Wanderlust: Madrid

All photos and text by Fazillah Abdul Gaffa.

Monotony does not exist in Madrid. From its old-world architecture that line street after street, to the plethora of museums rich with art and history, and to the sweet smell of Spanish hot chocolate with churros on a chilly night, the capital of Spain, like the Spanish art of Flamenco, keeps you entranced and enchanted, and will always leave you wanting more.

HIP HOTELS

ME by Meliá, Plaza de Santa Ana, Madrid

Fusing style, design and function seamlessly, ME by Meliá is a located right in the heart of the Spanish capital and mere minutes away from must-visit sites in the city. Rooms are equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and oversized beds, and the culinary experiences in the hotel are top notch. The hotel’s bars, Midnight Rose and The Penthouse, as well as the restaurant areas is operated by After Midnight Company, founded by Cindy Crawford’s other half, Rande Gerber.

Hotel Urban, Carrera de San Jerónimo 34, Centro Madrid

Opened in 2004, the hotel is art-inspired, with archaeological furnishings amongst minimalist dark-wood floors and dark walls. It is every bit a designer boutique hotel with rooms and restaurants looking like they’ve sprung out of Wallpaper magazine – the swanky hotel even has its own in-house Egyptian museum. Their famous Glass Bar is a trendy hangout for the rich and the beautiful, and according to Oscar Soler, guide from bespoke travel tour agency Madrid & Beyond, The Glass Bar serves Madrid’s best Mojito.

GREAT BITES

Estado Puro Hotel NH Paseo del Prado, Plaza Canovas del Castillo, 4 Madrid T: 34-913-302-400

Located in a cozy room whose barrel-shaped ceiling is lined with elaborate combs that Spanish women use to prop up their mantillas, Estado Puro meaning “pure state,” which gives you an idea of what Roncero is up to—as long as you believe that the pure state of, say, salt cod is to be rolled into chestnut-sized balls and deep-fried to a parsley-flecked crisp.

No doubt that most of the tapas are little more than well-chosen produce, lightly adorned: toasted bread with sweet onion and a sprinkle of ground olives; a lovely take on patatas bravas in which tiny new potatoes have their tops hollowed out to make room for a dab of hot sauce.

Not everything succeeds. Their calamari’s texture resembled too much that of a truck’s bouncy new tyre, and you’re better off having croquetas (potato croquettes) from a random traditional tapas bar. But the best tapa of all? The mini-hamburguesa served with grainy mustard and caramelized onions—nowhere close to what we’d call pure but delicious nonetheless.

Ramon Freixa Madrid Hotel Selenza, Calle Claudio Coello, 67, Madrid T: 34-917-818-262

Located in the heart of the Salamanca District, the Ramon Freixa Madrid Restaurant at the Selenza Madrid Hotel offers some of the best gastronomic options in the city, with one of the most refined and modern concepts available in Madrid.

Chef Ramón Freixa cannot fathom the idea of of “less is more.” It is said that the chef of Barcelona’s one-star Racó d’en Freixa searched for years for a new place to fully express his vision, and now that he’s found it—not that it was all that hard, seeing how you can get to Madrid from Barcelona in a couple of hours on a train.

From the postmodern Baroque decor to the tableware to the palate cleanser served before dessert, everything at Ramón Freixa Madrid is over the top. That can be a bad thing, as in the case of a rather heaping plate of “snacks”. For starters, we were served a strange plateful of knick knacks - a spoonful of spherical foie gras, a strangely matzoh-like cornet piped with chorizo cream, a lozenge of gelified cola—which are united only by their common diminutiveness.

But it can also be very, very good. Why have a boring old salad if you can match each raw vegetable with its dried-and-fried twin? Never have we had tomatoes of multiple textures in one sitting in our lives; there was even a dollop of tomato ice cream! Three cooking styles for the lobster, ten textures for the tomatoes, six kinds of chocolate with your coffee…and we thought the age of OTT is over!

Chocolatería San Ginés Pasadizo de San Ginés 11, Madrid T: 91 365 65 46

Next to the Church of San Ginés, just off Calle Arenal, you will find a favourite haunt of many Madrileños – Chocolatería San Ginés. After a night of partying like rockstars, Madrileños retreat to this 100-year-old chocolateria for churros con chocolate – churros with piping hot, thick fudge-like hot chocolate. The churros are fresh and crispy, and dipped into the hot chocolate, it’s a multi-sensory treat best reserved for times when you’re still in drunken stupor.

