I was under the impression that Madrid was cheaper compared to other European capitals. I was wrong for as a Spaniard explained to me “Madrid is a cosmopolitan city. Naturally, its prices should rival the other European capitals”. Another Spaniard whom I met in The Hague also said “Madrid is surrounded by land. It imports resources from other parts of Spain, so the cost of things are higher”. Yes, high enough for me to be jolted upon discovering that a plate of sliced ham cost €10. Although, I was told that if I knew where to look, I could have a cup of coffee and a pastry for less than three euros or even a good steak for ten.
You see, the reason why I flew all the way to Madrid for the New Year was because of the allure of a European winter holiday, without the snow, and the misinformed notion that it would be a cheaper European holiday.
I stayed near Callao, just a few steps away from Gran Via, and was within walking distance to almost everything. Obviously, I was in the expensive part of Madrid. Right across my hotel was a diner, where locals ate. I had my disayuno(breakfast) and café con leche there every morning that I was already on nodding terms with the patrons. Once, while I was going in, a woman spoke to me in Spanish. “Pardon, habla poco Espaňol” I said. “English?” she asked. “Yes”. “Do you want to fuck?”. “No, gracias”. It was truly the local scene because even prostitutes had their breakfast there(I also saw the woman there again the following day at dinner time). You can have a breakfast set for as low as five euros. Although, the service and quality of the dishes were not consistent. The place was run by Chinese immigrants who spoke very fluent Spanish. If the manager was there, the food servings were more generous, had more ingredients, and peanuts were served while waiting. If he wasn’t around, the staff would just plop the food, which had the appearance of being hastily put together, in front of you.
My first Spanish meal was Paella Marisco, which I had with a Copa de cerveza con limon. Beer with lemon! It was tasty and refreshing. I ate at Terraza Galapagos in Retiro Park – where the Philippine national hero, Jose Rizal, reportedly spent most of his time in while he was in Madrid in the late1800’s. The park was huge but it would have been very vibrant in spring and summer. I was taken aback by the €15 bill (well of course I was paying for the location) despite the somewhat meager serving of paella. I later discovered that my diner served proper paella in a pan for less than €10.
Whenever I was at a restaurant, I always said “Comer aqui(I’ll eat here)” and whenever I was asked what I wanted for beber (drink), I always replied “Cerveza”. I noticed that Madrileňos are not heavy eaters whenever they were out. Restaurants have picadillos on their menu, meaning food was sold in smaller servings. One time, I had lunch at El Paraiso del Jamon and ordered a whole plate of Jamon de Serrano for €10. As in France, a small basket of baguettes was served with the main dish. You have the option to eat it for an additional charge of a couple of euros. I always ate the bread for I needed carbs for my long walks. Of course, I had beer. I think I drank more beer than water in Madrid.
One time, for dinner, I went to Mercado de San Miguel, which was touted to be the place for authentic tapas and other Spanish eats. I read that the locals love it and food was cheap and of high quality. True enough, there were a number of locals there having their picadillo and quite a number of tourists. One order of tapa ranged from less than €2 to a little over €3 – it was not my definition of cheap. In Japan, a piece of sushi at Tsukiji Market(which has been closed) cost about the same.
I ordered €6 worth of tapas and a glass of Sangria Rojo – total of €10. The tapas were fantastic, but since it was dinner time, I wanted something more substantial. I wandered among the food stalls and through crowds of tourists to look for other options. Some stalls offered grilled meats or fish, which smelled and looked delicious but came with a hefty price tag – obviously intended for sharing.
Suddenly, my eyes caught sight of deep-fried anchovies and calamares. A packet of Boquerones Frescos(Fresh Anchovies) cost €14 while a packet of Anillas de Calamares(Fresh Squid Rings) cost €17 euros. These were meant to be shared but at those prices! Curiousity got the better of me. Surely such common staples would not be sold at such ridiculous prices, unless there’s something special about them. I just had to find out!
The anchovies were plump, delightful and uniform in size. The calamares were perfect. The way they were deep-fried, the temperature at which they were served, the texture, the freshness, the moisture, and the flavors were finely balanced – surely some obsessive-compulsive chef is toiling somewhere. They were the best anchovies and calamares I’ve ever had. By the looks of the food stall’s display, they do brisk business. They also had a credit card terminal.
Those were probably the most expensive seafood I’ve ever had so far(considering they were just fried squid and anchovies). And I thought the exquisite seafood feast I had with friends at Lei Yue Mun, Hong Kong or the eight pieces of sushi I had in Tsukiji, Tokyo were scandalous enough. In Manila, I could have gotten these at a euro per serving. The price of one packet was more than enough for a decent buffet with unlimited drinks in Manila or even in Budapest. But of course, one must have perspective. The place was recognized as gourmet among locals. I also remembered that a serving of five fine rings of calamares in a 5-star hotel in Manila cost €5.
I do amaze myself at the lengths of rationalizing I go to in order to justify my spending. The ROI I’ll get out of this is the lifetime right to arch my left eyebrow at someone annoying who claims to have spent so much money on a paltry dish and say “Yes… but have you paid €14 for anchovies and €17 for calamares?”
After that, I went to the grocery store and bought milk, bread, biscuits, juices, and grapes so that I would not have to spend so much on meals anymore. But, I did have afternoon tea at the Ritz Madrid – something I just had to do.
When I just had three days left in Madrid, I moved to a hostel because my first hotel could no longer extend my stay. At the hostel, I roomed with Diego, an electronic engineer from Ecuador. I discovered he had not really gone around Madrid yet, except for some museums. We decided to go sightseeing together.
The following day, we went back to my former neighborhood. We walked through Plaza del Sol, saw the Opera House, walked around outside the royal palace, and went to an old records store that sold vinyl records and VHS tapes from the 90’s. I felt really old while looking at 90’s music being marketed as vintage.
I convinced Diego to go to Mercado de San Miguel. It was really convenient to have a Spanish-speaker on hand. I wanted to have cheese and he also decided to have some. He spoke to the seller and translated for me. “Do you want to have mild, medium, or strong cheese?” he asked me. “Tell the guy I want one of each”. I got ten types of cheeses. Diego also had some tapas, which he enjoyed. Of course, we also had beer.
I also took him to Plaza Mayor and let him take photos. He was into photography and was really particular about the lighting conditions. Since he was also a book nerd, we went into an antique bookshop. He called my attention to a very heavy world almanac published in the 1930’s. It was very heavy and had thick pages. He looked up the chapter on Ecuador and pointed to a photo – “So this is what Quito(the Ecuadorian capital) looked like back then” he observed. He told me later that he went back to the antique bookshop and bought a book.
Upon recommendation by a pretty girl that Diego chatted with at the antique bookshop, we went to La Central Bookstore. I looked at Spanish translations of popular fantasy and science fiction books while Diego pored over books about theoretical and quantum physics. He bought two books. Afterwards, we walked along Gran Via to Retiro Park, with Diego guiding the way using an actual map. I would have just taken the metro. From the park, we passed my Madrid’s community hall and exhibition center. There were some exhibits on display and admission was for free. There, I spent a considerable time trying to translate a comic strip with birds as characters. Diego was my task master – he determined whether my understanding of the story was not too far off. For dinner, I told him we should go to my diner. “Their food is of inconsistent quality. But since it’s dinner time, the manager will be there so there’s a good chance we’ll have a good meal”. “This is quite a long way to go for a restaurant with inconsistent food” Diego said as we trudged om Gran Via.
At the diner, I had paella and sautéed mushrooms. Diego was satisfied with his pizza. My last night in Madrid went well.
Some Related Posts: