Cantabria: The Secret Camino

Everyone has heard of the Camino de Santiago, the collective name for the ancient Christian pilgrimage routes that lead to Santiago de Compostela and the tomb of Saint James in Galicia. However, very few people outside of northern Spain know of the Camino Lebaniego in Cantabria, which is a pity. At only 72kms, or roughly 95,000 steps, the ‘Secret Camino’ is the road less travelled but the most scenic of all. (First published in October 2017.)

The monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana. Photo: Cantabria Tourism

In the Franciscan monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana, close to the picturesque town of Potes, two thick walls either side of a courtyard separate the church from the souvenir shop cum pilgrimage office – which is just as well. Were it not for the sound-absorbing stone, visitors queuing in solemn silence before the altar to kiss a piece of the cross on which Christ died would have heard a little Spanish girl squeal: “Daddy! Look! The baby Jesus is riding Noddy’s scooter!”

She was right. Standing out from the array of rosary beads and religious statuettes in the shop was a small, red and yellow ceramic Vespa with the Holy Family on board. The little girl’s daddy was mortified, but the footsore pilgrims waiting to get the final stamp on their special passports (credenciales) nearly wet their pants laughing.

They had chosen a good time (mid-May) to walk the Camino Lebaniego – a few weeks earlier and they might have arrived at the monastery with their pants already sodden. Cantabria didn’t get to be as green as Ireland without getting drenched; in summer it can be scorching, but at other times the rain in Spain falls mainly here.

The Lignum Crucis, which is kept in the monastery

The purpose of the pilgrims’ journey is to venerate the Lignum Crucis, reputedly the largest surviving piece of the True Cross, which would be a lot larger but for its early monastic custodians’ readiness to exchange fragments for favours.

When it arrived in Cantabria in the Middle Ages from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, brought by Saint Turibius of Astorga, it was the entire left arm of the cross, but splinter by splinter it was whittled away until it resembled a walking stick well on its way to becoming a chopstick.

In 1679, the monks cut what remained into two pieces and encased them in a gilded silver cruciform reliquary. The longer, vertical piece is exposed near its base, revealing the hole where the nail was hammered through Christ’s wrist.

The wood is Mediterranean cypress, which was and is common in the Holy Land, and carbon dating shows the tree from which it came grew 2,000-odd years ago. Science puts it in the right place at the right time, while faith verifies its bona fides for believers.

The Door of Forgiveness in the monastery

The Secret Camino is walked almost exclusively by in-the-know Spaniards, but that’s not because they’re keeping it quietly to themselves; rather, it’s put in the shade by the more famous long-distance routes, especially the busy, 790km Camino Frances, which has become even busier on the back of the worldwide success of the 2011 film, The Way, in which it and Martin Sheen co-starred.

Now, however, it’s the Lebaniego’s turn to shine – without the help of Hollywood lighting – because 2017 is a Jubilee, or Holy Year, on the Cantabrian Way, which occurs only when the feast of Santo Toribio, April 16, falls on a Sunday (the next one is in 2023).

During the current special 12-month period, which ends next April 15, pilgrims who pass through the monastery’s Puerta del Perdon (Door of Forgiveness) and comply with a handful of simple conditions will have the time they’ve accrued in Purgatory annulled. It’s like getting penalty points wiped from a driving licence.

Walking the Camino Lebaniego on a beautiful summer day

Beginning at the fishing port and holiday resort of San Vicente de la Barquera, the Lebaniego can be walked in as few as three days or incorporated in a weeks-long trek that takes in the North and French Ways, which it partly connects, en route to Santiago.

For those keen on keeping in touch with the outside world while getting in touch with their inner selves, there’s free wifi every step of its modest length, making even the narrowest forest trail a lane on the information super-highway.

Spiritual fulfilment aside, the reward for walking the Lebaniego is a certificate of completion (a lebaniega), but it’s the coastal, riverside, woodland and mountain scenery that make the journey such a joy. Snappable sights that nature crafted or man made present themselves at almost every turn, so pilgrims should factor into their daily schedule time spent stopping to take photos.

San Vicente de la Barquera and the Picos de Europa. Photo: Cantabria Tourism

Those who opt to spend a pre-pilgrimage night in San Vicente should stand on the eastern shore of the estuary just before twilight and look across the water. With some moody clouds to better highlight the historic towers, turrets and rooftops against the snow-capped mountains, the town looks like it should be hanging in a frame.

The mountains are the Picos de Europa, so named by 16th century cod fishermen and whalers from the Basque Country returning after months of hooking and harpooning in the waters off of what are now Newfoundland and Maine. When the Picos came into view, they knew they were nearly home – the Basques are the Cantabrians’ next-door neighbours to the east.

