A LITTLE JAUNT TO SPAIN – REVIEW PART 5: Madrid Food Tour with James Blick

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Never complain to a kiwi about flying. Anything less than 12 hours is practically short haul. It takes 30 hours to fly Auckland to Madrid (via Brisbane and Dubai), 25 hours of that in the air. I didn’t sleep the entire trip to Madrid yet again, but I did enjoy watching the scenery of flying over places like Iraq and Turkey. I hit the ground in Madrid, a city I hadn’t visited in seven years. It had all the familiarity of being Spanish, but still, the place felt a bit like a maze.

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Madrid is beautiful place to get lost

Little did I know. After one of those awful half-hour naps, I found myself outside the coffin-shaped Teatro Real on a mild  Saturday evening. It was time to get well and truly lost in Madrid by night. A while back I discovered Madrid Food Tour through founder Lauren Aloise, who put me through to James Blick. In true style, you can’t travel anywhere without running into another New Zealander, so to find I would be tripping around Madrid with another kiwi came as no surprise. I had never been on a tour of any kind before; I’m not a fan in any respect. If anyone can change my mind about something, it’s James Blick.

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Taberna Real

I can only try to convey the fun to be had on the Tapas and History tour. It’s a sights, sounds, smells and tastes experience that needs to be grabbed with both hands. James’ enthusiasm for his city is irresistible, and matched with several engaging couples from the around the world, I started the evening with vermouth at Taberna Real, followed by a warm evening stroll. Plaza de Oriente was filled with families enjoying the last of the sun, along with musicians and locals enjoying a drink in the fading light. It is a part of Madrid I haven’t really wandered much, so by the time we  left Plaza Ramales, the burial place (or not-so burial place in the case of the missing skeleton) of the famous Diego Velázquez besides San Juan Bautista church, I was already lost in Madrid. Not that I really noticed, given the charming company and keen wit of our tour leader.

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Plaza Ramales

 A quick walk through Plaza del Villa and down past Restaurante Botín, the world’s oldest restaurant, the next bar we stopped at was the kind I love – a tiny place, standing room only to sip wine and eat Spanish deliciousness.

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Restaurante Botín

I admitted my dislike for red wine, which set James a challenge to change my mind. Between the chorizo, blue cheese, anchovies and other such snacks, the red selected for me was excellent. Having the chance to visit places with someone who knows the history of the place greatly enhances the atmosphere.

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As the sun began to set, we headed back up Calle de los Cuchilleros and through the archway into Plaza Mayor. I must admit I had never been there, as I’m no fan of crowds of tourists. However, as the sun set the place was rather quiet. We wandered and talked about the Spanish Inquisition and various other activities to have taken place in the square, before heading out in search of better restaurants than the ones on offer in the plaza.

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Plaza Mayor

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Wandering Madrid during sunset

We stopped in Puerta del Sol, to discuss the more of Madrid’s history for those new the place, before we carried on to somewhere the nerd inside of me was excited to visit. (By this time, everyone knew I was a Spanish history nerd, no need to hide it.)

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All quiet in Puerta del Sol

We took in sherries at La Venencia, which I can only assume is named after the tool you use to take a sample of wine from the barrel. It is none other than the sherry haunt of Ernest Hemingway, a man who was still fresh in my mind after re-reading most of his work in the lead-up to my re-visit to Spain. The place looks like it stepped out of the 20’s, and rightfully so. James pointed out that it’s not cool to take photos inside the bar, but I may have accidentally slipped with my iphone and taken one of the dusty sherry bottles (don’t worry, the barman saw me and gave the nod of acceptance).

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Hanging out at La Venencia

The sherries James selected on our behalf were great and very different to each other, as was the conversation between our spirited bunch. It was well and truly dark by the time were spilled back out on the street in search of another restaurant close by.

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ME Madrid Reina Victoria hotel

The final spot of our evening delivered us more delicious fare and more too-easy-to-drink red wine. By now, a combination of alcohol and jetlag allowed for fun and informative conversation, even if the  nearby guests looked at me strange every time I said ‘Franco’. Hey, I was hating on the guy, no big deal! The opportunity to sit in a restaurant in Madrid, early into the morning and talk about Spain, its history, its culture, its economic collapse was exactly what I had come to Spain for.

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Hanging with Federico García Lorca in Plaza Santa Ana

By the time we had wandered back in the direction of Puerta del Sol, the streets had started to empty out and I was more lost than I have ever been in my life! James was kind enough to walk this afraid-of-the-dark woman back to her hotel, and along the way gave out plenty of helpful tips for my solo stay in Madrid.

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Cape shopping, anyone?

Without a doubt, the Tapas and History Tour of Madrid with James Blick is a 10/10 must-see activity. I know my fair share about Spain, but I wasn’t left feeling like I was hearing basic info for first-time visitors. Our group of was a mix of Spain aficionados and newbies, and everyone came away feeling happy and fulfilled.

