By Sandy MacDonald
Trying to book a multi-legged trip to Europe can be tricky: most carriers seem inexplicably intent on limiting travelers to a single airport, to and fro. So I was delighted to discover the city-hopping packages offered by European Destinations.
One particular cheapo-combo airfare was just too tempting to resist: New York to Madrid and Barcelona and back: all three flights for under $700 per person. (Europe is enticingly cheap off-season – about half off the summer highs.) Another great thing about this consolidator is that they give you a vast choice of lodging: you’re not stuck with a package promoting some loser hotel in the outback.
Of the hundreds of lodgings made available through an easily prioritizable search, we chose a couple of centrally located four-star business hotels run by a Spanish chain. We figured we’d get a bit of local flavor without enduring the possible penuries of a small pension or the decorative overkill of a great many design hotels.
The first, Catalonia Las Cortes, would put us within easy striking distance of Madrid’s nonpareil art caches, the Prado and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum; the second, Catalonia Passeig de Gracia, sits midway between the bulk of Barcelona’s Gaudi attractions and the winding passageways of the city’s medieval Gotic district.
Las Cortes proved to be a gem. An 18th-century palacete retaining vestiges of its grand past (the Imperial Suite actually features original frescos), it’s boutique in scale, and the luxurious rooms – done up in soothing neutrals – boast all the modern amenities. Our spacious chamber looked out on a quiet street lined with picturesque iron balconies. Madrid can be a vehicular madhouse, but all of el Barrio de Las Letras — the “literary district” once frequented by Cervantes and Lope de Vega — is virtually car-free, and a pedestrian’s delight.
Those marvelous museums turned out to be each a mere 5-minute walk, and just past the Prado, the Parque del Retiro – a 350-acre monarchical legacy — awaited exploration. We happened upon an intriguing exhibit within the park’s lovely Palacio de Cristal, and capped off our explorations with exquisite treats at the Moulin Chocolat near the park’s northern edge.
Back at the hotel, it was difficult to work up an appetite, given Las Cortes’ unusual perk: an open buffet set up all afternoon into evening. Here we sampled tortas, tapas, ensaladas, and postres (the latter two categories stylishly tucked into Mason jars) before heading out in search of a classic Madrileño supper. We’d decided that, rather than seek out cutting-edge restaurants (of which Madrid has a surfeit), what we really craved were local dishes long on flavor and tradition.
Like many a neophyte before us, we fell for a tourist trap over by the Plaza Mayor. Longevity is no proof of quality, as we learned from the charred, dessicated paella served at the all-but-deserted Chiky, est. 1880. (A waiter literally dragged us in: in Spain, sidewalk hustling apparently goes with the job). All was forgiven the next evening when we happened upon the real thing a mere block from the hotel, at Viva Madrid, in business since 1856. The genial waiter not only tolerated my rusty Spanish but complimented it. That’s diplomacy — especially given that we’d already added a grateful tip (in Spanish restaurants, neither factored-in nor required, as a rule).
Another culinary dissuader, daily, was Las Cortes’ unbelievably bountiful gratis breakfast, which included not only main dishes and a panoply of desserts, but a churros bar complete with hot chocolate sauce dispenser.
We’d taken the subway from the airport to Catalonia Las Cortes, perhaps to prove our mettle, but it turns out that both Madrid and Barcelona boast cheap bus connections (under $3 each way). Every 15 minutes or so, these shuttles zip from their respective terminals — both dazzlingly modern — to el centro and back. Look these up before you go, or ask on site, and save yourself a schlep.
We arrived in Barcelona after dark, and one strategy I would strongly advise against is trying to find a charming restaurant amid the byzantine byways of the Barri Gotic (Gothic district) at night. The better restaurants are discretely concealed behind massive wooden doors, and all you’ll see are innumerable souvenir shops proffering futbol jerseys Save your explorations for daytime, when you can fan out from the gorgeously bleak Santa Maria del Mar cathedral and plunder the tiny artisanal shops that await down narrow, twisting streets.
The Catalonia Passeig de Gracia, alas, lacks Las Cortes’ phenomenal buffets and breakfasts, so sustenance became a necessity. We tended to let propinquity rule, opting to eat whenever and wherever our footsteps flagged. We tromped all over town, tracking down the Gaudi oeuvre and – heresy alert — weren’t terribly impressed. It didn’t help that virtually every edifice was under wraps for repairs (whimsy coexists unhappily with durability), or that rain dogged us for days. We searched in vain for those playful details that pop so nicely in sunny tourist photos.
Discouraged, we repaired to a park flanking Gaudi’s perhaps unfinishable chef-d’oeuvre, the Sagrada Familia cathedral. There a charming woman selling creps recommended that we seek out the Museu National d’Art de Catalunya way across town. It sounded musty and parochial but was anything but: In addition to a priceless trove of Medieval and Gothic art, this grand edifice — built in 1929 for the International Exposition hosted by King Alfonso XIII — now harbors international art from every period (some of it Thyssen-Bornemisza surplus).Definitely pause for lunch at Oleum, a distinguished restaurant located in the original throne room, overlooking the city. Afterwards, clamber to the roof, to see all of Barcelong, laid out like a standing invitation to return and explore anew.
About Sandy MacDonald
Sandy Macdonald is a theatre critic and travel writer; details at sandymacdonald.com