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MADRID AND GRANADA--A Magical Winter Week in Spain

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Jan 17th, 2011, 09:27 AM
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MADRID AND GRANADA--A Magical Winter Week in Spain

I returned last night from a simply superb week split between Madrid and Granada. I plan to write a very short report largely devoted to food talk. Before I begin, I would like to extend a heartfelt gracias to all of you who were so generous with tips and advice. A special thanks to Maribel, and to Robert2533, Kimhe, Revulgo2 for their patience in answering all my questions about where to eat.




Despite having visited Spain six times in the last 7 years, and flying in and out of the spectacular Madrid airport on several connecting flights during the last few years, more than 15 years had passed since I had actually set foot in the Spanish capital. And so, availing ourselves of decently priced rt tickets on Iberia, and an excellent winter rate at the legendary Hotel Ritz, my usual travel partner and I found ourselves bound, the second week in January, for a week-long visit to Spain that would begin with four nights in Madrid and continue with three nights in Granada. We flew Iberia from JFK on an open-jaw ticket and departed from Granada, with a connection on the return flight in Madrid.




Our flight was fine. Iberia has now joined the ranks of those airlines that allow passengers to book the better coach seats in advance only by payment of a fee. In this case, a rather steep $140US bought me emergency exit row seats on both trans-Atlantic flights, and an additional $14 allowed me to sit in the exit row for the hour-long Granada-Madrid leg. (My more frugal partner opted for a “regular” aisle seat, which he was able to book ahead by phone). The tickets alone cost about $770 on the Iberia website. Food in Iberia coach is usually fairly dismal and these flights were no exception; I took my chances with vegetarian meals while my partner’s only comment on the regular meals was “horrible.” (I usually bring my own food but on this trip, I was operating with the handicap of taking carry-on luggage only, no small feat in this season of heavy clothing. I was, therefore, too focused on the “when in doubt, leave it out” packing mantra and so consumed with the decision of whether or not to tote my black fleece pullover that I let slide the issue of in-flight gastronomy. )

Neither of the two long flights, by the way, offered “personal” entertainment systems but despite these slight impediments, we arrived well rested and on –schedule at 7:10 am on a quiet Sunday morning. Once again sailing smugly past the masses huddled around the baggage carousels, we soon stepped out onto the pavement and quickly found the stop for the new EMT airport bus.


http://www.emtmadrid.es/lineaAeropuerto/index.html



After a wait of only a couple of minutes, the bright yellow bus pulled up and we boarded, purchasing our tickets from the driver for a very reasonable 2 euro charge. The bus stopped to retrieve passengers at another terminal and soon we were cruising along toward the Plaza de Cibeles, the penultimate stop before the end of the line at Atocha Station.

From the majestic Cibeles, it was a walk of less than 5 minutes to our destination, the Hotel Ritz. I had requested an early check-in and the hotel endeared itself to us immediately by granting this request at the very early hour of about 8:30am. I had booked the least expensive room category, the Classic Room and we were shown to a courtyard-facing room on the third floor, with a baldachin canopied bed, damask upholstery, floral carpeting, and a marble-sheathed bathroom. The room was much smaller and less grand than the one I remembered from an earlier visit as a guest of the hotel, but it was comfortable and yes, the bed was still dressed with those legendary embroidered linen sheets! (The following day, our request for a room with a street view was granted and we were moved to a first-floor room overlooking the front entrance of the hotel.) The price for our Classic Room, with lavish buffet breakfast, was 260 euro per night. Our rooms were not as spiffy as the one on the website, but they suited us just fine. And in many years of traveling, albeit mostly to hotels not remotely close to the 5-star GL level of The Ritz, I would be hard pressed to remember a hotel with a staff as courtly and gracious as this one.



http://www.ritzmadrid.com/web/orit/classic_room.jsp



http://www.ritzmadrid.com/web/orit/h...itz_madrid.jsp






I read many reviews of the hotel before booking and can only add that, although the Ritz may lack the latest contemporary gadgets (we did have a flat-screen tv with a myriad of channels in many languages, along with in-room WiFi (we did not, however, bring a computer) ) and the lighting leaves something to be desired, especially for those who like to read in bed, the old-world luxury of the hotel and its impeccable staff make staying here an experience that we will both long remember.


