It’s early morning, December 24th, and I relish the quiet that surrounds me. As I sip my tea, I’m grateful for these few moments of solitude when I can still hear myself think; the delicious silence that muffles the city’s buzz, if only temporarily. I know it won’t be long before the sun wraps herself around Manhattan, gently nudging everyone back into holiday mode. Christmas Eve is here.
I give the living room a sleepy, lazy once-over and realize that most of the photographs we have on display were taken on one of our Christmas trips. Since we met in 2010, we’ve traveled together almost every year, celebrating the old and ringing in the new according to local custom in Barcelona, Venice, or Paris. It’s become a tradition, I guess; the natural outcome of two fiercely independent lives woven together as one.
By the time I met Gabe, though, I had already discovered the delights of holiday travel, particularly the magic of exploring a new place on my own. In 2007 I took my first trip to southern Spain where I met my sister and mother for an end-of-summer vacation. My flight went through Madrid, a city that intrigued me, so I opted to spend three days there before flying to Málaga.
Spain, as a whole, was a whirlwind. My eight-day trip turned into a month-long odyssey, in a narrative straight from the pages of a romance novel. But those first three days in Madrid were what lured me back to Spain that Christmas. I was there just long enough to get a taste of the city, to get a peek at her personality, to be charmed by her people. Before any second thoughts could creep in, sowing seeds of doubt about my plan, I went online and booked my flight and hotel.
As December approached, I became a little nervous about the trip. I’d never spent more than three days on my own in a foreign country, and I’d never been away for Christmas. Would I end up feeling lonely and depressed, alone in my hotel room for the holiday? Luckily, my practical side prevailed. I chastised myself, it’s too late now; you’ve already paid for everything. If you back out, not only will you lose a lot of money, but you’ll be a big chicken, too. Suck it up.
I’d like to say that was the end of it, but my misgivings clung to me like Velcro: even as we landed in Madrid on a grey, rainy morning, my stomach was in a knot and I felt uncharacteristically unsure of myself. How would this play out?
A Warm Welcome
Without a doubt, the smartest decision I made was selecting the right hotel. I chose the Villa Real, right in the heart of downtown Madrid, and it set the tone for the rest of the trip. My room was ready when I arrived, despite the early hour, and the staff were very warm and welcoming. In fact, they upgraded my accommodations from a standard room to a mini-loft, which felt more spacious than its actual square footage. I even had a tiny balcony! My Madrid experience was off to a fantastic start.
Putting the Plan in Motion
In an effort to tame the doubts that plagued me before the trip, I came up with a detailed schedule for each day I would be in Madrid. Everything I wanted to see, do, or experience was listed on the grid, assigned to a particular day and time slot. Aside from maximizing my time in the city, my plan served as a hedge against loneliness: with so much to do, I’d scarcely have a moment to indulge it.
My itinerary took me all over the city, from the Prado Museum to the Parque del Buen Retiro; from the Royal Palace to the swanky shops of Salamanca. I roamed the streets from late morning until dinner time, when I’d return to the hotel, curl up on the sofa, and order room service, then watch a movie, and collapse into bed, exhausted.
I took tons of photographs, especially of the Christmas decorations on the buildings and in the streets. They were unlike anything I’d ever seen in the United States, and they were different from one block to the next.
I got lost in the Prado, falling in love with the paintings of Goya and El Greco. I sat quietly in the Círculo de Bellas Artes café, sipping a glass of Rioja and watching the traffic on the Gran Vía, below.
I meandered through the Rastro, Madrid’s giant flea market, admiring antique jewelry, old books, and food stands serving up savory tapas.
With each excursion, I fell deeper under the city’s spell.
Risk and Reward
After a couple of days, I decided that I needed to alter one aspect of my plan: Madrid was too exciting, too vibrant, for me to dine in my room every night. I needed to get out of my hotel and out of my comfort zone if I wanted to experience more of the city. But where to go? I didn’t want to venture too far from the hotel because cabs were sometimes hard to find (pre-Uber, if you can imagine it!) so I set my sights on the Palace Hotel half a block away. I’d wandered past it each day, stopping in once to have a glass of wine and a snack of croquetas in the majestic lobby bar. The restaurant had garnered favorable reviews and sounded like a winner.
Because of my job, I was accustomed to eating alone while on business travel – no big deal. But doing so on a vacation still felt strange. I shrugged off the insecurity, walked up to the maître d’ and asked for a table for one. He gave me a beautiful table by the window and brought me a complimentary glass of Cava. Off to a good start!
I perused the menu and decided on a winter mushroom salad dressed in sherry vinaigrette, followed by roasted lamb shank. I asked the maître d’ to pair each course with a glass of wine from the list. We chatted about the wines and then about the upcoming holidays. He was surprised that I planned to spend Christmas Eve and Day alone, wondering aloud why anyone would choose to do that. “It’s a time for family,” he said in English, with a note of disapproval. “You should not be by yourself.”
Throughout my meal, Angel (this is a Christmas story, remember?) would stop by the table, checking on the food, asking how I liked the wine. He told me he had spent two years in the States, working at a hotel on the east coast, a place called Wilmington, Delaware, and had I ever heard of it?
I almost fell off my chair! Wilmington is my hometown; it’s where my family still lives. What a crazy coincidence that here in Madrid, thousands of miles away, I meet someone who spent time there. Life is, indeed, very funny sometimes.
On Christmas Eve day, I planned to window-shop in the Salamanca neighborhood, just north of downtown. Home to luxurious boutiques, fancy restaurants, and effortlessly elegant people, this area of Madrid is chock-full of eye candy. Calle de Serrano, the main drag, boasted block after block of festive holiday decorations, too, perfect targets for my inner photographer.
It was well past 6:00 pm when I headed back to the Villa Real, guided by Christmas lights and the blindingly bright full moon. As I passed the front desk, the clerk greeted me with a smile, advising me that he had an envelope for me. With a quizzical look, I accepted it and headed upstairs, eager to take a shower, have a bite to eat, and hit the sack.
I opened the door to my room and immediately realized there was another surprise waiting for me. Perched on the coffee table was an ice bucket holding a bottle of Cava, and a platter of turrón candies, traditional Castilian holiday treats. Gifts from the staff, along with a hand-written note from the manager wishing me ¡Feliz Navidad!
I poured a glass of Cava, propped up my aching feet, and opened the envelope from the front desk. It was a note from Angel, inviting me to join him and his family the next day in one of Madrid’s most cherished post-Christmas traditions: indulging in churros y chocolate at a local café famous for the treats, followed by a walk through the city.
Suffice it to say that I gladly accepted his gracious invitation, feeling unexpectedly grateful for the embrace of family, even if it wasn’t my own, in this foreign city. Throughout the week I had experienced as much of Madrid as I could, from her history and culture, to her love affair with jamón. But nothing could have prepared me for the intervention of a Christmas Angel, who was quietly determined to show me the real spirit of the holiday, the true essence of Madrileños.
The Last Word
My first Christmas in Madrid forever changed how I thought about the holidays. It released me from the tired expectations of what Christmas was supposed to be but so often wasn’t, at least in my world. But the biggest gift was the revelation of the joys of solo travel. I realized that taking a risk to experience something new, leaving my comfort zone behind, enabled me to connect with other people on a deeper level. It allowed me to be more open and accepting of experiences and opportunities. And I am all the richer for it.
Thanks for reading, and thanks for supporting The Swirling Dervish throughout 2017. I wish each of you a very, Merry Christmas and a healthy and prosperous new year.