Monthly Archives: December 2011

Blue Skies and Tapas

J and I went to Madrid to celebrate my birthday on November 11-14.  We had a fantastic time filled with long walks, great food and attempts to learn a little Spanish.  Here’s a few pictures and a day-by-day of our trip (sorry its so late!). *forgive all spelling in this post, I do not speak Spanish

Buildings along the Grand Via


J and I woke up at 5 am to train to the airport to catch our flight. We managed to get to the airport and through security relatively painlessly and I had a second breakfast (we ate pastries at the train station) while we were waiting for our flight to board. The flight was about an hour late, which was pretty annoying but we didn’t have anywhere to be and were still due to land in the early afternoon so I was happy with the extra dozing time.  Once in Madrid we metro’d to our hotel pretty near the city center. After check in and wandering around to find a bank to supplement the euros we came with we stumbled upon a bar for lunch/dinner (it was 4 pm). Our server didn’t speak much english and we don’t speak much spanish so we pointed to one of the specials on the menu and looked forward to our surprise.  We ended up getting about 12 mini sandwiches, some ham, shrimp, hot dog, etc.  I was not too enthused since we were looking for “spanish” food, but we ate as much as we could (12 mini sandwiches is a lot for two people!) and left to see the city center. Our server probably thought we were crazy ordering that, but he probably didn’t have enough english to explain so didn’t just like we didn’t try to explain to him that we ordered sangria and not beer. Sometimes you just gotta go with the flow–

Jardines del Retiro

The only thing I really knew was that the main tourist/shopping/food areas of the city were south, so we walked in that general direction.  We passed the Gran Via which is one of the main streets and is filled with tall downtown office buildings, restaurants and theaters.  Many of the buildings are rather old with statues and decorative architectural features so it was fun to walk down it (and we would many more times before the end of the weekend).  We ended up at Plaza Callo, which reminded me of Piccadilly Circus with its lights, ads and screens. For those who have never been to London or Madrid, think of a much, MUCH smaller Times Square. From there we wandered into some sculpture gardens that were in front of the Royal Palace.  I wasn’t sure if that was THE palace at this point, I thought there was more than one in that area. At this point it was dark and there were people milling about in large groups or many small groups walking in the same direction.  We followed the statues of people I didn’t recognize and the crowds up shopping streets toward Puerto del Sol (one of the main squares in Madrid). We stopped along the way to listen to an awesome harpist, avoid buying some flying pin wheel things from men with squeaky kazoo-like whistles in their mouths, and to watch an amazing jazz band (complete with comedic dance performance) play (their drums were a few boxes the drummer sat on if I remember correctly).

Once we passed through Puerto del Sol and down another street we ended up sitting on an outdoor patio of a pretty classy looking restaurant.  They were just setting up their outdoor seating area (it was around 8 pm, people eat dinner late here) and a guitarist began to play, but there was no one there, so I decided to save him and J agreed.  We sat down to some spanish red wine and a ham/cheese plate.  Within minutes the patio was mostly full, I think the restaurant should give me some of their profits for making the patio cool. We watched the crowds go by for a while before getting too tired to do anything but find our way home to the hotel (which I kept referring to as home during the trip for some reason…).

The Centro Centro building


J and I had breakfast at a lovely cafe a few blocks away from our hotel.  I guessed at what I ordered and over the next few days (we ate there almost everyday) learned the words for peppermint and camomile tea. Then we walked towards city center planning to start our day at the Jardines de Retiro (somewhat like a smaller Central Park).  On the way we went into a really awesome building, now called Centro Centro (some sort of new civic cultural space) that used to be a palace.  The insides were partly refurbished in a very modern style to open up the space, but kept most of the beautiful ceiling tile work, ornamental columns and great interior balconies.  The exhibits inside were a bit disappointing (they may have not been completely set up) and the observation deck was closed, so my pictures weren’t from the very top.

