Tuesday, June 12, 2007

I've moved!

I've decided to change sites to see how I do with the whole WordPress thing. Here's the new address of España Profunda: http://katieprofunda.wordpress.com/

Definitely let me know what you think.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The best croquetas I've ever had

One of my very favorite neighborhoods in all of Madrid is what I call Conde Duque, the area between Calle Princesa and Malasaña (map). Just recently I also discovered that it is also home to the best croquetas I've ever had. La Tabernilla de Amadeus (C/ Cristo, 2--marked on the above map) sits on a tiny little street right near the Centro Cultural Conde Duque and has a lovely terraza during the summer. And the croquetas de jamón are, simply put, amazing.

Mi parque

When I was looking for a place to live in Madrid nearly two years ago, I based it largely on living near a park where I could go running. I ended up near the Parque del Oeste (map), which I have completely fallen in love with. I call it mi parque and I really do feel a sense of propriety about it. I know the early morning dog walkers, the older couple who hit a tennis ball back and forth on one of the trails, the parks maintenance workers in their fluorescent yellow and blue outfits.

Parque del Oeste slopes downhill from Moncloa and runs along the western edge of the city. It's great for running because of the dirt paths, the hills, and the lack of cars. It's also a perfect place to go for a stroll, lie in the grass, read on a bench, have a picnic, or box (?! left).

Parque del Oeste is quite different from the famed and (also) beautiful Parque del Buen Retiro. To begin with, it's not in the center of the city and therefore attracts much less traffic. I like to think of it as a little "wilder" than Retiro, in part because it's a little more off the beaten path. Though it's still quite a civilized place; so civilized, in fact, that it is home to a rosaleda (rose garden), which this year was absolutely fantastic. Seems that the cool, rainy spring we've had here has done wonders for the roses, which (when I went to see them two weeks ago) were in full bloom and stunning.To check out the Parque del Oeste, I recommend starting at one of its ends: (the Moncloa metro/bus station or the Templo de Debod) and wandering.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Argentines in the 'hood

One of the most exciting places to open in my neighborhood this year has surely been Todo Empanadas. At the corner of Vallehermoso and Fernández de los Ríos (map), the little empanada place has been doing a steady business since it opened in October 2006. Run by a bunch of Argentines, Todo Empanadas delivers, does take-out, and has limited (bar-stool) seating in its interior. The empanadas are made to order and extremely tasty; among my favorites are onion and cheese, and tomato, basil, and cheese. They also make various with meat and a vegetable empanada with spinach. At 1.50 euros each, they can easily become an addiction. They've become a delivery favorite among my roommates (half a dozen is the delivery minimum and you'll want two or more). And just today I tried the dessert empanada: a little crescent of fried dough filled with dulce de leche. To die for. If you're in the 'hood, call 91 44 44 748 to order.And speaking of dulce de leche, another Argentine joint called KIBO Dulce y Salado, on the corner of Galileo and Donoso Cortés (map), sells some amazing alfajores for under 2 euros.

Finally, if you're ever near Retiro and hungry, make a trip to Trenque Lauquen. It's a tiny little Argentine pizzeria with a lovely terraza in the warmer months and it takes empanadas up a notch: these ones are baked, not fried. The crust is light and flaky, and the spinach empanada, flavored with raisins and spices, is particularly memorable. This place will cost you significantly more than Todo Empanadas, but it's worth it for a sit-down meal right across the street from Retiro. Make sure to check their schedule; I've been disappointed by it being closed at least once.

Monday, May 21, 2007


As any Madrileño who loves the outdoors knows, we've got the mountains right in our backyard. Literally. In an hour by car, bus, or train, you can access some truly beautiful wild areas with fantastic hiking. I am a huge fan of La Pedriza, a natural area full of mounds of granite perfect for climbing and hiking. But a couple months ago, an adult student of mine piqued my interest when he recounted having spent part of his weekend attempting to climb Peñalara, the highest peak (2,430 meters) in the Sierra de Guardarrama, the mountain range closest to Madrid. This weekend, mi chico and I made our own attempt and succeeded.

