Calle Cava Baja during the day
Across from my bedroom window is a bright yellow building with blue shutters (the Swedish flag!, I think). In the morning the yellow of the building will reflect the sun and wake me, tonight it's a luminous reminder of Madrid and Spain, where buildings and people seem more brightly colored. I think of my aunt in India who can't understand the Western penchant for black clothing. She would love the red and yellow buildings and brightly colored scarves and shoes of the Spanish women. Even the men seem more daring, a bit more bohemian than their northern neighbors.
I sit down on the couch and start to read a magazine on Spanish food that a traveler has left behind. There are descriptions of anchovies and red onions and patatas bravas (my favorite!) and Spanish red wine. How can I resist?
I walk directly across the street to see what they have; reluctant to step too far from my apartment and not be able to find my way back in my jet-lagged state, but equally unwilling to try too many restaurants before my friend Emily arrives. This restaurant serves small pieces of sausage and cheese with my glass of wine. I have read that this is how tapas started—as a way to keep people from getting intoxicated while standing at the bar. The sausage is dry and sharp and salty. Unexpectedly it is delicious with the Rioja I am sampling. The cheese is a typical manchego cured in oil. It's slick and soft. I speak only a slight bit of Spanish but the Rioja has made me brave and I ask my server what she likes best about Madrid. "Su gente," she says. It's people.
The next day my friend Emily arrives bearing the Guide Routard as a gift. We're comparing guide books and intent on visiting not just the revered sights of Madrid (the Reina Sofia, the Thyssen, and of course the Prado) but also the small alleyways. And the food, I say, the food is the culture.
After walking through the Paseo del Arte and the Passeo del Prado and taking a small circuit through the Lavapies neighborhood, both of us thoroughly impressed by the greenery in Madrid and its walkability, we are ready for food.
We stop at a small terrace near the art area but just far enough away, we think, to be cheaper. We are greeted by a languid waitress who initially forgets our order. The food finally comes; small toasts with various toppings and a side tomato salad. I am not impressed. That is, until I sample the first tomato. Ooooh the olive oil, I squeal. Our food journey through Madrid has started.