Spain

Christmas in Plaza Mayor (Madrid, Spain)

Written by Mark McElroy

On the ninth day of Christmas, we’re in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor.

And so is everyone else, it seems. Unlike Americans, the Spaniards celebrate the full twelve days of Christmas, and Day 9 — just three days before the three kings come bearing gifts to children — is prime time for shopping and celebrating. Despite the near-freezing temperatures, families and friends crowd every outdoor table, soaking up sunshine (and an early morning glass or wine or mug of beer). As it happens, we’re on a mission to eat a very specific sandwich at a very specific restaurant, so we’re lucky to spy an open table outside Casa Maria:

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Our friend Aitor — one of two excellent guides in the Basque region, if you’re planning a visit — steered us to Casa Maria to try Madrid’s quintessential treat: the fried calamari sandwich. Our order, then, doesn’t surprise our waiter, who’s been serving these up all morning. Whe the sandwich arrives, though, we get a bit of a surprise:

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The calamari sandwich is just that: fried calamari rings sandwiched between two halves of a crispy bun. No lettuce, no tomato, no mayo — no dressing of any kind. We learn later that this approach is part of the Spanish approach to food in general: ingredients should be fresh and simple. (Americans, we’re told, drown everything in cheap vegetables and mayonaise to compensate for our flavorless, second-rate, mass-produced food.)

And so I pick up my calamari sandwich. The bun is light and crispy and, on a chilly morning like this, trails wisps of white steam. The calamari rings, just out of the fryer, are as golden as Christmas memories and radiate a pleasant and comforting warmth.

I take a bite. The bread is very good, rigid enough to hold up to handling but soft enough to chew easily. The calamari is fresh, with no hint of fishiness (or squidiness, I suppose) and just the slightest salty note on the tongue. As sandwiches go, the word that comes to mind here is “clean.”

I make a show of appreciating how the locals emphasize the purity of the food and celebrate the lack of any need for condiments, but, inwardly, I’m longing for a little tartar sauce.

With the sandwiches finished, we people watch. Plaza Mayor attracts street performers galore, each of whom hopes to extract Euros from passersby with their costumes, routines, or both. The least successful of these is a cowboy painted silver:

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He stands on top of a cement column, forcing his breath through a whistle concealed in his mouth — the same squeaky, annoying whistles every street vendor on the planet seems intent on breathing through. His routine, which involves delivering a “ka-pow ka-pow ka-pow” disco move whenever someone offers him a coin or two, doesn’t offer much bang for the buck. Eventually, we see him climb down, wipe the silver paint off his face, and make his way home with very little to show for his (lack of) efforts.

No one seems much inclined to approach the “Three Heads on Platter” performer, either, for reasons which ought to be obvious:

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Her schtick consists of crouching under a table (or, really, a cardboard box) and snarling aggresively at children. Not surprisingly, she isn’t earning many tips.

By contrast, Fat Spiderman is raking in the Euro:

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He’s one of several (likely unlicensed) characters roaming the plaza, along with Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh. But unlike those, Fat Spiderman knows he defies our expectations, and he loves doing so. When he strikes a pose, he is careful to emphasize his generous belly, caressing its curves with his hands. When people pass by, he challenges them with gruff exclamations in Spanish, English, and French. And when folks pause for a photo with him, he takes the Kodak moment in bizarre directions, some of which are too naughty to chronicle here.

Our favorite performers, though, are the goats. As costumes go, theirs are simple: a wooden goat head with a hinged jaw (sufficiently articulated well enough to produce a loud “clop!” whenever the goat wishes) and a cloak made of that silvery tinsel you see strung above used car lots:

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When you pass a goat, he peers up at you as though he’s starving, clacking his jaw rapidly: “Do you have something to feed me?” Drop a coin in the goat’s jar, he does a crazy little dance, bobbing from side to side and clacking his jaw with unbridled joy. Everyone loves the goats — even the big kids in our party:

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Eventually, it’s time to explore elsewhere. As we file out of Plaza Mayor, we pass the carousel, which seems to be doing great business:

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And, on our last pass around the square, we spot several seafood restaurants that look as though they might deserve a second visit later on:

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We’re told later on that Plaza Mayor isn’t the best destination for good food — it’s too touristy, we’re told, to serve up serious fare. From a foodie perspective, this may be true … but as a spectacle, there’s very little in Madrid that competes with the energy and community of Plaza Mayor.

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Mark McElroy

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