The location is superb, too—far enough away from the clamor of Sol but within easy walking distance of almost any area of tourist interest. In fact, apart from the airport bus and the taxi that took us from the hotel to Atocha station, we relied solely on our feet to get around. One obvious benefit is that the Ritz is literally across the street from both the Prado and the Thyssen museums and just a quick walk north of the Reina Sofia. The Museum of Decorative Arts is around the corner, although sadly I did not have time to visit on this trip. And of course, Retiro Park, the jewel of this gorgeous city, is but a block to the east of the hotel. We would make many treks through the park, including one that threatened to last the entire night…..
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Jan 17th, 2011, 10:12 AM
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Welcome back, eks! Does the Ritz still serve those wonderful home made potato chips with drinks in the evening?
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Jan 17th, 2011, 10:35 AM
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Good start, looking forward to the rest of your report.
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Jan 17th, 2011, 12:48 PM
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Marija: I did see those chips! But they were not on my own plate, as we had no time to relax over a drink. The public areas are glorious and the hotel just celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010! There was piano music from morning to night.

Here is the rest of the first day:



Not certain is we would last until dinnertime on that first Sunday of arrival in Madrid, we had opted to have our first meal at lunchtime, which in Madrid means anytime from 2 to 5pm.

I had asked the Ritz to book us a table at Marisqueria CASA RAFA, a traditional seafood restaurant located at Calle Narvaez, #68, east of Retiro Park. A big thank you to Maribel for recommending Casa Rafa, and this area in general on her newly updated Madrid dining guide.

The Retiro neighborhood, east of the Park itself, is an area rich with excellent restaurants and tapas bars that have yet to be discovered by tourist throngs. We asked the hotel to reserve the latest lunch booking, which in this case was 3pm (the kitchen remains open until 4:15pm). And so, we set out in the light drizzle (this would be the only day of less-than-ideal weather in the entire week) on a walk that would take us one block east from the hotel and through the commanding iron gates of el Parque del Buen Retiro, the park of good repose.

Is there any European city park as lovely as this one? We were absolutely astounded by the beauty of this green heart of Madrid and on each of several walks we would take that week, we discovered another corner of this grand space, originally the grounds of a royal palace.

Even in the light drizzle on this Sunday, the park was alive with families, couples, and solitary strollers and, we were assured by the concierge that it was safe to wander at any time of day or night. What we did not know, and would learn later that week, is that the park’s majestic gates are locked tight at 10pm during the winter months.


http://www.esmadrid.com/en/retiro-park





The walk to the restaurant took us about 25 minutes or so, and it was shortly before 3pm that I stopped dead in my tracks, bewitched by the lavish display of shellfish piled in the front window of Casa Rafa. Even at this late (for us) lunch hour, this well-regarded 52 year-old restaurant, founded by two brothers, was filled to the brim and it was several minutes before we were shown past the convivial front bar room to our table at the appointed hour of 3pm.

Casa Rafa is a serious, but not starchy, restaurant and the patrons appeared to be a mix of well-to-do neighborhood regulars judging from the greetings exchanged between diners and staff. There were quite a few family groups, with three generations represented.

The décor is simple; the focus here is on the food itself, not the external surroundings. Tables are neatly dressed in starched white linens and the waiters rush with determination up and down the stairs and through the dining room, natty in their black jackets and ties.

