Mistake to Madrid: Alitalia Economy Class Rome – New York

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Rome (FCO) – New York (JFK)
AZ608
28 JAN 2013
Boeing 777-200
Economy Class
Seats 40A, 40B

Both Joann and I can easily say that this was the worst flight of our lives… and it had nothing to do with the airline.

Because I wasn’t able to check in online, I had to get our seats assigned at the counter in Madrid and by that time, there weren’t many seats left. We were assigned the second or third to last row.

Normally, that’s not a problem. This time, we had a mother and her two kids behind us. The kids were seated behind Joann and me. Our seatmate was lucky and sat in front of the mother. Oh and we had a couple whose terror of a toddler was in front of us.

First, one of the kids was in a car seat that stopped one seat from reclining AT ALL.

Second, the older kid, a toddler, seemed to enjoy kicking our other seat for the entire duration of the flight when he wasn’t sleeping.

Third, the toddler in front of us was just a terror – standing up on the seats, throwing things (at us!), etc.

We have a niece and nephew that we babysit often so we understand the pains of traveling/caring for children, but this was one of those cases where the parents made zero attempt at controlling their children.

That is a #1 pet peeve of mine when people travel with kids. If you make an effort, it will be noticed and people will have sympathy for you. If you just put on your headphones, go to sleep, and let your kids run rampant, that will also be noticed and you’re just an a-hole in my book, to be honest.

That’s enough of my rant. Suffice to say it was a terrible flight and we could not wait to deplane as soon as we landed.

The bright spot was that Global Entry is still awesome! We landed at 1:45 PM and the immigration hall was pretty packed.

It’s always a great feeling to bypass everyone and head straight for those glorious GE machines!

global entry kiosks

We would have made a clean getaway had our checked bags not taken over 30 minutes to come out! Oh well, wish we could have packed lighter!

Mistake to Madrid: Leaving Madrid

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After a few short days in Madrid, it was time for us to leave. I called down to the front desk so we could get some help with our bags and have taxi waiting for us. We said goodbye to the best upgrade we’ve gotten to date and went downstairs to the lobby.

Executive Suite

Executive Suite

Waking up for a 6 AM flight is never fun; it was still dark out.

So long, Westin Palace

So long, Westin Palace

The taxi ride was about 30 minutes with barely another car on the road. It cost about 30 Euros. If our flight was later, we would have taken the cheaper Metro, but it doesn’t open until 6 AM.

We arrived at the airport at 4:30 AM, which was apparently too early for our 6 AM flight because the check-in desks weren’t even open yet but the queue was dozens of people long.

To top it off, Madrid-Barajas Airport was in the midst of a cleaning worker strike due to salary cuts so there was garbage EVERYWHERE. I should have taken some photos, but it was too early for anything of the sort. Check out this article for a picture of what it was like.

Eventually, some pleasant Alitalia agents manned the desks and the line moved slowly but surely. It was still plenty of time to go through security where bottles and other trash was just piled up in corners.

At this point, it was around 5:15 and we didn’t even have anything to eat. Nothing was open so we grabbed a few drinks from the vending machine (they take credit cards, woohoo!) and sat at the gate.

Nothing else to do but sit and wait, in the dark. Apparently, it was too early to start turning on lights.

Madrid (MAD) – Rome (FCO)
AZ59
28 JAN 2013
Airbus A320
Economy Class

The great thing about the first flight of the day is that boarding is usually pretty quick. Everyone is still groggy, just wanting to get on the plane and into their seat to get some rest. 

That’s exactly how this flight went and, after two and a half hours, we landed back in Rome for a short layover.

Mistake to Madrid: Food in Madrid

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Food in Madrid

When people think of food in Madrid, they think of jamón, tapas, and wine. At least, that’s what we thought of initially. While that might pigeonhole a destination, there’s nothing with pointing out the bright spots of a city!

Like any major city, there were places to grab a quick bite and also places where you could sit down and have a masterfully crafted meal. Joann and I usually like to experience a bit of both whenever we go anywhere.

Museo del Jamón

Museo del jamón

Museo del jamón

As I said before in a previous post, this was THE first thing we ate in Madrid. It was on our way from the subway stop to the Westin Palace. If you visit Madrid, you must visit one of their handful of locations.

It’s a great place to stand at the bar, have a 1 Euro beer (that come with free mini sandwiches) and eat some Spanish ham. Is it the best quality stuff? Of course not, but for the price, there’s no reason you shouldn’t pop in every time you pass one.