Pilgrims and holidaymakers are not alone in flocking to San Vicente. Thanks to the estuary and the nearby marshes, cliffs and dunes, many species of migratory aquatic birds congregate here; in the Picos, vultures, eagles, hawks, falcons and owls rule the roost.

Anyone with even only a passing interest in our feathered friends will find Fat Birder a fascinating online resource. Clearly a labour of love for English ornithologist Richard Crombet-Beolens, whose surname looks suspiciously like an anagram but isn’t, it includes a comprehensive section on Cantabria’s birdlife.

Gallery of the Ghosts in the 240-million-year-old cave of El Soplao, near Cades

The Lebaniego has three stages – San Vicente to Cades (28.5kms), Cades to Cabañes (31.3kms) and Cabañes to Potes and the monastery (12.1kms) – and most people walk them in three days. However, the journey can be broken into four or five, which allows time for some peripheral exploring.

Any visitor attraction described as “the subterranean Sistine Chapel” had better live up to its billing. The natural cave of El Soplao, near Cades, does so with its extraordinary stalactites, stalagmites and helictites, these last also known as eccentrics because they grow at gravity-defying angles.

The 240-million-year-old cave was discovered in the early 20th century during exploratory drilling for zinc deposits, which were there in abundance. Unfortunately for the prospectors, they knocked through into what became known as the Gallery of the Ghosts; fortunately for posterity, what they saw – before they turned tail and ran, screaming – helped ensure El Soplao has remained unspoiled.

The gallery is named after the group of 500,000-year-old man-sized stalagmites that look like spooks of the white bedsheet variety. Fear of the supernatural meant miners gave this part of the cave a wide berth, although apprentices were tricked into a first-day-on-the-job initiation they would never forget. Disappointingly, photography in the cave’s several galleries isn’t allowed, but on the plus side there are no bats.

A big plate of cocido lebaniego looks a tough task, but that food disappears pretty quickly

A day on the go can be taxing, and food becomes a fixation. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but with a three-course menu del dia including coffee and a half-litre of wine costing as little as €10 in roadside restaurants, it’s as good as gratis.

For dinner, Cantabrians love hearty stews (cocidos) and ladle them out in glutton-sized portions. That might sound off-putting, but the spectacle of skinnymalinks feverishly polishing their plates with chunks of bread is unremarkable.

Cocido lebaniego and cocido montañes, which feature on most menus along the way, differ only in that the former contains chickpeas while the latter has white beans. Otherwise, the big terracotta dishes from which both are served are piled high with ham, pork belly, beef, baby goat, black puddings and sausages.

Cocidos are nutritious and delicious and more than replace all those calories burned on the hoof, allowing pilgrims to set off each morning with a spring in their step. These beauts are made for walking.

Arguably the rudest tree in the world

At the 55km mark, two of the Lebaniego’s most photographed sights stand, in jarring contrast, a few metres apart. One is the small, 10th century church of Santa María de Lebeña with its tiny, overgrown graveyard where wildflowers have been spared the hoe. The other is the gnarled, barkless and sun-bleached trunk of a lifeless yew that has inexplicably been spared the axe.

Resembling a fist with the middle finger raised, it’s the rudest tree in the world. The parish powers-that-be must have a mischievous sense of humour or are blissfully oblivious to the obvious; either way, there it is – dead, defiant and crying out for a photo to be sniggered over later in the El Hayal hostel in Cabañes, 5 kilometres distant.

Typical of most hostels on the Lebaniego, El Hayal (+34 942 744203) offers B&B for around €20, and half and full-board are also available. It’s not the Ritz: guests sleep in singles or bunk beds in six rooms accommodating from four to 18 people with half-a-dozen shared bathrooms, but it’s well-run and spotlessly clean.

Although not exclusively for pilgrims, being principally a base for hillwalkers, cyclists and birders, everyone’s welcome to enjoy the food and facilities, which include a pool, and drift off beneath its rustic timbered roof.

Wander by the Deva River in Potes before an end-of-pilgrimage feast

Birders rise with the larks, but pilgrims needn’t get up early for the last stage of the journey. With only 12kms to go, there’s time to tarry over lunch in Tama, where a chunky tuna salad in the Hotel Corcal’s Casa Fofi restaurant is sufficient sustenance for the home stretch; anything more substantial might spoil the appetite for a mission-accomplished dinner in Potes.

After collecting that certificate from the monastery, there’s not a lot to do back in Potes apart from pottering around the narrow streets, admiring the medieval houses and dandering by the Deva River that runs through town; still, it’s a pleasant way to kill time until the best restaurant on the Lebaniego opens at 8pm.

In the attic dining room of El Cenador del Capitán, where reservations are a must and tall people should beware the rafters, choosing from the menu isn’t easy: diners who spend 10 minutes deciding what to order frequently change their minds as soon as they see what those at neighbouring tables are having.

