Madrid - our final stop
We left Barcelona on an early train, headed for Madrid. We weren't going straight to the Capital City, however, we were stopping in the wine region of Priorat for a day of touring the countryside and learning about this very old wine region that has recently seen a rebirth. In addition to having some very lovely wines, the Priorat region is only about 30-45 minutes outside of Barcelona and easily reached from the path of the high speed train that connects Barcelona and Madrid - so a perfect stop for our itinerary. We had gotten a recommendation from a friend (everybody's favorite Cruise Director, Frank Paterno/Julie McCoy) for a guided tour in Priorat - and, as always, his reco was perfect! After a quick ride from Barcelona, we were met by our guide for the day, Ania, at the train station - she popped our luggage in the trunk of her minivan and we set off into the countryside, hearing about the local terrain, history and culture. Priorat is actually a rather small wine region - and although it has a history of making wine dating back hundreds of years ago, it has only recently begun to replant many of its vineyards that had been lost over time - so it was almost like it had been preserved in time. Ania had warned us that we would be driving on some very steep and winding mountain roads, and she was certainly true to her word - we climbed high into the hills of the Monsant mountain range and started our day with a visit to a small, family-run winery.
We were lucky to have beautiful blue skies and warm weather for the day (a treat after yesterday's cold rains in Barcelona) - so it was a great day to walk the vineyards with the young woman winemaker who took us on our first tour. Even though she spoke very little English, we were able to learn quite bit about her and her family through Ania's translations. Like many of the winemakers in Priorat, their vineyards were small and being run almost entirely by their family - her mother actually made the wines while she, her father and one of her brothers tended the vineyards and ran the winemaking operation (there was some grumbled mention of another brother who apparently didn't want to be in the family business and wasn't pulling his own weight - I didn't catch it all, but you didn't really need a translator to understand her opinion of this brother!).
We visited another winery before lunch - this time our tour and tasting presented by the father of the family who ran the winery. Again - he didn't really speak English, but we learned much through Ania's translation and no translation was really needed to understand the love and passion he had for his land and his business. We ate our lunch at another small, family-run winery that also ran a B&B and restaurant on their property which was perched high on the hill and provided breathtaking views of the Priorat region and vineyards.. As usual, our meal was delicious - fresh ingredients very simply prepared. We finished our day by visiting one last winery - this one connected with an historic monastery in the region. By early evening we were headed back to the train station - it had been a great day! We had loved learning about this beautiful and rugged region of Spain - and it was especially lovely to meet so many families and learn of their history and work in the fields they loved. Perhaps the best part of the day, however, was our time getting to know our tour guide Ania - she was warm, personable and interesting. She gave us an insider's view to the towns and regions we visited as well as the ups and downs of the local Catalan politics - but she also shared colorful stories of her own life and her time as a relative newcomer to Spain (originally from Poland, she and her husband had moved there about 10 years ago from England). Our day in Priorat once again reinforced what we like so much about travel - it's the people that you meet that really help you learn about a country and a culture.
By the time our train arrived in Madrid it was past 10 pm (I know - early for the Spaniards, but late for us), so we got a taxi down to our apartment that was located in the city center, near the Opera. It was a great place and a REALLY great location - and it was quite the luxury to spend so much time in one place. We would stay in Madrid for the remainder of our time in Spain - spending a few days exploring this town and also taking a few day trips. I'm going to talk about our time in Madrid in this blog post - and cover our day trips to Segovia and Toledo in a separate blog post - just because there is so much to share with you.
Let me just start out by saying, it didn't take us long at all to decide that we LOVED Madrid! It's a beautiful city, with historic buildings everywhere, large, wide pedestrian streets and busy plazas with tons of activity going on. As I said, our apartment was in a great location - on a beautiful square, right beside the Opera house and very near the Royal Palace. Additionally, we found it very easy to get around the city on the subway.