View from Centro Centro

Afterwards we followed a little park down towards the Prado Museum (since I knew it was near the Jardines–I would realize by the next day we walked in a very round about manner to get there). The lines for the Prado were crazy and there was a 12 Euro per person fee, so we decided to go on to the Jardines. We entered through a manicured garden with marble stairs leading up to the main park paths. There were long tree lined avenues (changing with fall colors) and winding paths that didn’t seem to go anyway in particular. We stumbled upon a lake with row boats and a large monument on one side.  The monument was mostly marble (some bronze) with a huge statue and two curving colonnades behind.  The sun was shining the sky the bluest I’ve seen since we’ve moved to London (for perhaps obvious reasons)–it was absolutely gorgeous.  We called the long way around the lake taking in all of the puppeteers, people selling snacks and musicians before sitting down on the stairs that lead from the monument to the water to rest and water the boats row by (I especially liked when little kids would try to row the same boat in two directions at once–going in circles or weird zig zags).

Lake in Jardines del Retiro

After a rest we came upon the Crystal Palace with a beautiful glass installation inside.  It looked like a glittery night sky, but it was made up with punctuation marks. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.  From there we went off to find lunch, but got a bit lost in the park and exited at the southern end. We managed to find the right direction with our map and ended up eating in a cheap looking outdoor cafeteria. I had lamb and J rabbit.  It was pretty good, but nothing special–enough to keep us from starving. The next plan was to go to the Reina Sofia museum and we walked at least 8 blocks up a hill thinking we were going the right way only to look at the map and realize it was basically right across the street from where we ate, hidden behind a building.  Annoyed with myself, I led the way back to the museum and for some reason we got in for free! I think they knew it was my birthday.

Inside the Crystal Palace

We went through many of the exhibitions, but didn’t go to the top floors (exhausted by that point).  One interesting exhibit was on artwork inspired by French author Raymond Roussell’s work–his novels most be very imaginative judging by what they inspired, I’d like to look them up.  My favorite part of the museum (though the other pre/post war works were nice) was Picasso’s Guernica.  That iconic, wall-sized painting inspired by the bombing of the Spanish city. After learning about it in so many of my art history classes I adored being able to stare at it in person–I was shocked to see that you could tell where he painted over somethings to change the image “last minute.” This became even more shocking as I saw the rest of the exhibit which included pictures showing the progress mural as it was being painted, many of Picasso’s sketches and studies while he was working out his idea and information on the Spanish Civil War itself.  I am still so happy that I was able to see such a comprehensive look of how one famous artist worked.  It made me realize he was no first-time perfection genius, even after countless studies and changes he made to the “sketch” on the canvas he changed the final piece and the marks showed. This is probably not so exciting for most of you, but this may have been my favorite thing about Madrid (besides the food and company of course).

Picasso's Guernica, Source: Reina Sofia

After getting exhausted of the school group crowds we walked back up to Calle de las Huertas to find dinner. We had trouble finding a place since it was rather early for dinner in Spain, so we had chocolate and churros in one of the most famous and arguably best chocolateria’s in Madrid. If you have never had real hot chocolate and churros where the chocolate is so thick its like melted chocolate bars, you haven’t lived. From that indulgence we went on to another–sangria.  We were still in the hunt for dinner, but none of the places I had written down seemed to be good options in person, so we sat down in a large square and shared some sangria as we watched the sunset and buildings light up. J ended up looking up where we could eat traditional tapas nearby and though I was skeptical I’m so glad we went.  This tiny shop with tables in the back (perhaps called Casa Gonzalez) was the most delicious meal we had in Spain. There was goat cheese, wild boar, ham, bread, olive tapenade, red wine—as you can see, deliciousness all around. After dinner we eventually found our way back to our hotel (after getting a bit lost).

Royal Palace from Sabatini Gardens


After another delicious breakfast at the Caffe del Artes we were off to the Plaza de Espana, Royal Palace and Sabatini Gardens. We took our time walked around the gardens which went right up to the side of the Palace. Before walking around the other side of the Palace to the ~Almudena Cathedral.  We decided not to pay to go into the Palace–I still had enough opulence from the Vienna Palace tour–but we did manage to sneak into the Cathedral as mass was starting to let out.  The Cathedral architectural was very normal, gothic-esque in style like many grand cathedrals in Europe. The interesting part was its ceiling paintings and stained glass; they all had mostly geometric (read: straight edges) shapes with bright colors. It could have been redone to look this way recently, because it seemed very modern to me compared to the age of the building itself. (A quick look at Wikipedia has shown me that the architect fooled me, but the interior artist did not–while other cathedrals and holy houses were on that spot in the past the Cathedral wasn’t finished until 1993.)

