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I closed my eyes, resting my face on the cold bathroom tiles. The tremors in my stomach had temporarily subsided, but the room was still spinning. Oh God, why oh why did I order that stupid seafood tower?
After what felt like hours, I knelt on the bathroom floor shivering and covered in cold sweat. Oh crap, I thought, as another wave of nausea hit me. With shaky hands, I crawled over to the toilet and started puking again.
So how did we end up here?
Let me back up a bit.
Before we came to Madrid, we were both big fans of seafood. Specifically raw seafood—oysters, sashimi, and clams–basically anything that smelled like the ocean. Given that Spain had some of the world’s most renowned seafood dishes, we thought we were in for a treat. And when we found out about the “tower of seafood” offered by the popular local restaurant recommended by our Airbnb host, we were ecstatic.
Having eaten at food stalls all-over Southeast Asia, Mexico, and Central America, food poisoning never even crossed my mind. And now that we were in Spain, I completely dropped my guard—after all, some of the best most expensive Michelin restaurants are in Madrid. What could possibly go wrong?
Turns out a lot. But I’ll get to that in a second.
Luckily, at the beginning of the week, we mostly stuck to cooked tapas, churros, and jamón. Madrid gave us some of the most memorable food experiences we’ve ever had in all of Europe:
Chocolate Con Churros
If you’re ever having a bad day, order a plate of chocolate con churros. Trust me, the combination of deep-fried fitters coated with cinnamon and dipped in thick melted dark chocolate will brighten even the darkest day. I inhaled the whole thing in 5 seconds flat and then upended the cup to get the last drops of dark chocolate into my mouth. Sadly, the waiter took away our dishes before I could embarrass myself by licking the whole cup clean. Oh well.
For the best CCC (that’s what the cool kids call it these days) in all of Madrid, head to “San Gines”. PROTIP: there’s always a long line up but if you keep walking past it, through the tunnel, you’ll see another café called “La Escondida de San Gines”. It’s the same cafe with the exact same menu but people don’t realize that, so you’ll already be seated and eating your churros while all the other tourists are distracted by the long line.
All Tapas, all the time
You can find delicious tapas all over the city, but our favourite spot was Puturru De Foie in the Mercado de San Antón. They had the best foie gras tapas for €4 each! (Given that foie gras sets you back at least $20 for a tiny appetizer, I have no idea how they make money, but I’m glad they found a way) I can honestly say this was one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth.
The most popular mercado in Madrid is San Miguel, but we found it to be overrated and way too crowded. I would recommend checking it out for the architecture—a gorgeous ornate historical building with iron pillars and floor-to-ceiling glass—but I thought the food was just so-so.
Another place that served up great tapas with a fantastic view is the rooftop food court in the El Corte Ingles at Plaza Callao. It’s pretty well hidden and packed with locals, but tourists have no idea where it is, so you’ll get this gem to yourself.
I wasn’t a huge fan of tapas in other parts of Spain (pay more for less food and SHARE it with other people, say what?) but in Madrid the tapas were exceptional. I would go back to Madrid in a heartbeat just for that.
Jamón Ibérico—my newfound love
The Spaniards are serious about their jamón—or ham—so much so that savouring paper-thin slices of the glistening cured pork is a Spanish rite of passage.
Before coming to Madrid, we didn’t even know the difference between Jamon Serrano and Jamon Iberico (tragic, I know). And the words “Pata Negra” didn’t even register in my brain.
Since then I’ve been educated on the difference between Serrano and Ibérico and why you hadn’t lived until you’ve devoured a slice of “Bellota Pata Negra” shaved ever-so-carefully from a severed pig leg hanging from the ceiling, hoof still attached.
You see, Serrano ham comes from the common white pig raised on a farm and fed a normal diet of cereals. Ibérico ham, on the other hand, comes from a one of a kind black-hoofed pig that is raised on a special diet of acorns and left to run wild on oak-filled pastures, their backs “caressed by mountain air” (the Spaniards can be a tad melodramatic).
This is why the cost of Ibérico ham is 10-20 times more expensive than Serrano ham.
So is it worth it? Being the skeptic that I am, I decided to find out for myself.
At €165 ($185 USD) per kg, the Bellota Pata Negra (acorn-fed black-hoofed pig) was the most expensive ham in the entire store and I half expected a loud alarm to blare the minute the butcher took it off its hook.
