Saturday, April 26, 2008

Madrid - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 1 (Part 5)

After a final walk through the park, it was about time to head over to my Couchsurfing host's apartment. The bright midday light was now becoming weaker and warmer, adding a yellow-orange glow to everything. There also seems to be less people around now. After picking up my pack from Atocha Renfe, I taking the metro to Príncipe Pío station and emerge onto a busy, but not very central, square in the middle of a roundabout. Using a crude map I drew of the area, I set off finding their apartment. I walk along a street lined with shops and restaurants. All the restaurants were busy setting up chairs and tables along the sidewalks. At this point, everything was covered with a warm orange glow from the setting sun. Walking over a neat little dam and pedestrian bridge construction over a mostly dried river, a series of apartment buildings loomed ahead. I went to the wrong building at first, but was directed to the correct one with much pointing, motioning, and repeated counting to communicate numbers to me.

Finally, I arrive at their building. It was a 17 story rectangular building covered in red bricks at the end of a small, rather empty road. There was bus station in front of it, and trees lined the chaotic street. There was a small plaza with a small supermarket beside the building. Walking up to the iron gates of the building and checking to make sure I was at the right address, I type in my host's apartment number and wait. I had arrived at 8pm, one hour later than planned.

I was very glad to hear the voice over the intercom recognize my name, and was buzzed in immediately. The inside of the building had a small lobby, with a large photo of an areal view of Madrid. The corridors were dark and lined with dark polished wood. Going up a cramped elevator, I emerge in a similarly dark and wooden hallway. There were a few over-sized, heavy-looking wooden doors blending into the walls lined with the same wood panelling. In the middle of each door, at just below the level of your waist, was a large, bronze knob that you can grab onto, but could not be turned.

Knocking on the door, I was let in by Adolfo, my Couchsurfing host. He was Spanish, had short hair, glasses, and had a friendly but direct mannerism. He lived with a French Canadian and another Spanish girl who where all quit friendly and seemed to be very social. They were all students. They had a small narrow room that they dedicated to Couchsurfing guests. There was a small bed in it that seemed to take up more than half the room. From the single window at the end of the room, you can look toward central Madrid up a hill. There was a calendar at the opposite wall, filled up with people's names on the different days. "Mark and Felix" was marked across June 4 to June 7. After dropping off my stuff and meeting everyone else in the apartment, I was informed that they had their weekly Monday get-together with their friends tonight, and I was invited.

Shortly, at around 9pm, we headed out. During the walk, I was told that we are going to Casa Mingo, a somewhat historic joint that specializes in hard cider and roast chicken. Casa Mingo is located a large informal stone building, with vaulted ceilings and large wooden tables adorning it's loud and hectic interior. There were many young people here, many of them students. Right away, we ordered some roast chicken to start off the night. For the rest of the time there, we would order a plate of chicken whenever we ran out, as we all shared from one common plate and ate with a shared fork. As good as the chicken was, the highlight of the trip to Casa Mingo was most definitely the cider. Casa Mingo had been famous for some time for the cider that they brew, and although I am not a cider connoisseur, I can tell you that the cider I had that night was the most delicious cider I have ever had.

The cider was very fresh tasting and refreshing. It was vibrant and a joy to drink. As with the chicken, we also drank out of the a communal glass, poured from the same one litre bottle of cider. It seems that that Spanish have cider drinking down to an art. To get the best flavour, you must pour a small amount of cider from as high up as possible, making sure the stream hits the inner wall of the tilted glass, and then drink it immediately, a process called throwing the cider. I watched as people held the tilted glass in one hand as low as possible, and stretched with all of their might, balancing the bottle of cider precariously high above their heads, aimed, and poured. I even got a few practise pours in during the night. We watched some of the other patrons do it with a more difficult technique, holding the cider bottle behind their heads, and pouring the cider from behind their backs. I was told that you can tell that someone is from the Basque (or was it the Asturias?) region if they pour their cider that way.

The mouthful of cider poured in this way was opaque and churning with tiny bubbles, as opposed to the transparent, serene-looking cider in the bottle. You drink the cider as soon as it is poured. As tradition dictates, one leaves a small amount of cider in the glass after drinking from it, which is then poured onto the stone floor of the pub from the side of the glass you drank the cider, to rinse the shared glass. As a demonstration, I was given cider poured into the glass from a small height, and then cider poured from a great height to taste the difference. The difference in taste was surprising! There was nothing subtle about it! The "un-thrown" cider tasted good - like how good, refreshing apple cider should taste. However, when thrown, the cider came alive! All the off flavours were gone and all the good flavours were magnified many times over. It became crisp and clean. It was a world of difference. Instead of tasting like apple juice, it tasted just like biting in to a fresh apple just plucked from a tree. I made a mental note to always throw cider before drinking it from now on.

Only two of their friends dropped by briefly that night. Supposedly their weekly get-togethers would vary in size unpredictably every week. As the night went on, the area of wet stone under our feet grew larger and larger with every drop of cider spilt from a pour. Soon, it was time to return, and after a quick shower, I went to bed. Taking one last look at the scene outside my window, I was glad the time for sleep had come, after only getting about half an hour of sleep in two days. As I fall asleep, I think about what I've experienced so far, how much more there is to come, as well as looking forward to meeting up with Felix tomorrow.

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