Our host was really nice and even took us out on our first night for a tapas bar crawl.
Day 1 (Saturday July 23) we flew in to Madrid from Geneva. After settling into our apartment we started walking.
On Saturday we also spent some time going shopping and wandering through the Gran Via shopping district. Madrid has soooo many stores and the prices here are first of all already lower than anything we see in Switzerland, but also July is one of the twice a year major sales periods. So, I got some Vans for a great deal and Andrew bought some new sunglasses. It’s crazy how we are so isolated in Switzerland from a variety of shops and lower prices that our jaws drop when we see what they have here in Madrid (for example, Sunglass Hut and pretty much every brand name you know from the U.S. with their own brick and mortar store).
I honestly did not know what to expect when we signed up to go to the bull fight. If you are curious how it works and also how the various roles of the participants in the fight operate, the wikipedia page is pretty good. I had not known, for example, that the bull is always killed in the end, and that they fight and kill 6 bulls through the night. It was an interesting thing to witness given it is a huge part of their culture, but it was also pretty sad to see how they treat the bulls. Two bulls gorged two of the matadors during the fights and I didn’t even feel bad for them. That sounds mean, but really – read how it works then you might understand! During the fight, plenty of tourists left. I definitely felt a little bit of an ethical battle about whether I should stay and support the fight given the animal’s welfare but … we stayed and that’s that.
Monday we started the morning with more walking around the city and then went to the Prado, the main Spanish national art museum that many claim to rival Paris’ Louvre. It was impressive, and we saw works of Goya, El Bosco (Bosch), El Greco and many others.
Monday afternoon we took our Airbnb host’s recommendation and took a 30 minute train to the city of Toledo.
One of the primary attractions in Toledo that we visited was the Toledo Cathedral, which we did a full audio tour of. It was a very impressive church with a wonderful collection of art by famous Spanish artists, including El Greco and Goya. To finish the day while waiting for our train back to Madrid, we grabbed drinks at an outdoor bar with a terrace overlooking the river gorge and hills beyond.
We could not have been happier with the food in Madrid. Everywhere we had amazing food, unique flavors and dishes.
We took our Airbnb host’s recommendation and had our first meal at Ginger, which was a short walk away. We sat out on the street tables to people watch and enjoy the beautiful day under the shade of umbrellas.
Our first night in Madrid, our Airbnb host, Kristian, offered to take us out on the town for tapas and drinks. Given this was already our plan and there’s no reason to turn down the offer of a local to show us the ropes, we happily accepted. We met him at 9 pm (remember – the Spanish eat very late!) and headed to a rooftop terrace and then to the Matador. Andrew and I had never done this and only researched online so it was great to get an intro into how to approach this. Essentially, whenever you order a drink at a bar you will always get a little “tapas” along with the drink included in the price. We also noted that they progressively get a little better with the additional drinks you order. For example, at the Matador, our first drink came with a piece of baguette, topped with a thin slice of tomato and a slice of salami. The next was bread with freshly sliced local delicacy of cured ham, Jamón ibérico (see photo collage below). After that, we got a slice of roasted red pepper empanada. Seriously, so good. The rest of the night we hopped around to a few different bars and spent a bit of time at La Fragua de Vulcano sampling several other dishes, including chicken wings, albondigas (meatballs in some sort of delish sauce), shrimp in garlic and butter mmm my mouth is watering just remembering it all 🙂 Many of these dishes were actually not tapas but raciones, which are bigger portions than a tapas but not necessarily the size as a full meal.
Sunday we had a late lunch at the Mercado de San Miguel. Below is the bar where we ordered 50 grams of acorn fed jamón ibérico de bellota reserva, some of the premium ham. They slice it for you right off the leg of the pig. The meat is buttery and the flavor is … for lack of better words so good! Other things we tasted are in the photo collage below.
Throughout the rest of our days we went to a few other spots, throughout the Centro and Prado neighborhoods, including Los Gatos, La Tintoreria, and VIPS. But the picture below is just a snapshot of the amazing stuff we tasted!
Top left: Mussels with a fresh bell pepper salsa; Top right: Octopus with potato and sprinkled in paprika at the Mercado; Middle left: stuffed olives at the Mercado; Middle right: My lunch at Ginger, Dorade (sea bream) in a roasted red pepper sauce topped with a grilled onion; Bottom left: Burrata topped with a tomato jelly and balsalmic glaze at the Mercado; Bottom center: Pimientos de padron at the Mercado (just quick fried padron peppers with flakes of salt. Simple but so good); Bottom right: Chicken wings.
1st Impressions of Spain:
This is my first time to Spain and Andrew’s second visit (he went to Barcelona with his family). I was not sure what to expect, but given its economic state I had rather low expectations for amenities and the quality of the city. But, I was pleasantly surprised! Madrid was clean, public transport was well signed, widely available if you need it and well priced. All the people were helpful and worked with us through our minimal Spanish. The museums were very nice and the parks were well kept and beautiful.
We checked the forecast beforehand and were expecting the worst with above 100 degrees every day all day. But it wasn’t that bad! The mornings and evenings were in the 70s and it only got above 100 one day so far and it was only for a few hours in the afternoon. It probably helps to have the mindset from the beginning that we are going to roast, but we handled the heat pretty well and were not miserable at all.
People really do stay out late and hours of operation are much later. This was so welcome given how the operating hours of everything are so limited in Switzerland. It was wild to be walking around the city at midnight and to be on crowded streets with families. I mean, children, babies, grandma, grandpa, everyone is out late! Even Starbucks was open at 11pm when we passed it. It is such an interesting aspect of their culture.
It is CHEAP. And I am not just saying that as someone who is coming from Switzerland with higher prices. Our Airbnb was only about EUR 280 for 3 nights, in a prime spot and with A/C so we didn’t go with the lowest grade available. Wine was about 2 EUR per glass (and it was decent Spanish wine!) and I think we spent an average of MAYbe EUR 50 on dinner and drinks for the two of us. This has been so fantastic for our budget given we’re traveling for so long.
As I said, the people are very nice. I’ll end with a conversation with our cab driver this morning on the way to the bus station to catch our ride to Granada. He commented how Spain is “real Europe” and the rest is not the same. How they don’t work here in Spain, many people are unemployed, they just party party party and in Switzerland we work too much. He laughed it off, but it is kind of a sad reality because they don’t have as good an economy as other parts of Europe or as us in the U.S.. But he was incredibly happy (in appearance at least) and spoke with pride for his country. He was a nice person to have met as we left the city and truly gave me a lasting positive impression of the amazing city of Madrid.