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Madrid, la hermosa

San Miguel Market is a stone’s throw away from Plaza Mayor.

San Miguel Market is a stone’s throw away from Plaza Mayor.

Food, art, nature and a buzzing nightlife. Few cities have it all, but Madrid is one of them. Ramona Depares samples a bit of everything.

I have always had a soft spot for Spanish cuisine, the Mediterranean touch making it so similar to ours and yet – somehow – not.

Without wanting to come across as over-critical of Malta’s own much-loved traditional staples (because trust me, I love them as much as you do), I have always had a sneaky feeling that the Spanish somehow managed to elevate the  same base ingredients into a somewhat more sophisticated and refined end-product.

So here we were, spending a few days in Madrid, eager to see whether we would be proven wrong or not. Because we didn’t have much time in the city and I wanted to take in as much of the lifestyle as I could, we had opted to stay at the NH Nacional, on Paseo del Prado.

The hotel is bang in the middle of the so-called ‘golden art triangle’, but that’s not its only claim to fame. It also happens to be right opposite the Parque del Buen Retiro, Madrid’s most famous open space (but more about it later) and close to the city’s biggest food markets.

Although sometimes I’m wary of the anonymity of chain hotels, I had already had occasion to use an NH chain in The Netherlands, which had made life very comfortable for me at a price that really was not greedy. Looking up information on its Madrid brother, the Nacional, I was further intrigued to read that the building itself has quite a bit of history, having been designed by iconic Spanish architect Modesto López Otero in 1920. The building was the third hotel built in the city and I had a good feeling as soon as I arrived and spotted the rather impressive neo-Baroque façade.

Turns out my good vibes were not misplaced. The hotel was the perfect base from which to enjoy the multitude of artistic and foodie activities that we had planned.

Starting with the obvious – the Prado and the Reina Sofia museums. If you want to seriously appreciate them, make sure that you keep the majority of the day free for each respective visit. Both museums deserve the time, and you are likely to need a break at the cafe towards the middle of your visit.

This was my second time at the Prado (www.museodelprado.es) located a pleasant, 10-minute walk away from the hotel, and I had a very specific list of works on my agenda. The list went something like this: Hieronymous Bosch – we spent a good 45 minutes in front of his most famous triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights. There’s demons, monsters and orgies aplenty; what’s not to like?

Museo del PradoMuseo del Prado

The Amontillado became a favourite, and not just because of the Edgar Allan Poe connection

We spent most of the rest of our time enjoying Goya (specifically, his Black Paintings), Velasquez, a couple of Caravaggio pieces, and the temporary Fortuny exhibition that was on during our stay. I suggest you do the same and pick a few works to really focus on.

At the Reina Sofia (www.museoreinasofia.es) the next day – located even more conveniently almost next door to the NH Nacional – we followed this same strategy, even more necessary given that this is a modern art museum and I have very specific thoughts on the topic (I’m not that keen on the video installations and, unless you’re a real culture vulture you will probably want a bit of context in order to be able to properly appreciate them). The Dalì section and Picasso’s Guernica are obvious highlights, as is Miró’s Man With Pipe.

But man does not live on art alone. Some bread is also required. And Madrid offers the best kind of (metaphorical) bread.

Starting at the Tablafina Restaurant (www.tablafina.com), part of the NH Nacional itself and run by executive chef Jesualdo Bermejo. Situated on the ground floor of the hotel, with a view onto Paseo del Prado, the restaurant brought to mind a French bistro. The food, however, is pure Spain. The menu is based on the idea of charcuterie, tapas and wine, which suited us just fine as we wanted to try a bit of everything.  

Bermejo focuses a lot on seasonal produce, putting into practice the ‘from field to table’ concept in a remarkably tasty manner. There’s a lot of Iberian hams and cheeses on offer, and the fondue is a serious affair for those who enjoy treating their tastebuds right. Add some olives, maybe a traditional calamari sandwich and some poached eggs with truffle and you’ve got yourself a typically Spanish feast.

Wash down with glasses of sherry (the Amontillado became a favourite, and not just because of the Edgar Allan Poe connection) and chill. You’re on holiday, after all.

Another favourite spot for drinks turned out to be the J&J Books & Coffee store in the Malasana area (www.jandjbooksandcoffee.es/). Try to spend some time meandering around Malasana – there are a lot of second-hand clothes, vinyl and bookstores. Sure, it’s touted as hipster-haven, but this never hurt anyone.

Getting there from the hotel involved one simple metro change. After having meandered to our heart’s content, we spent the rest of the evening at this bookstore, which is the only one I found that sells books in English, but that also has a rather wonderful bar with super cheap wines, beers and sherry – olé!. This is the perfect place for those who feel like a spot of socialising with their Saturday night beer, and everyone is ready with a chat and an anecdote.

Our last two must-dos in terms of food and drink were two markets.

The Mercado de San Miguel (www.mercadodesanmiguel.es)  is a stone’s throw away from Plaza Mayor and offers a wonderful and chaotic hodgepodge of stalls with very little seating space. It’s worth eating standing up, or sitting outside on the steps, however – maybe while enjoying cocktails and wines by the glass, to soften the blow of not sitting.

My favourite stalls were the paella ones (when in Spain, etc), the fried seafood, the mozzarella bar and the Iberian ham. Followed by traditional Spanish cakes and gallons of mojito. Hey, I wasn’t driving!

If you prefer somewhere a bit more posh, with live music and DJ thrown in, then Platea (www.plateamadrid.com) is your choice. More of a food court than a market, the ground floor is focused on tapas, while the basement takes you on a foodie tour around the world, with Japanese, Mexican, Italian, Peruvian... Waiters will come and take your order and there’s also a Michelin star restaurant on the first floor.

The entertainment is very much oriented to the 30-something crowd, with a definite preference for House. If the word ‘trendy’ makes you break out in hives, this is not the place for you.

But enough about food. Madrid is also all about the great outdoors, such as the afore-mentioned Retiro Park, which I could actually see from the window of my hotel room. Everyday, I was seduced by sprightly couples jogging or walking their dog in the area and, when I finally had some time to meander there, I realised why. The park is seriously pretty and comes with its own set of attractions, such as the very picturesque artifical lake, the crystal palace (not the pastizzi kind, but the ‘made entirely out of glass’ kind), the rose garden and the peacocks.

Of course, if your idea of the great outdoors is more about bargain hunting at flea markets than nature hunting in parks, then drop in to El Rastro on a Sunday – hands down the best outdoor market I’ve visited in a while, and also extremely easy to get to via the Atocha underground station.

There’s lots more to do in Madrid, of course, which is why I will be back.

Buen Retiro Park is seriously pretty.Buen Retiro Park is seriously pretty.

Getting there

Ryanair flies directly to the city four times a week. (www.ryanair.com)

Where to stay

I stayed at the NH Nacional. All the main attractions can be reached on foot and Atocha Station – connecting Madrid to the rest of the country and also one of the main connecting stations on the Underground system – is right opposite. (www.nh-hotels.com/hotel/nh-madrid-nacional)

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