Madrid is a city that I’ve visited repeatedly. The heady mix of history, culture, food and nightlife have always appealed to my inner hedonist, but it’s also a relaxed city with a lot of parks and a way of life that seems more human than most cities. Large enough to offer world class distractions, but small enough to feel intimate and friendly, is how I’ve always thought of Spain’s vivacious capital. Amidst the grand Hapsburg architecture, bustling plazas, top notch museums, leafy parks and buzzing neighbourhoods, Madrid is a city that has everything.
Of course, it also has many of the negatives of cities everywhere, and it was noticeable during our recent long weekend that the number of homeless and destitute seems to have multiplied significantly since our last visit in 2015. Staying close to the Plaza Tirso de Molina, this was only too obvious. Madrid is still dealing with years of austerity from the financial crisis, and it’s very visible on the streets.
We arrived in the late afternoon and, after settling into the apartment, headed to the Plaza Mayor for a glass of something cold with some tapas. It might be touristy, but the Plaza Mayor is a wondrous introduction to the city. Perhaps the most perfect square in Spain? There was a time when bullfights were held here, today the closest you’ll get is a visit to La Torre del Oro, an Andalusian bar complete with bull heads and some of the most gruesome photos of toros getting revenge on matadors you’re likely to see – they could put you off your tapas.
We spent the evening bar-hopping in the increasingly trendy Chueca district. Once a rundown area, it has been completely rejuvenated as Madrid’s gay epicentre. It’s a vibrant neighbourhood that is home to some exceptional eating and drinking options, including the Mercado de San Miguel, an old market transformed by adding a couple of dozen bars and restaurants. For all the modernity, there are still some traditions that remain, just pop into the Taberna Ángel Sierra on Plaza de Chueca to be transported back in time.
We recovered the next day with breakfast in the Plaza Santa Ana. You know you’re in Plaza Santa Ana when you see the brilliantly white Reina Victoria, famed for being the hotel of choice for Spain’s best matadors. This is prime Hemingway territory, and off to one side is the Cervecería Alemana, where Hemingway claims to have shared a table with the most beautiful woman in the world. It’s a classic Madrid establishment, with world weary white-jacketed waiters who seem to have worked there for ever.
A morning spent in the botanical gardens and the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum (one of Europe’s finest) was followed by a visit to the Atocha district. Like Chueca, when I first came to Madrid there was nothing very interesting in this district, but now it’s full of bars and restaurants. We walked off lunch through the narrow streets of Lavapiés. Perhaps the most bohemian of all Madrid’s barrios thanks to the high percentage of immigrants that have settled here. This is a fascinating area that retains a sense of its radical working class roots even as gentrification takes hold.
I haven’t been to the Sunday morning Rastro market for twenty years, but it was close to the apartment and handily en route to La Latina and the Royal Palace. My memory is of a genuine flea market with occasional antique stalls, but the modern Rastro seems to be an homogenised mash up of tourist memorabilia that you could get in almost any country on earth. We meandered amongst the uninspiring stalls before trying to find somewhere for an outdoor lunch in one of La Latina’s many plazas. On a sunny Sunday, that’s easier said than done.
Our plan had been to visit the Royal Palace, but it was closed due to a state visit. It’s pretty impressive from the outside, but that doesn’t give a sense of what awaits inside some of the palace’s two thousand rooms. Still we could at least wander through the palace gardens, which were busy with people soaking up the sun. We made our way back to the packed Puerta del Sol and rewarded ourselves with a drink and tapas in the Casa Labra. The next day we’d be off to Segovia, a much needed rest from a weekend in Madrid.