Balancing Travel- Part 2 – Madrid

Hola, Madrid!

Three nights in Madrid bookended my travel in Spain, and kicked off my birthday celebration. I started with two nights at the five-star Hotel Silken Puerta America. Believe me, it was a real treat! Each floor had different interior designers. Mine was ultra-modern and the room appointments were high-tech. (I loved the elliptical-shaped doorless shower.) Hotel staff even had to show me how to work the room lights and operate the window blinds! So, in some ways, design trumped function, but it was a five-star experience nonetheless.

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The hotel’s breakfast buffet had all I needed to recharge my energy after the overnight flight. It featured different types of ham, spanish omelets, roasted vegetables, Manchego and other regional cheese, pastries, breads, fruit, fresh-squeezed juice, tea…. Yum!  I found the buffet immediately after I checked into the hotel because I was starved.  Of course, I went back for seconds…and back to the buffet the next morning, too!

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I hit the streets with a light agenda of exploring historic Madrid and a few other sights. I love public transit and got around the city on foot, bus, and train. Madrid’s Metro is a world-class system. And, you can even borrow a book from an actual library — almost like a capsule —  on the subway platform! I haven’t seen that anywhere else… so far. (My hotel, by the way, was in the Salamanca district, near two subway stations and the bus line to the airport.)

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First, I went to Palacio Real de Madrid (Madrid Royal Palace) near Metro Opera. I didn’t go inside. I wasn’t wowed by the exterior, or the gardens and grounds compared to what I’ve seen in a few other European capitals; it looked so sterile. I moved on to the Almudena Cathedral and Crypt in the same area as the Palace. Entry was the modest price of 1 euro. This cathedral is “brand new” compared to many other European cathedrals. Construction started in the late 19th century, and Pope John Paul II consecrated it in the 1990s. The Cathedral and Crypt were impressive.

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Historic Madrid was in walking distance of the Cathedral near Opera and La Latina Metro stations. Now that’s the kind of area I love to explore: a maze of narrow streets lined with tapas restaurants and shops, and tucked-away gardens and parks.

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Speaking of tapas…Madrid cuisine is all about el jamon (the ham) and small dishes. I went to Mercado San Miguel, a fresh food market in historic Madrid.  Being there was a kind of exotic experience, especially compared to the get-in and get-out convenience of many American supermarkets — stocked with mostly boxed, canned, and frozen foods. Ever practical, I was also at the market to match food to the Spanish name, so I would know what to eat or avoid, according to my blood type diet.  For example, el pulpo (octopus) is on my avoid list, and not just because of its looks (not shown here). But, do see el rape (monkfish), shown below — it’s ugly, bless its little heart, but, when cooked, it’s great to eat Mediterranean style.

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They do siesta in Madrid, but I only had two full days in the city and didn’t want to take time to nap.  I fought through jet lag and was determined to get into the Spanish rhythm of late night dinners. Madrilenos don’t even think about dinner before 9 p.m. If you see anyone eating before then, they’re probably American or British. After dinner, I finally went back to the hotel to rest up for the next day’s main event.

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Day Two was the Madrid Open. I’d read in Tennis magazine that the Madrid Open is one of the best second-tier tournaments — after the Grand Slam events — because of its intimate venue and the top players in the tournament draw. It is also one of the clay court events leading up to the French Open. The show court is in La Caja Magica (Magic Cube) — a stadium with a trippy design and great seats all-around.   I had already nailed down my travel dates and airfare when I found out the tournament would be held while I was in Madrid. I was thrilled…so, I bought my ticket on-line to the quarterfinals. Rafael Nadal, Tomas Berdych, and Maria Sharapova were the stars I saw play; but, didn’t see Serena because she had pulled out of the quarters.

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The only negative at La Caja Magica was that there were no good options for real food. Vendors offered pizza, hotdogs, and ice cream, and the like. As culinarily-inclined as Spain is, the organizers could have done better than that. The one place I did get something to eat — and it couldn’t possibly count as a meal — was a gluten-free bakery called Celicioso. Well, Celicioso was “delicioso”…for real.  Though sugar is not my friend, I bought the bakery’s tennis ball cupcake to celebrate my birthday, and thoroughly enjoyed it!

