As a journalist, the offer of a trip to Madrid presented me with something a bit special. Not only was it somewhere that I hadn’t been before, but it is also one of the few European capitals that most people actually know relatively little about. I asked several friends what they thought I should expect. All are well travelled, but none had been there. Answers ranged from the predictable paella and bullfighting, to one who suggested it was where women weren’t allowed in bars after 10pm.
It all led me to conclude that Madrid was somewhere which needed investigating… if only to see where the women do go after 10 o’clock!
After a pleasant couple of hours on an Air Europa flight to Madrid, and a speedy transfer into the city, we were deposited at the chic modern frontage of the Hesperia Madrid. First impressions were good, with the large, stylish foyer stretching back beyond the bar and reception, and widening out to an elegant lounge area with its own sushi bar.
A proper exploration of the hotel, and the adjoining Michelin starred restaurant, was to wait for later, as there was a city beckoning.
The first stop was somewhere famous the world over, amongst a certain group of people. A group, incidentally, that I am not part of. The immense Santiago Bernabeu Stadium – home to the mighty Real Madrid Football Club – is a popular attraction, and a must for any soccer fan. I’m not particularly a fan of the beautiful game, but based purely on the fact that it would make a good number of my friends very jealous, I was intrigued to see it. The tour begins by climbing to the highest point, and in the fading afternoon light, with the floodlights brilliantly illuminating the pitch, even I had to admit it was an impressive sight.
We were fortunate to have among our group a former professional footballer, who had spent some time working here. This treated us to some very amusing, enlightening, and revealing secrets, as we ambled our way around the pitch, dugouts, changing rooms, and seemingly endless trophy cabinets.
As we travelled back across the city, I was surprised how relatively free-flowing the rush hour traffic was – certainly compared to other major European capital cities. Indeed, throughout the whole time in Madrid, I only once saw anything resembling a proper traffic jam.
The city centre has an air of a large, pleasant market town, rather than a national capital. It’s relaxed, spacious, and far from the traffic clogged nightmares of Rome or Athens. The main heart of the old city is easily compact enough to walk around, taking in the main sights and best museums.
One of the most delightful is the Palacio de Cibeles, the seat of the Madrid Council. The elaborate exterior, with its ornate columns and dominating octagonal domed tower are just a taste of what lies within. The bright neo-classical interior is every bit as glorious as the facade, with the white marble and gold trim reflecting an amazing amount of light. The CentroCentro exhibition area has an eclectic mix of displays around the various levels, but best of all is the panoramic view of the city from the viewing platform. It has to be one of the best all round vistas of Madrid, all played to the urban music of the streets below.
Stroll along the gardened boulevard of the Paseo del Prado, and there are plenty of other opportunities to enjoy Madrid’s artistic side. The vast neoclassical palace, which once belonged to the Duke of Villahermosa, is now home to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. Only the brick and granite exterior is original, as the interior was completely rebuilt in the 1970’s. It still retains a serene elegance, however, and is the ideal backdrop for the impressive art collection. Paintings from masters such as Caravaggio, van Eyck, and Van Gogh help trace the history of European art, right up to a Francis Bacon work from the 1960’s.
The museum also has regular special exhibitions. During my visit the lower halls glistened with gold and diamonds beyond belief, as some of the world’s greatest Cartier pieces were on display.
Just the other side of the Fountain of Neptune is the famous Prado Museum, which has housed the Royal Collections since 1818. It holds the largest collection of Spanish art, as well as Italian, Flemish, German, Dutch and English masterpieces. The collection also spreads to drawings, engravings, and over seven hundred sculptures.
Art of a very different type is on show just along the road at the Caxia Forum. This former electrical plant in the heart of Madrid houses temporary exhibitions and presentations, as well as conferences and concerts. Yet it is the building itself that is perhaps the biggest attraction. The original granite base has been removed so that the entire structure seems to float above the public square. A vertical garden towers over one side of the square, and the new, stylish interior creates a feeling of chic modernity.
The main sights of the old city are centred around the area known as Madrid de los Austrias – so called because it was originally built by the Hapsburg monarchs.
If you walk along the main street, the c.Mayor, it’s easy to miss one of the most important features. The grand, arcaded Plaza Mayor is set back from all the streets, and reached by a series of stepped passageways. It was planned by Filipe II, the monarch who first made Madrid the capital, and is a completely enclosed square with a continuous facade of ornate, high arcaded buildings. It’s easy to imagine the crowds thronging at grand royal festivals, with the well-to-do cheering from hundreds of balconies like some giant open theatre.
It was the scene of the famous Spanish Inquisitions (trials of faith), and the executions that followed. It’s seen coronations, demonstrations, and even bullfights over the centuries, although today it tends to be more concerts and bazaars.
Nearby, the attractive indoor San Miguel market is bustling and buzzing with atmosphere, and the aromas of meats and sweets hit you from all sides as you wander the neatly displayed stalls.
