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El Rastro – Sunday in Madrid

El Rastro – Sunday in Madrid

Madrid’s biggest flea market is held every Sunday in El Rastro in the southern district of  Embajadores. It’s not just a tourist attraction, many Madrileños spend their Sunday’s mooching around the stalls of vintage clothes, antiques and weird and wonderful bits and bobs.  Stopping intermittently for a beer and a plate of Tapas.

The guide books recommend you get the metro to La Latina, but I went all the way down Line 3 (yellow) to  Embajadores and walked up the length of Calle de Ribera de Curtidores the main drag of the market, and once I had  finished my ascent a good few hours later, I was a few minutes away from Puerta del Sol, the heart of Madrid.

El Rastro is REALLY busy and it takes a while to get through the crowds, so I’d really recommend diverting and going down the little side streets – where the hidden gems are –  and then coming back to the main drag.  Everyone told me to watch my bag, lots of pickpockets, but what busy market doesn’t attract pickpockets? I didn’t sense anybody trying to rob me, in fact, the whole atmosphere was totally the opposite, lots of people hanging out with their friends, rummaging through a load of tut, eating great food and drinking cold beer…. even the pickpockets.

Here are a selection of pictures of some of the great things on sale, if I were decorating a home in Madrid, I would definitely head to El Rastro.

 

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Madrid on a Bicicleta

Madrid on a Bicicleta

A great way to see many cities is by bike and in Madrid, they have an electric bike scheme. I cycle everywhere at home but had never tried an electric bike, I’ve been missing out, they are great.

Central Madrid is divided into small districts – barrios – it’s a very accessible city and the bus and metro system, efficient and cheap, but it’s small enough that you can walk around, or if you have limited time cycle.  I managed to see pretty much all of central Madrid in a day, thanks to my electric wheels.

I was staying in the Chamberi district, with my friend Lorena, a Madrileño born and bred. It’s always a treat to be shown around a city with a local, and for me, I got to see Madrid with a local and on an electric bike, a double whammy.

From Chamberi we headed south to the bohemian area of  Malasaña. This barrio is very significant to modern-day Madrid, it was the centre of the “Movida Mardrileña” –  the cultural boom of Madrid. Driven by the then unknown film director Pedro Almodovar.  It was a freedom of expression that had been suppressed under the Franco regime, and it was after his death in 1975 that Madrid emerged with a new identity and with it a surge in The Arts. Malasaña is a very cool place full of independent shops and bars and lots of beautiful, arty people being beautiful and arty.

From Malasaña we continued down the Grand Via to the Plaza de Cibeles a massive intersection which houses the most beautiful Post Office I’ve ever seen, The Palacio de Comunicaciones,  which was proudly displaying a huge “Refugees Welcome’ banner.

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We dismounted to cross Gran Via and walked our bikes across the huge roundabout and dared not cycle on the wide pavement, the police were keeping a somewhat intimidating eye on us.

Once out of sight of the Guardia we hopped back on our saddles and still heading south we entered the beautiful Parque Del Buen Retiro which literally translates to “The park of good retirement” it was tranquil and calm, has a large boating lake, a beautiful rose garden and the stunning Palacio de Cristal. Built in the 1880’s this beautiful glass and iron construction is used as an incredible exhibition space for large-scale installations.  In residence when I was there was a  bizarre show of bones. Bones of all shapes and sizes suspended from the ceiling by string, and a randomly placed crucifix amongst the the skeletal “object d’arts.’ It was sinister and it made my skin crawl but randomly it was also quite beautiful. Perhaps the crucifix was protection against the only known monument in the world to the Devil, which was just round the corner!

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We continued our cycle through the park down the  Cuesta Moyano a leafy road filled with second-hand book stalls. I had a quick shufty but sadly not long enough, a few hours of rummaging would have been good.

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We carried on past the Jardin Botánico (botanical garden) and one of the most famous art museums in the world the Museo del Prado. The queue was long and  I was desperate for a coffee, a wee and our bikes needed charging so we swerved the culture, changed direction and headed west to Las Letras, an area named after Spanish writers. Here I had the the best coffee of my visit at El Azul a little cafe hidden away on the Calle Fúcar.

