After much deliberation, our plan for the day started with “that way,” a stroll down, down, down, Cuesta San Vincente towards the Rio Manzanares. Two goals in mind, one was trying to find a way into Campo del los Moros, the big forest below the royal palace, and to finally make it to the lake in the Casa de Campo on the far side of the river. We’d missed on both in the past so we had some accounts to clear.
Stopping first at the new Starbucks in the Teatro Royal, we cut across the park in front of the palace. The weather was just perfect, cool, sunny and no wind. I was thinking about how much I like Madrid as we walked along. It’s a very agreeable city and a nice change from the endless stream of tour groups we encountered in Sevilla. It’s the kind of place where you can feel like you are a local.
A couple of years ago, we walked by these gardens and never found a way in. Today, we did, only to be turned back by a guard who told us the entry was down below. We finally found it though and in we went.
Campo de Moro was initially dreamed up in the 16thcentury but not finally realized until the end of the 19th. In those intervening years, a multitude of Spanish monarchs tried to make a go of it but failed for a variety of reasons. Surprising considering a tradition of formal gardens that extends all the way back to the 8th century Moorish invasion.
It turned out to be a worthy struggle, the place was wonderful. Wide paths leading down allées of Plane trees, not yet leafed out. Magpies, parrots and Eurasian Blackbirds went about their morning business of trying to find something to eat. Spring was in the air, and the occasional Wren conformed that by singing in the underbrush. To my mind, there is nothing better than a morning stroll in an expansive formal garden. No matter what’s ailing you – trees, sunshine and quiet in the middle of a bustling city are a sure-fire cure.
It was a long walk around, diverted in places due to the security concerns of the palace above, but it was so pleasant that being sent down an alternative path really didn’t matter. Before leaving, we tried to visit the carriage museum (having stumbled upon a royal carriage out for morning practice on the way in) but it was closed. The highlight of that diversion was a magnificent Black Swan paddling around in a pool of green water, looking for a handout.
Leaving, we continued along the boulevard that parallels the river and decided that the big lake in the park really didn’t need discovering on this trip. Instead, we faced the inevitable climb out of the river valley back up to civilization and turned left onto Cuesta de la Vega, the Lombard Street of Madrid.
It’s an awful climb, going back and forth and really steep, dealing with the attitude rise of the other streets in a far shorter distance than the way we came down. Honestly, it seems like it would never end, though we knew it would because we’d done it before. Last time, there was a whole lot of drug dealing going on. Men standing by the side of the street, cars stopping, things being exchanged, cars going on, men smiling as we walked by. Today, there was none of that, just municipal workers barreling down on city-owned bikes and the occasional rider climbing up. The only respite is a historical park on the right side displaying the one of the last remainders of the original city walls. Built by the Moors in the 9th century, they were faced with rocks and bricks and made to look impregnable. But behind the façade was a pile of loose stones and garbage. The expectation – the Reconquista Christians would ride up and say, “Man those look hard, let’s ride on and conquer some other Moors.” Apparently it worked for a while because Madrid wasn’t liberated until 1085.
Ending the uphill death march, we passed by the Palacio Real and were lucky enough to catch the changing of the guard. Four men on horses, two women soldiers and a small fife and drum band. Not the most formal display but certainly worth watching.
Lunch was a lomo bocadilloand a couple of Cokes with lemon, eaten in a jamoneria near our apartment. These ham joints are quite popular, and their reputations are closely defended. It was a great meal despite the difficultly I had in paying. Suffice it to say, another opportunity to practice my Spanish. From there we took the long walk down Calle de las Huertas to the Prado, taking a break in the park in the middle of the grand boulevard that runs from Estacion de Atocha to the Barrio Salamanca.
The Prado was wrapped in giant tarps of Impressionist colors, no doubt some façade restoration is going on. We decided to take a different way up and so crossed by the Fuente de Neptuno and took a right on Conde Lupe de Vega. Every street in this neighborhood is named for some famous Spanish man of letters. Lope de Vega was a 17th century Spanish playwright and one of the luminaries of the golden age of Spanish Baroque literature. A contemporary of Cervantes, he was much revered by those who came later, in particular Goethe.
Walking along, we were struck by how much things change. It’s been three years since we last passed through these streets and many places we knew are long gone. In some cases replaced, in others, shuttered doors with a “Se Vende” sign plastered on. Such is the nature of tourist supported businesses I guess. It was our second tough climb of the day, and I was glad when we crested the hill and headed down to Puerto del Sol and eventually our apartment for a late afternoon break.
Yesterday, while killing some time waiting for a respectable hour to go out for dinner, we watched a Spanish cooking show. They were demonstrating the preparation of Cachopo, an Asturian-Spanish specialty. Thin slices of Iberica Ham layered with Manchego cheese and then coated in egg and flour and finally cornmeal. The whole slab is then deep fried. Now this immediately caught my eye, so I did a little research and found the best Cachopo restaurants in Madrid. Miracle of miracles, two of them were just around the block from our apartment, so off we went.
The first wasn’t open when we passed at 7:45 so we went on to the second. Entering the bartender greeted us boisterously but told us to come back in 5 minutes, so we hung out in the street and then returned, following some people that were clearly in a large group.
We went down deep into the restaurant, through many small rooms full of tables before finally ending up in the last room before the kitchen. There was a very long table, perhaps for 50 people filling up with some large group of Americans. Either a tour or a work-related outing. I caught a waiter’s eye and motioned for “2” and he say us behind them, apologizing for thinking that we were with that bunch.
It turned out to be one of those most memorable meals, fantastic food (Cachopo for me, Cuchinillo (roast suckling pig) for MLW,) great conversation with the waiter, and the perverse enjoyment of watching other people trying to navigate the language. The family at the table next to us also ordered Cuchinillo but the waiter said it was sold out for the evening. MLW had bagged the last order.
Interestingly, fermented apple cider is a staple of Asturian cooking, so I politely asked the waiter if I could taste a little bit. He nodded and disappeared, returning with a green bottle and a pint beer glass. He pointed out that the table next to us had a machine that drew the cider out of the bottle and decanted it into a glass. But he preferred to show us the traditional way. Holding the bottle far over his head, and staring me straight in the eye, he poured me half a glass, never spilling a drop. I told him that I have a small tile, from Barcelona showing the exact same thing. The flavor was sort of odd, not apple, and not alcohol. Not really like anything I’d tasted before.
We polished it off with a cup of coffee and two “on the house” Limoncellos. On the way out I said good night to the bartender and told him it was one of the best meals of our trip. Because, indeed it was.