Mad for Madrid: From food to art to relaxing
Madrid used to sit comfortably within the city’s ninth-century Moorish walls, expanded by the Christians in the 13th. But, in the 1950s, the M30 ring road became the de facto perimeter, severing the districts outside of it from the splendour of the city travellers know.
But Spain is a country of visions, even in its periods of economic uncertainty and, during the last decade, its infamous ring road has been buried. The banks of the Manzanares river between the Puente del Rey and De Segovia bridges have been wonderfully rehabilitated. The previously desultory neighbourhood along the Avenida de Portugal is connected, as it was a century ago, to the Campo del Moro of the Royal Palace and the Casa de Campo (literally, “Country House”), the fabulous park that was once the hunting estate of the Royal family.
Previously, the few visitors who did make their way to this part of the city came to see the Panteon de Goya, the tomb of the great 16th-century painter in the Hermitage of San Antonio de Florida. The frescoes Goya painted on the domed vault ceiling of the small chapel hint at the more macabre expression that Goya, likely succumbing to lead poisoning, would arrive at later, and are absolutely worth the visit. A fortuitous discovery, the sidreria (“cider house”) Casa Mingo is yards away, a cavernous tavern of dark wood with a utilitarian bar, a counter for takeaway, and a wall of oak cider barrels stacked high at one end. On weekends, the rudimentary tables of the Casa Mingo, an historic establishment of the working class, are filled with families drinking cider with their chorizo, brandada de bacalao and the restaurant’s celebrated spit-roasted chickens.
The public interest is taken seriously in Madrid, whether the convening spaces of parks, streets, gardens and museums or the superb system of public transport that makes movement in the city effortless. A simple bus ride away is the Gran Via, the central avenue driven through the heart of the city by Napoleon (for whom transport of a military kind was the concern), along which are opulent hotels and department stores, but also a miscellany of grand buildings that speaks to the history and priorities of Spaniards.
A military headquarters is housed in a former palace. The massive, sprawling footprint of the Bank of Spain, that troubled institution, now extends into stately buildings on both sides of the avenue. And, at its eastern end, on the Plaza de Cibeles, is the Centrocentro cultural centre. Set inside the striking and spacious lobby of the Cibeles Palace, once the central post office, matt silver girders support walkways that stretch overhead and visitors read newspapers on brightly coloured leather couches that would make the film director Pedro Almodóvar proud. Inside, glass elevators transport visitors to a rooftop deck (a fine restaurant on the floor beneath it) where it is possible to gain some sense of the topography of this fascinating, dense and massive city.
The Cibeles Palace is also an excellent place to begin to discover Madrid’s rich and singular legacy of art, as the Paseo del Prado stretches south from here. On my own walk to the Prado and Reina Sofia museums, two of the greatest in the world, I happened upon a third. The Naval Museum of Madrid, habitually empty of visitors, is where the oldest existing map of the world to include the North American continent is housed. The “Universal Chart” painted by Juan de la Cosa, an officer on Christopher Columbus’s ship, in about 1500, is but one treasure in its glorious cabinet of empire, a warehouse of documents and of plunder. Also on display are various costumes and weaponry of the country’s three centuries of having been a formidable global power, an enormous canoe hewn from a single Columbian log, models of ships and life-size replicas of luxurious officer’s quarters such as the commanders of the Spanish armada would have known.
No such solitude is to be found at either the Prado or Reina Sofia, of course, though the beauty of the exhibits in each means that the attendant throngs are soon forgotten.
At the Prado, Hyeronimus Bosch’s wonderfully morbid triptych of human sin and its punishments, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Velázquez’s self-portrait and homage to his art Las Meninas and Goya’s The Third of May, 1808 are just three life-altering paintings in the collection of a museum it could take a week to wander. At the Reina Sofia is Guernica, Picasso’s tortured deploring of the German bombing of the province of Vizcaya during the Spanish Civil War, reason enough to have visited Madrid.
Art fills the days and nights here, shopping a casual respite with its own Iberian delights. In the up-market district of Serrano, the Carmina boutique is a must, if only to feel the exquisite leather of the Spanish shoemaker’s classically cut boots and brogues. (Adolfo Dominguez is a Spanish clothes designer to watch out for.)
Come evening, but a fraction of this magnificent city revealed with each busy day, the visitor can join Spaniards in the taverns and tapas bars and restaurants in good conscience. This, my companion and I did over a couple of the cocktails that are a playful point of pride in Spanish cities.