Although my Spanish is decent, I am not familiar with the names of all the myriad varieties of seafood: About 5 kinds of shrimp alone were on offer, from the tiny quisquillas and camarones del rio to the larger gambas and the colossal langostinos. Squid of various sizes; cockles, razor clams (navajas) and heart clams (berberechos); necora crab and centolla crab; lobster and crayfish; percebes (the much-lauded goose barnacles from the northern coast); oysters of several varieties; and the coveted and wildly expensive silvery white angulas. Our waiter told us that most of the year, they had many more varieties of shellfish on offer! (There is also an impressive lineup of meat and tartar steak and huge juicy-looking cuts of beef were also much in evidence.)

While we pored over the menu, we were offered complimentary croquetas (fried croquettes, impossible light and airy inside their battered shell) and a platter of green olives and rapeed carrots dressed with fruity olive oil.


Knowing that even one glass of wine would knock me out for the rest of the day, we drank only water and mosto, a light grape-based juice served in a tall glass, often with an orange slice.

I began the meal with Mediterranean red shrimp; as per custom, shellfish is priced per hundred grams. In response to my query, the waiter told me that each 100 grams would contain about 3 large shrimp. I ordered 200 grams which proved to be a very substantial portion. These were very salty, but delicious. My dining partner, who is not a shellfish eater, chose the Minestra de Verdura, thinking that this was a vegetable soup but which, instead, proved to be a tumble of vegetables that included artichokes, carrots and potatoes, bathed in a tiny amount of light broth.

For my main course, I chose chipirones, or baby squid, grilled and bathed in a light green sauce, while my partner—after learning that the wild turbot was no longer available, chose grilled sole. A less-than-exciting choice, perhaps, but it was supremely fresh.

The flaky, cream-filled house-made pastry, and coffee, closed the meal .


We had been warned that shellfish in Madrid was very pricey so we were prepared for the bill, which amounted to 137 Euro for both of us. It is possible to eat here for much less, of course; the 200 grams of shrimp at 40 euro accounted for a large portion of the total. Recommended very highly for a seafood splurge. Closed Monday evening.

Here are some photos from a local restaurant review site:

http://11870.com/pro/casa-rafa/media



After lunch, we retraced our steps through Retiro Park, taking many photos along the way, and headed for the Prado, which offers free admittance on Sundays from 5 to 7pm. There was no line at 5pm. Although we were very tired by then, we spent almost two hours beholding some of the works by Velasquez, El Greco, and the Italian painters, and would return later in the week with fresher eyes.
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Jan 17th, 2011, 01:31 PM
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Great report so far! Takes me back to when I was there with my dad as a study abroad student. I agree about the overall stunning nature of Parque Retiro. My only is not renting a row boat. Looking forward to reading more.

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Jan 18th, 2011, 04:42 AM
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Thank you for your report. I am planning my first trip to Spain in Feb.
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Jan 18th, 2011, 06:46 AM
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Waiting for the next section!
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Jan 18th, 2011, 07:23 AM
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Before I return with the next installment, I just want to mention here that the people we met in both Madrid and Granada-- from hotel and restaurant staff to passers-by on the street and from bus drivers to bartenders to shopkeepers-- were exceedingly cordial and welcoming.

Over and over again, we were struck by the courtesy and charm extended to us by every single person with whom we came into contact.


Que vivan los Españoles!
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Jan 18th, 2011, 07:25 AM
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Great start...looking forward to the rest of the report!
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Jan 18th, 2011, 08:31 AM
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I'm loving your report.

Regarding your comment on the people you met, I think so often it also has to do with your demeanor and attitude. If you're suspicious, critical or looking for negatives then you'll definately "find" them. Negative thinking people tend to attract negativity for some reason But if you are as you say "cordial and welcoming" then you tend to meet similar people and others are drawn to you. That's my opinion as to why there are such varying comments about places and people in trip reports - it has as alot to do with the traveler.
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Jan 18th, 2011, 10:56 AM
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Those of us who jealously read your frequent and wonderful reports can only exclaim:

Que viva ekscrunchy!
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Jan 18th, 2011, 07:48 PM
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AHHHHH Scrunchy!! I am enthralled already. I love your reports.. People it was this woman's previos trip report that inspired me to go to Segovia in 07..

