Springtime in Madrid! One day the weather is sunny and a perfect 80°F; the next raining and a cool 53°F.
A year ago, we wrote a blog and shared photos of our experiences during Semana Santa, (Holy Week or Easter) in Valencia, Spain. [Semana Santa and Easter] This year celebrations in Spain’s capital were similar although we did find one food treat we hadn’t seen or tried before.
Torrijas have a 500+ year long history in Spain and they are a traditional Semana Santa treat. Similar to ‘french toast’, the recipe is traditionally made by soaking day-old bread or brioche in a liquid made of steamed milk (or sweet wine) honey, lemon, cinnamon. Then it is dipped in beaten egg and fried with olive oil allowing the pastry to acquire a crispy outside and soft inside. Next sprinkle them with a cinnamon sugar mix. A final touch is a combination of sugar, water and honey heated and thickened then poured over top. It is recommended to refrigerate the torrijas for at least an hour to allow the flavors to deepen and set.
We stopped by Lhardy, one of the oldest restaurants in Madrid, said to have the best torrijas. We were particularly interested in trying the version where they use sweet Pedro Ximénez wine in place of the milk mixture , but alas they didn’t make it this year.
After tasting a couple of versions of torrijas, we understand why they have remained so popular.
Although not an Easter treat, this April we discovered yet another color of wine.
Blue wine is typically made from 100% chardonnay grapes and the blue is a natural pigment called anthocyanin. This pigment is extracted from the skin of red grapes and added to the chardonnay wine until they get the color they are looking for.
It had a mild, slightly fruit forward taste but without any other distinctive characteristics. The best reason to try blue wine is, well, because it’s blue.
We have now tried red, white, pink, green and blue wine. Any other colors of wine out there?
Tortilla de patatas
One could perhaps live on this ubiquitous potato-and-egg Spanish omelette. This is one of the few foods we have found in every city in Spain.
Being so prevalent, there is an ongoing competition about the best tortilla. Should they be creamy inside or cooked through and with or without onion? We recently had a version where the restaurant cut off a top layer of the tortilla and sandwiched between the layers slices of ham and cheese, heated it and served it to us. An optimal lunch for us when we are out walking and exploring for hours.
El Corte Inglés
El Corte Inglés began in 1890 as a small children’s tailoring shop. Today, still a family owned business, it has grown to become the largest, most prestigious, and sadly the only remaining department store chain in Spain. They have large supermarkets, many service outlets offered inside the department stores and are expanding internationally via the clothing shop ‘Sfera’. We have shopped at least once each month at their supermarkets / grocery stores in nearly every city we have stayed in. Madrid is the corporate center and we noticed at least 6 buildings downtown sporting the El Corte Inglés name.
The El Corte Inglés we visited offers a small terrace at the top of the building if you want to view Madrid from above. The view wasn’t exciting but the variety of exclusive eateries offered on the 9th floor was worth the visit. We stopped for a shot of Don Julio tequila and a delicious plate of nachos – the best we have found so far in Spain!
National Archaeological Museum
This museum was like finding a goldmine. There are so many fascinating displays we were both fully absorbed for hours.
Founded in 1867, the National Archaeological Museum the majority of the pieces within are from the Iberian Peninsula, dating from Prehistory (described as the period between the use of the first stone tools c. 3.3 million years ago and the invention of writing systems 5,300 years ago) to Early-Modern Age (described as the time following the Middle Ages or Medieval period, roughly from 1500–1800). Additionally we saw some excellent pieces from Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt. We were pleasantly surprised to find so many pre-Roman collections in immaculate condition.
When we visited the town of Elche in February we learned about a beautiful partial statue or bust of a woman named Dama de Elche or Lady of Elche. She has an incredibly detailed headdress and coils over her ears and she dates back to 400 BC. We had seen a replica in Elche and were elated to be able to view the original in Madrid.
The National Archaeological Museum has a second similar Iberian female sculpture, called the Dama de Baza. This one was found near Granada and is also pre-Roman dating back to 400 BC. A third and even older alabaster female figurine, made in the 7th century BC, named Dama de Galera is believed to have been Phoenician or possibly Mesopotamian. It was excavated from an ancient Necropolis near Granada.
Perhaps our most fascinating discoveries were two calculating machines designed by John Napier of Scotland in the early 1600’s.
The first and most famous is called Napier’s Bones, a manually-operated calculating device that was used throughout Europe through the 18th century. There are some interesting videos on YouTube showing how the calculator works. The second was called the Promptuary, a second generation and more complicated version of his original design.
The CaixaForum Madrid is a cultural center that is easy to find within Madrid’s Art Triangle. Look for the 4-storey wall across from the Botanical Gardens entirely covered with a striking vertical garden. It is said there are 15,000 plants flourishing on the garden wall.
This cultural center only offers temporary exhibitions and we were happy to discover the current exposition was called, Toulouse-Lautrec and the Spirit of Montmartre.
The exhibit focuses on the years 1886-1900, an irresistibly charming decade in Paris and Montmartre specifically. It was a time of absinthe, Le Chat Noir, cabaret shows, circus performances, lithographs, flouncy dresses, top hats, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his compatriots.
Toulouse-Lautrec was a French painter, printmaker, draughtsman, caricaturist, and illustrator. This exhibition carries dozens of his and other leading artists posters and artwork telling stories of the affairs, culture and Spirit of Montmartre during their lifetime.
We visited Montmartre a few years ago and with this amazing exhibition we were able to imagine and picture what life could have been like in this part of Paris in the late 19th century. What a remarkable find!
Springtime in Madrid’s Parks
There seems to be dozens of stunning parks in this city. Single family stand-alone homes are rare in Spain, so getting outdoors and enjoying nature in these large green parks is an everyday event. It is good to see that the parks are in continual use for all types of family outings, rendezvous for couples, lunch breaks, dozens of fitness activities or people quietly enjoy a break from the city.
We were able to visit Parque del Oeste, a charming park with rose gardens, fountains, and tree-shaded footpaths. The main attraction for us however was the 2,200 year-old Templo de Debod, a fully reconstructed ancient Egyptian temple, donated to Spain by the Egyptian government in 1968.
On our second day in Madrid we walked through part of the nearly 300 acre Parque del Buen Retiro, or El Retiro, as the park is known. The trees were all in blossom and it was a wonderful introduction to the city. The park was initially built for the royal family in the early 17th century and a scant 100 years later, in 1767, it was opened to the public.
We came across the gigantic Monument to Alfonso XII where we watched families paddling on the Grand Pond in front of the monument. Further along we discovered the Crystal Palace and it was hosting an exhibition of white sculptures by American artist Charles Ray. The ‘crystal’ palace is actually made of iron and glass and was built in 1887. Nearby is the oldest living tree in the city, a Montezuma Cypress, predating the Crystal Palace by 250 years.
The Sabatini Gardens were designed in the classic French style, with trimmed hedges and lots of geometric shapes and very different than other gardens we meandered through. The more formal and orderly feel of this garden was appealing as were the dozens of large 12’+ statues scattered throughout the gardens.
The Royal Botanical Garden garden opened in 1781 and today has more than 5,000 species of living plants and trees in just 20 acres. Definitely another favorite garden of ours, probably because everything was in bloom and color always has an uplifting effect on our spirits. For the variety of color, springtime may be the best time of the year to visit this garden.
There were a handful more gardens we hoped to explore but Madrid is like being a ‘kid in a candy shop’; everywhere you look there is something to catch your attention and interest.
Spending a month in the springtime in Madrid has been so rewarding; we hope some day to return and spend other seasons in this magnificent city.
Salud from these Madrileños,
Ted and Julia