By Pamela Jacobs
A long weekend in Spain’s capital brings art, wine, culture, and cuisine to new heights.
Madrid—the capital of Spain, a cultural hub of Europe, the home of tapas, beautiful people, siestas, fiestas, and hot Spanish nights. This is what I imagined, anyway, before my recent trip there. What I discovered after I spent a long weekend there was that it was all this, and more. Each European country or city has its own unique flavor and color, one that quickly pops into your mind after you’ve visited and becomes the first thing you remember each time you revisit it in your imagination. With Madrid, what leaps into memory—before I recall specific meals and sights and people—is the red of the dresses of the Flamenco dancers, the red of the wine I sipped while watching the Flamenco dancers, and the red of the flames from the candles that burned as I watched those Flamenco dancers and fell in love with Spain. For me, a vacation begins the moment I board the plane. That is when I relax, breathe deep, take off my shoes, and settle in to a dimension outside of work and everyday life. When flying anywhere in an American Airlines Business Class cabin, vacation begins instantly, with a bang. There’s just something about those huge seats that fully recline, the soft socks in the amenities kit, the gourmet selection of foods such as grilled shrimp and smoked salmon and filet of beef, and that jumbo ice cream sundae that welcome me into vacation-mode in the nicest way. And when you take an overnight flight to Europe, as I usually do, it’s a blessing to arrive rested and comfortable.
I arrived in Madrid excited and eager. It was my first time there, and I knew little about the city. Checking in to my hotel, the Radisson Blu, on an early Thursday morning, I had just one agenda: to explore the arts, culture, and cuisine of Madrid, and to capture what makes the city unique.
Unless you’re planning on sleeping in the Prado Museum, you can’t get any closer to it than at the Radisson Blu (www.radissonblu.com/pradohotel-madrid), whose location itself is enough to make it worth a stay. However, beyond location, you’ll find it’s a fantastic choice for your Madrid stay. With 54 rooms and six suites, free Wi-Fi, modern design details, and a hot whiskey bar right off the lobby, guests are treated to more than a good night’s sleep. The restaurant, which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, offers both traditional and modern Spanish and international cuisine, and the bar serves delicious tapas and cocktails. Tapas, which have become popular all over the world, but were invented in Spain, are bite-sized portions, hot or cold, usually served with wine, beer or other beverages; in Madrid they are delightful tastes of the local fare. Additionally, I loved the breakfast buffet, which included amazing fresh breads, cheeses, Ibérico ham, and pastries. I also found that after a long day of sightseeing, the hammam and indoor pool with chromatherapy lights was the perfect way to unwind and prepare for a night on the town.
What I discovered while wandering around the hotel’s neighborhood was that Madrid has an interesting mix of old, older, and not-so-old. Unlike many European cities, whose architecture dates back hundreds and hundreds of years, much of Madrid’s architecture is newer (new for Europe, not for us Americans), as a lot of the older buildings were destroyed. When you take a right out of the hotel, you’ll find yourself on Paseo del Prado, a grand boulevard with architecture dating back to the 18th century. However, when you take a left out of the hotel, you’ll quickly find yourself in the Literary Quarter, which developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is one of the things I loved about Madrid, this mix of history, architecture, and time periods, all in one city. And it was in the old Literary Quarter that I began.
Wandering this neighborhood as the sun was setting and the street lights were coming on, I thought I could have easily been there at the time of Cervantes. In fact, here you’ll find the Cervantes Institution, where they first printed Don Quixote in 1605; you’ll also see the building which Cervantes called home, the church where he is buried, and quotations from Don Quixote lining the cobblestoned streets.
This neighborhood, which over the years has housed many artists and writers, has been the dwelling of great theaters, cinemas, flamenco academies, and more, as well as some of the most beautiful buildings a lover of classic architecture could imagine. Its small, charming streets and lovely squares (be sure to check out the Plaza Santa Ana, the main square in the district) are now filled with bars, restaurants, and shops, all catering to the fashionable and fun-loving residents of Madrid. I can’t imagine an American traveler not loving the Literary Quarter.
