I had expected the temperature would get warmer as I travelled south. But late fall or winter has overtaken Spain, north and south. Cold fills the streets and seeps through windows and doorways, like a phantom. No place is safe from the chill.
I reluctantly left the pastoral neighborhood of Somió in Gijón after having spent an entire month there. I had fallen in love with it — the trees and mountain trails, the ocean, the magpies, snails, mules, livestock, sidrerías and bakeries, fresh produce and seafood at the local markets, and of course, the kindness of the people.
But once a city girl, always a city girl. Confronting crowds and noise as I stepped outside the Atocha train station in Madrid was second nature. It was like ending one great novel and starting another. Although I didn’t want the first book to end, the next book captured me from the first page. I found myself fully immersed in that other world.
Perhaps I didn’t pick the best weekend to spend in Madrid. I arrived to a cold and rainy city on the eleventh day of a garbage strike. Mountains of garbage overflowed beyond trash cans. Fall leaves and refuse intermingled in sidewalks. Dog waste seeped from plastic bags accidentally mashed by pedestrians or bicycles. My landlady apologized and promised Madrid is a clean city. As strange as it may sound, the garbage didn’t faze me. Madrid was Madrid and better than I’d heard. Having grown up in New York City, being in a metropolis seemed natural, and the multiethnic neighborhoods of Lavapies and La Latina, its people, stores, and restaurants of many different colors, flavors, and nationalities energized me.
The first thing I did the evening I arrived was look for a place to eat. It made no sense to buy groceries, as I’d done in Gijón, since I was just there for a weekend. There were tapas bars, Arab restaurants, Chinese takeout, and Sushi. So many restaurants from which to choose. Tired and excited, I settled on Indian takeaway, a good book, and a warm bath.
The next day I set out to the Reina Sofía. Everyone had told me “You have to go to El Prado.” But having limited time, I opted for the museum that had the painting I most wanted to see: Picasso’s Guernica. I was not disappointed. No picture could have ever prepared me for the experience of seeing it live. Breathtaking! I was also fascinated seeing the various studies Picasso painted in preparation for the main work and the photos of the painting process. I liked seeing how at times he changed his mind about one particular image or another. The rest of the museum, of course, was also great fun. I saw paintings by Chagall, Dalí, Miró, and many others. I love modern art, and there was plenty of it. To think I had considered skipping Madrid.
To satisfy the foodie in me, my landlady suggested Mercado de San Miguel. Once a food market, it’s now an upscale food court with stalls selling all sorts of Spanish food and drink. The difficulty was choosing what to eat. I wanted one of everything! I started with a sea urchin that proved somewhat disappointing, especially given the price. It had some sort of sauce that covered the taste of the actual urchin. I did, however, enjoy seeing just how much the shell reminded me of chestnuts. After seeing chestnut-lined streets almost every day in Gijón, it brought welcomed memories. I moved to another stall with better food and friendlier service. I had fried calamari tentacles (my favorite part) and a grilled whole sardine. This time, the food was delicious and the attendant was friendly. He asked whether I wanted him to remove the sardine’s head and innards. I wanted it whole. “Are you sure? There are people who don’t like it that way.” “Segura” (I’m sure). The fish took a long while to cook, and since the crowds hadn’t formed yet, we talked for a while. Once the fish was done, he handed it to me saying “if it’s not fully cooked, let me know and I’ll put it back on the grill.” I found a table by a window away from the draft wafting through the the doors. I ate the sardine (cooked to perfection) as I watched people on the streets fight with their umbrellas then quickly fill the Mercado.
Monday morning, the garbage strike had ended and the streets were considerably cleaner. As I walked to Atocha to catch a train to Granada, I mentally planned what I would do when I return to Madrid before heading back to the U.S. I’ll only have one day.