Spain’s capital may be rich in cultural treasures, but it’s the fabulous food and wine experiences that will leave you wanting more.
It’s late spring, but the weather is miserably cold and wet when our taxi drops us at the end of the one-way street where our apartment is located, close to the Gran Via, one of Madrid’s most iconic avenues. People scurry past, umbrellas held tight and coats buttoned from collar to hem as protection from the inclement weather. We stand, sans umbrella, dripping wet and exhausted after our long flight via Hong Kong. All I want is a hot shower but we can’t seem to decipher the secret code of entry.
We had expected warm weather but instead received a warm welcome from a passing stranger who spoke little English, but who nevertheless walked us a half-block to reveal the entrance to our building. That generous affability from the locals was particularly beneficial in the coming days as we wandered around the city, mostly lost but not caring.
Madrid is Europe’s capital of cool, radiating a seductive energy from every fountain-clad plaza, twisting cobbled street and tree-lined boulevard. One of the most captivating things about the city, besides the elegant, classic Spanish architecture, is its incredible food and wine scene. It’s so good you’ll want to sample every variety of tasty tapas and tipple every luscious Spanish wine as you make your way through the bars and cafes tucked away in a maze of medieval laneways. And because Madrid is a city built for walking, it’s easy to immerse in the lifestyle and still have time to enjoy the fantastic cultural treasures.
We had only five days to get a handle on a city that’s so full of life the energy seems to vibrate in waves around you, but the first thing we had to get straight was the clock. Forget time as you know it in Australia, and get used to eating breakfast mid-morning, lunch mid-afternoon early evening tapas, and dinner around 10 – with head-hitting-pillow around two-ish. The Spanish sure know how to make the most of Father Time!
We began each morning just like any true Madrileño, with churros con chocolate – strips of fried-dough pastry dusted with sugar and cinnamon and served with a cup of thick, velvety hot chocolate. Then we’d hit the pavement to find a new barrio (Madrid’s inner-city neighbourhoods) to soak up the atmosphere and explore the local shops, bars, cafes and food markets.
Madrid’s way of life is enviable: lively yet laidback, with an easy abundance of delicious dining opportunities. Cafes, bars and restaurants line just about every street, and at lunchtime and early evening they’re packed with locals and visitors alike. We walked, we ate, we drank, and then we walked some more, stopping off in atmospheric bars in whatever neighbourhood we found ourselves for our daily fix of vermut de grifo – vermouth poured on tap from big stainless-steel barrels and served up with dainty morsels of food. Tapas is a fundamental part of dining in Spain, but it can be daunting to stand at the bar in front of the chalkboard menu with no idea whether you’re about to order meatballs or bull’s balls. So, our top tip is to book a food walking tour with a company like Devour Madrid to gain some insider knowledge. We did their Huertas Neighbourhood Food & Market Tour , and by the time it finished we felt right at home, squeezed up at the bar eating tapas and tostas while tossing back glasses of vermouth amid the lunchtime noise and chaos.
In Madrid, you’re served free tapas when you order a drink – usually something simple like potato chips, potato salad with mayonnaise, olives or even a slice of ham on bread. This generous hospitality is unique to the capital; in other Spanish cities you will need to pay. In a city as food-focused as Madrid, there’s no shortage of fantastic food markets, but the one you must not miss is the gorgeously ornate, 100-year-old Mercado de San Miguel, one of the most vibrant spots in the city, selling produce from every part of Spain. Pull up a stool at any number of tapas bars to sample regional delicacies such as pulpo a la gallega (marinated octopus, a specialty from Galicia), berenjenas con miel (fried eggplant with honey) or an all-time favourite, the classic gambas al ajillo (garlic prawns).
On our last day we decided we couldn’t leave without visiting at least one museum, so we headed off to Paseo del Arte – a one-kilometre stretch also known as the ‘Golden Triangle of Art’ that’s home to three of the best museums in the world: the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sofía. We chose the Prado Museum as it’s considered to have one of the world’s finest collections of pre-20th century European art (something we don’t see a lot of in Australia), and it’s fantastic. If you go, don’t miss the amazing The Garden of Earthly Delights , a mammoth triptych by 15th-century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. This surreal depiction of heaven and hell is chilling.
Intent on leaving on a high note, we morphed day into night by hitting a few tapas bars and jazz clubs before slipping into the legendary cocktail bar Museo Chicote for one of their famous cocktails. There, we raised a glass in farewell to this intoxicating city – and I mean that in more ways than one! Chicote is one of the city’s oldest bars, and during the mid 20th century everyone who was anyone (and all the wannabes) would hang out to see and be seen. It’s where Hollywood stars Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra used to drink and fight until the early hours in the 1950s, and where American author Ernest Hemingway sheltered from bombs during the Spanish Civil War. Ava, who lived in Madrid for many years, said she loved Spain because it was a lot like her: violent, rural and whimsical, while Hemingway called Madrid “the most Spanish of all cities”. And this, my friends, is exactly why we loved every crazy minute here.
Spain is serviced by a high-speed train network connecting main cities in a few hours. We booked our tickets in Australia through RailEurope (raileurope.com.au) well in advance to get the best price and travelled from Madrid to Malaga, Cordoba, Seville, Barcelona and onto Paris in comfort and without the hassles of airports. Madrid’s neighbourhoods each have their own charm and easily connect by foot or by the city’s efficient Metro.
Book a Food & Culture Tour – it’s a delightful way to immerse in the culture of the city. madridfoodtour.com
Photos: Victor Garcia; Maia Eli; Sebastian Dubiel; Rhonda Bannister