I am loving the food details as you well know, keep them coming..everything ...linesen table cloths I love when you describe them.

Also for the benefit of another poster who is going to Madrid on her honeymoon, how did you find you terrific hotel deal???
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Jan 18th, 2011, 08:12 PM
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ekscrunchy is a woman?? all this time I've pictured a man tho I'm not sure why.

either way, am enjoying your report and anxiously awaiting more!
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Jan 18th, 2011, 08:21 PM
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and oh yea...I share your experience regarding the Spanish people (and people tell me I'm a typically negative person...I say those people have seen more of my negative side than the positive...but I digress!). they are warm, courteous, generous. One short story...whilst in the Reina Sofia museum my 10 year old daughter got a bloody nose and was sitting on the floor. we had separated briefly and I found her sitting on the floor. One of the museum workers rushed right over and, speaking only Spanish, asked me if she needed a doctor and was quite concerned about her. I said not to worry, that she gets bloody noses all the time but if she could tell me where the bathroom was since I was out of kleenex, that's all I needed. Well, that very nice woman thought my daughter would be more comfy in her chair so we did that and waited for the nosebleed to stop. But, I was overwhelmed but the great concern of this Spanish woman. It left an indelible impression on me and I'll never forget it.
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Jan 18th, 2011, 08:23 PM
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um, overwhelmed "by" not "but". I guess it's time for bed because I proofread that! ah....
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Jan 19th, 2011, 03:42 AM
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You are all too kind! I meant to continue yesterday but found myself conking out by 4pm from jet lag. Will try to get moving later today...

Tobyo: Yes, a woman. A woman with a ridiculous screen monniker which by now has become permanently affixed.

The episode that you relate is just the sort of thing that I might imagine taking place. Not only were people kind and welcoming--leaving their post in a shop to walk us to the corner and point the way to our destination, etc--but there was a way that many had of looking me in the eye and giving us all their attention even when responding to a query about directions, or some other mundane tourist-related query.

I also found--here and elsewhere--that bringing up a food-related topic is often a good way to open a conversation. The vendor at the Mercado de la Paz, for example, seemed to be all business until I began asking her her advice on the differences between the same beans in two different colors. (Tolosa beans come in red and in black). This began a good, animated conversation about the merits of cooking with certain beans, etc etc.....

Ana, querida: The hotel's website has a couple of "special offers." By using their search engine, in the "special offer" category, I found a classic room with breakfast for 280 euro, including the tax. There were less expensive rooms for those willing to conform to the "advance booking" requirements. (I was afraid to do this). This is much (MUCH!) more than we would normally pay, especially in January, but I was certain that it was a very worthwhile splurge, and the stay there confirmed that that was, indeed, true.

As an aside, I wrote directly to the hotel to inquire if they had any other discounts that they could apply. The rate that the reservations person sent me was actually higher than the one on the website--turns out that she had miscalculated the room tax!
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Jan 19th, 2011, 04:18 AM
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Hola ekscrunchy, many thanks for your well written report. Your description of walking through Retiro park brought me back there, one of my favorite pastimes in that great city!
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Jan 19th, 2011, 11:39 AM
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This is great---can't wait for the Granada installment!
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Jan 19th, 2011, 01:48 PM
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We turned in very early on that first night in Madrid and awoke feeling very refreshed. The first order of business was breakfast, which was included in our Classic Room rate. Like all of the hotels’ public areas, the Goya Restaurant combines palatial grandeur with a feeling of intimacy. The breakfast buffet is not over-the-top-lavish by today’s standards, but the offerings can be supplemented at no charge with dishes including eggs and hot cereals. I can attest to the fact that the French-style pastries, particularly the pan au chocolat, are divine, as is the coffee.

Service is nothing short of perfect. As an example: When we finished eating that morning, I asked one of the waiters for a recommendation of where to eat churros, a quintessential Madrileno offering. The next morning, we were presented with a plate of these sugary fried concoctions soon after being seated at the table.

