Thursday, November 27, 2014

Madrid: A hit and a miss

The rest of our time in Madrid was principally taken up with visits to two more museums, one of which I very much enjoyed; the other, not. The one I liked was the Thyssen-Bornemisza, the name of which is impossible to remember/spell, but which is otherwise very good. Formerly a private collection (the mind boggles), it ranges across eight centuries of (mostly) European art.

My favourite work. I noted that this was by "Chasnyk", but I now have my doubts since a Google Image search for "Chasnyk artist" just brings up hundreds of pictures of fighting troll figurines

The rest of his oeuvre?

Jesus and Mary had a bad case of elephantiasis of the head. I have a story about that, but this is a family show 

Ghost foetuses!

Portrait after portrait of the Hapsburgs, and this was the only one which properly showed the famous "Hapsburg jaw" (I think Jules was quite glad because then I finally stopped going on about it)

A twin for my Belle Ferronière!

Death's totally copping a feel

This guy is right between Jesus and another guy on the cross, but it's still all about him. He's just so dandy!

After the TB museum, we grabbed some delicious churros and hot chocolate (as featured in a Buzzfeed list of the world's best hot chocolate that I conveniently happened to see while we were in Madrid) and walked to the other side of Madrid to check out an Egyptian temple recommended by my sister's colleague. Not a reconstruction of an Egyptian temple, but an actual temple dating from the second century BC. It was gifted by Egypt to Spain to say thank you for Spanish help to preserve the temples of Abu Simbel (which are probably more impressive than the temple they gave away, I'm guessing).

Hanging out on the Gran Via. This is actually from another day, I didn't change for the stroll

Not that it's not pretty, and in a nice location, but it's quite small

The view from nearby
The line was quite long, and understandably they don't let a ton of people in at once, so we didn't go inside, but it was cool to see anyway.

The abortion expo was closed when we walked past. Pity, I'd like to have found out how to go about feeding an oddly muscular-bummed baby to a crocodile

Stop, churro time! As you can see, you get a loooot of churros for your buck
On Sunday evening, we headed to Casa 9 restaurant, which had a ton of glowing reviews on TripAdvisor, was too busy to fit us in on Saturday night, and was well worth the trip. We enquired about the menu when booking, since my sister eats fish but not meat, and were told that they couldn't tell us what was on the menu since the chef went to the market each day to get fresh ingredients, but that there would be something she could eat. A special daily menu fresh from the market? Sign us up please!
"Cow ham"
The 19.95 price you see there actually covered an entrée, main and dessert, plus water for the table, a glass of wine and coffee. *And*, since I don't drink coffee, I asked for another glass of wine at the end of the meal, assuming they'd charge for it, but they threw it in instead of the coffee. Now you might think at that price, it'd be cheap and nasty. Far from it, it was so delicious, and I think none of us got exactly the same menu, but everyone was really happy with their food. Plus the waiters were super friendly, even pointing us to another (also good) restaurant the night before when they were booked up. If you're heading to Madrid, definitely give it a go!

Pre-dinner cocktails

From a highlight to a lowlight, our last day was spent at the Reina Sofia museum. Basically we went there to see Picasso's Guernica, which is about the only half-interesting thing in the place. Every piece of art (almost all Spanish, from what I could see) we saw in there was grey and brown, it was filled with groups of LOUD children, made worse by the echoing acoustics, and the whole place is huge and maze-like even by the high standards of museums. We only did one floor before we had to meet up with my parents to say goodbye as they were heading to the airport before us (sniff) and I refused to go back in. I'm not usually one to say I hate a museum, but boy did I hate this one. Worst. Museum. Ever. It's blimming lucky it has Guernica, because otherwise I'm convinced you couldn't pay people to go inside.

It was a relief to escape back into the sunshine and stroll back to our apartment via the lovely (and huge) Buen Retiro park, home of (amongst other things), the beautiful Crystal Palace:

Looked less like a glorified greenhouse in person

Now with white van

The view from the Crystal Palace steps (you couldn't go in)

And then it was time to go home... Other than the Reina Sofia, obviously, I really enjoyed Madrid. The food was amazing, it was relatively inexpensive (especially with Mum and Dad footing the bill, haha), the weather was great and there was a ton to see and do. If you've never thought of visiting, I would put it on the list!