Other side of Royal Palace

I wanted to see another large basilica named for Saint Dominc, but by the time we got there (got a little lost on the way) we saw their masses ran basically back to back all day and it would be impossible to get inside.  Tired feet and hungry bellies overshadowing defeat, we walked up a nearby, well-known restaurant street, Cava Baja, in search for food. Of course, in keeping with every other meal on the trip, it was at an odd time for most Spanish people. After passing back several crowded bars (apparently the thing to do after mass) we found Orixe, a relatively fancy restaurant with places to sit. We split croquettes with various creamy goodness in them–can’t say I remember what–and each ordered a tortilla (think spanish omelette with lots of potatoes). Taking our time to eat slowly and rest we left the restaurant mid-afternoon and walked up to Plaza Mayor and back to Puerto de Sol before deciding to go back to the Jardines. We entered the park from the top this time (a few blocks behind Centro Centro, instead of the direction we went the first time) and rested on a bench or wandered the paths for a few hours. *This is where my camera died, sorry!*

As it got close to 6 pm and the sun was setting we came across the most hilarious juggler show I’ve ever seen where the juggler managed to find a volunteer who himself knew how to juggle.  J and I stayed behind to see if he was a plant, but no–volunteer was with a group of friends and seemed to have never met the guy before.  Amazing! I also learned that you don’t need to understand Spanish to get jokes–or at least half the jokes (many centered around getting manly men to do unmanly things, like prance and skip with female wigs on). We wandered on among many of the same streets we had grown to know over the last two days and was having trouble finding food nearer our hotel since it was Sunday and before 9 pm. We stopped at a small cafe, but they were not serving food yet, so we ordered drinks instead and got in from the chilly weather. Luckily we found a tapas bar nearby afterwards where J got nachos and I got a pizza, not necessarily Spanish, but both were delicious.

Sipping sangria in the square


We rolled out of bed in time to check out and found a juice bar for breakfast.  Our limited Spanish skills had J and I drinking the same mango/banana/papaya juice with a chocolate pain even though J is slightly allergic.  Luckily he survived (there was actually very little risk of death) and we went on to find the Tempo de Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple given to Spain for its help restoring other temples in the 1960s. It was pretty cool to see an actual Egyptian temple in person and very strange to see it in the middle of a plaza in Madrid.  Unfortunately we couldn’t go inside, closed on Mondays (maybe I should have planned this more? but then where’s the fun in that?) After looking at one of the best view’s of the city from the hill on which the temple sat we wandered northwesterly through the park admiring statues, rose gardens and other remnants of old empire.  We ended up at the Victory Arch which is taller than Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, but not as impressive. From there we metro’d back to Puerto del Sol, found lunch at a generic looking Spanish bar and cafe, which was a delightful three courses, and had our final chocolate and churros.  Actually I ate all the churros and chocolate J was to full and truthfully, so was I, but I was not going to leave without another dose.

Rubbing our full bellies we walked the streets deciding how to kill our last hour before we had to leave for the airport.  After saying goodbye to the central streets we walked so often we decided to start walking to a further metro stop for a more efficient airport commute.  We walked north, passing our hotel, awesome parks and architecture until we finally made it to the metro, then the airport, then London late at night where starved I forced J to buy us food in the train station and then ate greedily on the tube just like the people I hate who do that.

Outside the Crystal Palace

To sum up the trip (besides food and Picasso), I’d like to tell you a little story I forgot to mention…. On our last day after getting juice for breakfast I was finishing mine as we walked down the road towards the Plaza de Espana. We were chattering back and forth, talking about something absurd when J made a joke while I was sipping.  I immediately spit my mango-colored juice all over the sidewalk in laughter just as an old man exited a shop we were passing.  He looked at me in horror probably thinking I was puking on him.  I continued to laugh too hard to say anything to him as he hurried away.  Embarrassing or not, that was probably the funniest thing that happened in Madrid. (side note: J is no stranger to my laugh-spitting tendencies, I think he’s had hot chocolate, shaved ice, soup and other liquids launched at him over the years. It just hadn’t happened in a long time.)

