A visitor traveling to Spain will want to see all of the history and tourist things to do and see- visit the beach, visit cathedrals, shop; but many visitors may be surprised at the other less attractive side of Spain, especially Madrid.
Madrid is like most cities, not the cleanest and very bustling. The Plaza Mayor is a central site for shopping and eating, and entertainment, and pick-pocketing. First the shopping, everything you want you can find in Madrid. The Cortes Ingles is a major shopping hub which is amidst varying sizes of other storefront venues. The Cortes Ingles is one store that houses many departments like music or high end clothing or bedding or electronics and one whole floor is where you do your grocery shopping. So you can enter the grocery and leave through the shoe department or visa versa. If you don’t want to be confined in one store then you can walk up and down several side streets and shop at many of the other shops. One of things that was alien to me was how departmentalized everything is- so if you need paper products, they are housed in a separate part of the store with its own registers; and if you want video games, you buy that at at separate part of the store than where you buy music Cd’s, even though it is all part of one electronic store.
Second, the eating: great food. Being very accustomed to Caribbean cooking, I expected more spice but Spanish food is more European than Caribbean (duh). The breakfasts are small, the lunches are huge and the typical dinner is late, after 8 PM and consists of small plates of h’orderves – called tapas. The food is tasty but most Americans will have to get use to the differences like fish and shrimp still having their heads on and chicken that has the bone in and salads are more like potato salads than lettuce based salads. The best thing about the food experience is the coffee and the ice cream and the churros. Excellent. One thing to be noted however is that the only food eaten on the street is ice cream; everything else is eaten or drank seated, often at an outside cafe. Take out is not eaten on the street. Food is a part of the social experience, so food and coffee, and sangria are to be savored not rushed.
With that in mind, the Spanish walk everywhere; consequently they are small people with general good health. Americans are much larger in height and weight than most Spaniards.
The third thing you will notice especially in Madrid is the street entertainers. They are hilarious if not eccentric and a little frightening. Like many Catholic/Christian cities, there is an obsession with demons and the undead. There is even a park dedicated to the devil in Madrid… So characters dress up in elaborate costumes, on par with any Hollywood production and pose waiting for an unsuspecting visitor or loyal local to patronize their performance… Then the performance truly begins with tricks or antics or downright surprising you and scaring you. There are so many different performances around, that it is a show all by itself. But make sure you tip, or you may get verbally accosted.
There are definitely two things I did not like about Madrid, the possibility even likelihood of being pick-pocketed and the smoking. Pick pockets were everywhere – meandering around like casual tourists just waiting to strike and when they did, they were gone in a flash with little attention drawn to themselves. Pick-pockets even will walk into hotels and steal people’s wallets and purses right in front of them, without them realizing it before it is too late. Travelers, carry your money under your clothes in a travel pouch and BE AWARE of your surroundings…
While pickpockets are cloaked, smoking and peeing in public is not. Both men and women smoke everywhere, in restaurants, in the streets, at the cafes, and men urinated where ever they wanted: on the side of the road, by a trash can in the midst of a sidewalk, by a building. That also was a surprise. The assault on your lungs will be an assault, and the peeing is just annoying, or funny or weird, depending on how you view it. There is also few limits on drinking and lots of public displays of affection so if you are very Puritan minded, Spain may not be the place for you.
Two other things to note: Spain uses the Euro. Tax and tip are already included in the price. Nice. So what they say is the price is the price. The only draw back is that something that costs 5 Euro may seem cheap, but at our current rate of exchange (around $1.4 per Euro) it might cost nearly $8. The higher the price, the more dollars you are spending so a 25 Euro shirt may not be a bargain at nearly 40 American dollars. Things to keep in mind as you travel…
Overall, Madrid and Spain in general is a wonderful place to visit. While it has its unique customs, it is an an amazing place to go as you seek to see the world. Happy travelings.