[words & photograph © Mark Eveleigh]
Winters can be chilly on the Castilian mesa but Madrid has all the fiery passion of the Spanish south, mixed with the aristocratic reserve of noble Castile.
Situated in the very centre of the country, Madrid is spiritually and literally the Spanish heartland. It is justly proud of its traditions yet is excitingly cosmopolitan, as it absorbs the influences of its Arabic, Latin and northern European inhabitants.
The Spanish capital is a crossroads where historic meets contemporary, international meets insular and religious meets raucous. Here gypsies and chulapos (social counterparts of old-time Cockneys) browse the sprawling old market of El Rastro; died-in-the-wool aficionados discuss the San Isidro bullfights amid clouds of cigar smoke and pious crowds queue endlessly in the hope of witnessing a miracle from the statue of Jesús de Medinaceli.
But there is also the vanguardista Madrid, an ambitiously forward-looking city which rivals Paris as a haven for art, New York as a centre for round-the-clock nightlife…and everywhere else as home to the world’s most famous football team.
Madrid was once derided as one of the sleepier European capitals; a good place for lazy mornings in a shady plaza followed by even lazier siesta-hours when the whole city came to a standstill and the sultry air was stirred only by the expelling of a million wine-scented snores. But today La Capital is renowned as one of the nightlife Meccas of the continent – for once, that hackneyed phrase ‘city that never sleeps’ is no mere cliché.
Many young Madrileños look on a working week with only one sleepless night as nothing short of a social wasteland. There are an estimated 4,000 bars and restaurants in central Madrid. It was once said that in one street alone there were more bars than in the city of London – with the whole of Norway thrown in!
Unlike most sprawling European capitals, Madrid is easy to escape and the immediate surroundings offer plenty to attract the visitor who has the urge to explore more widely. The historic towns of El Escorial, Segovia, Avila and Toledo are easily reached in a day trip and, if you really want to get away from the crowds, the deserted and pristine mountain ridges of Sierra de Guadarrama can be reached in a 40-minute train ride. You can breakfast on chocolate and churros (long extruded donuts) in Madrid’s central Plaza Mayor, have a day of solitary and reflective trekking in the mountains and still be back on a terrace in Plaza Santa Ana for a sun-downer.
Or you can stick around the city and spend a day walking from the leafy nine-lane boulevards of the modern business district into the tangled alleyways of the Writer’s Quarter. You will not have wandered far before you realise that La Capital is a fascinating hybrid with a hundred contrasting faces.
9 Things you ought to know about Madrid…
1/ The cheapest way to eat is to sample from the midday Menu del Dia. In local restaurants you can still dine on a 3-course meal for as little as £6 (including a bottle of vino tinto!).
2/ St Valentine left his heart in Madrid. Relics of the saint are to be found in several cities around Europe but St Anton’s Church in Madrid’s Chueca district is officially known as the saint’s last resting place.
3/ Madrid has the second biggest seafood market in the world (after Tokyo), making this land-locked city one of the best places to sample fresh fish.
4/ Madrid has been described as the second greenest city in the world (after Guayaquil, Ecuador). The great rolling expanses of Spanish oak that are known as Casa del Campo – accessed from the city by cable-car – provide a convenient escape for frustrated city-slickers.
5/ Spanish people have two surnames. If a businessman’s card reads ‘Sergio Montes Jimenez’ he will be known as Sergio Montes or Mr Montes (not Jimenez).
6/ The siesta is a dying tradition in Spain – you no longer need expect wheeling-and-dealing in Madrid’s booming business centre to grind to a standstill in the afternoon.
7/ Business lunches (like most meals in Spain) can be long affairs. Expect a serious session of sobremesa (literally ‘beyond the table’) in which much of the most important business discussions will be carried on after the meal.
8/ Evening meals in a restaurant is not likely to take place earlier than 9:30pm. (If you are making the booking perhaps suggest meeting for drinks at 8:30, table for 9:30).
9/ It might not surprise you to hear that summer temperatures in Madrid can rise higher than 45°C but few people realise that winter temperatures in the sierras can drop to -10°C. Even so, winter in Madrid is truly beautiful with crystal-clear skies being the norm.