Thursday, June 27, 2019

Travel tips and debunking myths about Spain

Getting Around

Spain was one of the rare countries we visited where we didn't take the metro at all. For one, many of the places we visited were walking distance from the hotel and if we needed to go further afield like to the train station or airport, it meant we had our luggage, so taking a taxi was easier. Taxis are not expensive in Spain, and considering there were three of us, it was just slightly more expensive (and a lot more convenient) than taking the metro.

Also, as I've mentioned, you can try Cabify or Uber to get around. Cabify is like Grab and frequently has €3 discount codes. What I like is that you don't have to attempt to explain to the cab driver (who may not speak English) where you're trying to get to, since you just key in your destination. You also pay a fixed amount and don't have to worry about traffic bumping up your fare (which can happen if you're right smack in the Sol area in Madrid where traffic can come to a standstill).

However, something to note about Cabify: sometimes, your driver can take a long time to get to you, so you need to buffer in that time. We've had instances where our driver was 18 minutes away and had to travel a longer distance to get to us than to where we were going!

We also relied on Google maps a lot. No more getting lost with this failsafe app. Andre was the navigator for most of the trip, guiding us to attractions and restaurants. Gone are the days of wandering helplessly down wrong alleys and through mazes trying to find the right place.


We travelled from city to city on three types of transport: plane, fast train and bus. The AVE fast train is our favourite, as it's very comfortable. But as I've mentioned, they're very popular, especially during summer when it's the holiday peak season, so you should book your tickets as early as possible. Renfe is the main rail company in Spain and they don't release the tickets in any set order - sometimes 2 months before, sometimes a month. I booked the train tickets the day they went on sale and a week later, the tickets were already 25% higher. You can book via the official Renfe site, but it's all in Spanish, so I booked from the Trainline site instead. The prices are similar and at least you can read what you're booking!

The domestic flight we took was with Vueling. It's fast and hassle-free, though the plane is pretty basic. But it got us from Barcelona to Seville in 1.5 hours, a journey that would have taken 6 hours on the fast train (and a lot more expensive), so it's definitely a good option.

The inter-city bus we took was Alsa and it's also super comfortable, with a toilet on the bus, so no worries needing to take a leak on long journeys.

We've all heard the stereotype about Spanish transportation being laid back and unreliable, but I can debunk this right now. All three types of transport that we took were impeccably efficient and organised. Even the bus left and arrived to the MINUTE that it was scheduled for. The airport, train stations and bus stations are large, modern and clean. The check in processes are fast and smooth. Mark me impressed. Unless you're unlucky enough to be there during a strike, you shouldn't have to worry about unreliability.


Spanish words are relatively easy to say because they're pronounced they way they are spelt, much like Malay. Just two exceptions: 1) 'j' is pronounced 'h', eg. jamon (ham) is pronounced "hah-mon".

2) Double 'l' is pronounced 'y'. For example, you know the popular yoghurt brand Llao Llao? Well, the reason it starts with a double 'l' is because it's a Spanish brand. And it's not pronounced "lao lao" or "ee-lao ee-lao" but "yao yao". So now you know!

In the larger cities like Madrid and Barcelona, most of the Spanish at least know a smattering of English, and restaurants in the tourist areas usually have an English menu.


The Spanish have, what is to us, very odd meal times. Breakfast is usually a pastry and coffee, lunch is only from 1.30pm, and dinner from 8pm. Making a dinner reservation at a restaurant for 10pm is more common than for 7pm!

This totally doesn't gel with our meal times, but in reality, this worked for us more than against us. Unlike Spain in the past where restaurants would close for a siesta and open only for dinner, most restaurants nowadays, especially in the city, open throughout. So if you're like us and wander into a restaurant at 6pm, chances are you not only won't have to wait for a table, you'll have the restaurant all to yourself. And you'll get the most fantastic service cos they're not harried!

A common misconception is that service is slow, that's why meals in Spain take such a long time. We found this to be completely untrue. The waiters are efficient and our food was generally served quickly, we didn't encounter any noticeable waits. We're usually out of a restaurant within an hour. Another misconception is that Spanish waiters are rude. That's also not true. Not every waiter was super friendly, but I wouldn't call them rude, more matter-of-fact. They're direct and their aim is to get you what you want, not make small talk (which suits us just fine!) If you ask them for recommendations, they're usually happy to oblige.

