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From our archives: Travel in Spain: From our Archives

Sam North
Madrid is a wonderful vacation city


For a city of three million + people - it’s remarkable that almost everything there is to see in the Spanish capital of Madrid is entirely walkable. Armed only with a copy of the Rough Guide to Spain arrival in Madrid is made easier. No need to take a taxi, the bus takes you to the metro and the metro will take you anywhere you want to go. Of course taking a vacation in October you tend to think that the hotels and hostels would be empty. You’d be very wrong and every single place the Rough Guide recommended was full - bar one. Hotel Mediodia at Plaza del Emperador Carlos - Tel: 91 530 70 08.

Situated right opposite Estacion de Atocha, it is not unreasonable for a single room. Unlike a hostel in which you may find yourself in a cramped cell with no amenities, the Hotel is only a few pounds a night more and has its own shower and toilet. It is also bang next door to the wonderful Modern Art gallery Reina Sofia where Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ resides and a short stroll away from the Prado. On reflection I’d say avoid going to Sol and Plaza Mayor areas for accommodation and start here. They have 165 rooms to fill. Believe me, Spanish hostels hate letting single rooms ‘solos’ and you’ll be lugging your suitcase up several flights of stairs all over the city to discover that they have no room at the inn. At Sol, one place the Rough Guide said was cheap they asked for three times the price for one night. I met with other Brits who’d been ripped off royally at the Hotel Bureau at the airport and were going to pay a fortune a night for a double. London prices. You don’t have to pay these prices anywhere, but sometimes you may have to stay out of the centre and absolutely avoid the Gran Via area, you will be exploited.

If you arrive on a Saturday be prepared to spend the night out. The Spanish work Saturdays hard and if you get tired and want to go to bed at midnight, just remember they will be whooping it up until 3am or longer and they don’t tip-toe around Madrid, or care who hears their phone calls, or if they slam doors, dance a jig in high heels upon the marble floors, they are living the life and it’s your bad luck Spain hasn’t discovered carpets.

Sundays are wonderful in Spain. No matter how exhausted you may feel, get up early, breakfast in one of the many pastry places or just go to a cafeteria and stand at the bar. If you are lucky you’ll be able to get coffe and toasta. If you can’t speak Spanish, point to the largest cup you can find. You won’t get it in that, for some reason they take offence at large French ideas of café creme and you’ll get this mixture of tar in the bottom of a small glass tumbler into which they’ll pour some steamed milk. That’s as good as it gets. You can beg, but you’ll never get a full sized latte in Spain - ever. Not until Starbucks opens up and the chances of that are currently zero. You can experiment with the string-like doughnut stuff they eat for breakfast called Churro; if you like salty doughnuts, go for it, but otherwise, stick to toast and olive oil (or if you can speak some Spanish, they’ll reluctantly let you have some jam).

The good thing about Spanish coffee, no matter how sluggish you felt before, is that one blast and you’re ready for anything. That’s good because first you have to queue to get into the Prado. (Be canny, get there for 9.15am, the Spanish aren’t up yet). It opens at 9.30am and OK it’s crowded, but if you like Velazquez, Goya, El Greco, Murillo, Carreno and Botticelli, they are all there. So too is Tintoretto, Raphael, and Caravaggio. But for me, it’s wonderful to finally see Hieronymous Bosch ‘ El Bosco’. When younger, in my ignorance I had assumed I would find the early Flemish stuff in Amsterdam, but here it all is, wonderfully displayed and all the more amazing Haywain - Garden of Earthly Delights - Adoration of the Magi. There is work by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Jan Brueghel, even an early Rembrandt. To finally see Dutch and Flemish works completed between 1450 - and 1600’s is amazing.

The Prado on Sundays may be crowded, but it is worth the trip to Madrid on its own and if it is just too much or too hot, well, right outside are the botanical gardens, cool under the shade of exotic trees. Visit, walk, enjoy, soothe yourself. If you are still up to it, the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum is just the other side of the Prado, but it's expensive to get in. If you are broke, head down towards Atocha and the Modern Art Gallery Reina Sofia. Not just for Picasso and Dali, but a truly well presented example of current 20th and 21st Century art. The Gallery is situated in a former hospital, it is actually larger than the Tate Modern with a cool inner courtyard to sit in and rather slow glass-encased lifts fitted externally. The gallery is much more accessible than the Tate, either of the London Tates, for that matter, has some exciting material on show and again, is free on Sundays until around 2.30pm.
La Collection Grothe

When I was there ‘La Collection Grothe’ was showing on the top floor with work by George Baselitz, Markus Lupertz, Jorg Immendorff. 700 works by 28 artists.

