[words & photograph © Mark Eveleigh]
Madrid combines all the fiery, passionate spirit of a southern European capital with an aged-in-oak love for its own history and traditions.
It’s a heady cocktail that leaves you wondering what your next encounter will be among the peaceful plazas and bustling boulevards of one of the continent’s most exciting cities.
10 top sights
1/ The handsome, sun-burnished walls of Plaza Mayor make for one of the most evocative and stately of all Castilian plazas. The terrace cafés along the western walls catch the first of the early morning sun and make a great place for a long, slow breakfast. The stately red brick concentrates the warm aroma of porras (fat extruded doughnuts) and hot chocolate and insulates you from the torrent of traffic outside in Calle Mayor. The people of Madrid believe that all Spanish life eventually arrives in their city and you get the idea that if you sit in Plaza Mayor for long enough you will probably see it all pass by your table.
2/ The Writer’s Quarter – Just a mile southeast from Sol lies Barrio de las Letras. Steeped in literary tradition, the cobbled alleyways and timeless old taverns were once the haunt of Miguel de Cervantes, Lope de Vega and countless other vagabond writers through the generations. The noble houses, monasteries and sleepy plazas of ‘the Writers’ Quarter’ seem to concentrate the cultural and historical facets of the city.
3/ Royal Palace – A tour of the Palace takes in the main chambers and the Royal Pharmacy (with an endless parade of medicine jars and concoctions that would seem to stand testament to a chain of royal hypochondriacs). There are wonderful views from the Plaza de Armas, outside the palace, of the Casa del Campo and the sierras beyond.
4/ El Buen Retiro Park, once the private park of the Spanish kings, is now the main leisure hangout of Madrileños of every description – at weekends it lures buskers, acrobats, puppet-shows, artists, conmen and Gypsy palm-readers. Lovers wander through the rose garden or feed the ducks, bongo-drums throb by the lake and the city’s large South American contingent hold impromptu volleyball contests on dusty courts.
5/ Tapas Tour – Tapas is the perfect way to sample the great variety of food that is available in Madrid and a leisurely evening touring some of the countless tapas bars (especially around Plaza Santa Ana) is sure to provide some of the best memories of a visit to the city.
6/ Museo del Prado remains Spain’s biggest crowd-puller. This magnificent museum boasts far too much to really appreciate in a single day but an insight into Spanish art can be gleaned by concentrating on some of the jewels of the collection in the rooms devoted to Velasquez, Goya and El Greco. It is incredible that all the halls and corridors of this immense museum only offer space enough to display a mere 20% of the Prado’s phenomenal collection. Most visitors are primarily interested in gaining an insight into Spanish life through the eyes of three of the country’s greatest artists: the religion of El Greco, the court life of Velázquez and the patriotism (and madness) of Francisco Goya.
7/ The Cathedral of Nuestra Señora de la Almudena (Calle de Bailén, next to the palace) took more than 400 years from the planning stages until it was finally opened as late as 1993. It might not be considered of great historical value but check out the startling and unique decorations inside the vaulted ceilings and you will certainly agree that it is one of the most unusual, original and colourful churches in Spain.
8/ Any shopaholic, antique collector or dedicated ‘bric-a-brac browser’ should make a bee-line on Sunday mornings for El Rastro flea market in La Latina quarter. It operates throughout the week on a diminished scale but you would need to make a very early start if you hope to cover all the sections of this sprawling market before the midday sun begins to drive the vendors back to their meals and siestas.
9/ The charming old shops between Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor are fantastic for quality leather goods at good prices and gorgeous mantones de Manila (the embroidered silk shawls that have been favoured by local women since the mighty Spanish empire stretched as far as the Philippines).
10/ Calle Serrano, Madrid’s chic shopping area, is lined with storefronts bearing labels like Loewe, Prada, YSL and the best of Spanish designers at good prices. More affordable ‘bargains’ can be had along Calles Preciados and Carmen. These two pedestrianised shopping streets, off Puerta del Sol, are Madrid’s mainstream commercial centre and are the home to several El Corte Ingles superstores and the massive FNAC music and bookstore.