As I mentioned a few weeks back, I had a bit of a passport mishap at Heathrow airport right before our flight to South Africa. This delayed our trip until after the bank holiday, when I could finally visit the US embassy in London. As anyone who has ever been in a similar situation knows, the feeling of literally being turned away at the gate right before your dream vacation is devastating. Our bags were already packed and our minds firmly in vacation mode. I couldn't bare the thought of going back home and waiting out the weekend.
Hopelessly staring at the British Airways agent, I made an impulsive decision and asked him to book us on the next available flight to anywhere in continental Europe. Our choices were Madrid or Amsterdam. We prefer ham over hash (just barely), so we chose Madrid. It's times like these when rewards points really come in handy. We were able to reserve 2 free award nights at the Westin Palace conveniently located near all the top attractions in Madrid.
In a matter of minutes, our flights and hotel accommodations were booked. Woohoo! However, we had no clue how we would spend the next 2 days in Madrid. This was truly a spontaneous, spur of the moment trip. Find out how we spent the weekend in Madrid aimlessly wandering the city and eating our feelings!
We woke up on Saturday with no clue how we would spend the day. Michael and I researched a few top attractions over breakfast at the Westin's beautiful La Rotonda. I had previously visited Madrid when I was a teenager but had no recollection of that trip. Therefore, we decided to join a hop-on-hop-off bus tour to get acquainted with the Spanish capital. Although Madrid may lack an iconic landmark like Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower, this city has no shortage of grandiose boulevards, sprawling parks and dramatic monuments.
Our first stop of the day would be Museo Nacional del Prado. We booked our tickets online and visited early in the day before the crowds really picked up. Visiting the Prado takes me back to my high school Humanities class. I vividly remember learning about many of the museum's most famous works of art, including Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas and Francisco Goya's The Third of May 1808. Unfortunately, we don't have any pictures from the museum as photography is not permitted inside.
After a full morning at the Prado, we headed to Mercado San Miguel. At the point, our spirits were still pretty low from yesterday's unfortunate events. Thankfully, our moods quickly changed when we saw the wall of jamón ibérico. The bustling market is nothing short of sensory overload. For just a few euros, you can afford yourself a delicious meal of perfectly fried padrón peppers, grilled seafood and a cerveza. However, make sure to save room for huevos rotos. I'm still shocked that this simple yet insanely delicious dish of potatoes, fried eggs and thinly sliced ham hasn't made it big in the states yet.
We followed up lunch with visits to the Royal Palace and the Reina Sofia Museum. While the Royal Palace is undeniably beautiful, I wasn't blown away by the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family. Each room in the complex was more ostentatious than the next, but the overall experience wasn't particularly memorable. In contrast, the Reina Sofia is one of my favorite museums in Europe. Its airy interior gallery makes the museum feel spacious and uncluttered. More importantly, the museum has an amazing collection of 20th century art. The Reina Sofia's most notable work of art is Picasso's larger-than-life Guernica.
We capped off the day with a late night meal at Taberna la Dolores in central Madrid. As expected, the city is brimming with tiny, no-frills tapas bars. We found a spot at the counter, ordered a few beers and snacks and enjoyed some local people watching.
We originally planned to spend the day exploring some neighborhoods in Madrid. Yet again, we changed plans last minute. That morning, we decided to visit Segovia. This historic town is only 30 minutes away from Madrid by train, making it the perfect excursion for visitors. Upon arrival, the first thing you notice is the imposing Roman aqueduct that almost seems like a gateway into the cobblestoned town. After grabbing some pastries from a small bakery in the town square, we decided to explore Segovia by foot, zig zagging up and down its tiny alleys. Our walk led us to the Alcázar of Segovia. Reminiscent of the Disney castle, this grandiose fortress offers spectacular panoramic views of the town.
After a few hours in Segovia, we decided to make our way back to Madrid late that afternoon. While we avoided the outdoors entirely on Saturday, we decided to visit Retiro Park upon our return. This expansive park has some beautiful tree-lined pathways, gardens and monuments. It's also home to the funky Crystal Palace, which showcases a rotating art exhibit. Next door is Velázquez Palace, also home to some great art installations.
With a very early flight the next morning, we decided to make it an early night. We grabbed a quick bite at another tapas bar, Los Gatos. While it wasn't our favorite meal in the city, you can't go wrong with a little jamón y cerveza. We were devastated that our trip to South Africa was temporarily delayed, we really couldn't ask for a better "detour" than Madrid.