Friday, February 16, 2007

Madrid: Always On

Madrid is my favorite European capital, and I love all of Europe. What makes Madrid special for me is the feeling it evokes when I visit. Madrid is full of passion. Everywhere. The food is prepared with passion. The music, especially the local Flamenco, is raw and passionate. The architecture is grand, the tree-line Avenidas wide, and the many plazas are bustling centers of activity.

The Plaza Mayor, which dates back to 1581, is the grand center of the city. Lined with 237 balconies, shops and outside restaurants, it is a place for the community to meet, to stroll and to relax and socialize.

Madrid parties around-the-clock. In fact, unprepared tourists sometimes complain about the constant activity. What's not to love? Yes, the city requires that adults stay awake until the wee hours of the morn. For example, the great flamenco players in small local bars don't even wander in until midnight. But the Spanish, ever resourceful, accommodate their unusual cycle by maintaining the afternoon siesta as at least a time to rest and relax. Though I've read recently that the pressures of global capitalism are causing more Spaniards to act like the rest of the business world. Shame.

Spanish culture is a crazy mix of European, North African, Gypsy and Arab influences. It all works, in a unique and memorable way. The capital, of course, is very cosmopolitan. Characterized by wide avenidas, like the famous Avendia Reforma, the city boasts some of the best museums and gardens that can be found in major capitals. The Prado Museum is every bit as impressive as the Louvre in Paris. (Read: The Flanders Panel, by Arturo Perez-Reverte. A "parlor mystery" with the Prado at its core.)

Of interest to art lovers is the relatively new, state-owned Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. Its collections are vast and deep. Think: El Greco, Goya, Velasquez as well as a number of Flemish masters.

The Royal Botanical Gardens, just next to the Prado is one of the finest downtown formal gardens I've seen. The specimen trees are magnificent, as is the large, Victorian-style conservatory. And of course, there are fountains. Lots of spectacular fountains. Not like Rome, mind you. But very beautiful and very Spanish additions to the city's landscape.

If you go, I recommend staying at the small but elegant Hotel Orfila. Just down the street from the British Embassy, the charming small hotel has a five-star kitchen, a stunning courtyard patio, and beautiful rooms. When I was 20, I stayed just next to the Plaza Mayor at a modest but comfortable hotel which is still operating: La Perla Asturiana.

The City is famous for its Tapas, classic small plates with a wildly tasty variety of ingredients; its seafood, often served on enormous platters with a sampling of everything; and for El Botin, the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world (ask for a table in the cavernous downstairs room). For authentic Flamenco, avoid the tourist traps with dinner and a show. Look for the small bars with tiled walls like the Monteleon (the old Solea's new iteration), Candela and check-in at Los Gabrieles. If you've got to do dinner and a show, book the Cafe Patas.
Daytrip: to the ancient walled city of Granada, once the capital, home of Spanish steel, Moorish architecture, an ornate Cathedral, and some old-style metalworking foundries.

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