You begin the ascent to Peñalara from the Puerto de Cotos, a mountain pass at 1,830 meters. It's only an hour in car from the center of Madrid, and can also be reached by train. We didn't have the highest hopes for our day--the INM predicted a 90% chance of rain and the sky was gray and threatening above as we began our uphill trek. Above the treeline, the wind began to whip against us with such a fury that I was afraid we'd be blown off the slope. But it didn't rain. In fact, we noticed as we got higher, the wind was blowing the ugly rain clouds away from us and onto the plains of Castilla-León. So we reached the summit quickly (it's a 600 meter ascent in a only a few kilometers) and continued on our loop down the other side of the summit and up a rocky pinnacle called Risco de los Claveles and down, down, down until we reached the first of several glacial lakes that would mark our return route.Soon enough we were walking through a meadow filled with wildflowers and flowing streams. Waterfalls cascaded from the rock walls below Peñalara, and the sun came out in a hole in clouds above us. We ate lunch by the lovely Laguna Grande before heading down the easy trail back to the car.

The circuit hike took us about four hours not including stops. Be forewarned that it's extremely popular (like most of the Guardarrama). We had a lot of company on a day with relatively bad weather. That student of mine hadn't made it to the top because of worse weather. A steward at the Laguna Grande told us that two years ago there were seven deaths on the peak due to winter unpreparedness. Best times to go are May, June, and September.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

San Isidro

I love May in Madrid. Terrazas take over the sidewalks and plazas of our fair city, the grass and trees are green, the parks are full of flowers, days are long, and it's not too hot yet. And then there's San Isidro. He was a saint, a farmer (labrador), and a very good excuse for a party. That's right: he's Madrid's patron saint, which means that on the day that he died (May 15, 1130) everyone gets a holiday in Madrid!

The festivities started a bit earlier for me and some lucky friends. A colleague of mine is from a tiny town in the province of Cuenca, and there they also happen to have good old Isidro as their patron saint (for reasons unclear, maybe for the agricultural nature of the pueblo?). I've been lucky enough to spend two years attending the fiestas in Villaverde y Pasaconsol, which consist largely of dancing all night and eating all day.
The most emblematic part of the fiestas in the pueblo is the toros. But they aren't full-grown toros, just vaquillas (little cows). All Saturday afternoon people enter the miniscule ring (composed of a whole bunch of truck beds) and run around with the vaquillas, trying not to get gored. The part I don't really like is that then they kill a couple--I didn't stay to watch that part. But the following morning, a bunch of people get up early and spend the whole morning guisando (cooking) the meat in gigantic pots. And then the whole town has a huge picnic with the meat and whatever people have brought: tortilla and plenty of bread, wine, and fruit.

Back in Madrid the party really got started on the Monday night before the holiday. The bars and streets of La Latina were completely packed, people were dancing chotis in the street at 1 a.m., and there was plenty of general merriment.

And on San Isidro, hordes of people head to las praderas--the meadows--at a park named after the saint that lies in the southwestern part of the city (metro Marqués de Vadillo). I spent all afternoon there with my roommates and friends, eating pasta salad and watermelon and enjoying the good weather. Children and adults dress up as chulapas (with their long dresses and shawls) and chulapos (with their black-and-white checked caps) and, for a day, Madrid celebrates itself.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Mother's Day

Today is Día de la Madre in Spain, in honor of which a couple of friends and I ran in the Carrera de la Mujer, a race for only women that raises money for cancer. Think Race for the Cure, Spanish style. The race shirts were orange, and the line to get water at the end was outrageously long. But even if it was less a race than a human obstacle course, tons of women came out for it. More than 12,000, in fact. It made me so happy to see so many Spanish women out exercising on a beautiful Sunday morning, that I'll ignore the fact that I had to wait half an hour to get water after I finished. To top it all off, the race bag came with an awesome amount of stuff (including another t-shirt, a towel, a Comunidad de Madrid Buff, and magazines ranging from Cosmo to Runner's World).

Election shenanigans

Election season is upon us here in España. I'm not incredibly informed, but I like to keep abreast of important developments, like the one I wrote about the other day. And we've got a new one today.

Good old Rafael Simancas, the socialist candidate for the presidency of the Madrid region, has a bone to pick with someone. In what appears to be an honest mistake, the metro station that shares his last name (a stop on line 7) has disappeared from the latest edition of the metro map. Granted, they've been opening what seems like 11 new stations every day for the past weeks. But Simancas is still open. At least that's what the neighbors say.

This weekend, the current president of the Comunidad, the right-wing Esperanza Aguirre, inaugurated the extension of line 7 to the far eastern reaches of our fair city, only making the elimination of the poor Simancas station from the map a little more suspicious.

