Artists of every kind make all of Madrid a stage. From footballers on the playing field to painters in world-renowned museums, and from buskers and flamenco dancers to cooks preparing haute or homely cuisine, visitors will find the Spanish capital a hotbed of talent waiting to be discovered.
It’s a balmy Wednesday night in April, and 59,000 football fans are swarming out of the Santiago Bernabeu, where Real Madrid have just drawn 1-1 with Athletic Bilbao. On a traffic island in front of the stadium’s main entrance a digital display shows the temperature is 17C and the hour 23.02. Time for dinner. In a city where long, leisurely lunches often last beyond five o’clock and the evening meal rarely starts before half-past nine, eating late is the norm.
A 12-minute ride on the Metro from Santiago Bernabeu takes me to Plaza España, where my hotel is located. I squeeze through the throng into a nearby bar bunged with disappointed Real supporters. The result has left a sour taste in their mouths – they expected an easy win – and they’re doing their best to wash it away with glasses of Madrid brew Mahou, for me the best lager in Spain.
The kitchen is working overtime turning out tapas and the noise is off the scale. Customers bawl their orders at the barmen, who acknowledge them with a bellow. The floor is a debris field of discarded serviettes, toothpicks, prawn shells and olive pips, but every five minutes a boy with a broom clears it all away. In a lacklustre match the Real and Athletic sweepers did little of note, but this kid is playing a blinder.
All eyes are on the TV. In the studio, the football pundits are giving their considered analyses of the game. In the bar, the fans are giving them dog’s abuse. It’s great fun – cursing in Spanish is colourful and not a little cringe-inducing – but it’s nearly 1am and time for bed. The bill for three bottles of Mahou and a plate each of Serrano ham, Manchego cheese and potato omelette comes to €16.50. That’s what you call a result.
Around the corner from the VP Plaza España Design hotel, where I’m staying, is the 18th century Royal Palace. With its five-metre-high doorways, the 3,418-room official residence of the Spanish monarchs is one of the few buildings that six-foot-four King Felipe can enter without doing a limbo dance.
At midday in front of the palace, tourists gather around street musicians. These aren’t any old buskers: as befits the regal backdrop, they’re the best in town and have had to audition to earn a city hall permit and a coveted performance spot.
An elderly gentleman in a pristine cream suit and Panama hat, looking every inch the man from Del Monte, plays Glenn Miller favourites on a clarinet. When he follows Moonlight Serenade with Little Brown Jug, a middle-aged American couple can’t contain themselves and start dancing like professionals.
A teenage girl with an acoustic guitar and a mane of natural red hair – a much-admired rarity in Spain – enchants her audience with the haunting second movement of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. When she finally takes a bashful bow, coins rain into her instrument case.
The Golden Buzzer, however, goes to the man playing movie themes on an array of stemless brandy bowls and champagne flutes stuck with putty to a trestle table. Dipping his fingertips into a flask of water at his hip, he runs them around the rims and the Titanic signature tune fills the air. He must dread the day when a mezzo-soprano sets up nearby and hits a glass-shattering high C.
It’s a 20-minute walk to Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, which has its street entertainers too, and among them is a man dressed as Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp character, known in Spain as Charlot. At his feet is a sign that reads: “English spoken here by man who left City Cork 65 years ago.”
This is former millionaire builder Tony O’Connor, who made a fortune and then lost the lot a decade ago when the construction boom went bust. Don’t expect to hear a lilting Leeside accent, though – his parents left Cork for London when he was small and he’s as Cockney as they come.
Tony, who has emphysema, has a pitch in front of the famed La Mallorquina cake shop, whose display windows need to be wiped a couple of times a day to remove child-sized palm prints and smudges left by little noses pressed against the glass.
“I don’t have the breath to sing and I can’t compete with those young guys over there doing their acrobatics,” says Tony. “I’m lucky to collect €400 a month in winter, though I can make around €1,400 in the summer, just sitting here chatting with whoever stops to hear my story. A couple of years ago, a guy handed me an envelope and disappeared. When I opened it, there was €600 inside. I couldn’t believe it.”
On the third floor above La Mallorquina is the luxury apartment that Tony and his wife had to sell when it all went wrong. If it came on the market today, the owner would be looking for at least €700,000. “Ah, well, that’s life,” says Tony, and breaks off to direct an English couple to Madrid’s top visitor attraction, the Prado Museum.