When you tire of art, it is time for tapas. You cannot escape it. Go anywhere and you’ll find all kinds of cold foods on display - from a kind of potato salad with shrimps in it, to potato pancakes with onion inside, it is worth experimenting and ask for a glass of Vino Tinto, red wine they serve cold. In a good place, even in Plaza Santa Ana, it will only cost 2 euros for the wine and around 3 euros for something to eat as long as you are standing. But don’t dawdle, Sundays are great in Madrid. There is so much to see and do. There’s the street market at Rastro for one thing. The Guide book is a bit dismissive, but it is way better value than Portobello, with good value designer rip-offs everywhere. You can usually find a good tapas bar or pastry place in the Latin Quarter later, or try the Jamaican Coffee bars. which are all over the city. The café con leches are larger here and they serve simple but fresh sandwiches or pastries. My introduction to finding the street market was signalled by an Arab woman singing and accompanying herself with a really loud electronic keyboard on a barrow. It’s jarring, but a neat reminder that the roots of current Spanish culture only go back to the Moors, who ruled them for 700 years.


Madrid If Madrid is livelier and more user friendly than London on a Sunday (or any day given the travel chaos there at the moment). The young are different too. Lively, well dressed, mobile on their noisy scooters, they gather everywhere to drink coffee or soft drinks and in some cases wine. But there is none of the brutish, uncouth drunkenness of the UK. I saw no drunks at all in my whole trip. The young are boisterous, but good natured and seem to have fun and one is struck by how attractive everyone is, taking particular care on clothing and styles.

Madrid women of all classes and ages strive to fit into the tightest figure hugging pants they can buy and most are slim and elegant with it. Madrid young run a parallel life to us tourists and experience their city in a different way. Tourists gather in Plaza Mayor and gawp at the Casa Panaderia, municipal offices adorned with rather adventurous nudes (1662). It was designed as a public place for events such as autos-de-fe (trials of faith) in the inquisition and executions. The autumn book fair takes place here and much like St Mark’s Square in Venice, it serves as a place to shake money out of tourists’ pockets in the rather expensive restaurants around the plaza. If you want a nice surprise, walk around the outside of the whole Plaza and you’ll find delightful shops (bars which proudly boasts that ‘Hemingway NEVER drank here’ and a neat, ancient food market piled high with fresh meat, fish and vegetables and fruit. The other haunt is Plaza Santa Ana with its tapas bars. Up market, but not really expensive, these are good places for meals and meeting other people and if you have money the Hotel Reina Victoria will let you stay there from 2500 euros a night. It is very central and very smart. If you like jazz, it’s handy for Bar Central just around the corner where you can drink excellent Rioja and late at night (pretty late) listen to some very cool jazz of all kinds. Bar Central is where the urban sophisticates of Madrid go, so you might make friends.

Just because you are in Madrid doesn’t mean you have to forego going to the movies. Version Originale films play in several cinemas. Luna, Renoir, Alphaville and Lumiere all show films in their original languages and the cost varies. Sundays are a favourite movie day, the queues are long and sitting in the wonderful ’O Brother , where art thou?’ with a bemused English speaking Spanish audience is ‘interesting’. I loved every moment, but I am not sure the subtitles got it all right somehow. However, sitting with a similar audience for Lars Von Triers ‘Dancing in the Dark’ starring Bjork, was an entirely different experience, with the whole audience sobbing at the end and shuffling out of there with very red eyes. Spain takes cinema very seriously and nowhere more so than Madrid. The Gran Via movie theatres have huge hand-painted posters of the movies, a hundred feet high. It is amazing to see and one is aware that the Spanish are acutely aware of world cinema and world politics. Their newspapers are full of long op-ed pieces on globalisation, art and culture, death and revolution, and whilst I was there ETA murdered their 19th victim in the year 2000. It is hard to grasp what ETA want. The Basque country is prosperous, has political autonomy, it makes no sense for them to want to leave Spain to set up yet another level of political management. For an outsider, I can see only political greed and fascism. They do not carry the majority of the Basques with them, but nevertheless seek to murder those who oppose them and administer them. Separation and nationalism makes no sense in this new greater Europe. We should be coming together and facing outward to a rather uncertain 21st century.

If you still have energy to walk, try strolling along Calle Bailen by the Palacio Real. Here Royalty and Franco ruled in the largest Palace in Europe. This building was based on the original designs for the Louvre and was built mid-eighteenth century. There is a library with a brilliant collection of books, manuscripts, maps and musical scores. In the Armeria Real you’ll find El Cid’s sword and a very complete collection of armoury dating from the 15th century. Royalty no longer live here, King Juan Carlos lives outside Madrid now with his family. Beside the Palace is the Cathedral Alumudena, but continue on walking, over the glass-sided viaduct to a little cafe overlooking it all, just beyond the Palace and savour the view.

If you are still in Madrid on a Monday, you made a mistake. The galleries are closed on Mondays. Mondays is for travelling. Come with me on the fast AVE train to Cadiz. (If it is more than five minutes late you get your money back !) Sink into the air-conditioned atmosphere, feel the speed unimaginable in England or the USA. We have 500km to go, four and a half hours to see those plains of Spain.

© Sam North 2000
Prices change, hotel ownerships change, stations and train times change. This piece reflects a time and place in October 2000. Your experience may be different to mine and of course in the present tense.
The Sam North novels still in print

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