After arriving in Madrid and waiting over and hour for my ride to my new hostel at around 1am, I found that my roommates have left the windows open and AC off in 30C heat. I heard drunk roommates stumble in at 4.30am having full volume conversations and dropping their stuff everywhere, then listened to another roommate sobbing during a phone break up at around 5am. It’s funny now, but at the time my mood turned sour really fast, so it’s lucky that I’m a person who is easily appeased with delicious things. And it’s lucky I was in Spain.
The next day, in an effort to make up for a bit of laziness in Portugal, I decided to visit the famous Prado Museum in Madrid. I like art, I can appreciate art where there is history and meaning involved. But I was well and truly arted out by the time I left – there is only so much I can observe and read about brushstrokes and angles. It was on my walk back to the hostel via the city centre that I chanced upon the Museo del Jamon – that’s right ‘museum of ham’. There is a god after all. Ok, it’s not a real museum, it’s a shop packed with cured hams, with a bar where you can order and eat. There’s a few of them in Madrid city, so they’re not little hidden gems, but well worth a visit in my humble opinion. For a whole €2.50, I treated myself to a Jamon Serrano Boccadillo (sandwich) and a bottled sangria. I should mention, this was not even 20 minutes after I finished my lunch, but excitement overtook all sense of reason.
This is when I had one of my most important travel-related epiphanies. I realised that, while I do have a deep interest in history, backstories and cultural roots, feigning an interest in art (or the arts) is not fooling anyone. Firstly, this is because there is no one to fool – I’m travelling solo, so I can do what I feel like doing. Secondly, it occurred to me that many of the people around me in places like galleries and churches are simply there to tick a box. ‘I’m in Madrid, better visit the Prado’. Really though? Wouldn’t you rather sit in the sun amongst locals, with some ice cold Sangria and a cheese platter, in a laneway that you’d never have found if you hadn’t strayed from the beaten path? I didn’t exit the Prado museum feeling cultured or enlightened, I exited feeling sleepy and hungry, and also kinda relieved that I didn’t have to pay to get in.
The conclusion was this: Food trumps all. Always.
Food, people-watching, interesting stories and beautiful places – this is cultural immersion…for me anyway.
My limited time in Spain quickly turned into 5 days of nothing but eating. I really didn’t have enough time for enjoyable sightseeing, so I decided to wander the cities and enjoy the food and the atmosphere.
That night in Madrid, I settled for homemade seafood paella at my hostel – though this was not really ‘settling’ as it was excellent, I just needed a quiet night before travelling for a full day.
It was a 7 hour bus trip to San Sebastián, but far more scenic that I could have expected. This is Spanish countryside at its best. I arrived to dull, cloudy weather, quickly found my hostel and then ventured out for dinner at the old town’s famous Pintxos (pronounced ‘pinchos’) bars. These are bars where small-sized portions of food are served either on the bar or by order. It’s usually one price for all items on the bar and set prices for the items on the menu. Self control optional.
I recommend Dakara for the fried and crumbed calamari chips (best calamari I have ever, EVER had), Atari for the grilled green chilis and A Fuego Negro for the quail. Some of these places are listed in the Michelin guide and rightly so – this was some of the best food I’ve had in Europe so far.
I’d love to list more things to do. If other things to do in San Sebastian exist, I’m not aware of them because the next day I woke up, went for a walk around town then hit up the Pintxos bars for lunch, followed by some world-famous cheesecake at La Viña. For dinner, I went back to the Pintxos bars yet again, along with some interesting cocktails and then cheese ice cream for dessert. At the time, beaches and surfing and other such outdoorsy things were equivalent to background noise.
On to Barcelona, where I had only one day. A friend recommended the food market called La Boqueria in Barcelona, so, since I only had one day, I decided to spend the majority of it there. I was not let down – fresh juices, jamon, pastries, candies and seafood bars. The lady working at the Jamon stand had a bit of a giggle because of seeing me not once, not twice but three times in the same half hour. Also, perfectly suited for the heat was the availability of plenty of icy poles. Not just any icy poles, but sangria icy poles. With alcohol. Enough said.
I definitely have to go back to Barcelona to do some actual sight seeing. From what I did see, it’s one of the prettiest cities in Europe. Overall though, Spain made my mind happy and my stomach full. My only regret would be not staying longer.