The Prado and its near neighbours, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza, form the 1.5-kilometre-long Paseo del Arte (Art Walk), otherwise known as the Golden Triangle. No other city in the world has three treasure houses in such close proximity. The English couple are in for a treat.
The Prado is a 15-minute stroll from Puerta del Sol and houses the most important collection of Spanish art in the world. It also has the best air-conditioning in Madrid, a godsend in July and August when afternoon temperatures hit 30C and forget to stop.
Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velazquez (1599-1660) and Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) are the stars of the show, with El Greco as the main support act on a bill that includes Rubens, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Van Der Weyden, Ribera, Zurburan and Murillo, which sounds like a Real Madrid starting XI.
While the galleries and halls of the Prado are dripping with masterpieces, two paintings attract the biggest crowds: Velazquez’s Las Meninas (1656), which is most visitors’ favourite, and Goya’s Carlos IV of Spain and His Family (1801).
Goya’s portrait depicts King Carlos, his wife Maria Luisa, seven of their 14 children, including Crown Prince Ferdinand who later ruled as the despised Ferdinand VII, and other relatives in a line-up more motley than majestic.
The focal point of Las Meninas is King Felipe IV and Queen Mariana’s five-year-old daughter Princess Margarita, who stands with two ladies-in-waiting, a nun, a dwarf, a jester and a mastiff dog. In an open doorway in the background lurks the queen’s chamberlain, and reflected in a mirror on the back wall are Felipe and Mariana.
In perhaps the first example of a selfie, Velazquez has included himself in his most-admired work, eyes front as he paints the out-of-shot royal couple, hence their reflection in the mirror. Not to be outdone, fellow bighead Goya appears in the background of his painting of Carlos and his kin.
French painter Edouard Manet (1832-1883) said Seville-born Velazquez was “the greatest painter that has ever existed. He alone is worth the trip to Madrid”. Few who stand before Las Meninas would disagree, but it’s another painting by another Andalucian, in the Reina Sofia, that art lovers from all over the world do make the trip to see.
Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) is arguably the best-known painting of the 20th century. Measuring 7.8 by 3.5 metres, it’s certainly one of the biggest. Completed in black, white and grey oils on canvas, it’s a denunciation of the aerial bombing on April 26, 1937 of the eponymous Basque town by Hitler’s Condor Legion.
Picasso, or to give him his full name, Pablo Diego Jose Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno Maria de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santisima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso, which added five minutes to the morning roll call in school, was born in Malaga in October 1881 and spent most of his long adult life in France, where he died aged 91 in April 1973.
It was in his Paris loft that he painted Guernica for the Spanish Republic’s pavilion at the 1937 International Exposition in his adopted city. On learning of the attack – the town was the northern stronghold of the Republican resistance during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), which made it a target for Franco’s Nationalist forces – Picasso abandoned his intended commissioned work and produced instead the most powerful anti-war painting of all time.
The bombs fell on market day, and many women and children were among the at least 300 people killed. A mother holding a dead baby features large in the work, but the two most prominent figures are a bull, representing the onslaught of fascism, and a gored horse, representing the people of the town (horses were often disembowelled by the bulls’ horns during a corrida).
The death and destruction visited on Guernica were appalling; that the attack was used by the Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria to try out new carpet bombing techniques on a civilian target was atrocious. At the Nuremberg Trials in 1946, Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering said Guernica was a “testing ground” – confirmation, if any were needed, that Picasso painted the nightmarish result of a cynical experiment in extermination.
Portraiture rules in the Thyssen-Bornemisza, and its most instantly recognisable portrait is of a ruler. German artist Hans Holbein the Younger’s (1497-1543) painting of Henry VIII of England is one of scores of contemporaneous copies of the original (1537), which was lost in a fire in 1698, but this is the only one by Holbein (the others were by apprentices). Think of Henry, and this is the bejewelled and bejowled image that springs to mind.
While the Prado and the Reina Sofia allow art lovers to study specific painters’ bodies of work, the Thyssen-Bornemisza is more a Hall of Fame of all-time greats, who are represented in abundance.
