Losing and Finding Yourself in Spain
In my younger days as an actress, I aimed to be a âcitizen of the world.â I jetted all over the world. But then I settled down, and spent the last few decades in what ultimately became an incompatible marriage. Trying to make it work, I shelved many aspects of my nature, including wanderlust. So when Norwegian Air offered a chance to try out its new service to Madrid and Valencia, I jumped at the chance.
My journey began with the airlineâs new non-stop service to Madrid. Ensconced in spacious premium class on an airship aptly named the Dreamliner, I ate dinner served by a friendly flight attendant nattily attired in a checked blazer and matching vest, watched a film Iâd missed in the theater, then slept until touchdown.
Looking out the window of my taxi as our coterie of journalists made its way to the city center, I felt a familiar tingle of excitement in my chestâ" the magic of a new destinatio n and the unexpected sights, sounds, smells, and encounters that make memories. Little did I realize my past would play a part in this journeyâ¦
Big in Madrid
Spanish legend has it that while visiting a tavern, Alphonso X, âthe Wise King,â was served a glass of wine with a bit of cheese covering the top like a lid â" tapas means âlidâ â" to keep the flies out. He noticed that by eating a little something as he imbibed, he didnât get as drunk. In order to maintain public order, the king decreed that small plates of food called tapas always be served alongside drinks in public bars. Whether or not this is true, tapas is to Spain as pasta is to Italy â" not only a cuisine, but a lifestyle. âTapas is our social media,â explained Ana Ramiro, a representative of the Spanish Tourism Office in Los Angeles, the MadrileÃ±a (Madrid native) who accompanied us on our trip. âItâs how we connect with people. After work, instead of browsing Insta gram and Facebook, we go out for tapas.â
It was during this conversation with Ana that I discovered I was a bit of a celebrity in Spain, at least with the over-40 set. In my former life as an actress, Iâd been a series regular on an â80s primetime soap called Falcon Crest.
âOMG, you were Vicky! La pelliroja (redhead)!â shouted Ana, almost choking on her bocadillo de calamares, a squid sandwich that is quintessential Madrid fare. âMy brother had such a crush on you!â
For the rest of the trip, I experienced the utter charm of watching the locals freak out when they discovered one of their childhood favorites appear in front of them in the unlikely guise of a writer!
To tapear like a local (go out for tapas), plan on hitting three or four different spots. Our group started with Casa Alberto, founded in 1827, housed in a building where Miguel de Cervantes once lived and wrote part of his masterpiece âDon Quixote.â
There, we feasted on squid ink croquetas, Iberian ham, and drank in the historic ambiance â" the antique bar alone is worth a visit. Look up to your right when you enter and youâll see a photo of a bedroom-eyed Ava Gardner enjoying a drink with her bullfighter lover, Luis Miguel Dominquin.
After that we headed to Fragua de Vulcano for paella and tostas de anchoa (toasted bread with anchovies), followed by Casa del Abuelo for some Spanish tortilla. In Spain, âtortillaâ means omelet â" everyone will claim their Spanish tortilla is âthe second best!â â" when a MadrileÃ±o asks them who makes the first best, theyâll reply, âYour mother!â
As a dancer myself ( my passion is the Argentine tango), I couldnât wait to see the show at Teatro Flamenco Madrid, the only theater in the world specifically dedicated to the art. It was, in a word, thrilling. Youâd have to be in a coma not to be affected by the fierce virtuosity and passion exuded by these dancers and musicians â" fingers strumming guitars so quickly they blur, the impossible rhythmic syncopation of the dancers feet, the swirling ruffled skirts, the fringe.
The show left me seriously wanting a manton de Manila: a Spanish shawl. Luckily, the next day was devoted to my favorite activity: shopping.
Spain is at the forefront of the international fashion scene. The two most important shopping areas in Madrid are the Salamanca and Salesas neighborhoods. Youâll find cutting-edge designers like JesÃºs del Pozo, David Delphin, Juan Carlos Pajares, Ailanto, and Sybilla (a favorite of Marisa Paredes, Pedro AlmodÃ³varâs muse). For one-stop shopping, head to Spainâs answer to Bloomingdales, Corte InglÃ©s, which features a range of contemporary designers and gorgeous local crafts. This is where I found my beautiful manton de Manila, along with an extra suitcase. It had been so long since Iâd traveled that I thought leaving home with just one bag would be enough. (Not enough.)
Madrid is known for its rich history and culture. Plan to spend at least a day exploring the lavish interiors and beautiful grounds of the Royal Palace. With over 3000 rooms, itâs one of the largest in Europe. (On a Wednesday or Saturday, youâll witness the Changing of the Guards.) Madrid also boasts some of the most important museums in the world, including the Prado, with its stunning collection of Bosch, Goya, El Greco and Velacru z.
Donât limit yourself to antiquities â" thereâs a vital contemporary arts scene in Madrid, reflected in popular social and cultural centers like Casa Encendida that feature public spaces, art exhibits and rooftop film screenings. When we visited, they were hosting a marvelous exhibition of the films and artwork of American film director Gus Van Sant.
