Madrid is, for me at least, simultaneously a city of great energy and of great tranquility. More than that, while filled with cultural treasures and bucket list items to check off, the city is skilled at trying to tempt you into partaking in the spontaneous Madrileño lifestyle. I say – let it.
Those who know me will know that I am a girl obsessed with her calendar and while I will never undervalue the importance of planning in advance, travelling over the years has taught me the importance (and the fun) of letting your plans go awry. On this particular trip to Madrid I did have some definite must dos; the Prado that was shut when I visited 6 years ago, the Temple of Debod at sunset and eating at this wonderful Italian restaurant whose pasta I regularly think about. And yes, I am aware of the irony of craving Italian food in Spain, but just wait until you try it.
From the moment you arrive at Madrid-Barajas Airport with its ceiling of curved bamboo laths to passing the Beaux-Arts style Edificio Metrópolis as you walk down Gran Vía you will find yourself surrounded by Madrid’s great melting pot of architectural styles from the medieval to the modern. And as with most, if not all European cities, the best way to explore them is on foot.
My arrival in Madrid, however, was considerably less revelatory as after an unavoidably delayed RyanAir flight from Stansted, my family and I grumpily piled into a taxi to arrive at our Airbnb at just past 1am on Saturday morning. I say ‘arrive at our Airbnb’ in fact the taxi overshot our apartment by a street and a half so we walked back the way we came. This was the best thing that could have happened, the nightlife in Chueca district was well underway with music spilling out through doors and groups of people drunkenly smoking cigarettes, glasses of wine in hand. Physically exhausted from all the travel but spirits lifted from our little night walk, my mum and I were delighted to find our host had left us a bottle of wine which we happily opened up – only going to bed when we realised it was almost 3am.
The next day our only concrete plans were two restaurant reservations, and for someone for whom good food is a central part of travel (and life), I was entirely happy with that. We began our day in Chueca with the aim to eventually get to our friend’s apartment and lunch! On our stroll through Malasaña we passed a number of curious and wonderful things; gorgeous painted apartment buildings, a glass cabinet of books inlaid into the wall, crates piled high with fresh oranges for juicing and a cafe that made us delicious – and cheap – pan con tomate for breakfast. We decided to take a longer route so as to admire the Royal Palace of Madrid and La Almudena Cathedral as well.
Eventually we arrived at our friends’ apartment; T was one of my mum’s best friends from university. Her and her family looked after us so well and are part of most of my favourite moments from this trip. While our families hadn’t see each other for many years, I was delighted to find that we picked up just as we had left off. After my dog-mad sister had a quick cuddle with the adorable Coffee, we headed to Taberna Ubeda for some of the most stunning food I have ever eaten in my life. Lunch ended up being a two and a half hour affair that could probably be more accurately measured by the number of empty wine bottles and plates left on our table by the end. We had pisto with egg – a dish I’m told is meant to be made with whatever vegetables you have left in the fridge in a tomato sauce, white asparagus cooked in olive oil, beans with truffle, roasted artichokes, slow-cooked octopus and baked cheesecake to finish. I’m convinced you could order anything there and it would be good. I’m also convinced that we might have ordered everything there.
Entirely stuffed after that meal, we barely made it across the street to The Fix for a coffee to help us get the energy to make it back home instead of just collapsing on T’s sofas for an impromptu siesta. On our way home T showed us two of her favourite stores, Queseria Cultivo and Panic Bakery. I particularly recommend the Queseria if you’re a fan of edible souvenirs like me. While my dad had a nap, the rest of us headed back out to the Archaeological Museum which has free entry on Saturdays after 2pm for a quick explore before we too returned, for a nap of course – eating and drinking is tiring work.
Our final item of the day was, you guessed it, more food. This time a pasta dish that I had been waiting 6 years to have again at a place called ‘Ouh Babbo!’. However in order to get to this plate of fresh spaghetti and poached egg with truffles and cheese, we did have to make a through the minor ordeal of accidentally walking into the middle of the Catalan Independence protests on Gran Vía. As we walked down we did wonder why it was so crowded, until we rounded a corner and saw a group of police in full riot gear with shields. We swiftly turned back but got caught up in a crowd of people running away, but dashing down a side road we found ourselves in quieter territory. While this was mildly concerning, the main issue was getting to dinner since our route was blocked. After a rather circuitous detour, we made it to the restaurant only to have the mental shutters closed after we entered – right before we heard the sound of rubber bullets being fired filled the street outside. I guess it was going to have to be a rather long dinner.
The pasta lived up to every expectation and even with the protest outside, dinner was wonderful. The protest did mean my plans to go to Macera Taller Bar, a bar where they distill their own alcohol with Spanish spirits, were scuppered but I was equally happy with the alternative – homemade whiskey sours at our friend’s apartment.
The next morning while the rest of my family had fresh tomatoes and a tortillas patatas T had made for us, I ventured out to meet a friend from school who I hadn’t seen in around a year. I found out a few weeks prior that she had moved to Madrid on her year abroad and thought it would be the perfect opportunity to catch up. Over brunch at Ojalá, we caught each other up on our lives and as per usual it ended much too soon. I wanted to go the El Rastro Flea Market but as my family had gone for a walk in El Retiro Park we decided to meet up at the Reina Sofia. Since the sun was out I decided to walk via the Lavapies District; 40 minutes of exploring and one coffee ice lolly later, I joined my parents in the museum.