Bacon is here, as are Freud, Pollock, Munch and Hockney, whose 1972 Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) sold recently at auction in New York to an anonymous buyer for $90.3m, setting a new record for a work by a living artist. Visitors can also gaze upon paintings by Spaniards Dali and Miro; France’s Gauguin, Manet, Renoir, Degas and Matisse; Dutch masters Rembrandt and Vermeer; and Italy’s Caravaggio, Canaletto and Tintoretto. It’s like rubbing shoulders with Hollywood royalty at the best Oscars after-party.
The museum’s most poignant painting is not a portrait. Vincent van Gogh’s French rural landscape, Les Vessenots, is the last work he completed, only days before his suicide in 1890. In late May of that year, the Dutch post-impressionist (born 1853) travelled 35 kilometres north from Paris to the village of Auvers-sur-Oise. For several weeks he worked outdoors in glorious weather, producing many landscapes, until he surrendered to his demons. On the morning of July 27, Van Gogh put down his paintbrush, lifted a gun and ended his torment. He was 37.
Some of Madrid’s best-loved artists work mostly anonymously behind the scenes in kitchens. The city has 20 Michelin-starred restaurants, but in this most cosmopolitan of capitals where all of the world’s great cuisines are on offer, humble fare is preferred to highfalutin.
Cocido is the comfort food that exiled Madrileños yearn for in the way Irish people living abroad dream of Tayto crisps. A hearty but not mushy stew, it typically contains chicken, beef, bacon, pork belly, morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo, potatoes, carrots, cabbage and chickpeas. It’s among the top choices when eating out, but even as they’re tucking in, diners are thinking: “Mmmm, tasty, but nowhere near as tasty as Mama’s.” In a word, albeit a makey-uppy one, cocido is stewpendous.
Merluza (hake), bacalao (cod), rape (rah-pay – monkfish) and dorado (sea bream) are the most popular fish dishes, but when time is pressing, the seafood snack of choice is the bocata de calamares, a hot bread roll that’s crispy on the outside, moist inside and loaded with deep-fried squid rings. No sauce, no garnish, no need.
A close second in the snack stakes is the bocata de jamon Serrano. The air-cured, mildewed legs of ham from which wafer-thin slices of succulent Serrano are carved with expert precision bordering on the parsimonious cost up to €500 each, but a bocata will set you back a mere €3. Traditionalists prefer their ham on a plate, accompanied perhaps by slices of Manchego cheese and some big fat juicy olives that have been marinated so long they’re falling apart.
Chocolateria de San Gines, which opened in 1894, never closes, so there’s no excuse for not feasting on the quintessential Spanish breakfast of chocolate con churros. These long fingers of deep-fried doughnut batter (and the fatter version, porras) dipped in hot chocolate are a great start to the day, though they’re also devoured by nightclubbers on their way home when most people have been asleep for hours.
If any dish can be said to occupy the throne of Spanish cuisine, it’s the tortilla de patatas – the ubiquitous potato omelette. It’s made with only three ingredients: eggs, sliced boiled potatoes and onions. Some cooks who don’t know any better add chopped red peppers, a sacrilege akin to putting honey on a Highlander’s porridge. Tortilla de patatas needs no adornment, although if the onions are caramelised before being added to the mix, the omelette steps up from perfecto to perfectisimo.
In his 1932 novel, Death In The Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway wrote: “Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night.” No better man, then, to have written The Sun Also Rises (1926) – he witnessed the dawn often enough during his many long stays here in the 1920s, 30s and 50s.
On the wall of the Antigua Farmacia de la Reina Madre on Calle Mayor, the illuminated green cross shows the temperature is 19C and the hour 22.05. Time to walk the short distance to one of the author’s favourite haunts, Plaza de Santa Ana, where hundreds of people are eating and drinking on the terraces of some of the most popular bars and restaurants in the city (‘Don Ernesto’ drank daily in Cerveceria Alemana).
Jazz and other live music venues abound around here, but in the plaza itself is Villa Rosa where, every night, art and soul fuse in a frenetic performance of raw passion that makes audiences’ hearts beat faster and throats go dry. It’s called flamenco, and Villa Rosa, which staged its first show in 1911, is the temple to which aficionados and tourists flock. It’s not the only place staging this most Spanish of spectacles, which consists of three parts – guitar, song and dance – but for me it’s the best.
