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

IMG_3527

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.

walk

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.

tabernareal

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.

ramales

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.

botin 1

botin 2

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.

cuchilleros

IMG_3830

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.

mayor

Plaza Mayor

sunset

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.)

sol

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).

venencia

sherry

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.

IMG_3800

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.

lorca 2

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.

IMG_1596

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.

IMG_1603

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.

vermouth

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.

tickets

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?

oxtail

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.

wall1

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

abuelo

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.

IMG_3449

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.

sangines

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.

drink

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

Advertisements

A LITTLE JAUNT TO SPAIN – REVIEW PART 1: High and Lows of Spain

IMG_2400

Hello! I’m back from my two weeks in Spain. If you were following my public twitter account, you probably got an idea of what I’ve been up to these last sixteen days. It was my first time in Spain as a tourist, I have only ever been to Spain while living there in the past. I have plenty to share, including-

The top ten things I rediscovered about Valencia

The civil war history of Barcelona with Nick Lloyd

On the road with Blood in the Valencian Soil

Tapas and History Tour with James Blick

Bullfighting – Valencia vs. Madrid

Valle de los Caídos: Spain’s most terrifying location

Learning to be a tourist in Spain

Teruel: Spain’s hidden interior

Ávila, Segovia, Cuenca and Toledo: Small towns, big charms

But first, here is a quick round-up of Spain for me in 2013 (in no particular order) –

Highlight of the trip was walking through Valencia’s Turia. I did this every day, but the night before I left, I wandered the park from the Arts and Sciences complex to the Torre de Serranos and it was magical in the late afternoon sunshine. Every city needs a space like the Turia.

book park

BITVS goes to the Turia

Worst moment of the trip was getting caught in the tour group bustle of Toledo. The place was filled with mindless drones, all walking along, looking at the same few things, one after another. They don’t even go to the Alcazar. Sure, it’s rebuilt, but anyone with half an interest in Spain will know of the bloody war battle that occurred there. It’s a must-see spot.

Biggest surprise in Spain was the level of English spoken. Okay, I’ve been gone nearly six years, but the way people speak has really changed. I also discovered that my Spanish isn’t as bad as I thought.

Xativa

English pamphlet in Xativa

Most exceeding of expectations was definitely Madrid. I put this down to the people, despite their reserved nature. I have been to Madrid before, but I saw the city in a new light. I will elaborate in Madrid’s dedicated blog post. Madrid gave me a new sense of confidence, and was the only city to keep me partying to dawn.

IMG_3527

Me and James in Madrid

Lowest point in the trip was when I arrived in Cuenca. The views looked exactly like the photos and that should have been great; but it wasn’t. I got there and had a sense of being trapped far from the whole world. The town got better as I wandered the place, and the bolt-hole bar we spent the evening in made everything okay again.

Cuenca1

Cuenca’s gorge bridge where you can leave a message of undying love – so I did

Unexpected fun came when I met two men on the trip to Segovia. They were celebrating their engagement by visiting Spain. Combined with a lovely English woman, the trip held more excitement that we expected. The wild asparagus at lunch was divine.

IMG_1955

Segovia’s Sleeping Beauty castle

The least surprising thing was the noise level in Valencia. I got more peace on Barcelona’s La Rambla than I did in any location in Valencia. They may have changed the laws on late night noise, but somehow that makes no difference. That doesn’t even count the fiesta going on; regular life is at full volume.

Mixed feelings award went to all the protests going on. I have literally lost count on the number of protests I walked into in Barcelona, Valencia and Madrid. While I admire the Spanish people and their willingness to stand up for their rights, it’s heartbreaking to see what the country is going through.

protesting in Valencia

Protesting outside banks in Valencia

Saddest moment came when I was taking the bus in Valencia. I saw something out the window and thought, ‘I must remember to tell Dad about that’. My father died horrifically last July. I cried alone on a public bus. Not a great moment.

Happiest moment was again in Valencia, when I first arrived in the city. I hadn’t enjoyed the train trip too much and was feeling a bit low. But after finding the rented apartment, I set off in search of the new Mercadona and it occurred to me how well I know the city and instantly welcome I felt. My six-year absence may as well have not existed. I could have partied all night long had I not collapsed of exhaustion at 1am.

Horchata

Iconic horchata in Central Valencia

Most shocking moment is without doubt visiting Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) outside Madrid. It is dictator Francisco Franco’s scary tomb, built by slaves and has the largest Christian cross in the world on top (150 metres). No photo can show the expanse or the horror of this place. Not only is a fascist dictator honoured here, but built into the place is 30,000 unnamed Republicans who were murdered, then dug back up and stuffed into the basilica like padding, without consent of their families. There, a man akin to Hitler or Mussolini, is honoured with flowers, fascist salutes and singing children. I’ll do a separate post, but if there was a God, he wouldn’t go near that place.

grave

WTF!?!

Spontaneous enjoyment award goes to driving back to Valencia from Teruel. We jumped off the main road and took the CV310 through the Sierra Calderona. This, of course, is the main spot in the Blood in the Valencian Soil. We climbed a dirt road to listen to the silence of ‘Escondrijo’, Luna Montgomery’s country home, meandered through the hillside towns featured in the book, and stopped for coffee at the Blanquet, the cafe in Náquera, which is central for many readers of In The Hands of Love. It was a full and rewarding day.

