live from madrid!
PoshPorts Chief Ambassadors Diana Laskaris and Sue Reddel are in Madrid this week so we decided to provide you with an up-to-the-minute view of this most cosmopolitan Spanish city, the modern capital of Spain. We’ve got insights for you on where to stay, what to eat and drink in style, and all the cultural delights worth catching in this amazing metropolis. From tapas to Flamenco, from wine bars to masterpieces of art, Madrid has much to recommend it as a posh port of the highest caliber. If you are thinking about a European destination, Madrid may just be the place for you.
Madrid has several areas that are suitable for the traveler looking to get an inside view of the wonders of the city. We chose two spots that are not too far from one another but with different perspectives to give you a taste.
First up, the swanky, uber sleek, Hotel Urban located in Bourbon Madrid on the ideal launching pad of Carrera de San Jeronimo, a main street that leads both ways to all the things you want to see. The Urban is a chic hotspot, known for its slick interior, cool lighting, incredible collection of art and artifacts from Africa, Egypt and the Orient, as well as its great location. The glass bar is a cool place to have a drink, and in fact, many people do. The terrace on the top of the hotel provides a relaxing environment in which to unwind with a drink and small snack, and many celebrity sightings have been had here. The hotel also has a small but neat pool area as well as a fitness center and sauna. The hotel restaurant, Europa Deco, provides tasty meals in a modern setting, with fresh flowers on every table in a unique deco-plastic bag vase.
When we arrived at the hotel, greeted by a stylishly attired doorman, we received a warm reception, including a lovely letter telling us that they were “extremely delighted” to welcome us to the Urban and provide us with a free bottle of their 2006 Tobelos wines, wine of exceptional quality, should we make a visit to the restaurant at the Urban or its sister Madrid Property, East 47 restaurant at the Villa Real Hotel. Not only that, but we received a card good for two free glasses of champagne at the glass bar, and were delighted to find Perrier Jouet, chilled in a big bucket at the bar just the way we like it. We also discovered a fresh long stem red rose on the desk in the room, which was comfortable and well appointed, with wired Internet access at no cost, a Samsung widescreen television, highly adjustable lighting and funky Buddha in a glass display built into the wall.
A couple of other hotels are worth noting. The Hotel Ritz Madrid, located literally across the street from the Prado Museum is simply one of the best hotels in the world. The rooms at this opulent hotel are each decorated in a different style, and the terrace offers tea service with live jazz on the weekends. Also, the Westin Palace is worth mentioning. The ornate building has a central glass dome and has served host to diplomats and VIPs, including the spy Mata Hari.
EAT & DRINK
If you know anything about PoshPorts, you know we love the culinary experiences of travel. Well, Madrid provides a vast array of tastes and traditions, including some that you may find surprising. We’ll start with that venerable Spanish tradition of tapas because, frankly, you will encounter these small plates of typical dishes everywhere in Madrid. Because you will find much the same dishes all over the city, one of the more defining elements of the tapas dining experience becomes the location and the ambiance.
Our first suggestion is that you find an area you like and just go ahead and eat there. You will find that dining times in Madrid may take a little adjusting if you are used to American dining habits. Breakfast can be had in the morning generally from around 7am to 11am, lunch will often be available from about 1:30 until 4pm. However dinner is late, with most places not open until 9pm, and really not getting into the swing until after 10pm, and even after 11pm on Friday and Saturday nights. That said, those are just guidelines and you can probably find a meal just about anytime. If you have to eat on a regular schedule, don’t worry, just plan accordingly.
A few of the areas we quite like are to be found around the Plaza Mayor, a major square and hub of activity, including restaurants, bars, and unusual “acts” to be found wandering around the great courtyard, including people painted in various costumes from soldiers to mimes to Spider-man, magicians, and vendors with unique items such as large hats covered with plastic fruit and bird chirping devices. It’s fun to sit and have a glass of wine, beer, soda or water along with a bocadillo (sandwich) of ham and cheese while watching the action. Several restaurants all line the square. We stopped at El Soportal for our respite. There are also some wonderful bakeries with various sweet cakes and treats on side streets and even the main ones. A nice breakfast of coffee and pastry is pretty easy to find.
