Monday, May 19, 2008

Madrid - Europe's Highest Capital City

Viva España, and my first overseas blog since coming home!

Did you know that? Madrid has an average elevation of 650m, and is of course not far from the geographical centre of Spain. Despite being landlocked it is known as the “best port in Spain”, having superb seafood which of course I availed myself of the last couple of days during a quick mid-week visit (as recommended by the Telegraph, I later discover), ostensibly to meet up with Jina, my old friend from South America, but, well, who passes on a city-break in Spain?

Bocadillo de Calamares for lunch

At El Brilliante

So, cheap Easyjet flights from the god-awful Luton, a nice yet very reasonably priced hostal (budget hotel, c.f. hostel), Marlasca near Sol, right in downtown Madrid, and plenty of chocolate con churros, tapas, cerveja and art.

There are three major galleries in Madrid, which one can cover off with an Art Pass for 14 euros. I would strongly recommend not trying to do more than one per day unless you fancy burning out. Unfortunately for me, one of the three, and indeed the one I most wanted to visit, Reina Sofia was unexpectedly closed on my last day when I tried to visit. The other two, Thysseen and the famous neo-classical Prado, were both enjoyable, although there’s only so much I can take of classical painting – Goya, Velazquez etc.


Thysseen also had a Modigliani exhibition, which has just finished in fact. This was of particular interest as I attended and enjoyed the RA’s show a couple of years ago, and wanted to see what the Spanish angle would be on this painter who was born in Bologna but spent most of his creative time in Paris.

Indeed I was not disappointed, the show being much bigger than the London one, pulling in more of Modigliani’s work, early sketches and even his rare landscapes, alongside his more famous nudes. They also sourced much from his contemporaries and the masters who inspired him, and the exhibition continued across town. No photography allowed in any of the galleries unfortunately.

Dos del Mayo

The other space I stumbled across was the Museum of Contemporary Art which is hosting an exhibition about the Dos de Mayo (2nd May) revolt in 1808, when the Spanish uprising began against Napoleon’s occupation of Spain. This was of interest, as the British had a large part to play in what became the Peninsular war, helping the Spanish and it is said that without our help, Spain certainly wouldn’t be what it is today. This featured on the Today programme recently, which is how I learnt about it – to be honest I knew nothing of the history of this war! Anyway, it’s the 200 year anniversary, and so the whole year is marked by celebrations of what is effectively the Spanish “Independence Day”.

A plaque outside the Royal Palace

The Festival of San Isidro

The other celebration I had the good fortune to stumble across, San Isidro, marks the start of the bullfighting season, with a week of events, music, theatre, etc. Across town Madrileños (Madrid residents) had dressed their kids in traditional dress. I caught a bizarre event with several tall puppets dancing in a square, no idea what it all meant!!

Crowded square

Some sort of presenter waves down to the crowd

Tall people

And not so tall people

Madrid is a beautiful classical city, and the quite compact centre is a delight to wander around

Plaza Mayor, dating from the 1600s

The best beers

What ever!

Modern mix

Classical hotels

World’s most beautiful post office

Quiet streets for siesta time

The new CaixaForum Gallery

Now we come to the highlight!! Well, first up on my arrival was of course some "chocolate con churros".

This is a typical Spanish breakfast dish of thin donut-like fried bread which one dips into thick hot chocolate, and when I say thick, I mean you could spoon it up, it’s almost solid. Yum!

Never lasts long - Jina tucks in

Later I tried the most famous, that at San Gines, which was indeed super-tasty.

Of course, central to the Spanish food is tapas, and there is no shortage of bars serving up delectable nibbles to anyone feeling even slightly peckish. Remember, you need this as you don't have dinner till 11pm (assuming you're having an early night), or much later! I've seen families with small kids coming into restaurants at about half past midnight!!

Penguins chilling out

Just round the corner from my hostal I found Cantina Alhambra, a lively tapas bar where I whiled away the evening with boquerones (vinegared anchovies in oil), Spanish ham freshly cut off the leg, trotter still in place, and plenty of beer. Book was Reinhold Messner’s Search for the Yeti! (He decides it’s a rare species of bear)

La Casa del Abuelo is a chain of traditional Spanish restaurants serving up fried pigs ears amongst other dishes, which I visited with Jina and her friend. We stuck to more conventional dishes like shrimps with garlic, calamari, patatas bravas and blood sausages (my suggestion, and they were good!).

On my own the following day, I visited Nina Restaurant (and met Nina herself!) in Calle Manuela Manasaña for a lunch of traditional fare in smart surroundings, enjoying a meaty lentil soup then steak with creamy sauce and potato.

The home made ice-cream was part of the deal

Other Random Observatons
The main train station, Atocha, is worth a visit, as it has a jungle greenhouse area in the middle, complete with dozens of turtles pottering about.


What it doesn’t seem to have is a single ticket machine? Hence enormous queues for tickets. I was thinking about popping to Seville for a daytrip (never been) but it wasn’t cheap – about 70 euros each way on the high-speed AVE trains, and so not worth my while – I’ll go there another time.

Another interesting aspect to Madrid (as a Londoner) is the different racial mix – you find lots of Peruvian types about, with their distinctive height and facial features. I presume much of the Spanish speaking world must gravitate to Madrid at some point in their lives.

Across town, I visited Debod Temple, supposedly the best spot for sunset (I was there mid afternoon and had no interest in waiting around several hours!). It was a gift to Spain from Egypt for saving the famous Abu Simbel temple in the south when it was endangered by the flooding of the Aswan Dam.


Puerta del Sol
Sol, as it’s known, is commonly regarded as the centre of Madrid – it’s where the New Year Celebrations are held, and it hosts Km0, the point by which all distances are measured in Spain (and the name of a good bar in Cusco I spent some time in)


Famous Tio Pepe advert

Traditional symbol of Madrid

Yes, their symbol is a bear sniffing a strawberry tree. It's something to do with a dispute between the church (bear) and the people of Madrid about hunting rights.

Finally, if anyone can explain this to me, I'd be grateful. This symbol appears at major road crossings all over town:

What does it mean? No groups of 4?

So, a good couple of days all told. If anyone is planning a trip, have a look at the Telegraph article, or do like me just go and work it out without advice, enjoy the uncertainty!

P.S. I’m thinking about a Nepal trip this autumn (work permitting). Everest Base Camp. Interested? Let me know..

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Europe's Highest Capital City