TO MOST Brits, Barcelona is the Spanish city. The whacky cathedral by Gaudi that isn’t finished almost 90 years after he died, “Barca” the only football team in the world that leads a debate on independence, Las Ramblas, F1, the list goes on. Yet to the Spanish, Madrid is their Capital, not just in name but in style, fashion, culture and, yes, football.
It’s a magnificent city, Madrid. Three of the best museums in the world are here, and maybe the world’s most amazing park. A few years ago the city fathers decided the six mile long motorway that bisected the city was a disaster for anyone living nearby – so they buried it. Then they covered it with Madrid Rio, a 10 kilometre park containing the river (now clean and vibrant where before it was stagnant), riverside walks, cycle and roller skate routes, cafes and bars. There are restored bridges and magnificent new ones. Instead of being bisected, the city is now homogeneous. It is a triumph of daring urban planning and has transformed the city.
Of course, Spain has its problems. Don’t mention Frau Merkel in a Madrid bar and expect a cordial response. But those problems, ironically, mean that for us non-Eurozone inhabitants, Madrid is also something of a bargain.
So, what to do when in Madrid? I’d start by going to the old post office. Yes, I know, what could be more boring? And yet, confronted by the Palacio de Communicationes is to be reminded of a world when the delivery of mail was the lifeblood of commerce and social life, romance and despair. Now a bit of a dodgy “art space”, the hero is the building itself.
Madrid’s Royal Palace is extraordinary. According to my guide, when King Phillip the fifth, the first Bourbon King of Spain, arrived at his new home he was a little disappointed by its scope. On his first Christmas in residence – while he was at a party elsewhere and when all the precious contents and everyone living there had been removed – it caught fire and was completely destroyed. Overcoming his disappointment Philip instituted a programme of building that latest 26 years and produced what may be the largest palace in the world. The final rooms were decorated 100 years after construction started. The official tour takes 65 minutes yet accounts for just 5 per cent of the total area.
What else? Well, Placa Mejor is special. An early King’s mistress was a bit of a diva and wanted to appear in front of the crowds during fetes, bullfights, hangings and other crowd-pleasers. His wife, however, wasn’t so keen and demanded that she was kept out of sight. So, as you cast your eye around the giant square, notice there is only one recess – it was here that the mistress held court unseen by the Queen on the opposite side.
Not that Spanish Queens were particularly virtuous. The Botin restaurant has two major claims to fame. Firstly, it is the world’s oldest continually-operating restaurant – entertaining bon-viveurs since 1725 – and it was also where another Queen entertained her lovers. It is also recommended by Frederick Forsyth, if that catches your fancy.
While in the area, go to San Miguel market. The fabulous cast iron structure is now a foodie heaven, where you can buy anything from seasonal wild mushrooms, over 100 varieties of cheese or fresh oysters and coffee and (very) sticky buns.
Madrid, then, is a surprise. I wouldn’t go there for a fortnight but for a four-day break it might just be the least known of Europe’s great capitals and rewards the adventurous. It is small, so walking around is possible. Spanish cuisine is now recognised as among the world’s finest – be it tapas, Santceloni or the wonderful Baroque magnificence of Paco Roncero’s two Michelin-starred Terraza Restaurant at the Casino.
One of the best places to be based is a presidential suite at the Hotel Hesperia on Castellana, the road from the airport to the city centre. For most of the year, the outside combination of jacuzzi, relaxing and dining areas is a blissful retreat from the heat of the city. And downstairs is one of Europe’s finest restaurants — Santceloni.
The Spanish have an imperious disdain for the conventions many of us deem inviolable. For example, you might think a two star Michelin restaurant should be formal, the waiter a pain in the bum, the food perfect but a bit stuffy, the wine ludicrously expensive. And while a meal at Santceloni is not a steal – you’ll spend €150 a head with a decent drop or two of wine – you will also have a stylish, relaxed evening. And that’s because of another Madrileno characteristic – their sheer enjoyment of life . If hospitality means generosity – and if it doesn’t it should do – then this restaurant is far superior to the mean spirited specimens that so often masquerade as “Michelin-starred”.
Of course the hotel has other restaurants – including a sushi bar and La Manzana from Estaban Gonzales, the man tipped to be the city’s next Michelin-starred chef with his inventive take on tapas.
My lasting memory of this capital city in one of Europe’s most economically depressed countries is the life-affirming enthusiasm of the Madrilenos. Well, that and the jacuzzi outside my presidential suite.
NEED TO KNOW
Paseo de la Castellana, 57. 28046, Madrid
Phone: +34 913 984 661
■ Deluxe: €200 BB
■ Deluxe “U.nique”: €240 BB*
■ Premium: €220 BB
■ Premium €”U.nique”: 260 BB*
■ Junior: €300 BB
■ Junior “U.nique”: €340 BB*
■ Executive suite: €1000 BB
■ Presidential suite: €1500 BB
All mentioned prices are VAT excluded.
*All “U.nique” rates include Rituals amenities and Bvlgari in junior and presidential suites.
Gastronomic Getaway Package
Available 1 January-31 December 2013
■ One night in exclusive junior suite
■ Buffet breakfast
■ Dinner at the prestigious two Michelin star restaurant Santceloni, including appetisers, two starters, main course, dessert, coffee and petit fours, wine pairing and mineral water
■ Late check-out
■ Bvlgari amenities
■ SkyGym access
Total for two people is €560 including VAT, subject to availability.
Air Europa is Spain’s second largest airline and operates out of Madrid to 36 destinations in 16 countries.
For further information and details on prices, routes and flight schedules please visit aireuropa.com