Two Days of Reflection & Rediscovery in Madrid

Teatro Real, Madrid's Opera House.
Teatro Real, Madrid's Opera House.

I can say with certainty that I spend a huge portion of my life daydreaming about travel. Throughout any given day, my thoughts drift from nostalgic walks down the memory lanes of places I’ve been, to dreaming of wandering through those I haven’t made it to yet. I check flights so often I know the average price of getting to several places off the top of my head and keep a mental list of operas playing in cities around the globe. (I know, nerd alert!)

Madrid is one of the places my mind regularly wanders, ever since I fell in love with the Spanish capital several years ago. From the minute I left Madrid, I dreamed of going back. Which is why it was so shocking that I changed my flight to leave Madrid early once I’d finally returned.

Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain.
Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain.

Love is love.

I noticed a funny thing about falling in love with a place: it’s eerily similar to falling in love with people. In your mind, in your memories, they stay the same as when you fell in love with them. But in reality, both are constantly changing. And reconciling what you fell in love with and what is right now is exceedingly difficult.

To me, Madrid was the perfectly picturesque Spanish city my friend and I explored on my first trip to Europe in 2014. I remember the pastel colors of the buildings, the way the spring sun felt on my shoulders, and how the smell of cigarette smoke was never too far away. If I close my eyes, I can still hear the buzz of people as we watched them from the balcony of our hotel, the faint melody of Imagine wafting over the crowd from the string quartet on the street. It makes my heart soar just thinking about it.

Drinking vermouth at Mercado Market in Madrid.
Vermouth is a must-have in Madrid.

Love is never the same the second time around.

When I returned to Madrid, I returned in a flurry of plans that had dramatically fallen through. The trip was planned with the intention that I’d be with my boyfriend and his parents. I imagined taking them down cobblestone streets under arched walkways, drinking bottles of Rioja in the sun, and eating late-night tapas of jamon iberica and croquettes.

Instead, I returned to Madrid alone, heartbroken and homeless, but trying to make the best of it. I stayed at the same hotel as before, but it had since been renovated. And somehow, the renovation was worse than my memory of the original. The staff wasn’t as friendly, my balcony overlooked an alley, my room saturated with the smell of cigarettes.

Stumbling upon pretty plazas in Madrid.
Stumbling upon pretty plazas in Madrid.

So I set out to the restaurant next door where I discovered my love for morcilla. Except that, too, was different. The new restaurant was disguised in modern flair like every other restaurant in any other city. The menu was different, the morcilla was different. What happened to my Madrid?!

I had such perfectly preserved memories of Madrid but failed to realize that Madrid moved on without me, just like I was no longer the same person that once visited there either. My life was falling to pieces and all I wanted was familiarity — and I wasn’t finding it in Madrid.

Writing with wine at Plaza Mayor, Madrid.
Writing and people-watching at Plaza Mayor.

So I did the unexpected.

After a day of disappointment in the “new” Madrid, in a completely shocking twist of fate, I called my airline and begged for an earlier flight home to Chicago. I paid an outrageous change fee, I cancelled the private wine tour I was asked to attend for my blog (more on that later), but for the first time since I left Zurich, I was happy.

I spent the next day doing everything I loved about the city: I had wine and wrote in Plaza Mayor, I intentionally got lost down tiny alleyways, had a delicious Spanish lunch at el Apartamento, sipped on vermouth at the Mercado de San Miguel market, and remembered how outgoing Spanish men are. (Side note: if you ever need to get hit on, head to Spain! They are not afraid to show a lady a compliment there. And damn did I need that!)


Kelli Nakagama in front of the Teatro Real in Madrid.
In front of the Teatro Real before the opera Otello.

That evening I strolled down my favorite street in Madrid wearing a blue gown that literally turned heads as I walked. I saw the opera at the Teatro Real Opera House, something I didn’t get to do during my first trip, and afterward wandered around the Puerto del Sol.

Even though I was anxious to have my 16-day trip over, I kept worrying that I’d never forgive myself for leaving Madrid early. But the thought of running into my now-ex and his parents somewhere in the city and being trapped together on our 10-hour flight home made me sick to think about.

Archways in Madrid are my favorite.
Archways in Madrid are my favorite.

And just like that, it was over.

The next morning, instead of taking a private, all-day wine tour of Toledo and the La Mancha windmills courtesy of Wine Tourism Spain, I hopped a cab to the airport and flew home. The funny part is I later learned if I had gone on the wine tour, I would have been added to a group of three people from Chicago: my ex and his parents. Talk about dodging a bullet!

I will always love Madrid for many reasons. But one of them is helping me end my trip to Europe on a high note — especially after the trainwreck of Geneva. Madrid reminded me all that is beautiful in travel, even if it doesn’t go as planned, and now the city holds an even more special place in my heart.

Kelli Nakagama at Plaza Mayor in Madrid.
Finally found my happy place in Madrid, at Plaza Mayor.

P.S. I flew home early and found a new apartment (without my ex realizing I wasn’t even on his flight!) that I moved into a week later. I absolutely love my new home and haven’t once regretted leaving Madrid early. Sometimes you just have to trust your gut and follow your heart, even if that means leaving what you love behind.

Related: A look back on Munich, Zurich, Geneva and traveling alone with a broken heart.

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