We started at our hotel, the Santo Domingo, a part of the Mercure chain, situated convenient yards away from the Gran Via. The Santa Domingo, marvelously idiosyncratic, has a nightclub in the ancient vault of its sous-sol, antiques in its corridors, the folly of one of the largest hanging gardens in the city and, in the hands of renowned Spanish chef, Antonio Hoyas, the extremely good restaurant, Sando.
My favourite haunt was, however, the Del Diego Cocktail Bar, with its stylish, colourful lounge setting of wood tables and leather banquettes. The proprietor, Diego, and his two sons mix classics to impeccable standards (a fine whisky sour and mint julep) but also concoctions of their own, such as the “Diego,” made of vodka, apricot brandy, Bols advocat and lime.
Then it was time for something more traditional: a couple of glasses of good Spanish white wine, in utilitarian glass tumblers I was tempted to pinch, at the bustling Asturian Sidreria Casa Parrondo. Under the watchful eye of its portly, mustachioed owner standing behind an elevated bar piled high with jamon, plates of pork, sausages, cod, potatoes and beans, indefatigable waiters jostled with the busy crowd. In the Casa’s narrow spaces, we somehow balanced our tapas plates on a narrow ledge beneath a photograph of a whole splayed steer, ribs to the open fire, displayed between faded clippings on the wall.
Finally, and delightedly, we ate at El Fogon de Trifon, in the Salamanca area of the city. El Fogon serves traditional northern Spanish cuisine — artichokes, whole grilled turbot, white tuna but also steak and indigenous cheeses on the night we visited. The intimate restaurant, congenial from the moment of entering, has a sliver of a galley kitchen, a miniscule bar and space for just a few tables and, as we discovered to be the modus operandi of the capital’s best restaurants, is studiously overseen by the amusing owner, Jorge Esteban — inclined, as the evening progresses, to having a tipple or two of his own. Scandalous, eh? Another Spaniard living well, and passionately, and insisting upon enjoying the finer things as the economy struggles along, though you would be fooling yourself if you think he or any other Spaniard is working less hard than you.
IF YOU GO
Matadero Madrid (Paseo de la Chopera 10, Madrid 28045, Tel 915 17 73 09, mataderomadrid.org)
Hermitage of San Antonio de Florida (Glorieta de San Antonio de Florida 5, Madrid 28008, Tel 91 542 07 22, munimadrid.es/ermita)
Casa Mingo (Paseo de la Florida 34, Madrid 28008, Tel 91 547 79 18, casamingo.es)
Naval Museum of Madrid (Paseo del Prado, 5, 28014 Madrid, Tel: 915 238 789)
Where to Stay
Santo Domingom a part of the Hotel Mercure chain (C/ San Bernardo 1, Madrid 28013, Tel 915 401 378, mercure.com)
Eat & Drink
Sando (Plaza de Santo Domingo 13, Madrid 28013, Tel 91 547 99 11, restaurantesando.es).
Asturian Sidreria Casa Parrondo (C/ de Trujillos 4, Madrid 28013, Tel 91 522 62 34)
Del Diego Cocktail Bar (C/ de la Reina, 12, Madrid 28004, Tel 91 523 31 06)
El Fogon de Trifon (C/ Ayala 144, Madrid 28001, Tel: 91 402 37 94, elfogondetrifon.com)
Spanish shoemaker Carmina (C/ Serrano 74, Madrid 28001, Tel: 91 576 40 90). The Adolfo Dominguez flagship store is at C/ Serrano 5, Madrid 28001, Tel: 91 436 26 00, adolfodominguez.com).
El Museo Naval, the Naval Musuem of Madrid, is at Paseo del Prado, 5, Madrid 28014, Tel: 91 523 8789. Entrance is free. The Prado (Tel: 91 330 28 00, museodelprado.es) and Reina Sofia (C/ de Santa Isabel, 52, Madrid 28012, Tel: 91 774 10 00, museoreinasofia.es) are free to under-18s, to students under 25, pensioners, and to visitors to the permanent collections for two hours every evening. It is not a bad idea to decide, ahead of time, which of the paintings on life’s to do list are most important to see, and handily, the Madrid Tourism office publishes a free guide to some (though hardly all!) of the city’s great treasury of art called “Madrid, 100 Masterpieces of Painting.”