Be sure to wander the side streets off the main plazas as well for some of the lively dining scene that Madrid has to offer. Again, you will often find places that are buzzing with activity, people dining and having a great time on the outside patios referred to as terraces in the summer months and enjoying one another’s company. Terrace-hopping is common, as people have a drink and a few tapas in one place, then head on to another and another.
Smoking is still allowed outside in many restaurants, but many also provide for no smoking on the interior of the restaurant. If this is an issue for you, you can check and see, usually on the front door of the restaurant an indication of whether or not smoking is allowed inside, and also usually a statement of whether there is air conditioning, also a consideration in the sometimes very hot summers.
We stopped in at Taberna La Fragua de Vulcano, on just one of those side streets, Calle Alvarez Gato, drawn there by the giant pan of paella sitting on the bar. Paella, that famous combination of meats and/or seafood with distinctive saffron-laced rice, can be found all over Madrid. The paella at La Fragua tasted just as good as we hoped it would. We ordered a basket of bread to go with and a couple of ice cold beers - just the right choice for a hot summer evening.
Speaking of beer, if you’re in the mood Naturbier on the Plaza Santa Ana provides some delicious “cervezas” including both natural and toasted (dark) options. Put them together with some Iberico jamon (Spanish ham), queso Manchego (a delicious Spanish cheese) and some pan con tomate (tomato bread) and you’re pretty much all set. Madrilenos seem to enjoy their beer much more than we saw in Barcelona. While there were occasional pitchers of sangria about (we sampled some delicious versions of our own) cerveza is quite common all around.
If you’re interested in some Spanish wines, a fun place to stop is the Vinoteca Barbechera. Located in the fun Plaza de Santa Ana it can provide you with an opportunity to sample a few wines by the glass while deciding where you might like to go for dinner later at night. Or, you can simply order something off their own tapas menu and stick around awhile. The place is open much of the evening, and with wines by the glass ranging from about 2.5 to 4.5 Euros you won’t break the bank while hanging around listening to some music, people watching and enjoying your vino.
One other restaurant we enjoyed has the funny name of La Trucha (the trout), located at Calle Manuel Fernandez Gozalez 3. This Spanish tavern is a great place to unwind after a long day of walking and sightseeing. We had walked by the restaurant several times during our visit and from the dinner hour (which is mostly 10pm) on, it was always packed. Finally we decided to give it a try. The menu contains a variety of Andalusian style food, including various fish dishes, stews, ham and sausages. There were also some really great salads. We ordered a pitcher of sangria, and sampled the jamon iberico and queso manchego, as well as a deligthful "special salad" consisting of hearts of palm, beets, carrots and endive. We also had a plate of broadbeans served with small chunck of smoked bacon. We lingered quite awhile and a band consisting of two accordians, a stand-up base, electrified bongo drum and saxophone stopped to serenade us for awhile. It was a relaxing yet stimulating evening, that was fun and quite local. We'd recommend you make your way there or include it in your terrace hopping.
At some point, you may be thinking that all jamon, manchego and paellas seem alike and you’re hankering for something else to eat. You’re in luck. A cosmopolitan city like Madrid has many options. From Greek to Thai to Peruvian to Argentinean to Sushi to Mexican to Italian and more, you’ll find just about anything you like. We decided to go Italian one night, and boy are we glad we did. This is going to be our secret super find for Madrid. We are sure that there is no finer Italian restaurant in Spain (and it certainly can hold its own in any other country) as Scacco Matto located on one of those little side streets we mentioned, Calle Ventura de la Vega 13. Hoping for a pleasant little meal, we were overwhelmed with the class and quality of this small but mighty establishment. The pleasing interior décor of soft blues and subtle lighting, somewhat less noisy than the outdoor tapas madness provides a welcome respite and refined experience that both refreshes and delights.
