Monday, 25 August 2014

Madrid Monday: Madrid Food Tour's Tapas, Taverns & History Tour

Madrid Monday is a series of posts about the Spanish capital. Here I review restaurants and bars, and write about tourist attractions, cultural events and more. If you have any requests for topics to cover, just leave me a comment.

It's your first night in a new city. You want to start your holiday with a memorable meal. But how to choose a restaurant?

Nowadays, we're more informed on where to eat and drink (and do just about anything else) than ever before. In just a few clicks we can access listings, restaurant booking sites, reviews from fellow travellers and the advice of locals. But which to listen to?

Given the choice, I'll go with local advice every time. Living in a city really gives you the chance to explore its bar and restaurant scene, to roadtest different places and pick your favourites. Residence gives an in-depth knowledge that tourists can only aspire to. But now, thanks to Madrid Food Tour, visitors to the Spanish capital can easily access this local knowledge: the company runs a range of tours around the city guided by residents. Founded by Lauren Aloise in 2012, Madrid Food Tour now offers a choice of three routes, taking in tapas bars and food markets scattered throughout the centre. Led by established expat residents of the city, these tours are run during the day (Ultimate Spanish Cuisine and Huertas Neighbourhood Food and Market Tour) and evening (Tapas, Taverns & History) and cater to small groups. Any trepidation I had about being herded in and out of tourist traps to munch on Spanish omelette washed down with sangria were dispelled by their website: they emphasize that tours take in busy family-run establishments and that seating can't always be guaranteed, as is the norm in Spanish bars. They also recommend that visitors take one of their tours soon after arriving in Madrid, so that it serves as an introduction to dining Spanish-style and provides enough knowledge recommendations to last the rest of your trip.

Stop1: Aperitif time

Lauren invited me to try out the Tapas, Taverns & History Tour, which runs 5 evenings a week and takes in 5–6 bars around the centre. It promises customers a stomach-filling 12 tapas accompanied by drinks, and can be adapted for pescetarian customers (although not veggies – they're best suited to the Huertas Tour or the Ultimate Cuisine Tour, which can also be tailored to celiacs). The blurb on the website promised more than just delicious bites to eat: as the name suggests, the other aim of this particular tour is to educate visitors on Madrid's history. I admitted that my historical knowledge was somewhat lacking, but what would a fellow resident be able to teach me about where to eat well in central Madrid? Quite a lot, it turned out.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Expat issues: Renting an apartment in Spain

Despite saying I blog about life as an expat in Spain, the truth is that most of my posts relate to what to see and do in Madrid or to visiting different parts of the country. I thought I'd try and make my blog description a bit more accurate by starting an 'Expat issues' series of posts designed to be (hopefully) of practical help to anyone moving to or living in Spain.

First up: how to rent an apartment.

Before you arrive
Unsurprisingly, it's difficult to set up permanent accommodation in advance of arriving in Spain (or any other country, for that matter). Unless you have someone already in your town or city of choice who's willing to do the groundwork and apartment visits for you (and whose taste you trust, obviously), I'd recommend sticking to research only rather than committing to something you've never seen. There's also the issue of whether the person you're dealing with over the internet is genuine. Even if that lovely apartment you've seen soft-focus pictures of does exist, it could well be in a less-than-desirable area or on a noisy street.

You'll be seeing a lot of these while you're flat-hunting

That said, you can accomplish a lot in terms of research. Before I moved to Madrid last year, I spent a few weeks trawling Idealista for flats to rent in the approximate area I had identified. Based on my experiences on several occasions, Idealista is the best site to use: it seems to have the most options and be the most up-to-date, both for renting an entire apartment and a room (flats for sale are also advertised). Although I live in Madrid, properties all over the country are advertised here. You can search the entire city or wider areas, identifying criteria that are important to you in a future home: number of bedrooms and bathrooms, furnished or not, air conditioning, etc. You can also include 'exterior' as a search filter: if you aren't familiar with Spanish flats, this may sound odd, but what it means is that the windows face out into the street rather than onto an internal patio. Interior flats tend to be pretty dark inside, so if you're a fan of natural light, check the exterior box. In addition to Idealista, you can also try Fotocasa, but I found the selection a lot more limited.

One thing to consider when reading adverts is whether properties are being advertised by an agency or a 'particular' (private landlord). Personally I chose to go with a private landlord, as it eliminates agency fees: in Madrid, these are equivalent to a month's rent (whether that be €500 or €1500, even though they're doing the same job) which you'll never see again. As for deposits, since the crisis hit, one month's rent is the norm, although in some cases you'll see two requested, but you can probably negotiate this.

Before you move, use your sites of choice to create a favourites list and contact landlords or agencies to book viewings. It's also worth making sure you'll have funds accessible to pay a deposit. If you don't know the city you're moving to very well, it could be worth arranging a temporary apartment for a month to give you chance to get to know your new hometown better and explore areas before you decide where you'd like to live. I once did this and rented a room through Accommadrid which is more aimed at students, but you could also try Airbnb or look for short lets on Idealista.

What you can expect to pay

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Two UK city breaks: Oxford and Lancaster

Like most of my adopted country, I've been professionally inactive for the past few weeks. Like all good expats, I've been back home visiting family and friends. While I was back in the UK, my itinerary took me to Oxford, the city where I studied, started my publishing career, and lived before I moved to Madrid (on both occasions). I love returning there, not just to see friends, but also because it's a stunning city: in the centre, almost every corner you turn reveals an ancient college quad peeping out from under an archway, a gargoyle-bedecked library or a row of rickety bikes awaiting their owners. Going back there as a visitor, I appreciate the details I overlooked during the heads-down rush of the morning commute.

The Radcliffe Camera, one of Oxford University's libraries

While Oxford is a fantastic place to visit, full of architectural and cultural delights, it was as a resident that I really got to appreciate the non-university side of the city. Once my studies were over, I enjoyed spending weekends exploring Jericho's bar scene or dining out on buzzing Cowley Road. A local's knowledge is invaluable, and for this reason Travelodge recently asked me to share my Oxford insights as part of their new Get Up and Go Guide. A series of interactive maps and blog posts, the Get Up and Go Guide is packed with information for visiting UK destinations where Travelodge have properties. For non-UK readers who may not be familiar with Travelodge, it's a chain of affordable hotels in key locations in Britain and Europe.

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