They say it takes less than a second to fall in love. And when you do, you’ll just know.
The second I stepped onto the cobblestone-covered street leading to our hotel, I knew I was in love with Madrid.
Maybe it was the colorful architecture that made me swoon, the way the buildings painted in pastel yellows and rusted reds with contrasting white trim somehow spoke to me as being so picturesquely Spain. Or maybe it was the tiny, narrow streets that weaved through the old city, opening to small squares surrounding statues dedicated to Spaniards that lived eons ago that sparked my lust. Whatever it was, the Spanish charm was undeniable in Madrid and I was smitten.
Certainly my love was inspired by the private terrace at our hotel, Hotel Moderno, that overlooked the Puerta del Sol. Perched from above, we watched crowds of people swarm to one of Madrid’s busiest squares, some on leisurely strolls — surely tourists taking in the beauty — others with quickened paces scurrying to the subway. The square has a way of attracting people and with crowds come musicians. On our first day, a string quartet gathered, its music wafting up to our terrace. I was truly in love.
The Calle Arenal street that leads to Puerta del Sol is lined with restaurants and shops and limited to pedestrian traffic. The crowds never cease so people-watching is superb. The patio at Mesón Cinco Jotas provides a perfect vantage point while serving excellent tapas. We ordered an unidentifiable dish from their picture-filled menu that had me swooning after my first bite. Later I learned it was morcilla (blood sausage), the one food I always swore I’d never eat. Ironically I spent the remainder of the trip hunting for it.
Not far away is the Plaza Mayor, a popular spot since the 16th Century when it hosted bullfights, royal weddings and public executions determined by the Spanish Inquisition. Today it’s filled with touristy restaurants serving overpriced and oddly eclectic cuisine. Better food can be found elsewhere but stopping for a glass of Cava to take in the square’s charm, and the heavy aura of its history, is well worth it.
We followed one of Plaza Mayor’s nine arched doorways out to the historic area of Madrid, where the streets are a hodgepodge of winding confusion. One doorway leads to the world’s oldest restaurant, Casa Botín, continuously open since 1725. Their specialty is suckling pig with skin so crispy it cracks, a recipe perfected centuries ago and still cooked in the same 18th Century oven.
Up the street, the Mercado del San Miguel is a modern take on a food market, serving Spanish favorites like jamón, burrata and angula (baby eels). We ordered a glass of vermouth on tap purely because we’d never seen it served that way before and created a tapas meal of our own, ordering a handheld cup of freshly slice Iberico ham at one stand and burrada on toast at another.
Continuing with the modernness of Madrid, the Royal Palace isn’t far from the city’s historical center. Filled with 3,418 elaborately-decorated rooms, it’s the largest royal palace in Europe based on floor area. Across from its stark white plaza, the Almudena Cathedral is worth a tour just to climb to its towers, where the city can be seen from the sky.
Across from the Royal Palace, divided only by the palace gardens, is the Teatro Real, Madrid’s opera house. Much smaller than its Barcelona counterpart, the opera house doesn’t cater to tourists with English supertitles and prominently features a royal box, even though the current royal family rarely makes public appearances.
The warmth of Madrid and its cheerful sunshine inspired us to slow down our pace compared to our previous days in Barcelona and simply take in the Spanish beauty. Often that meant sipping Spanish rose or Cava on a patio as we watched people pass by.
The late spring warmth remained even after the sun set, foreshadowing a summer perfected for patio dining. One night, as we ate octopus drenched in olive oil and my beloved morcilla on a patio, a solo guitarist struck up a serenade on his strings. He seemed so completely content in playing, his Spanish melodies both heartfelt and beautiful. I sipped on Spanish wine and savored morcilla one last time, almost overwhelmed by the perfection of the moment. I knew then that Madrid truly had my heart and I’d forever be in love with the city.
After all, when you’re in love, you just know.