Madrid and León: Tapas Galore
Madrid is genuinely Spanish. As the capitol of Spain, and geographically in the center of the country, it’s often viewed by tourists solely as a gateway.
Unlike the livelier Barcelona, Madrid has a grittier, perhaps more authentic, feel. Madrid is a cultural hub with rustic tapas, a dynamic art scene and iconically historic neighborhoods.
We wouldn’t have the same perspective on Madrid without Amy. One of my former Treasure Island roommates moved to Spain about six years ago. We visited her in Madrid in 2013, when she treated us to the ultimate food tour. I vividly remember Amy telling us that we weren’t going to museums, she was going to teach us the history and culture of Madrid through tapas. That resonated.
Now, this was my third time to Madrid (I went in 2010 to play field hockey, also when Spain won the Wold Cup). As such, we felt little need to run the tourist gauntlet.
Instead, we explored the Lavapiés district, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Spain. We made ourselves right at home. Will got a haircut at Peluquería Vallejo, a family owned barbershop that was founded in 1908. The original tile work remains.
The neighborhood is incredibly diverse. Locals have started cultivating more guerilla gardens, since the financial crisis. The gardens are a way to reclaim empty public land for community activities, including greenhouses.
That evening, we met Amy for tapas in Las Cortes District, ultimately making our way to the Centro.
We started at Casa Gonzales, a wine bar with fantastic Campo Real olives, unique to Madrid. We learned of the growing Vermouth culture in Madrid, so next we stopped at a Vermouth bar with the most generous pour in the city.
We stopped in La Venencia for an impromptu sherry tasting. The bar itself is iconic, and a bit like stepping back into the 1930s with stacks of old barrels and dusty bottles lining the wooden shelves. It’s an unassuming bar, where taking photos is not permitted. Most notably, it was a local favorite of Ernest Hemingway’s. From there, we walked to El Mesón del Champiñón behind Plaza Mayer. The tapas bar opened in 1964 and is renowned for their, for their infamous mushroom caps with chorizo. Will, who is not a mushroom fan, even came around. We also enjoyed Pimientos de Padron, flash fried in olive oil with flakey salt.
We finished the evening at La Taberna los Huevos de Lucio for huevos rotos con patatas, or Spanish Broken Eggs with sausage over fries. The following day, our only full day in Madrid, we spent at our favorite spot in the city: El Retiro Park.
The park belonged to the Spanish Monarchy, but opened for public use by the late 19th century.
Spanish parks are always impressive. However, El Retiro, located in the center of Madrid, is particular favorite.
I find this type of extensive, communal green space in major cities inspiring. Sure, New York City has Central Park. But it’s simply not as prevalent in other major U.S. cities. Will and I packed a picnic and spent the entire day reading under a shaded tree.
The following day we picked up our rental car and we were off. First stop: León. We were really there for one reason. And that was for the tapas. It’s about three and a half hours by car from Madrid. On the way, we stopped at a rest stop for a snack, which proved to be a major step up from any road side stop I’ve been to stateside.
We weren’t in León for long, and since our evening activity included consuming as many tapas as possible, we felt compelled to visit the Cathedral when we got into town.
León's 13th-century cathedral is the central point of the city. Many consider it Spain's leading Gothic structure.
The stained-glass windows exude an unparalleled, luminous quality.
The more we walked around, the more I realized how much the northern Castilla city has to offer.
More beautiful parks, naturally.
The plazas and narrow streets in the idyllic old quarter were quiet during the day.
However, as soon as the sun began to set, you could feel an increased, festive energy as people started to emerge from their siestas.
We started out with cañas, knowing we had a long evening ahead. Cañas are quite simply the smallest size beer a bar sells. It could be served in a wine glass, half a pint glass, really anything.
I do wish I had a list of the places we visited, but when we counted by the end of the evening, we indulged in ten different tapas bars.
In León, simply paying for a drink grants a small dish of food. Beer or wine typically ranges between one to two Euro per glass.
And though bars typically have specialities, you never really know what you’re going to get.
León is divided into two neighborhoods: Barrio Humedo and Barrio Romantico. Whereas Barrio Humedo has narrow, cobbled stoned streets with bars passed down for generations, Barrio Romantico has a younger, slightly more upscale feel. We went to both, but spent majority of our time in the former with more traditional fare.
The highlights included croquetas at Rebote. The fillings included the likes of cecina or cured beef, queso, and morcilla or blood sausage.
The morcilla was a recurring theme served every which way. Jamón and manchgo as well. But the homemade potato chips at our next location were really stellar.
It was beyond helpful to have tour guides, as Will and I followed blindly.
The next stop had one of my favorites: sopa de ajo, a traditional Leónese soup. Served in clay pots, the rich garlic broth is topped with soaked, crusty bread.
Next were patatas bravas, topped with chili, chorizo, and of course, morcila.
Although there were one or two seafood tapas, more often than not, it was cured meat, or cecina.
Out of principle, we had to check out Barrio Romantico to compare. Fortunately, León is small and completely walkable.
And it was good. El Colibrín was a funkier bar that certainly had a youthful vibe. The tapas followed suit.