Madrid is a first for both of us. We arrive around midday, and quickly and easily negotiate the transfer from Renfe to the metro at Atocha station. We are only 2 stops away from Gran Via, on the blue line. Travelling makes us once more envious of the public transport systems overseas – frequent; networked with interstate trains and airports; easy to use ticket machines in multiple languages selling single tickets and providing change; clear signage; and accurate notification of upcoming stations (how often have I seen incorrect station information on the Sandringham line? Lots. Why can’t we get it right?!). The only thing I don’t like is that there are always stairs that you have to lug your case up, or down. I usually end up in a slather. But, enough grumpy old lady whinging.
We pop up like moles into the pedestrian mall of Calle de la Montera, where it intersects with Gran Via. Our hotel, Praktik Metropol, is just there. Not very encouragingly, just above McDonalds. However, it turns out to be a perfect location and we can easily walk to everything, and get to and from our train station. Also turns out to be an interesting location, as working girls (and I don’t mean the secretarial kind) throng the street. Pete, bless him, comments on how many girls with tight clothing are clustered around the street.
First impressions – a little bit grubby, at least where we are. Lots of street vendors of jet black skin. An array of different architectural styles, with many grand buildings. A more organic street layout – we miss the grid pattern of Barcelona. Harder to get a handle on where you are, and the different neighbours. After 4 days however we start to get the hang of it, and the different identity of the various neighbourhoods. Only feel uncomfortable once, in the area around the Lavapiés metro station – I think some deals might go down there.
As in all the cities, we walk and walk. The only time we actually use the metro is to and from the train station. Walking allows us to get more of a feel for a city, and we can appreciate the different architecture. Over our few days in Madrid we see beautiful examples of Deco, Art Noveau, Baroque, and modern.
After checking in we put my cafe research to good use and head off to the Malasaña district, and the Federal Café. You could easily think you were in Melbourne, and we probably tripled the average age of customer, but didn’t let that deter us.
Lunch done, we continue to the Temple of Debod, the Royal Palace and the Almudena Cathedral. The sun is blazing forth and there is not a cloud in the sky. The temperature hovers around 28 C. Hot. Not surprisingly, the gardens around the Temple are littered with people, some soaking up the rays, others seeking shade and relief from the heat. The park affords views across the city, and we realise that there is a massive green wedge right in the middle of the city, stretching as far as the eye can see. Our map tells us this is the Casa de Campo – 1.7 hectares of greenery, named for the fact that it was once the Royal hunting estate.
We have booked into an Urban Adventures Tapas Walking tour that evening, starting at 7pm. Our meeting spot is the statue in the centre of the Plaza de la Villa. We are a group of 7- a family of 3 from Armadale, NSW and an elderly European couple who are residents of Calgary, Canada. Our tour guide is the lovely Andrea, a resident of Madrid who is enthusiastic about both her city and its food. We learn a lot about the history of Madrid in between eating and drinking.
I thoroughly enjoyed the tour for what we learnt, but I have to say I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about much of the food, and drink, although felt it was very authentic. It is no wonder we have seen a lot of overweight Spaniards – bread, fried food, salty food, sweet food. I wonder what their diabetes and cholesterol rates are. Pete and I dumped several of our samples surreptitiously into nearby bins, whilst I shuffled my drink along the bar.
We start off in the Mercado de San Miguel, which is full of people, although it is apparently relatively quiet as it is a Monday. This is not a produce market, rather small food outlets. You buy food, and drink, to have here – if you can find a spot to perch in the central seating area – or to take away. Andrea says it is more likely to be a tourist haunt than a locals spot, although she was here with a group of friends on Saturday night. Here we sample olives, and cheese. And vermouth (akin to drinking cough medicine is my verdict) with the olives and a rather nice vino blanco with the cheese. One of the olive Tapas is a skewer of olives, pickled pepper and salted anchovy – it is called The Gilda (but pronounced Hilda), named after the character Rita Hayworth played in the film Gilda. Apparently she asked a bartender for some olives with a bit of spice to go with her drink. He created this Tapas in response and it was christened The Gilda/Hilda.
Walking the streets we learn that the street signs will usually have a picture of what the street name means, and that dotted throughout the town are plaques embedded into the pavements in front of significant buildings. Andrea tells us to look out for both as we walk around the city.
