A LITTLE JAUNT TO SPAIN – REVIEW PART 9: Thunderstorms, Jesus and Ghosts in Cuenca

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You will long know by now that Cuenca is one of the central locations on my novel, Blood in the Valencian Soil. What you may not know is that when I wrote the novel, I worked purely on information given to me when researching the real characters that inspired their fictional counterparts in the book. While I know the outlying areas around the town, I never made it to the small hilltop town the entire time I lived in Spain. So, once the book was finished, I decided that while on my trip to gain information for my second Spanish novel, it was time to visit Cuenca in the flesh.

Name a town anywhere in Valencia province and I can almost certainly say I’ve been there. The mountainous region north of Valencia city is one of my favorite places. I have also spread out north-west of the city into the Aragon region many times, but Cuenca was last on the list of places to visit.

Whilst the town of Uclés was the ‘real-life’ town that my 1939 book characters worked in during the war, I moved the story to Cuenca for the later war storyline, and the town did not disappoint. The views of Cuenca are well-known, the cliffs, the hanging houses, the parador, but the place largely gets ignored during the lists of places to visit in Spain. Personally, the (albeit oddly shaped) triangle that runs from Valencia to Barcelona to Madrid is my favourite part of Spain, and it lies mostly untouched by tourism.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to launch into a high-and-mighty speech about the ‘real Spain’. What Cuenca does offer is an opportunity to have a day trip to a town where there are no set rules on what you should experience.

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The trip started well enough, out of Valencia. I was torn by leaving my  favourite city; while I could easily stay in the place forever, heading for Cuenca was 200 kms closer to getting back to Madrid and on a flight home, which I am not ashamed to say I was missing. The A-3, while a quick route inland, does mean you miss little opportunities to explore the Valencia region more, but I was not the driver (I hate driving); instead I settled for a familiar sights along a familiar road (my ill-fated trip to Teruel had the exact same problem).

We headed up the N-320, and Spain’s quiet interior peace settled in. It doesn’t take long to leave the world behind and head through small villages. For me, just seeing little places and knowing their wartime history was a great experience, though I had no one to share any of the information with. To be honest, I did wish I had taken the train, which I had in my original plans, but never mind.

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We arrived in Cuenca at about 2pm, and quickly bypassed the new town, filled with your standard Spanish locales, since obviously the locals require these businesses for work and life’s daily needs. My car-ride companion had a desire to get through the area as fast as possible, complaining of its ugliness. We arrived at the parador, the former Convento de San Pablo, one of Cuenca’s most enduring sights. As it is a location in my novel, I was determined to stay there, despite the fact a single night cost me more than three nights in a classy Madrid hotel on the same trip.

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View of the parador

I applaud anyone who has the desire to take care of a historic building and those at the parador have done just that. With a quiet, well maintained yet basic courtyard in the building, and hallways that give you the chance to feel the soul of the place. With a room on the second floor, I felt lazy taking the elevator, despite carrying my bag, and opted for the stairs for the rest of the stay, since the elevator is slow and filled with tourists not quite as agile as me.

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Main hallway

The room – I paid for a view, hence the slight increase in price and the view did not disappoint for a moment. Located above the main entrance, the room gave an instant view across the bridge over the gorge and over the old town dangling over the precipice of silent cliffs. A huge thunderstorm hung over the town, reminding me to stay inside for a little while. After an irritating car trip, I didn’t particularly want to hang out in a dated and poorly decorated room with terrible wifi, but the pouring squall slashing its way over the town was best viewed from the behind the windows.

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I left my dark depressing room and headed down the hallway to a charming area where seating was laid out, with a view over the interior courtyard of the building. I met a charming man named Jesús, on holiday with his parents from Madrid. He said the town has become a popular place for visitors from the capital over the past few years, but as we sat together, all that passed us was a Japanese family eager to do some sightseeing. The silence of the building made us wonder if the nuns were still running the place! Jesús was the only person my age (ie. 30’s) I saw there. Maybe the price puts younger travelers off; Jesús had just got a new job and wanted to treat his parents because he hadn’t had a job for over a year.

