Madrid: Simply Wonderful

On my first night in Madrid this past September, a Mexican-born waitress gave me the most important advice that anyone had given me about the city: “You have to learn when to say no.”, she said. What she was referring to had nothing to do with food, but rather the fact that Madrid’s late-night, eat, drink, dance and do-it-all-over-again culture easily sucks you in, to a point where your body begins to beg that you return it to a place where people eat dinner before eleven in the evening and quit drinking before eight the next morning.

Madrid is one of those unique cities where something is happening almost every hour of the day. There are few cities anywhere in the world – especially in Europe – that can compete with its cosmopolitan flare, diverse culture, carefully preserved history and tremendous nightlife. And I must shamefully admit that it tired out this New York City-based nightlife explorer. At 5am, New Yorkers are weak when compared with their Madrileños counterparts.

Like many European cities, central Madrid is comprised of a number of squares and plazas, linked by avenues that carve out distinct quarters. City maps are deceiving, as the city is incredibly walkable, with a thorough Metro system to relieve your legs or shuttle you to locations on its outskirts. That said, it’s pretty difficult to find a poorly located hotel, assuming you’ve chosen one in the city center. On the high end, many choose the Westin Palace or The Ritz (no relation to the Ritz-Carlton chain), both of which are located at the Plaza de las Cortes, overlooking the Neptune fountains. For the thriftier traveler, I would bet that there are more hostels in Madrid than any other city in Europe – the city is littered with them. As a frequent traveler, however, hotel points and frequent-flyer miles are standard forms of currency for me and I was lucky enough to snag five nights at the Westin Palace.

The Westin Palace was built in the early 1900s by a king who didn’t have enough rooms to house the guests for his daughter’s wedding. Today, it’s considered Madrid’s finest hotel and is a throwback to the pre-18th century palaces of Europe. The furnishings are ornate, spectacular, and, quite frankly, a bit over-the-top. I often felt uneasy about simply sitting down on the many antique chairs, sort of like how you feel when you get the rare chance to sit on a couch in grandma’s sparsely used living room. Its renovated guest rooms are generous in size and the extra large, marble-lined bathrooms are luxurious, to say the least. The service and courtesy exhibited by its staff also lives up to its reputation. If this sounds like your type of establishment, I would highly recommend it, but, on my next visit, I am more inclined to check out the significantly more modern Hotel Urban, which is located just down the street. But if you like ornate, guilded ceilings, this is your certainly place.

Above: The glass dome inside the Westin Palace (left) and just outside the Westin (right).

Madrid requires you to make a different type of time adjustment when you arrive, which has nothing to do with jetlag. You must first understand that dinner in Madrid, like much of Spain, is served no earlier than 9:00 in the evening. Trying to find that “hot table” at 8:00 will be no problem because you’ll be the only one dining (assuming you can find an open restaurant). Accordingly, that after dinner cocktail will have to wait until midnight, as bars don’t begin to get busy until just after twelve. And if you’re looking to finish you night at the clubs (discotecas), don’t show up before 3:00am. If you’re traveling from the United States, it’s actually quite easy to get on this schedule if you take an overnight flight – sleep for a few hours when you arrive and your body thinks that two in the afternoon is nine in the morning, perfect for the Madrid “time zone”. But a minor problem arises when you actually want to be a tourist. Staying out until 8am makes you feel like a teenager, but it is terrible if you want to get up early to hit the museums. Luckily, some of the city’s most popular tourist sites are open until 8 or 9 in the evening. If you want to actually explore the city (in the daylight!), you are best to plan your nightlife schedule accordingly.

Being a tourist in Madrid is easy and the museums are good to place to start. The Prado is most certainly the crown jewel of the city’s collection, with unprecedented collections from Goya, El Grecco and many of the great Spanish masters. Encompassing an entire city block, its varied pieces – many of which date back 600-plus years – exhibit an amazing collection of classical portrait mastery and stunning religious imagery. The Prado neighbors the city’s Botanical Gardens which were, ummm, less than botanical at this time of year, but still provided a peaceful enclave from the busy Paseo Prado beyond it’s shrub-lined walls.

