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Tapas are to Spain what pasta is to Italy, tea is to England, dim sum is to Hong Kong. So what better way to get a taste of España than through an edible tour of the capital city?
My advice when in Madrid: a guided night of tapeo, which showcases this Spanish pastime while eliminating the first-timer factor. Here you have the opportunity to venture off the tourist trail, visit three or four tapas bars during prime time (8 p.m. to midnight), all the while sampling small plates of regional specialties . . . from octopus in Galicia to pinxos of the Basque country.
No problem if you don’t know which tapas bar to tap. Don’t worry about what to order. No need to fret over tallying the bill. Your guide (in my case, it was James Fraser with Adventurous Appetites) has the answers and overflows with only-a-local-would-know tips.
A bit about the evening. Beginning in Puerto del Sol, Madrid’s Times Square-like center, where congregating is contagious – families meander, singles mingle, women stroll arm-in-arm and men just stroll – we wandered the nearby walkways to immerse into the city’s vibrancy, energy and uncompromised enthusiasm for food and drink Madrileño style.
Evening is an important meal time, not because it’s the largest (lunch is when Spaniards eat their main meal), but because it’s a happening. After-dark dining is enticing, and it is the focal center around which Madrid’s social world pivots.
Here’s the tapas bar drill. Young and old mix and noise levels are high (good news: few are on cell phones). Elbow your way through the crowd, find a spot and secure your territory. Lean across the bar, size up what others order and point to your preferences. You’ll hear an occasional bell ringing, meaning a tip was received.
Tapas guide Fraser suggests waiting to order the tidbits until your drinks arrive to see what complementary tapitas come with your beverage. His tips continue: Pitch forward when eating; tapas tend to drip. Everyone throws rubbish on the floor; in fact, the more rubbish, the better the place. But after visiting some good choices with tidy floors, I suggest following your own instincts as a lively crowd is the best let’s-go-in indicator.
My scorecard reads: Tapas hopping is entertaining, informative, filling and fulfilling and simply the best way to eat your way around Spain without leaving its capital, an opportunity to experience Madrid in delicious depth.
As a freelance travel writer and photographer since 1988, Cynthia Dial has visited the world’s seven continents (most recently Antarctica) in quest of a good story . . . from getting her hair cut in Paris, horse whispering in Hawaii and touring Burma (Myanmar) only months after Aung San Suu Kyi’s release . . . to celebrating Summer Solstice within Finland’s Arctic Circle, hiking to Machu Picchu and visiting Molakai’s former leper colony atop a mule alongside a plunging cliff. In short, she experiences and writes about topics at the top of many readers’ bucket lists. Cynthia is author of the award-winning non-fiction book, Get Your Travel Writing Published. Now in its third printing, it was published in London, England, and sold worldwide (U.S. distributor is McGraw-Hill). Among her outlets are national and international newspapers and magazines including, Time magazine, Hemispheres, Destinations Weddings & Honeymoons, Shape, Dallas Morning News and the Toronto Star (which featured her around-the-world shopping column, Shopping Trips). She also contributes to TraveLife Magazine (distributed throughout Canada) and JustLuxe.com (a luxury portal receiving 2.1 million monthly hits). Cynthia’s radio experience includes World Footprints Radio (formerly Travel’n On) and the Travel Hub show on WorldTalk Radio, on which her No Passport Required segment was a regular feature. She additionally appears as a travel specialist on LiveFitMagazine.com. The travel-addicted writer admits that each time she steps onto an international flight, boards a train or steps onto a ship’s promenade deck to go to work, she congratulates herself on her career choice.
“Follow me around the corner and around the world as I share the ins, the outs, the good, the bad, the funny, the sad – all pieces of the traveling puzzle.” - Cynthia Dial