Of Bullfights and Brandies: Travel in Madrid

Madrid's Plaza Mayor. Photo by Wikimedia Commons
Madrid’s Plaza Mayor. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Travel in Madrid

Madrid, Spain, is full of art and culture. But no holiday in Spain is complete without a visit to some pubs. And no visit is escapable without a thought or two about bullfighting.

After a day of art museums and palaces, steeped in Goya and Velazquez, my wife, Nataliya, and I began our evening at Plaza Mayor.

Nataliya and I had strolled through the square before, just a couple minutes from our own hotel in Puerta del Sol. But now we decided to spend some time there.

“Are we doing a bullfight or not?” I asked. It had been a matter of debate for days. But we were not pitted against each other like a matador against a bull. Each of our conflicts are internal.

“Let’s drink on it,” Nataliya suggested, a wise choice indeed.

As we walked through Plaza Mayor, vendors beeped and whistled with annoying toys concealed in their mouths and shot lighted rubber band toys into the sky.

Like annoying insects, not five minutes of walking in the square passed without one of them approaching us with a series of beeps and whistles, offering unwanted souvenirs that were anything but Spanish.

Walking through Madrid, Spain. Flickr/Massimo Frasson
Walking through Madrid, Spain. Flickr/Massimo Frasson

Plaza Mayor in Madrid

Ignore that, and you see why Plaza Mayor is a popular tourist attraction. The allegorical paintings on some of the buildings are beautiful.

The tile work of other buildings in the square seem to catch the setting sun and rising moon.

The equestrian statue of Felipe III at the center of the square is a nice place to stand and look around at all of the buildings surrounding the square.

After getting our bearings, we took to the open hallways along the edges of Plaza Mayor and walked along the shops, cafes and restaurants.

We found a pleasant café that offered perhaps the best tapas we ate in Spain.

Instead of going to the sit-down portion of the restaurant downstairs, we enjoyed our red wine and tapas at the snazzy, stand up bar where we could look out the window onto the square.

The barman, dressed spiffily in black and white, did not speak any more English than we did Spanish, but he aimed to please.

He even called down to order some special tapas for us when we ordered a second round. Hearty food at a bargain price in a place that felt more formal than fast.

The place offered two large open faced sandwiches (enough for a meal) and a glass of wine or mug of beer for three Euros. Two orders, and we were stuffed.

Bullfighting in Spain

Although Madrid is one of the cities where bullfighting is still a part of the culture, it is becoming less accepted by the general public. Indeed, one thing on our list when we first planned our trip to Spain was to go to a bullfight.

It was after we got to know the sport — saw some video and pictures and did some reading — that we began to feel like we didn’t want to go to one.

On one hand, it is part of the culture and perhaps no more cruel than how animals are treated on mass-market farms and in slaughter houses.

On the other hand, when you see the bulls mercilessly attacked and outnumbered, it can be hard to see it as sport instead of massacre.

“We should probably skip the bullfight,” Nataliya said as we ambled along the passages around the plaza.

“Let’s compromise,” I suggested.

Instead of going to a bullfight, we went to Torre del Oro Bar Andalú, a bar with a bullfighting theme.

Located along the inner-edge of Plaza Mayor, this clean, well-lit place has on display many photographs of bullfights gone by. In some, the bull comes out on top, in others, the bullfighter.

A good number of the beaten bulls have their heads mounted on the walls of the bar.

We ordered some Spanish beer and perused the photos, one series of stills showing the horn of a bull penetrating below a matador’s jaw and going up into his head, then drawing back out. (He survived to bullfight again!)

We were told that one of the bulls on display in the bar was killed during a bullfight that had both Ernest Hemingway and Franco in the audience at the same time — presumably not together.

It was here that I enjoyed my first taste of Anise. I expected to enjoy it, since I like licorice as much as I tend to like herbal liquors.

Anise is a sort of synthesis of the two, and it went down sweet and smooth.

Strolling back through Plaza Major in Madrid. Flickr/Ronan
Strolling back through Plaza Major in Madrid. Flickr/Ronan

After strolling through Plaza Mayor some moments more, we took the pedestrian street, full of vendors selling everything from painted fans and sunglasses to little statues and jewelry.

We headed back to Puerta del Sol. Before returning to our hotel, we decided to try out a bar we’d passed several times during our visit.

The bar was open to the street at one end, as many cafes and bars tend to be, but the interior was rich and lavish with heavy dark woods and decorated with gilded carvings.

We started out with a Spanish beer and red wine. Then, I wanted to try a few of the drinks we’d been told were well-loved in Spain.

