Madrid. It was an afterthought. We'd only planned to stay the night because it was the cheapest city in Spain from which to fly back home. Guess we'll spend some time in Madrid, I thought. The rest of our trip to the Canary Islands and Barcelona was meticulously planned, but Madrid? We'd stay there too - but just for a night.
In fact, I only started researching where to stay in Madrid when we were eight days into our two-week long trip. By then we'd been dealt our share of setbacks - our luggage was lost for the duration of our trip to the Canary Islands (thank goodness for nude beaches...kidding, sort of), so we had to buy clothes, bathing suits, towels, as we went - lots of unexpected costs. We also splurged on glamping in Lanzarote, which wasn't cheap. So we were strapped for cash and needed to be thrifty in Madrid. That being said, it was a chance to visit Spain's capital city, so shacking up in a branded airport hotel wasn't an option, either. We had one day in Madrid and I'd make it count, empty pockets or not.
When it came to my budget travel plans in Madrid, my first step was to find an off the beaten path locale to stay. Somewhere in a small neighborhood, beyond the grip of the average tourist. The Brooklyn of Madrid, if you will. A lot of times, my search begins with food. No, not the kind where I'm getting crumbs in my keyboard, more like the kind where I search Tripadvisor or Yelp for great restaurants. I build myself a map in Google and find the biggest concentration of great local restaurants which tends to be far from the more touristy parts of town. I find my own center of everything. This is exactly how I stumbled upon La Latina.
Located in the oldest part of Madrid, within the walled, Islamic citadel of El Madrid de Los Austrias, La Latina is off the beaten path, yet central. It is adjacent to Palacio Real, the Spanish Royal Family's official residence (ornate doesn't begin to describe it). La Latina is made up of narrow streets and large plazas that act simultaneously as gathering places and thoroughfares. The roads are so narrow that few cars dare to drive - public transportation or walking is recommended. The neighborhood is known as the epicenter of tapas in Madrid, with a host of tapas joints within two winding blocks along Cava Baja and Cava Alta. Now if only I could find a place to stay in La Latina, I'd be golden.
A little about me, I'm not a hostel person (or hostile person for that matter). You won't really find me backpacking or camping without a roof over my head. My form of budget travel is getting a great deal on a little bit of luxury. It was with this mindset that I found Posada Del Dragón. A simple search for luxury hotels in Madrid will bring up several great options, ranging in price from $200-400 - so maybe this wasn't in the cards for us, I thought. But when I zeroed in on what was nearby La Latina, the choice became clear. Not only because the other 4- and 5-star hotels in the area where much farther from La Latina, but also more expensive (think $130-$190 range). Posada Del Dragón came up at $100/night if I booked right then and there on Tripadvisor.
But as any hotel marketer worth her salt will tell you, it's worth clicking around. Here are my top 3 tips for finding the best deals on hotel stays:
- OTAs (online travel agencies) are a repository for hotels looking to sell remnant inventory - often at deeply discounted rates when there's lots of last minute availability. And I was, in fact, planning a last minute trip.
- Better still, independent hotels often post last minute deals on their own websites to avoid the hefty fees that come with OTA bookings. As a general rule, I check the hotel websites first, as I'd rather support an independent hotel than big box OTAs.
- And my craziest tip of all (don't worry, I'm not going to make you sign up for my newsletter)...search in an incognito window! This goes for flights too. If the travel industry does one thing right - it's tracking their users - i.e. understanding what a user is doing before, after, and during their time on site. Travel sites can customize content based on IP-addresses (aka your location), and dynamically change pricing accordingly. As an American abroad, I found that booking from my home in the US, I was served very different prices than from my hotel room in Barcelona. So go incognito or go home with a lighter wallet.
It wasn't long before I found a $67 rate for Posada del Dragón. Reservation confirmed.
We arrived via train from Barcelona and cabbed to Posada del Dragón because our Spanish was dusty enough that we couldn't figure out the public transit system, and with only a day in Madrid, we needed to make the most of it. Bad idea. Cars really aren't meant to drive into or around La Latina. The struggle was real. But after a lot longer than it should have taken, we arrived. Looking up at the hotel, it was a narrow building that formerly housed a barn. In either direction, colorful shops lined the winding, cobblestone streets. It was quaint, picturesque - my husband and I exchanged knowing glances - surprised by what we'd found.