Of course, the highlight is the Palacio Real, or Royal Palace, which sits on the edge of a steep hillside overlooking the Campo del Moro gardens. It claims to have more rooms than any other European palace – although I’ve visited a few around Paris and St Petersburg that might want to argue that!
The current palace is actually a replacement for the original Hapsburg one, which burnt down on Christmas Day 1734. But fear not, there is still more than enough opulence for even the most ardent royal watcher to soak up. There are miles of tapestries, walls full of portraits, and stunning Rococo decoration, and yet for some reason it didn’t have the wow-factor I was expecting. It’s beautiful, elegant, and grand, but very much just walk and look without feeling involved. It’s also, annoyingly, one of those thankfully diminishing number of historic buildings that still won’t allow you to take photos or film.
Having said that, it’s still worth a visit, and if you’re happy to guide yourself then the cost is minimal. There are plenty of explanatory notices in English anyway, so it’s easy to understand without one of the registered guides.
The broad promenade along the front of the palace is a haven for performers of all kinds, from musicians to the obligatory ‘characters’. It’s a pleasant place to sit and contemplate all this magnificent city has to offer, and ponder the question, ‘Why don’t more people come here?
It’s a surprising, exciting, elegant city, with much to entice the casual visitor. It’s a destination that often gets overlooked when choosing a city-break, although hopefully with the bargain Air Europa flights still providing good quality, that might change. Oh, and to return to my original question, after lengthy and careful research I can confirm that women are allowed in bars after 10pm!
If you’re coming to Madrid, you need to do it in style. The Hesperia Madrid is close to the city centre, on one of the most stylish boulevards. A multi-million Euro investment has set it as a beacon – even amongst other five-star hotels in the city.
The public areas manage to combine contemporary style with a warm, welcoming ambience. It’s one of those rare hotels where you feel immediately comfortable from the moment you walk in. The staff always make or break a good hotel, and here they were certainly first rate. A simple smile and a nod as you walk past, and a ‘just let me know if you need anything’, at the breakfast buffet, was perfect. You feel like you matter, without feeling smothered by attention.
There’s an excellent choice of modern cuisine, both for everyday and for that special occasion. The relaxed La Manzana restaurant and the intimate Hikari Sushi Bar are both excellent. But for the ultimate experience, the adjacent Santceloni Restaurant is simply perfection on a plate.
With over 170 rooms, you’d be forgiven for thinking this level of style would be difficult to continue to the accommodation, but you’d be wrong. Even the basic level are spacious, elegant, and ergonomically spot on. But then, they have all been designed by prestigious interior designer Pascua Ortega. There is free wi-fi, a well stocked minibar, and the higher standard rooms also boast coffee machines and Bvlgari bath amenities.
If you are in the mood for some real luxury, then the top suites will offer you private landscaped terraces, with outdoor jacuzzi’s, overlooking a stunning city panorama.
Elsewhere you can work out in the fitness room, and visit the gift shop, before unwinding with one of the 70 varieties of single malt whiskies in the Scotch Bar. Other drinks are available!
When a restaurant has held two Michelin stars for more than a decade, you know it’s going to be special. In a relatively short space of time, the Santceloni Restaurant has become the place to eat in Madrid. It is an idyllic interpretation of the best culture and produce from each of Spain’s regions.
The restaurant presents what are often quite complicated dishes, in a clean, simple style that brings out their local origins perfectly. They pride themselves on bringing the best fresh produce from all around Spain – one of the advantages of the capital being situated so centrally. Fish from the Mediterranean, vegetables from Murcia, and lambs from Castillan, for example.
The smoked ricotta ravioli, with anchovies and caviar was blended to the perfect texture. A toothed bream, from the north of Spain, was delightful with pumpkin and curry. And the white veal knuckle, carved at the table side, is a local Madrid favourite.
It’s a menu that will satisfy the most enthusiastic gastronome, whilst still satisfying the casual visitor. It’s all about the taste, and getting the perfect blend without hiding it behind unnecessary frills. Such is the confidence in perfection, that they will carve the joints of meat, or complete poultry at the table.
The Spanish traditionally eat late, so by the time we were presented with the calvados and lemon sorbet dessert just after midnight, we’d already marvelled at 6 courses, and chosen from over 70 different cheeses!
The intimate nature of Santceloni completes the harmonious atmosphere. With space for just 45 guests, it feels relaxed and personal. It’s also clear the some serious attention to detail has been employed in the design, with classic silver and ebony cutlery, and crystal water glasses by Bacará.
If you’re coming to Madrid, make sure you reserve a time to visit Santceloni… and get the tastes of Spain in one perfect meal.
Tourist Information: www.esmadrid.com
Hotel Hesperia Madrid: www.hesperia-madrid.com
Santceloni Restaurant: www.restaurantesantceloni.com
Real Madrid Stadium Tours www.realmadrid.com
Thyssen Bornemisza Museum www.museothyssen.org
Air Europa www.aireuropa.com