Ole Days

The Sound of Castanets


Monday 18th August 2008

Julie survived the night which was a relief! That would have put a real dampener on my birthday! (only joking!)

After a lazy leisurely breakfast we made a late start on the day. On today's agenda was a stroll (or a march dependant on one's perspective) around the other half Madrid.

La Postas de Quitapenas, Calle Postas, Madrid Our first destination was Plaza Mayor but before we entered Madrid's largest square we decided to put our feet up and enjoy some traditional fried batter sticks called churros.
I had greatly looked forward to trying what I imagined was a stodgy sweet doughnut delight but I was exceptionally disappointed when I tasted them.

churros & coffee Madird

They were crispy, greasy and cold; not in the slightest bit appetising. I'm sure they were a poor example of traditional churros probably because we were on the tourist route into Plaza Mayor.

marinated goldfish

The street, Calle Postas, was full of souvenir shops, which was ideal for buying a Spanish flag, which I did, or for buying cuddly fluffy Toros Bravados for the grandchildren, which we couldn't bring ourselves to buy after witnessing the brutal double murder last night.

Calle Postas, Madrid
We finished our coffee and after a good titter at the mistranslated menu, where apparently we could have ordered a spicy marinated goldfish for lunch, we moved on through the arch and into Plaza Mayor.
Plaza Mayor, Madrid

This square used to play an important role in Madrid's 17th century social calendar with bullfights, executions and public trials by the Inquisition held within its vast open space.

In the centre of the Plaza stood a horseback King Felipe III, the man responsible in creating this great public square, or at least the man whose idea it was to create the square which we see today. (The architect responsible for its stylish arches and arcades was one Juan Gomez da Mora.)

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

The most striking part of Plaza Mayor was the colourful facade of the Casa de la Panaderia. The building actually pre-dates the square but the bright "allegorical paintings" were only done in the early 1990s.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid
Plaza Mayor, Madrid

After consulting a dictionary to find out what allegorical meant I found these symbolic paintings fascinating. I wasn't too sure what the naked ladies holding up the roof represented nor what the Spanish Inquisitioners would have thought of them if they could see it today.

Mercarto de San Miguel, Madrid

The expensive looking pavement cafes and shops tried to lure us in with their promise of cool shade but we were more interested in leaving the square through its north western exit to find Mercarto San Miguel.

We always enjoy a visit to a market. The experience of a lively marketplace is always a unique way to remember a city.

Mercarto San Miguel had been open since 1914 but unfortunately we weren't going to make any memories here today as the whole place was closed for refurbishment.

Why is it when you're denied something it suddenly possesses your mind? I suddenly became desperate for a banana!
Calle de los Cuchilleros, Madrid
Sobrino de Botin, oldest restautrant in the world, Madrid

We returned to Plaza Mayor to exit through Arco de Cuchilleros.

Down this street was El Sobrino de Botin officially recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest restaurant in the world! The certificate in the window, signed by the late Norris McWhirter, proved the claim.

Apparently it opened its doors in 1725 and is still serving suckling pig to this day.
Sobrino de Botin, oldest restautrant in the world, Madrid

Legend has it that Goya himself worked here as a waiter whilst he was a student at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

Julie had hoped to perhaps stop here for lunch but breakfast was hardly an hour ago, and the greasy churros were still churning our stomachs so we continued on our stroll.

As we left three people scooted in on those peculiar sedgeways, those two wheel motorised scooter things. They were part of a sedgway guided tour of Madrid. We burst out laughing when we imagined the two of us rolling along on one of those!

Our strolling took us down across Plaza de Puerta Cerrada and to Travesia del Nuncio which in turn delivered us to the Iglesias de San Pedro el Viejo. It looked quite unremarkable on the outside.
Iglesia de San Pedro el Viejo , Madrid
Travesia del Nuncio, Madrid

It was even less remarkable on the inside!

Its original 14th century brick tower however was meant to be quite impressive but we didn't notice it.

It's apparently one of the few remaining traditional Moor architecture still visible in Madrid.

Our gentle stroll was beginning to feel a bit like a march by now as we walked up a hill to Plaza de la Paja.

Our motive (or I should say my motive) for climbing up such a stiff gradient during the hottest part of the day was to find a vegetarian restaurant called El Estragon.

It had great reviews by all the guide books.

Despite having a good attempt at working up an appetite we still weren't hungry; so when we found El Estragon was shut until 3pm we weren't too disappointed.

Plaza de la Paja, Madrid

As we were most of the way up the hill we continued the short distance to the top have a look what we could find. It was worth all the effort.

Torres Bermejas Flamenco, Madrid

We found the small plaza in front of Iglesias de San Andreas a lovely peaceful spot to simply sit in the shade with the locals and watch pigeons bathe.

