MADRID At the Spanish capital, nights pulsating with music and redolent of gourmet food segue beautifully into days pervaded by history, art and sport
Ernest Hemingway wrote: “Nobody goes to bed in Madrid till they have killed the night!” He was right. There’s a constant buzz — hip cafes and gourmet food, sultry flamenco and music… Madrid is a cosmopolitan city that sure knows to party. We are on a bar-hopping walk with Joanna Wivell, our vivacious guide who runs Insider Madrid, which does niche tours such as cooking, flamenco and shopping. “Two p.m. to 4 p.m. is sacrosanct as everyone settles down for a leisurely lunch,” says she. Madrilenos are night birds and fortified by their siestas, love their tapas platters of bite-sized snacks had in between gulps of beer, wine or sangria.
We gorge on fried pimento chillies, deep-fried pieces of eggplant, jamon (cured ham), swordfish with vinegar and garlic and the omnipresent tortillas with egg and potatoes. Our foodie walk leads us to grungy bars with discarded tissues and olive pips on the floor as well as the elegant wrought iron and wooden Mercado de San Miguel, an old covered market that was bought by private investors and converted into an Art Nouveau-styled gourmet food market. With stalls selling a wide range of food and drinks — from fried almonds and traditional sweets such as rosquillas (Madrid’s answer to doughnuts) to platters of seafood and ham — this is a vibrant space that remains open till 2 a.m. on weekends!
There is a headless ‘invisible man’, an Elvis Presley look-alike and a giant Mickey Mouse, all waiting to pose with gullible tourists. Plaza Mayor is one of the biggest European squares, where tiny balconies in faded apartments built in the 1600s were hired to watch bullfights held in the quadrangle. Close by, the public square of Puerto de Sol, in the heart of the city is tense, filled with anti-riot police vans and noisy crowds. This is the place for public demonstrations, and just recently was the first anniversary of the grassroots ‘Indignados’ movement, which had sparked off protests in more than 80 Spanish cities. Over 1,00,000 Spaniards had gathered there, angered by grim economic prospects. The unemployment rates in Spain are the highest in two decades, and half the population under the age of 25 has no jobs.
Off the Puerto Del Sol is the Bohemian Plaza de Santa Ana, which used to be the literary quarter in the 17th Century. Close by is the house of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote. Flanking the square is the oldest theatre in Madrid, the wedding cake-like Teatro Espanol with busts of famous playwrights on the facade and the iconic ME Hotel, once the hangout of the bull fighters. Today, the square is a sprawl of lively open air cafes with waiters scurrying around with plates of tapas.
Food remains an omnipresent motif over the next few days. All over town, I see branches of Museo Del Jamon — cheap stand-up bars with ham dangling from the ceiling alongside stalls selling greasy deep fried churros dipped in chocolate. We lunch at Botin’s, said to be the oldest working restaurant in the world, famed for its suckling pig dishes (baby pigs that drink mother’s milk for 21 days and end up being roasted in special ovens) and also because ‘Hemingway ate there’.
Post-lunch is a feast of a different kind. The Prado museum with its classics by rockstar artists such as El Greco, Goya and Velasquez is the result of the relationship that Spanish kings had over the centuries with their court painters, and an art lover’s delight. With a $ 238-million extension by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, it’s now got a new cafe and exhibition space. I marvel at the light and shade in Velasquez’s masterpiece ‘Las Meninas’ portraying the infant princess and her ladies-in-waiting and Tintoretto’s perspective in ‘Washing Of The Feet’. What is particularly interesting is Goya’s ‘Dark Period’, with sombre images in black and white, of ghosts, witches and monsters. Our guide explains it was not commissioned art, rather something he painted for himself as therapy to escape his tortured mind.
“Madrid has bid for the Olympic Games twice and lost and is again bidding for the 2020 Olympics — the advantage is the development of infrastructure that it has led to!” says our guide. Particularly impressive are the biking trails and the green spaces that the city has — I love the 300-acre Retiro Park filled with joggers, skateboarders, people walking their dogs and even puppet shows. This was the domain of royalty till good king Charles III decided to allow commoners.
I take a Bernabeu tour for an insight into the heady world of football. I am on hallowed ground — The Santiago Bernabeu Stadium owned by the Real Madrid Company is an amazing stadium seating over 80,000 spectators and the backdrop of some iconic victories .We get a bird’s eye view of the stadium and imagine the roars of the fans as a crucial goal is shot. The tour takes us through the locker rooms, the player’s tunnel and the museum packed with lavish trophies, shoes and jerseys. The football motif carries to the very end...