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I came to Madrid for the bullfights, so I had to get this snapped

I spent a few more nights in Madrid, dominated by friends and beverages before heading on to my more familiar locations around Spain. However, my final two nights were based back in Madrid to take in some bullfighting at Las Ventas.  so I decided catch up with James again for another tour.

I met James in central old-town Madrid and set off on an all different tour of the city. San Isidro was in full swing throughout Madrid, and was the reason I chose Spain in May (and not for the weather, because Madrid, you were FREEEEEEZING that night!). We stopped and took in a view of Casa del Campo as the sun began to set. I wasn’t able to visit the place where two New Zealanders died during the battle of Madrid in 1936, but at least the opportunity to talk about the history of the place with people who were genuinely interested almost made up for it.

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Vermouth dominated the beverages

The streets were full with locals out despite the cold, and after a visit to a church and a helpful San Isidro lesson, in true Spanish style the bar still wasn’t open, even though we were running late. We settled in another bar for a pre-dinner drink- drink (that’s a thing!) to discuss the civil war. (James is well aware of my nerdiness and chatted accordingly. I appreciate his patience.)

Once we couldn’t cope with the cold any longer, we went into Bar Sanlúcar, a small and fantastic place in La Latina. Between the wine, vermouth, bullfighting memorabilia, Andalusian music and salmorejo,  it is a perfect place to visit. It was full of locals enjoying a drink, and we talked about the food, the bar, and the ambiance of the area.

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Bullfighting tickets… why not?

On the three of us went in the cold, discussing Spain’s current economic situation, before we stopped at a great Basque bar. I say great, because it was standing room only, and even then, it was standing against each other kind of popular. We had the chance to partake in Txakoli (chacolí in Spanish), which is poured at a great height, enough to let the white wine fizz nicely. As a white wine lover (no apologies!) I really enjoyed it. The pintxo to accompany the drinks was rabo de toro – oxtail sandwich – which was a weird flashback moment for me. I was fed a lot of that as a child in New Zealand, and didn’t expect that familiar flavour to come rushing back in Basque bar in Madrid. I digress. Whilst you can’t exactly feel the salty air of the Atlantic blowing on you in Madrid, you can  understand why so many people flock to the Basque country for the food and wine. If you haven’t… why not?

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Oxtail sandwiches, baby

On we marched, discussing tips to get the best from El Rastro (I won’t lie, I’ve been once – not my thing) before we stopped at the 100-year-old shrimp institution La Casa del Abuelo on Calle Victoria. It was already late by the time we jumped in from the cold and the floor was littered with napkins and shrimp bits – a Madrileño homage to the greatness of the place. (As a kiwi, throwing my rubbish on the floor in appreciation is something I still feel weird about, even now.) You don’t need to be crazy for shrimp or prawn to eat here, everything is cooked on the plancha (flat grill, for lack of better translation term) and served in garlic deliciousness.

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I didn’t just take the decor pic to snap Manolete’s butt (top centre), I promise

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Me (left) with great shrimps

Our last stop was a more modern style of restaurant, Taberna del Chato. With more white wine and a chat with the guy behind the bar, I can barely recall what we had on the toast. If James could fill in me, that would be great!  The restaurant was a complete contrast to the very traditional shrimp place before; James gave us an excellent mix of what is available in Madrid.

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White wine and… something

Despite it only being about 1am, we stopped at Chocolateria San Ginés, the place where everyone knows their churros. More suited to those stumbling out of bars at 5am for the past 120 years, the place was quiet as we laughed, chatted and looked at the photos of celebs who have needed churros to soak up alcohol for them over the years.

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Churros. It had to be eaten

It was 2am before we were finished and Madrid was cold enough even to chase two kiwis indoors.

Sure, you could probably find these bars and restaurants on your own, and stumble your way through the menus, but you wouldn’t get an experience half as good without James Blick on board. The Tapas and History Tour constantly gets rave reviews and it’s easy to see why. Whether you already know Spain or are brand new, James’ unique, committed and sincere passion for Madrid provides a tasty, eye-opening night out. Whilst daytime Madrid left me wanting, night-time Madrid is a great place to get lost, as long as you have James Blick to navigate your taste buds. Of course, some people couldn’t think of anything more boring than discussing the Spanish civil war all night, but the beauty is that the night can take whatever path you like. Your tour, private or as a group, is tailored to what you enjoy.

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To book a tour with James Blick, or one of the other tours available – Madrid Food Tour

To read reviews about James, Lauren, Alejandro and Kay and their Madrid Food Tours – Madrid Food Tour – Trip Advisor (currently ranked #1 activity in Madrid!)

Like food blogs? – Madrid Food Tour Blog

James Blick’s Blog – Madrid Chow

Lauren Aloise’s Blog – Spanish Sabores

Up next… Part 6 – Bullfighting: Madrid vs Valencia

Click here for the Spain 2013 in Review series – Spain 2013 in Review

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