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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Few Days in Madrid

Sometimes the beauty of Madrid is higher up.

Nice Knockers 
The doors aren't bad either.
Ok, lesson number 1.  You’re not going to see all of Madrid in a few days. Put a cap on that bottle right now.  Matter of fact, you can live there a few years and only get a tasty swallow of this wonderful city.

Lesson number 2. Shrug off the shame of well-traveled friends asking if you saw (fill in the blank) or ate at (fill in another blank).  There are thousands of restaurants and thousands of things to see and do in Madrid and you missed their favorites???

Seeing a big Spanish city in a few days is like becoming fluent in Castilian in a few days.  So, relax.  Ain’t gonna happen.

Let me be bold and arrogant enough to suggest how you can make your few days memorable.  Madrid has a wonderful Metro system, and an equally fantastic bus system.  Whenever possible, don’t use them.  Walk.  Feast on the sounds of the city, the serendipity of seeing a sidewalk café and stopping for a leisurely wine or beer, or coffee, or cola.  Strike up a conversation with the natives, many of whom speak at least a smattering of Anglo.  Get off the main streets. Smile a lot.

Did you miss the post on Tascas in Madrid?  One click will fill in the gaps.

“So, that’s wonderful,” I hear you saying, with a great deal of righteous indignation.  “I’m only here a few days and I’m wasting them drinking beer?”

You have a point. Ok, let’s pick out some destinations, some aiming points. You can eat and drink along the way.  Of course, there’s the world famous El Prado art museum and down the street is the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía that houses one of the most famous paintings of the 20th Century, Picasso’s Guernica.   By the way, it’s pronounced Gar (as in Gary)-KNEE-ka.  As you probably know, Guernica is Pablo Picasso’s raw, emotional portrait of the horror that is war, in this case inflicted by Germany and Italy during the Spanish Civil War.  However, it’s good to keep in mind two things.  The first is that Picasso did not paint the town itself, but the emotional representation of having the town bombed.  Secondly, in any civil war, there’s always enough cruelty around for both sides to have a heaping share. 

Besides the painting itself, the museum displays all the preliminary sketches and partial paintings the artist did as he found his way toward the finished masterpiece.

Another tidbit.  He didn’t think this was his greatest painting.  What was?  Surely you don’t expect me to give you the answer and spoil the fun.

So, anyway, you’ve gotten your fill of Goya and Velazquez and so much more in the Prado.  On your stroll to Guernica, please stop right before you get there and have a cooling drink in a little hole in the wall restaurant right next door to Queen Sofia’s Art Central.  Take it from me, even when you’re right on top of the museum, you’ll need to stop and ask directions.  This garden of delight is the perfect spot to do it.  Looks like just a gate in a high wall.   Instead, you’ll find a paradise of tranquility so beguiling you’ll end up spending an hour.

One final note about El Prado.  Don’t rush.  Remember so many of those paintings from your art history class are right here and they’re more vibrantly powerful in person.  You can rent an audio guide that explains each painting.  Lots of ushers around to point you in the direction of your favorites.
Plaza Mayor
Another major destination:  Plaza Mayor.  Only need to remember a few things.  Lots of Toscas and memorable restaurants in and surrounding the Plaza.  That big man on a horse near the center is Philip III, the king who did most of the planning and building of this wondrous plaza.  Overlooking the rectangular plaza are four sides of apartments and shops. The center is strewn with sidewalk cafés,  in great contrast to the autos-da-fé, which took place here in the 16th Century.  If you’re not aware of what an auto-da-fé is, I’ll give you a clue.  It’s wasn't beef and pork the inquisitors of the Spanish Inquisition were roasting.
Inside Casa Paco
I mentioned notable restaurants.  Casa Paco for perhaps the best steaks in the world.  Served on plates heated to almost 1300ºF (700ºC), the meat is gorgeously roasted on the outside and raw in the middle.  Just slice it as thin as you’d like and let the super-heated plates cook it to your taste.

Don't miss the Fabada Soup

Line in front of Botin's

Roast Suckling Pig

Or try the world famous Botin’s, founded in 1725 and made world famous by Ernest Hemingway.  Guinness Book of World Records lists Botin's as the world's oldest restaurant. Gotta have some Conchinillo Asado, roast suckling pig.  Crunchy skin and meat that’s fork tender.

If you’re in town on Sunday, make a trip to El Rastro, Madrid’s famous flea market.  You’ll find everything from expensive antiques, to interesting and affordable objet d’art.  There are also streets lined with stands selling cheap clothes and jewelry.  By-pass those.  Look to the side streets for the treasures.

