My good friend Lauren and I have just returned from a belly-busting tour of Madrid. We celebrated Valentine’s day with our biggest loves in life – cured meats and discovering a new city.
We flew into Madrid on a Saturday night and headed straight out to the Museo Chicote. Not a museum but a bar on Gran Via close to our hotel. Chicote was a favourite of Ernest Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War and then later became popular with celebrities such as Audrey Hepburn and Dali. Elegant black and white photos of famous patrons decorate the walls adding to the relaxed, and glamorous feel of the place. Velvet chairs are positioned side by side at tables, making them perfect for people watching. We ordered our first and definitely not the last ‘Spanish G &T’. The waiter arrived at our table with a fish bowl sized wine glass and a whole bottle of Tanqueray gin. He proceeded to pour gin over the ice for such a long time that we wondered whether he would ever stop. Needless to say we were pretty sloshed after that and so moved on in search of tapas. One of the best things about visiting Madrid is how walkable the city is. We didn’t get the metro once and only taxi-ed when we were too lazy (drunk) to use Google maps.
La Latina, one of Madrid’s districts, is well known as a prime tapas spot. The bulk of the best eateries are on the Calle Cava Baja. On the way to tapas we were side tracked by the Musee de Jamon just off Plaza del Sol (there are several dotted around the centre). A friendly Spanish man on the bus from the airport assured us that the museum of ham was ‘the Spanish Wetherspoons’. For a bargain-ous 5 Euro we had a plate of Serrano ham, two red wines, a portion of chorizo (raciones) and a chunk of baguette (bocadillo) thrown in for free. The place was packed and the value, unbeatable. We were in love.
The well-known and long established Casa Ricla is perfect for a tapas pit-stop. A small, perfectly formed and extremely delicious bar, which is run by a mother and her two sons. All the family were present the night we visited, along with their bemused French bull dog. The salted cod tapas (bacalao) served on the obligatory hunk of bread is bloody fantastic. Washed down with a delicious and cheap glass of cava Lauren and I discussed how Madrid was our joint stomachs’ spiritual home and we must orchestrate our move there immediately.
Casa Lucas further down the Calle is also a popular and late opening tapas bar. Lauren had the ‘Madrid’ tapas of blood sausage, (like black pudding) mixed with egg and pine nuts. ‘You might be able to share it’ the waiter assured us. The tapas ‘small plate’ was enough to feed a family of five and it was only the pine nuts that stopped me from trying it. The pork and apple tapa was also delicious and the portion, more human-sized. We finished our 1am eating session with a crisp and sweet East Indian sherry.
Our Sunday in Madrid started too late for breakfast so we went straight into tapas tasting. The tapas deal from ‘Cafe e tapas’ (a chain local to Madrid) has a reasonable ‘pinchos’ deal and a pleasant atmosphere. ‘Pinchos’ seems to mean ‘served on a chunk of bread’. We had; smoked salmon with whipped up cream cheese and pickle; crab pieces with cream; long slices of Iberico ham and a warm potato tortilla, all with Café con leche.
Madrid has some excellent markets and Sunday is the best day to catch them. The El Rastro flea market has been open every week for over four hundred years and is a good way to see a part of normal everyday Madrid life. El Rastro has an un-touristy, grungy, and student-y feel with bars and cafes that are a bit rough round the edges. The market sells a wide range of leather, jewellery, and vintage clothing ranging in price and quality. It’s worth checking out the courtyards off the main strip of stalls for their antique shops. Forever Retro (bad name but brilliant shop) is an antique shop dreams are made of. We spent a long time in there taking photos and avoiding eye contact with the staff. We grabbed a mid-afternoon snack of Spanish empanada from a fast-food shop which also sold a Madrid special, the Hornanzo patty. The Hornanzo is a beast. There is around six inches of mysterious looking meats in the middle of thick slices of pastry. One thing Madrid is definitley good for, is meat.
Madrid is a very meaty city. If you like eating your meat and cheese like you do your chips, pick up a cone of meat from any one of the ubiquitous jamonerias. It’s hard to walk down a street without walking past a delicatessen filled with hanging meat. Despite this, Madrid has a growing vegetarian and vegan foodie scene. We stopped in a couple while walking around the neighbourhoods. It was interesting to see how the health food revolution has permeated countries like Spain where there is such an entrenched tradition of curing and eating animal products.
A short walk up hill is the Palacio Royal. An expansive and beautiful white building on the edge of central Madrid. It’s also a great place for views across the surrounding hills. The royal cathedral neighbouring the palace is also no to be missed. That’s a sentence I never thought I would write. The modern stain glass windows and vibrantly coloured ceilings give it a contemporary feel that I’ve never seen in Italian or English cathedrals. They have somehow managed to mix modern with classical without being jarring or vulgar.
