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SPAIN
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Overall, we were quite pleased with our first taste of Spain although it was a very short visit.  Our trip began with Portugal initially and ended in Madrid.

It's funny.  A few months earlier we had flown over the Iberian Peninsula on the way from Rome back to the U.S. and looking down on Barcelona, Madrid and Lisbon as we cruised along at 33,000 feet, it looked mighty dusty and dry down below.  But Madrid is a beautiful city that's very green with trees lining most city streets.

Madrid boasts over 70 parks within the city limits.  It's plazas are well kept and most have beautiful fountains in the summer. Our visit occurred in early July when the temp was over 100 degrees (f) so at least the fountains made us feel a bit cooler than we really were.

Our hotel of choice was the Crowne Plaza Madrid City Centre located right across the street from the Plaza de Espana.  It was "okay" but I think we'll probably HQ at another place on our next trip.  For one thing, the elevators at this high rise hotel were awful.  Of the three that we saw, one was broken, one was "iffy" and only one seemed to be in good working order.

Since we only had a couple of days in the city we just arranged for a brief tour and saw the University, Bull Ring, Old town, the football (soccer) stadiums and the beautiful plazas.

I'll say one thing.  On our way into downtown Madrid from the airport on a Friday afternoon, traffic was absolutely horrendous. Perhaps the worst we've seen anywhere in Europe.  Saturday was just great, though.  No problemo.

Eating dinner comes late in Spain.  The heaviest meal of the day is usually taken at lunch (2 to 3 or even 4pm).  Then comes a siesta.  Tapas bars offer tidbits and drinks until the restaurants get crackin.'  Most don't open until 9pm.  Many Madrid residents don't even consider going out to eat until 11pm.  Then many party into the wee hours.

One thing you'll find in this part of the world is that there is an automatic charge for bread and other small appetizers brought to the table.  The charge is nominal and mandatory.  One thing that usually winds up on the appetizer selection is air cured ham carved very, very thin.  Many places feature the old pig's leg (hoof and all) at a carving station where the strips are carved paper thin.  It's pretty good stuff although it's definitely an acquired taste.

As for restaurants, naturally we had to hit the local Hard Rock Cafe to collect a shot glass for our collection. Madrid's Hard Rock is one of the biggest around and while the food is always reliable at Hard Rocks, this food seemed to be a cut above the rest.  Individual restaurant reviews are at the bottom of this page.

During another visit to Spain, we chose to go in winter.  Madrid was still pretty with all the trees although most of them were without their leaves.  We even saw some hearty palm trees in a couple of spots, notably in front of the Planet Hollywood Restaurant.  We chose the Westin Palace Hotel for this stay.  It was a lovely old hotel but like most of these establishments, the service was a little on the snooty side and the place had a stuffy, "old money" feel to it.  It WAS an ultra five star hotel, that's for sure.

Spain is a great place to visit but a bit of caution if you're going, however.  There are supposedly a lot of purse snatchers, wallet thieves and even muggers lurking in this pretty city.  While we didn't see any really shady characters nor did we feel threatened at any time, check the U.S. State Department  travel warning section (you can find it under "Helpful Web Sites" on this site) to get the latest info.  I remember something interesting in the Hard Rock.  A woman had strung her purse over the back of her chair and a server cautioned her that it's never safe to do that in Madrid. Unlike Rome where there is a CONSTANT danger from pickpockets and purse snatchers, Madrid did not have a sleazy feel. I would suggest that you wear a money belt for safety and if possible and leave your purse at the safety deposit box at your hotel.

You must remember to carry your Passport on you at all times while in Spain.  Illegal immigrants have been flooding into the place from North Africa, Central America and other countries and we heard a lot of stories about police stopping people on the street for Passport checks. If you don't have your Passport on you, it could mean an afternoon of heavy questions at police headquarters.

Language was surprisingly a bit of a barrier but fun.  At several places, we found that the locals knew no English whatsoever. Ditto for some cab drivers.  One great tip when language is a problem is to jot down (or have somebody fluent in the language jot it down for you) the address of the place where you are going and just hand it to the hack driver.  That usually works like a charm!

MADRID RESTAURANT REVIEWS

Casa Paco is probably THE most famous name in steaks in Madrid.  They do something unusual here.  They boil their steaks in oil.  But they come to the table on a sizzling platter and are not at all greasy.  There's a small tapas bar at the entrance to this restaurant.  To read our review of this restaurant, click here.

Cafe Balear is probably the most famous restaurant in Madrid for that Spanish favorite -- paella.  To be honest with you, however, this was a bit of a disappointment.  Instead of having a bubbling dish brought to the table, the rice was brought separately and then came the seafood.  And the seafood wasn't that tasty (as we have found in much of Spain for some reason).  Read more about our experience at Cafe Balear here.

Bajamar Restaurante came highly recommended for fresh seafood in Madrid and it was a short cab ride from our hotel, the Westin Palace.  I hate to say it, but just like just about all seafood we've sampled in Spain, this left a lot to be desired.  The gigantic red prawns on ice in the window looked so tempting that I just had to have a couple of them.  They were about the size of a small lobster.  They were grilled and came to the table slightly undercooked.  Most of the weight was in the heads so the actual morsel in the tail was relatively small.   And at 16 Euros each (that translates roughly to $21 U.S. dollars each) they weren't exactly a bargain.  And that was just the start.  My wife had fish balls (croquettes) for a starter and they were tasty and filling.  For my main course I chose sea bass with a garlic sauce.  The sauce was pretty thin, the garlic was toasted (a bit over-toasted for my taste) and the fish--yup--didn't have much flavor. A review will soon be posted.  Details on their location, etc., can be found on their web site here.

The currency in Spain is the Euro.  It used to be the Peseta.  Driving is on the right hand side of the street and you'll need a Passport for entry and as mentioned earlier, you'll need to carry it with you at all times in Spain.

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