Here’s what it looked like sliced.
As soon as I put it in my mouth, it practically melted on my tongue. I tasted an earthy, nutty, almost sweet flavour that resembled nothing of the Serrano hams I’d had before. Serrano hams tastes like being punched in the mouth with a fistful of salt, but Ibérico ham was so exquisite I didn’t want to ruin it by clobbering the taste with any bread.
So, now it’s officially. I’m a total ham snob. And if you go to Madrid to try Ibérico ham, you will be one too.
World class museums featuring Picasso and Dali
I’m not even into art museums, but I loved the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, the Museo
Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, and the Museo Nacional del Prado.
If you go to Madrid, you must hit up these 3, as they are known as the “golden triangle
of art” and listed in the top 10 best art museums in the world.
I went there mostly to see Picasso and Dali’s pieces, but I also ended up discovering Francisco Goya, who made one of the most disturbing paintings ever, entitled “Saturn Devouring His Son”
Yeah, Spanish artists can be dark. And speaking of dark…
Now, this one is a controversial one. Notice how I said “memorable”, not necessarily “best or most fun” at the beginning of this list.
Bull fighting has been a Spanish tradition for hundreds of years, but in recent years, the sport has been banned in Barcelona because of its cruelty towards bulls. I didn’t know this but the matador stabs and kills the bull at the end of each fight. He even takes home the severed ears and head as a trophy! So understandably, some see this tradition as barbaric and have petitioned for it to be banned.
You can go to the Museo Taurino to find out about the art of bullfighting and all the casualties that came from participating in such a dangerous sport. Warning: this is not for the faint of heart.
So now that I’ve told you everything I love about Madrid, let me tell you about the one thing I didn’t love. Namely getting food poisoned within an inch of our lives.
All we heard was “seafood tower” from our Airbnb host and we headed straight to “Ribeira do Miño”, the popular local restaurant to eat our fill.
Six hours later, I ended up with my head in the toilet, swearing to never eat seafood again.
Little did I know, Spain has been dubbed “the food poison capital of the world” according to a survey of 2000 holidaymakers. And recently, there’s even been an outbreak of food poisoning which lead to a death in a Michelin star restaurant! Yikes!.
I can honestly say I didn’t want to look at a single oyster or shrimp after that ordeal and it’ll be a long time before I can even think about raw oysters without freaking out again.
Luckily, our bad experience was made up by the fact that our Airbnb host was nice enough to let us stay for two nights for free, and we didn’t have to catch a flight the next day.
Needless to say, we learned from that experience and will be super careful from now on.
You’d think that whole food poisoning thing would sour my experience on Madrid, but I still think it’s one of my favourite cities that we visit in Europe—mostly because of the wonderful food and world class museums. Just be careful with seafood and make sure to avoid Ribeira do Miño like the plague.
We ended up spending more in Madrid (mostly on food) than many other parts of Europe, but it was worth it:
|Cost in USD/couple
|Cost in CAD/couple
|Even though it was more expensive than places like Eastern Europe, accommodations in Madrid were still quite reasonable for a big city. Our Airbnb was tiny but well laid out and close to major attractions.
|$73 CAD ($47 for eating out, $26 for groceries)
|We ate out in Madrid more than any other city in Europe and it shows. I regret almost nothing except the seafood tower which set us back 45 Euros and destroyed us afterwards. Be extra careful with raw seafood–especially in Spain.
|Transportation to Madrid from Malta was 68 Euros each via Ryanair. Getting around Madrid via subway was easy and relatively inexpensive. We were also in the middle of the action so we could walk to most attractions.
|One of the things I love about Madrid is the museums which are actually free to visit on certain days. The downside is the long lines, but when you're retire, who cares about lines ;). We ended saving a ton of money because we scheduled our time around free museum days.
|Madrid was one of the more expensive places we visit in Europe but still one of our favourites. Even with the food poisoning, I'd still recommend it.
What do you think? Are you brave enough to go to the food/food poisoning capital of the world?
Note: Shout out to Chautauquans A&D for the tip on using the Rick Steves app for street tours. For those of you who like to travel in Europe, make sure you download the Ricks Steves travel app. It’s completely free and super useful.
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