After breakfast, we requested a room change, which was immediately granted with no questions asked. We especially liked the new room’s view of the Plaza de Lealtad from the Juliet balcony above the hotel's entrance. I was also pleased that the Carrara marble bathroom of #102, had both a shower stall and a hand-held brass shower fixture in the tub. One element that could use upgrading, in both rooms, were the bedside reading lights which I found rather dim.

The move complete, we were off, bound for the imposing Renaissance Plaza Mayor where the Madrid Tourism Center occupies well-staffed premises—with free internet-- on the north side of the square inside the Casa de la Panaderia, former home of the city’s bread guild and today distinguished by the polychrome allegorical frescoes added in the 1990s.



Here we signed up for the Essential Madrid Walking Tour, offered at this time of year from Mondays through Saturdays at noon for a moderate 3.90 Euro. (Tickets can be booked online, or in person)


http://www.esmadrid.com/descubremadrid_en/portal.do


The Plaza Mayor has witnessed bullfights, autos de fe, markets and public executions and, on this day, we were able to behold a procession of fairytale coaches and colorfully costumed riders on horseback, as each new ambassador to Spain was shuttled back and forth to the nearby Royal Palace to meet King Juan Carlos.


The Walking Tour itself provided a good introduction to the Spanish capital. There were about 6 others on the tour, which began in the Plaza Mayor and continued to the Plaza de la Villa, where a medley of architectural styles attest to the evolution of this former Moorish market square and the oldest plaza in Madrid. Our guide, Blanca Hernandez, was spirited and informative, and she is available for private tours in English or Spanish:

[email protected].

The tour ended about 2pm at the imposing Palacio Real, which was closed on that day for the ambassadorial ceremonies:



http://www.patrimonionacional.es/Hom...de-Madrid.aspx



Our group had peeked inside the newly refurbished Mercado de San Miguel, a few steps west of the Plaza Mayor, and we returned on our own to wander the aisles of this frothy Beaux Arts iron-and-glass structure. I was certainly in my element here, and my eyes were just about popping out of my head with excitement as I beheld the lavish displays of Jamon, shellfish, cheeses, pastries, wines and beer, and fresh produce. Blanca had warned us that prices were high, and that many Madrilenos patronize the market more for tapas and snacks than anything else. I knew that I would be visiting at least one other market later that week, so I contented myself with taking photos.

The pull to begin food shopping was too strong, however, and on the way back to the hotel, we made a small detour to Calle Preciados, off the Plaza del Sol, where a large supermarket occupies the basement of one of the adjacent buildings of the venerable El Corte Ingles department store. (We estimated that one out of every three pedestrians in the center of the city carried the distinctive black, green, and white Corte Ingles shopping bags)


This first, quick shopping foray yielded the following:

Tin of La Chinata Pimenton la Vera Dulce (smoked, sweet Spanish paprika) (1.31 Euro)

Tin of La Chinata Pimenton la Vera Picante (smoked, hot Spanish paprika) (1.31 euro)

Several boxes of La Rosera La Mancha saffron threads (5 euro per .5 gr box) (store these in the freezer??)

Two packages membrillo (quince paste; served with cheese) 1.11 euro each

1 Package house-brand Tortas de Aceite (1.36 euro). These hand-made Andalucian crisp breads lightly dusted with sugar and imbued with a slight hint of anise immediately became my new favorite snack and we would devour quite a few boxes during the coming week. They are sold in the US but we had never tried them until that afternoon.

Addictive and dangerous!


http://www.idealcheese.com/tortadeaceite.aspx

Now laden with our very own Corte Ingles shopping bag, we staggered back to the hotel about 4:30pm and spent a few hours relaxing before heading back to the Retiro neighborhood east of the park for dinner.
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Jan 19th, 2011, 01:53 PM
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ekscrunchy, if you can make tortas de aceite a regular snack , you must be doing some serious exercise!

I have yet to see the ambassadors carriage procession! I MUST make sure to do that one of these months! Great report.
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