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Madrid part 3: Flamenco and history

Marie worked on Monday, so she took me to the train that morning for a day of exploring on my own. Based on previous good experiences, I'd booked a free walking tour of old Madrid. It did not disappoint.

Puerta del Sol

Puerta del Sol

We started in a plaza famous for its history of protest, then turned into an alley that ran past the city's oldest or one of its oldest hotels, named for one of its once-desirable amenities: hairbrushes (then probably made with silver or ivory). I guess the merits of combing out tangles outweighed the risk of lice. Tatiana had perfectly timed the stop so we could later watch a nearby elaborate clock chime the half hour. (Later that day, I'd amaze Marie by pointing out this sight she'd passed many times but never noticed.)

Madrid animated clock

Past another famous plaza where workmen attached roofs to huts for a Christmas market, and down a few winding streets, we came to the oldest restaurant in the world (or so it's claimed; I daresay China could have a challenger). Hemingway could reportedly down all of one of its famed roasted piglets, accompanied by three (!!) bottles of wine. The restaurant let us see both the roasting fire and the wine cellar, reached by two sets of narrow stairs.

Suckling piglets on the fire inside.

Suckling piglets on the fire inside.

We next stopped at the tourist-favorite San Miguel market for a quick snack, but the real treat lay a few steps beyond: a cloister where nuns in seclusion sell their cookies. To enter, you ring the bell by an elaborate wooden door during designated hours (they close for siesta, like many other shops, reopening at 4:30). After someone admits you -- they seem to let a woman I'd seen begging outside do this -- you walk down a dim hall and up to a window with a large, round lazy Susan that completely blocks the view. You communicate your cookie desire, they rotate the window to give you a cookie box and you put down your money -- all without ever seeing the nun. (I came back after the tour to try this: definitely an experience).

The rest of the tour took us past more historical sights: the palace, a beautiful church that took more than 100 years to build due to money problems, and the site of Madrid's second most deadly attack. The latter provided the most memorable and telling excerpt from Spain's history that I got on the trip.

An older couple passes the long-incomplete church.

An older couple passes the long-incomplete church.

In 1906, an anarchist waited in an upstairs room overlooking the present king's wedding procession. At the opportune moment, the would-be assassin threw his bomb. Instead of killing the king, however, it hit some wires for the tram lines and landed in the crowd. Almost 30 people died and dozens more were injured.

After the attack, the city erected a large monument to the dead. But a few years later, after the rise of Franco, they tore down the monument and renamed the street for the anarchist! Some time later, they restored the street to its original name and built a smaller, second monument to the dead.

The tour concluded around 2 p.m., leaving me the afternoon to try some of Tatiana's food recommendations (fried octopus sandwiches so-so, but the madrone liqueur good enough to buy a bottle), buy a pair of shoes and visit the cookie-baking nuns. By the time I'd acquired a box, with help from some friendly Americans who spotted me a couple Euros, I had just time to brisk-walk in a wholly un-Spanish fashion to my flamenco show. It wasn't cheap, but I got a front-row seat for this impassioned, rhythmic dance form.

Madrid flamenco dancers

Once the show ended, I met Marie for more tapas, a little more shopping and the last of Tatiana's food recommendations: thick drinking chocolate and churros.