A Tale of Two Cities

I’ve been very lax on here of late, so now trying to rectify that. First off, a summary of two much-needed post-Covid mini-breaks.

Palma

Believing all attempts to leave the country to be thwarted in perpetuity, it was a pleasant surprise to find ourselves sitting in departure gate 23 at Gatwick airport last October. Fully vaxed, with the paperwork to prove it, we were headed to Mallorca for four days of sunshine. Like a tiny child on Christmas morning, eyes wide with awe and wonder, I gave a little whoop as we taxied down the runway. And then, suddenly airborne, almost two years of fear, boredom and frustration behind us, I breathed a sigh of contentment, settling back with book and podcast for an uneventful flight to the diminutive Balearic isle.

The holiday was magical. I remain resolute in my desire to never take such things for granted again. Palm trees, seafood, sand, sea, ice-creams…the smell of salt and suncream in my hair, which is my absolute favourite smell in the world. Everything was perfect. Sure, we were bound to see it through rose-tinted (sun)glasses after such an unprecedented enforced absence, but Palma proved a genuinely great location for our first escape.

The city itself is a great size for gentle evening promenading (our favourite pandemic pastime). The imposing Gothic Santa María cathedral, majestic harbour, maze of Arab inflected streets, delicious tapas bars, boutique shops and fish markets provide plenty of distractions without overwhelming a card-carrying sightseeing over-strategist such as myself. I didn’t feel the need to overfill our days, or rush from pillar to post. Happy instead to rest, absorb and indulge.

Nearby Playa de Illetes and Cala Major provided swimming and tanning opportunities, and a day trip to Port de Sóller should be on everyone’s list. A beautiful marina, sandy bay and estuary await, at the end of a diverting trip through the hilly interior of the island. And as the wooden tram trundled home through olive and citrus groves, I reminded myself how stupidly lucky I am.

Of course, I can’t finish without listing some restaurants of note: La Bodeguilla being our undisputed favourite (prawn carpaccio; Mallorcan black suckling pig; polpo with iberico and slow cooked egg…we’re planning a return visit mainly to eat there again!). Aromata, Arume Sake bar, and La Rosa were also great, but I’d advocate for the mouth-watering chuletón steak at the unassuming El Patxi in Santa Catalina over those. Que viva España!

Madrid

Little effort having been required to reignite my passion for European jaunts, I found myself united with one of my favourite travel buddies (my dad!) in spring of this year for a trip to the Spanish capital. Quite the contrast to Palma, the sprawling metropolis is crammed with sights and this hapless tourist was unable to resist sliding back into bad old habits. Armed with guide book, map and refillable water bottle, I marched us in erratic zigzags across the city, attempting to tick off all the attractions in a familiar fit of holiday mania.

Luckily, my far more sensible companion had some (limited) success in reigning me in, forcing the odd pause for pintxos, obligatory ice-creams, and breakfast churros. Still, if you are planning to tackle Madrid I would suggest focusing on fewer locations and allowing time for relaxation. Especially given its size demands regular metro trips, which can eat into your time considerably. Having said all that, there weren’t many things we saw that I wouldn’t recommend…so it’s really a case of being more ruthless in your choices.

Our first day took in Parque de El Retiro, quite possibly the prettiest and most varied city park I’ve visited. With its central boating lake, rose gardens, “crystal palace” (Palacio de Cristal), wooded picnic spots, fountains and only-known public statue of Satan, there’s enough here alone to occupy half a day. The fact that we also crammed in Plaza Major (one of the handsome central squares), Palacio Real de Madrid (official residence of the Spanish royal family), Mercado de San Miguel, and Catedral de la Almudena (a twentieth century Catholic church built on the site of a medieval mosque) is testament to my aforementioned over-enthusiasm and explains why our feet were throbbing for days.

We weren’t done there though. Before dinner we also squeezed in a visit to Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, the excellent modern art and sculpture gallery. Once a hospital, the building is worth visiting on its own merits, with its airy central courtyard and modern glass annex (plus a cafe serving excellent vermouth!). Many make the pilgrimage to ogle Picasso’s admittedly impressive Guernica, but I actually preferred discovering new works by Dalí, Juan Gris, Picabia, and – my favourite piece – Miró’s Hombre Con Pipa. Well worth having on your itinerary.

Dinner, when it finally came, was at the really excellent Malacatín, where we enjoyed traditional cocido madrileño. Open for more than 125 years, and one of the original twelve ‘centennial taverns’, the restaurant is protected for preserving the cultural heritage of the city. The stew consists of broth, chickpeas, cabbage, and a selection of meats (pork belly, morcilla, jamón serrano, beef shank) and is absolutely delicious.

After an aborted attempt to visit the hilltop city of Toledo, through which I fostered a deep and ineliminable hatred of Atocha train station, the following day was spent at the botanical gardens, Museo del Prado, Calle de las Huertas (the neighborhood of Spanish writers), Plaza de Oriente, and Puerta del Sol (the busiest public square in the city and site of the wild bear and strawberry tree statue, Madrid’s famous coat of arms).

Large and imposing, the two-hundred-year-old Prado is not one of my favourite galleries. The dark and dour works of Goya, El Greco and Velázquez are not my thing. However, I wouldn’t have missed seeing Hieronymus Bosch’s staggeringly bonkers and stunningly beautiful Garden of Earthly Delights, nor the macabre and haunting Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel. As for the rest, my dad managed to google a list of highlights, and we amused ourselves by proclaiming “nothing to see here” as we passed by unfeatured masterpieces. Cocktails on the roof of Palacio de Cibeles rounded off the day.

Armed with our passports, having navigated 3 miles of subterranean passageways and sacrificed a few goats, we were finally allowed on a train to Toledo the next day. Perched atop a gorge overlooking the Río Tajo, Toledo was known as the ‘city of three cultures’ in the Middle Ages, a place where Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities peacefully co-existed. Sephardic synagogues, Visigothic and Roman ruins, a grand Gothic cathedral, and several interesting museums and galleries are packed into the small walled city. You need a whole day to do it justice, allowing time for tapas on one of the lantern-strewn medieval streets.

Amongst the highlights, I’d recommend Monasterio San Juan de los Reyes, with its peaceful cloisters and remarkable chapel. And save some time for walking the city walls and taking in the views over the Tagus river and countryside.

Our trip ended with a tasty meal of clams, scrambled hake, and baby lamb chops at La Castela. There you have it: two very different cities, with the common through-line of delectable Spanish cuisine. A not at all displeasing way to get back in the saddle.

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