But Madridâs greatest aesthetic beauty isnât housed inside. Just look up â" everywhere you turn, youâll find an abundance of statues perched atop buildings, magnificent angels and massive rearing horses silhouetted against the sky.
Some Like It Hot
In summer, when I made my visit, Spain is hot. Most people take a siesta to avoid the warmest afternoon hours, then head back out at night. In the evening hours the city is vibrant, pulsing with locals and tourists of all ages. On our last evening in Madrid, wandering through the crowded Malasena District, I heard tango music coming from La Plaza el Dos Mayo. I followed the sound to find a free milonga set up in the square. There I danced barefoot to La Cumparsita while colored lights swirled in the trees above. The magic of travel and its unexpected wonders.
It always happens if you are open.
Room at the Inn
Our group stayed at the wonderful Only You Atocha. The lobby, decorated with a wall-size collection of vintage topographical maps and old boxing posters, was abuzz with chicly dressed locals. If youâre in need of a haircut, the lobby offers a full-service barber shop, complete with swirling electric barber pole and handsome tattooed stylist who Iâm told has a waiting list as long as his unfurled man-bun.
If your taste in hotels runs to a more luxury experience, the five-star VP at Plaza Espana has a glass-bottomed rooftop pool. Guests can tool around the city in a âhouseâ Maserati. To get a sense of the clientele this hotel attracts, a Saudi Royal family took over several floors on the day we visited.
Beauty in Valencia
Less than two hours from Madrid by train, once in Valencia, youâre in a different world. The cityâs jewel, the sprawling Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences), designed by architects Santiago Calatrava and FÃ©lix Candela, is so futuristic and other-worldly, it was used as the backdrop for the George Clooney film Tomorrowland. This architectural wonder houses a planetarium, Imax theater, opera house, performing arts center â" and the extraordinary LâOceanogr aphic, the largest aquarium in Western Europe.
People come from all over the world to attend the Fallas Festival. Since the 1930s, locals create intricate papier-mÃ¢chÃ© statues called ninot, which are burned at the end of the festival amid stunning fireworks displays. If your trip doesnât coincide with the festival donât despair. Every year the ninot voted as âbestâ is preserved in the Fallas Museum, open year-round.
Valencia offers plenty for the outdoor-minded. I enjoyed a morning dip in the bathtub-like Mediterranean, followed by a spectacular lunch at an seaside restaurant, Arroceria Duna. Afterwards, I biked through the Turia Gardens, one of the largest urban parks in Spain, featuring 18 bridges, some dating back to the 15th century.
I took a cooking lesson at the Escuela de Arrocias y Paella Valencian, where even an apathetic chef like me was taught to appreciate the transcendent quality of a properly placed pinch of Spanish paprika. Afterwards be sure to buy some authentic saffron at the Valencia Central Market. Youâll pay a fraction of what youâd pay here in the States.
Being a native Southern Californian, Iâm always agog when I visit any place older than Paramount Studios, so I was mesmerized by Valenciaâs magnificent Old Town. In the Plaza de la Reina, I walked on stone pathways worn smooth by the footsteps of centuries of visitors while bargaining with street vendors offering local crafts. Classical musicians serenaded me with Vivaldi and Bach while I enj oyed Pageant of the Masters-style street artists as they portrayed âlivingâ paintings.
I was enthralled by La Lonja, the Silk exchange Market, a 15th century Gothic masterpiece (and UNESCO World Heritage site) â" and left speechless at the Valencia Cathedral, where thereâs a golden Chalice that many believe is the actual Holy Grail. A berobed priest tugged at a heavy rope that rang the tower bells, announcing Mass. As the sound of the bells reverberated in my ears and body, I thought of the throngs throughout the centuries that heard these same sounds â" and felt connected to them all.
The exquisite Las Arenas Balneario Resort offers gorgeous views of the Mediterranean Sea. If youâre traveling with the kids, drop them off at a flamenco lesson (there are plenty of activities for little ones) and hit the surfâ¦or just hang out on the terrace and soak in the view while enjoying some olives and Manchego cheese with a glass of Dominio de Pingus.
On the shu ttle to the airport for my return to Los Angeles, a German girl, about 10 years old, stuck her head out from the seat behind me. âCan I sit with you?â she asked.
Before I could answer, she plopped herself beside me, all blonde plaits and wide grin, staring at me as if I were something magical. I couldnât understand why I made such an impression. âYou like me,â I said, smiling back. She nodded.
âHow come?â I asked.
âI donât know,â she said, beaming.
And thatâs when I felt it.
Iâve had many identities in life: actress, tango dancer, wife, journalistâ¦ but this little girl recognized me for my true self.
Like her, I was just a citizen of the world. The bells were ringing.
Spain: Cortes Ingles
Spain: Guitarist at show at Teatro Flamenco Madrid.
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Street scene in Valencia, Spain.
Spain: Artist in Valencia.
Street wares in Valencia, Spain.
Spain: Valencia Cathedral, where thereâs a golden chalice that many believe is the actual Holy Grail.