In my last post, I wrote about how I was headed to study abroad in Milan, which is still true. But with any trip, traveling can get exhausting and a break is quite often needed. And since getting there is half the fun, we decided it only made sense to stop along the way to have some fun in Spain.
Our afternoon arrival allowed us just enough time to check into our hotel and take an late afternoon tour of the city. Taking in the bustling streets and beautiful buildings like the Royal Palace of Madrid and Teatro Real, we came across what I can only explain as a food lover’s paradise. As a self-proclaimed foodie, I was in awe as I walked into the Mercado de San Miguel, a traditional grocery turned gourmet tapas market with near 33 different vendors selling a wide variety of freshly prepared tapas, olives, cured meats, drinks, baked goods and other delights. From sherry tasting with tapas to flavorful pintxos atop mini toasts, this market is so alive with food and people that you can’t help but feel the vitality and energy running through the atmosphere and interactions of people all around.
Right around the corner from the market is the Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s main central square. Open space and grand buildings make this plaza a great place to stop for a nice coffee and bocadillo, people watching, and is only a few blocks away from another famous plaza, Puerta de Sol.
Among all the museums in Madrid, the Museo Del Prado is a must as art lovers and lookers alike can marvel over some of the world’s finest European, and consequently Spanish, art dating from early 12th century to 19th century. We happened to stumble upon the museum midday where the line to buy tickets was at least two hours long, so plan to arrive early, even better yet at opening hours, to fully enjoy one of the greatest art collections in the world.
Past the ancient Egyptian Temple of Debod, we headed to higher ground at the Faro de Moncloa; a 92 m (309 feet) high panoramic observation deck overlooking the entire city of Madrid. A lift up to sky-sweeping views of the city then took us back down to earth where we proceeded to do a little shopping. The main shopping district is Salamanca, whose main streets include the busy, upscale Calle Serrano, brand designer Calle Jose Ortega and the exclusive boutique-lined Calle Jorge Juan. Apart from the unique, trendy and affordable Compania Fantastica, most Spaniards take a month long vacation in August so plan accordingly as the majority of stores and shops are closed until the end of August/beginning of September.
Taking the metro like locals we started day two with a stroll around one of Madrid’s largest parks, Buen Retiro Park. Fountains, statues, gardens, galleries and monuments fill the park, making it the perfect place to breathe in some fresh air from the green lungs of the city. In the southeastern corner you’ll find the Real Jardín Botanico full of best seen in the spring.
Tucked away in a non-assuming alley, our good ol’ friend TripAdvisor took us to Taberna El Sur. It’s homey vibe, friendly service, and down-right good traditional Spanish food makes this tiny stop pack a big punch. Go for their recommended dishes like the and you won’t be dissappointed. If you don’t get a chance to eat at El Sur, right down the street is Taberna Mas El Sur, which I believe is their extension restaurant with a near identical menu and is just as tasty.
One of our favorite things about Spain are the Paradores; old castles, ruins, fortresses, and other historic buildings turned into luxury accommodations of outstanding beauty. If you are going to Spain, I definitely recommend staying at a Parador which they have all around the country of different varieties and histories. This trip around left us short a stay at a Parador, but we managed to make it just in time for breakfast at the Parador de Toledo which gave us a beautiful view of the city to be explored below.
Just an hour outside of Madrid is the pleasant little town of Toledo. Set on a hill above the plains of Castilla-La Mancha, Toledo is known as the “city of three cultures”, because Arabs, Christians, and Jews lived together there for centuries. Toledo’s walls preserve behind it an artistic and cultural legacy in the form of churches, fortresses, palaces, mosques and synagogues. Those with a more adventurous spirit can get a taste of the city by Fly Toledo, Europe’s longest zip line, that gives you about a 20 second ride across the Tagus river surrounding the city. Head into the historic old town and see important sights like the Toledo Cathedral or Alcazar of Toledo, wander the atmospheric cobblestone streets, shop hidden alleys and marvel over masterpieces by El Greco to fully absorb the soul of Spain.
Our journey eastward lead us to the remote Hotel Bodega La Venta. Though there is not much to see from outside, once you step inside you’ll feel like a local. This quaint bodega delivers on sincere service, a sweet staff, and an authentic location with yummy food like grilled vegetables with goat cheese, foie gras, and delicately-cooked sole to match.
Alicante, a southeastern port city on Spain’s Costa Blanca, is known for its charming castle, long waterfront, and lively night scene. Being on vacation, we indulged in the city’s seaside location by walking down the promenade and taking a relaxing beach day.
Thus far our food journey had yielded some impressive results, but lunch at El Portal Taberna & Wines was a game changer and arguably one of the best meals of the trip. Black shelves lined with illuminated bottles and staggered mirrors, silver spheres reflect hanging light bulbs and luxurious decor, and the friendly hum of vintage melodies make the atmosphere one of class and memorable. It was so good, we went there for dinner too, though to enjoy the delicious tapas and extensive wine list, its highly recommended to make reservations. Honorable mentions go to the scallops with almond and truffles over pureed cauliflower, foie gras, baked monkfish over roasted red pepper, and the grilled sirloin over paprika potatoes, with awards going to the goat cheese with duck ham honey vinaigrette salad, grilled octopus, squid of the day, braised beef cheek in red wine sauce, and pineapple carpaccio with coconut sorbet.
