Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Before leaving, I had trouble visualizing what our vacation in Spain would be like. While there may not be any one architectural feature that has come to symbolize the city, Lonely Planet travel writer Anthony Ham suggests that Plaza Mayor may be "the one image that was unmistakably Madrid."*

When we arrived at Plaza Mayor at mid-day on our first day, however, we were immediately stunned at how empty one of Madrid's premier plazas felt. At first we thought it was because of lunch. Then, the next day we went to the Prado, and even though we had bought tickets online in advance, there was no wait with other advance ticket holders. The following day we went to the Museo Reina Sofia, which houses Picasso's Guernica, and we just walked in. In fact, the whole museum was pretty tranquil; granted Guernica is many times larger than the Mona Lisa, but there was no Louvre-style crowd pushing to the front for a glimpse of the canvas. There was a primary school group sitting cross-legged in front of the painting, but otherwise the roomful of visitors was easy to navigate and I could study Picasso's work for as long as I wanted.

On our second night we decided to eat at this restaurant, La Pizarra, that looked nice and had a clever sign. We arrived about 9 o'clock. Knowing that the Spanish eat dinner later, we thought that we were early. Nevertheless, we ordered a regional wine and a few dishes to share. The cuisine was Spanish fusion and delicious. We ordered guacamole with plantain and yucca chips, curried octopus with green beans, and black rice risotto, and shared a Spanish dessert--tarta tres quesos--which is cheese cake, but not cheesecake. At the end of our meal, the chef offered us shots. We chose two Spanish herb-based liqueurs; mine tasted like anise, and Peter's tasted really like dandelion and was really strong.

We were still nearly the only ones (except one or two single people having drinks at the bar) when we were finished. As we settled, we chatted with the chef. He said that despite the worrisome economic situation in Spain, the sun still shines.

The sense of emptiness was a bit eerie, but at the same time it was cool to feel like we had the city to ourselves. I wondered if maybe I shouldn't be comparing Madrid tourism to Paris. Maybe their tourism numbers were drastically different. Paris is, after all, the number one tourist destination in the world--15.6 million people visited the city of lights last year. But Spain is the fourth most visited country by international tourist arrivals, and my superficial research suggests that Madrid is the most visited city in Spain. In the end, we concluded that thesense of emptiness was likely due to the current global economic situation.

*Anthony Ham, Lonely Planet Madrid Encounter, 44.

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