Just before Christmas a plan came together. I had a work reason to be in Madrid in early January, and decided to skip just a little further on to Cairo, to visit brother #2.
Flew from Pearson to Madrid overnight. Not the newest AC plane but it was still probably the most I’ve ever slept on an overnight flight.
That bit of kip, plus a super-easy exist from the airport and a comfy Uber ride downtown made for what might have been my best transatlantic travel experience ever. My hotel — the Gran Hotel Ingles — was stunning. The staff apologized for how cold it was; I explained that as a Canadian I would be just fine. I got a few more hours of sleep, then a shower, and felt fresh again. Really, given that it was only 3pm, I felt like I was starting my day at the same time as most Spaniards.
Right down the street from my hotel was Brew Wild pizza & craft beer bar, so…yeah, I went there. I ate a diavola pizza and drank a few excellent beers and enjoyed their music mix, then walked around a bit enjoying the sunshine. Everyone else was in heavy jackets, but 9 degrees felt pretty good to me.
Back at the hotel I started watching The Mandalorian, then conked out for a bit (again), got up (again!), bought some wine from an excellent wine shop down the street called Los Rosales, and then did another very touristy thing on my street: I went to a Flamenco show at Cardamomo. I’ve long been semi-obsessed with Flamenco…the percussive dancing, the plaintive singing, etc. I sprung for a good ticket. I didn’t realize just how close to the stage it would get me.
Honestly, it was pretty fucking great. I loved the music. I think I fell in love with the female dancer. And the male dancer was some kind of flamenco celebrity with his own reality show and who’s apparently danced for the King and Queen of Spain. So yeah, it was cool.
After the show I had dinner around the corner at…uh, Atlantik Corner. It was empty at 10:30, which led me to think Spaniards eat even later than I thought, but it might have just been a quiet restaurant as they locked the door behind me when I left. Pretty good meal though:
- grilled artichokes w/ crispy king prawns + piri piri
- glass of Barraida
- grilled Iberian pork (almost steak-like!) w/ grilled pineapple + fries
- glass of Douro
With no dessert, and having been hustled out, I made one last stop across the street from the hotel: La Vanencia. They serve only five kinds of Jerez (aka Xeres, aka Sherry) along with some cheese and cured meats. They write your tab on the bar in front of you in chalk. The place looks like it hasn’t been renovated in decades. Hemingway used to write there. Republicans conspired to overthrow Franco here. I had glasses of Fino and Palo Cortado; it cost 4.10 Euros. I tried to leave the 0.90 as a tip and was very firmly rebuffed. What a place.
I made the most of the hotel — got up, ate breakfast, had a shower, did some work, and finished The Mandalorian before heading to the airport. I sped through the airport (Gold Track FTW!) and killed some time at the lounge before boarding my flight to Cairo. Over the Mediterranean we went, hugging the African coast. I watched Official Secrets (imdb | rotten tomatoes) and most certainly did not drink anything.
Landed in Cairo. The Meet & Assist person made it easy to get through, and I performed my duty-free store duty, and then suddenly, there was brother #2!
The drive to his place was…illuminating. Traffic rules in Cairo are theoretical. Highway lanes are merely loose suggestions, ignored by all. Traffic signals might as well not exist in cars. Horns are a distinct language. Pedestrians scamper hither and yon with so sign of a crosswalk. And I hadn’t even been downtown yet, where things get really chaotic.
We ordered in from Zooba for my first taste of koshari and ful and taameya, and I drank an Egyptian beer, and then I crashed.
Since I only had two days in Cairo we’d arranged for tours both days. I dragged my poor brother who’s seen everything half a dozen times, but gamely played along. We were joined by an American nurse visiting her mother, and a Canadian teacher.
First up was Saqqara, an ancient site west of the Nile and south of Giza. And by ancient I mean >4500 years old…hard to even fathom. The architecture, tombs, glyphs…it was a lot to take in, even with a guide helping us understand it. We fended off the swarm of people trying to sell us stuff long enough to learn a few things, and just marvel.
After a stop at the Imhotep museum at the foot of the site we ate some lunch at a nearby restaurant. After lunch we drove north, along a polluted canal strewn with garbage (so much garbage everywhere…and stray dogs…and just people) to see the big boys: the pyramids of Giza, practically in the suburbs of Cairo. You spend your whole life hearing about something, reading about it, seeing pictures of it, and building it up in your mind to the point where the reality can’t possibly meet your expectations. Except, this did. The Great Pyramid of Cheops deserves every bit of the Wonder of the Ancient World tag it carries. I’m so lucky I got to see it. I’m so lucky it’s still there, nearly 5000 years later, for me to see.
The other two pyramids at the site almost paled in comparison, as did the Sphinx down the hill. It’s actually an enormous site and I’m sure we missed all but the most impressive 2% of it, but still — what a sight.
After a quick stop at a cotton market we headed home, bobbing and weaving through pedestrians and traffic all the way. We ordered burgers (!) and drank some of the wine I picked up at duty free.
Day two of touring: this time just the brother and I. We started with a tour of Coptic Cairo. I had no idea a significant part of the population is Coptic Christian, but I guess it makes sense. Anyway, this neighbourhood was basically a mixing pot of several religions: an ancient Coptic Christian church (built on the site of the cave where the Bible says Jesus and his legal guardians stayed when in Egypt), a Greek Orthodox church, a Synagogue, and the first Mosque built in Egypt.
Next up was the Citadel of Cairo, originally built by Saladin during the crusades, and extended over the years into a police museum and military museum. Lots of mentions of how they bravely fought for and kept the Suez canal. Not so many mentions of the other wars. Anyway, the mosques up there were absolutely gorgeous, especially the Mosque of Muhammad Ali.
