Illustration by Emiliano Ponzi
Illustration by Emiliano Ponzi
Madrid’s Retiro Park spans 350 acres, including Estanque del Retiro, a lake where people can rent boats.
AFAR spins the globe and sends novelist Mira T. Lee on a last-minute trip to Spain, where she rediscovers a forgotten side of herself.
It has been six months of anticipation, alternating between excitement and dread, but when I receive my Spin the Globe assignment, I’m ecstatic: MADRID. “Maybe you’ll see Ferdinand!” says my six-year-old, referring to the pacifist bull from Munro Leaf’s famous picture book, the one who likes to “sit just quietly and smell the flowers.”
Within minutes I’m flooded with recommendations from my friends on Facebook: This museum, that market, best churros con chocolate at this café! Don’t miss the Goyas, the pulpo (octopus), the Iberian pork, and go find Tío Pepe. . . . I ride this tidal wave of enthusiasm, but part of me soon wonders if I would’ve been better off just winging it. Spontaneity is romantic, fun, adventurous—at least, that’s what I recall. But it has been 18 years since I last traveled alone in a foreign country. Things have changed.
Back in 2001, I was single, a graphic designer, a late-night creature who played drums in various jazz and pop bands. Thanks to a two-month solo trip to Costa Rica, I was also in the grip of a burgeoning salsa dancing addiction, and between gigging, dancing, and my valiant efforts to take part in Boston’s dating scene, I was out three, four, five nights a week.
Today, I’m a writer, married, with two small children. I do none of those things that once filled my days and nights. By 9 p.m. I’m often prone on the couch, or happily curled up in bed with a book. When the kids were babies, this wasn’t a choice. I was that tired. Now that they’re older, I could experience Boston’s culture and nightlife again, but I find I mostly don’t feel like it. This is not something I disclose with regret or even wistfulness. Though sometimes I do wonder: How many parts of your identity can you lose before you lose yourself? p>
Over the past decade, motherhood has transformed my life into . . .
clutter. The house, the car, the laptop, the desk, but most of all, my jumbled head, where I carry a clichéd checklist of parental tasks: buy this, sign this, schedule this, pay this. I’m eternally busy, planning and managing an endless stream of chores—yet none of it feels important enough to warrant the energy it consumes.
“This trip is almost not worth it,” I confide to friends (a statement that confounds everyone except mothers of young children, who nod).
It’s 7 a.m. when I land in Spain and pitch black outside. The airport is quiet. I find my way to the Metro, emerge from the underground an hour later at Puerta del Sol, and am greeted by Madrid. I’m struck by the sky, dawn’s watery hues, the plaza deserted except for workers in fluorescent yellow vests emptying garbage bins. Tío Pepe, it turns out, is a 27-foot-tall neon image of a sombrero-wearing beer bottle, ready to party, though at this hour, the city center still belongs to its calm sounds: the squabble of pigeons, the low idle of a van delivering Coca-Cola to the bodega, the swish of a broom outside a bakery.
I pass by a shop devoted to jamón (ham), another advertising fried calamari sandwiches (initially, I mistake them for onion rings), a curious store window filled with potato chips. The sun climbs higher, illuminating the facades of Plaza Mayor, the lustrous tiers of Juliet balconies in the alleyways. But the only bustle I find is at El Kinze de Cuchilleros, an old-school barbershop where a line of white-haired customers already sits in wait.
As stores begin to open, I forge on. I come across Home Ideal, an indoor bazaar that draws me in with its dense array of plastic flowers and keeps me intrigued with its 12 varieties of vegetable peelers, 16 styles of tutus, 30 kinds of insoles, hundreds of different-colored shoelaces.
By late morning, the city is fully awake. Thanks to Google Maps, it’s now impossible to get lost, but as one small dot on one small screen, I also never quite know where I am. I wind from Centro to Lavapiés, but whether my hotel lies to the north or south, I couldn’t say.