One of our favorite places we visited is the Parque del Buen Retiro - a very large, expansive 19th century park that was full of lush green spaces, beautiful gardens, wide avenues and fountains. We stopped by there one morning on our way out of town for a day trip to Segovia and were so enamored with it that we had to come back. Our first visit was fairly early in the morning and the sky was a little overcast - so, although the park was beautiful, it was pretty quiet and peaceful. When we stopped by later that same day, it was early evening and the park was packed - full of locals jogging and riding bikes, people on their way home from work and even a crossfire bootcamp being conducted in one of the small side parks. It almost felt like being in Central Park in NYC - lots of people and energy - and everyone enjoying the fact that the clouds had cleared and it had ended up being a beautiful evening with a spectacular sunset.
One of our favorite adventures in Madrid was our Flamenco show - now that was quite the experience. We spent one evening enjoying a traditional Flamenco dance show - lucky for us we had gotten a recommendation from my friend Nancy - so we were spared any tacky, tourist dances and enjoyed a very traditional performance in a small, intimate theater. This was one of those things that I really had no expectations of - everyone said you had to see it, but I wasn't really all that excited about it - and boy, was i wrong! It was an hour of intense music and dancing - there were two women and one man dancer - and all three were accompanied by three women soulfully singing backup while two men played the guitar. I wish I could describe it, but I can't - the dancing was athletic and rhythmic, the singing was intense and emotional and the entire performance was really mesmerizing. This evening also gave a glimpse into one of the sweetest experiences we had while traveling AND one of the most frustrating. Sadly, the most frustrating experience came at the hands of an American tourist - I almost wanted to turn in my passport. As I mentioned the theater was small and crowded - and the management asked that you take pictures or videos only during the first 5 minutes of the show so as not to disturb other guests or the performers. Well, as usual, there was an American tourist in the audience who thought those rules didn't apply to her - and, of course, she happened to be sitting at the table right next to us. The rude, middle-age New Yorker (apologies to all of my well-behaved NY friends!!) at the table next to us decided she would videotape the entire show, in spite of the request at the beginning of the show and the 3 personal admonishments she received from the waiters and management - didn't phase her - just kept popping her iPhone back up and hitting the record button with her long, fake fingernails so she could post directly to her Instagram account (yes - it was that close that I could see all of that!). Honestly - WHO DOES THAT?? It would have almost ruined my evening -but, luckily, my faith in the human race was restored by the cast of the show. At the very end of the performance the sleek, sexy and passionate male dancer reached down into the audience and asked a teenage boy to join him on stage for the final dance. This sweet young boy, who was mentally challenged, was sitting with his Dad and hadn't taken his eyes off of the stage all night. When given the chance - he took to the stage like a pro - dancing with both the male and female dancers, to the cheers of the audience - and he was REALLY GOOD! the how ended with him taking a bow with all of the professional performers - a sweet and touching end to the performance that far outshadowed the momentary rudeness of the American tourist.
We, of course, went to the Prado Museum - actually our only true museum visit on this trip. We spent most of our time in the rooms that highlighted the Spanish artists - especially enjoying the vast Goya and El Greco collections. Other than the Prado, we didn't spend a lot of time inside - instead we spent most of our time in this beautiful city strolling the streets and admiring the beautiful buildings, plazas and fountains.
As you know, we love a good market - and Madrid is full of them. Our hotel was very close to the Plaza Mayor and the Mercado de San Miguel - an older market that has been revamped and is full of food stalls selling the most delicious bites - think Ponce City Market. Of course, we enjoyed that - but also wanted to experience a more authentic and local experience, so on our last day we took the subway a few more stops out of town to visit the Mercado de Maravillas - where the locals shop - think Buford Highway Farmer's Market and not Ponce City Market. It was great - lots of stalls of fish, meat, produce and just about everything you could imagine - Spanish men and women everywhere, doing their shopping for the day at their favorite stalls, all accompanied by vigorous pointing and discussion. I stocked up on all the different kinds of paprika - sweet (dulce), hot (picante) and smoked (agridulce) - all for just a few euros. Before heading out Guy and I got a bagful of the biggest, ripest cherries I think I've ever had - and ate most of them before we even made it back on the subway.
WHEW - I know that's a lot - but there's just so much to see and do in Madrid - and we loved every minute of it. As I said, we also took a few day trips - one to Segovia and one to Toledo - I'll tell you about those in the next post.