Our cheerful server Roberto provided even further warmth and hospitality as he helped us choose both wine and dishes that simply wowed us. Although in fitting with the menu, most of the wine selections were Italian, we felt obliged to stick with some of the Spanish variety. With Roberto’s expert guidance we ended up with the Cruor 2006 from Barcelona’s Priorat growing region, a rich, bold silky smooth red that we will look for with desperation upon our return home. A starter of shaved aged salami and sharp provolone kept us happy as we decided what to eat. We ended up choosing the incredibly fresh capresse salad, made with creamy fresh mozzarella, delicious heirloom tomatoes and slivers of fresh basil drizzled with extra virgin olive oil so pleasing we practically cleaned the plate with our crispy, chewy ciabatta rolls. If you really want to go all out and treat yourself, you can order the creamy Burrata cheese, which is served with tomatos the same way as the mozzarella. If you've never had Burrata cheese, do try it. It's like mozzarella on the outside with a burst of delicious cream blended with the mozzarella on the inside. It comes specifically from the Puglia region in the south of Italy. Heaven on a plate!
For entrees we opted for the fresh fish of the day, a lovely sea bass prepared with roasted forest mushrooms, exquisitely sautéed and a zesty spinach lasagna with surprising light cheese and meat throughout. The entrees were both satisfying and delicious. We finished off the meal with a creamy tiramisu, and a gift of limoncello from Roberto. If you seek something different when dining in Madrid, we heartily recommend you to a wonderful meal at Scacco Matto.
One afternoon we had the opportunity to have lunch with a friend who lives with her family in Madrid. We were her guest at the Brookei Restaurant at Calle Espronceda 34. While catching up over a yummy bottle of Albarino wine, we also sampled some of the delicious and inventive dishes.
The stylish and chic spot served a delicious gazpacho starter and the food just got better and better. From the tomato with burrata cheese (a really soft creamy fresh mozzarella) that melted in our mouths to the grilled octopus with cheese sauce, the foie gras presented in a torte fashion layered with crunchy bacon, a creamy mushroom risotto, and thinly sliced carpaccio - every thing we tried was perfectly balanced and elegantly presented.
This is a great place to visit for some fine dining in Madrid. It blends multiple cuisine styles and presents beautifully constructed, delicious plates.
And, of course, you may know that we are collecting Hard Rock Café t-shirts at every stop we make in our travels that has the establishment. Madrid’s Hard Rock, surprisingly, is in the tony shopping district of Salamanca. When we stopped by for our visit, they were celebrating their 40 years anniversary and had a Roy Orbison tribute concert going on outside. Inside the café was some great memorabilia including Roy Orbison’s electric guitar, U2 lead singer Bono’s hat and Richie Valens’ acoustic guitar. The crowd was incredibly hip, many wearing leather and looking oh-so-trendy in a rock and roll sort of way. And, there were the obligatory Harley Davidson bikers as well. Funny to see this along side Prada and Rolex stores in the surrounding shopping area but it all seems to work just fine.
One last suggestion for you if you are hungry and on the run. Stop by the Museo del Jamon (various locations), a charcuterie and stand up café that also has a sit-down restaurant upstairs. Most people grab a quick bite and a drink while standing up at the bar that goes around the room and chatting with their colleagues. If you want a more relaxing meal at lunchtime, go upstairs to a table where you can order various items, including a full menu del dia, that comes with first and second courses, dessert and a beverage, all for a reasonable fixed price. (These afternoon meal deals are offered by many restaurants and provide a great value as well). There’s a take away area for those looking for a quick sandwich to go or meat, bread and bakery items to take home. A fresh bocadillo mixto (ham and cheese sandwich on a crusty French roll) will do the trick, whether you stay and eat or take it to go. The fun of seeing Iberico jamon wrapped and hanging from just about every inch of ceiling space also makes for a memorable experience.
Madrid is a cultural powerhouse of a city, so there’s no lack of things to see and do. Some of the biggest draws in the city are its three incredible art museums: the Museo del Prado, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.
