- Brendan McKay
Updated: Sep 30, 2019
I always seem to approach our vacations abroad with a small amount of reservation and trepidation, particularly if it's been awhile since we crammed 10 days' worth of clothes and international chargers into our carry-ons. The struggle is real when it comes to my inability to sleep on longhaul flights, no matter how many of those little wine bottles they give me. And jet lag has become a whole different ball game now that we depart from our nice comfy PST timezone.
That feeling is particularly exacerbated whenever we travel someplace new. My wife would be the first to tell you that I was a major PITA the first time we went to Italy. At the time, the whole concept of "Italy" felt so normal and touristy and avocado-toasty, something better reserved for a study abroad program in my early 20's or retirement in my 60's. I feared the specter of endless days filled with museums staring at art I couldn't comprehend and gorging on pasta and pizza (which, as I write this, honestly sounds delightful). I could not have been more wrong, and I left that first trip to Italy absolutely in love with the country and the people.
So I wasn't all that surprised to feel those nagging undertones of reluctance start to build as we left LAX for Madrid, Seville and Barcelona right before Labor Day. Unplugging from work and exploring someplace new was welcome and long overdue, but underlying all that anticipation was, gasp!...disappointment that this wasn't Italy. My travel DNA seems to be wired in a way that mostly places familiarity and nostalgia ahead of the thrill of the unexplored. As much as I hate to admit it, I would have been a terrible sidekick for Anthony Bourdain - there's probably a reason no one's ever picked up my sister series, Parts Known: Florence Again?!?
Madrid instantaneously became special - there's an intoxicating blend of beauty and grit to the city. I hadn't really known what to expect, but what we found was far from what I thought it would be. Our three days there were filled with incredible food (Bistronomika, Triciclo, a wonderful al fresco evening meal at Sacha, and what was likely one of the highlights of the trip, a flamenco show + dinner at Corral de la Moreria. If you only ever have 24-48 hours in the city, make it to StreetXO for a bonkers Spanish/Asian fusion lunch) and some amazing art at the Prado and Reina Sofia. But what captured my interest most was the sheer variety of architectural language woven throughout the city.
I've probably written about the following sentiment elsewhere, and it's a likely a forgone conclusion for many. But it took being fully immersed in a new place to understand just how naturally the architecture of a community can tell you how that place has evolved over time through decades and centuries of industrial, technological and human changes. Architecture lends insight into what a community values and how its people use and embrace design as a means of both structural purpose and art.
Are buildings supposed to be seen and not heard, a "speak when spoken to" type ethos? Or address you head on with a complex marriage of material, (a)symmetry and angles? Madrid was full of small finds for us, and some of my favorites are here. Walking the avenues and alleys, you can tell that the city has vast respect for the old and new, with beautiful Gothic churches that abut more modern structures with clean lines and mixed material construction. And it's clear that Madrilenos want their buildings to be known and felt, and carry on a conversation with you, as opposed to just standing there in solitude.
The Salamanca area is replete with three and four-story apartments in various pastel hues that were reminiscent of quiet, tucked-away parts of London or Paris. I've always had a soft spot for brutalism, and there are some incredibly interesting buildings scattered throughout the city that fit this profile. Knowing I only scraped the surface of what Madrid has to offer makes me tremendously excited to go back some day.