Monday, November 24, 2014

I <3 Madrid

When my Dad suggested Amsterdam for this year's holiday, my reaction was basically "I hated it the first time, why would I want to go back?" And that was in the middle of summer, let alone gloomy October. Luckily, my sister felt much the same and suggested Madrid. Now here was an idea I could get behind. A friend of mine lived there for years, but I never managed to get it together to visit, so it's been in the back of my mind for a while. And of course, there was the lure of famous museums such as the Prado, and the promise of one last dose of sunshine before winter set in. And tapas, lots of tapas.

Despite all this, I didn't actually have much of a clue what Madrid was like, and it turned out to be much prettier than I had expected. I suppose its beautiful, monumental buildings shouldn't have come as a surprise - it was, after all, the capital of a rich and powerful empire for hundreds of years - but I don't know, I guess you just don't see pictures of Madrid's star attractions the way you do of Paris or Rome, so it was a pleasant surprise. Even when people talk about Spain, it seems always to be Barcelona or Majorca or Malaga rather than Madrid. But I'm definitely converted to the capital's charms.

Much of what was particularly enjoyable about the city is hard to capture in a blog post - the sunshine, sipping sangria or tinto de verano on a terrace, starting the day with churros dipped in hot chocolate, picking up freshly shaved ham at the market (okay, so food, lots of food). It's a cliché to talk about a relaxed, laid-back way of life - we were on holiday, not struggling with 25% unemployment - but as city breaks go, it definitely was more relaxing than some.

After arriving on Thursday and not doing a lot beyond sipping cocktails, on Friday we did the Prado. It's huge, they don't let you take photos, and it's well worth a look, although you do get your fill of Spanish court paintings after a while.

On Saturday, the plan was a good old-fashioned tapas crawl in the area around Plaza Mayor. A Madrileno workmate of my sister's claimed we could bar hop our way to free tapas, and while this proved not quite to be the case, we still managed to sample a few dishes. First, though, we accidentally wandered into the crypt of the cathedral, initially mistaking it for the cathedral itself (this is not as dumb as it sounds, it's huge and the entrance is on ground level on the other side from the real cathedral entrance)

In the cathedral crypt
Once we realised, we tried to visit the cathedral itself, but it turned out they were screening a mass outside on big screens, to a crowd of hundreds who were enduring the hot midday sun to watch it. Can anyone enlighten me whether this is a regular event, or if there was some sort of superstar priest in the house that day??

The giant outdoor Mass (plus a ton of people standing that aren't in the photo)

A (sort of) scenic viewpoint

No bullfighting. I'm not sure if these signs were a serious political statement or not

Not sure why they wanted to pose in front of a non-descript chain tourist trap (Spain's version of La Curé Gourmande), but it's a cute photo. Was that patronising?
PS If you like Mum's snazzy t-shirt, you can get one of your very own here
Back to the tapas crawl, we were lured into a hole in the wall place allegedly offering the best pork in Madrid by the tempting hoof of a sacrificial victim (methinks that chain tells a tale of shenanigans in days of yore)

Who could resist the siren song of the hoof?

Preparing for pork

Got to say, it was pretty delish! We sampled a few more places...

Mmm, patatas bravas

The world's dinkiest beers

Sangria o'clock
Before heading back to Plaza Mayor for some calamari sandwiches (good, but a bit dry).

Bocodillos calamares in Plaza Mayor
We got our money's worth in entertainment, however, as at one moment a couple of cop cars burst into the square and scattered the the various traders selling tatty gewgaws spread out on blankets which could be bundled up in a trice to flee the police. It looked like a well-worn routine, with the traders darting into the many alleys leading off the square in a blink of an eye, leaving the cop cars to execute handbrake turns in a pedestrian plaza crowded with bewildered tourists, before inevitably the traders came back 5 minutes after the cops left. I'm not sure whether they were trying to snap them for immigration irregularities, selling fake goods, or hawking without a licence (or all three), but it seemed a pretty ineffective game. It's just a miracle they don't kill a tourist doing it!

Jules and I could have gone for more tapas, but we ended up leaving to stake out a spot in a sports bar to watch the "El Clasico" football game between Real Madrid and Barcelona. It was a pretty good game, and the atmosphere was lively (even though an Irish pub mightn't be the most authentic place to sample it). Something fun to tick off the bucket list (even if it wasn't on there to begin with).

Monday, November 17, 2014

Meet the parents

Arrgh, I've been so slack updating this, I know. It seems like it's endemic in the blogosphere, with people shutting down their blogs left and right or just not updating that often, but that's no excuse. I'd like to say it's because of my busy social life, but truth is, I still have no friends in Brussels, so it's not that. I'd like to lay the responsibility on baths. I have a bit of a bath addiction, and it takes time to soak in the tub. Okay, it's not the worst vice the world has ever seen, but it has taken a toll on my water bill (90€ for a quarter, ouch!) Apart from just that it's nice to lie in a tub of warm, bubbly water and read, I think the appeal is that it somehow feels like a liminal space beyond the routines of everyday life, somewhere where you're forced to disconnect from your phone and the internet and just exist in a figurative and literal bubble. Or maybe I'm overthinking it. Sometimes a bath is just a bath.