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But, one cannot live on gluten-free cupcakes alone. When I heard Serena was out of the tournament, I left La Caja Magica. At that point, I was desperate for some real food. I went back to La Latina and found a pinxto bar called Lamiak. Pinxto is the Catalonian name for a type of tapas, and bread is usually part of it. I told the chef I’m gluten-free, and he graciously offered to de-construct all the pinxtos I ordered. My food arrived as a gourmet presentation minus the bread. It was so delicious and beautiful that I ordered a second round.

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A “de-constructed” pintxo: tomato, goat cheese, and carmelized onion; and guacamole with smoked cod.

Still jet lagged, I didn’t slow down at all! In Madrid, I hung with the locals; ate a late dinner around 10:30 p.m., drank wine, and stayed out in the streets until the wee hours. But, after two days there, I needed the yoga retreat.

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Next: Balancing Travel – Part 3 – Albir


A Misty Thanksgiving – Part I

I was looking forward to the Thanksgiving of 2010. My sister, Kim, had invited me to her house, in Maryland, for the gathering.  This was to be the first time, as I recall, Kim was to host a Thanksgiving. I was looking forward to kicking back with a beer; helping with a dish or two, if asked; and enjoying a low stress event, the way she likes it. It would also be an opportunity to try the new dishes she was bound to present, that were aligned with her new and irritating diet.

Sister Kim, with her ongoing campaign to combat the rebellious cell lines that had mutated in her breast, had chosen a diet she felt would reduce the untoward effects certain foods had on her body. She had identified inflammation as the enemy, and was hell-bent on eliminating anything and everything that tipped her body towards an inappropriate immune response.  Her guide in this quest was something she identified as “the blood type diet.”

From what I gathered from her interminable treatises on the subject, this diet consisted of lists of foods that one could eat based on a given blood type. The lists were very specific. The diet would not merely say you could eat nuts. Instead, for example, it would list for type AB, that almonds and walnuts were beneficial, but cashews and Brazil nuts were to be avoided.

I am used to relying upon scientific principles in most things. These statements loudly (to me, at least) beg the question, “How do you know that?” Each list should represent conclusions of scientific studies with measurable quantities, corroborating the claims. I couldn’t imagine anyone quietly applying that rigor to the subject and then printing it all up neatly in a book available on Amazon for fifteen bucks.

With Kim, every offered or suggested food was vetted by her list. She would respond,“No, it’s not on my list,” or, if her answer was “Yes,” then it would be accompanied by the verbal footnote: “It’s on my list” or “It’s my powerhouse food.”  This would be followed by a brief lecture regarding the diet, the lists and the ramifications of it all.

All.Quite.Tedious.

To me, it was pseudoscience. To her, it was the religion of her new lifestyle and the firm foundation in the belief system that allowed her to survive her ordeal with breast cancer. She emerged to thrive in the state of health, post-cancer therapy, that had long eluded her. In essence, the diet worked. Science or no science, the diet worked for her and the food she cooks is delicious; and I was looking forward to it.

As luck would have it, I was scheduled to work the day after Thanksgiving, and therefore, unable to go to Maryland after all. I was disheartened, but resigned to work my assigned shift.

Luck intervened again and I found myself suddenly free of my work obligations and the trip east was back on line. I made that journey, but during my brief absence from the plans, the plans had changed. The dinner, originally slated to be at Kim’s house, was now at Cheryl’s. This was not a downgrade and it opened up the menu considerably.

The short Thanksgiving holiday makes travel a pain, though many folks try to make it back to family, anyway. That is what this holiday is about after all. It’s not really about a meal. It’s about the opportunity to share a meal, once again, with family. As crowded as the airways and highways may be, they come.  The common ties are once again connected.

It can be messy, too.

-Author, David

Next: A Misty Thanksgiving – Part II

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