My 18 Hours in Madrid: A Museum, Tapas, and a Protest

Driving into a European city always makes my heart race a little. When you’re used to Manhattan’s West-Side Highway and FDR Drive and the numerical grid system that gets you most places you want to go, the diagonal avenues and alley-way like streets of every European city of note, from Paris to Barcelona, are not only foreign, they’re frightening.

And there’s nothing worse than braving the traffic of a European city only to find the streets you need are closed off with major police activity.

the street to our hotel was completely barricaded, because not only did it lead to the Westin, it lead to the Ministry of the Interior.

Turning off the Paseo del Prado, Madrid’s main drag, onto Calle Mayor, the car came to a complete halt. We had noticed the long line of Mercedes Policzia vans lined up along the Paseo del Prado, but we weren’t expecting to hit a barricade. The last time we were in Madrid it was also October and military planes were flying overhead — they were rehearsing for military day. We assumed this might be something similar.

Indeed, they were preparing to show off their military might, but not for a celebration. An “Occupy” protest was planned for the evening and the hundreds of police milling about were readying the Plaza de las Cortes for thousands of dissatisfied Spaniards.

We were granted access to Calle Mayor and our hotel, but were warned that later we might not be so lucky.

Our hotel was located across the street from the Ministry of the Interior, which explained why the protestors had chosen the location. And explained the extra heavy police presence outside the doors.

Let me pause here and say that the Madrid police are very impressive.

Madrid Police wear their uniforms well.

They wear their uniforms well. They’re athletic. They carry guns on their thighs. Their hats give them a simultaneous air of authority and mystery. A Madrid policeman can come to my rescue any day.

We only had a short stay in Madrid and our plan was to go to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemaisza, my favorite museum in Europe, and then go for tapas at a restaurant around the corner that, 4 years ago, had the best fried anchovies. A little protest wasn’t going to get in our way.

The Museo Thyssen-Bornemaisza is one of my favorite places anywhere

Walking the block to the museum gave us a better idea of what the city officials were expecting: something serious.

A month earlier, a similar protest had turned violent and rubber bullets had been fired on protesters. Several were injured. Many went into custody. Perhaps the one consolation this time round was that many of the protestors would be police officers on their day off.

A herd of police dogs. Mounted police. The ever-growing numbers of armed officers. Flashing blue lights. It was hard not to be a little nervous, especially when staying so close to the center of activity.

Those dogs meant business

But when things get tough, the tough order tapas.

The Estado Puro is a tapas bar on the ground floor of the NH Paseo del Prado. On my last trip to Madrid, this was my daily snack stop. Since then, I’ve made my rounds at other note-worthy tapas bars in Madrid, New York, D.C., and then on this trip, Barcelona, and still concluded that the Estado Puro is as good as it gets.

Fried anchovies, cod fritters, and tempura asparagus. Sure it was all battered and cooked in hot oil, but it was delicious and a perfect pre-protest snack.

The other great advantage to the Estado Puro is that its long windows guarantee great people watching. There were hundreds of police milling the streets and yet the residents of Madrid, and even the handful of tourists about, were moving with no sense of concern.

Caught between wanting to play the part of amateur photojournalist and fearing rubber bullets (the hotel had said the protest was supposed to be “peaceful” but “could not guarantee” anything… comforting), I lingered on the street corner waiting for things to get interesting. But when a group of protestors began to gather at the edge of the Fuente de Neptuno, I decided it was time to hustle  indoors. We flashed our room keycard at a back street barricade and scurried down the street into our hotel, up to the third floor, shut the lights and began to watch as the march began.

First, only a handful of people began to lineup along the barricade. A few signs blew in the cold autumn air, but this group looked generally small and nonthreatening.

“They brought out all this force for that?” we thought, as the first half hour passed.

And then, the deluge.

The police stand at attention as the crowd fills the plaza

Thousands poured in, banging drums, playing instruments, carrying banners, chanting. It felt organized and surprisingly joyful, despite the clear anger and frustration in the crowd.

Spain’s unemployment rate is 25%. Jobs are disappearing at an alarming rate, and the numbers on welfare do little to help the country stabilize. Meanwhile, Catalan is carrying on a succession campaign. The unrest as understandable as it is widespread.

close-ups of the crowd

The crowd was a medley of age groups — it wasn’t just restless unemployed college students. They rattled the barricades, chanting in unison and waving their signs. All the while, the police stood at attention.

In all of the anger, there was a clear sense of camaraderie, which despite the growing tension was comforting. Would they “storm the barricades?” There was a violinist leading a small chamber group — chamber orchestras don’t storm barricades. Or do they?

Police cars began to proceed down the surrounding avenues, closing them off as points of entry for additional protestors. The blue lights pierced the nights. Police directed pedestrians away. Was it about to erupt?

No, violinists don’t storm barricades. At least not in Madrid, not this time. After about an hour and a half, the group began to clear. A few small pods gathered in circles to talk. But the excited And then the street cleaners descended.

I awoke shortly before the sun rose and looked out on the plaza, which glistened as if it had rained — all traces of the protest, from sidewalk chalk scrawled statements of unrest to the banners that had covered the barricades were all washed away.

As the sun began to peak over the buildings to the east, I began to make my way West, homeward-bound for New York.