Jamón y queso bocadillo

Jamón y queso bocadillo

Jamón ibèrico from Museo del Jamòn

Jamón ibèrico

Bodega de la Ardosa

Bodega de la Ardosa

Bodega de la Ardosa

This was on the radar when I was doing some research. When Anthony Bourdain paid the authentic and very old venue a visit on No Reservations, that helped push it to the top of the list.

It’s a very small bar that is all standing room only. To get to the back section, you have to duck under the bar, right past the bartenders. Weird, and I never would have known that if I didn’t read some reviews.

Salmorejo

Salmorejo

Croquetas de jamón y queso

Croquetas de jamón y queso

Amazing tortilla de patata

Amazing tortilla de patata

This was another great stop for some small bites and more vino. The service is quick and you should brush up on your Spanish a little bit.

Chocolatería San Ginés

Chocolate con churros

Chocolate con churros

Another Madrileño institution, Chocolatería San Ginés started serving this beautiful snack in 1894. It’s so simple but also delicious.

The churros are the perfect texture, especially when you get them right out of the fryer. The hot chocolate is so rich and decadent, definitely unlike any hot chocolate you’d get in the US. Its viscosity is almost that of melted chocolate bars, perfect for dipping hot churros.

Mercado de San Miguel

Mercado de San Miguel

Mercado de San Miguel

Mercado de San Miguel is another tourist spot of Madrid. It was definitely worth a visit.

It is set up as a large market with many vendors throughout. If you can’t find something great to eat in here, you must be doing it wrong. We started off with some paella, which was delicious. The toasty socarrat was definitely my favorite part; the rice, most importantly, was cooked perfectly.

Paella y vino

Paella y vino

The market isn’t cheap by any means. The picture above was about 5 Euros; I guess that’s not terrible considering that wine came with it as well.

Various fish tapas

Various fish tapas

The bites above were pretty awesome as they were only 1 Euro apiece. Plenty of flavor for a 2-bite snack.

My favorite part of the Mercado de San Miguel was definitely the jamón ibèrico. It was amazingly, melt-in-your-mouth delicious. It was definitely leaps and bounds ahead of Museo del Jamón in terms of quality.

I wish I could take that pig leg home!

I wish I could take that pig leg home!

Beautiful jamón ibèrico

Beautiful jamón ibèrico

Le Cabrera

The restaurant so nice we went there twice! Yes, this has actually never happened before. We’ve never gone back to a pricey restaurant on such a short trip, but Joann and I felt that the creativity and quality of food warranted a return visit.

A classically trained French chef, fluent in French, Spanish, and English was very passionate about the food that night (and I’m sure every night). Chef Ben was eager to explain each dish to us and you could feel the sense of pride beaming from him as he served us each course.

We dined at the bar, which was right in front of the kitchen, and I’m glad we did. We were able to see each part of the meal come together and the care with which each part of the dish was created. It was a really great culinary experience!

Pan con tomate & anchoas w/passion fruit vinaigrette

Pan con tomate & anchoas w/passion fruit vinaigrette

Rabbit risotto

Rabbit risotto

Falafel w/house made mustard

Falafel w/house made mustard

I forgot the name of this dish but it was eggplant with some creme fraiche... second best dish!

I forgot the name of this dish but it was eggplant with some creme fraiche… second best dish!

Bombon de carne w/caramelized foie gras & truffle cream... #1!

Bombon de carne w/caramelized foie gras & truffle cream… the reason we came back!

"Cheesecake" in a mason jar

“Cheesecake” in a mason jar

 

Mistake to Madrid: Things To Do/See in Madrid

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Since we had never been to Madrid prior to this trip, Joann and I did some research and talked to some friends who had been before. The general consensus was to enjoy museums, vino y jamòn, and just the history of the city itself! I couldn’t be happier with that as a foundation of our short time in Madrid.

Museums

Our hotel, The Westin Palace Madrid, is in perfect location if you would like to be within easy walking distance to all three main museums in Madrid – Museo Nacional del Prado, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, and Museo Reina Sofía. Together, they are known as the Golden Triangle of Art.

I won’t be the one to pretend to know things about art or anything like that. I’m the furthest thing from an art lover. What I do know is that I enjoyed all three. They were all different, featuring different works from different countries and eras.

My favorite works were Picasso’s Guernica, located in the Reina Sofía, and Goya’s Black Paintings, which are featured in the Prado.

Someone (not me!) snuck a pic!

Someone (not me!) snuck a pic!

Sights

I won’t go into much detail about the things we did because I’d just be regurgitating stuff I read on Wikipedia or Trip Advisor, but here are the main things we did during our 3 days in Madrid.