My appetite grew as I toured the neighborhood and saw the colorful tapas dishes in the windows—but I knew I couldn’t indulge, as the dinner reservations I had that night were, from what I was told, worth waiting for. I headed to the Casino de Madrid, the private club in which the restaurant, La Terraza del Casino (www.casinodemadrid.es/en/gastronomia/index.htm) is housed, and while I hadn’t yet been to the Prado museum, I couldn’t imagine that it, or any of the art in it, could be more beautiful than this building.
The Casino de Madrid is a private club belonging to a society that has been together since 1836, and in this building since 1910. The building is simply drop-dead gorgeous—old, opulent, and elegant—and while the club is members-only, if you’re eating at La Terraza del Casino, you’ll have the opportunity to see this can’t-miss beauty. Just be sure to leave your casual travel wear back at the hotel, and don your best for this lavish locale.
The restaurant, a two Michelin star masterpiece headed by Chef Paco Roncero, is certainly worthy of this setting. The food, which is the best representation of molecular gastronomy and will turn any traditionalist into a fan, is stellar. After a welcome cocktail which was their version of a cosmopolitan (but so much better), I dined on course after course of spectacular dishes, including fried corn with guacamole, codfish cheek with black olive tempura, liquid ham croquettes, duck liver with apple and eel, Wagyu with Iberian pork ravioli, and many more indulgences. It was so much more than a meal—it was an experience, an event.
The next morning, finally digested from the feast of the night before, I strolled along the Paseo del Prado, the grand boulevard along which embassies, five star hotels, gardens, and of course the Prado Museum all sit, basking in their 18th century glory. The Greek mythology-based fountains are equally glorious, and it’s not difficult to see why this neighborhood elevated Madrid to the status of the cultural center of Europe.
I spent the morning at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (www.museothyssen.org), a museum that once was a private family collection, and consists of some of the world’s finest works of art, from Gothic through modern times. There are also constantly changing exhibits—I was there for the Impressionist Gardens exhibit—which bring the best of the art world to this impressive collection.
From there I stopped in to the Circulo de Bellas Artes (www.circulobellasartes.com/English), a formerly-private club which is now a multidisciplinary center open to the public which hosts workshops, temporary exhibitions, performances, and a very popular, very chic masked ball for Carnaval (I made a mental note: come back!). One of the highlights here is the building’s rooftop, from which you can look down on the entire city of Madrid and enjoy a priceless view, observing just how gorgeous the city is.
Here in America, we eat lunch—we sit down, we consume some food, we go home. In Madrid, lunch is a celebration, an art form, a ritual. I learned this at Mercado de la Reina (www.mercadodelareina.es), a restaurant/gin bar located on the Gran Via that serves traditional Spanish market cuisine in a fun, happening setting. I ate a seven (yes, seven!) course lunch, during which the wine was flowing, that consisted of such dishes as octopus and olive tapas, garlic soup (which was indescribably delicious), Russian salad, Moorish pork skewers, and oxtail with potato cakes. The food was some of the best I have ever had, and the prix-fixe cost is a value not often found in Europe.
The Gran Via is one of Madrid’s busiest and most bustling streets. It recently celebrated its 100th birthday. Strolling along the Gran Via (and working off my seven course lunch), I was in awe of the grand, ornate buildings which serve as the best examples of 20th century architecture. Be sure to have your camera out and ready when you pass the Metropolis building, and walk along the beautiful avenue which leads you to the Plaza de España, a large square built in the 1920’s. A visit to Madrid must include a walk along this picturesque street.
Eager to do some serious shopping, I headed to the artsy triBall neighborhood (www.triballmadrid.com), reminiscent of NY’s East Village. This funky area, a triangle in central Madrid located between Gran Vía, Fuencarral and Corredera Baja de San Pablo, which was notorious for prostitution and hard drugs, was recently transformed from down and out to hot and hip. It’s made up of small streets that house fabulous little boutiques that rival SoHo’s shopping, but with better deals. I had to be literally torn away from a store called Scarly (c/ Desengaño, 16), whose young designer makes some of the prettiest, most unique clothing, jewelry, and accessories I’ve seen anywhere.