La Bola, Calle de la Bola 5, Near the Plaza Espana.   Lunch: Mon-Sat 1-4pm; dinner daily 8.30-11pm. Credit cards not accepted, reservations required at 91-547-69-30

 

Time stands still in La Bola, with its traditional ambience, polite waiters, Venetian crystals and aging velvet. A mere walk north of Teatro Real, Madrid’s opera house, La Bola is one of the very few restaurants that maintains its bold red façade; which at one time, all top notch restaurants were so coated. Begin your meal with lobster cocktail, and for your main course, try the traditional Madrileño cocido, a stew with chicken, lamb, pork and chickpeas, cooked in earthenware pots by wood fire. The stew, eaten with rice noodles, is quite a big portion, so it might actually be sufficient for two.

Al Anciano Rey de los Vinos, Calle Bailen 19, Opposite Almudena Cathedral

This tavern celebrates its hundredth year of existence in 2009, and one of the bar staff, who’s practically an attraction himself, has been working there for almost 50 years. There’s something quintessentially Spanish about this bar, and it possibly has to do with the crowd of young and old by the bar and the terrace outside chain-smoking and looking effortlessly chic doing it, the mouth-watering array of tapas and the top notch wine list of Spanish wines they stock. This tavern is also a good start to the Spanish tradition of bar-hopping to the wee hours of the morning.

Restaurante Botin, Calle de Cuchilleros 17, near Plaza Mayor

If you’re one of those tourists who gets cheap thrills from dining at famous places, then have dinner at Restaurante Botin, the world’s oldest restaurant, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, dating back to 1725. Its 16th century cast iron wood-fired stove is still up and running until today. Ernest Hemingway can be credited for making the restaurant known internationally, calling it one of the best restaurants in the world in two of his books. While it is reeking with tourists and almost never a dinner spot for locals, it’s still kinda cool bragging about eating in the oldest restaurant in the world. Besides, the roasted baby lamb is to die for.

HOT SPOTS

The Golden Triangle of Art

 

While Le Triangle d’Or in Paris is a luxury fashion mecca, Madrid’s Golden Triangle houses Art: the Museu del Prado, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.

Museo del Prado, is arguably one of the best and most important art galleries in the world. An extravaganza of art like no other, the Prado was converted in 1819, from a natural history museum to a repository of Spanish art held in royal collections, and its strongest collections are the 17th- and 18th-century Spanish paintings featuring the likes of Velázquez, Goya and Ribera.

 

Just down the road is the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, the home of Madrid’s best modern Spanish art. Adapted from the shell of an 18th century hospital, this stunning piece of architecture houses one of Picasso’s most famous work, the Guernica.

 

Finally, make your way to Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, a three-storey art gallery that holds possibly the widest range of private collections of European art in the world. Find works from Picasso, Van Gogh, Salvador Dali and famed pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.

Stimulate your senses a little further and visit the CaixaForum Madrid (36, Paseo del Prado), a five-minute walk from the Golden Triangle. The CaixaForum hosts an array of exhibitions, ranging from ancient, modern and contemporary art, to music, poetry festivals and multimedia art. Currently, the CaixaForum is home to the first major exhibition on the work of artist Alphonse Mucha in Spain.

Parque del Buen Retiro

It’s essential to spend a sunny afternoon in the Retiro Park. Even if you think you’ve seen enough green in your life, and you’re not a fan of basking in the sun, people watching in Retiro on a bright weekend in spring is terribly rewarding. Armed with a camera, you’ll find yourself going trigger-happy over street buskers, landscaped lawns, and European women tanning in their bikinis. People-watching has never been more fulfilling.

Santiago Bernabéu Stadium

 

Home of Real Madrid, the sight of the stadium might get hardcore soccer fans weeping from sheer elation. The stadium is one of the world’s most famous soccer venues, and has hosted three European Cup Finals, and is scheduled to host its forth in 2010. Parting with €15 will get you a tour of the stadium – from the highest point of the spectators’ stand, to the Bernabéu Museum, presidential box, changing rooms and entrance to the players’ tunnels.

Towns Out of Town

 

Take short trips to small towns outside Madrid, and experience life quintessentially Spanish. The quaint little town of Aranjuez, for example, located about 48km south of the city of Madrid, has a population of about 50,000 and is known for its Spanish royal site, Palacio Real de Aranjuez.

A tour around the palace grounds is a must; be bowled over by the décor, opulence and historical significance that almost ooze from the palace walls. The vast garden that accompanies the palace is also worth a stroll, especially if you’re there in spring. It’s hard not to be in awe of the lives of royalty once you’ve seen this palace.

