VISITING the Spanish capital in the middle of winter is the best time of year to do it.
First of all, it’s not unbearably hot like it can be in summer. Secondly, you get to experience its two priceless treasures — namely art and food — in a less crowded but equally lively atmosphere.
The overall mood of Madrid is more London than Paris. Like the British capital, it has plenty of nondescript parts punctuated by grandiose buildings and a vibrant energy coursing through its streets.
Madrid is not on the coast, nor does it have a great river going through it. It’s a capital city because a king said so back in the 16th century — the world’s first Las Vegas, if you like, only this monarch’s dream was of an imperial capital stuffed with artistic treasures that would make the world come to its doorstep to gaze and wonder.
Madrid’s lofty position in the upper echelons of world cuisine is a much more recent phenomenon and one which has its origins in the creative energy of its tapas bars.
We began our culinary trail in El Tigre, just north of the Puerta del Sol — the most central square in Madrid, where crowds were as lively in mid-winter as they are in most other places in mid-summer. El Tigre had a constantly buzzing, eating, drinking, laughing kind of atmosphere in a bar of dark wood with various bric-a-brac hanging from the walls and suspended from the ceiling. The noise from the chatter of fifty madrileños drowned out the background Anglo pop music.
Here, you pay €4.80 for a metric pint of fine Spanish beer and they keep giving you as much food as you can eat. At the Frankfurt’s bar on the next corner with Calle Victoria Bogo, the beer is more of the bottled variety and the tapas that comes with it is a plate of delicious fat green olives that have been soaked in something really delicious that I haven’t tasted before.
Moving along, the Café Olimpico is a narrow well-lit place with a bright tiled surface and a clean-cut old-fashioned slightly formal atmosphere with older locals talking politics (presumably). Here, the beer is cheap and the tapas is light — gourmet crisps and nibbles
At the higher end of the spectrum is the Goya Restaurant. Considered to be one of the best in Madrid, it’s located in the Ritz Hotel. The taster menu here is well worth the price for anyone looking to experience Madrid cuisine at this end of the scale. The changing menu includes such exciting notions as sea-urchin croquettes and laminated scallops, accompanied by a range of full-flavoured regional wines.
The Goya drawings on the dining room walls, meanwhile, serve to remind you that all the main art galleries in Madrid are located within a stone’s throw of this palace of luxury.
Next door to the Ritz is the Prado Museum. It’s an enormous behemoth of an art gallery but one which is worth the investment in time and shoe leather nonetheless, with its fabulous collections of work that include national favourites Goya (including his bizarre but unmissable “black” set from his own home), Velazquez, Picasso and many more.
Across the wide tree-lined avenue Paseo del Prado, is the Thyssen-Bornemisza Gallery. This was founded by the late millionaire industrialist Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and his fifth (and final) wife Carmen — a former Miss Spain.
For those without the stamina to do the Prado, this is the one for you: the stunning collection is really well laid out. It’s large enough to warrant a half-day visit, yet small enough not to give your brain an artistic overload. The collection covers all the significant periods, from the early Venetian works to the funky outlandish modern art of the latter half of the 20th century, with all the big names of each era represented: Caravaggio, Bernini, Picasso, Dürer, Sisley, Monet, Jackson Pollock… there’s even one from our own Francis Bacon.
A few blocks up the street from the Thyssen-Bornemisza is the Fundación Mapfre, which is currently showing the exhibition “Joaquín Sorolla and the United States”. Along with Velasquez and Goya, he is Spain’s most popular artist, even though he’s relatively unknown in this part of the world.
Sorolla’s career took him more in the direction of USA than Europe and he became the darling of the rising American moneyed elite in the early part of the 20th century, receiving commissions from railroad billionaires, publishing tycoons and even one US president (Howard Taft).
But it’s for his depictions of ordinary life by the seaside that he is best known, painting beautiful scenes of children playing, sailboats and oxen hauling cargo in a milieu of water and sunlight. His mastery of light and movement in his enormous paintings earned him the title of “Master of Light” from none other than Claude Monet.
Whether or not you miss the Mapfre exhibition, no art visit to the Spanish capital is complete without going to the Museo Sorolla on Paseo del General Martínez Campos. Set off the busy street amidst beautiful gardens, this was donated to the Spanish state by his widow and is a great place to see the man’s work laid out in what was his home. Many of his famous paintings are here, with several depictions of his wife and three daughters.
Both Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) and Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) operate daily direct flights from Dublin to Madrid.
As it’s winter time, there’s never a more affordable time of year to spoil yourself rotten in the Ritz by Belmond (pictured right; www.ritzmadrid.com), +34 91 701 67 67. King Alfonso XIII (the last Spanish monarch to live in the Royal Palace and whose portrait was painted by the afore-mentioned Joaquín Sorolla) opened the hotel in 1910. Apart from a brief hiatus during the Spanish Civil War when it served as a hospital, it has been a house of 5-star luxury since. Room from €268/night.
Combine great food and culture with a visit to a Flamenco show. Voted the best in Spain, the Corral de la Moreria (www.corraldelamoreria.com), Calle Moreria 17, 28005 Madrid, offers a stunning show, combined with a cuisine that will knock your socks off.
See as many museums on the Madrid Card while the queues are short in winter. There’s no bullfighting in winter, but there are football matches at Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. And prepare to stay up late: the winter cold apparently doesn’t stop people in Madrid from staying out past midnight in startlingly huge numbers.
For cheap eats to keep you going during the day, think tapas. A visit to Sidreria El Tigre, Calle de las Infantas, 30, 28004 Madrid (tel. +34 915 32 0072) will lift the spirits.
The Madrid Tourist Office website (www.esmadrid.com) gives up-to-date information on everything to see and do in. Before going, get a Madrid Card. It’s a passe-partout into tons of museums, including the Real Madrid Tour. Available online for one, two or three days; with the three-day deal offering exceptionally good value.