Santa María la Real de La Almudena
Through the Sabatini Gardens in front of the palace is the Teatro Royal Opera house. The theatre offers a limited number of tickets (depending on how many haven’t been sold) at 10% of the original price to people under thirty on a first come first served basis. We struck lucky as the evening show had not sold out that day. For only €19 each we watched the Benjamin Britten opera Billy Budd in fantastic seats (worth close to 120 euro). I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of opera in general. This was however, a really special experience. The set alone was amazing, as half the stage was peridocally raised up by ropes to create levels of a ship.
The opera house is a five minute walk from the San Miguel Mercado. A twentieth century covered food market and excellent place to sample small bites of Spanish delicacies. There is also a few gimmick-y stalls which are clearly there for the tourists. See the blue wine (looks like a WKD but tastes like Pinto Grigio), but it is also popular with Spanish people, and there are some bargains to be had. We got a couple of white wine Sangrias and wandered around the market grazing. We tried: giant green olives stuffed with sardines and pickled vegetables tuna; tostados with octopus and paprika, fresh, smoked sardines and bacalao with tomato and vegetables. The cheese bar is a must for goat’s cheese fans. Goat’s cheese cured in wine was a particular highlight. I also had a bowl of ‘Sopa de cecido’, a traditional soup made from bone broth served with noodles and Lauren had tripe and chorizo stew with whole chunks of actual slippery intestines. We washed down our bone marrow and innards with the Madrid born beer, Mahou. Make sure to ask for a ‘cana’ which means glass otherwise they’ll bring you the bottle which is much more spenny.
Another market to check out is the San Ildelfonso. Fans of Dinerama in London will feel right at home here. Offering hot street food from pop up stalls the portions (and tasters) are extremely generous. We sampled truffle risotto, paella, and some excellent Iberico beef steak, which was melt-in-the-mouth tender and salty.
After our gout-enducing evening sampling the market stalls we started our Monday morning in time for breakfast – thank God. We went for hot chocolate, churros and heart palpitations from the Chocaleteria San Gines. San Gines is a Madrid institution which serves only chocolate and churros and is open 24 hours. Try the Poras, basically bigger, fatter churros or ‘churros’ more indulgent cousin’ if six long and skinny sticks of churros aren’t enough pastry for you.
With sugar coursing through our veins we headed to the Museo de Reina Sofia. This enormous art gallery was opened in 1992 and seems to sprawl across all three sides of the square it sits on tucked behind a huge hotel. The gallery is bright, painted all white and has an exhaustive maze of rooms showing interesting new collections alongside Dalis, Miros and Picassos including one of his most famous and impressive works, Guernica. It’s worth walking out on the multi-level terrace and visiting the gallery’s café and restaurant. The café has a sixties Mad Men – esque style and is suitably overpriced.
A fifteen minute walk from the Reina Sofia is the city’s largest park, the Parque de Retiro. Strolling through the box hedge gardens and rowing around the lake in a paddle boat is a great way to enjoy a bit of respite from the city. Post-park and exhausted from walking, we headed to the Plaza Sant Anna for a late lunch – al-fresco of course. Lunch led us nicely into beers o clock. A few cervesas in the square set us back more than the usual cana de Mahou but was a great place to enjoy the sunset. The Cerveseria Alemana is a traditional taberna and was another favourite of Hemingway. There were plenty of old boys in there enjoying the old school vibes and huge range of beers on offer.
After our beers we headed to a Salsa dancing lesson with the company City Life who operate in various locations across town. It’s basically an Erasmus night. Only go to these if you can deal with close proximity (waist holding) to nineteen year olds. A few times we felt like we had walked into a scene from Dirty Dancing, except no-one looked like Patrick Swayze. You can’t deny though it’s an evening which is value for money. For five euros who have an hour salsa dancing lesson and a drink. Got to love a student deal.
For those over twenty one, I would say don’t linger there longer than you have to (or maybe avoid all together). We quickly headed to ‘La Negra Tomasa’, a live music and salsa bar recommended to us by our waiters from the previous evening. The bar was lively and buzzing even though it was a Monday night. Sipping on Caprinhia’s, listening to ‘Los Chocolatinos’ we attempted some salsa dancing and felt like we were in Ipanema not central Madrid. The night ended at 4am after an arguement about the price of a plate of Iberican ham in the Museo de Jamon. Only in Madrid.
On our last day we explored the Malasana area. This hipster district has a great selection of mid-range clothing shops of a Zara/Mango ilk, as well as designer furniture, ‘concept stores’ and barista style coffee shops. There is street art on every corner in particular around the Calle de Espiritu Santo.
Before we headed to the airport, we swung by the Corte De Ingles supermarket, for some essentials, vacuum packed packets of chorizo, goats cheese, jamon crisps and Milka chocolate. Twenty pounds heavier in cured meats and cervesas we were fat, happy and ready for home.
‘Taste like a holiday’ excellent obervations from Lauren Jones