We were so relaxed we found it hard to get back up to continue our journey.

We spent nearly half an hour just chilling out. Wishing we were the size of a pigeon so that we could also cool down in the fountain.

We couldn't waste the whole day bird watching so eventually we made a move. At least we had the bonus that it was all downhill from here.

It was quite surprising how hilly this part of Madrid was. We reached Calle Segovia which continued further downhill beneath a busy viaduct.

All this gravity assisted walking had to come to an end as we soon had to take a steep route back up a hill through Parque del Emir Mohamed I towards the Muralle Arabe.

They date back to the 9th century but the excavations weren't much to look at. I guess it was their significance more that their physical presence that mattered.

Madrid was founded by the invading Moors around 852AD. Their ruler Emir Mohamed I built a fortress to protect the approach to the already established town of Toledo.

These Arabian Walls are all that are left of that original moorish town of Mayrit.

Catedral de la Almudena, Madrid

Littering the Arabian rooms were cardboard boxes, the makeshift homes of the homeless. This sad situation was made even more poignant by the opulent shadow cast by the Cathedral and Royal Palace.

Whilst the cathedral may look like a classic 16th century masterpiece it was in fact not even conceived until 1879,

Bizarely it was because the diocese of Toledo wouldn't agree to allow Madird to build it!

How petty was that?!

Catedral de la Almudena, Madrid

After being given the permission it then still took over a hundred years for it to be completed.
Catedral de la Almudena, Madrid

A hiatus for the Spanish civil war didn't help but it wasn't really much of an excuse for the 100 year delay. It was as late as 1993 when Pope John Paul II consecrated the cathedral and finally declared it open for business.

Looking down on us was a statue of Madrid's female patron saint, the Virgin of Almudena, who the cathedral was in honour. It was certainly the highlight. There wasn't much of interest in the rest of the architecture.

It was purposely built in grey and white to fit in perfectly with the Palacio Real and it really did look like an extension of its illustrious neighbour.

We sat down in the shade of the cathedral looking across Plaza de Armas, the square in front of the south facade of the palace. It was a striking view in the sunshine.
Palacio Real de Madrid

Unlike the cathedral, the palace really was built in the 16th century, during the reign of the Carloses. (3rd and 4th).

We did have the option of going inside to see the lavish interior.

To help us with our decision we browsed our guide book looking at the photos of the regal throne room and the grandiose dining room and then decided that we couldn't think of anything more tedious.

Actually that comment was a bit harsh.

It's not that we hate stately homes and royal palaces it was only that in today's glorious sunshine it would have been a crime to have wasted it inside.

Perhaps if the reigning monarch Juan Carols I was in residence then it may have made it more exctiting but he has never lived at the Palacio Real.

We moved on, walking along the palace exterior, past the manicured hedgerows of Plaza de Orienete with its row of royal statues that looked more like a row of mime artists, and on towards the royal gardens of the Jardines de Sabatini.

Palacio Real de Madrid
Restaurante Sabatini,  Calle de Bailen, Madrid

Opposite the Sabatini gardens we noticed a small cafe of the same name and decided it was probably a good time to re-fuel.

It was a great unpretentious local cafe and we spent a good hour watching gymnastics on a little TV, sharing a tasty tortilla washed down with a couple of beers. We also used the time to write our postcards for home.

I usually waffle on about the weather or the architecture but Julie is always more inspired than I am when it comes to writing short and snappy paragraphs for postcards.

She always comes up with something humourous. It's quite a talent. I wonder if there's a market for pre-written postcards? Just add the address and the postage stamp!

Another hidden talent of Julie's is creating pun-filled tabloid headlines! She must have been a Fleet Street editor in a past life.

Anyway .. after some uneasy watching of thirteen year old Romanian girls bend over backwards in a desperate chase for gold we made our own energetic movements to continue our sightseeing marathon.

Restaurante Sabatini,  Calle de Bailen, Madrid
Puerta de San Vicente, Madrid

We didn't exactly cartwheel out the door but we did have a renewed spring in our step as we swept down towards Campo del Moro.

Our intentions were to enter the large wooded area beneath the Palacio Real at the first possible opportunity but the entrance into the garden was guarded by soldier. Whilst he may have been wearing a silly plastic hat, I'm sure it wasn't a silly plastic toy gun in his holster.

With this in mind we chickened out of trying to get past Sgt. Bilbao, choosing instead to walk along the permiter of the park down to the truimphant arch of Puerta de San Vicente.

This arch lacked the same impact as Puerta de Alcala which we saw yesterday. It appeared to be a cheap modern concrete imitation.
Campo del Moro, Palacio Real de Madrid

We turned the corner and before long came across a stunning view of the royal gardens rising up to the palace.