A statue of Granada-born poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936) stands in Plaza de Santa Ana. Lorca, who was executed without trial by a right-wing firing squad in the opening month of the Spanish Civil War, lived in Madrid for 17 years and never missed a chance to see a flamenco show. No one has better described the principal performer.
He wrote: “The dancer’s trembling heart must bring everything into harmony, from the tips of her shoes to the flutter of her eyelashes, from the rustles of her dress to the incessant play of her fingers. Shipwrecked in a field of air, she must measure lines, silences, zig-zags and rapid curves, with a sixth sense of aroma and geometry, without ever mistaking her terrain. In this she resembles the torero, whose heart must keep to the neck of the bull. Both of them face the same danger – he, death; and she, darkness.”
Flamenco, football, food, fine art and a fella with an orchestra at his damp fingertips are only a few of the attractions that make a long weekend in the Spanish capital a memorable experience. There’s an old saying: “If you’re in Madrid, you’re from Madrid.” Well, maybe; but one thing’s for sure – if you’re in Madrid, you have very good taste in cities.
GET THERE: Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly daily from Dublin to Adolfo Suarez Madrid-Barajas airport. The Airport Express yellow bus service to and from the city centre operates 24 hours, every 15 minutes during the day and every 35 minutes at night. There are only three stops – O’Donnell, Atocha and Plaza de Cibeles (this last one is the most central). The journey takes around 40 minutes and a one-way ticket costs €5 from the driver.
EAT: Cocido In 2015, the multi-award-winning Cruz Blanca Vallecas (58 Martin Alvarez) received the National Catering Award for its cocido, and quite right too. Try also Casa Paco (11 Puerta Cerrada), a family-run restaurant that serves a wide range of fabulous homemade food.
Bocata de calamares El Brillante (8 Plaza del Emperador Carlos V) serves 2,000 bocatas de calamares every day, and that’s recommendation enough.
Bocata de jamon Serrano The excellent kosher restaurant La Escudilla (16 Santisima Trinidad) is one of only a handful of establishments in Madrid that doesn’t offer bocatas de jamon Serrano or anything else containing pork. Otherwise, every bar, cafe and restaurant serves this simple yet sensational staple.
Chocolate con churros Chocolateria San Gines (5 Pasadizo de San Gines) serves 10,000 freshly-made churros and 2,000 cups of hot chocolate every day. Chocolateria Valor (7 Postigo de San Martin) is the pretender to San Gines’s crown.
Tortilla de patatas The potato omelette served in Juana la Loca (4 Plaza de la Puerta de Moros) has no equal. Juana la Loca (Joanna the Mad), the elder sister of Catherine of Aragon and sister-in-law of Henry VIII, was Queen of Castile from 1504 to 1555, but never actually ruled due to her mental instability.
VISIT: Prado Museum Paseo del Prado (Metro Banco de España). Mon-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 10am-7pm; general admission €15.
Reina Sofia Museum 52 Santa Isabel (Metro Atocha). Mon-Sat (closed Tuesday) 10am-9pm, Sun 10am-7pm; general admission €10.
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum Paseo del Prado (Metro Banco de España). Mon 12pm-4pm, Tues-Sun 10am-7pm; general admission €9.
Santiago Bernabeu Avenida de Concha Espina (Metro Santiago Bernabeu). Stadium tour, including trophy room, dressing room, press room and pitch, Mon-Sat 10am-7pm, Sun 10.30am-6.30pm (except match days); from €14.
Tablao de Flamenco Villa Rosa 15 Plaza de Santa Ana (Metros Sol, Anton Martin and Tirso de Molina). Shows: Sun-Thu 8.30pm and 10.45pm, Fri & Sat 8.30pm, 10.45pm and 12.15am. Admission to show, including a drink, costs €35; show plus meal, including a drink, from €65. Book well in advance online.
STAY: I was a guest of the 5-star VP Plaza de España Design. On the 12th floor, the Gingko Restaurant and Sky Bar with its swimming pool and wraparound terrace welcomes non-guests and has quickly become one of the city’s most popular nightspots for wining, dining, partying and 360-degree views of the city. Double rooms cost from €220.