My relationship with Madrid started when I was 21, and it was love at first sight. Although not the prettiest, the smartest, the oldest or the richest capital, it has a character that is complex and compelling and I find myself still here after so much time despite the fact I’d only originally planned to stay for six months.
I’m just never quite done with Madrid; it’s like family now; we have history together. It isn’t as crazy as it used to be, but then, neither am I! It’s still a lot of fun though, a perfect mix of old and new that is difficult to tire of. Although the economic crisis has been long-lived and devastating, weirdly it has done the city good – people have used their imaginations to dream up all sorts of cheap and cheerful ways to have fun. I love my Madrid more than ever; I hope you will feel as I do.
Day 1: 09:00 – 14:00
For me a good day starts with coffee, which of course you can find anywhere. Certain well-known coffee chains haven’t done that well here – not for lack of trying! One thing I admire about the Spanish is that they love Spanish things, and aren’t easily seduced by trends, (there are exceptions to this of course.)
So, start your day at the very traditional La Mallorquina; you can stand at the bar and point to the yummy cake or pastry you fancy, or go upstairs – try and get the table right at the back with the great view over the historical Plaza del Sol. I have been enjoying this place since I was very first in Madrid, and it hasn’t changed a bit.
The next part of my day was a bit unusual. My 48 hours happened to coincide with the annual Fiesta de la Trashumancia, when shepherds from Castilla and Leon follow the age-old tradition of driving their flocks through the centre of Madrid, as has been their right since the 13th century, heading south to Extremadura for winter pasture. And very festive it is too – traditionally dressed weatherworn shepherds and shepherdesses march ahead of the animals to the sound of castanets and pipes. It’s stunning, and if you are here in October, do try and see it.
After that, it’s time for an aperitivo, (is there any more civilized tradition?) And as we are having a traditional kind of day so far, what better place than in La Venencia, a sherry bar where Hemingway drank (of course he did!). Share half a bottle of fino or manzanilla – these are pale dry sherries, and just the thing before lunch. Be warned; sherry seems innocuous but is in fact a pernicious drink, so don’t overdo it, or your day could end earlier than planned! No photo I’m afraid; the rules are strictly enforced.
Day 1: 14:00 – 19:00
Lunch is from 14.00 on in Spain, and we decided to try a restaurant near Plaza de Santa Ana as we were already in the neighbourhood – Madrileños (I count myself as one) love to try somewhere new, and this square and the surrounding streets are full of places to eat. The Cerveceria Alemana is a classic. Founded in 1904, and of course; Hemingway drank here too!
Today though, we tried Las Brasas de Vulcano, which features a lot of wacky Romanesque decoration, which some people might find a bit much. We enjoyed our meal though, and not just because we´d had too much sherry. The waiters dealt with the order from our large group with speed and humour and the portions were generous. Don’t be put off the seemingly touristy nature of many of the restaurants around here – they offer honest Spanish food at a good price.
Have a lunchtime “menu del día”, which range from 10-15 euros and include 3 courses and a drink – you can’t go wrong. Indulge in the very Mediterranean “sobremesa”. This is where you sit for hours and hours around the lunch table, taking your time, talking and having another drink, a coffee… I always feel like I’m on holiday when I do this, even when I’m not! Then sit a while in the Plaza after lunch, with the imposing Hotel ME Reina Victoria on one side, (which has a fabulous roof bar) and the Teatro Español on the other, with statues of playwright Calderon de la Barca and poet Federico García Lorca in between.
We jumped on the metro after this, and headed for El Matadero for a little look around this amazing arts centre that used to be an abattoir – I do love some creative re-purposing, and you’ll find it here in spades! – There’s always something happening, but it pays to check ahead. We had a little walk in Madrid Rio, a wonderful development that was opened in 2011 after the motorway was buried – it’s been a fabulous addition to the city, and it a great place to stroll, ride a bike and relax. We were also curious to check out the new shopping centre Plaza Rio 2, opened just a few days before. What can I say; it’s a shopping centre and as they go, a very nice one. The restaurants have good views over the river at least.