Article continues below advertisement
Best thing about a trip planned in haste: I have no preconceived notions of what my must-sees actually look like. After checking in at my hotel and visiting a bakery, I enter Retiro Park, the Central Park of Madrid, where sprinklers make rainbows and turtles sunbathe on rocks (a few engaged in strangely placid acts of copulation). When I glimpse Palacio de Cristal, I let out an audible Wow! From a distance, the glass pavilion looks like it’s made of cut paper. But my favorite spot is Estanque del Retiro, the shimmering lake dotted with rowboats, where I’m serenaded by guitar, then trumpet, then the voice of a young opera singer. There’s a softness to it all, the lapping water, the mellow breeze, the deep-blue sky and perfect 75-degree temperature. The afternoon sun hangs low. It’s magic hour. Or maybe it’s just magic.
By the time I return to the Room Mate Alicia hotel, it’s almost 8 o’clock. The place is adorable, like the dorm of your dreams. My room is cozy, with a thick platform bed and striped accent pillows. My instinct is to lie down, relax with a book, maybe look up how much to tip in Spain. But here I am, child-free, my agenda my own, and now I’m gripped with a new anxiety: Fear Of Missing Out syndrome. With some weariness, I change into a dress, apply my makeup. I’m going out to see a show—after all, I’m in Madrid.
What else can I see? What else can I do? Increasingly, I feel energized. Maybe a part of my old self does still exist, the one that’s game, curious, excitable.
Flamenco is a dance of passion, frenzied and percussive, and the intimate atmosphere of the club Cardamomo amplifies this experience. Rhythms are clapped, snapped, stomped, slapped; the performers’ bodies are used as instruments. Skirts swirl, the stage shakes, the energy intensifies until it feels like trying to contain a stampede of bulls. Soon the drummer in me cannot stop tapping my fingers, my feet. I want to move.
After the show, I wander outside. At 10 p.m., Madrid comes to life, and with the streets and plazas buzzing, the allure of my platform bed fades. I realize my day’s sustenance has consisted of three churros, a croissant, and two chocolate pastries. So I find a seat at La Vinoteca and ask the bartender which tapas she recommends. An American wearing a tuxedo downs a shot, rushes out. A stylish Italian couple in the corner expresses affection via enthusiastic high fives. That Iberian pork tenderloin is tasty. It’s late. I’m out. I feel alive.
Day two, I’m heartened by how readily wonder revives when everything around is new. Without the distractions of antsy children, I lose myself in the expansive gardens of Plaza de Oriente, where a guitarist strums Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” and I imagine royals sashaying down the steps of the Palacio Real. I expect Catedral de la Almudena to be “just another” Gothic church but am awed by its strikingly modern interior. The ceiling is tiled with handpainted rectangular panels, hundreds of them, it appears. I stand, stare, crane my neck, noting that each tile has its own unique, colorful geometric pattern—no repeats!
That afternoon, I board the high-speed train, on time to the minute. What visit to Spain would be complete without seeing the architectural marvels of Antoni Gaudí? A few hours later, I’m strolling down the wide avenues of Barcelona, alongside cyclists, boutiques, pop-up bookstores, flocks of chattering schoolchildren sharing candy bars. After a quick stop at La Boquería, a busy market where food display, like flower arranging, has become an art, I head for Gaudí’s multicolored Casa Batlló. A princess’s castle studded with candy jewels, I think, whereas Casa Milà, with its fanciful curves, reminds me of a cake, heavy with icing. I must be craving dessert.
But it’s on Day Three, when I’m flooded with rainbows of light streaming through the stained glass windows of La Sagrada Família basilica, that I’m certain I’ve entered the realm of the sublime. At the on-site museum I learn about Gaudí’s inspirations, drawn from nature, the way he revised and revised and revised his designs. The church, still unfinished, has been under construction for 137 years. What else can I see? What else can I do? Increasingly, I feel energized. Maybe a part of my old self does still exist, the one that’s game, curious, excitable.
Day Four begins with a cable car ride up to Barcelona’s Montjuïc Castle, followed by a downhill meander through the maze-like gardens of Montjuïc Park. Then it’s uphill again, accompanied by the rhythmic chugs of long escalators transporting me to spectacular views. Standing in front of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, a palatial building perched atop a fortress of stairs, my gaze sweeps over the Magic Fountain, the Venetian Towers, the circular green of Plaza de España.