Simanca has promised not to change the name of line 4's Esperanza station when he's president. But, he says, he will name Madrid's best golf tournament after her.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The worthwhile Algarve

Portugal is not España, but we share the peninsula with her. And it was about the only place on the peninsula that didn't receive rain during this year's Semana Santa. The Easter holidays were a real washout for those who had gone to Spanish coast to lie on the beach or to Sevilla to watch the processions.

Alex and I spent the long weekend meandering through the (rainless!) Algarve, the southern coast of Portugal (map), in search of the less-beaten path through the region. We fell in love with some places and others made us cringe and get in the car and keep driving. The area is popular with good reason, but, as we found, there's a lot more to see beyond the big overdeveloped and tourist-ridden cities like Faro, Albufeira, and Lagos.

So, if you, like us, prefer to experience a more authentic Algarve and find secluded beaches and so forth, I have two main recommendations.

1. Just east of Faro you'll find the largest fishing port in the Algarve. It's called Olhão and it's not a prettified place. It's real and gritty, and full of Portuguese who make their living fishing in the Atlantic Ocean. There are two pensão in town, and the very helpful owner of ours gave us the ferry schedule to the islands just off the coast of Olhão. The ferry cost about 3 euros round trip, and was filled with Portuguese heading home to the island with their dogs and shopping bags.
We spent an idyllic afternoon on the Ilha da Culatra, where the fishing community is alive and well, sidewalks are the only streets, and the beaches are pristine. Having not eaten lunch, we headed for the first restaurant we saw after getting off the ferry. The waitress there didn't speak English or German, and there was no menu. She asked, in Portuguese, if we wanted fish or meat (how could we even think of eating meat on this island?)--I chose tuna and Alex swordfish. She brought out an appetizer of some of the most delicious steamed clams I'd ever eaten (above). The fish was grilled with green peppers and onion and very tasty. She also brought out a fresh green salad and crusty bread. We washed it all down with cerveja Sagres, which is remarkably good. She charged us 20 euros for everything.
We then wandered out to the beach, which we had to ourselves. After sitting in the sun for a while, we set off down the beach for Farol, another cluster of houses at the other end of the island, where we'd be getting the ferry back to Olhão. Farol, home to a lighthouse, was just as charming, but clearly more of a weekend house-type place, without the fishing business of Culatra.In Farol, the ferry unloaded what seemed like hordes of people, equipped with food and supplies for Easter weekend on the island, and we boarded the noticeably lighter ferry to ride back to Olhão, the setting sun and a trail of seagulls behind us.
2. Go west! After Olhão, the farther west you can get, the better. The highway ends, the hillsides covered with high rises cease, and there is generally more vegetation and fewer people as you head towards Sagres, the closest town to Cabo de São Vicente, or the southwestern most point in Europe. The coastline between the two places, about six kilometers long, is composed of stunningly high cliffs and the waves that batter them. The landscape is fantastic. A highly recommended beach is Praia da Beliche, about halfway between Sagres and the Cape, full of surfers and people enjoying its beautiful, wind-protected cove (below).We stayed in Salema, on a recommendation from a friend who had been and described it as "two streets with one hippie bar." When the highway ends soon after Lagos, you must take a national road to get any further. Salema is off this two-lane road: you drive several curvy kilometers towards the coast until the road ends and you're in Salema, which sits right on the beach. It's a tiny little town that's getting bigger thanks to construction of apartments up the hillside opposite the town proper. But it's not spoiled (yet) and there are so many fewer people than at other spots, that even if everyone is English or German, it just doesn't matter because the beach is so lovely and it's so peaceful.

Alex and I went to the Algarve with no reservations anywhere. We found a place to stay by wandering Salema's only street until a sign offering an apartment for rental caught my eye. We ended up renting a room in a two-bedroom apartment with a terrace, a well-equipped kitchen, and spacious living room for only 35 euros a night. (The man rents the place in August for significantly more.)We spent our last day in the Algarve in our own little cove in Salema, shielded by rocks on either side, until the tide got high enough that we knew it was time to leave.

"English for all"

I found the above clipping in yesterday's El País. Elections in Madrid (for mayor and president of the Comunidad) are in just over a month, on May 27. I was most interested in a promise made by Rafael Simancas, the socialist candidate for president of the Comunidad (region), that "100% of young madrileños will speak English" thanks to the implementation of the bilingual program in public and concertado (parochial schools that receive some funding from the state) schools until the year 2015. In order to achieve this promise, Simancas proposes investing 320 million euros during the next two legislatures. As an auxiliar de conversación in a public school, I'm part of that goal already (and some of that money goes to people like me!).

