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A Road Warrior in Spain:

The Phantom-in-law does Madrid

I now have a favorite European city. It is Madrid.

What have I learned in one mere week in Madrid?

Spaniards seem not very hung up on laws and rules, adopting a more "live and let live" philosophy. They are pushier in lines. But they make up for this by being more jovial and welcoming, and are more polite in conversation. They will talk your ear off. And insist you drink and eat with them. Nobody is in a hurry.

Spanish pay taxes that would make a Tea Partier choke on his Budweiser. But they are happy. They have 20 percent unemployment and still manage to enjoy life. The streets are clean, homelessness is near nil, the subways are cheap. For a huge city, I was never fearful, not even on the subway at night.

Spaniards smoke. They smoke a lot. They have anti-smoking laws in place, but the laws are quite new and are largely ignored. I selected a bar on my departure night, seeing the "no smoking allowed in here" sign and looking forward to giving my eyes and lungs a respite. I hadn't seen a thicker wall of
smoke since those Dead shows in the 1980's. 95% of the bar was smoking. Spaniards don't like rules. Live and let live.

Spaniards talk funny. Just their idiom. A more floral version of the Spanish language. Lots of lisping. Softer pronunciations. Very elegant, if a little gay. But it sounds nice and grows on you.

Skip the Prado, instead visit the Museum of Ham

Spaniards love ham. Like, they really love ham. A lot. I can't overemphasize how much they adore meat from a pig...They love bacon. They love smoked hocks. They love choriso and sausage. They offer entire legs of pigs hanging for sale in restaurants like ducks in Chinatown. It can run you $200 for a high quality acorn-fed Iberian hock weighing 10kg. They will place the leg on a wooden stand and slice you off thin pieces that melt in your mouth. I can only equate it to pig sushi...thinly sliced bacon right off the leg where the fat vaporizes instantly when warmed by your tongue. Think
of this as getting a giant roast for your Christmas dinner -- gather 'round the pig leg, amigos, and block off your schedule, we got some eating and drinking to do.

Souvenir shopping? How about a little ham

Spaniards love seafood. If you can hook it, spear it, otherwise drag it out of where it lives in the ocean and get it up on a boat or on the shore, the Spanish have a way to prepare it for dinner. More seafood is consumed here per-capita than anywhere else in Europe. More than Greece or Italy. They also provide solid data supporting my long-held postulate that if you deep fry it, you can eat it.

Spanish beer is good, not necessarily great. But good enough. Lots of lightly-hopped viennese-style lagers. Think Stella. But serviceable nonetheless. My favorite was Alhambra in the bottle, then Mahau (pronounced "mao") on draft. Their lighter beers go with all food and are easy on the belly. Evenings are not sprints, but cross-country affairs.

A big beer and a tapa (complimentary bite accompanying a drink), en España

Spanish wine is great and cheap. At least, the cheap wine is great. A few euros for a nice glass of a hearty rioja. With a plate of nibbles of course... I didn't get to try Cava or any fancy-pants reds, but that was no matter. There can be no place better in terms of "house wine" by the glass.

Eating and drinking are both serious business and relaxed affairs. Meals/conversation is the national pasttime in spain. Spaniards devote more hours per day to mealtime and socializing over drinks than any other country. Nothing is rushed. It is not uncommon to go out to dinner at 9pm and be the
first customers in the restaurant that evening.

There are more small establishments than large places. The line between restaurant and bar is blurred. You find yourself walking down narrow cobblestone streets and, feeling thirsty, you pop inside a shotgun cerveceria. Ambling up to the walk-up bar you order a caña (small draft beer). Rarely is
much choice available, perhaps they have one or two brands of draft beer, often several bottled beers, mixed drinks or riojo wine. Some of the places where locals gather will offer a special of a caña with tapa for 1 euro. Or you can get a larger beer and order additional tapas (small) or raciones
(larger plates).

wine bar in Madrid (if you're still thirsty)...

Spanish combine drinking and eating like no other. And the food is to die for. You will never be served a drink without a small bite of something to go with it. Perhaps a dish of olives or nuts shows up. One bar provided fried calamari, another bar gave potatoes with a sauce drizzled atop, a third offered grilled sausage and peppers. Sadly less often arrived a spot of gratis paella, more often thinly-sliced ham/bacon on a piece of bread. You never ask for this tapa, and you are at the whim of the bar as to what they give you. Maybe picky people would have a problem with this, but I certainly wasn't served any house tapa accompanying a beverage that didn't get gobbled up greedily. Think of it as a "buy back" with food...the longer you stay and drink, the more nibbles will appear.

You are expected to either drink or eat if you are to stay at a bar for some time, but you are never rushed out of anywhere. Bars may specialize in a particular type of dish. In a seafood bar you might luck into boiled pulpo (octopus) or gambiones (shrimp in garlic olive oil), maybe lagostino (shredded
eel) or fried anchovies.

Unfortunately the current strength (or lack thereof) of the US dollar against the euro means your trip to Spain won't be the bargain it once was. However, the food and wine is reasonable enough, and with plenty of museums and stunning architecture to keep you busy until the next meal, it's well worth a week+ of your next monthlong Mediteranean vacation.


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