Royal Madrid


The Madrilenos don’t seem to sleep at night until they are well into their 50th decade. You might think that if you were ensconced at midnight at one of the tables outside one of the restaurants in the centre of Madrid.

All the tapas bars around will be heaving with gesticulating excitable locals who are on their way out for the night and all hell bent on having a good time. Perhaps it is something to do with the fact it is the highest capital in Europe at a dizzying elevation of 2100 ft, but no one seems to want to head out for an evening until very late. There is not a hint of anyone heading home at midnight ‑ the night has just begun.

If you rise early to sample the cultural delights of the Spanish capital, you may see those self-same nighttime revellers (after a brief stopover for a shower and some grooming at their apartments presumably) drinking a cortado (short strong coffee) and munching on a churro (doughnut) for sustenance before they head off to work.

They all look fantastic in their sartorial elegance, so they must be power snoozing at siesta time (how else do they get some sleep) or else they have cloned doubles. But Madrid is not just for those night owls who need to be dragged away from their drink – there is plenty of other stuff to see.

Puerta del Sol is considered the geographical centre of Spain and it is from here that all roads lead. So it is a good place to start off a stroll around the Spanish capital. Here you will see the iconic Tio Pepe (sherry) sign and a statue of the city emblem, a bear (none left in Spain) and a strawberry tree (yes the arbutus you get in Irish gardens).

A short walk from Sol is the Plaza Mayor, an elegant wide square that has been an important meeting place for the city inhabitants for centuries. Bullfights, pageants and public executions of the auto de fe during the cruel Spanish inquisition have all taken place here.

Now it has outdoor cafes and bars and is a pleasant spot as any to linger. The façade of the house of the baker’s guild (Casa de la Panaderia) contains some allegorical frescoes that are more than a little saucy. The streets around the Plaza Mayor are narrow and cobbled and ideal for a wander. This is Pedro Almodovar country and you can see from the daily activity in these streets where the brilliant Spanish director got his inspiration. On Sundays there is a small antique market here, but if you head down Calle Toledo there is the large weekly flea market El Rastro where you can pick up all kinds of bargains.

The Royal Palace (Palacio Real) of the Spanish regent, King Juan Carlos, is open for visitors even though it is a working palace. The Spaniards like their king, as he was the instrument of their liberation from the Franco dictatorship. His palace is set in a pleasant formal garden and particular highlights are a visit to the large dining room and the throne room with some impressive frescoes. The nearby Cathedral has some spectacular stained glass windows in the interior even if their modernity seems a little out of place in an obviously older building.

Madrid abounds with wide boulevards and magnificent Bourbon architecture. Some highlights are the Puerta de Alcala (an ancient gateway to the city) and the Plaza de Cibeles with a fountain and a statue to the Roman goddess herself.

Art lovers are spoilt for choice in the Spanish capital and there is a range of fabulous art on view that will please all palates. There are three internationally reknowned galleries all in close proximity to the city centre. El Prado is one of the best art museums in the world with a vast collection of work that will require more than one visit to digest. Some highlights are the work of Spaniards Goya and Velazquez, but there is also a great selection of Dutch and Flemish masters.

The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is in a converted palace, and it houses the incredible private collection of the baron with the same name. One of the most poignant pieces of Spanish art is housed in the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.

Picasso’s monumental work La Guernica illustrates the ignominous Luftwaffe’s bombing of the small Basque town at the behest of Spain’s fascist leader General Franco. There are also some great works by Miro, and some Daliesque landscapes for fans of the surreal.

After a visit to a museum, you may need to escape into the calming greenery of Parque del retiro, which is a converted 17th century Hapsburg hunting ground. This is where the locals come to relax and to recover from the partying the night before. There is a pleasant boating lake where if you feel at all energetic you can get out on the water in a boat and row. There are buskers and puppet shows in the park at the weekends

Eating in Madrid is all about tapas, which got their name from the glass a barman used to place over food to keep the flies at bay. They are small tasters of food that they serve in most bars and there is an incredible variety on offer in Madrid bars, including grilled prawns, calamari, chorizo (sausage), tortilla (Spanish omelette), meatballs, and patatas bravas (spicy potatoes).  If you are a little hungry then you can order a slightly bigger portion called a racion. The big problem with Spanish tapas is that you only eat a little amount at a time and they are so delicious that even though you are completely bloated you will try in fit just a little more in. You’re only hope is if you have one of those elasticated bellies that fits all pairs of trousers.

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