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Road safety

April 23 through 29 is United Nations Global Road Safety Week. I discovered this when passing my local government offices in Moncloa and seeing the above life-size model outside. People stopped to check it out, and I'm sure it made all of them think, just a little bit. I hope you do too.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


I spent last weekend in a beautiful snowy place just two hours from Madrid: the Sierra de Gredos. A friend invited me on an expedition to Almanzor, the highest peak in the Sistema Central, or the chain of mountains that crosses the Iberian peninsula from Lisboa to Valencia. Almanzor is 2592 meters tall, or 8501 feet, and my friend had been wanting to climb it for some time.

I knew nothing about the peak before he mentioned the trip, and I read a bit about it in the links he included in his emails. But for whatever reason, I didn't fully digest the information. When, on our first day out, we arrived at Los Barrerones, a flat spot high above the Circo de Gredos (the Gredos Cirque), and my companions pointed out Almanzor -- an amazingly beautiful peak, a rocky horn rising from the cirque -- I thought, "How the hell are we going to get up that?"

It looked, for all means and purposes, like the Matterhorn. You know, one of those breathtakingly high peaks that you can't even fathom how people climb. Much less you.

None of this is to say I am inexperienced in the mountains. I have spent plenty of time in the hills but, above all, climbing the 4,000 footers of the Adirondacks and completing long circuit hikes, like the Alps Haute Route and a circuit of the Torres del Paine in Chile. Ascending peaks in the winter is very different, especially when you have to use an ice ax and crampons and the vertical drops are enough to make your stomach flip.

We got a bit of a late start on Saturday morning from the Plataforma de Gredos, the parking lot that gives good access to the area. The original idea had been to walk to the refugio (about two and a half hours), drop off our heavier material (sleeping bags, extra clothes, etc.) and then continue up to the summit of Almanzor (another couple hours) before descending to a hot meal and bed at the refugio.

We arrived at the refugio sometime around three o'clock. After eating something and getting our gear ready to ascend, it was nearly four. Dinner would be served at eight. On the advice of several people sitting outside the refugio we decided to postpone our summit attempt to Sunday morning. We'd start early, the snow would still be hard, and we'd be well-rested. So we spent Saturday afternoon heading up the trail to Almanzor to practice with our crampons and ice axes.

But on Sunday the group was ready to give up: one member had awoken with a sore throat and another's boots were completely soaked through. I couldn't help thinking that it would be a real shame to not even give it a try. So I said that. The sore throater said he had no problem waiting several hours for us, so the remaining three departed uphill, over the snow-covered rocks, under a cerulean blue sky.

The landscape of this area is just fantastic. The refugio is situated at the southeastern end of the Laguna Grande, a beautiful lake (above) surrounded by the peaks of the cirque. It had been snowing the week before, so everything was covered in snow. But since the sun was shining all weekend, the snow got soft during the day and hundreds of little streams began running. One of the benefits of going in the winter is that there's tons of water--and the sounds of it--everywhere. There are several waterfalls en route to the summit. In summer, apparently, it's a bit of a rocky wasteland with not a drop of water in sight (except for what's in the lake) and quite hot.

Shortly we were far beyond where we'd reached the previous afternoon, moving slowly and making sure that with each step the crampons and ice ax were in place. The trail just keep getting steeper and if I looked back, I started to fear the way down. One of my companions had commented on Saturday that she thought we had gotten quite far in our practice session. This was an illusion--it's not much distance to the summit (a kilometer or two) but, from the refugio, you have to climb nearly 600 meters up in that distance.

Pretty soon we could see the Portilla del Crampón, the tiny pass one has to cross to reach the last pull to the summit. But there were still a hundred meters or more to that point. The vertical drop was making me really nervous, and I decided I'd had enough. Luckily, there was someone coming down and he didn't mind at all having a little company on his descent. He calmed my nerves quite a bit and admitted that the mountain "está empinado" (is steep). The descent wasn't nearly as harrowing as I imagined.

An hour after I returned to the refugio, the two who had headed on to the summit returned. They hadn't summited, in part because one had lost feeling in his feet and also because they would have needed a rope to do the last bit. By the time we made it back to the car, we were exhausted and sunburned, but totally happy.

We'll be back for you, Almanzor.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

I'm published!