We pass by the famous Botin restaurant, the oldest restaurant in the world and famous for its suckling pig. Unfortunately it is not on our itinerary as we are partial to pig in all its forms. There is a queue of tourists outside, waiting patiently to be granted entrance. Botin has its own plaque in the pavement.
Our destination is Casa Lucas, where we have 3 Tapas – a local ‘salami’ on bread; a kind of ratatouille, topped with a fried quail egg, on bread, with matchstick chips; and oxtail meatballs on a bed of mashed potato. All of which were yummy, and washed down with a vino tinto.
Next up is the Cerveceria La Campana, which is famous for its bocadillo calamares, a speciality of Madrid. The place is packed, but we manage to squeeze in down the back. Pete & I elect to share one between us. Good thing we did as it turns out to be a soft, unappetising bun filled with overcrumbed and slightly chewy calamari. We eat the calamari and leave the bun. I gamely try the local wine mixed with lemonade that is a common accompaniment to the calamares. One sip is all I manage. There is no accounting for taste as this restaurant goes through 7,000 kilos of calamares every 15 days!!!
Andrea points out Chocoleteria San Gine, which she insists makes the best chocolate and churros in town, and makes us promise to return and try them. We end up breaking our promise (Alex would be very disappointed in us).
Our next stop is Casa Labra, famous for its cod croquettes and fried pieces of cod. There are other items on the menu but Andrea says that people rarely order anything else but cod – rather wonder why they bother then if that is the case. Casa Labra is an institution in the city, and was the spot where the Socialist Party was founded in 1860. But it is here that Pete & I sidle up to the bin and dump our croquettes, which are full of gluggy bechamel sauce and sparse with lumps of cod. Quite awful really.
Our last stop for the night is La Casa de las Torrejas, via bustling Puerto del Sol. Andrea points out the plaque in the pavement marking Kilometre Zero. From this point all roads leading out of Madrid are measured.
At Casa de las Torrejas we are to have the Spanish version of French toast. Pete and I err on the side of caution and say we will share one between us. I also opt for a glass of vino blanco rather than the traditional glass of sweet wine. A mistake on two counts, as the postre (dessert) is delicious – like a custardy , vanilla, French toast – and the sweet wine comes in shot glasses and is a bit like a light fortified wine, and goes nicely with the dessert. I could easily have scoffed the whole serve, and drunk the glass of wine rather than the sip from a fellow guest that I actually experienced.
Andrea escorts us back to Puerto del Sol and bids us farewell, after checking we all know how to get back to our respective hotels. It has been a delightful 3 and a half hours, despite some of the tapas, as we have learnt about Madrid and its inhabitants from a charming and knowledgeable guide. It takes us no time to walk back to the Praktik, and our bed.
Day 2 has been earmarked as our cultural day, but first coffee and breakfast at Hola Cafe, where we are served by a set of charming and funky young men.
Then, on to the Prado. Luckily I had purchased a Paseo del Arte ticket (a 3 museum pass) online and a Reduced Price ticket for Pete. This lets us skip the long line queuing for tickets and into the short queue for prebought tickets. The Prado is huge – 2 full floors of works, plus a small section on Level 2 and another in the basement. Not to mention the Temporary Exhibit, which in this case is paintings from Old Budapest. I have to admit that we skipped the few rooms on Floor 2 and the basement, and the Temporary Exhibition. But, we went into every other room, of which there are at least 100. Towards the end I started to get the same panicked feeling I get at Ikea- would I ever get out of there alive. After about 3 hours we emerged, staggering into the light and never wanting to see a religious painting again. Food and drink was desperately required.
La Sanabresa, one of Madrid’s dying breed of casa de comidas (basic restaurants) provided the solution. We were extremely lucky to snare a table as soon as we arrived at this bustling local restaurant, and I would say we were the only English speakers, although not the first. There is a menu in English, although none of the staff speak it. The tables are covered with paper that is replaced with each new customer. 3 courses, bread and a bottle of wine for 11.50 €. The food is simple home cooking, and the wine a very drinkable house red, and we loved it.
Fortified, we were ready to tackle Museum 2, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, which turns out to be the case of duelling collections. Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, and his Dad, had amassed a huge collection of paintings spanning from the late 13th century to the 1980’s. HH’s Spanish wife persuaded him to establish the collection in Madrid, plus, she too got bitten by the collecting bug and started to build her own collection of paintings. Thus, the Museo contains two collections – His and Hers, often with overlapping artists. Overall it is considered to be one of the world’s foremost private art collections and certainly gives one a look at art through the ages.