Article continues below advertisement
By late afternoon, I’m tired of walking. I take the bus to Barceloneta Beach, where rows of sidewalk merchants hawk Converse sneakers, and hardy surfers paddle out to greet the waves. As shadows grow long, I find a table overlooking the ocean and contemplate the simple perfection of a single ice cube in a sturdy round glass. Down by the water, two boys are attempting handstands. They fall over and fall over, hair wetter, faces sandier, until finally they collapse, shrieking, as their small bodies cede to the surf. And now this sensation, a mix of longing and guilt: Have I missed my own children? Barely. Four days, and already I feel like another version of myself. I’ve shifted into a different narrative.
My companions egg me on, flag down the smoothest dancers, shout in their ears, “Hey, this American woman wants to dance!”
That evening, I enter the grand hall of Palau de la Música Catalana, where I’m fidgety as I wait for concert pianist András Schiff to take the stage. Piano was a pillar of my childhood. I played for 14 years, and though I almost never attend classical concerts anymore, my mother brought me regularly as a child. “Can you see his hands?” she’d say, as I bounced up and down in my seat. She recorded my recitals and played those cassette tapes over and over again, up until the very end, when she was in the hospital battling leukemia. “You were pretty good,” she’d say, listening to renditions of Chopin’s nocturnes or Bach’s Italian Concerto from my high school years. “It’s a shame you don’t play anymore.”
I do play now, sometimes, duets with my eight-year-old. He’s talented, musical, but I fight with him to practice, as my mother did with me. From high in the balcony, I wish I could tell my mother, “See, I’m here!” Schiff’s first F chord of the Italian Concerto rings out, tears stream down my face. Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe it’s grief. Or maybe it’s joy in discovering my renewed appreciation for the submerged parts of my identity, the ones I thought I’d lost for good.
Back in Madrid, I spend Night Five with Ana, a friend of a friend, who has brought three more friends. We start at the food stalls of Mercado San Miguel and move to a proper meal at Sobrino de Botín, the oldest restaurant in the world, where we devour roast suckling pig and garlic shrimp. We end at Discoteca El Son, a small club, and as the familiar rhythms of salsa and merengue move through my body, another dormant urge ignites. My companions egg me on, flag down the smoothest dancers, shout in their ears, “Hey, this American woman wants to dance!” At 1 a.m. I say good-bye, return to my hotel. But I’m still high on endorphins, far from sated. I change my shoes, head back out, weaving through Chueca’s rowdy streets until I reach Tropical House, where I join the throngs of sweaty dancers propelled by the music.
My final day in Spain I’m running on two hours’ sleep, without regret. A short train ride brings me to the ancient walled city of Toledo, stunning in its history but also jam-packed. I’m sidetracked by the various wedding couples I encounter with their finely dressed guests—men in blue-gray suits, ladies in fancy hats, little girls with flowers in their hair. One party is gathered outside a church, blocking my path, so I stand with a group of Chinese tourists filming the commotion with their phones. When the newlyweds emerge, the crowd erupts, confetti fills the air. The Chinese tourists cheer, too, their leader beaming as he waves his small yellow flag.
Soon I’ve had enough of the jostling. I long to escape. I find El Rincón de Peter, a lunch joint with a tiny terrace, in what must be the quietest plaza in Toledo. I order a Spanish tortilla and fresh pineapple juice, listen to the jazz filtering into the air from the boom box inside. “Buena música,” I say to the proprietor in my halting Spanish. “McCoy Tyner?” His face lights up. He says something I don’t understand, but the shared appreciation of the music is enough.
This last afternoon, my sole mission becomes to avoid the crowds. I thread down Toledo’s narrowest lanes and every time I see people, I turn down another alleyway. I find myself among wafting aromas of garlicky sauces and yeasty breads, the sounds of clanging pots, low murmurs of families in mealtime conversations. There’s the muffle of a trumpet, a novice cellist practicing scales, the tinny bellow of an accordion. On the balconies above me I spot lazing cats, small dogs, nervous birds hopping around in their cages. Clotheslines sag, heavy with undergarments. In the back alleys of Toledo, it feels as if I’ve discovered a secret, the sights and sounds of ordinary lives.
And now, I realize, perhaps this is the side of myself I’ve been happiest to rediscover: the one that appreciates the beauty in the mundane.
I sit quietly and smell the flowers.
Sign up for the Daily Wander newsletter for expert travel inspiration and tips
Please enter a valid email address.