Somehow, the piece I wrote on Extremadura a year ago caught a travel editor's attention nearly a year later. Here it is.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Semana Santa on the highway

For the past several years the Spanish government has mounted a huge traffic safety campaign for the Easter holidays. Between Miércoles y Jueves Santo (the Wednesday and Thursday before Easter Sunday) there are more cars on the road than at any other time of the year in Spain, which produces, as you can imagine, a good number of accidents.

I remember being completely shocked a year ago when, just starting a week-long road trip, my boyfriend and I were greeted on the highway by computerized signs reading, "Más de 100 personas morirán en la carretera durante esta Semana Santa (More than 100 people will die on the highway during this year's Holy Week)." Chills ran up my spine. Holy crap, I thought aloud, that's really morbid. My boyfriend shrugged. "That's the point," he said.

Basically, the Dirección General de Tráfico is looking to scare people into being careful on Spanish highways. This year's campaign theme was "Hay muchas razones para no matarte en Semana Santa. Elige la tuya y hazlo (There are many reasons not to kill yourself in Holy Week. Choose yours and do it)." The reasons in the ads range from "Because you dig a girl at work" to "For your mom's croquetas" and "To not break your head open on the asphalt." The signs we saw on the highway this year included "110 people dead in Semana Santa 2006," "Lo importante es volver (The important thing is to return)," "¿Tienes prisa? (In a hurry?)."

, enough to make you think a little.

But is it working? The DGT's press releases show that for the past ten years, the number of deaths caused by accidents on the highway have exceeded 100. The hope was that for this year the number would be less than 100, in part because of the implementation last summer of the carné por puntos or driver's license points. Every driver with a Spanish license is allotted 12 points, which he or she loses by committing traffic infractions. If you lose them all, you lose your license.

This year there were 106 deaths, just four less than last year.

What does this mean? That Spaniards are just dangerous drivers? I don't know. But this year, the victims came closer to home: two were the parents of a good friend. The figures may look just like numbers, but when you think that every one of those was a life, the numbers start to look a little different.

Monday, April 02, 2007


It's Semana Santa here in España (that would be Easter Week for you non-Spanish speakers) and what's on the menu? Torrijas! Torrijas are French toast, Spanish style. Meaning made with olive oil. That's right, instead of frying the milk- and egg-soaked bread in butter, you drop it into a pan of hot olive oil.

I helped my boyfriend's mother make them yesterday morning. She had three bowls: milk, egg, and cinnamon-sugar. She dipped the day-old bread into the milk bowl, then the egg, and then the oil-filled pan. When the bread had turned a lovely golden color, she dunked it into the cinnamon-sugar bowl and covered it with the stuff. I ate the leftovers this morning with bananas and strawberries on the side. ¡Qué rico!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

10 Reasons NOT to go to Fallas

Last weekend I went to Valencia with three friends for Las Fallas. What's that you might ask? To put it simply, Valencia's crazy fire festival. Because mi chico is Valenciano, there's always a good excuse to go. I had gone last year with three different friends and had a blast (one of them, now back in the States, said it was her favorite trip from her entire year in Spain), so I decided to return.

This year, however, was a little different, in part because two-thirds of my friends, clearly not too well-informed on the subject, decided, shortly after arrival, that they didn't really like Fallas. What's not to like some might ask? Well, I'll give you 10 reasons why you may not like Fallas. I was a huge fan after last year. This year, I decided it partly has to do with the company. But, in general, I would say it is almost impossible not to have a good time.1. Don't go if you don't like fried food. Valencia in Fallas is like a fried food convention. Every corner has a vendor selling some fried goodness: the typical churros and porras and the more special (and more delicious in my opinion) buñuelos: fried rings of moist, chewy dough made with pumpkin and sprinkled with sugar. All of the above are to be taken with chocolate, por favor.

2. Don't go if you have a problem with loud noises. One of the biggest parts of Fallas is the petardos (firecrackers). Virtually every child, adult, and grandparent is armed with these suckers and a mischievous grin. They'll throw them at your feet, in a crowd, anywhere. My friends have compared this phenomenon to being in a war where everyone's happy. But you won't be happy if loud booms bother you a lot.
3. Don't go if you don't like being around lots of people and sometimes in huge crowds where you feel like you can't move. Valencia's population of 1 million doubles during Fallas. People are everywhere, which to me makes the city seem livelier than normal. But it can overwhelm.
4. Don't go if you don't like to go around looking at huge papier-maché statues that are often political or social satires. If you think that's boring, stay home! Many of these statues are amazingly detailed and are trying to make a statement. There are special artistas falleros who literally work all year creating them--only for them to be lit on fire at the end of it all.
5. Don't go if you don't like fire: playing with it or being near it. As I said earlier, even the tiniest children are armed with lighters and a box of firecrackers, so there are plenty of flames and sparks around. Not to mention that the climax of the festival is the cremá, or the "burning"--every single falla in the city is lit on fire and burned (don't worry, they wait 'til the firefighters are there ready with hoses).

6. Don't go if you don't like fireworks. On the last four nights leading up to the cremá, there is a huge fireworks display known as El Castillo (the Castle) in the old river bed in the center of town. They tend to be quite good. If you like fireworks, that is.

7. Don't go if you don't like paella. Valencia's typical saffron-colored rice dish with meat and veggies is on every menú del dia all over the city during Fallas. There's also a huge quantity of paella being cooked over wood fires on the streets every evening. If you go, you will have a hard time not eating it.8. Don't go if you don't like to drink and dance in the street. To me, this is one of the essences of Fallas, the verbenas: outdoor bars often accompanied by a stage with live music or a DJ and, if you're lucky, a scantily clad young lady dancing up there and shaking her thang. This last bit has shocked many of my friends. All I can say to you is that the Spaniards are very open people when it comes to bodies.

9. Don't go if you don't like gunpowder. Every day during Fallas, there's a huge firecracker display called the mascletá, in which a group of pyrotechnics commissioned by the city release hundred of kilos of gunpowder in an intense aural display that will have your insides vibrating. It lasts about five minutes and is extremely loud. But if you listen closely you'll hear that the pyrotechnics have rhythm: this year we heard one that sounded like a train approaching.10. Don't go if you don't like seeing people in old-fashioned and very elaborate dress. Falleros and Falleras and their dressed-up children are one of the highlights of the whole shindig. The embroidered dresses, lace shawls, fancy shoes, and Princess Leia-like hair-dos make great street entertainment.

Friday, March 23, 2007

El Musical

That's right--this is a musical with a capital "M." What am I talking about? The project we've been working on since October at school. The Wackadoo Zoo!
One of the English teachers at my school visited our "twinned school" in England over the summer, and saw them perform a very cute little musical called "The Wackadoo Zoo" about a zoo where the animals make the wrong sounds and a linguistics professor comes to try to fix them.Since this year we're doing music class in English for the first and second graders, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to prepare a musical with them. What does that entail? We know now. Adapting the musical for our young English students. Teaching five songs as well as some fairly complex choreography(!). Teaching lines to our four narrators and the Professor. Spending lunch hours painting trees, making bushes, planning, organizing, and more planning and organizing. Tons and tons of work. You'd never guess.And sometime right before Christmas we found out about a theater competition for bilingual schools. So we entered. The big performance for the jury (and parents, friends, kids from other schools, etc.) is on Tuesday morning at 10.30 at Colegio La Salle San Rafael (C/ Fernando el Católico, 49 for you Madrileños).
Who knows if we'll win. There are ten other schools competing, some of them veterans of the competition. We do know, however, that every single first and second grader will appear on that stage on Tuesday morning, singing and dancing like a lion, monkey, pig, sheep, or cow and we'll be really really proud of them.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A breath of fresh air

The other day as we left school at midday to rehearse the musical with the first and second graders, an elderly man wearing a cap asked R and I if the children were "saliendo o entrando" (going or coming). He asked with a tone of nostalgia in his voice, as if remembering when he left school in the middle of the day to go home and eat. And he proceeded to tell us that he had gone to the school also when he was young, and had many fond memories there. After all, he said, it's where he cut his teeth. He told us stories of playing frontón on the patio and swimming in the indoor pool (which no longer exists).

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he mentioned the year 1934 and some "hijos de puta" in the same breath.

My interest was piqued even more.

"When did you attend the school?" we asked. "Before the war?"

"Before and after the war," he replied, smiling. (That is, the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39.) He described to us the interior of the school as he remembered it. I asked about the twin staircases, one in each wing of the building, that I had been told were from the days when it was separated into a boys part and a girls part.

He explained that during the Segunda República, the boys and girls had been mixed, but when "los hijos de puta fascistas" gained power after the war, they were separated again.

I'm only sorry I didn't ask for his telephone number to really do a thorough interview with him. I'm going to keep my eye out for him.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Of an Italian restaurant

I love a restaurant recommendation, especially when it becomes a new favorite.