There is free entry after 1.30pm on Sundays but the queue gets horrendous so I recommend paying for entry (if you’re a student under 25 you don’t have to worry as you get free entry at any time!). The main attraction for me here was of course Guernica, both the full scale painting and Picasso’s preparatory sketches but there are also many other lovely pieces such as Oscar Dominguez’s No Title (The Painter) and Spanish impressionist Joaquín Sorrolla’s Return from Fishing.
After a quick lunch of mushroom risotto and pesto burrata at Ganz Bistrot we headed back to the apartment for a break (read: nap) while it rained outside. I have to admit it, I love a good rooftop bar and I was determined to see Madrid from on high but it was not to be. We first tried the roof at Circulo Bellas Artes but were going to be charged just to take the lift up and then tried the roof at the Hotel NH Collection next door, which had wonderful views but very soggy seat cushions. So we settled for a couple espressos at a cafe at street level after awkwardly dashing out from the hotel’s rooftop bar.
Our next plan that changed was to try to get into the Prado during their free entry time after 5pm, but like the Reina Sofia the queue was astonishingly long and even though I’m English, I personally did not want to spend my time in Spain queuing. So we popped into the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum where we found you could buy a paseo del arte which for 30,40€ you could get entry to the Reina Sofia, Prado and T-B Museum – saves you 20% overall if you’re paying full price for entry. The museum had an enlightening exhibition on the relationship between Impressionism and photography as well as some lovely pieces in their main collection. My particular favourites were George Grosz’s Metropolis and Wassily Kandinsky’s Picture with Three Spots No. 196 for their vibrant colours and energy.
Then noticing sunset was not too far away we speed walked over to the Temple of Debod, a 2nd century BCE Egyptian Temple that just happens to now be in Madrid’s Cuartel de la Montaña Park after it was donated to Spain by the Egyptian government in order to save it from the floods that would follow the construction of the Aswan Dam. As the sun dipped below the horizon partially hidden by the clouds, the backlit temple structures reflected off the water and contrasted with the blue glow of the early evening. It was a view that you could come back to again and again, and never be tired of it. As a reward for the thousands of steps we’d achieved today, T’s husband made us a stunning Thai green curry with wild mushrooms and homemade chilli sauce, of which I ate entirely too much.
We began, as we began every day this trip – telling each other to hurry up because we have things to do whilst also each taking ages to get ready. Finally we all piled out of the apartment, only for my mum to get most of the way down the street and realise she has forgotten her phone. While I tried to convince her it would be fun to try going without one (my own phone smugly in hand) she was insistent on going back. We decided to pick a random cafe and order breakfast while we waited, ending up at the wonderful Casa Lolea. Their staff were so lovely, and managed to understand my order of a goat cheese bagel sandwich and espresso in my rusty Spanish. After we all filled up, and took note of the wall of sangria behind the counter (important for later) we headed off to the Prado – finally!
Again if you’re a student under 25 – free entry, otherwise its 15€. I find in big museums like the Prado, its best to do a bit of research and reading beforehand but it is also wonderful to stumble upon unexpected new favourites. While they have really useful guides on the Prado website tailored for how many hours you have to spend in the museum, my priorities were:
- Las Meninas by Velázquez.
- Titian’s Charles V at the Battle of Mühlberg
- The Three Graces by Ruben
- Rembrandt’s Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes
- El Greco’s The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest
- Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights
- Goya’s The 3rd of May 1808 and his Black Paintings
I wanted to take a walking tour of the city, and the rest of my family decidedly did not. I was about to sneak off on my own when I was distracted by the offer of churros. Make the walking tour or try the churros and hot melted chocolate at the oldest chocolateria in Madrid? It’s not even a choice really. For around four euros, you get a plate of 6 long golden churros and an enormous cup of pure melted chocolate to dip into. There was so much left over that I mixed milk into it so I could drink the rest. Chocolateria San Gines is a complete must do, and considering its open 24 hours a day there’s no excuse not to go if you’re in town.
We had a few more hours to spend before we were due back at the airport, so we made a walking tour of our own – seeing what squares and markets we stumbled upon and then using google to read information about where we were. It was surprisingly effective! We passed Café Comercial, which during the Franco dictatorship was a meeting place for anti-government activists and now is a great place to get Spanish-style french toast, torrijas.
On the way we passed by Mercado San Miguel, which to be honest felt rather touristy but did provide my dad and I with an opportunity to drink margaritas out of a bag, something I never thought I wanted to do. Two other markets that we preferred were Mercado de San Ildefonso and Mercado de Anton Martin where we picked up little snacks of wild mushroom stew, loaded fries and croquetas. Our last hour in Madrid, before we grabbed our suitcases and drove to the airport, involved some very strenuous sangria drinking back at Casa Lolea – the perfect end to our weekend in Madrid.