As part of my research for an upcoming novel I’m planning to write I’ve been going over my memories of Madrid. The capital city of Spain. And this needs to be said: Madrid is Spain. Of course, I got to feeling nostalgic, I wish I was still there, waking up to the Puerta del Sol, staying out ungodly hours in divine streets, spending mind-bending hours eating and drinking in the Mercado San Miguel; reminiscing is the shadow of travel. Madrid is a city anyone would want to live in. It is a city designed for the hard-living, culture loving man just as the river is designed for the river crocodile (or vice-versa, probably vice-versa, but nevermind).
If you love Spain you will love Madrid above all other cities.
Ps: if you don’t love Spain, you’re no friend of mine. If you love Spain with the caveat, yeah but they’re insane, they like bullfighting and that – then steer clear.
Madrid’s great advantage over other major cities is it doesn’t have any stand-out sights that dominate your time. It has no choked-up Coliseums or take-take-take Eiffel Towers. It has the Museo del Prado, yes, the largest bullring in Spain, Las Ventas, and not much else that is must-see. Madrid is a city of doing more than seeing. Living more than sightseeing. And that makes it more genuine, authentic, and so much easier to fall in love with. It doesn’t leave any tourist-hell memory enslaved upon your mind. Ole! No?
Spend a day at the Mercado San Miguel
It can be dispiriting, in any city, to walk through street after street of identical, lazy restaurants. In Spain’s case it’s tapas tapas tapas and oh look, a bull! You might as well go to McDonald’s! (Don’t!) You wouldn’t catch a Madrileno dead in one of these places. So neither should you. Where you will find a lot of Madrilenos is the Mercado San Miguel.
The Mercado is beautifully chaotic. And you wouldn’t want it any other way. Forget about finding a seat. Seating is limited. Stay by the bars, or stands. There is no better place to fall in love with Spain. All the best produce from the peninsula lives and dies here. From Galician seafood to Andalusian vermouth, Basque pinchos and even French oysters.
It must be said that this is a seafood lover’s paradise. Sea-urchins, crabs, oysters (with obligatory sparkling wine) and octopus grace the place like incense and wine in a church! It is a dream, paradisiacal and life-affirming, to stand somewhere, have beer after beer, at one of the bar stands, venture out to fetch food from a stall, making sure someone is with you to hold your place, and return with maybe mozzarella, fresh fruit, duck carpaccio, back to the bar, eat them, then get ready to go again. It is a Bacchanalia, an orgy, a safe, kindly place that embraces you and haunts you long after you’ve left it.
Live in the Plazas
I said that Madrid doesn’t have any obligatory sights. But it does have Plazas! Grand, beautiful, enclosed plazas teeming with the best of humanity (including the homeless and the beggars), Baroque Plazas with a contemporary heart, Plazas you could spend the rest of your life in and not want for a thing.
From the Puerta del Sol, the veritable point zero of Spain, with its bustling shopping streets, the vibrant street-life ranging from break-dancers and mariachi bands, and any major protest that wants to have any kind of impact in Spain has to happen here – from Peruvian women protesting domestic abuse to Republican veterans asking for justice for the ‘disappeared’ of Franco.
More touristic and choked yet as addictive as a Coliseum: the Plaza Mayor. The caged Plaza, the red-bricked, broad theatre with the mounted statue of the king that built it taking centre stage. Everything here is overpriced but just being there is priceless.
Further south from these two neighbouring Plazas is the Plaza from another mother: the Plaza Santa Ana. The nightlife heart of Madrid from which all the nocturnal arteries flow. It’s busy, at night it turns a violet hue, and it is the launching pad for any good night out in Madrid.
Churros, Churros, Churros
Poets use repetition to emphasize an emotion. And I feel that churros are an emotion in themselves. I feel churro today. Yesterday I got so happy I felt churro. When my first child was born it was such a churro feeling.
Try these. These fried-dough pastry rings that are dipped in viscous hot-chocolate, almost like Nutella, but more sophisticated. It’s like the hot-chocolate ancient Aztec emperors drank after a long day of bloody sacrifice. They needed the churro feeling more than anyone.
You’ll find churros anywhere in Madrid. But, like all good drugs, there are good churros and there are the bad churros. To stay safe, to get the good stuff: stick to the Chocolateria San Gines. This is like a Catholic praying in the Vatican. The oldest chocolateria in Madrid. It does churros and nothing but churros. And it does them immaculately. No wonder it gets so busy. But you won’t mind. You’ll be too churro to mind.
Go See A Bullfight
While you can. Madrid is as good a place as any. The Las Ventas bullring is the largest in Spain. And Madrid is also the heart of the anti-bullfighting movement. Only recently there were large protests against the sport/art/tradition. It will soon be another victim of the PC-brigades, like good blood pudding, or properly salted Maltese bread.
It is violent, it is not for the faint of heart, but you will never see anything like it as long as you live. And whether you love it or deplorable, you will feel a better person for having witnessed it. Something primordial, primeval, universal, the last representation of violent art in the midst of civilization. And if you can get yourself a cut of prime, fresh bull steak, all the better for you.
Madrid is a good city for dancing. It is everywhere. Only, you don’t realise it. Not whilst you’re there. You only realise it when you’re back home and find yourself thinking, completely out of the blue: huh, I fancy a salsa lesson. You’ll find yourself wanting to clubbing more after you leave Madrid, wanting to drink tequila, sangria and something with mint in it.
Clubbing is not short in supply in Madrid, especially on the Gran Via – just mind the street-workers. There are good clubs. And then there’s the Museo Chicote. If it was good enough for Hemingway it’s good enough for you. Drinks are expensive, but you know they will be, and you won’t care.
If, for some strange reason, you happen to fancy salsa – salsa? – go to one of the many Cuban clubs in Madrid. In particular La Negra Tomasa, where Cubans and Spaniards comet together in surreally good salsa. And don’t forget to try the fried pork rinds while you’re there.
Being the heart of Spain flamenco is rampant throughout Madrid. Good flamenco. Insider tip: go to a flamenco show after dining at the world’s oldest restaurant, El Botin. Stay on the same street, the Calle Cuchilleros and you’ll hear flamenco oozing through the walls. And any flamenco show will feel good after eating young suckling pig, no?
Do Your Own Thing
The above are my favourites, my musts, but there is something for everyone in Madrid. Visit the art triangle, the Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen museums (in that order!) for some of the best art in Europe outside Paris. Relax in the Retiro, the royal gardens, and take a boat ride on the Baroque lake. And unless you’re wearing socks with sandals and won’t go anywhere without a selfie stick: don’t waste time going to Toledo.
And most importantly, walk, walk and walk. Madrid will reward you. It always does!