Friday, December 26, 2014

Spain Exp'ained: Part 2

Long lines and a fancy pink sign.
Sculpture in Puerta del Sol.
I began my first morning in Madrid by heading to Puerta del Sol on the Metro. I was running late for my walking tour, so I didn't check out the square. Instead, I was rushed to Chocolateria San Gines for their famed churros con chocolate, which they've served since 1894. I thought they were just okay, but that's probably the chocolate snob in me and the budding doughnut aficionado--churros of course being another culture's interpretation of fried dough. For a better chocolate experience, I'd recommend nearby Valor, where I had an exquisite, thick-as-fondue chocolate-orange drink. (Based on appearance, the churros seem about the same as Chocolateria San Gines.)

Plaza Mayor.
My free three-hour tour, given by SANDEMANs New Europe, began at Plaza Mayor which was in the process of becoming a Christmas market. (Throughout my November trip, this was a theme: Decorated areas that might look spectacular lit up, look a bit anachronistic with the unlit, skeletal beginnings of Christmas decorations exposed by daylight.) We learned that the square once carried out some brutal torture techniques below street level, using a wheel to tighten a rope around a victim's neck and drive a screw into the back of their neck. Other highlights from the tour:
  • We reviewed eight monarchs worth of history from Felipe I to Carlos II. There was a lot of inbreeding from marrying their cousins, resulting in an impotent, deformed and mentally disabled Carlos II.
  • The Spanish Inquisition (which went on for 300 years or so, amounting in the deaths of around 3,000 people and the persecution of countless others) is a primary reason ham and pork are such a point of pride in Spanish culture. When the non-pork-eating Jews and Muslims all converted (or "converted") to avoid persecution under the Inquisition, they decided the best way to prove they were true Catholics was to hang a pig leg in the window. These legs are ubiquitous in modern-day Madrid.
The Royal Palace.
  • Many streets in Madrid feature descriptive pictures of the street names accompanying the street sign to aid the illiterate populace from an earlier time.
  • Though the size of the grounds do not compare to Versailles, the palace itself is the largest in western Europe. The Royal Palace tour, which I did later, was a somewhat quick experience for the cost, but the there was still plenty of awe at the decadent rooms within. Nice views in the courtyard too.
  • We learned about Spain's recent history under Juan Carlos, who in the 1970s used his royal power to turn Spain into a democracy! There was a military coupe a couple years or so later, but it failed, bringing even more public adoration to Juan Carlos. In recent years, however, he has been criticized for his spending during rough economic times.
Napolitana de crema.
After all that walking and book larnin', I had earned a tasty treat. And the place to do that was right back where I started: Plaza del Sol. After a dinner of pinchos (little appetizers served on a slice of toasted French bread), I grabbed pastries at La MallorquinaOf the things I had there, I will point you toward two. First, the napolitana de crema, a croissant with custard inside, but not runny custard like you find in doughnuts. In addition to being thick like bechamel or cream cheese baked into a muffin, the filling was subtly sweet while still bring dense, like an Italian pastry filling. The croissant was flaky with a thin and sweet brush of glaze. Second, I'd recommend the Pringles-shaped almond cookies called tejas. There tastiness is like the buttery cookie part of an M&M cookie, tejas are crispy on the outside, while having a chewier coconut macaroon consistency inside. They might not look like much, but they're great!

In Part 3, we'll talk about art and Madrid's best gelato.

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