An adult student of mine recommended Pulcinella as an Italian restaurant with great Neapolitan pizza and ambiance--enough to pique my interest. My boyfriend and I went Sunday night and shared a pizza and a plate of pasta. I started with the pizza, and it was really quite good--thin, but doughy crust just a little burnt in places on the bottom and fresh toppings. But the pasta was really something else--we had ordered the strascinati alla norma: oval-shaped pasta with requesón (ricotta-like cheese), eggplant, and San Marzano tomato sauce. It was unbelievably good.

But it wasn't just the food that was good. The restaurant has an intimate, homey feel to it and the service we had was really well-executed. We had an early dinner reservation (yes, 9.15 p.m. is early for Spaniards for dinner) and shortly after we arrived the place had filled up. There was plenty of wait staff, our food arrived promptly, and the waiter didn't think twice when we asked for glasses of water (on a number of occasions restaurants here have told me that they don't serve agua del grifo--tap water).

I have rarely, if ever, felt so satisfied with both how I was treated and the quality of the food in a restaurant in Madrid.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


I dreamt vividly of winter last night. Real snowy, cold winter.

The day dawned gray here in Madrid, with the same 40-50 degree F weather we've had all month. I had arranged to meet a friend in La Latina for the post-Rastro bar-hopping scene. Right before I left the house, it started pouring. By the time I surfaced at the La Latina metro station, the sun was shining hot--perfect for meandering among the crowds along the Cava Baja, to Calle Almendro, stopping in a few bars for cañas along the way. And at the end of Almendro, we found ourselves in the Plaza de San Andrés. Beginning to warm up to its springtime role, it was full of 20 and 30-somethings, sitting and soaking up the sun (when it didn't disappear behind the clouds), drinking liter bottles of Mahou, smoking...We grabbed a bocadillo from a nearby bar and joined them.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Tale of a bus

I have never been so happy to return to Madrid as I was this morning at 7.

I left the country this weekend--bussed it up to Bordeaux to see some friends. And almost didn't make it back.

I never intended to blog about this trip--it being to France and all. But the Spaniards managed to screw things up in another country.

The gist is this: a group of five (including me) got left behind in Bordeaux on Sunday night when our bus never showed up at the stop. I couldn't understand it: my ticket clearly said that the departure point for the bus at 22.15 hours Sunday was the exact place we waited in vain for two hours.

Turned out that the bus, which arrives from Paris, had gone to another stop in Bordeaux. The stop changed three weeks earlier due to works in the area around the old stop.

(A note: some of us think that Madrid is always en obras, but Bordeaux makes Madrid look good. Granted, they're putting in a new tram line, but wow. At left see just a glimpse of the works and rain that is Bordeaux.)

Regardless, Alsa, the Spanish bus company, neglected to advise us of the change in stops. Indeed, in their Madrid offices they didn't even know the stop had changed, which explains why my ticket said what it did. Perhaps the fault of the drivers?

What boggles my mind is that on Sunday night the bus may have picked up some passengers better informed than my posse and me, but they were missing FIVE, which is no small number! Wouldn't it have crossed their minds to at least check at the old stop?

At any rate, my newfound friends and I finally boarded the bus to Madrid last night, a day late. The trip was uneventful except for 1.30 a.m. at the Spanish border, when the Basque police boarded to check our passports and promptly removed two people who we could only assume didn't have the sufficient papers to enter España.

But we arrived safe and sound. I went straight to the Alsa office in the bus station (what luck that it opens at 7!) and was received by an extremely nice woman who handed me complaint forms to fill out and assured me that the higher-ups will get back to me within twenty days, with what I hope will be willingness to reimburse me for their neglect.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Wintry weekend

In light of the fact that a number of people sent me this week's New York Times Travel section's 36 Hours: Madrid, I thought I'd share with you my own 48 hours in the city.


14 hrs

There's nothing better than discovering a new and different place to eat in your own neighborhood. I'd walked by Raíces del Mundo ("Roots of the World") a number of times before a friend suggested that we eat there. Raíces is a restaurant and fair trade store where you can also take world dance classes or see a show on weekend nights. A rare find in my very Madrileño neighborhood! With the 8-euro menú, we each had a salad from a different place in the world (the New Zealand contained kiwi, soy bean sprouts, lettuce, and a yogurt dressing), a tapa (like a Chilean empanada or a Mexican enchilada), and a drink. The food is good and a welcome change from typical Spanish fare. (An added bonus is that it's around the corner from my school--great for the days when you just can't stomach the thought of food from the comedor.)