Just down the street from The Prado, off the Calle Atocha is the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, which houses a number of spectacular 20th-century works, including many by Dali and Picasso. We were lucky enough to stumble upon a special Picasso exhibit, which included hundreds of varied works. Guernica, his massive masterpiece depicting war and terror on a small Basque town, was the centerpiece. I have seen Picasso at many of the great museums around the world, including the Musee Picasso in Paris, but it was certainly unique to experience a piece of this magnitude in the flesh. There are a number of other fantastic works, including several great pieces from Equipo Crónica, the great 20th-centrury modern art “team” that I enjoy very much.

The Plaza Mayor is a 17th century “fortress” in the center of the city, which has been used for everything from executions to royal weddings. Today, its massive courtyard is filled with tables from its interior cafes, which primarily cater to tourists. A few minutes away, on the edge of the central city is the Royal Palace, a 2000-plus room, 18th century structure built by the then-King of Spain in the sprit of the other great palaces and castles that grace much of Europe. Today, the Palace allows visitors to walk through about 50 or so rooms, each of which is very uniquely decorated and contains significant collections of original furnishings and fixtures, including Stradivarius violins, royal portraits by Goya and 18th-century royal thrones.

A diversion from all things royal and marble, another popular tourist destination is the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, or Mardid’s bullfighting stadium, the second largest bullfighting arena in the world (Mexico City possesses the largest). Bullfighting, of course, is and ancient Spanish, errr, sport. Some argue that it is less sport and more spectacle, while others argue that it is nothing more than abuse on helpless animals. As one Spanish viewer commented on my YouTube video of the bullfight, “La tortura no es arte ni cultura.” or “Torture is neither art, nor culture”. Many people agree with this as there is typically only one winner at the end of the bullfight, and it’s never the bull. It is a gruesome spectacle and I don’t believe most tourists understand what they are going to see prior to entering the arena. Nevertheless, it is an interesting and entertaining exhibition, which combines the work of many skilled men – some on horseback and some who scurry on foot behind large wooden walls to protect themselves as the bull charges. But it is the matador who is the star of the show, responsible for bringing the bull to a bloody death for all to see, eventually allowing it to be dragged off the stage to its final resting place, wherever that may be. The bullfight is actually composed of five or six different bullfights and “star” a total of two or three matadors. The makeup of the crowd is about 90% tourist, but there are a good handful of old-school Spanish spectators close to the ring, who spend a good deal of time yelling various uncomprehendables at the matador and the bull.

About The Video:  This is the part of the fight where the bull goes up against the man on the wicker-covered horse.  (Don’t ask me…I don’t why either.)

After a day of bullfighting and exploring, wandering around this very-walkable city really makes you works up an appetite. Luck enough, I believe that Madrid has some of the best food to be found on the continent. As I mentioned earlier, however, you must tell you stomach to adjust its schedule when you arrive, as the Spanish idea of mealtime is much different from most of the rest of the world. To begin, breakfast seems to be a foreign concept – maybe just a pastry and café con leche to begin the day, nothing more. Lunch is typically served anywhere between 1:00 and 4:00 and we often found long waits at popular restaurants around 3:00 in the afternoon. This is typically the largest meal of the day for most Spaniards and will hold them over until about 9:00 in the evening, when the evening meal – I hesitate to call it dinner – is generally consumed. I was not exaggerating earlier when I said that you might have difficulty finding tables at 11:00, especially on weekends. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, we were surrounded by packed tables while dining close to 11:00, and had to wait for a table on almost every occasion. The wait is well worth it, however, as the Spanish cuisine is simply awesome. I’ve always been a tapas fan and Spain, of course, is tapas heaven (Tapas are small dishes of many different types of food. I find that most Americans, particularly those who are not near larger cities, are not familiar with this concept. You would typically order 4 or 5 different tapas to split between two people.) We found some awesome tapas joints in the Chueca district, as well as the crowded alleyways just off of Puerta del Sol. The dishes are amazing – full of flavor and superbly prepared. We found the most amazing garlic shrimp (gambas al ajillo) just off of Puerta del Sol, which were well paired with small “shots” of Spanish rioja (red wine). The shrimp is prepared right in front of your face and is delivered to you as stand at one of the 7 or 8 “tables”. Eat your shrimp with a toothpick and then go on your way – the whole experience lasts no more than ten minutes. Patatas Bravas, or fried potatoes with a red pepper sauce, are a staple at many restaurants and the chain with their patented sauce, Las Bravas, makes them as good as anyone else in the city. Another tapas bar introduced us to grilled mushrooms stuffed with Spanish ham, fresh parsley and garlic. Chorizo sautéed in white wine was also a great pick, particularly with a side of crusty bread for dipping. La Bardemcilla in the Chueca is simply amazing: Breaded red peppers with a codfish stuffing were the tops, along with grilled monkfish with mixed vegetables. The “fast food” cafés, Museo de Jamon (The Ham Museum), offers a great selection of cured Spanish hams and drinks for next to no money – and as a result, it is typically packed during prime meal hours. For a change, Restaurant Sobrino de Botín, near Plaza Mayor, is the oldest restaurant in the world, according to Guiness, and specializes in roast suckling pig and roast Segovian lamb – both of which were amazing. Bazzar, located between Plaza Bando de Espana and the Chueca, is a fantastic sit-down Mediterranean/Asian fusion joint. You can eat for a year without getting bored in this city.