In terms of choice, you're in food haven in Spain. Especially nowadays with TripAdvisor and Google, you really have no excuse for eating bad food, since you can search ratings before you go to a restaurant. And compared to Singapore, eating at restaurants is very much more affordable in Spain, especially with regards to the quality of food. I won't go into detail about the food here since I've already raved endlessly about it in my posts (plus I'll start drooling on my computer). Just umm...a few pics.


Before we left for the trip, we were warned by many people about pickpockets in Spain, especially Barcelona and in summer. I personally have friends who have been pickpocket victims. If you read all the encounters online, it's enough to make you think everyone in Spain is out to grab your belongings.

After having gone there, let me say this: be vigilant but don't be paranoid, especially to the point where the anxiety spoils your holiday mood. Similar to our experience in Paris, we found that our fears were unfounded and we never felt unsafe at any point.

Yes, pickpockets exist and we did have a close encounter on our last day in Madrid, but that's because we had let our guards down and were a little complacent. In general, it's safe and if you carry your bags in front of you, you should be fine. Don't do stupid things like leave your bag unattended or next to you when you're on your phone or distracted, that's just asking for trouble.

When we walked into a McDonald's in Barcelona to check out their chocolate doughnuts (yes, they have chocolate doughnuts in Spain's Golden Arches!), the restaurant manager came up to us and asked, "English?" When we said yes, she told us, "There are pickpockets in the restaurant, be careful." I thought was great of her to warn us. Soon after, we saw two police officers in the restaurant, she had probably called them. So the locals too, are on the lookout for potential crime, and there is heavy police presence in all the tourist areas we went to in Spain.


If fashion is your thing, you're in for a treat in Spain. There are lots of mid-priced and budget labels sporting the trendiest styles. You have your famous Spanish labels like Desigual, Mango, Zara, and all the Zara-owned labels like Lefties, Pull & Bear and Bershka. There's also a giant five-storey Primark in Gran Via in Madrid. Primark is Irish, not Spanish but it's very popular because of its low price point. Very affordable and so much choice you'll wish you had a bigger wardrobe and more time.

If you're petite, you'll rejoice even more because Spanish women are surprisingly short. I had no trouble finding clothes that fit me. Even Lesley-Anne who's even shorter than I am and has trouble finding pants or jeans of the right length in Singapore, could go on a shopping spree there.


In conclusion, we enjoyed our trip to Spain very, very much. Even more than we thought we would, if that's possible. The country is simply beautiful with many picture-perfect spots. Heritage, art, culture, and modern cityscape - there's just so much to see, do and enjoy.

The culture is relaxed but without compromising on efficiency. The people can be a little err...expressive, but for the most part, we found them warm, friendly and helpful.

If I had to give one-liners to the three Spanish cities we visited, I would say that Seville has the best sights, Madrid has the best shopping, and Barcelona has the best food. And since the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, this makes Spain a very satisfying holiday destination indeed.

Friday, June 21, 2019

A walk in the park and dining at the oldest restaurant in the world

Day 11 (Wed, 19 June 2019)

This was our last day in Madrid and we had a close encounter with pickpockets. We were shopping along the crowded Gran Via in the morning, when Andre felt someone step on his shoe. Realising that the person must have been very close to him, he was immediately on his guard and slowed down to let the person pass him. That's when he saw two girls trying to unzip Kenneth's backpack from behind. The moment he looked at them, they immediately vanished into the crowd.

Thank God for Andre's instincts! It was a close shave. Tip: always carry your bag in front of you, not at the back. We've been quite vigilant, but it just takes one moment of distraction and a large crowd for something to happen. According to Andre, one of the girls was carrying a selfie stick, which meant that she was pretending to be a tourist. Sneaky.

Anyway, we're none the worse for it, thankfully. We went for lunch at Rosi La Loca, a restaurant recommended by Lesley-Anne's housemate. It's a delightfully kitschy place, with loud decor and a vibrant interior.

Funk seems to be hallmark of this place. We saw dishes served in bull-shaped bowls and in platters with glass covers. The paella is served in a pan the diameter of a wok. When the waiter brought us the burrata, he used a large syringe to inject pesto sauce into it! (It was so quick we weren't prepared for photos).

Pesto-stuffed burrata
Eggplant chips with honey
Pork loin and tuna tataki

The tuna tataki was served in a boat with dry ice. But gimmicks aside, the food was sensational. I don't usually like pork, but that pork loin was so tender and flavourful that we ordered a second serving.

After our meal, they gave us three complementary test tubes of some peach slush.

If we had more time in Madrid, we would come back here for sure. This was hands-down the best meal we had in Madrid.