Anyway, I'm not here to talk about bathing, I'm here to catch up on the actual outdoor things I've been doing. October was a busy month, or at least the second half of it was, starting with my parents' visit to Brussels. As I mentioned, this was a bit of a nervewracking prospect, since of course it was the first time they were meeting Jules. Well, I think everything went very well. Jules even got through an entire 5-day Madrid holiday with them, which is much more than I think I could manage if it were the other way around!

My parents had been to Brussels before, notably last year when we came to Belgium for the Spa Grand Prix, so this time we mostly concentrated on day trips to get a glimpse of the rest of Belgium. On Friday, we went to Ghent and magically discovered a whole new, beautiful area to the city that we completely missed when we went with my sister back in July. Best of all, the weather, after an initial spot of drizzle, was sunny and unseasonably warm. I really felt like we'd been transported to some southern clime as we relaxed on a terrace sipping wine and eating local specialities (I tried the waterzooi, very good).

Me and Jules in Ghent

Lining up in height order

The main event was the Ghent Design museum, specifically chosen to appeal to my mum's sensibilities. It was a nice museum, small enough to not exhaust you, but large enough to have quite a lot of beautiful and interesting objects. The cutest thing was the little Playmobile figurines they put in many of the display cases, making a quirky little treasure hunt through the museum.

My parents' visit coincided with Jules's birthday, so we headed out on the Friday night for a nice dinner at a local restaurant. The concept of the restaurant is "slow food", and being run by a couple - the husband cooks and the wife takes care of the front of house - it certainly lives up to the name. However, along with the slow food vibe comes a relaxed, family-style ambience. By which I don't mean that there are children running all over the place (shudder), I mean that from having to ring the doorbell to enter to the small space feeling like someone's set up half-a-dozen tables in their front room, it just feels like you've popped around to a relative's house for Christmas dinner or something. That possibly makes it seem awful, but when the hostess makes sure you've got nibbles and a gratis glass of bubbly plopped down in front of you shortly after you walk in (and keeps topping up your glass throughout the evening), you find you don't mind having to wait quite some time in between courses. We all had a really lovely evening (and yummy food), and by the end of the night there were hugs for all of us from the woman, particularly for my mum, who went back for two or three (you can't keep topping up my mum's glass without such consequences).

Birthday boy with my mum

We somehow managed to haul ourselves up and out on Saturday to hit the road for Antwerp, since my mum had commented on an earlier blog post that she'd like to visit. Again, it was a lovely day, and we basically retraced much the same steps as Jules and I on our previous visit, including seeing Saint Peter's church again in the sunshine and doing a spot of (very successful shopping). It's hard to believe that our first, relatively cold and definitely grey visit was in June, whereas this October trip was warm and sunny, but I'm definitely not complaining.

Just before I passed out

For dinner, we went to one of the semi-fancy seafood places on Saint Catherine's Square. I suppose this was meant to be a bit of a posher treat, but it suffered a bit in comparison with the delicious food and friendly atmosphere of the night before. The ambience was very cold, and the waiter annoyed me by doing the thing where they keep your bottle of wine in parts unknown and only come to dole it out when they see fit. I know this is supposed to be posh, but it's just irritating. Let me serve my own wine. I suppose there's a way to do it well, but this does not involve me having to flag the waiter down to ask for my glass to be refilled, as was the case on this occasion. The food was fine, but quite a bit pricier than the night before, and I think we all much preferred the fun atmosphere of the other place.

On Sunday, we checked out the antiques market in Grand Sablon, and I added to my (small) collection of Gien faience (thanks, M&D), before fitting in a bit of chocolate shopping - got to be done in Belgium, right? Then I actually can't remember what we did before eating dinner (a nap, I think) at my parents' apartment, which was followed by me getting horrifically sick. I was meant to go back to work for three days between their visit and our trip to Madrid, but I ended up at home sick, which of course probably looked totally fake, but honestly wasn't! I always feel like everyone at work thinks I'm faking illness at the best of times, so that was doubly the case this time. It could have been worse though, it wasn't the worst timing in the world falling between two exciting long weekends. Next time, Madrid...