Our hotel room far exceeded our expectations for what we paid. The queen bed and crisp linens were cozy, and the oversized, bold headboard and wall moldings gave the room a luxe, boutique vibe.
There was a small desk in the room, not that we had a moment to sit down, and a spacious bathroom complete with a space-age sink, and a glass-enclosed shower. I'm not normally one to take (or share) bathroom photos, but this you've got to see.
We wandered out onto Calle Cava Baja only a few paces from the hotel when the doors of La Perejila opened. The afternoon siesta was over and the eclectic decor drew us inside. The Andalusian menu included 25 tapas, everything from pheasant pate to gambas and queso.
Tapas is a great way to dine on a budget, as we learned in Barcelona. This style of dining is comprised of small plates designed for sharing, allowing us to sample a variety of items and feel satisfied without ordering heavy (and expensive entrées). We ordered tapas and cava for two. The cava in Spain flows like water, is generally less expensive than wine, and comes with the seal of Denominación de Origen. Cava just so happens to pair perfectly with bright, fresh tapas and more complex dishes.
Our tapas arrived one at a time, giving each dish a well-deserved moment in the spotlight. The flavors were complex and the service was warm, playful even. A group of what must have been regulars had gathered at the bar around the time we were served, and the bartender was entertaining them with drinks and dance moves. It was festive; it was just right.
After our late lunch, we wandered up Cava Baja and into Mercado San Miguel. Not surprising, this market is one of Madrid's oldest, and was originally built in 1916. Fully renovated to include glass ceilings and seating areas in 2003, the modern-day market reopened in 2009. It was the perfect next stop on our budget trip - one of many free things to do in Madrid that was culturally stimulating without ever opening up our wallets (okay, maybe just for dessert).
We love markets for their color and variety - we spent hours at the boquerias of Barcelona, and we weren't sick of them yet. Although our bellies were full, we admired the fresh oyster bar, an incredible display of pickles in every combination imaginable, and several other kiosks of both fresh and prepared foods.
The atmosphere was lively, with many people sitting and enjoying tapas prepared tableside, locals completing their daily grocery shopping, and tourists snapping photos of the scene as it unfolded (that would be us). We were enamored.
We continued on to Plaza Mayor and people watched. We wandered a bit further, admiring Palacio Real which from the looks of it was undergoing its own renovation. We poked our heads in here and there. We found a shop of fine foods and gifts and purchased souvenirs to take home including locally made chocolates, canned boquerones, and the world's best olive oil (which came in a box that rivaled Tiffany's).
As we sauntered back to the hotel ready for a nap, we discussed dinner. My husband is a chef of a Spanish restaurant in Bend, Oregon, so this was meant to be as much a food tour for him as a luxury-on-a-budget trip for me. Initially, we had hoped to splurge on a Michelin star restaurant for our one night in Madrid (the city is home to 14 - a culinary mecca in its own right), but between the steep prices and the unexpected charm of La Latina, we came up with a Plan B. After a late afternoon siesta for Steven, and a deep-dive into the best tapas bars in La Latina on Yelp for me, I'd hatched my plan.
We headed out on our very own tapas crawl. The rules were simple: we'd each order one tapas plate and a glass of wine in as many places on my list as possible, until we were stuffed from the food, exhausted, or simply ready to call it quits. We made it to five stops (Casa Lucas, Almendro 13, El Tempranillo, La Musa Latina, and Casa Lucio for dessert), drunk on cava and verdejo, only wishing we had the energy, and stomach capacity, to continue.
At each stop, we were impressed by the variety of tapas offered, the focused, perfectly paired wine lists, and the crowds. It was a place where tourists and students blended with locals, and for every Spanish tongue we heard, the next was German, English, or another we didn't recognize. And the setting of each new tapas bar was unique, one darkly lit with high ceilings and a Gothic feel, the next a provincial farmhouse feel, another a pub-like setting a few steps below street level. No matter our surroundings, the tapas were outstanding, and we were able to enjoy a handful of top restaurants for around the same price as a nice dinner back home.
Madrid would forever be the one that got away. The one I overlooked as second to Barcelona, the one where we should have planned a longer stay. We loved our time in La Latina, from our hotel room, to our foodie tour of the neighborhood, and all of the culture we absorbed along the way. We left thankful for our time in Madrid, only wishing we had more of it.
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