The Muso del Prado, or Prado as it is called, is truly a magnificent museum. Art lovers place it among the top ten in the world. Its vast collection includes Spanish, German, French, Flemish, Italian, British and Dutch paintings. Be prepared to spend a good part of the day and wear comfy shoes. Artists like Tiziano (Titian), Rubens, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Goya, Raphael, Bosch and Durer fill the many, many halls. Be sure to check the hours and the admission costs as they do offer free admission during certain times - just know it definitely gets crowded during these times so going early will make your visit a bit more pleasant.
The Museo-Thyssen-Bornemisza was collected by the Thyssen-Bornemisza family for over two generations. Part of their collection is housed in the Palace of Villahermosa while their selection of medieval, Renaissance and baroque works of art are open to the public at the Museo Nacional de Arte de Cataluna (MNCA) in Barcelona.
The collection is laid out chronologically making it easy to navigate the museum. Basically, if you start on the top floor and always make a right you'll do just fine. From the Renaissance to 20th century paintings this museum presents a wonderful collection featuring works from Carravaggio to Max Beckmann. We have to say that this museum really won our hearts. We spent over 4 hours going through its amazing collections. It seems as though any artist that may interest you is represented there. We saw works by many including Van Eych, Holbein, Braque, Durer, Caravaggio, Titian, Rubens, Brueghel, Van Dyck, Murillo, Cezanne, Chagall, Rembrandt, Monet, Renoir, Miro, Klee, Degas, Van Gogh, Dali, De Koonning, Ribera, Mondrian, Picasso, Munch, O'Keefe, Hopper, Lichtenstein, Magritte, Gainsborough, Goya, Manet, Hockney, Inness, Remington, Kandinsky, Matisse, Wyeth, Russell, Pollock, Rauschenberg, Singer Sargent, Tintoretto, Vuillard, Whistler, Toulouse-Lautrec and so many more. If you an art lover, you should not miss this incredible collection.
We also explored the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, home to Picasso's masterwork Guernica. This museum is laid out priarily on two floors, with collections gathered around dates from 1900-1945 and 1945-1968 primarily. Whle there is much to garner about the political and artistic sensibilities of Spain during those times, it is clear that the star of the show is Pablo Picasso's Guernica. Painted at the request of the government for the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 Paris International Exposition at the World's Fair, the work presents the tragedies of war and the suffering of individuals it causes. The ultimate war protest, Guernica has become one of the most celebrated artworks in the world. It's huge size (11 feet tall by 25 and 1/2 feet wide) takes up an entire wall in the museum. The painting traveled the world, but Picasso refused to allow it to return until democracy returned. The paiting made it back to Spain after the death oF Franco and the installment of a new Republic.
The artistic temperament of the city can be seen through its many fountains, sculptures and architecturally appealing buildings. The Palacio Real modeled after the extravagant palace of Versailles, though no longer housing the royal family is still used today for state occasions. The palace contains some extraordinary rooms including the porcelain room with walls and ceiling entirely covered in royal porcelain. Containing exquisite examples of Rococo style as well as chandeliers, tapestries and lush furnishings, including an actual throne room, the palace is a stunning example of royal architecture in all its lavish display.
Just as art and architecture provide a picture of the past, the living cultural artistry of Spain can be seen in the soulful art of the Flamenco. While this musical art form originated with the gypsies of Andalusia, it is said that its spirit soars in the city of Madrid. Numerous shows are performed throughout the city, many as an accompaniment to a meal. While many of us think of Flamenco as the dance, the art form actually can include singing only or both singing and dancing. The origins of Flamenco came from a solo singer and a guitar.
You can also find just about every form of art and entertainment you might enjoy from classical concerts and opera to theater, jazz, rock and world music performances. Madrid is also crazy about football (aka soccer) and the home stadium of their Real Madrid team seats 80,000 fans. If you want to see a game, you can purchase tickets online or by phone, and a couple days a week there are guided tours of the stadium offered. Even just around town you are likely to encounter classical guitar players entertaining passersby.
