The RENFE took us rapidly (ah, the joys of alliteration) to Madrid, so once again we curse the lack of imagination demonstrated by politicians in Australia of all persuasions and at all levels of government. A brief conversation in Paula’s special version of Spanglish — in which she is becoming a highly effective if slightly eclectic communicator — and we were on our way to meet the manager of the apartment we had for four nights.

If there is one thing we have demonstrated, it’s that staying in one place and day trips is, where possible, much to be preferred than racing all over the place and living out of suitcases. For me, especially, staying in Madrid means a chance to make sure I am ready and relaxed before the Camino — if I am honest, I am nervous about the first days, getting into the routine, making the whole thing work at a level where I can immerse myself in the journey and not become distracted with administration, the bane of my existence.

Our afternoon reconnaissance included finding Plaza del Sol, but not much more, but Paula the indefatigable discovered dinner in an unexpected place; and so we stumbled our way into La Latina, surely the most amazing place in any major city. Imagine a fairly run-down neighbourhood, not quite at the ‘clutch your handbag dearie’ stage, but getting there. Turn left two streets and you are in the middle of wall-to-wall tabernas and tapas bars, with people spilling out on the pavement and crowding the tables. We ended up, thanks to Saint Trip Advisor, in the cellar of a nondescript little joint eating plain but delicious tapas. Wow, and cheap.

I should say something about the wine at this point, because we are doing a wine tour in a couple of days. Paula is a great barometer of wine, because she has a very low tolerance of artifice — oak it very lightly, or she will turn up her nose, present mutton as lamb and she is not a happy vegemite. She has been most impressed with Spanish wine in general, and latched on to Verdejo, often from Ruejo. Blow me down, if it doesn’t have 15% Sav Blanc on further investigation.

Anyway, to bed, impressed with Madrid in General, although it is a very different kind of place from Seville. This is España central, with all the pain of the GFC very obvious, but everyone seems to be trying to dig themselves out. The next morning found us on a metro with two guide dogs; one a more mature black lab working with a gentleman, the other a young golden retriever with an older lady. It was nice to see the Goldie going though its paces, but blow me down if it didn’t ask for a wrestle as soon as the respective owners came to a halt.

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The world’s loveliest dog, and this one was all about love. Every time she stopped, it was all about getting loved for all her hard work!

In the morning, Liam went off to do a bike tour and we met our guide, Tatiana — as we discover later, Russian-born but living in Spain with her Spanish husband. This was a great walking tour: there were only three of us and we went at a nice pace, with lots of time for photos and questions. The other group member — well, of course she was Australian, of course she had just finished the Camino, and she had lost her bike tour. Sometimes life seems to play games…

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The lovely Tatiana gave us the low down on all the best bits between Puerte del Sol, , Plaza Mayor and Mercador San Miguel. Madrid is not old, indeed, it’s eminence basically springs from Philippe and the Hapsburgs, but it is rich in history. In reality, there was not much here before the 1600s. I can here the voices saying that it can thus boast many years over Sydney, but we are comparing it to the Old World rather than the New. There is only a moorish fort, not the forests of pillars at the Mezquite. Yet it is very Spanish — the constant refrain we heard from Tatiana and others was of projects in Madrid that were stalled, curtailed or abandoned because of lack of money. It is interesting to compare the fruits of Spanish Imperialism to that of the Second British Empire (post-America). The gold of the Americas and the Indies was pissed away in useless wars in Europe, and the blood of the Hapsburgs grew thinner with inbreeding. Dear old queen Vickie: she may have carried the haemophilia gene, but she gave it to every royal house in Europe before she was through!

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The tour gave us a bit of everything, food, architecture, food, history… did I say food?

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Around the Plaza Major were some lovely street-scapes, but finding Restaurante Botin was the real highlight. We were booked in for Wednesday night before Tatiana could say “hola, buenos dias”!

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You only had to take one look at them cooking suckling pig to know why (lo siento, vegetarionos).

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In the afternoon, it was the Prada, wandering around a special exhibition on Velasquez before the mandatory visit to the Goyas. The Dos de Mayo and Tres de Mayo paintings were more than I expected, but I completely failed when Paula granted me one last wish and I, fool that I am, asked to see the Hieronymus Bosch tryptich. Any attempt at artistic authority completely lost, alas… Help me, Cervantes!

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