We step off the city bus into the bustling Puerta Del Sol plaza in the heart of tourist-drenched Madrid, Spain. La Puerta del Sol translates to The Doorway of the Sun. Elegant. Our hosts and tour guides, my Spanish friend Plácido whose exchange year overlapped with mine at the University of Paris back in the ‘90s, his wife, and their four-year-old daughter, have brought us here to our first stop during our ‘Tully Touring Day.’ Our goal: to eat churros y chocolate for breakfast.
La Puerta del Sol. I take a deep breath. I love a good European plaza. It’s where several streets converge to form an open public pedestrian space. Towns and cities have plazas for fountains, benches, gatherings, markets, cafés, monuments, fiestas, firecrackers, protests, picnics, and of course, they are perfect for taking photos.
I am so thrilled to have my family in Madrid! The prominent “Tío Pepe“ sign overseeing the plaza. The Metro entrance with it’s modern cover structure interrupting the openness of the plaza. Flowers. Statues. A too-thin Minnie Mouse aggressively chasing tourists for photos. And last but not least, all the people.
The one thing I want to do during our brief stay in Madrid is get a photo in front of “El Madroño.” Known as the Statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree, it’s part of Madrid’s coat of arms. This statue of a bear on its hind legs eating (I guess a strawberry) from the tree is an iconic symbol of Madrid. I’m not sure exactly where the statue is located, though, and I’m distracted, so we blink under the sun like creatures who just crawled out of a dark cave. My husband and my two kids age 13 and 14 fumble for their cameras/phones.
Plácido is ready to leave the plaza when I declare, “Wait a second! We have to take some pictures!”
“Oh, I see. You’re going to do the tourist photo thing?” he comments with a worried look on his face as he watches my husband focus the lens of his Nikon camera.
“Hell, yes we are! Kids, stay right there!” I cry, capturing the kids with the Tío Pepe sign in the background.
“Which way to the churros y chocolate?” my husband asks after a few minutes, making a point to roll his Spanish r’s. He stows his camera and looks around the plaza with a hungry gleam in his eye.
“Right this way,“ Plácido responds. He turns on his fine Spanish shoes and leads the way out of the plaza. We follow like mice behind the Pied Piper. Though hungry, our group moves with little urgency. I blame the teenagers.
We ramble along Madrid’s lively Calle Mayor (Main Street), turn down a narrow alley and through an arched stone tunnel ending at the chocolate shop, San Ginés Chocolatería.
Though it‘s a breakfast of chocolate and churros, we have started the day nice and late. It’s after ten o’clock when we find the restaurant. However, ten is still fairly early for a summer Saturday in Spain. A small line of about twelve people waits patiently to be seated.
I peek in the doorway to find it is bigger than I expected and already brimming with people seated at tables and chairs crowded into the two-level space. One of the countertops is covered with towers of white cups and saucers. The outdoor seating hugs the restaurant’s corner on the cobblestone walkway. Nearly all tables, inside and out, are full.
“Perdón, perdón,” comes a deep voice from the restaurant, a formal “Excuse me.” It’s one of the servers, who are clad in all-white pants, shirts, and long aprons, humming with efficiency like bees in a beehive. They thread through the tables, trays raised above their heads balancing teetering stacks of cups and saucers filled with hot, thick chocolate.
We join the line but are whisked inside after only a few moments. Plácido is counting us and talking to a server. Before I realize what’s happening, our order is placed and the white flash of the server’s apron disappears around the corner.
Churros big and small overflow on plates plunked down in the center of our two tables pushed together. Cups of hot chocolate on white saucers steam under our noses.
The two sizes of churros have different names. We are less concerned about learning the names of the churros and more concerned about scooping the chocolate into our mouths.
My husband’s eyes light up when he tastes the chocolate and churros. He is a picky eater, particular, a super-taster (choose your favorite). He is relieved that it’s delicious! How could one go wrong with fried dough? And the pudding-like chocolate? One can’t. One simply cannot go wrong. We quiet down as the seven of us start eating, taking the occasional break for a photo or to exclaim at the food’s deliciousness.
A short while later with tummies full of churros and chocolate, we exit and take a photo of our group outside of the chocolateria. My husband can’t stop talking about his high school Spanish textbook, entitled “Churros y Chocolate.” His appreciation is thirty years late.
As we leave, we skirt the line to be seated, now snaking around the block. I marvel at how we beat the crowd by arriving at ten.
We resume our touristy stroll through the heart of Madrid. Everything is overwhelmingly charming and old world. But also sometimes crazy modern. This is the juxtaposition of Spain. The old world buildings are beautiful and elegant, but Spain strives to be modern, beautiful and elegant too. Sleek, glass buildings butt against hundreds-of-years-old stone buildings with narrow iron-railing balconies. Rainbow flags flutter from balconies and signs declare Madrid loves you, ‘whoever you love.’ It’s a dance of embracing the new while still holding on to tradition.
Our tour carries on, winding briefly through one or two streets before we emerge through another archway into the Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s main square.
Now this is a proper plaza. It’s a stunningly symmetrical rectangle, surrounded on all four sides by a beautiful building in tones of red with white trim. At the street level all around the edge of the plaza, stone archways provide shade to entrances of stores, shops, restaurants and cafés. Round benches are adorned with padlocks. We learn padlocks are the new “I was here” graffiti souvenir to leave behind. We hear it’s lucky to leave a padlock somewhere. (Don’t expect to find your padlock on your next visit, however, as authorities are not fond of them.) Most padlocks contain a message.
A man is creating giant, iridescent bubbles with two wands and a string. People stroll. Outdoor cafes and restaurants await customers under their shaded canopies. We take more photos. Plácido and I snap a selfie to send to one of our French friends from our year at the University of Paris.
Will we get lost? Will we collapse from heat exhaustion? Will we find the statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree? The Madrid tour continues…in next week’s blog. ¡Hasta pronto!