Spain is obviously known for tapas, and I wanted to know more about it, so that night I booked a cooking class at A Punto (www.apuntolibreria.com), a brilliant gastro-bookstore/cooking school where individuals and groups can sign up for classes and learn more about the culinary arts of Spain. It’s a great way for a traveler to get a “taste” of the real Spain, and have fun while eating. The class is hands-on, so be prepared to chop, dice, stir, and shred, while drinking great Spanish wines and creating a fabulous meal. We made traditional tapas, snacked on Ibérico ham and cheeses, and had a Spanish tortilla (which, I found out, is not at all like a Mexican tortilla), pork with a chocolate sauce, and other delicious Spanish dishes. It was as fun as it was tasty, and I’d recommend it to any food-loving tourist.
After that, I had one mission, and it was to see a real Flamenco show. I was guided to Corral de la Moreria (www.corraldelamoreria.com), which showcases some of the best, most outstanding and beautiful Flamenco dancing anywhere. I was enthralled, and as I looked around at the faces of the other viewers, I wasn’t alone. Watching Flamenco in Madrid was a moment; it was one of those intangible travel experiences that can’t ever be fully described, or replicated, and reminds you why you love to travel so much. All I can really say is that you have to see it for yourself.
The next morning brought me to Matadero Madrid (www.mataderomadrid.com), a modern, funky cultural center that used to be a slaughterhouse, located in a changing industrial neighborhood, where locals gather for theater, dance, and other arts. Next I headed to the Atocha neighborhood (do yourself a favor and stop in the cafeteria El Brillante for to-die-for homemade churros and hot chocolate [Glorieta del Emperador Carlos V, 8]), where I visited the renowned Reina Sofia Museum (www.museoreinasofia.es), for a tour of some of the world’s best modern art (including Picasso’s famous Guernica), and a spotting of Lichtenstein’s sculpture in front of the building. My tour of art and culture then brought me to the CaixaForum (Paseo del Prado, 36), an amazing post-modern museum/cultural gallery featuring, among other things, an outdoor vertical garden designed by Patrick Blanc. Here I had a delicious lunch at their restaurant and soaked in more of Madrid’s flavors and colors, while resting up for the grand daddy of all—Madrid’s Prado Museum, the last stop on my tour.
The Prado Museum (www.museodelprado.es/en) was built in the 18th century, and houses mostly Italian, Spanish, and Flemish art from the 12th-19th centuries. It was formed as a home to the Royal collection, and as a viewing space for art students to come and learn by studying the masters. Here you’ll see names such as El Greco, Velázquez, Goya, Bosch, and Rubens, and you’ll find it hard not to be in awe of so many masterpieces all under one roof. I was entranced by the Rubens exhibit, as well as by seeing Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and Las Meninas by Velázquez. The Prado is considered to be one of the finest art museums in the world, for good reason. If you see one thing in Madrid, see this.
My art, culture, and gastronomy whirlwind tour of Madrid was soon coming to an end, but not before one last meal. I wined and dined at Bar Tomate (www.grupotragaluz.com), feasting on sensational contemporary Spanish and Mediterranean cuisine, and wishing for more time in this great city.
Madrid is vibrant, sensual, flavorful, fun. It is a city of fabulous food and wine, energetic lovers-of-life, and artists, both living and long-gone. It’s a place to spend a long weekend exploring, or a lifetime returning to. I long to go back and spend a night filled with wine, tapas, music, Flamenco, and new friends; one day soon I will.
Fly non-stop to Madrid aboard American Airlines for the fastest, most comfortable and direct service
The best way to see the city is with a tour guide. Mauricio Macarrón Larumbe is incredibly knowledgeable, and was a delightful addition to my travels. He can be reached at +34 629 231 224,
For more information about the City of Madrid, visit its official website www.esmadrid.com