I bid farewell to the flirty Jesús and headed outside into the frail sunshine, amazed (though not surprised) by the cool temperatures of the mountainous area. Still free of my car-ride buddy, I started a walk down to the base of the Huécar gorge, and I was entirely alone the whole time. Not a soul walked by and as I wandered around the base of the town, and back up, popping out on the side of the old town, skipping the gorge walk bridge entirely.

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San Pablo bridge all to myself

After the frenetic tourist-ridden locations like Barcelona, to stand alone in this picturesque area is a real chance to breathe. I took about 1001 photos of the area, which could easy take up your whole day. With my handy copy of BITVS in tow, I got to see the areas that has been so accurately described through photos and friends while working on the book.

Past the Casas Colgadas, the Hanging Houses (which houses the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art), I wandered in the Barrio San Martín, a labyrinth series of streets, portrayed regularly in my book. More photos and some glorious time to be alone, something I wanted more of, I got to see the places in my book, which made me immensely happy. I didn’t pass a soul in the area, and walking along the steep and easily confusing area, it would be easy to think you have gone back in time. The silence is stunning and the town speaks to you instead.

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Legit street in Barrio San Martín

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House used as inspiration in BITVS

Onwards to Plaza Mayor, the heart of the old town. After popping out onto the square by luck rather than planning, it was interesting to see a main plaza with almost no people. For all the talk of the place being a tourist area these days, there wasn’t a tourist to be seen, and not many locals either.  I went straight in the direction of the cathedral, another pivotal location in my novel, and will also feature in subsequent books.

The interior of the church doesn’t disappoint. The solemn religious works sit in an air of silent and cold (almost as cold as Segovia’s frigid cathedral) peace. I sat at the altar for a while, the first time I had taken a break on my whole trip (or so it felt), to soak in the moment. It may sound crazy, or juvenile even, but being in Cuenca made my own book come to life for me, more so than Valencia and Madrid. I could imagine Cayetano Beltrán praying in the same seat, with Luna Montgomery watching in silence, wondering what the hell she was doing there with the bullfighter.

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Cuenca cathedral 

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With the intention of walking up Calle San Pedro, the ‘main’ road leaving up out of Plaza Mayor (try watching a bus go up there with a car coming down the other side – impressive skills and nerves), I instead peeled off along tiny and intriguing little alleyways, in search of my Cuenca (mine, as in ‘in the book’ Cuenca). The lack of people and noise makes it easy to develop your own opinion of the town and indeed imagine yourself in a novel.

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I reached the 18th century San Pedro church. Though basic, it’s home to a bell tower,  is a must-climb. The few hundred stairs are an easy climb and the views once up there are amazing. The climb is a real highlight (see what I did there?)

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Parador view from bell tower

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View of Júcar gorge from bell tower

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odd bit of artwork looking to old town from Júcar gorge

For me, I felt exceedingly lonely in Cuenca. I missed my family, who weren’t on this research trip with me. Without them, the majority of sights seemed hollow. Cuenca is a sight best seen with someone you love (or at least like!). I wandered back to Plaza Mayor, and grabbed a map from a nice young guy named Carlos at visitor information. I prided my lack of maps on my trip, but it was quite handy for a quick walk up and down stairs on the hillside to view the Júcar gorge on the other side of the old town, and then I was officially tired of the whole area. My enthusiasm had gone. I went back to the parador, this time over the San Pablo bridge, and took a break.

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Creepy homage to Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, see the little Falangist symbols beneath? I nearly fell over when I saw this on the cathedral wall near the entrance to the Archbishop’s palace. Odd in 2013.

Surely evening could be interesting. With exhaustion ruining the trip, my car-ride buddy suggested a drink at the restaurant in the parador. Before even poking my head in, she said that everyone looked too old and boring (note from me – if you are in your 50’s, I’ll happily share a drink with you). Instead, we headed over the gorge and into the old town, to a random little in Plaza Mayor bar where I spent my evening mulling over several white wines from Cuenca – all of which I would recommend. The barman brought so many tapas over that dinner wasn’t required!

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The walk home at about 1am was a highlight, I’m not one for heading out late at night, but walking the pitch dark and silent alleyways, suitably spirited with wine and relatively lost makes you feel like someone is creeping up behind you, or that you’ve stumbled into a Jason Webster novel. The cliffs lit up at night is a sight to behold, even if my iphone couldn’t capture them very well, as is crossing the bridge in the dark.