16 hrs

Wandering through the eclectic Conde Duque neighborhood (just south of my own) en route to buy movie tickets for later in the night, we decided to stop and check out an exhibit at the Centro Cultural Conde Duque. The exhibit, Misiones Pedagógicas (1931-1936), is both eye-opening and well-executed. The so-called Pedagogic Missions, carried out in the pre-Spanish Civil War era of the Segunda República, were destined to bring culture (in the form of art, film, literature) to small villages throughout the interior of the country. The highlights are photographs of villagers completely entranced by Charlie Chaplin's silent movies, copies of art from the Prado, and books from the traveling library. In a documentary about the project, an elderly woman recounts a memory of her work as a missionary: "When I arrived, the villagers shouted, 'Communist! Communist! Communist! When are you going to bring the movies?'" For me it was fascinating to learn about this facet of the Second Republic, the most progressive era in Spanish history--too progressive, perhaps, considering the ensuing war and dictatorship.

20 hrs

Forget worrying about strange Spanish dining times: at Cervecería 100 Montaditos you can eat a delicious and cheap meal for under 5 euros at nearly any time of the day or night. This chain is sort of like a Spanish version of fast food: beer, wine, and olives appear on the menu along with 100 "montaditos"--tiny baguette sandwiches filled with everything from jamón ibérico con tomate natural to smoked salmon and cream cheese (salmon ahumado con queso Philadelphia). Almost everything on the menu (it's like a chit--you check the sandwiches and drinks you'd like, bring it to the counter, and they call you when it's ready) costs 1 euro, making it a very economical place to eat. We had dinner at the branch in La Latina with a friend who wanted to eat something before an evening flight.

21.30 hrs

On a night that was positively chilly--temperatures below freezing with an unbelievable amount of wind--we wandered into El Jardín Secreto (C/ Conde Duque 2) for something warm before seeing a late movie. Normally, this place is so packed on weekends that you have to reserve, but luck was on our side. Everything on the menu (hot chocolates, teas, shakes, cocktails, desserts) looked so good, we had trouble deciding. After enjoying a Persian chocolate and an "Orient Express" tea, we hurried across the street to the movie theater.

23 hrs

It's been quite a year for Spanish film. Penelope Cruz is the first Spanish actress in history to be nominated for best actress at the Oscars. But Volver didn't make it into the best foreign language film category--a different movie did. Guillermo del Toro's Oscar-nominated Laberinto del Fauno is still playing at Cines Princesa in the Plaza de los Cubos (just north of Plaza de España). I highly recommend it.


12 hrs

One of the best things about Madrid is the ease of leaving it for the day. Since it decided to snow everywhere in Spain besides Madrid this weekend, we decided we couldn't miss seeing it. Our destination was the walled city of Avila, best known for being the home of the mystic Santa Teresa, an hour and a half northwest of Madrid. The snowy Sierra de Guardarrama came into view almost as quickly as we got going on the A-6 highway. As we climbed to a pass in the sierra, the temperature dropped to -4 degrees Celsius (it had been 7 degrees C in Madrid) and, descending the other side, trees were laden with half a foot of snow. In Avila the temperature was -2 and the streets were still snowy. We wandered around inside the walls, enjoying the frigid but sunny day, and ate a bocadillo on a bench outside St. Teresa's convent. We made sure to try the famed yemas de Santa Teresa (candied egg yolks) before heading back to Madrid.

21 hrs

Madrid is full of fantastic and varied places to eat, but sometimes there's nothing better than a homecooked meal. For under 20 euros at the neighborhood supermarket, we made a feast of fresh ravioli with a hearty homemade tomato sauce, garlic bread, salad, a nice Rioja, and even ice cream. Cheers to that.


12 hrs

Though I'd considered joining the crowds at the Rastro (Madrid's amazingly enormous Sunday flea market), some friends convinced me to do it indoors at the Reina Sofia. So we ogled Picasso's Guernica, cubism, and surrealism alongside the hordes--the museum's free until closing at 14.30 hours. An unexpected discovery was a room on the 2nd floor with photographs of Madrid during the Civil War (which I swear were a new addition!).

2.15 hrs


With a group of Casa Granada novices in tow, I returned to my beloved Sunday lunch place. We were a big group and luckily arrived just in time to beat the rush. Just as we sat down, hordes of people started piling into the rooftop dining room. We ordered a series of delicious raciones and enjoyed the relaxed and smoke-free (!) ambiente. The views across the southern sprawl of Madrid will never cease to amaze me.