A visit to Madrid would not be complete without at least a little looking around for souvenirs, more likely, for a visit to one of the shopping areas known throughout the world. The poshest shopping district can be found in Salamanca, a high-end neighborhood with plenty of shops to match its upscale personality.
If you enjoy visiting international food markets, you won’t want to miss the Mercado de San Miguel, just off of Plaza Mayor. This beautiful marketplace is inside an early 19th century building and the last marketplace in Madrid constructed of iron. The many stalls include fruits, flowers, baked goods, meats, seafood, vegetables, nuts and several wine, beer and spirits stalls, among others. The array is beautiful and the choices bountiful. Do not be surprised to see many people stopping here for lunch and drinks as well as picking up some gourmet goodies to carry home.
The large department store El Corte Ingles has a strong presence in Madrid, with stores in most districts for all kinds of goods as well as a gourmet area and in larger stores a full supermarket. Noon on Sundays brings the El Rastro flea market where those looking to find antiques, vintage clothing and just about everything else can search for treasures to their heart’s content.
You can also have fun just shopping around the various areas you visit while you are there. Plenty of places sell lace, bullfighting costumes and paraphernalia, fans and more. One of the most unusual shops we found is called Geppetto. Located at Calle Mayor 78, this odd little shop is easily recognized by the large wooden Pinocchio seated on a stool outside the door and the many, many wooden clocks moving and ticking away on its walls.
DAY TRIP TO TOLEDO
With a little extra time to explore this trip, we decided to take a day trip to Toledo. It is a very easy journey from Madrid. Taking the high speed train will get you there in about 30 minutes. Once in Toledo, though, just go with the flow. The streets are windy and terribly difficult to figure out. Even if you are an expert navigator, you will surely get lost. Which isn't all that bad considering that it is a beautiful little city.
A few highlights to note include the square mentioned in Miguel de Cervantes' tale of Don Quixote as he encounters his beloved Dulcinea.
For art lovers, the El Greco House and Museum is a must. There are significant paintings on display and a renovation of a house that is debated to be the one he resided in. Regardless of the living circumstances, the museum displays the artist's work in a memorable fashion.
El Alcazar, a fort that was once the royal residence of Carlos I has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. It has been used as an ary school, a prison, and most recently a military museum.
The magnificent Cathedral of Toledo is one of the most impressive such structures in Spain. In fact, it is second in size only to the Cathedral in Seville. However, we were told, the Toledo Cathedral has more money! One interesting thing to note is that the Cathedral was destroyed every time a new group came into power. It had been a Christian, Muslim and now Catholic institution. Each time it was rebuilt "bigger and better" as a statement of power and authority. The architecture, art, and adornment of the Cathedral are quite stunning, as is its sheer enormity. There are many stories that go along with even the tiniest detail of the structure, so we would suggest you pick up a guide or take a tour, such as the one offered right at the train station in Toledo, which includes a bus ride, walking tour through the historic district and entrance to the Cathedral.
While you're in Toledo, take the opportunity to sample some of the local cuisine. Unlike that in Madrid, the focus is on roasted meat, primarily game, and stews. You will find partridge in a lot of dishes. Also, be aware that the open hours of the restaurants is more restrictive than in Madrid. Most of the larger restaurants will close by 4pm, so you should plan on getting an early dinner.
Toledo is of course known for its production of steel. You will find everything from letter openers in the shape of swords to full-size swords, armor and steak knives there. Depending on how you might plan to transport such items, they are certainly of interest to the collector for their attractiveness and quality.
Toledo is a good day trip, but it will not consume a full day. If you get there around 11 am or noon, you should be able to wander about and see much of what you like in 6 or 7 hours. Be sure to catch a bus back to the train station (it costs less than 1 Euro) in time to get your return. Buses stop service at 9pm and the last train back to Madrid (at the time of this writing) is 9:30pm.
We at PoshPorts have experienced quite a bit of Spain and find there to be great diversity and variety in its different areas. We hope you enjoy our description of the high points available in Madrid and Toledo. Please let us know about any of your own destination highlights you might like to share.