A rough attempt at sleep on a bed so hard I thought it had been built from nearby rock, I got up at 4am and went for a walk on my own, to the amusement of hotel staff. I did this on almost every night of my trip and it’s interesting what you can see and hear when out when no one else is stirring. I crossed the bridge in the freezing air, and heard what I think were owls, the sound echoing through the gorge like an eery cry. It took little imagination to feel like it was 1913 or even 1713. I sat between some trees on a lonely bench and felt very alone, which felt strangely liberating. The oddest thing, and I don’t believe in ghosts et al, but I felt very watched. I walked down under the bridge and walked the lonely road that arches through the waterless gorge. The sun had began to ease its way through the darkness as I headed back along the path to the hotel. A solitary figure stood on a driveway at one of the basic houses in the gorge, an old woman, who placed a hand on my shoulder as I passed her with a hello. ‘Women are always busy here, even when the men sleep’ she said and then simply turned away. I felt like I had found Spain, there that moment in the dark gorge, the wild Spain I had been looking for, one filled with a presence that was intangible.

After the fear of loneliness and darkness combined with bitter temperatures chased me back into the hard bed for an hour or so.  The creepy quiet night walk was worth staying in the town, otherwise I would recommend Cuenca as day trip rather than an overnight.

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one last look

I checked out of the parador as soon my car-ride buddy was ready to leave and we headed for Madrid, just 165 kms away. I felt great for having seen Cuenca, but more than ready to catch up with friends in Madrid.

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legit two-way street!

Must see and do –

Covento de San Pablo, even if only from the outside, just to see the view of the town staring back

The San Pablo bridge, were you must add your pledge of love to

Plaza Mayor, were tourists don’t exist

The bell tower at Iglesia San Pedro

The narrow streets of Barrio San Martín, and stop in any almost medieval-looking bar you can find

The view over Júcar gorge tends to get forgotten in postcard snaps but it just as beautiful and wild, and has a long nature walk in and around

The Cathedral, even if you just take in the facade

The alleys that lean against the edge of the Huécar gorge, try Ronda Julián Romero for a quiet alley walk

The wilds that surround the area. The landscape makes you want to cry, especially this civil war nerd

Drink the wine, eat the snacks. Nobody ever regretted that

The not-so great – 

Unless you are planning to take on the wilds around Cuenca, I would recommend taking the train. Cuenca is an easy place to get to by public transport and having a car was a pain in the ass, and I didn’t even drive it! Plus you meet fun people on trains, unlike in tedious car trips, especially if you can’t stop along the way. Plus I don’t like being yelled at for not knowing where to go/park in locations I’ve never been to, or haven’t been to in years

The parador – iconic, yes; but worth the costs? Neither Jesús or I were convinced of that. With other options available, do your homework first. If you’re determined to stay there (as was I), you should. I got the chance to visit the restaurant for breakfast (included in room cost) which served a buffet of both Spanish and English choices. Any day with churros is a good one. The rooms are not that nice or big, so be careful who you room with. Prince Felipe stayed there on his honeymoon, but I’m guessing he had more fun things to do and had well-chosen his companion! The cost of the bar/restaurant has been debated as over-priced, but I saw plenty of unusually pricey menus in windows while out on my walk. But, not every place is attempting you rip you off.

Spain is not hot all year around, despite what some think. Cuenca is located in a gorgeous but unforgiving landscape, so take a jacket unless its August.

Don’t expect Cuenca to be lively and exciting like a city. You might be disappointed. The place met all my expectations, but if you want to meet a sexy 19-year-old man-boy in an old town bar to engage in a fling with, you might be pushing your luck (What?! Some people like to judge people on looks and dream of Spanish interludes. Not me, but some people, it’s how romance novels are born). Likewise, if you’re not interested in war history, don’t travel with me!

The same generic Made in China souvenirs are available, like with anywhere. I did manage to buy a heavy stone model of the hanging houses, which was made locally.

Want to go but don’t know where to start? Take a look at the Spanish Thyme Traveller, who have just added Cuenca to their list of already well-planned holidays. Here is their latest blog post, all about a trip to Cuenca – A Visit to Cuenca Spain

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people declare their love on the San Pablo bridge so I did just that!

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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