And with that, the lights dim, and she takes her exit, leaving Spain and Europe behind her


A Globe-Trotter’s Favorites

On Wednesday, I leave for a two week stint in Austria and Germany. All the trip preparations initiated a rapid recall of previous excursions abroad — stories of stick-shift driving gone wrong, conversations in muddled tongues, museum mishaps, and divine culinary discoveries. I started making a list of highlights from my many travels.* Here are a few Bests from my non-American journeys… (category suggestions for future posts welcomed)

The Hotel Saint-James

Once in a lifetime MealLe Saint-James Restaurant Gourmand, the Saint-James Hotel, Bouliac, France. The Saint-James boasts one of the best restaurants in all of France. Overlooking a vineyard and the city of Bordeaux, the view from the small dining room is breathtaking. The menu epitomizes  modern French cuisine, it’s expensive but easily the most amazing meal you’ll have in your life.

Breakfast– the homebaked crusty rolls with house-made jams and local cheeses accompanied by a giant cafe au lait at La Chapelle Saint Martin, Nieul, France.

Afternoon TeaThe Lords of the Manor, Upper Slaughter, England.

Snack-attack — the tapas selection at the NH Hotel Bar, Estado Puro, Madrid, Spain. The fried anchovies and cod fritters, washed down with a glass of wine, were excellent fuel for an afternoon at the Prado (conveniently across the street)

Appetizer — fresh local mushrooms and shaved asiago cheese, Rome, Italy. I can’t remember the name of the restaurant, all i remember is that it was near the Pantheon. The plate of thinly sliced mushrooms and shaved artisan cheese is the dish dream about.

Dessert — Sacher Torte, Vienna.

a sunset in Cozumel

Bouillabaisse Marseilles, France.

Pint — a lively pub off a back road near Shannon, County-Clare, Ireland. Reels and jigs played by a crinkly old man on his fiddle, i wasn’t permitted to refuse a dance or a guinness.

Local Brew —  Sherry, just about everywhere and at every meal, Spain.

Beach for a sunset — any beach on the western coast of Cozumel, Mexico.

Often Overlooked  Sights

  1. Nero’s Domus Aurea, Rome, Italy
  2. The Villa Jovis, Capri, Italy
  3. The Roman Aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

Buy your Che memorabillia before you get on your plane at Havana's airport

Balcony — Hotel Marina Riviera, Amalfi, Italy. Positioned just above the coastal town of Amalfi, the Marina Riviera offers unobstructed views of the Mediterranean, the cliffs behind, and the charming town below.

Place to buy a Che Guevara t-shirt — the Museo de la Revolution or the Airport, Havana, Cuba.

Mineral BathTemple Gardens Mineral Spa, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Coastal HikeThe Cabot Trail, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Place to buy hand-made sandals — the back streets of Nice, France. There’s an Italian cobbler there who makes a stellar gladiator sandal, and will custom fit them for you.

Sunday Stroll — the open fields between Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter, the Cotswolds, England. Makes you feel like a hero/heroine in an Austen novel.

View of the City –from the Castle District of Budapest onto the Hungarian Parliament, Budapest, Hungry.

The Hungarian Parliament from the Castle District

Place to rent and ride a scooter Bermuda.

Walk Back in time —

  1. Pompeii, Italy
  2. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

Place to see ugly Communist-era public sculptureBratislava, Slovakia.

Unexpected Roman RuinChedworth, England. Sure it’s near Bath, and sure we know about Hadrian’s Wall, but somehow perfectly preserved Roman mosaics in the middle of the English country side is not what you’d expect to run into on an afternoon stroll.

“Craft” MuseumMusee National Adrien Dubouche, Limoges France. A museum dedicated to Limoges’ most famous product — porcelain.

Marquee MuseumMusee D’Orsay, Paris, France. Manet’s Olympia and Courbet’s Burial at Ornans — need I say more?

“Non-Marquee” MuseumMuseo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain.  Typically overshadowed by the Prado and the Reina Sofia, most tourists miss this beautifully curated collection of outstanding artworks.

Solo-Artist MuseumThe Rodin Museum, Paris, France.

Local History Museum — Museum of the City and Museum of the Revolution, both Havana, Cuba.

Baroque Colonial Square Valladolid, Mexico.

Off the beaten track food to go

the main drag through Nice along the French Riviera

  1. road-side farmers’ markets in the Berry/Limousin region of France
  2. Grande Boulangerie de l’est, Acadian region of Nova Scotia, Canada.

Coastal Drive

  1. Amalfi Coast, Italy.
  2. The Riviera from Genoa, Italy, to Marseilles, France, with a requisite pit-stop in Monte Carlo.

both have their twists and their turns, both offer the most stunning views of the Mediterranean, both require a confident driver (and preferably, an automatic transmission…)

In-Land Drive — a safari at Ulusaba Private Game Reserve, Sabi Sand Reserve near Kruger National Park, South Africa.

Scariest Wild Animal Interactions:

  1. being chased into the bathroom by a baboon, Cape of Good Hope, Capetown, South Africa.
  2. being chased by a herd of elephants, Ulusaba Private Game Reserve, Sabi Sand Reserve near Kruger National Park, South Africa
  3. being chased by a flock of pigeons, Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy.

*originally, “Meet Me in the Drawing Room was entitled “Journeys in a Discovery,” and was thus originally conceived as a travel-blog. Consider this the start of a new column….

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: