Forget falafel, forget tzatziki, forget pizza and pasta – in Spain we have reached culinary Nirvana. Tapas-hopping is a wonderful Spanish tradition that turns dinner (or lunch) into a bar-crawl. You eat a few olives here, some grilled prawns there, a portion of stuffed champignons here and some chorizo or roasted pig-ear in yet another place, all sprinkled with lots of your favorite wine or beer. Of course, these make just a very modest list; in reality, the variety of foods served at any tapas bar is enough to keep newcomers busy experimenting with strange or unfamiliar foods for weeks.
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or here for the Madrid set
As in many European countries, you can still smoke in bars and restaurants in Spain, and cigarettes are available from numerous automated dispensers. The locals take ample advantage of this benefit and you’ll be hard-pressed to find even a restaurant that has a non-smoking section. But things are changing – a few popular places, mostly chain-style restaurants, have started to display very conspicuous non-smoking signs, and people seem not to mind the restriction and still flood these establishments. Where smoking is allowed (and that is almost everywhere), explicit signs say “Esta permitido fumar,” but the same signs also mention that smoking can be harmful and cause heart and lung disease. In my opinion it is just a question of time before Spanish smokers will be forced to take their cigarettes outside, like they are now in Italy.
Madrid doesn’t have the intense and overwhelming beauty of Rome, but its charm is nevertheless undeniable, primarily because of the crazy, outgoing, fun way of life that Spaniards have adopted. The downtown streets are full of people every evening, bars (including those that serve food) stay open very late - they close just in time for the nightclubs (some still called “discos”) to open, and no Spaniard seems to be ever having dinner at home, despite the high prices (yes, we had a round of drinks in a bar where every alcoholic beverage on sale, except for the beer, was 14 Euros - have you ever tried a screwdriver for $20?). This propensity for social life and long-lasting parties comes as no surprise after the 36 years of hard repression by the Franco regime, when the country was in a permanent curfew. Indeed, as a bitter joke, bars and restaurants have kept on their walls the menacing warning signs of the dictatorship era: “Prohibido cantar y bailar” (singing and dancing prohibited) say those engraved plaques, screwed in the tiles above the heads of the cheering crowd. Never again, the jolly Madrileños seem to reply.
Despite this atmosphere of freedom and relaxation, Spain is well aware that it has been caught in the middle of a sinister war, the war on terror. I’m not sure whether this has happened before or in the aftermath of the Madrid train bombings, but Spain, like the US, has sacrificed some convenient freedoms for the greater (some may dispute the adjective) benefit of increased security. Larger railway stations, which in Europe have always been places where you can run to the platforms and hop on the train at the last minute, have become more like airports – the platforms are now fenced out from the waiting halls by sturdy, tall cast-iron railings, and access to the train happens through a scanner gate where, akin to the security checks at airports, all bags are x-rayed.
In other, more personal news, after all those museums full of statues and ancient mosaics and the archaeological sites we saw in Rome, switching our focus to “painting appreciation” has been a welcome change. Madrid has two of the most famous art museums in the world – the Prado, home to most of Goya’s and Velasquez’s works, where lines for tickets are permanently winding around the building during opening hours, and the Reyna Sofia, which boasts a fantastic collection of modern art, including the gripping Guernica (along with many other works by Picasso), a few rooms of Dali, and – in my uneducated opinion – too much of the over-appreciated Miro.
The city’s ferial atmosphere has cast its spell on us enough to convince even me to do some shopping. I bought a winter coat; my Marmot jacket can only help when winter temperatures are still bearable (like in Argentina or Greece), and besides, after 7 months of traveling it has accumulated dirt and food spots to the point that I have become ashamed to go into town wearing it. I was sad when we left Madrid; 5 days in this city had not been enough; we could have easily enjoyed a few more. But we were heading south for Seville and I could not resist the call of warmer weather…Posted from Barcelona.