Escondrijo

‘Escondrijo’ in the Valencian mountains!

I was unprepared for the cold in Madrid. When I first arrived there, it was warm and cheerful. But the final two days spent in the great city were freezing. It made an Auckland winter look like a tropical paradise. I have only ever visited Madrid in summer (the three months of hell), but its ‘nine months of winter’ really crept back to give me a taste of its power. However, it stopped none of the fun. I stopped at Desigual and bought this coat which a dozen people have already complimented me on.

A really disappointing point came when I visited Montjuïc castle in Barcelona. It is a central point in Spain’s history, both during the civil war and the brutality that proceeded under Franco (plus if you have read Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Angel’s Game, it’s a must-see). Many famous names were imprisoned, tortured and murdered within those walls. I walked into this location, and people were sipping coke and having lunch on the same cobbles where violated souls perished. Okay, you could probably say this about lots of places in Europe, but it really struck a cord with me. I took the bus back to the city feeling disappointed.

img_2082

Outside Montjuïc castle

Unexpected neutrality hit during bullfighting. I am not a bullfight hater. I have respect for toreros. Hell, I write about them. I have never endorsed or enjoyed the murder aspect, but when I went to a fight in Valencia, I felt underwhelmed. I’m glad I went, but sitting high above it, you are disconnected with its reality. When sitting against the barrier at Las Ventas in Madrid, it was a whole other story. Let’s say I got everything I ever needed to know about bullfighting. The constant swirl of cigar smoke did not help the ambiance. I can say with confidence that while I will continue to write about toreros, but I have no need to visit again.

IMG_3616

Las Ventas in Madrid

The most weirded out moment came when I visited Valencia’s port area. The darsena, built to house the 2007 America’s Cup, now lies empty. It looks exactly the same, down to the buildings still branded with sailing teams’ names. The old Prada building, once the jewel of the area, has its sail-fabric walls breaking down at record speed. The walls were made of sails built for the 2003 America’s Cup, and were popular and prized. Now, they are peeling away and left to decay. The whole area looks like a time capsule of my former Spanish life, lying discarded like a stripped corpse. Auckland held the Cup before Valencia, and now we have the Viaduct area filled with parks, playgrounds, cafes, bars and hotels. Valencia could have used their space likewise, but haven’t. No wonder the expensive event was so unpopular with the locals.

What I learned was that I don’t like to travel alone. I don’t mind it, but fun hit more often when other people were around. I spent many days with my friend Sabine Kern on the trip, and with the involvement of people like Graham Hunt in Valencia, Nick Lloyd in Barcelona and James Blick in Madrid, the trip was greatly enhanced.

IMG_2144

Drinking from the porrón in Barcelona. Check out how good I am!

I underestimated how many people read what I have written about Spain. I constantly ran into people who had read my work and wanted to talk about Spain. People held what I had to say in high regard. I consider myself to be an invisible person; I live my life and no one knows what I write. However, in Spain, people have taken notice.

I felt pleased to know that all the details I have put into my Secrets of Spain series are correct. As I wandered the locations in the last book, and the locales of the next novel, everything is exactly as I expected/wrote/needed. There is no need to rush home and make changes.

It felt disheartening at times when confronted with some Spanish people. It was little things – they don’t hold doors for one another, they push into queues like it’s life or death instead of  a coffee order, and walk around like they are oblivious to one another’s needs or feelings. I can only put this down to big city living. I risk sounding like a real country bumpkin here, but those first few days, as I based myself in Madrid while doing day trips, I got back to my hotel and shook my head in disbelief. I wondered if everyone had frayed nerves at the end of each day. I live in a large congested city, but it feels like luxury island living in comparison to the push and shove of Europe. In fact, I despaired until I hit Valencia and all its good vibes calmed me down.

Sunday

The procession of la Virgen de los Desamparados outside Valencia’s basilica. My face says it all

Number of plane miles travelled: 40,000 kms (yep, I checked that figure) – 50 hours

Number of times I got asked out on a date: 27

Number of nights where I got decent sleep: zero

Number of alcoholic beverages consumed: too many

Number of mornings I had enthusiasm to get up: zero

Number of times I got accosted by someone trying to lure me into a restaurant: 564151* (*not scientifically proven)

Number of new books purchased and stuffed in carry-on luggage: 18

Number of times lost in a city: zero! That includes walking and in the car

Number of Skype calls home: 10 (internet connection didn’t allow for every day)

Number of times I wished I hadn’t done the trip: 4 (2 of them were in-flight)

Number of kisses given/received: approx 100

Number of  shameless selfies taken: 71

Number of times caught singing in public: 9 (including doing a “Locked Out of Heaven” duet with the airport shuttle driver)

BEST MOMENT OF THE TRIP WAS something that made my heart flutter more than it has in some time. I can’t tell you what that was because what happens in Spain, stays in Spain.

breakfast

Gratuitous breakfast photo to finish the post

Next post – The top ten things I rediscovered about Valencia

Click here for the other parts of this series – Spain 2013 in Review