Once we and the bikes had re-charged we continued west through the Plaza Mayor,  busy, bustling pedestrianised area, mainly full of tourists and tourist restaurants but there is a hidden gem, Restaurante Botin, certified by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest restaurant – who’d of thought that would be in Madrid?! It’s an homage to Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote and has been in existence as a restaurant since 1725. I’m not sure if the menu has changed much since the 1800’s as upon closer inspection into the kitchen, suckling pigs were being roasted in a stone oven over a wooden fire.

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We continued on past the Mercado San Miguel and to the Palacio Real (Royal Palace), the Opera House and the Catedral de la Almudena. An elegant and luxurious part of the city. The Spanish Royal family no longer use this central Palace as their main residence – probably because there is a row of restaurants and an Opera house a stone’s throw from their front door and until quite recently the main road.

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It’s a lovely place to chill out and relax, gather your thoughts and have an ice-cream before cycling home for a siesta.

A few hours later, as the sun was setting we ventured out on our bikes again. After dinner, we sat outside in a square in the Ópera district and had a coffee. As I was changing out of my Birkenstocks and putting on my heels ready for the evening ahead, two very handsome young men fortuitously sat in front of us under a tree and started to play their guitars… I like to think we were being serenaded, but my another of my romantic fantasies was shattered when they asked for money.

We dragged ourselves away from the handsome, talented, young men and headed to a live jazz club in Los Austrias, the oldest part of Madrid. Jazz really isn’t my thing, so after a couple of warbly numbers we left and cycled back up Gran Via to La Pecera del Círculo de Bellas Artes.

Madrid is awash with open air, rooftop bars, and this one at the top of an arts and culture centre is one of the most popular. It wasn’t too fancy with an electric mix of people, very friendly and stunning views.  We were there a few nights after the Supermoon/Lunar eclipse of September 28th and at that height the view of the moon was breathtaking.

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At 0130, we called it (an early) night, ditched the bikes and got a taxi home. Madrid on a bike, an unforgettable day. Gracias.

 

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NB As a tourist, it’s not possible to use the electric bike scheme as you have to be a local resident to register. I used Lorena’s husbands card,  but there are many bicycle hire places around the city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Quick by Lauren Owen

The Quick by Lauren Owen

What a great read! A Gothic horror set in fin-de-siècle London. It took me a while to get hooked, initially, I wasn’t really sure about where the story was going and then it just went boom!I won’t ruin it for you, but the back cover does a great job of NOT revealing the main subject matter. It’s a book that I’d suggest you read when you’ve got big chunks of time – ideally in front of an open fire in a velvet smoking jacket to really set the scene –  it’s full of characters and places and if like me you read it in little bits, you’ll end up having to re-trace your steps.  The last 100 pages had my heart racing…..

8/10 …. tube stations have always made nervous…..

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Amo Viajar

Amo Viajar

This is a poem that was written for me by Maria Helena. She had set up a chair, a table and a typewriter on a street corner during the El Rastro flea market in Madrid. You gave her a subject and she wrote you a poem. It was such a beautiful thing to do, she wasn’t asking for any money, she just wanted to share her gift of beautiful words. I asked her to write me a poem about Love and Travel.

 

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Here is the translation. It works better in Spanish I think.

 

‘It doesn’t matter if you choose to travel by

airplane

car

bicycle

motorcycle

boat

tren

it does not matter because travel

is something else

because feeling free

is knowing you can go anywhere

it is to know the love of your life

and to deliver your soul

to do what you really like

loves

and travels

but always be you”

 

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Madrid – FOOD! GLORIOUS FOOD! (Gloriosa Comida Alimentos!)

Madrid – FOOD! GLORIOUS FOOD! (Gloriosa Comida Alimentos!)

Food and travel go hand in hand for me. One, if not the main reason I love to travel is to discover new foods. It’s not only the way the food tastes or how it is presented, it’s the history, the traditions and the culture that unfolds as you munch your way around a destination.

