Exploring Retiro Park and Letras and Malasana neighborhoods — Madrid


Amazing day. The sky cleared, going from gray to blue. the fog lifted, the sun came out, all of which we witnessed from on high through the windows of our friends’ 13th floor apartment. Suddenly we could see the mountains in the distance beyond the brick, stucco, concrete and tile building rooftops.

Best tapas bar

Our day of wandering around Madrid was greatly enhanced by the kindness of strangers, one of whom insisted on paying for our lunch. Our friends too were a huge help. Merida and one of her two big white dogs walked us through Retiro Park, through formal gardens, along dirt paths lined with large trees, past the shimmering glass of the Crystal Palace, grand plaza with sculpture and a big pond where the ducks stole bread bits that merida was throwing to the huge carp. People were out and about enjoying the 50 degree temps on a Monday at the end of a holiday weekend.

Inside best tapas bar. The two women in the top photo, right side, are the Noels who insisted on paying our tab.

Merida pointed us the direction of the Prado Museum and we were off, stopping first at Vincens, a candy maker since 1775, (where we picked up gifts for friends after sampling several cut up soft chunks of what tasted like nougat, fudgy bits, toffee.

San Antonio de Los Alemanes and the storybook facade of a bookstore/printer

And then we dove into the old Letras neighborhood narrow lanes lined with elegant apartment buildings, cafes, tapas bars and the occasional fun little boutiques. We found a cheerful shop called Santacana that has made gloves (1 de las Huertas) since 1896. We bought gorgeous handcrafted knit, leather and felt gloves as gifts. I then asked the stylish shopkeeper if she knew of a good place for lunch.

She sent us to Bodega il Ardoso, in the bohemian Malasana neighborhood, around since the late 1800s. It turned out to be a somewhat famous local secret, a small dark tapas bar, lined with old bottles, photos, paintings. It was filled with people at 2 pm, the start of siesta when shops close and people eat, but the waiter rather brusquely nodded at us and said something in rapid Spanish that seemed to mean “See this opening underneath the bar counter? Duck under it.” And so we did, finding ourselves in a smaller room, slightly less packed with people. We found a spot to stand along a narrow wood counter and got to talking with two women who were eating a gorgeous plate of grilled artichoke. They recommended this and another tapa, the famous potato tortilla, which turned out to be a delicous omelette with egg and potatoes. I later learned the place is famous for Czech beer, which dirck drank.

The women turned out to be mother and daughter locals, both named Noel. They spoke English well, were well-traveled art lovers who knew Chicago and Detroit and even Rochester Minnesota, and operate Airbnbs in Madrid and Pamplona. They were astonished we’d found the bar, which is off the tourist track. We shared a table after another party left and the elder Noel insisted first on buying us drinks and then paying for our meal, which included another delicious dish they recommended, a bowl of crispy curlicues of potato topped with fried eggs. We exchanged email addresses and Airbnb links and they recommended several places to go nearby. Their kindness made our day!

We tried to visit a nearby church with art treasures (San Antonio de Los Alemanes) and cafe (cafe Ruiz) that they recommended but both were closed. The good part was the cool neighborhood around them, with shops like El Moderno concept store on and near corredera Baja de San Pablo. We had coffee at an outdoor cafe in a sunny little plaza. Our new friends also recommended visiting San Antonio de le Florida church for more art.

Dinner in our friends’ Retiro neighborhood was at Taberna La castela, which also turned out to be superb (thank you WaPo for your travel story I chanced upon). We had delicious seafood…grilled sole, tuna, a risotto of sorts with black squid ink, calamari/octopus. Grilled tiny sardine-like fish called whitebait arrived as a free appetizer along with excellent bread. The croquettes had a delicious fishy flavor inside.

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