While you’re at the Rastro, with luck you’ll find a spot for chocolaté y churros.  You may have eaten churros, those crispy cylinders of fired dough, but I’ll wager you haven’t tried cups of Spanish hot chocolate.  It’s so thick and rich it’s almost like pudding.  Go ahead and dip your churros in.  Everybody does.

Never seen a flamenco performance?  An evening in Madrid is the time and place. Fabulous costumes, lots of finger snapping, clacking of heels, and intricately beautiful guitar strumming.

Another Plaza or two.  La Puerta del Sol is just a couple of blocks from Plaza Mayor.  It’s where you’ll find the statue that’s the symbol of Madrid, La Oso y El Madrono, the bear and the strawberry tree.  And never forget La Plaza Santa Ana for wonderful tapas and only a couple of blocks away from La Puerta del Sol.
Gambas al Ajillo

Pimientas de Padron.

Royal Palace

View from Café Oriente

Of course you’ll want to visit the Royal Palace in La Plaza Oriente.  While you’re there, look for Café Oriente across the tree-lined plaza and with a beautiful view of the palace.  Take a break.  Have a wine.

Already you’ve used up your few days.  Really?  It’s over so fast?  Hey, time to put another visit on your calendar.  I’ll drink to that!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Dazzle Me with An Evening of Tapas in Madrid

A tinto in one of my favorites, Casa Paco

As my loyal readers (both of you) probably realize, I haven’t written in a while.  I know you’ve scratched your heads and tossed through sleepless nights, but there’s no need to worry.  I’ve been traveling and one of the places I traveled was to a small village of a few million people, nestled in the beating heart of Spain.  Everybody’s  heard about Madrid, the capitol of Spain.  Bullfights, flamenco dancing, Hola! and buenas dias.  Yes, but how about cuisine and quaint customs?

Spanish cuisine is not close to Mexican, or Peruvian, or Argentinian.  Nor is it close to German, or French, or Italian.  But rather than dwell on the broad spectrum, let’s concentrate on one little word you’ve probably heard before: tapas.  Yeah, I know, so-called tapas are so au current they’re served in mall-restaurants all over the U.S.  But, let me tell you, those are not the same tapas you’ll eat in Spain.

 Tapas are to Spain what hors d’oeuvres are to France, an endless variety of little tasty tidbits to accompany an afternoon slosh of beer or wine.  While you swap lies with friends, at a tiny table in an outdoor café, tapas help you keep your strength up.   You order a beverage and the cheery waiter brings you a small dish without you even asking.  Slices of chorizo, or cheese, some olives, or potato chips, a small slice of Spanish tortilla, or even some boiled shrimp.  Then there are more elaborate creations of fish and meat and vegetables, some made into pastes and others more recognizable.

Did I say "waiter" instead of "serving-person-who-could-be-either-sex"?  Yes, I did.  In Spanish drinking establishments, the servers are more than 90% men. I arrived at that statistic after hours and hours of careful research.

Time to stop for a moment and reflect on cuisine and culture.  In Spain, prime dinnertime is 10:30 at night.  Spaniards start off the day with a coffee and perhaps a pastry between 9 and 10 in the morning, often in the same bar they drank in the night before.  Then there’s a break for wine about 11.  Siesta arrives about 1 p.m. and lasts until 3.  Small shops close, and the back streets of Madrid, which are lined with small shops, look almost deserted.  Siesta is more than lunch and a nap.  It’s family time.  Important time.

All of this means when you eat lunch about 2 p.m. and wait until 10:30 p.m. for your next meal, something’s gotta give, which brings us back to tapas.

Tapa time is around 6 p.m. until 8.  You gather …. Wait a sec, where do you gather?  Ok, time for another digression:  Bars are not generally called bars in Spain, they’re called tascas.  Not hard to remember.  You eat tapas in a tasca.  Often you drink and nosh, then move on for another drink.  We call that tasca-hopping.  And in the morning, as I mentioned, they serve coffee and pastries.  So when a youngster tells his teacher, “My momma drops me off at the bus stop and goes to the bar,” he’s not spilling family secrets. it’s a grand idea, as a matter of fact, I…anyway…

Quick Spanish lesson.  Want a draft beer?  Ask for una caña.  How ‘bout a red wine?  Tinto.  White?  Blanco.  All come in a small size.
Tortilla Español
 A couple of paragraphs ago, I mentioned Spanish Tortilla.  So, what’s the diff?  A Mexican tortilla is thin and flat, made from corn, or wheat flour, while a Spanish tortilla is a thick, round omelet, with a filling of sliced potatoes, and large enough to share with a group of your favorite inebriates. Spanish tortillas are often served at room temp.

