Puttin’ on the Ritz

Written by Tom Thrun.

Time flies when you have been living in matrimonial Nirvana for the past fourteen years, but here it was again, time for another anniversary travel experience.

This year’s focus would be Spain and on the actual day of our anniversary we would find ourselves in the capital city of Madrid. Joy had never been before and the last time I was there I was all of nine years old. My most vivid memory of my last time in Madrid was having dinner at the Palace Hotel with my family. My brothers and I all ordered crepe suzette for dessert, we had heard of it before in a Three Stooges episode or something but never tried it. After one bite we all gagged, the Thrun boys had not yet aquired their now legendary taste for booze. My father was not thrilled as the waiter took away fifty dollars worth of smoldering waste. Now it was time to create some more adult memories.

When you take a trip for a special occasion you want everything to be perfect and memorable. Nothing could have been more perfect than being greeted at baggage claim by a formally attired chauffeur bearing a Hotel Ritz sign with your name on it. As our black Mercedes raced through the streets of the city we were both amazed at how beautiful it was. Madrid glitters as much as Paris, Rome or London with an attitude centered on having fun and enjoying life. The city has blossomed after years of creative repression under Franco. We pulled up to the Ritz to an unassuming entrance with a single revolving door, the hotel is a peaceful oasis in the center of this bustling capital. Built in 1908 by Cesar Ritz, it oozes old world luxury. Service is attentive and friendly without being too stuffy. However there was a notice in our room that gentleman are required to wear a coat and tie in all public rooms after 11:00 am. If you were not properly dressed you were asked to contact the concierge who would advise you of an alternate exit and entrance into the hotel. This rule, thankfully, was not strictly adhered to.

The Ritz is adjacent to the Prado and within easy walking distance of many other museums. There is more world class art concentrated in this neighborhood than any equivalent area in the world. The Prado is not just an art museum, it is a travel destination, housing more than seven thousand paintings. A few blocks down the street is the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia where special emphasis is paid to the great Spanish artists of the 20th century. Picasso’s masterpiece ‘Guernica’ now rests in this museum after years of being banned in Spain. One cannot help but become an art snob. I found myself strolling through the Reina Sofia with my jacket draped over my shoulders shouting “Miro was a peasant”! Joy slapped me, this was not the man she married.

After coming to my senses we decided to walk to Europe’s most famous flea market, El Rastro. This area is an ant hill of activity with vendors selling everything from Spanish antiques to “I’m With El Stupido” t- shirts. Joy purchased the latter. We walked a few minutes north to the Plaza Mayor, the heart of Old Madrid. On the narrow streets of the old town around the Plaza Mayor you will find art galleries and some of the city’s most intriguing restaurants and tascas. Located just off the Plaza is Sobrino de Botin, founded in 1725, it is the oldest restaurant in the world. It was a favorite hangout of Ernest Hemmingway and he mentions it in some of his books. In ‘Death in the Afternoon’, he writes, “I would rather dine on suckling pig at Botin than sit and think of casualties my friends have suffered.” As we walked into the restaurant for dinner, we passed the centuries old open kitchen and viewed the house specialty. There were six shelves laden with old copper pots each containing two unfortunate little porkers peering over the edge. But they all had smiles on their faces as if they were getting the last laugh and thinking to themselves, “I’m going to clog every artery in your fat American body!” I opted for the fish-based Quarter-of-an-Hour soup with clams and Joy had grilled prawns all washed down with wine and pitchers of sangria. I felt the urge to wing a wine bottle at someone’s head, just like Papa Hemmingway might have done.

After the fashionable dinner hour of 10:00 pm the Madilenos take part in their version of a pub-crawl called tapeo. They travel from one taberna to the next drinking and eating tapas along the way until the wee hours of the morning. The locals call it ‘killing the night’ with the goal of having coffee and churros with cocoa at a café for breakfast. Sunday evening we decided to take what we thought would be a quiet walk through Parque Retiro, Madrid’s answer to Central Park. It was like we had stumbled onto the set of a Fellini movie. There were hundreds of people drinking, dancing to live bands, watching puppet shows, having their fortunes told and couples making out everywhere. This city parties constantly, even on Sunday night. The Parque Retiro is the only park in the world that has a statue dedicated to the Devil, all of a sudden it made sense. Our trip to Madrid turned out to be one of the most memorable anniversaries ever. In addition to all of it’s many attractions and things to do, Spain is also a bargain compared to the rest of Europe, even at the Ritz. Call me for more details.

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