 

Spend a night in the town of Chinchón and savour the serene romanticism of life in a small Spanish town. Situated 45 km from Madrid, Chinchón is instantly recognised from a distance by its signature houses clustered together on hilltops. On top of its characteristic Plaza Mayor, which also serves as a bull ring, with its wooden balconies and flat galleries, the town is also home to church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, which burned by Napoleonic troops in 1808. The current church, however, was completed in 1828 and is a blend of Gothic, plateresque, Renaissance and baroque styles; inside the church is the magnificent painting of La Asunción de la Virgen, painted by renown Spanish artist, Francisco Goya.

If you’d like to experience flamenco music and dance amongst locals, visit during the annual Suma Flamenca festival. The festival celebrates traditional Spanish song, dance and guitars, bringing the best artists to venues across the Madrid province. including the Plaza Mayor in Chinchón.

COOL SHOPS

You know your charge cards are getting a work out like never before when you’re in the home of Zara. On top of chain fashion houses, you’ll find in trendy multi-label boutiques, stores of local designers and kitschy home wares havens littered all over the stylish streets of Madrid.

El Sotanillo, Hermosilla,20. Sótano,1. Tel: 91 577 85 19

 

This quirky multi-label boutique is almost like an open secret for fashion mavens in the city. Located in the basement of a housing apartment building, El Sotanillo houses a plethora of wardrobe essentials sourced mainly from Paris, London, Belgium and Italy. The accessories footwear they stock are especially worth looking out for as they’re mostly from small-scale European designers, thus, very unique.

Pez, Regueros, 15. Tel: 91 310 66 77

Opened three years ago in a former military pharmacy, Pez stocks a cornucopia of brands like Anna Sui, Parisian footwear label Les Prairies de Paris, and Spanish accessories brand Semilla Negra. It’s hard to give this store a miss if you’re peering in through one of its oversized windows – if it’s not the clothes that draw you into it, the svelte iron columns, high ceilings and the chic, untrammelled spaces will. The lower floor of the store provides a very intimate selection of simple, yet luxurious antique furniture and home wares.

Pedro Garcia, c/ Jorge Juan, 14. Callejon, Local 3. Tel: 91 575 34 41

Behind the brilliant black façade of this store lies a modest-sized interior that has been carefully conceived to reflect the Pedro Garcia brand. Fans of the Spanish footwear label will not only fall in love with the full range of sexy shoes Pedro Garcia has to offer, the chic environment would make it just as hard to leave.

Azul Tierra, Lagasca 61, Bajo Interior Tel: 91 43 56 107

Even if you’re not intending to ship a vintage Persian sofa set back home while on vacation, furniture and home ware boutique Azul Tierra is worth stopping by. Located in the stylish district of Salamanca, the boutique stocks products that have been handpicked by the owners and sourced from all over the world.

El Corte Ingles, Paseo de la Castellana 71-85, Madrid - +34 914 188 800

El Corte Ingles is not just a shop – it is an empire. From food to clothes and even a travel agency service, it’s a one-stop shopping centre for all your needs and there are numerous El Corte Ingles stores scattered all over the city, as well as the country. We suggest you pop by one of these stores and stop by their gourmet food section to bring back some knick knacks home. Whether it’s the delectable Spanish cheese, chocolate, or Jamón (dry-cured Spanish ham), there’s something to fit your budget and need. The best part is, if you’re unsure about where you should go (the stores are usually larger-than-life) and what you should be purchasing, they have a personal shopper service to ensure that you’re with an English-speaking guide in the store. I couldn’t ask for more!

Dolores Promesas, Calle del Desengaño 22 28004 Madrid, Spain +34 915 225 803

A kitschy Spanish label, Dolores Promesas started out as a womenswear brand but now has an extensive line of men’s threads as well, and they range from the most casual and basic t-shirts and jeans to quirky printed shirts and accessories. Dolores Promesas, which literally means ‘painful promises’, has a certain je ne sais quoi sass about their clothes that make them fashionable and in-the-moment, as well as something you can still wear 10 years down the road.

Salvador Bachiller, Calle Gran Via 65-28013 +34 915 598 321

If there is a need for a leather emporium, this is it. Salvador Bachiller is a Spanish label that churns out hundreds and thousands of leather bags, luggages, lap top cases, purses and other accessories and you’d get lost in the cornucopia of products available to you. The best thing is, it’s also really affordable and because the quality is top notch, you can be sure it’ll make a good gift for someone back home.