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Touring Madrid, iPhone-Style

Locals on the Calle de Fuencarral pedestrian mall, which the author found by using the mTrip Madrid app.

Photo: Courtesy of Justin Peters

One afternoon I rode up to the Canal stop in northern Madrid and started walking, letting the mTrip guide my steps. In this way, I found the lovely Museo Sorolla, which focuses on the works of the turn-of-the-20th-century Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida and housed in his beautifully preserved villa on the outskirts of a leafy residential neighborhood. Museo Sorolla should be a key stop on any Madrid trip—and yet I never would have found it if the phone hadn’t brought me there.

Aside from enhancing your actual touring, apps can go into greater depth on small matters than any guidebook ever would. One app, Taxi Madrid, takes your current location and your intended destination and calculates how much the fare should be and how long it should take to get there. (My trip to the airport cost $39, almost exactly as much as the app said it should.) Another one, from a company called Viewlity, told me how far I was from the nearest banks, ATM’s, gas stations, fast-food restaurants, and movie theaters. And the amazing SpanishDict app is not only a handy Spanish-English dictionary, it also includes a list of prerecorded Spanish phrases that your phone will say for you at the touch of a button. ¡Encantado, SpanishDict!

At night, my phone became a valuable guide to tapas bars. Lack of contextual details aside, De Tapas por Madrid organized restaurants by district, subway stop, and proximity, offering a synopsis of each one’s specialty. One night, using the app, I toured the upscale Salamanca neighborhood, stopping for tapas at a series of restaurants, each of which seemed to be a neighborhood secret—cod, caramelized onions, and beer at Taberna de la Daniela; cheese, gazpacho, and beer at El Olivar de Ayala; croquetas and wine at Estay.

And yet by merely eating, drinking, and scurrying to find new places at which to eat and drink, I was missing what seemed to be the true point of tapas: the social interactions that go with them. In restaurants across the city, I was inevitably hunched in a corner, rapidly eating chorizo as I scrolled through my iPhone, searching for information about other tapas bars I could visit that night. Used obsessively, iPhone touring promotes antisocial behavior, which isn’t Spanish in the slightest. I was almost hit by cars four times in three days, each time because I was engrossed in something on my phone’s screen. Traveling in this manner, you will inevitably spend more time looking at your phone than looking at the city—an irresponsible practice anywhere, but positively unforgivable in Madrid.

Luckily, there was an app for that. Two hours later, I was sitting in Fresno 75, a small restaurant in the northern part of the city, one of the participants in the “Inglés y Tapas” Meetup. I had found the Meetup using the Wikitude AR app, and was sitting among a group of Spaniards who wanted to improve their English and an American tourist killing time before her friend arrived at the airport.

The tapas came: chopitos—small bits of fried squid; lacón gallego—cured ham from Galicia thinly sliced and dusted with spices; a savory tortilla española; and tinto de verano, wine diluted with soda water, a tactical beverage meant to prolong one’s sobriety across a long night of eating. The food was delicious but, for once, it was secondary to the conversation. The country’s economy is in shambles, with almost 20 percent unemployment. And yet my new friends seemed confident that everything would be OK, eventually. “We will work it out because we are Spanish, and the Spanish people survive everything,” said one woman, and the rest of the table agreed. I pulled out my phone to jot down the quote, and then returned it to my pocket. I would need it later, but right now there was food and conversation, and I didn’t want to miss it. I was finally in Spain.

Justin Peters is an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.


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