Buen Retiro Park is a large and beautiful park just on the edge of the city center, a 10 minute walk from The Westin Palace and very close to the Puerto de Alcalá. The park is lovely to walk around, seeing street vendors and performers, countless large sculptures, fountains, and more. There is even a large artificial lake in the middle of the park where you can go for a boat ride.

Retiro Park is so huge that we didn’t even get a chance to see all of it. I would imagine you could easily spend a half day or more here just wandering around, taking in sights or even just lounging anywhere. Plenty of people were doing it when we went.

Monument to Alfonso XII

Monument to Alfonso XII

Puerto de Alcalá is a grand gate in the eastern part of the city. Carlos III demanded a majestic gate for royalty to enter the city, as he did not feel the original Puerto de Alcalá was fit for a king. The original one was demolished and the one you see now was completed in 1769. We saw it multiple times during our stay since it was close to the hotel. It was much nicer at night than it was during the day.

Puerto de Alcalá

Puerto de Alcalá

Puerta del Sol is the more famous and much busier gate in the city. It is where several roads meet and is a beautiful place to hang around on sunny day and people watch. Tourists and Madrileños alike were swarming this place when we were there.

People watching at Puerta del Sol

People watching at Puerta del Sol

The Plaza Mayor is the main plaza in all of Madrid. It is a huge rectangular plaza surrounded by three-story buildings on all sides. There were a few shops and restaurants surrounding the Plaza, but, other than that, there isn’t much to see unless there is a scheduled event. For us, it was just a check off the list of touristy things to see. It is a very short walk away from Puerta del Sol.

The Palacio Real was probably my favorite sight from our trip. Literally, The Royal Palace of Madrid is the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family. Apparently, the current King and Royal Family do not live there; they live in a less ostentatious palace. You are able to tour the palace for 10 Euros (I think) and it is well worth it. The current palace is almost 300 years old, but the site was originally used as a fortress in the 9th century. Everything about it was awe inspiring – the architecture, the history, the opulence. It was amazing to see how royalty lived. There were so many different rooms, all with different purpose, and the palatial decor was fitting for a structure that old and historical. I definitely recommend spending a good bit of time in the Palacio Real.

Palacio Real

Palacio Real

Overall

I think there are a number of things to do and see in Madrid, and we were only there for 3 days. Had we been there longer, we might have tried to venture outside of the city for a day trip. Maybe next time though.

Mistake to Madrid: Westin Palace Madrid

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Westin Palace Madrid

After chowing down on croissants and beautiful pieces of jamòn and downing 1 Euro beers, we walked the rest of the way to the hotel. It’s a real looker when you come upon it.

Westin Palace Madrid

Westin Palace Madrid

Planning

When planning this trip, there were plenty of hotels to choose from in Madrid, but this one seemed to be the grandest. I decided to burn some of our Starpoints.

At 4,800 points and $90 per night, this hotel offered great value. The rooms were consistently going for over 200 Euro (almost $300) so each Starpoint ended up to be worth about 3.8 cents. That beats the pants off 1-2% cashback!

About two weeks prior to our stay, I had emailed the GM to ask about upgrade options. He promptly replied with two options:

  1. A free upgrade to a “premium view room”
  2. A Junior Suite for 7,500 Starpoints per night

I did some research, particularly on Oyster, to see if the room would be worth it to us. Ultimately, I told the GM that we would take the upgrade for 7,500 Starpoints per night. Why not, at the time we had about 160k burning a hole in our pocket anyway. We were confirmed for a Junior Suite for a total of 22,500 Starpoints (3 nights).

Check-In

Upon arrival, the agent at the front desk brought out the Manager who explained that we had been upgraded to the Executive Suite for free! Now THAT’S the way to start a trip. Not bad for an SPG Gold.

The front desk agent also thanked me for being a Gold member and asked which welcome gift I’d like – 250 Starpoints, complimentary Internet, or a complimentary beverage. Normally, the Internet is the best value, but since we were traveling with an international MiFi device, I chose the Starpoints.

Our keys were made and the Manager had a bell hop take our bags to our room. She was going to show us around the hotel. She brought us through the grand lobby, the hotel restaurant, and the other facilities.

Finally, she brought us to our Executive Suite. She walked us through each part of the room and then left us, but not before giving us a few maps and brochures and one thing that I thought was very thoughtful – a new 2012 edition of the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide. Funny because Joann borrowed that same book (older edition) from a coworker.

The Executive Suite

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