Just down the hill we visited two more mosques — the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan and the Al-Rifa’i Mosque — built side by side. As with the others the architecture was stunning, but at the latter (which also houses the tomb of the Shah of Iran) we had richer experiences — we were shown a side room containing elaborate tombs, where the guide leading us turned off the lights to let the light stream in a single stained glass window, and sang prayers so we could hear his voice echo around the dome of the building. He also showed us the 150-year-old key (which weighed about three pounds) he used to unlock the doors to these rooms. It was all pretty amazing.
Our final stop was to be dropped off in the teeming throng of humanity that is the Khan el-Khalili market (after first driving through part of it, which seemed like the height of insanity until I saw several tour buses squeeze through, FFS) and walk around a bit.
I had no desire to buy anything, just to see it. Much like at the tourist sites I had to learn to ignore all the calls for our attention from the vendors. You could barely make your way through, although apparently the market was relatively calm that day. Our guide led us to a quiet little perch from where we could sip coffee and observe the madness below.
Anyway, we eventually found our van (leaping hurriedly into it in the middle of the street) and headed home. Pretty tuckered, to be honest. Again, we ordered food and drank more wine, and called it an early night. We’d packed a lot of Cairo into those two days, and we both had early starts the next morning.
My flight back to Madrid was at 9:30, so I got to the airport early. Fortunately I flew out of the newer terminal 2, which was pretty sane at that hour, and got through the various security and passport checks with plenty of time. Also fortunately, I had access to a few lounges, and found one — Pearl — that I liked. Not long after I was safely aboard my flight back to Spain, catching up on work, and watching Luce (imdb | rotten tomatoes).
After we landed I got to the conference hotel near the airport, showered, and (finally!) unpacked. There’s not really much going on at that hotel (it’s by the airport) so I reckoned I’d Uber downtown each day to see more of Madrid. And so, I did.
My first stop back in Madrid was actually to visit a little piece of Egypt: the transplanted and recreated Temple of Debod, gifted to Spain in 1968 by Egypt for Spain’s help in preserving historic sites threatened by the construction of the Aswan high dam. Being winter, the site was mostly closed, but the views from the park were stunning.
Still, it was (relatively) cold outside, and the wine bar on which I’d set my sights didn’t open until 8pm, so I walked to mur cafe instead, had a cappuccino, and read my book. When I did eventually hit Entrevinos wine bar I found a small table, tried a few different wines, and ate a delicious dish of lamb shoulder with spinach, green beans and sesame sauteé.
After a quick meeting in morning, I dashed downtown once again, this time to the Plaza de Oriente, and the Café de Oriente thereon. I dearly wish it had been warm enough to sit outside and enjoy their view of the Square and Palacio Real; alas, it was not. Still, though, I got in a cup of coffee and a glass of Rias Baixas and some nibblies, which I think were some kind of whipped fish (?!) on toast.
After a quick sit in the park I walked along the Palacio, past the Catedral de la Almudena and its amazing door, past the postcard-perfect Plaza de la Villa, past the Mercado de San Miguel, and to my next intended stop where I planned to do some work, given that my ofice back home was waking up.
I’d heard the Federal Café was laptop-friendly, but as soon as I plugged mine in it melted. Or something. Anyway, it bluescreened and I never, ever got it working again. I took this as a sign from the universe to stop working. Or, at least, to buy a paper notebook.
Thus chastened, I consoled myself by walking to San Ginés for churros con chocolate. I sat outside and dunked my churros in piping hot chocolate and watched tourists flood by.
From there I walked to Taproom Madrid (the one on Plaza de Isabel II) for a beer. I got a sour, met an American (and American) pilot named Tim, and chatted for quite a while. Our server never returned after that first pour, so we eventually left. He was headed to Mikkeller; I wasn’t sure where I’d go.
I ended up at a place called Fábrica Maravillas, apparently one of the OG craft breweries in Madrid. I loved it instantly — fun Irish barkeep, and some nice beers on tap. I tried a bunch of them, and met a nice guy from just outside Philadelphia (okay, technically New Jersey) who was just on his way home from an internship at Cantillon (!) before Tim, from the last bar, appeared. I guess we were on a similar beer crawl.
Anyway, I’d not eaten, so I uber’d back to the hotel. At the hotel bar I ordered some dinner — filet mignon, wine, cheese — before the conference attendees started flooding in and ruining the quiet vibe. The guy standing next to me ordered two Johnny Walker Blue triples. But he ordered them with ice, and I wept. I popped into the American-style sports bar across the hotel to catch up with people I figured would be there, and I ordered a Don PX, which was the least sports bar drink ever. Fuck it though; an American sports bar has no business in a Spanish hotel anyway.
I had a quick presentation in the morning, then chilled in my room for a bit before eventually making my way downtown. I decided to have lunch at the Restaurante Vinoteca García de la Navarra; the food and wine were good, but the service was pretty wonky.
From there I walked to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza; I only checked out the ground floor, which was still full of subtle heavy hitters. I was saving the rest, and the other big museums, for when Lindsay comes with me in April.
It was too cold outside for much more so I went back to the hotel, worked for a bit, packed for a bit, and had dinner at Kalma in the hotel. Pretty good meal, actually:
- Fritters of oxtail with late harvest wine sauce
- Duck w/ prune sauce, red cabbage w/ cinnamon, roasted sweet potato
- A bottle of 2017 Emilio Moro Tempranillo
I didn’t ask for dessert, but the staff brought me cheese & fruit anyway. What a country.
Home: a perfectly-timed airport maneuver, a lovely flight filled with three fluffy movies (Roman J Israel Esq.; I Love You, Now Die; Hustlers), and an easy escape from the airport.
While I have no immediate plans to return to Cairo, I’m excited about returning to Madrid in the spring