Discover the magic of Madrid

Madrid has proven so popular with Irish tourists that flights will be increased from Cork Airport this summer. Michelle Darmody visits the city.

The city of Madrid beautifully combines old and new. There is pride taken in ancient recipes and old Spanish ingredients which sit side-by-side with sparkling new facades and modern cooking. The city is bustling and vibrant and beautiful. When there I found that we often ate standing up, jostling for position, in noisy, atmospheric tapas bars, some of which are like living, breathing museums. Many places have not changed for generations and neither has the menu. Plates piled high with croquettes, bubbling terracotta dishes of prawns confited in oil with generous slivers of garlic were passed across aged bar counters.

Casa Alberto is a short walk from Puerta de Sol and, like many tapas places, it has a lively bar to the front and a more reserved seated room to the back. The waiters are suited in white, ankle-length aprons, and trays of food are deftly whirled above their heads as they expertly make their way through the crowds.

Not far away from Casa Alberto on Calle de Echegaray is long narrow establishment called La Venencia. The gentleman behind the bar serves three types of sherry, all pulled from large wooden casks. The sherry can be accompanied with a glass of tap water, a slice or two of excellent chorizo, or some lomo. That is all that is served and it is all exquisite.

I was trying to think why this place seemed so different from anywhere else I have ever been. I realised it is because there was no branding, no fridge with a sticker advertising a soft drink, no beer taps with illuminated logos. This is a calm, peaceful reflection on what a bar would have been like in the last century. I fell in love with La Venencia instantly. The gentleman scribbled our bill in chalk on the counter and was affronted when we left a little extra, he insisted we pay exactly what was owed and take all of our change with us.

Chuka Ramen Bar is a few doors down from La Venencia and is a contemporary restaurant serving Japanese-inspired food using Spanish seafood. On the next street over is a corner delicatessen called Alimentación Quiroga. You can perch at one of the high tables and order slices of jamon or cheese from their shop counter and sit by the large windows watching the people of the city pass by.

Como Dios!!!!

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A stroll in this general area will bring you to pretty clothes shops and small businesses selling local crafts, if you pass Licores Cabello take a look inside, it has beautiful old shelving filled with an array of local wines to take away. Equally as romantic as La Venencia is Casa González, sitting in the window you can gaze at the beautiful tile work of Pharmacia de Lyon across the laneway. The staff are welcoming and friendly and serve a mixture of tapas and more café-style fare.

La Mallorquina in Puerta de Sol is a wonderful old bakery, I ended up there almost every day of our trip. You have to nuzzle your way up to the counter to order a coffee and pastry. It is to be eaten standing up as you watch the frenzy of locals ordering whole cakes at the other end of the establishment. Staff balance huge trays of pastries, which are constantly being taking from the oven, they weave in and out of customers, delicious smells wafting behind them. It is also the best value coffee I came across in Madrid.

Mercado de San Miguel, near Plaza Mayor, is a beautiful old building that has been renovated to house a modern selection of Spanish food. Plaza Mayor itself can become a little crowded during the day, but it is beautiful to stroll through in the evenings when the crowds disperse and the businesses start gathering in their tables and chairs so you can see the full grandeur of the architecture.

La Latina is an area of the city that becomes very lively at night. Casa Revuelta is well worth stopping into for a quick bite to eat. Do not be intimated, order by pointing if you do not have much Spanish. The menu is short and the battered fish is mouthwatering. It is hectic but the staff are very friendly when you get their attention. Around the corner is Sobrino de Botín, the oldest restaurant in the world — or so it is claimed. The title is also claimed by a bucket chicken house in China.

I did not wait to get a table but have been assured that the suckling pig is tremendous. Directly across from it is a small, pleasant wine bar called Bodegas Ricla.

My favoutite place to eat in the La Latina area of the city is Taberna Los Huevos de Lucio on Calle Cava Baja. With eggs being in the title, their house special is a runny fried egg served over hand-cut chips and chorizo piled on top, it is delicious. They also serve wedges of soft cheese with layers of truffle on a warm slate with thin toast and some house-made conserves, as well as a large selection of well-made traditional dishes. Wash them down with any one of their many wines by the glass — they have an extensive list. We had a red from Alicante, Enrique Mendoza, petit verdot which was excellent. If you simply ask the wait staff for recommendations you will not be disappointed — their knowledge is superb and they are very willing to assist.

Cebada market has a more lived-in feel than Mercado San Miguel, they are about 10 minutes apart. Cebada is lined with fish and vegetable stalls catering for all the daily needs of the locals. You can eat a plate of raw fish directly from a fishmonger or stand and have a glass of wine, coffee or freshly-squeezed juice at one of the many small businesses in the vast hall.

Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, which is a raw and visceral rendition of the horrors of war is housed in the Museo Reina Sofía, the national museum of 20th century art. There is free entry after seven in the evenings, it opens until nine. It is worth walking past the vertical garden on the wall of the Caixa Forum on your way to La Reina Sofia, it is beautiful.

Matadero Madrid is a huge cultural centre which is a bit of a walk out of town or situated very near the Legazpi metro stop. The building is worth visiting for its sheer expansiveness alone. It was Madrid’s old abattoir and has now been repurposed; it houses a theatre, art spaces, educational spaces and has a selection of food offerings.

For drinks with a view, there are a few eye-wateringly expensive bars in the more upmarket hotels such as Hotel De las Letras or ME Madrid Reina Victoria in Plaza Santa Ana. If you do go up and have a drink on the roof you will be treated to views over the terracotta roofs, and domes of this ancient city. Another option is an eating place at the top of the Gourmet Experience Gran Vía at El Corte Inglés on Plaza del Callao. It also has great views. There are a selection of places where you can order food or drink and take it to one of the tables lining the top floor.

My perfect lazy Sunday in Madrid would consist of an early stroll through the Prado, it opens at 10 in the morning. (You can pre-book a ticket online and skip the biggest of the queues. There is free entry after five on Sunday and after six Monday to Saturday.) After an hour or two in the Prado I would make my way through the Buen Retiro park to Bar Martín, Av. de Menéndez Pelayo. It is a wonderful old bar with old yellowing posters and photographs lining its walls. I had the best Spanish tortilla of my trip here. It is buzzy, especially on a sunny weekend afternoon as people congregate after their walk in the park. I would follow this with lunch around the corner in the more formal restaurant called La Montería.

Ribeira do Mino on Calle Santa Brigida serves mountainous plates of Galician seafood in a bright and busy room. There are platters to share for €38 that consist of crabs, prawns, langoustines, baskets of bread and aioli, basically as much fresh Spanish shellfish as we could muster.

Restaurante TriCiclo, Calle Sta María, serves all of their offerings in three sizes; a main course size, a half portion or a third of a portion. It is a nice idea as you can mix and match dishes as you wish or just order all third sizes to get a wider flavour of the menu.

This is just a small taste of the culture and food available in Madrid. It is a city to be explored and wandered through, gleaning some tapas as you go. There are parks to relax in, bars where you can taste the best of Spanish wines and plenty of friendly faces who are very willing to guide you through the menu.

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