My love of Spain is well documented and I can never resist the chance to hop on that short flight from London’s often grey chilliness (even in summer) towards azure skies and sunny days. Today’s destination is the Spanish capital.
Madrid is a comparatively new city as its story doesn’t begin until AD852 when the Moors built a fortress near the Manzanares River. Okay that is a way back, but to put it all into some perspective, that was 21 centuries (yes, centuries) after the Phoenicians founded Cadiz (city of my forefathers incidentally) and six centuries after the Romans constructed Italica near Seville. And it was only established the permanent capital in 1561 by Felipe II.
It’s a city of grand boulevards, myriad plazas and roundabouts abounding with flowers, statues and fountains. Madrilenos (local Madrid-dwellers) are known for their spirited attitude and their refusal to conform to European hours. This is a city that never seems to sleep and one that buzzes with the constant chatter of a passionate and animated society. It’s the only place I can recall leaving a bar at 12.30 (am) and there being a rush to claim our recently vacated table – and that was on a Sunday night. Life here is lived on a different time zone.
Madrid is also a city of art with plenty of galleries and museums for a real culture fix. The Museo Reina Sofia displays a range of 20th century art including some Salvador Dalis and Picassos. The best of all is the amazing Guernica – Picasso’s famous depiction of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. And then there’s the Museo del Prado, known as one of the world’s greatest art galleries with a great collection by Velazquez and Goya.
Tabernas are dotted all around the city – little wine bar/restaurants offering delicious Spanish fare. The oldest of which is Restaurante Botin which was established in 1725 and claims to be the oldest restaurant in the world. It’s certainly pretty old and was said to be a favourite of Ernest Hemingway’s. Hemingway is credited with helping the world fall in love with Spain through his novels and he was a local legend in Madrid, spending long nights sipping gin at the Ritz before weaving his way through the winding streets in his quest for dinner.
He certainly had the right idea – the best way to explore the main areas of this lively city is on foot. We walked everywhere, sometimes getting lost which meant we discovered even more. You’re never far from a light refreshment or somewhere cool to sit. In summer Madrid’s a steamy city – it was around 38C when we were there in July, but there are plenty of trees, umbrellas and canopies and a lot of the bars spray a cooling mist over their customers.
So stop when you need to and take time to inhale the spirit (and scents) of Madrid.
Like in the Museo del Jamon (Ham Museum). How can you not love a city that has a Ham Museum? The aromas emanating from this establishment are incredible and there’s jamon hanging from the ceiling and walls as far as the eye can see. All around a long bar which is always (whatever time of day) packed with jamon eaters.
There was so much ham I had to use the Panorama function on my camera…you get the picture.
In the heart of Old Madrid, you’ll find the Plaza Mayor – the most famous plaza in Madrid. This beautiful 17th century square is filled with cafes and craft shops these days – its history is a bit bloodier with trials by the Inquisition and executions once being held here.
Just to the side of the Plaza Mayor is the wonderful Mercado de San Miguel – how I love a Spanish food market. There are plenty of eating spots and lots of food to choose from, like these delicious croquetas in different flavours. The market is crazy-busy over weekends, packed with locals catching up on their social lives and has an amazing energy.
Now that we’re on food, in Madrid it’s excellent, good value for money and varied. There are so many eateries to choose from that I didn’t even do any restaurant research, we just wandered the streets checking out our options until we spotted the one we liked the the look of. It worked for us. Like breakfast one morning in a little cafe right in the centre of Old Madrid where two coffees and my favourite Spanish breakfast – pan con tomato – cost us €4.
I also loved the way little tapas often appeared with drinks. You could explore the city by tabernas hopping and get your fill of tasty treats.
We loved the lively area around the Plaza De La Cebada where we partook of many beverages and watched the world unfold around us. There’s a lovely market just across the road (Mercado Cebada) where I couldn’t resist snapping the amazing fruity displays.
The Puerta del Sol, right on the Calle Mayor and at the gateway to the main shopping area is kind of like the Leicester Square of Madrid. If you want tickets for something you’ll find them here. And just four blocks south of it through more winding lanes is the lively Plaza de Santa Ana. It’s all happening here.
We chose to have dinner at Ginger Restaurant in the square. A tasty meal, lovely friendly service and another chance to watch Madrid in all its energy unfolding around us. Ginger was also really good value with my delicious Iberian pork fillet mashed potato and curry oil costing €11.52. I loved the crispy spring onions on top.
Of course, all great cities have great parks and Madrid is no exception. And what could be more perfect than to stock up with delicacies at your local market before heading to Parque del Retiro for a picnic? The park which was once home to Felipe IV’s palace is now a large public oasis (since 1869) with majestic trees, impressively manicured areas and a lake which you can row on. It’s the perfect spot to get away from the busy-ness of the city should you feel the need.
On our way back to Old Madrid after our park-life sojourn we wandered through the trendy Chueca area – suddenly it was time for lunch. We stopped at a pavement cafe called Toma Jamon Tabernas and ordered two deliciously simple dishes. The best of tuna served with the reddest and juiciest of tomatoes and a superb dish of broken eggs and jamon, served on a bed of beautifully cooked potatoes. Wow! Such simple ingredients all bursting with flavour.
The Palacio Real is on the other side of the Plaza Mayor. This vast and lavish Royal Palace was built to impress, set up on high overlooking the Rio Manzanares. It’s open to the public now as the current Royal family live in the more modest Zarzuela Palace outside Madrid.
Take a view of the palace from the other side – literally and metaphorically. When Joseph (Jose I) Bonaparte was King of Spain he carved out the stirrup-shaped Plaza de Oriente which provides a fabulous view of the vastness of this magnificent building. The square was once an important meeting place for state occasions and kings, queens and dictators all made public appearances on the palace balcony facing the plaza. The surrounding park area is filled with statues of monarchs and dignitaries from way back and you can feel the power the rulers were commanding from up on high.
In the south-west corner is the Cafe de Oriente which has outside tables where you partake of more Spanish deliciousness and ponder history.
Because there’s a lot to ponder when you’re in Madrid. And you feel like you don’t want to sleep because there’s so much Madrid energy to absorb. It’s a fascinating city with a unique spirit and a magnetic draw – I feel I’ll be back many times.
Salud from Madrid, a city to celebrate.
We stayed at the HRC Hotel in the La Latina district. A basic but comfortable hotel with good air conditioning (vital in the heat of a Madrid summer), set on a quiet street. And best of all easy walking distance to all the main sights and plenty of bars and restaurants.
Find out more at www.hrc-hotel.com