Liquor 45 looked and sounded great. But it seems to have been the work of good marketing.

It tasted heavy and sweet, much like drinking peach schnapps or Kahlua with a few tablespoons of sugar or corn syrup added.

Puerta del Sol in Madrid. Photo by Wikimedia Commons
Puerta del Sol in Madrid. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Zorco was a little better. It reminded me of the anise we’d had earlier at the bullfighting bar. It was good, although I preferred the anise.

When a couple of expats — a husband and wife who lived in England but spent some time out of every year in Madrid — came to the bar, chatted with the bartender. 

Walked to an outside table with a specially steamed glass of brandy and a big cigar, I took notice. I’d wanted to try Spanish brandy and hadn’t yet.

I struck up a conversation with the expats and asked him to recommend one.

1866 Solera Gran Reserv

“You can’t go wrong with anything on the top shelf,” he said and pointed. “But my recommendation? The 1866.”

I ordered a snifter of 1866 Solera Gran Reserva, a brandy produced in La Mancha. The bar tender had been polite the entire evening as we tried different drinks.

When I placed this order, he seemed to light up as though he liked having a foreigner ask for the best of the best his country had to offer.

He took the bottle from the top shelf and uncorked it. He then used what appeared to be an espresso maker to steam the oversized snifter.

He poured in a generous serving of the Spanish brandy.

Maybe it was the mood we were in. Perhaps the surroundings on a Saturday night in the heart and soul of Spain, in Puerta del Sol — Gateway to the Sun.

Maybe it was the rich décor or the drinks we’d already enjoyed beginning to alter our perception.

But at that moment, I was convinced that 1866 was the best brandy or cognac I’d ever tasted.

Half an hour later, knowing we needed to head back to the hotel and get some sleep for the following day, we put down our empty glasses and asked for the check.

But the bartender refused — instead, he steamed fresh glasses and offered another (gratis) hearty helping of 1866. It was a perfect ending to a great day.

1866 Brandy.
1866 Brandy

I haven’t had an opportunity to test just how good 1866 is. I had planned to purchase a bottle at the duty free shop in the airport.

But a couple days later, when we went to the airport for our early a.m. flight, the duty free shops had not yet opened.

No problem, I figured on the flight from Madrid to Paris. I’ll just order a bottle from the duty-free catalog.

Apparently, international flights within the European Union do not offer duty-free sales. There was no duty-free catalog.

I searched the duty free shops at the airport in Paris. But, of course, they did not carry Spanish brandy. Only cognac, scotch and whisky.

In fact, when I dared to ask, the lady at the counter raised her nose in an offended huff. “We don’t carry Spanish brandy here.”

Then, I was surprised to find that on the flight from Paris to the United States, the duty free catalog did not include alcohol.

I asked the stewardess about it; she insisted I was wrong. “Of course there is alcohol in the duty free catalog.”

I gave her mine and asked her to find it.

“Strange,” she said. She searched another catalog, from her station. “It appears there is no alcohol in our duty free selections.”

Since I’ve been back in the states, I have not been able to find 1866 at any of our local liquor stores. But I’m determined to try it again.

For now, I’ll sip my brandies, scotches and cognacs and imagine that they remain second to one of my new favorites: 1866.

I’d rather kill a bottle of 1866 from La Mancha than a bull from Madrid. Ah, to dream the impossible dream.

If You Travel to Spain:

Want to go? Whether you take the bull by the horns or the bottle by the neck, there are countless airlines that will take you to Madrid, Spain.

Plaza Mayor, where we sampled the bullfighting bar that Hemingway did and enjoyed tapas with wine, is only a few blocks through the cobblestoned side streets from Puerta del Sol, where we sampled a variety of Spanish brandies in a traditional bar.

The walk from one plaza to the other, and taking in the sights, was half the fun. If you’re staying in Madrid, it’s likely to be within walking distance of your hotel.

Any guide book or tourist map will easily direct you to these and a multitude of other plazas in the “Old Madrid” area. Be sure to bring your appetite!

Author Bio: Eric D. Goodman enjoys traveling as much as he loves writing. His fiction and travel stories have been published in many periodicals, including Go Nomad, InTravel Magazine, Travel Mag, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Review, The Pedestal Magazine, The Potomac, Grub Street, Scribble Magazine, and others. Eric’s the author of the award-winning Tracks: A Novel in Stories about travelers who connect on a train, and Flightless Goose, a storybook for children. His newest book, Womb: a novel in utero was published this spring. Learn more about Eric and his work at www.EricDGoodman.com and connect with him at www.Facebook.com/EricDGoodman.

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