Day 1: 19:00 – ???
After quite a busy day, we decided to go to the cinema. A colleague of mine has started The Bechdel Film Club following the Bechdel rules (there must be two female characters, with names, who talk to each other about anything but men – you would be amazed how few films qualify.) There are quite a few occupied social spaces in Madrid; rather suitably, the Bechdel Film Club shows films at one of the more recently reclaimed ones, La Ingobernable, a feminist centre in an old council building right next to La Caixa Forum that offers many free activities; well worth checking out.
After the film, there’s usually a bit of a debate (in English, like the film). It had been a great day, but I was ready to go home, so jumped on my favourite bus, the 45, which passes most of the important museums and arts centres in Madrid; and so to bed.
Day 2: 09:00 – 14:00
Another late October day and yet more beautiful blue skies in Madrid. This weather never gets tired, never! It’s a feature of the city, so look up and marvel, especially if like me, you are from a cloudy grey place. I wanted to see some art today, and we’re spoilt for choice here. There was a beautiful exhibition on at the Fundación Mapfre, so I went there. There are so many small exhibition spaces like this one – owned and run by insurance companies, banks and the like. They tend to be in grand buildings in the posh parts of town, and are usually free or very cheap to visit. As they are less well known than famous tourist attractions, you can avoid crowds and queues, especially if you book a ticket online.
After this I strolled up to the Plaza de Cibeles, where you can see the fountain that Real Madrid fans go to celebrate their teams’ victories, and the monumental Council building, which was until quite recently the city’s central post office. There is another exhibition space you can visit in there too. Across the Calle Alcala is the Casa de América, a fascinating space that offers free exhibitions, film screenings, concerts and lectures. America does not mean the USA in Spain, but the Spanish and Portuguese speaking continent, which is what is represented here.
Crossing back and over the Paseo del Prado, I passed the Banco de España, and up Alcala to one of my favourite places, the Circulo de Bellas Artes. There are exhibitions on here as well as movies, concerts and classes. I headed up to the roof (La Azotea) for some sun and a great view. Go during the week and you`ll be able to bag a day bed, and stay there as long as you like, listening to chill out music and relaxing.
Day 2: 14:00 – 19:00
I was tempted by the 15 euro lunch menu in the restaurant of Bellas Artes, La Pecera, which means the goldfish bowl. It’s a bit pricy but the surroundings are gorgeous. Painted ceilings, a gigantic chandelier and marble sculptures make this a luxury experience.
After lunch, cross the road and head up the Gran Via to the Espacio Fundación Telefónica. Another multi-purpose arts space, this building was for a moment the tallest building in Europe and claims to be the continent’s first skyscraper! Since then the interior has been re-modeled, and features an incredibly photogenic stairwell. It now houses one of the coolest cultural hubs in the city, where everything is free, including concerts. I saw a wonderful exhibition today of Norman Fosters maquettes and drawings, each accompanied by a video of the great man himself, talking about his work.
Day 2: 19:00 – ???
Another film? Why not! Filmoteca , also called the Cine Doré is a short walk from Gran Via, and is cheap as chips. It shows quirky seasons of films by directors that you might never even have heard of before. Beautiful both outside and in, it houses a sedate but lovely café in the foyer. Finally head to the nearby Mercado de Anton Martin for some sushi at the fabulous Yoka Loka or try one of the other small restaurants, nestled between the butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers.
This market has been revitalized in recent years, as have many of the traditional old food markets round town. Once almost empty of stalls after years of decline and competition from supermarkets, young entrepreneurs spotted the potential and the cheap rents in these centrally located markets, and now they are the place to be. They represent everything Madrid is about at the moment; the old and the new enthusiastically combined. One of the newest additions is Luso Coffee Roasters for your Portuguese coffee hit. I hope you come and enjoy Madrid and discover it for yourself soon!