On my trip to Europe, I expected to meet some new people, but I didn’t expect to have a mini-squad of friends that I would end up spending a lot of time with. The day I was about to have felt oddly serendipitous.
It was a Thursday and I had come to the lobby after eating breakfast in order to wait for a walking tour led by one of the hostel’s staff members, Viviana, who had checked me in the day before. There were five of us in all who were there to take the tour and Viviana asked us if we still wanted to continue with such a small group or wait until Friday for more people. We all chose the former option and the six of us started walking towards Plaza Mayor. This was when I first realized how easy it was to get around Madrid just by walking. The group included me, Viviana, Carmen from California/Mexico, Romina from Chile, Jeremey from Washington DC, and Simo from Finland.
Plaza Mayor, a large square with nine different entrances, was the first stop of the tour. The plaza is surrounded by shops, restaurants, and residential buildings with apartments that can cost upwards of one million euros. Executions, markets, and other events have been held here in the past. I would say the most famous location there is Casa de la Panadería, which is at the center of the north side of the plaza and stands out due to the frescoes painted on its facade. As its name suggests, the building used to house a bakery, but it is now where Madrid’s tourism center is located.
There are a lot of people dressed up in various costumes in hopes that you will take pictures with them and leave a tip. The most common sight were people acting like living statues and it was weird seeing so many of them. This was only the tip of the iceberg. There is an actual statue in the middle of the Plaza Mayor though that depicts Kind Philip III. Legend has it that when the Franco regime pulled down the original statue, it crashed open and revealed a bunch of bones. Scared and thinking that it was the bones of the king sending them a bad omen, the vandals fled. The bones ended up just being from birds that had flown into the statue through a small hole and were unable to escape.
After Plaza Mayor, we walked to Puerta del Sol, where we saw even more living statues. Joining them was a gaggle (not necessarily the correct term, but I like the sound of it) of costumed characters that included odd depictions of Mickey Mouse, Dora the Explorer, and others. It reminded me so much of Hollywood Blvd. You can see a living statue in the photo below, but I didn’t feel like tipping just to get a better up-close photo of any of these folks.
Across the street is the clock that is used to count down the new year in Madrid. People gather at Puerta del Sol on New Year’s Eve and tradition dictates that one should eat a grape for every bell toll at midnight to ring in a prosperous year.
Moving along, we passed by a street that leads to Chocolatería San Ginés, which has been serving chocolate con churros since 1894. More on this in a later post.
Next stop was the Palacio Real, the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family. The Palacio Real is actually the topic of the post following this one, so I won’t be going too much in depth on it here either, but Viviana did point out dark spots on the walls and statues that are basically patched-up bullet holes from when people tried to storm the palace.
Right next door is the Catedral de la Almudena, dedicated to the Virgin of Almudena. The cathedral was also riddled with bullet holes in the past and features a lot of those visible dark spots as well. The cathedral itself if nice, but it is also not very elaborate so that it doesn’t outshine the palace right across from it. Spain’s current king, King Felipe VI, was married there to Queen Letizia in 2004.
We walked a good distance to get a view of the back of the cathedral. This view looked much more grand and impressive, probably because there was no competition with the royal palace anymore. Viviana told us about how Spain was incredibly Catholic in the past (well, it still is) and discriminated harshly against Muslims and Jews, especially during the Spanish Inquisition. The best way to hide under the guise of being Catholic was to be seen handling or consuming pork, since it is not eaten by the other religions.
The last main stop of the tour was Plaza de la Villa, one of the oldest plazas in Madrid. In particular, we focused on the Casa de Cisneros, a house owned by a rich family. Even though the family had a lot of money, the outside of the house still looks relatively plain, which showed how religious they were. Since pride is a deadly sin, houses weren’t supposed to look better than churches on the outside and people were expected to be a little more modest with where they lived.
We ended up back at Plaza Mayor, where we closed out. Viviana gave us some advice on places to explore an this is where we got our first weird coincidence of the day. After stating that people under 25 could get reduced or free entry at some locations, she proceeded to ask us our age in order of how we were standing. Jefferey was 24, Romina was 25, I was 26, Carmen was 27, and Simo was 28. What were the chances that we would be standing in order from youngest to oldest and be part of a consecutive number series?
Viviana left to go back to the hostel and the rest of us decided that it would be cool to hang out with each other and check out a market that we passed by called the Mercado de San Miguel. The market has many vendors selling tapas, which I guess I would describe as snacks or mini-meals. We wandered around for a bit and I tried a variety of foods including croqueta de langostino (shrimp croquette), croqueta de queso Roquefort (Roquefort cheese croquette), empanada de carne (meat empanada), and salmón amuhado con salsa de eneldo (smoked salmon with dill sauce). By far though, my ultimate favorite was bacalao ajoarriero con tomate y verdura (ajoarriero codfish with tomato and veggies) from a vendor called Bacalao. It was so delicious and I’m getting cravings just thinking about it. I need to know if I can find a place like it in Los Angeles. If not, I need a good recipe ASAP.
We went back to the hostel afterwards and hung out on the couches near the lobby so that we could get to know each other more. The coincidences kept popping up. All of us left our jobs and ended up traveling. All of us were traveling by ourselves. All of us (except for one) worked with kids in some way in the non-profit field. We got along real well and decided to keep hanging out with each other for the rest of the day.
Next Post: EuroTrippin’: Madrid (Part 4) – Palacio Real