Now that you’ve got the rules and the lingo down, I’m looking at my watch and think it’s time to don those dark glasses, open the top button on the shirt, roll up the sleeves and hit the streets.  You need a little money, but not too much.  Uno tinto, or una caña will cost you about 1 to 3 Euros, and remember those little plates of tapa are usually free.  Oh, yeah, put that dazzling smile on your face! An evening of tapas in Madrid awaits! 

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Monday, May 22, 2017

Holy $moke by Derek Robinson

Hungry for a book that snaps your eyes open and dares you to put it down?  Here’s a tip!  Holy $moke, by my favorite living writer, Derek Robinson.  Holy $moke is a smorgasbord of spies, intrigue, laugh out loud fun, and indelible and unlikely characters, all driven by a swiftly moving plot.

About time a book came along that is so startlingly original that I forgot about my afternoon nap and my before dinner cocktail.  All done without the clichés of murder, seduction and gunnery.  Wait a sec…no sex, blood, violence and still spellbinding???  Let me give you the whole picture.  My favorite writer doesn’t depend on weepy and psychologically damaged characters either.

Let’s set the stage.  As World War II ebbs toward its ragged conclusion. Allied forces are advancing by fits and starts through Italy. Southern Italy is liberated, but no one is quite sure what’s filling the vacuum. In the north, German forces are putting up a hell of a fight.  In Rome, the fascist government is deposed, leaving a political and commercial void in its wake.  Ordinary Romans try desperately to put food in the mouths of their families and gather together the shards of their war shattered lives. 

Meanwhile, General “Wild Bill” Donovan, the brainy, bellicose founder and leader of the Office of Strategic Services has his OSS agents scouring the city for leftover scraps of intelligence.  He’s not messing around and neither are his underlings, who haven’t produced viable information in ages.  The pressure is on.  The message is clear:  find new veins of intelligence gold, or find yourself banished to some backwater, where you’ll wait out the war filling out forms and filling filing cabinets, while your brain atrophies and your raw fingertips bleed.

Enter Virgilio del Pronto, an out of work writer, recently released from prison and looking to restart his so-so career.  With Rome’s newspapers and magazines in ruins, finding a writing job is damn near impossible. Plus, more than just an empty belly is pressuring him.  There’s Virgilio’s caustic wife, an unpleasant person in the best of times, who never lets him forget he’s unemployed.  “How lucky I was to marry a writer…Instead of a ditch digger who brought home a wage.”  Yes, I often identify with that.

But some things Virgilio has in abundance are acquaintances, all of whom are very aware of his fluid imagination and gift for the written word.  We’d call his approach ‘networking.’  He calls it survival.

Then, out of the blue, with persistence and a truckload of luck, Virgilio strikes gold.  A vein of it.  And it’s just what the American OSS agents need.

Robinson mines history and inserts vivid strands of humor into another of his seamlessly free flowing tales of the improbable. Reminiscent of his Eldorado series (The Eldorado Network, Operation Bamboozle, Artillery of Lies, and Red Rag Blues), Holy $moke leads you through a neatly constructed and mesmerizing sequence of events, all founded on equally improbable truth.  Along the way, he paints a clear picture of life under Allied occupation, while weaving a magnetic tale of Vatican intrigues, including oddities such as the German Ambassador playing tennis with the Japanese Ambassador.  Yes, even after Rome’s liberation, Axis Ambassadors to the papal enclave still played on.

All of this is preposterous, yet in large measure it happened.  You’ll be turning pages and chuckling as Derek Robinson leads you through this romp of a novel!  Pick up your copy early in the day; otherwise you’re going to lose sleep! 

I always read Derek Robinson’s books twice.  Once for enjoyment and again for even more enjoyment!

Check out his web site: or order directly from the author at;

Although Holy $moke is self-published, don’t forget to look for his other supremely entertaining books on or  There must be twenty, both novels and non-fiction. His series of flying novels, from both World War I and II are the best I’ve ever read.  But, I warn you, all his books are as addictive as potato chips at a cocktail party and while you’re laughing and eagerly flipping pages, you’re also getting sneaky glimpses into real, unvarnished history!