The architecturally wonderful city still has touches of Moorish walls from the 9th century. But even in this dismal economical time for the Spaniards, they seem to continue to renovate, improve their heritage buildings making old palaces into official buildings, and majestic old houses into hotels. As much as they attempt try to sort out the massive traffic jams, even though gas is hugely expensive, it hasn’t kept the cars off the roads or their sense of fearless driving cannot be ignored even by the jaded traveler. Nor has it stopped their passion for food and restaurants always seem to be filled both for lunch and dinner, from modest to the most expensive. Madrid is as dynamic in so many areas with endless activities, it’s a rare treat for history buffs and art lovers.
Where does one start the sight seeing? The famous rectangular shaped Plaza Mayor seems like a likely point.
Surrounded by 3 storey houses and 237 balconies it has only one 4 story house, Casa de la Panadera, a former bakery which has the only painted, colored fresco facade on the square.
Nearby, is the famed Botin Restaurant of suckling pig fame (Calle Cuchilleros 17) and is the oldest restaurant in the world. Of course, writer Ernest Hemingway ate here. But then there are so many plaques about ‘Papa’ that it is a stretch to even think that he ate his way through this foodie’s city. He must have been one great gourmet or gourmand.
After seeing the centrally located, Plaza Oriente, with outstanding architecture which includes the Royal Theatre, the 18th century Royal Palace and palatial gardens filled with over 40 sculptures, all overseen by a massive bronze statue of King Philip IV. Even in the unusual downpour, it may have been sensible to head back to the wonderfully remodeled, De Los Letras Hotel. But there was much more to thrill the senses in my limited time, so,I resisted that urge.
And just when you think you’ve seen almost all, there’s the outstanding Gothic revival style, Catedral de la Almudena with a fine neo Gothic interior.
The Golden Triangle (aka., Art Walk), is not a short walk. But it is charming and certainly traffic -filled boulevard that is tree-lined street, surrounded by monumental and I add, majestic buildings. Know that a day in this area would only be scratching the surface. Besides, the renowned Prado Museum, (Goya, Velazquez, El Greco masterpieces) there’s also Reina Sofia, with more avant garde canvases and celebrating the 20th anniversary (2012), the famed collection at The Thyssen Bomemisza Museum,(featuring some of the best 18th-20th century artists), a private collection second only to Buckingham Palace’s art collection. It was gifted to Spain by the late Baron and his still feisty, widow, Baroness Thyssen Bomemisza. The Baroness T.B. has her own on-loan, modern art collection next to this building and housed in a most modern edifice built especially for these extraordinary canvases.
There are so many indoor and outdoor markets in Madrid, from food to really fine mid century furniture and also various true flea markets. I wasn’t expecting to find perfectly wonderful new merchandise probably brought in for the day from a nearby store and also wonderful hand crafted jewelry designers who stand behind their stalls talking about their craftsmanship. On Sundays the Plaza de Cascorro, dating back to mediaeval times, is the place to be along with many of the locals. Besides it’s fun to see the mimes and buskers perform. There are over 1000 street sellers. But don’t expect to make it to all of them in one day.
Madrilenos and Madrilenas love street life and no matter where you go, there are always happy looking groups, often eating tapas or other special snacks. My favorite food market is the unusual San Anton (24 Augusto Figueroa Street) with a covered 6,000 square metre building on 3 floors, each with its own designation and where you could either do your marketing or find a place to sit and eat. But it’s the third floor with an excellent restaurant and a terrace,reservations needed. From here you get a great night view of the city scape. Both of these eateries are worth the time and Euros for a fine meal and the fine house wine. It also seems to be the ‘de rigeur’ spot for the young, chic, trendy, fun loving locals who stand about on the lower level eating, flirting, smoking and drinking.
But if there’s any mass appeal, it’s when there’s a soccer game. Every bar, hotel lobby, plaza, any place with a TV screen or computers, is where crowds gathers and the hoots and hollers are loud and clear. Soccer is big and there seems to be a game everyday.
What also seems to be huge is the major garden, the main park is Parque de el Retiro, second only in size to New York’s, Central Park and the big surprise is to find interesting sculptures and promenades or hear a concert or possibly take a row boat. There’s love in this truly exuberant city of Madrid and smooching couples seem to be far from self conscious about their attraction ‘du jour’. Love is like a perfume that permeates the city. It’s in the atmosphere.
LUNCH OR DINNER
Iroco Restaurant Calle Velazquez 18, Tel 34 919431 7381
The avant garde decor is so New York style. The structure is typical of a colonial style with wrought iron and teka wood furnishing. And when actor Tom Cruise was wedded to Nicole Kidman, they filmed in Madrid and ate often at Iroco.
1. Estado Puro Palacio de Tepa on Plaza del Angel serves the best tapas but also larger meals.
2. It would be a shame not to lunch at Cafe de Oriente, Plaza de Oriente 2, Tel,3491 547 15 64. It may be located in a vaulted basement of a former 17th century convent but each area is as elaborate as the creative meals. Order Braised codfish with pepper ragout and “pil-pil” and you won’t be disappointed. And don’t miss the Aljibe room where there’s a transparent floor which showcases the ancient wall of Madrid.
1. La Capilla de la Bolsa with super food and music. Once the Chapel SantaCruz, it then became the Madrid Stock Exchange Happily it has maintained the Baroque vaulted ceilings and original columns so while sitting in the midst of history, eating Mediterranean cuisine is an great experience.
2. Have another craving for tapas?, then head directly to La Camarilla. Calle Cava Baja 11. Tel 34 91 354 0207
3. Perhaps one of Spain’s great innovations is that you can purchase you favorite products and have them cooked up for you for a small supplementary charge.
BREAKFAST AT DE LAS LETRAS HOTEL
If you’re lucky you’ll have the opportunity to stay at De las Letras Hotel on Via Gran. This grand old apartment building has kept its integrity with their lovely mosaics, the original tiles, marquises staircases, original elevators (no longer in use but certainly a conversation piece) ,molding and wood paneling. Each floor has been decorated room with originality, and have a different color scheme and all refined contemporary and edgy art still has a hint of historic factor. And in each room, there are phrases, paragraphs from the two owners’ favorite books. There’s also a fine spa. And the breakfast at their bar/restaurant is something to rise and shine for. Buffet style but with hot choice, presented so artfully that it’s difficult to be the first to break the pattern of the ham, breads, fruits displayed plates.