With only a few short hours in Valencia, we had just enough time to cross off one thing on my to-eat list, have a nice glass of horchata, otherwise known as tiger nut milk. Horchata, or orxata in Valencian, is the name of the popular Spanish drink made of water, sugar, and tiger nuts (chufa), much different from the Mexican rice-based horchata or Latin American seed-based horchata. Tiger nuts actually come from the plant cyperus esculentus, thus appealing to vegans, vegetarians, and those lactose intolerant. Traditionally accompanied by long thin fartons, horchata is a popular summer drink and Horchateria Santa Catalina is the perfect place to slurp down this homemade, unique, sweet and delicious drink.
We then hopped on a plane to Mallorca, the largest island in the Balearic Island archipelago. Our first few nights were in Soller, which you can get to from Palma by taxi or by the highly recommended train. Since 1912, the ferrocarril de Soller has ran a daily train service from Palma to Soller which takes riders on a scenic and nostalgic route through the land and mountains to Soller. Set among a lush valley of citrus trees between mountains and the sea, day trippers to Soller are overwhelmed by peace and contentment as they sit outside in popular cafes around the Plaza de la Constitución; filled with several tapas bar, local ice cream, fresh squeezed juice and little desire to move elsewhere. Right in the heart of Soller lies the quaint and charming boutique-style Hotel La Vila, whose central location and friendly staff make for a lovely stay.
Okay so earlier I said that we had come across one of the best meals of the trip. Well, let me remind you that was just one of them. Right next to the city center that locals and tourists alike agree is the best tapas bar in Soller; Ca’n Pintxo. Get there early to choose from an infinite selection of little tapas, but if you miss the window-side tapas, the regular menu more than makes up for it and an 11:30 p.m. arrival for dinner Some of our favorites included the “magnum” beef tenderloin with Jaipur curry, the “gambon pirata” Kataifi dough-wrapped shrimp with wasabi foam and kaffir leaf oil, and the oxtail stew with fresh mushrooms and stir-fried vegetables , anything you order is sure to be full of flavor and deliciousness. More than the food, the social community and vibrant atmosphere made it one of our favorite experiences on the trip.
The next day was spent strolling the streets of Soller and finding a good lunch at Ca’n Boqueta. As afternoon rolled around, we took the 15-minute tram to the Port de Soller. A beautiful port lined with shops, restaurants and multiple activities like stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, and pedal boating, Port de Soller quenches anyone’s thirst for soaking up sun, stunning views, and the revitalizing feel of fresh, cool seawater.
After dinner at the port, we returned to the city center of Soller for some late night snacks. By our luck, the third week in August is the Festival of Saint Bartholomew, in which case Soller’s celebration of this saint turns the streets into a beautiful chaos of enthusiastic crowds, live entertainment, street vendors, fireworks, and a cultural expression of the community and town.
Our last day in Spain was by far my favorite. Heading down to the beach one last time, we came across Marina Soller that offers self or guided boat tours up the coast. We opted for a guided boat tour going north up the coast. Words cannot describe the feeling of the fresh sea breeze, the sight of massive cliffs interwoven with intricate caves and the sound of rolling waves that stirred each of our senses. Midway through the tour we got to swim in the crystal clear blue water with the sun shining down on us and it was absolute bliss. If I had to choose my favorite moment from the entire trip, it would be this experience and though a bit pricey, it was completely worth it.
For our last lunch, we had an absolutely incredible meal at Kingfisher. Many online reviews lead us to the best food in the port and thus, it is highly recommended to make reservations. We were turned down to eat the previous day since it is so popular. Motivated to not take ‘no’ for an answer, with great determination and success, I reserved a spot for lunch the next day. Chef and owner Krisztian Ersek describes his food as “honest cuisine”, the perfect balance between gastronomic artistry and satisfying eats. Take a sip of their famous gin and tonic or fresh local lemonade while noshing on the grilled octopus and tuna tartar for starters. Opt for the fresh fish of the day, in our case the delicious sea bream, or choose the seafood soup, and you will be in heaven. My favorite part of the lunch was getting to talk with Chef Ersek himself, who has travelled to some of the most exotic places and cooked with some of the greatest chefs, which is all reflected in his humble, exquisite and of course tasty food.
Our last stop out was in the capital of Mallorca; Palma. Sights like the Palau de l’Amudaina, Cathedral and Parc de La Mar overlooking the Badia de Palma are some of this city’s numerous marvels and is rich in architecture, restaurants and nightlife. One of those restaurants being Ombu, whose modern twist on tapas like steak tartar with truffle and sherry mayonaise or sea bass ceviche with avocado and passion fruit is inventive, impressive and indulgent to all.
Holding true to the saying third time’s a charm, Spain is and will continue to be a place of adventure, beauty, history, gastronomy and culture that my family and I cannot wait to return back to.