Madrid, Simplemente Magnifico!
"The haunting of history is ever present in Barcelona. I see cities as organisms, as living creatures. To me,Madrid is a man and Barcelona is a woman. And it's a woman who's extremely vain."
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafon
After a couple of weeks in Madrid, I came to realize that it has been far too long between visits.
Madrid can truly say that it has one of the finest artistic pedigrees in all of Europe as for centuries, royals liberally showered untold riches on artists and sculptures, both homegrown and imported. The upshot of their indulgences has meant that masterpieces from the likes of Goya, Valazquez Picasso, Dali, Rembrandt and Miro now adorn the walls some of the most sensational galleries and museums to be found anywhere.
Even with it’s Museo del Prado, Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (home to Picasso’s incredible masterpiece, ‘Guernica’) and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, along with countless other galleries liberally scattered throughout the city, Madrid is not only about art. It is a sprawling city and one really does need more than a few days to experience its wonders.
The city is basically divided into two halves, known locally as Old Madrid and Modern Madrid and the differences are quite palpable. This time around my stay was restricted to the old part of the city as really, there is so much to capture one’s attention so modern Madrid will have to wait until my return.
It is the third largest city in the European Union after London and Berlin and one that possesses an exhilarating historical background, offering a metropolitan, cosmopolitan atmosphere with plenty to show from its rich heritage.
This is a place that has a unique ability to capture even the hardest of hearts, helped in part by the incredibly laid back and unbelievably friendly people. The food is to-die-for and everywhere you look there is seemingly always something going on.
The Madrileños seem to know how to live life to the full, eating fabulous tapas, drinking fine wines and talking non stop in a busy mercados or cosy bars. The place is alive and vibrant twenty - four seven (except of course when they are having the obligatory siesta!)
A little like Paris, the city’s architecture surprises at every turn with each street offering yet another glimpse of just how to create a beautiful metropolis.
The stunning Plaza Mayor is considered to be one of the most iconic, plazas on the Iberian Peninsula with its 9 arched entrance ways leading to cobbled and altogether charming streets packed cheek by jowl with bars, restaurants and quaint shops. The vast, perfectly proportioned square is framed by stylish apartments painted in soft, pastel colours. replete with 237 balconies. Although always busy, its great spot to enjoy a coffee at one of the numerous outdoor restaurants and take in the majesty of one’s surroundings.
Just off the Plazo Mayor is the iron-and-glass structure which is the San Miguel market which buzzes all day long with patrons enjoying local fare from more than 30 vendors. The place is always packed but, waiting for a table is part of the entertainment as watching vendors deftly* dispense food and wine is like bearing witness to a military parade.
A short walk away from the market you’ll find yourself on Puerta del Sol, another central part of the city and one that has played a crucial part in Madrid’s rich history. It is interesting to note that this square is ‘0km’, as, being the exact centre of the peninsula all roads in Spain are measured from this exact spot.
All across Madrid experimentally minded locals have enlivened the city’s ageing mercados and turned derelict factories into thriving art centres. Young culture makers and party people continue to flock to established nightlife and shopping hubs like Malasaña, even as they invigorate upwardly trending barrios the like fashionably chill Conde Duque and multicultural Lavapiés.*
And yet, in its corners, you can still find the small-town flavour and local traditions. “We’re very cosmopolitan and open-minded now,” says Raphael, our host during our stay.
Being the capital, it has always been the place where the rest of the country’s regions are represented and, in the past few decades has attracted people from all the regions of Spain and elsewhere. This influx has meant that it is now the official home to Flamenco.
Any visitor to Madrid should make it a rite of passage to try to experience at least one Flamenco performance. Casa Patas on the Calle Canizares is a tiny theatre attached to a restaurant is the place to go. Their shows start at 10.30pm, or thereabouts, and over two hours, patrons are exposed to some of the most evocative and passionate singing and dancing you will ever experience.
It is tiny theatres such as this one that is reviving this art form and consequently, its popularity is once again growing in stature.
When one thinks of great city parks we tend only to hear of the ‘greats’ such as Central Park in New York, Hyde Park in London or Stanley Park in Vancouver, yet Madrid has a park to rival any of those mentioned.
El Retiro is an absolute gem when it comes to green space in the heart of a city. This park was once was the property of the Spanish monarchy but today, its ornate gates have been thrown open to the public.
Locals and visitors alike can rent a rowboat on the lake, stroll the wide shady boulevards or, like many Madrileños, just lay down in the grass in the company of a good book or share a picnic with family and friends. Some sites to see within the confines of the park are the Rosaleda, the rose garden, or admire the architecture of the Palacio de Cristal, built in 1887 for the Philippines Exhibition.
Love it or loathe it, bullfighting is a national institution in Madrid and even though, with a left-leaning municipality which has withdrawn funding for the sport and massive opposition by the local population, it is still widely attended.
Naturally, I had to go!
The La Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas was built in 1929 and is the most important bullring in the World with a capacity of 25,000. Apparently, it is the hardest bullring in which to succeed for matadors but, after watching five fights when it was 5 -0 to the matadors I really had had enough!
Of all of the cities I have visited in the world I really have to say that Madrid is the one that truly stolen my heart away even though I have seen just a slither of what it has to offer. With its grand architecture, wonderful people, history and underlying passion…what is not to love?
* Anthony Ham. Author.
Paul v Walters is the author of several international best selling novels. When he is not cocooned in sloth and procrastination in his house in Bali he also scribbles for several international travel and vox pop journals.