*J and I don’t know what our next destination will be.  I’m thinking perhaps Budapest or Prague in January, but we shall see nothing booked yet!*


Thanksgiving Abroad

Celebrating Thanksgiving outside of the U.S. isn’t completely clear cut.  I was really excited to attempt to make some Thanksgiving foods this year (pumpkin pie, turkey or mac n’ cheese), but then I realized–canned pumpkin barely exists in stores, turkeys aren’t really around until Christmas and there is no Velveeta (and essential ingredient in my family’s mac n’ cheese). I ended up glad that a friend of one of J’s coworkers offered to cook for us–yes she must be crazy offering to cook Thanksgiving single handed for 13+ people, but we’ll get to that.

Since you don’t get Thursday or Friday off what did you do for actual Thanksgiving?

Cowboys & Indians--now that's Thanksgiving!

Thanks for the question.  I wasn’t planning on doing anything really.  I went to work, ended up there late (until 6 pm) in a meeting and got a spontaneous call from J asking if I wanted to meet him and a coworker at a diner for Thanksgiving.  Eating something besides leftover tacos from 2 days ago for dinner? I was in.  I met them in Soho and they were already at the bar enjoying some American-liquor only cocktails (their rule, not the diner’s). The diner was trendier inside than any I’ve seen in the US (indie pseudo-diners in NYC or DC don’t count).  We were escorted to a booth by a cowboy (yes the servers were dressed up like cowboys and indians), but we made him snap a picture with us since we couldn’t stop laughing that they thought cowboys and pilgrims were basically the same thing. It was a cooler outfit than a pilgrim’s… it came with toy guns!

Thanksgiving Specials

We sat down and immediately ordered milkshakes–chocolate and pumpkin pie.  I decided on a cheeseburger with sweet potato fries (my first burger since I moved here if you can believe it). J had their Thanksgiving special–turkey burger with cranberry sauce and sweet potato fries. Coworker got his burger with mac n’ cheese, so we had almost all the trimmings on the table.  Now the food was good (better than some of the diners back home–less greasy), but we were over the moon the whole time becuase it felt a bit like home.  We have been here long enough (and I without eating things such as fries, burgers and shakes) that we were craving a bit of home.  It didn’t feel like a cop out, it didn’t feel cheesy (though it kind of was). We were happy to be the loud Americans over in the booth getting excited over diner food. Since I couldn’t transport all of my normal family Thanksgiving foods here (with the family preferably) then I’d have to say this was the best day-of-Thanksgiving substitute.

So when did the expat Thanksgiving happen?

Wonderful, crazy cook’s Thanksgiving dinner was on Saturday.  We went over to coworkers’ (1 & 2) house and food was already ready for the most part.  Everything was spread out on the few coffee tables and small kitchen table (mostly held the huge turkey) wrapped in foil and peaking my curiosity.  When (mostly) everyone arrived it was time to turn cocktail hour into dinner time. Cook and sous chef began to uncover the platters showing spinach salad, french bread, mashed potatoes, sweet potatos, carrots & parsnips, routebaggah, breaded cheesy artichoke hearts, a pan full of cranberry sauce, stuffing, and the infamous hard-to-find organic 80 pound (the currency not the weight) turkey.

We are excited about our diner Thanksgiving despite the poor picture quality

I was a little nervous to see the vegetable-focused Thanksgiving.  It was one of the healthiest ones I have probably ever had–there was no cream or butter in the potatoes, everything was just mashed. Everything was delicious though.  I found out I like parsnips, think routebaggah is okay and absolutely adore her brined, very herby tasting turkey. I had at least two plates and at least two pieces of her amazing pumpkin pie and homemade whipped cream with allspice afterwards.  It did make me a bit homesick because it was different from my normal Thanksgiving foods (the unhealthy mac n’ cheese, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, brown sugar honey ham— you can tell I’m still craving can’t you?), but Christmas is just around the corner (in the US Dec 15-26!)

and finally the greasy delicious close up...

Overall Thanksgiving was great despite being away from home.  There were a few I-don’t-really-know-you-but-I’m-eating-your-food moments, but we were a bunch of Americans (Canadians, one Brit and one Swede) feasting in our home away from home and that was enough to bring us together for an evening.  Next year, I’d like to have a hand in some Thanksgiving cooking and I’ll try not to be so lazy when looking for substitutes for the ingredients for my mom’s recipes that aren’t sold widely here (no instant pudding!).  One thing is certain–the diner day-of-Thanksgiving tradition is a must.

Love you all and looking forward to seeing many of you over Christmas!