Food to the Spanish as we know is a huge part of their culture. Fiestas, celebrations and family occasions are built around eating – I would happily bet that although Iceland exists in Spain, very few would put out a King Prawn ring to feed their guests. And so it was with great excitement I accepted an invitation to spend a weekend in Madrid as the guest of my friend Lorena a Madrileño born and bred and a foodie. She who was delighted to take me on a food tour of her beloved city and here are the details…. yes, I did really eat this much in two days!

My perfect breakfast, with a big thank you to the French, is a black coffee and a croissant. I could have it every day, but it’s a treat reserved for weekends and holidays. It’s a breakfast that transcends across the globe in its different variations and although simple in its taste and design,  it is possible to get it badly wrong with a weak coffee and a flabby croissant. My personal award for getting it wrong goes to Colombia, who’d of thought they couldn’t make a decent coffee? And for getting it right, Vietnam, but then food wise the Vietnamese get an awful lot right.

Thankfully in Madrid, I only ever had great coffee and buttery, melty croissants so big they come with a knife and fork, and the local tweak? Served ‘a la plancha’ – toasted – with even more butter, well done Madrid.

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Mid morning means another coffee – usually, because you didn’t get to bed till 0130 a standard in Madrid – and a Cortado is the preferred pick me up.  Cortado means “to cut” so literally it’s an espresso “cut”  with an equal amount of hot milk and served almost as a shot. It’s a way of drinking coffee we’re adopting in the UK along with our love of the Aussie flat white.

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Cocida is the ultimate lunchtime comfort food of Madrid and it is the dish that everyone’s mother makes.  It is a dish you can eat out but very few do, as it’s just not the same as the home cooked version, but there is one restaurant, La Bola, in the Opera district of Madrid, where Madrileño’s  go for Cocida.  Lorena was very excited to take me there, although she is a big fan of her mum’s version, La Bola’s is as good if not better – high praise indeed.

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Cocida is peasant food, and like most peasant food, cheap to make, slow to cook and totally delicious.  A basic description of Cocida is chickpea and meat stew, but this is a dish of two parts.

Two bowls were brought to the table, their bottom’s covered with tiny pieces of pasta and then a terracotta pot bulging with its contents was put down but only the cooking liquor, was poured into each bowl.  A light but incredibly tasty broth tinged with orange due to the paprika from the chorizo that had been simmering away in it for a good few hours. The broth is bulked out by the pasta and accompanied with jalapeños for some optional ‘picante” and a big hunk of white bread.

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When you have slurped up every drop of soup  – and resisted licking out the bowl because you are in a restaurant and have remembered your manners –  another plate of steamed cabbage with fried garlic appears and is spooned into your bowl,  and then you get to unravel the mystery of the terracotta pot. Diving in with your spoon it surfaces with chick peas and chunks of meat – bacon, chorizo and pork – these go on top of the cabbage and it’s finished with a generous dollop of homemade tomato sauce.  It’s perfecto! Simple, delicious and accompanied by a compulsory Caña (small glass) of the local beer Mahou.

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It’s carb loaded enough so that in days gone by you could have easily taken a siesta before going back out to work in the fields.  In 2015 you are given a delicious digestive of lemon sorbet mixed with Cava and a welcome espresso. Siesta optional.

Although landlocked, seafood is everywhere in Madrid and hugely popular is the Galician style of cooking, an area of Spain where the sea is rough but rich, the portions are huge and pulpo (octopus) –  once a poor man’s food has been elevated to new heights.

I had been recommended the Galician, Restaurante Riveira do Mińo by a foodie friend in Brighton and it is also a favourite of Lorena and her friends. Through the steamy windows, you can see the chefs at work and crates of prawns and platters of crabs, mouthwatering stuff.

IMG_4468IMG_4546I literally died and went to seafood heaven. If I never eat seafood again, it’ll be OK, this really was unforgettable. We started with a platter of Almejas Marinara – clams in garlic and tomato sauce, and not weeny little clams, these were meaty and substantial.