To avoid trying the waiting staff’s patience, opt for the house’s award-winning cocido lebaniego; a bottle of local red wine, rarely seen outside of Cantabria but top class; a dessert selection of local cheeses, which are among the best in Spain; and, to round things off, a pot of herbal rock tea (té de roca) with a generous splash of the regional firewater, orujo. At around €30 a head, it’s a steal.

One of the Fuente de cable cars in the clouds. Photo: Cantabria Tourism

As soon as that orujo hits the spot, it’s time to hit the pillow. The pilgrimage is over – but not necessarily so the adventure. Those with time to spare and a head for heights should hop on the bus the next morning to Fuente de, half-an-hour from Potes, for a daredevil cable car ride in the Picos de Europa National Park.

There are two cars, which sway and sometimes lurch in anything more than a breeze, each with a capacity for 20 passengers. The bottom station is at 1,090 metres above sea level and the top one is at 1,850 metres – a vertical ‘drop’ of 760 metres, or six-and-a-bit Dublin Spires. The trip, which covers a cable distance of 1.45kms, takes three minutes and 40 seconds and the cars can reach a top speed of 10 metres per second, or 36kms per hour.

Nervy passengers tend to observe the ascent and descent through splayed fingers, but even a peek-a-boo view of the mountains high above and the valleys far below draws admiring gasps. Only a fibber would deny it’s frightening: countless prayers are said in the church in the monastery, but plenty of Hail Marys are whispered aboard the cable cars, too.

Maroon arrow and cross for the Lebaniego, yellow arrow and scallop shell for the Camino de Santiago

The phenomenal international interest in the various caminos shows no sign of abating – year after year, they register sizeable increases in the number of people walking them. When next April 15 comes around and the Jubilee ends, the souvenir shop cum pilgrimage office where everyone nearly wet their pants laughing will have issued more lebaniegas than in any previous 12-month period.

As people continue to return home to regale family and friends with tales of their experiences and share treasured photos, the Secret Camino won’t stay secret for much longer. It will, however, remain the loveliest pilgrimage route in Europe.

Talking of lovely: somewhere in Spain, a beautiful little girl is the proud owner of a unique souvenir of her visit to the monastery in the mountains. Her father may have been mortified by her excited outburst, but no doting daddy could refuse to buy his daughter a model of the baby Jesus riding Noddy’s scooter.

A little taste of why the Camino Lebaniego is the loveliest pilgrimage route. Photo: Cantabria Tourism

GET THERE: Ryanair flies from Dublin to Santander and Aer Lingus from Dublin to Bilbao. Flights arrive in late afternoon, so stay over and take an early Alsa Lines bus to San Vicente (book well in advance). To reserve a bed in a pilgrims’ hostel (again, book well in advance) and for detailed information on the Lebaniego route, see caminolebaniego.com. Autobuses Palomera (+34 942 880641) operates a three-times-daily service from Potes to Santander, from where Alsa serves Bilbao.

PILGRIM PASSPORT: You’ll need a credencial to sleep in cheap pilgrim hostels, where it will be stamped as proof of your journey, and to obtain a certificate of completion at the monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana. Collect your credencial (€2) from the Church of Santa María de Los Ángeles, Calle Alta 24, in San Vicente. Apply at parroquiaelcristo@gmail.com or call +34 942 211563 (it might be wiser and quicker to phone, because they’re frustratingly slow at responding to emails).

TOP TIP: There are no ATMs or supermarkets between San Vicente and Potes, so carry sufficient cash for lunch stops and commandeer pastries and fruit from the breakfast buffets of your accommodation, where vending machines offer water (always carry a litre), chocolate and energy bars.

FURTHER INFORMATION: See cantur.com, turismodecantabria.com and spain.info

Madrid: Art and soul

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.

Cristiano Ronaldo scores the equaliser in the 1-1 match against Athletic Bilbao

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.

The Royal Palace, in front of which the best buskers in Madrid entertain delighted crowds

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.

This talented street musician is the top draw in front of the Royal Palace
Cork-born Tony O’Connor in Plaza de la Puerta del Sol

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.

Velazquez’s Las Meninas in the Prado Museum

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.

Picasso’s Guernica attracts visitors from all over the world to the Reina Sofia

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.

Hans Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII hangs in the Thyssen-Bornemisza. Photo: M. Duran Albareda

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.

Van Gogh’s last painting, Les Vessenots, in the Thyssen-Bornemisza
Who needs a full Irish breakfast when you can have chocolate con churros?

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.

Spain’s national dish, tortilla de patatas – simple yet sensational

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.

Flamenco show in Villa Rosa, Plaza de Santa Ana

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.

Hearts begin to beat faster when the sun sets on Madrid, but the night is still young

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.

The VP Plaza España Design hotel, close to the Royal Palace