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


They Call Me A Picky Eater, But …

I’m really a Mindful Eater.

My friends respect my diet choices, even if they think they’re a little quirky. They know I’ve changed my diet for the sake of better health. When I’m invited to dinner, the hosts ask what are my “restrictions.” My  mama taught us to eat anything our host offers, but… quite honestly, the situation requires some finesse. I always ask my hosts not to go out of their way to accommodate me. I contribute a dish or two, if that’s appropriate, and try to downplay my food preferences. (I’ll survive a meal with non-organic greens!)

That said, I do pay attention to what I put in my body.  Not every food I’ve loved has loved me back, and my body has let me know in some noxious ways.  If I’m lucky, I will only get bloated.

So be it — call me “picky.”

When my friends and I go out, I suggest restaurants I think will work for everyone. And, if someone else makes a suggestion, I take a quick look at the menu to see if there is at least one thing I can eat. Food brings people together and I don’t want my food preferences to make me a social repellent. I do draw the line, however, at most fast food places.

Here’s how I maintain my food “quirks” and social life. When my Maryland USTA tennis team was in Newport News, Virginia for a tournament, some teammates wanted to hit a deli for lunch. Well, the typical deli doesn’t work for me because I’m gluten-free and don’t eat processed meats. I suggested Taste, which is in both Newport News and Norfolk.  (I’d gone there with other teammates last year and remembered it as a healthier type of deli. The good folk at Taste label the gluten-free food and you can customize your salad order.) This time around, I ordered an arugula and spinach salad with sliced almonds, hard-boiled egg, goat cheese, cucumber, and onion, topped with a generous scoop of blackened tuna salad. It was huge and good and had plenty of protein.  My teammates happily ordered what they wanted and we all shared a bottle of Bitch red wine.

See…not really so picky after all!  Everybody was happy and ready to kick butt in the next match!

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