Magical Madrid

By | Category: Travel destinations

The Spanish capital has always been playing catch up with Barcelona, but is now enjoying its moment of glory says Kaye Holland

Mention you’re going to Madrid and chances are Catalans (the people of the Catalonia region of which Barcelona is the capital), will tell you than the Spanish capital is the kind of place where your Gran would holiday.

The Catalans may have been correct circa 2006 when Barcelona – with its brilliant beaches, football team and world class art, architecture and design was regarded as one of the most desirable places on the planet – but cool never stays in one place for long.

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Fast forward to 2016 and Barcelona has arguably become a victim of its success, while the once scruffy Madrid has upped its game and is now bursting with atmospheric barrios filled with friendly Madrilenos who need no invitation to tell you how great their city is.

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You can see a lot in a few days too but classical sightseeing should start with the Royal Palace of Madrid, the Teatro Real (Royal Theatre) with its restored 1850 Opera House, the 19th-century National Library building (home to Spain’s historical archives) the Golden Triangle of Art, located along the Paseo del Prado, Plaza Mayor – the beating heart of Madrid – and Buen Retiro Park.

Founded in 1631, Buen Retiro Park (meaning ‘Park of the Pleasant Retreat’) is a gorgeous green space that serves as Madrid’s answer to New York’s Central Park. Regardless of whether you want to relax or get the endorphins going by biking or rollerblading, you can do it all in this popular park. 

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If museums are more your bag, Madrid doesn’t disappoint. There are many museums to take in including the Museo del Prado (Madrid’s best known attraction) and the Reina Sofia (an absolute must for art fans).

For all that, Madrid is not about sightseeing per se, as it is about exploring: taking lazy strolls through flamenco soundtracked cobbled streets, dawdling the day away in an elegant cafe and eating a long late lunch in a tapas bar.

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Speaking of which, tapas bars can appear a tad intimidating to first time visitors but panic not as JAT is here to help. Most of the tapas on offer will be lined up along the bar and all you need to do is simply point to the morsels you want and watch as the barman puts them on a plate for you, before presenting you with the bill. Alternatively you may find that many bars have a menu of tapas – if in doubt ask for the ‘la especialidad de la casa’ aka ‘house speciality’).

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Madrid’s best barrio (neighbourhood) for tapas is La Latina, home to lively tapas bars like Almendro 13. The line outside Alemendro 13 resembles that of a mid sized ride at Disney World but carnivores will find that tapas such as callos (tripe), torreznos (bacon bits) and albondigas (meatballs) are more than worth the wait.

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Alternatively if you can’t stand queuing, make for Mercado de San Miguel – easily one of Madrid’s most enchanting markets – where you can order every limd of tapas plus more substantial plates (often called raciones) at the bar counter.

When night falls, listen to live al fresco music while sniffing, swirling and swallowing wine with fellow punters (who with the help of too many drinks, soon feel like old friends) until dawn. It’s exactly the kind of thing you won’t find going on in the UK anytime soon…

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You’ll find a welcome like this at Charo’s  Homestay abode  in Malasaña – arguably Madrid’s most happening barrio where the  general vibe is a home from home: I felt like I knew Charo even though I was only there for two nights. 

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If you want to get the maximum out of Madrid and be an easy stroll away from the shops (you’ll find a cure for every strain of retail fever), have an excellent bar around the corner and hear the hum of Flamenco music from your balcony, then Charo’s place covers these bases – and adds the kind of delightful touches (think Wi-Fi and complimentary coffee 24/7) you hope for, but don’t always get.

However if you’re looking to live life like a millionaire then head to Hotel Orfila – an old world, five star hotel, where service was surely invented. Anyone checking into Hotel Orfila can expect bathrobes embroidered with their initials!

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Bottom line? Why waste your weekend slumped on the sofa watching yet another episode of Strictly and the X Factor when our lives are short and interesting cities such as Madrid, are only an affordable, easyJet flight away? Make no mistake: in the fantasy game of ‘where would you like to live for three months’ Madrid – with its heady mix of culinary feasts, cultural offerings, buzzing nightlife and friendly locals – would be on my list…

Words and pictures: Kaye Holland

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