Our day spent in galleries, together with Thursday’s visit to the Regina Sofia Museo, leaves me pondering the question of who decides what is great art? How is it decided that a particular artist is worth collecting, and displaying to the public? How is it decided that an artist is a genius, or a particular work is a masterpiece? How does the art world work? Over 3 galleries I have seen some work I loved, but more that left me cold, even so-called masterpieces. Interesting isn’t it.
After all that culture we needed to retire to our hotel and gather our strength i.e. have an exhausted tourist nap, before heading out one block to Al Trapo restaurant in the Iberostar hotel. I was a bit anxious about the choice as it is in a hotel, and was almost empty when we arrived at 8.45pm. But, it is mentioned in the Guide Michelin, and the food was terrific, and reasonably priced for this level of quality. Small serves, but that suited us perfectly given our big lunch. Even the butter was beautifully presented, and the bread was delicious. We shared 2 of the starters – scallops in a passionfruit vinaigrette and the green vegetable salad with ricotta cream. Then shared 2 ‘mains’ – the wood pigeon Rice and the grilled skatefish. Everything looked wonderful and tasted even better. I could not resist a dessert, and chose the Forest fruits, Greek yoghurt, frozen herbs which was sublime (luckily Pete did not want any as he may have had to wrestle the spoon from me). So, so good.
Day 3 was a day of walking. We decided to use the numerous city markets as our navigation points, and worked out a route that took in 5 of them, each in different neighbourhoods so we could get a better feel of the city.
We started at Mercado San Anton, our local market in the trendy Chueca district. At this hour (10am) the stalls were just getting started, but we followed the locals and ended up at a bar serving a small bocadillo and a coffee for 2€. Jamon for me, calamares for him (and a much better one than we had on the walking tour). A good start.
On to Mercado de Barceló, situated in a very modern piece of architecture (I suspect the building might glow with light at night), but opposite a glorious old Deco theatre.
On then to Mercado de San Fernando, in the more seedy and downmarket area of Lavapies. Unfortunately, the stalls were all closed up by the time we got there. I say unfortunately as it looked slightly different, with perhaps more of an African influence. Never mind.
Back then to Mercado de San Miguel, that we had visited on the food tour. At 4pm it was heaving with tourists. We did a circuit then got the hell out of there. Back to Hotel Praktik Metropol and some quiet time, and a cup of tea, in their lovely lounge area.
Dinner tonight is at Celso y Manolo, recommended by Madrid Food Tours as her current favourite spot. Obviously very hip and happening, with young, groovy waiters and tiny tables. But, our booking isn’t until 9pm, so we fill in time at the Angelita wine bar. Propped up at the bar, with a glass of cava followed by a vino blanco, and complimentary Tapas, we feel very Spanish.
At dinner we order a bottle of red that turns out to be de-lic-ious. So despite the fact I have had 2 glasses of wine at the wine bar I proceed to demolish half the bottle of red. Subsequently I thought the food was fantastic, but I may be an unreliable judge!
Oh, bed did look good that night. Our final day was grey and cold, with rain predicted later in the day. We packed up and left our bags in reception, then headed off to Pum Pum Cafe, not far from our destination of the Reina Sofia museum. Again, we could have been in Australia – a funky cafe, serving avo on toast, and a Canberra salad!! Lovely smiling staff to boot. Breakfast and coffee done, we head to the Museum.
Our main goal was the Picasso Path to Guernica exhibition, which was commemorating the 80th anniversary of Guernica’s first showing. The exhibition focuses on the roots of Guernica’s imagery, and Picasso’s immediate post Guernica work. For those who don’t know, on April 26th 1937, the small town of Guernica in the Basque region of Spain was totally destroyed by German bombers at the request of Franco. For the first time in military history an attack was aimed specifically at the civilian population. Market day was chosen in order to ensure the most casualties. More than 1,600 people were killed, and another 1,000 injured. Picasso had been asked in early 1937 to produce a painting for the Spanish Pavilion but he had struggled to find a subject. The destruction of Guernica became his inspiration to produce a painting about suffering and war.
A quick lunch at the museum’s restaurant and a brisk walk back to the hotel to collect our luggage. Metro it to Chamartin and catch our train to San Sebastián – a 5 and a half hour trip. And unlike the train from Valencia to Madrid, no free beverages or food. Very poor Renfe! We had to buy our own vino Tinto and crisps.