Of Bullfights and Brandies: Travel in Madrid

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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 of the things 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.

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