Above: At Museo de Jamon

Above: Boutin: The oldest restaurant in the world.

One of the things that many Americans would find amusing, is the Madrileños love for churros – the doughy, sweet fried treat that most of us associate with carnival food. Madrid’s churros are early morning or late night staples and are unlike anything you can get at the county fair. They are light, crispy and not too sweet. To add to it, they are almost always served with the Spanish version of “hot chocolate”, which is a thick, warm chocolate that is more suitably used as a dipping sauce for the churros than as something that you’d actually want to drink. Two hot chocolates and a plate of churros, large enough to make two people sick, cost less than five euros. The premier establishment for getting your churro fix is the famous Chocolatería San Gines, also near Plaza Mayor.

Above: Dipping Churros into hot chocolate at Chocolatería San Gines

Finally, I feel ashamed to end this entry with a tired, old cliché. It has been said many, many times over again that it’s the people who really make a city, and I often take this with a grain of salt when I hear someone say this about various destinations around the world. However, this is certainly the case in Madrid. The Madrileños are incredibly friendly and, although there are not as many English speakers here as in other European cities, they make every attempt to engage you in conversation and welcome you to their city. America is a country where the majority of people believe that English is the only language spoken in the world and, thus, most Madrileños assume that you don’t speak a word of Spanish. However, instead of poo-poo’ing the many ignorant Americans who simply expect everyone in Madrid to speak English, you almost feel as if the Madrileños are ashamed, and even apologetic, if they can’t speak English to you! However, you should be prepared to meet many different types of people, as Madrid’s reputation has attracted many internationals to the city for both work and play. We spent many late nights out with Americans, Brazilians, Slovenians and Venezuelans, just to name a few. A trio of roommates invited us to their flat for dinner one Sunday afternoon, after we had partied with them until 8am the morning prior. We shared stories with an American couple, who we ran into three nights into a row. We met gypsies from the Basque country, who kept us entertained as the streets filled with people drinking cheap sangria at 3am. Between us, we spoke English, Portuguese, French and some Spanish, but we often met people who spoke a trio of languages which were incompatible with everyone else in the group – this results in an amazing phenomenon of side conversations in French, translations from Portuguese to Spanish to English and poor, but fun, interpretations of everyone doing their best to speak English. On the weekends during the summer, no one actually drinks inside the bar, and the party moves to the streets. In the busiest plazas, people line the squares from end to end with drinks in hand, until as late as five in the morning. The many side streets of the Chueca are filled with hundreds of people that cause any sort of traffic to find an alternate route. This is a fun place to be.

I admit that Madrid surprised me. So, in summary, my final scorecard looks like this:

– Amsterdam is overrated – Mardid wins, hands down.
– What Madrid lacks in quantity of nightlife compared to New York City, it certainly makes up with quality. The Madrid nightlife crowd easily beats their New York City counterparts.
– I have a soft spot in my heart for London, as I want to move back there at some point in my life. So London slightly gets the edge, but is a clear loser when you take the poor Pound-to-Dollar exchange into consideration.
– Maybe Montreal can compete in the summer…just maybe.
– Paris, well, is Paris. Nothing in the world is as unique, so trying to make a comparison would be useless 😉

I can’t predict the future, but I can be sure that a return trip is too not far away…