We were totally mesmerized by it and entered the Campo del Moro. It was very pleasant to walk in the shade of the trees for a while.

Even with my lack of linguistic skills I could almost have guessed that the name Campo del Moro was derived from the 12th century when a Moorish army settled here and set up camp.

It later became a popular venue for jousting Christian knights.

Campo del Moro, Catedral de la Almudena, Madrid

Whilst sitting in the shade we decided that we would now make our way back up the hill to find somewhere for lunch. "But can we please catch a bus ?" an exhausted Julie pleaded.

Of course I promised that we could; but before we left Madrid's lowest point there was something I wanted to do.

Puenta de Segovia, Catedral de la Almudena, Madrid I could see by Julie's face that I was on my own for this extension so I left her behind sitting on a park bench and set off to cross the Rio Manzanares river. I was striding with purpose, looking as ridiculous as an Olympic Walker with a gold medal at stake.

I only wanted to cross the Ponte Segovia bridge to take some photographs of the cathedral from a distance.

It was actually further than I thought. It was a very long bridge over a piddly little river and it wasn't especially photogenic being nothing more than a trickle.

Catedral de la Almudena, Madrid

But the view of Palacio Real and in particular the Cathedral were well worth the effort. By the time I returned to Julie I had disintegrated into a sweaty mess which she found strangely attractive!

Half way up, as promised, we stopped at a bus stop. As I rummaged in my pocket it dawned on me that I only had a €50 note. I couldn't look Julie in the eye as I pulled out the note and said "Shit. There no chance of the bus driver accepting that!"

El Estragon Vegetarian Restaurant, Plaza de la Paja, Madrid

As a bus pulled up a desperate Julie searched her pockets for change but to no avail. An old madrinello stepped off. All we could do was watch the bus drive off without us.

We were gutted. The hill suddenly became the north face of Everest, the oxygen disappeared and each step became so difficult.

We eventually dragged our feet all the way back to Plaza de la Paja and the vegetarian restaurant, El Estragon. As we sat down on the chairs we both let out a groan of pleasure which I think we got away with.

We let ourselves down however by pissing ourselves laughing when we read the comically mispelt "weggie sausage" in the Garlic Soup.

For those of you who aren't getting the joke a "weggie" was a torture inflicted across school playgrounds across the UK in the eighties (possibly still happening today?) where the victims underpants were hoiked up to the point of splitting them in half.

weggie sausage

veggie paella, El Estragon Vegetarian Restaurant, Plaza de la Paja, Madrid

I'm glad to say I never suffered from nor did I inflict this crime!

Naturally I just had to try the Garlic Soup with weggie sausage!

Another dish I just had to try was a Paella, safe in the knowledge that there won't be any pigs brains in it!

My dishes weren't that cheap but were balanced out by Julie going for the two dishes for €8 which was a bargain. Although the descriptions fooled her into having deep fried battered cheese followed by deep fried battered bananas. As tasty as they were it was a bad combination.

The food was of a good standard, very fresh and made a welcome change from potato in an omlette or with spicy sauce.

Iglesia de San Pedro el Viejo , Madrid

We made our way back to the hotel passing Iglesias de San Pedro el Viejo once again. This time however we actually noticed the ancient bell tower, which did impress.

Making an impression also was a side entrance that was so full of character. I thought the weather beaten door with its iconic cornice was beautiful.

After I had finished admiring the door we moved on up and through Plaza Mayor and then Puerta del Sol, stopping at Bar Armenia where we sat down for a beer and a bowl of salted nuts.

Iglesia de San Pedro el Viejo , Madrid
We then walked the short distance to our hotel. Just before we reached Hotel Arosa an acute attack of the thirst, brought on by the salted nuts, got the better of us and we just had to pop inside another bar for another beer!
Tres Cruces, Calle de la Salud, Madrid In contrast to the touristy Bar Armenia this was a great little Cerveceria called Tres Cruces. It had a wonderful rustic charm to it.

It wasn't anything to look at. The decor was terrible but almost so bad it was good, if you know what I mean.

It was that local feel that really gave it a great atmosphere.

Tres Cruces, Calle de la Salud, Madrid

I ordered "Dos cervezas por favor" just like a local. Julie was impressed. It was the first time we tried Mahou beer and we liked them so much we ordered another "Dos cervezas por favor"
Tres Cruces, Calle de la Salud, Madrid

The plate of pork scratchings that accompanied the beers was not so appreciated however. Just as the ham bone on the counter was a little off putting, that was too local for me!

Julie kept on glancing over towards the counter at a plate of cheesy wotsits. Despite having given up meat she still would have prefered the bright orange corn baked snack in her carnivorous days.

