Walking with Hemingway in Madrid

Amazing street performer in front of our hotel.

For a city of over three million people Madrid is surprisingly walkable. That was good for us, because we didn’t have a car, and our two days here were meant to be a warm up for our walking tour of the Basque country with VBT.

Another good thing was that our hotel, the NH Paseo del Prado, was right in the heart of the best that the city has to offer. The famous Prado Museum is directly across the street and, just beyond that, the Parque de El Ritiro.

We began our jet lag fueled first day of exploring in what Ernest Hemingway called “the most Spanish of all cities” with a walk in the park. While wandering the tree lined paths we came upon the Palacio de Cristal.

Just as the name sounds, this is a glass palace. It was originally a green house in this former royal retreat, but now plays host to an avant-garde art exhibit that includes a sinking Titanic and an upside down Empire State Building.

Exiting the park via the Puerta de Alcalá, a gateway that opens into the Plaza Cibeles, we were blown away by what must be the most spectacular city hall anywhere in the world.

Built as the headquarters for the postal service in 1919, the Palacio de Cibeles now hosts the city council in high style. Hope they appreciate the digs.

From there we headed up Madrid’s main thoroughfare, Calle Alcalá, leading to the city’s two main squares, Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor.

Along the way we took a slight detour down Gran Via, which Hemingway compared to Broadway and Fifth Avenue combined. This is the high end shopping and entertainment strip and certainly looked to live up to its name, the Great Way.

By getting back on the main drag we found the sun, or at least its plaza, Plaza del Sol. This is truly the center of town, actually for all of Spain, since it is where the mile markers begin for all of the roads across the country.

It is also known for a statue of a bear and madrono tree, which has been a symbol of Madrid for centuries.

Even though he has appeared on the city’s coat of arms since the early twelve hundreds, we couldn’t find a definitive answer as to why, or what the bear represents.

Just off the square we noticed a churreria and recalled our daughter, Decibel, describing the phenomenal churros she found on her trip to Madrid several years ago. That was more than enough motivation for us.

Unlike the ultra-sweet, donutesque versions we are used to, these are lightly fried crispy bread with almost no sugar. A cup of melted semisweet chocolate is served alongside for dipping and the result is subtle, yet out of this world.

Since we already got started on the snacking, we decided to take a Tapas break, as well as a break from the afternoon heat. We had noticed that many places have water misting over the outside seating and it felt heavenly to escape the hot Spanish sun.

We opted to blindly order a combination plate of five tapas and take our chances as to what might show up. Classic Iberian ham, fish with garlic, crab, salmon, and some ridiculously strong blue cheese arrived, so we were thrilled.

Well, maybe not so much with the blue cheese.

Oh, and I almost forgot, they brought out some of the best olives we have ever tasted. Seriously, ever! Those easily made up for the cheese.

Our big plan for day two was to make like Papa Hemingway and have lunch at Sobrino de Botín. In addition to being mentioned in his novel, The Sun Also Rises, Botín is certified by Guinness as the oldest continually operating restaurant in the world. They haven’t missed a meal since 1725.

To get ourselves in the mood for some serious eating, we stopped at the Mercado de San Miguel on our way.

If browsing the mouthwatering offerings didn’t build up an appetite, nothing would.

It was all we could do to fight back the urge to snarf down every tapa we saw in the vast array of meats, cheeses, olives, breads, and seafood.

Quick, we better get to Botín!

It was imperative that we have their signature dish, cochinillo asado, which is roast suckling pig. After all, that is what Papa ate and wrote about.

Another house specialty is sopa de ajo, a garlic soup laced with sherry and with an egg poached in the broth. Both were more than worthy of their fame and accolades.

For good measure, we also added some artichoke hearts with Iberian ham… unbelievable. They must not have had this dish back in Hemingway’s day or it would have deserved a whole chapter.

Over the rest of our time in Spain we learned the valuable lesson that absolutely everything is better, no, not just better, fantastic with Iberian ham.

An easy walk from the restaurant, we did come for a walking tour after all, brought us to the Catedral de la Almudena.

This massive cathedral was built directly across from the royal palace in order to bring the seat of the Church together with the government, but it took some time.

Even though the political capital of Spain was moved from Toledo to Madrid in 1561, it took until well into the eighteen hundreds to get started on the church. It seems that the monarchs were too busy with their vast overseas empire to get around to allocating the funds until then.

Across the huge courtyard from the church that could wait, it sure didn’t look as though they had any trouble finding the dough to build quite a house for themselves. The Palacio Real is one of the biggest palaces in Europe but, even though it is the official residence of the Royal Family, they live outside of town and use the palace only for ceremonial functions.

As far as we were concerned, considering the afternoon sun and the stretch in our bellies, siesta back at the hotel was the only ceremonial function that we were very interested at the time.

Ernest Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

After a nap, we hopped on the metro for a short ride to get a peek at The Plaza de Toros Monumental de las Ventas, regarded as the cathedral of bullfighting. Now we can’t say that we condone the sport, but we could hardly follow in Hemingway’s footprints without coming here.

Don Ernesto, as he was known to the Spaniards, was most definitely a fan. He told his biographer, A. E. Hotchner, “Many a morning I’d get up at dawn and come down here to watch the novilleros, and sometimes even the matadors themselves coming in to practice…”

This is the largest ring in Spain, seating twenty-five thousand spectators, so it has a history beyond bullfighting. It has served as the venue for many momentous events, including a performance by The Beatles in 1965.

Behind the arena we found el Museo Taurino, the Bullfighting Museum. Paintings, sculptures, and artifacts depict the greatest moments of the Plaza de Toros. Perhaps the most popular displays are the bright suits and capes worn by the matadors, especially the famous suit of lights worn by the legendary Manolete the day he died from being gored.

On our way back to the hotel we debated that we should have disobeyed the no photography rule for a picture of that, but we were good.

For a final toast to Madrid, and Hemingway, we headed next door to the bar at the Palace Hotel. Due to its location so near the Prado, this was another of Papa’s favorite haunts.

While he would have hoisted a martini, we chose a refreshing cava.


David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

See our entire VBT adventure through Spain here.

A big thank you to VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations for providing this adventure. As always, all opinions are our own.

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