On tapas the world

By | Category: Travel destinations
Royal Palace

Royal Palace

In Madrid’s Plaza de Espana on the Sunday morning after a night of violent protests over Spain’s economic difficulties, all is peaceful and calm as statues of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza gaze unperturbed over the still lake shimmering in the spring sunshine

It is testament to the Spanish capital’s cleanliness and order that there was not so much as a piece of paper littering the streets and no evidence whatsoever of any overnight disturbances apart from a few sleepy-eyed policemen lolling around the squares.  This was a perfect morning for a Sunday stroll around the sights of the city

Madrid is a working capital city  and although it has some fabulous buildings such as its sumptuous Royal Palace, just walking distance from my starting point of Plaza de Espana , it does not have the long list of tourist must-sees of, say, Rome or Paris. The nicest way to enjoy it is to mooch around the streets and squares as the locals do, stopping for coffee, chocolate con churros or fino and tapas as you go.

Having said that a visit to the Palazio is a must, although only a fraction of its 2000 rooms can be viewed at the moment as repairs are underway. My tour took in the dining hall, the throne room and china room all elaborately decorated and laid out fit for a king. The Palacio was the main residence of the Spanish kings from 1764 until 1931, and although still used for official ceremonies the Spanish Royal family now live in a small hunting lodge outside the capital.

From the palace it is a short walk to one of Madrid’s most popular spots, the Templo de Debod, a rather surprising  Egyptian temple dating back to the early 2nd century BC and given to the Spaniards  in 1968 following the construction of the Aswan dam when numerous historical monuments had to be removed.  It is free to enter and explore and the surrounding gardens are an oasis of calm with great views over the city.

Piazza Mayor Terraza

Piazza Mayor Terraza

But the real Madrid is to be found in its squares, the Plaza Mayor, the Plaza de Cibeles, plaza de Santa Ana and he Plaza Puerta del Sol, the heart of Madrid’s historic centre.  Mostly car free and filled with cafes and bars, streets radiate off the main plazas taking visitors on magical walking tours to take in the smells and sights of the old quarter and shopping district. The Plaza de la Villa is the core of medieval Madrid with some of the oldest buildings including the Torre de los Lujanes, built in the 15th century in Mudejar style.

This being Sunday, there’s two important things to do in Madrid – Go to church, and visit its famous flea market El Rastro, (near Plaza de Cascorro) packed with antiques and all the market tat that nobody really wants. I was advised to keep handbags and wallets safe and go early (it opens at 7am) to get the best bargains. There’s no shortage of churches for Sunday worship, but the cathedral (Cathedral de la Almudena) is the most visited. It is not one of Spain’s most impressive cathedrals and was only finished in 1993, but it has a nice atmosphere although the painting of a nun displayed near the entrance has a strange Sound of Music quality.   There’s plenty of finer religious art to be found in the Prado Museum, (open on Sundays too) featuring Goya, Velazquez and numerous international masters making this one of Europe’s most important collections. It takes quite a while to get around, but there’s a nice café and plenty of seating. Lovers of more contemporary art can head to the  Museo Reina Sofia which houses key  works reflecting the conflicts and wars of recent times including Picasso’s Guernica.

Culturally satiated, and with aching legs, it is time for refreshment

You’re never far from food and rink in Madrid and the two always go together. Spaniards can’t have drinks without food, and vice versa.   Locals consume tiny glasses of beer (about the size of a gill) mixed with Fanta alongside plates groaning with croquettes, calamari, sausage, enchiladas and other nibbles. Drinks are served with complimentary tapas in some places. Others sell them for an average of 5 Euros a plate.

El parque del Retiro

El parque del Retiro

Vermouth is another favourite tipple here but the local wines are good too   . We started our tapas crawl at the brown-tiled Casa Libra   which is a traditional old bar where everyone stands. Next stop is the bustling Mercado de San Miguel, one of the city’s oldest markets revamped into a ‘culinary cultural centre’ and packed with stalls selling drinks, tapas and every conceivable food stuff from cheese to caviar, chocolate to chorizo.

It’s difficult to find room for dinner, but given that we were dining at the lovely Los Galayos, I did my best to find a corner. The restaurant is in Plaza mayor, the centrepiece of Madrid life and home to a multitude of outdoor tables and chairs where madrilenos love to hang out.  Local specialities include suckling pig and slow roasted lamb. Well known but not a tourist trap, fellow diners included big family groups and courting couples.

With a reputation for flamboyant dance shows, Madrid jumps to life after dark but Sunday is not the best night for flamenco shows we are told, so it was back to the hotel to dream of Velasquez and vermouth on ice.

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