Exploring Malasaña

After more than a month spent masquerading as a madrileño, I feel remarkably settled into my Spanish routine. I no longer wince when I pass a stranger on the street, wondering if they’re going to attempt to engage me in conversation. Instead, I delight in entering buildings cheerfully calling ‘¡buenas!’ to anyone within earshot, and casually tossing ‘hasalogo’ (that’s ‘hasta luego’ to you foreigners) over my shoulder on the way out.  No more do I hover creepily outside the school gates in the mornings, to afraid to enter in case I am outed as a fraud, or loiter awkwardly in the staffroom during break times, my face buried nose-deep in my kindle in an attempt to mask my patent self-consciousness. Now I stroll confidently to the local bar and sip a café con leche caliente whilst joining my fellow teachers in verbally abusing mis estudiantes más estúpidos. Granted there are elements of my daily routine that I would willingly discard were I given the choice. There are few things I enjoy less than commuting to work by moonlight, a journey in which I am usually joined by a healthy mixture of workaholics, over-zealous shop owners and drunkards staggering back home after a night out. Yet even the early mornings are almost worth it, for the sweet, glorious indulgence that is the Friday morning lie-in. I have grown to place an extremely high value on my three-day-weekend and thus have vowed never to squander those delicious hours of freedom. And so, on Friday last week, I decided to treat myself to one of my new favourite pastimes – wandering around Malasaña.

My flat is beside the old Conde Duque barracks, right on the edge of the district of Malasaña. Malasaña is an area of Madrid which is filled with bohemian cafes, quirky boutiques and trendy looking creative types. It also doesn’t feel as pretentious as it sounds. Whether you are eating or drinking, shopping or strolling, the atmosphere is always relaxed, effortless and just bizarre enough to be interesting. The most central metro is Tribunal, which is conveniently close to one of my favourite streets in Madrid; Calle Espíritu Santo. Vintage clothes hang alongside piles of fruit and vegetables, and a butcher’s shop is sandwiched between a retro cafe and a burger bar. The retro cafe in question is Lolina’s, one of my new favourite places. Although the 70s decor may initially appear to be a tad clichéd – the wallpaper is an aggressive combination of lime green and lurid orange – and the waitresses are cooler then I will ever be, the food hits the spot every time. My English companion and I ordered what we expected to be a casual lunchtime snack of a toastie and lemonade. What arrived was an enormous slice of toasted baguette, covered in homemade blackberry jam and topped with two slabs of goats’ cheese, accompanied by two glasses of freshly squeezed lemon juice, blended with crushed ice, lemon sorbet and a drizzle of honey. The first bite was all it took to inspire an unwavering devotion to Lolina’s, a devotion was cemented further by the discovery of the Happy Bakery right next door.

On Saturday night I ventured to Chueca, the buzzing gay district of Madrid which lies to the west of Malasaña, to try out El Tigre, an infamous tapas restaurant serving the Spanish equivalent of glorified fast food. My friends and I arrived when it was already heaving, and a sweaty, hassled-looking waiter directed us to a high table and took our orders for three sangrias. Unsurprisingly, with the enormous body of people demanding attention, the drinks took a while. Luckily there was a lot to watch whilst we waited. Every few minutes, a waiter would emerge from the kitchen carrying a tray piled high with plates of patatas bravas and jamón, balanced on top of another tray of 7 or 8 pints of sangria, like a circus act without the effortless facade. Veins popping in their temples from the strain, the waiters would yell the drinks orders over the chatter of the crowd until someone acknowledged them. On one occasion, a table failed to claim their drinks for a good couple of minutes, the waiter screaming at the top of his voice as his wrist buckled under the weight of the trays. When they finally beckoned him over, he proceeded to call them every name under the sun as they quailed into their newly delivered refreshments. It seems that, in Spain, the customer is not always right. Needless to say, when our food and drinks finally arrived, we smiled nervously and thanked the waiter profusely. The food is relatively unsophisticated – at least for Spain – but is more than enough to fill you up which, seeing as it is complimentary with the drinks, is not to be sniffed at.

On the corner of a small plaza next to my flat there is a restaurant called El Jardín Secreto (the secret garden), which has been calling to me since my arrival in Madrid. The outside is illuminated by fairy lights and through the windows you glimpse couples drinking beautifully presented cocktails and reading their menus by candlelight. It’s the kind of place that gives me a lurch of longing every time I walk past. This weekend, I finally got my act together and booked a table for dinner (when I was booking, the owner gave me an apologetic look as he told me that he only had a table available from 9pm-10.30pm. In Spain, dedicating a mere hour and a half to dinner is the equivalent of inhaling your food in 10 minutes in the UK). As dinner time approached, I became slightly nervous – what if the reality wasn’t as surreal and romantic as the fantasy? Luckily, I was not disappointed. It was like a gourmet restaurant had tripped and fallen into ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. The menu was enormous, but only 3 pages of it were dedicated to food. Each category of drink seemed to have its own section; there was a page exhibiting at least 20 different ways to serve coffee, one offering various types of beer and my personal favourite, the gin and tonic page. Each brand of gin on offer (and there were several) was served in a different way, and, once you had selected your gin of choice, you could request either Fentiman’s or Fever Tree tonic to accompany it. My Hendricks was served with a slice of cucumber and a scattering of flower petals. Divine. The food menu was equally appealing. I eventually went for salmon wrapped in pastry and topped by a large slice of melted brie. It was mind blowing. But the best part of El Jardín Secreto is the dessert menu, serving a vast array of ‘orgasmos’. My friends and I made a unanimous decision to sample the ‘orgasmo lujo’ – warm brownie with Kinder Surprise ice cream and chocolate sauce. It was every bit as incredible as it sounds. But the best part of El Jardín Secreto? After I’d stuffed my face, I only had to waddle 100m to get home.

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