We had originally planned to visit Prado Museum in the afternoon. Madrid has three museums in the area they call the Golden Triangle of Art. Prado Museum has the biggest collection of Spanish art in the world, featuring Spanish painters like Goya, Velazquez, Rubens. However, we were feeling the after effects of many days of walking and the thought of walking two hours around a museum made us even more lethargic.

So we decided to give it a miss and just go to Retiro Park. Happily, Lesley-Anne could join us after her lessons in the afternoon. Retiro Park is a fantastic green lung right in the city, and is very pretty.

It's such a restful and beautiful place. Sitting on a park bench under the shade is the perfect way to spend an afternoon. As long as you stay out of the summer heat.

One of the park's main attractions is the Crystal Palace, which sits in the middle of the sprawling park. It was originally meant to be a greenhouse when it was built in 1887 but is used as an exhibition hall today. There was a temporary exhibition going on when we visited it.

It's very elegant but we saw how it could have been used as a greenhouse because we felt the greenhouse effect. It was sweltering inside - as if all the sun's rays were laser beamed into our skin. Probably better to go in the morning!

Next, we visited the rose garden. This is another gorgeous place. The roses were in full bloom in a multitude of hues. I'm sure couples come here to get married - it's such a romantic setting.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped for gelato. We've had very good ice-cream in Spain, but this little parlour called Giolatto has the best ones we've tried. So many flavours, how to choose??

And finally, dinner. Ice-cream was only the appetiser, of course! This dinner was special because it was a belated Father's Day celebration for Kenneth. We'd made reservations at Botin, which is the oldest restaurant in the WORLD. Yup, you read right! Founded in 1725, this restaurant is almost 300 years old. They still use some of the original ovens!

The restaurant is best known for its cochinillo (suckling pig) and roast lamb. We ordered a portion of each and a couple of other dishes:

Shrimps in garlic sauce
Garlic soup with egg
Pork and lamb with potatoes

Even though we only ordered one portion each of the pork and lamb, the waiters divided them into four portions, with a piece of lamb and a piece of pork on each plate, so all of us would get to try it. That was nice. And that suckling pig was very good indeed. But if you want our honest opinion, this was not one of the more memorable meals, taste-wise, and it's very expensive. Basically, you're paying to eat at a historic institution.

Nonetheless, it was a special occasion and a remarkable place. Happy Father's Day!

And that wraps up our adventures in Spain. We had a grand ole time - fantastic sights, friendly people and of course, the phenomenal food. I think I will miss that most of all. We're so making our own tinto de verano when we get home. Cheers!

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Summer days and nights in Madrid

Day 10 (Tue, 18 June 2019)

Time to head back to Madrid! But first, we had brunch in Seville. We wandered down the main street and came to a bunch of restaurants. A quick check on Tripadvisor showed that Gusto had the best reviews, so we settled on that.

Breakfast menus aren't very extensive or exciting in Spain, but the croque monsieurs and American breakfast we had at Gusto were pretty credible. I also had the best coffee in Spain so far. Coffee in Spain tends to be of the very acidic quality, which isn't what I like. I enjoyed the cappuccino at Gusto so much that I ordered a second cup.

We caught the Renfe fast train from Seville's Santa Justa station, and the ride from Seville to Madrid took 3 hours.

Back in Madrid, we met up with Lesley-Anne at our hotel (Petit Palace Puerta del Sol again) and it was great to see her. We've missed travelling with her! She's enjoying her time in Madrid and she walks 1.6 km to and from campus every day. Fighting fit.

For dinner, we went to Venta El Buscon, a nearby eatery.

The restaurant is known for its generous portions. When we ordered two glasses of tinto de verano, they served us a complimentary plate of paella! Believe it or not, this was the first paella we'd eaten on this trip. It was quite underwhelming though.

Grilled octopus
Beef entrecote
Cod steak

The portions are indeed generous and prices very reasonable. However, though the beef was quite excellent, I think we'd been so spoilt by the exceptional quality of food in Barcelona that this meal didn't stand out for us.

After dinner, we did a spot of shopping, then wandered around the Puerta del Sol area. It's a hive of activity and very happening.

There were performance artists galore...

And even a lively Mariachi band in the centre of the plaza.

Couldn't resist getting gelato cones for dessert.

Since it's summer, the sun sets at around 9pm, and it gets dark only after 10pm. But the activity never ends. As Hemingway said in Death in the Afternoon, "Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night."

Some roller blading action going on