MADRID HAS two faces: the face one sees in the day, a catholic and monumental testament to imperial grandeur, and the face it wears at night, outrageously bawdy, risqué and deliciously immoral.
Four days is enough to sample the various aspects of this thriving cosmopolitan metropolis. I stayed in the luxuriously appointed Hotel Melia Princess, on Plaza de España, just a stone’s throw from the city’s main shopping thoroughfare, the Via Grande.
Arriving on a Saturday on a one-hour flight out of Lisbon, the first thing I did was to visit the fabulous collections at the Prado museum. Situated in Atocha, it is surprisingly compact with its 5,000 permanent exhibits. A ticket priced at eight euros gets you in to see the Spanish El Greco, Velázquez, Goya and the French, German and Italian collections. Highlights include the Naked & Clothed Maja (1797), Goya’s Saturn devouring his son and El Greco’s Crucifixion. The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday and it takes three hours to see the collection.
The following morning saw me up bright and early for a day trip to Spain’s royal seat of power, El Escorial. This monumental 16th century ensemble of monastery, palace, basilica and government administrative buildings is grandiose and heavy. It lies in the hills, a one-hour’s coach trip away from the city, costing four euros. You can book your place in your hotel or take the coach from Moncloa Coach Station.
Built by Philip II of Spain between 1563 and 1584 to celebrate the victory over the French at San Quentin, it is surprisingly simple inside. One can see the bed where Philip died, the rooms where he plotted and ordered the invasion of England by the Spanish Armada, and the tombs where the Spanish royal family are buried. Highlights include the long library with its illuminated manuscripts and the royal chapel with its fabulous golden altar. It is quite possible that you leave Madrid in warm sunshine and encounter freezing, blizzard-like conditions in the hills. If you go in the winter, be prepared for snow. When you’ve toured the palace, have a warming cup of hot chocolate and a toasted sandwich at Arthur’s in the small town, which has been patronised by royalty for over a century.
You cannot go to Madrid without taking a day trip to Toledo, the capital of Castille and one time capital of Spain. Take the TGV train from Atocha Station and marvel at the botanical gardens inside the main station concourse. Taking the train to this Arabesque medieval marvel, with its charming and narrow alleyways, handicraft shops, impressive cathedral and ancient synagogues, will set you back eight euros and takes 35 minutes.
This is the home of the great Spanish writer Cervantes of Don Quixote fame, as well as for El Greco whose monumental works are to be found in the cathedral, entrance costs five euros and includes a guided tour.
A world heritage site, climb up to the Alcazar fortress and look down on the river Tejo, which eventually winds its way down to Lisbon. Be sure to sample the wonderful paellas available in the main square, and don’t forget to buy some of the traditional black enamelled and gold jewellery so famous from these parts.
Madrid at night has a personality of its own. You get the feeling that anything could happen when you explore its tavernas, tapas bars and clubs. The Madrileños (people of Madrid), or Gatos (cats) as they are known, never venture forth before 11pm and entrance to discos and clubs can cost from 10 to 17 euros. Why not start with a tasca crawl and sample the wines and tapas in the cuevas off Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol? Cava San Miguel, Cava Alta, and Cava Baja are among the best places.
At the Plaza de Oriente, there are dozens of cheap eateries and cafés such as the famous Café Oriente, while the Café Central at Plaza del Angel 10 has some of the best jazz music in town. The Cool Club really lives up to its name (Isabel la Católica 6) with its flamboyant shows, while the most happening and trendy joint is Kathmandu (Senõres de Luzón 3) where you can dance all night to hip-hop, funk and contemporary dance music.
On the last day, I took a walking tour of Madrid City centre, visiting the impressive and highly ornate Oriente Palace (the King and Queen don’t use it anymore except for state occasions). The Throne Room and Banqueting Hall are fabulous.
Finally, don’t forget to have a coffee in Plaza Mayor and arrive early at the airport – it’s considered one of the most chaotic in the world and one can easily get lost!