We didn't want to be rude and ask for "wotsits por favor"

We were in a celebrationary mood by now and chose to continue the merriment in honour of my birthday with a bottle of Cava Riserva at the hotel bar.
Hotel Arosa, Madrid
Hotel Arosa, Madrid

It was about 5pm and the cava was going down quickly. Those damn nuts were very salty!

Before we surrendered ourselves to a siesta on the three piece suite we got up and made it to our room in time before falling quite literally into a four hour deep sleep.

We surfaced at 9:30pm and within five minutes we were stumbling bleary eyed down Gran Via in search of an Austrian Cider Bar. In the guide book it sounded really cool. We found it but we didn't stay there for long, not even for a drink of Austrian cider.

We stayed just long enough to see there wasn't anything on the menu for me to eat, except an apple strudel perhaps but certainly nothing as a main course. It was a poor choice.

We retraced our steps back along Gran Via and ended at a place called Zahara Cafe. It was an american diner style cafe and was extremely popular.

We ordered a pizza margerita to share and some french fries, or as the waiter called them patatas Espanyol. As expected the pizza was microwaved and overcooked with cheap cheese and cardboard base. The best that could be said about it was at least it was warm.

The Spanish fries weren't any better. They looked like regular french fries but they sat in a pool of oil which then dribbled unattractively down my chin with each forkfull. Why was this place so popular?

We wanted to watch some flamenco tonight so with shiny greasy chins we left Zahara to find a place called Torres Bermejas. This was apparently one of the best places in the city to see a show.

We walked down steps towards a reception area our excitement rising as we could hear the frantic strumming and hand clapping coming from the other room.

We had to pay €35 each to get in which pieved me a little. As it was pretty much the full price and it was now 11pm; with the doors having been open for two hours already we weren't too sure how much of the show we had left. We did get a free drink included in the price but if it ended in half an hour they would have been bloody expensive drinks.

We were led through a heavy curtrain into what felt like total darkness. Once our eyes adjusted to the dim lighting we could see to our right, on a low stage in the middle of the room, a feisty senorita stamping her feet furiously to the music.

We were shown to the only vacant seats in the room and they had to be the worst seats in the house!

It was tucked away right in the corner, stage left. We had a post obscuring some of our view of the dancer and we could only see the musician's tapping feet.

Torres Bermejas Flamenco, Madrid
Our "free" two beers arrived as we settled down for what remained of the show.
Torres Bermejas Flamenco, Madrid

A different dancer took to the stage for her performance.

It began with slow sensuous movements stirred by the slowly strummed guitar and the undulating vocals that were very evocative of its Moorish influence.

Gradually the music gathered pace and her movements became increasingly passionate.

She threw one hand up in the air and with the other lifted the hem of her dress to reveal her rapidly tapping feet, building up such a crescendo that it left me exhausted just watching.

Torres Bermejas Flamenco, Madrid

Next up was a male dancer. He didn't waste any time in throwing himself straight into a frenzied stampede. My God he was going for it!

He stood there in his silver grey suit and Cuban heels staring intensely into the distance whilst his feet moved at such a speed they began to blur. He was stamping so hard dust fell from the ceiling. He had such a cock-sure arrogance about him that was perfect for the performance. You couldn't help but get caught up in the rythm, although I was the only one beating the table along to the music.

It shouldn't have been possible for him to move up to a crescendo because he was going as quick as the clappers ... but he did. I though he was going to explode!

Just before midnight two large tour groups left leaving the place half empty. The show was carrying on so we took advantage of the vacated tables and moved to a more central position.

The best dance of the evening was the one they saved for last.

Torres Bermejas Flamenco, Madrid

The guitarist started to pluck each string gently and then from some distance off stage the distinctive sound of castanets began. The hairs on my arms stood up. There's just something about the sound of castanets and it was the first time we'd heard them all night. The mood was electric.

The dancer stepped onto the stage with torment etched all over her face as she tortured herself to the music. You felt she was baring her soul through the dance. Purging her pains. She may have been old enough to be my mother but she was absolutely captivating. Her mature years had certainly made her a more accomplished flamenco dancer.

They couldn't top that performance and didn't try.

As a finale all the dancers (except for the male) returned to the stage and did a few routines together and even sang some folk songs.

Torres Bermejas Flamenco, Madrid
Torres Bermejas Flamenco, Madrid

For the last quarter of an hour it felt as if they were running out of ideas and were just freestyling, improvising.

One or two of them even looked quite embarrassed.

It was now 1am and the show was over.

We hadn't paid our €70 yet and I was harbouring hopes of "getting away with it"! But of course as the lights came on, the bill arrived at our table. We actually didn't mind paying. We had thoroughly enjoyed the flamenco.

We thought about where to go and what to do next and the idea of partying on did enter our minds but we dismissed it pretty quickly. We decided instead to act our age and head for bed.

Hotel Arosa, Madrid
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