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We then went “proper Galician’ and ordered Pulpo, simply boiled, sliced and served with rock salt. It was so tender and the “life hack” to tenderising your octopus save bashing it against a rock for an hour? Freeze it first, defrost and then boil.  Alongside we had a plate of Peppers Padron, a cross between a jalapeno and a green pepper, these little fellas can, if you’re unlucky, blow your head off. It’s almost like playing Russian Roulette with a chargrilled plate of these. One in fifty apparently is mind-blowingly hot, but there is no way of telling before it’s too late. On this occasion, we all escaped unscathed.

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And then came the boiled seafood, a platter of prawns (gambas),  cranjejo (crab), Langoustines (king prawns), and cigalles (scampi) – a bowl of mayo, lemon quarters and an ice cold bottle of Galician Ribeiro. The wine came in very handy when I was shown how to eat crab the Galician way, mix the brown and white meat together in the shell, add a generous glug of the Ribeiro and mix again before devouring #genius.

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There was still room for a slice of Torta de Santiagoa tart made with almonds – it’s not everyone’s taste due to the dry consistency and it is much nicer when served with ice cream, but that is not the Galician way.

But the food in Madrid isn’t all about big portions, in the little calle’s (roads) off the the Plaza Mayor you can’t move for Cerverzeria’s  selling the hugely popular Bocadillo de Calamares, deep fried squid rings in a white roll – a Madrileño fish finger sandwich – you only find it in this particular area of Madrid and it comes, of course,  with an ice cold caña of Mahou.

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Like in most parts of Spain, you are spoilt for choice when it comes to Tapas bars, but there was one particular eatery that made me very, very happy indeed and that was the Mercado San Miguel. Once a municipal market and now a glass fronted “Centre for Culinary Culture” a place for producers and chefs to showcase their wares.

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You can walk around Mercado San Miguel and take your pick. Our first stop was to get a cold glass of white Rueda to accompany our nibbling and then we headed to the Burrata – a fresh cheese made from Mozzarella and cream! –  and had a generous helping on a slice of sourdough topped with sundried tomatoes and crispy onions, that was followed by a couple of oysters, then olives and parma ham, croquetas bacalao (salt cod) and then we finished with a selection of Manchego and goats cheeses. It was sociable, it was fun and it was just a great way to eat. Why can’t we turn our old municipal markets/warehouses into places like this at home??

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Sunday’s in Madrid is El Rastro, Madrid’s largest flea market and a place not just for tourists but a popular place for Madrileño’s to hang out, eat tapas and drink cañas. It was here that I stumbled across a bar that just sold sardines, peppers pardon and beer.  It was hot and noisy, no tables and chairs, standing only. The chargrill was barely visible what with the smoke and the rows and rows of sardines lined up on it.  In charge of the grill was the barman’s Grandmother, she must have been in her 80’s and wasn’t even breaking a sweat.

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She passed plastic plate after plastic plate of sardines and peppers over the bar and as the patrons sucked the fishes dry, the bits they didn’t eat they chucked on the floor along with plates and serviettes.  I’m not a massive fan of sardines, but I stood and had a caña and a plate of peppers and was almost tempted to order some sardines just so I had something to chuck on the floor.

My weekend was coming to an end but  I made sure I had room for Churros and Chocolate. Traditionally a breakfast dish it can also be had as a late afternoon treat. Thick, thick hot chocolate with crispy, floury sticks of churro – similar to a donut but not sweet. It is totally indulgent, highly calorific and so inevitably totally delicious.

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And so I said goodbye to Lorena, her family and Madrid. What a wonderful city, filled with many beautiful things and lots and lots of gorgeous food. A city made for eating and socialising. Hasta La Vista Madrid, I’ll be back……. I want to watch the sunset from  StreetXO at the top of El Corte Ingles, Callao. It’s not just the view and the sunset that’s the draw, it’s an Asian fusion tapas bar run by the young Madrlieño and three-star Michelin chef David Muñoz .

NB he’s just opened a StreetXO in London, but I think I’ll wait and try his food in his hometown….. or there is always StreetXO NYC opening 2016….. watch this space

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