Author Chris Wright
DAY ONE | Tucking into a breakfast of Iberian ham and rustic bread in the café at Hotel Orfila, located in a 19th-century mansion just north of the city center, I cannot help but be charmed by the hotel’s old-school approach to refinement and comfort: heavy curtains, carved columns, antique vases, formal chairs. The waiters wear bow ties. The rooms have actual keys, with red tassels. I eat under the gaze of a parrot in a gilded frame.
Such traditionalism is not a rarity in this city. As the local actor and musician Leonor Watling tells me, “Madrid does change, but at its own pace.” We’re taking a post-breakfast stroll along a side street off Gran Vía, Madrid’s main shopping drag, which slices across the city’s bewildering gnarl of alleys and byways—a labyrinth that can flummox the most seasoned Madrileño. “I lived in one neighborhood for six years,” Leonor says with a laugh, “before I realized I was walking in circles to go less than a block.”
The lead singer of the rock band Marlango and an actor whose credits include Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her (“It wasn’t a difficult role: I was in a coma”), Leonor was raised in the working-class district of Prosperidad, “the kind of neighborhood where you know the guy who sells bread.” But this, again, is not rare here. Madrid is known as being a big city with a small-town feel—the sophisticates of Barcelona sniff at what they see as its provincialism.
Leonor is having none of this. She cites hip barrios like La Latina, Malasaña and Chueca (“Madrid as I’d like it to be”) as evidence that the city is catching up with buzzier capitals like London and Berlin. The cultural upgrade she describes is evident in two of the city’s relatively new art institutions—Matadero Madrid, located in a renovated slaughterhouse, and La Tabacalera, which is in an 18th-century tobacco factory. I decide to visit the latter, in part because the short walk south will take me through chic La Latina and the scruffy bohemian neighborhood of Lavapiés—possibly the only part of town where you can order dim sum with zebra meat (Gau&Café).
First, I have to run the gauntlet of human statues and Bart Simpson balloon sellers at Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s biggest, rowdiest square. “Psst!” hisses a raggedy woman holding out a sprig of something, presumably in the belief that I’d be interested in buying it. The rustle of 10,000 tourist maps drowns out the afternoon traffic. I hurry through the crowds, dodging the selfie sticks as I go.
Finally, after a primer in colorful local language at a Lavapiés sports bar (Ronaldo, Real Madrid’s star player, has been sent off for slapping an opponent), I arrive at La Tabacalera, an imposing, block-size building that doesn’t get any cheerier on the inside. The entry hall is filled with dangling, red-splattered bunches of cloth. Farther in, a giant eyeball stares out from a gloomy antechamber. I stop and rub my chin in front of a case with a fire hose coiled inside, mainly for the benefit of a serious-looking couple passing by.
I’ve got another kind of aesthetic experience in store at my next stop, the Museo del Prado, part of Madrid’s troika of superstar art institutions (along with the Reina Sofía and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums). The Prado is located east of the city center, amid a parade of monumental structures, the most impressive of which is Palacio de Cibeles, a huge wedding cake of a building that doubles as a cultural center and the city’s town hall, and which has a viewing deck and a fine-dining restaurant on the upper levels.
Set in a sprawling, colonnaded building, the Prado is home to one of the world’s finest collections of European art, which includes the Hieronymus Bosch triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” whose panel depicting hell is possibly the weirdest work of art ever created. More upbeat is “Goya in Madrid,” an exhibition of the Spanish master’s work that provides a fly-on-the-wall look at 18th-century Madrileño life (they hunted a lot, apparently).
Outside, I cross broad Paseo del Prado and enter a warren of streets that, within minutes, has me wondering which way is up, let alone east or west. Still, if you’re going to get lost, this isn’t a bad place to do it. My quick pre-lunch stroll becomes an epic, leading me past a succession of A-list edificios—the glass-and-steel Mercado de San Miguel, the stately Basílica de San Francisco el Grande, the fairy-tale spires of Casa de la Villa—along with countless examples of Madrid’s knack for elevating the everyday: resplendent cinemas, photogenic shoe shops, museum-quality doorknobs.
By the time I stumble into La Bola Taberna, I’m almost too hungry to eat. A red-fronted eatery dating back to 1870, it’s known for its cocido Madrileño, a traditional stew with chickpeas, slow-cooked beef, cabbage and pasta. I tell Mara, my server, that I’m thinking about other options, and she gives me a look. “Right,” I say, “cocido Madrileño.” Good choice.
My next stop is Plaza de la Ópera, where I’m meeting Fran Hernández, a gregarious young man who works for Madrid Segway, an outfit that invites visitors to scoot around the city going “Whee!” and “Argh!” Fran immediately reveals himself to be a kind of superguide—he has a near-fanatical interest in Madrid’s history and culture. As we zip along, he tells me to sniff the air. “A city of more than three million people,” he says, “and it smells like a village.”
Our first stop is Plaza Mayor, which has been a focal point of Madrid life for centuries. The square’s redbrick buildings reflect one of the city’s prevailing architectural styles, one that dates back to the 16th century: Herrerian, a blend of angular austerity and Baroque grandiosity. It’s a wide, beautiful space, skirted by gift shops and cafés, with decorative lampposts and the requisite statue of a royal on a horse. It’s also a very good spot to show off my extreme Segway skills. “Come,” Fran says, rolling his eyes.
Just south of here he stops at another brick building, a former jail, which is topped by a statue of an angel. There’s a warning parents use, Fran says, when their kids are misbehaving: “You want to sleep below the angel?” So it goes for the rest of the tour—my obsessively knowledgeable guide pointing out fountains and churches and arches, telling the stories that surround them. In Plaza Santa Ana, we stop at the dazzling turreted building housing the ME hotel. Manolete, Spain’s greatest bullfighter, used to stay in room 406, Fran tells me. “Now everyone wants to be in that room.”
A highlight of the tour is Monasterio del Corpus Christi, a 17th-century convent that supports itself by making and selling cookies—commerce that’s complicated by the fact that the nuns must never be seen by non-nuns. I wander the hallways in search of a nun-run cookie shop, then come across a murky little room with a hole in the wall, inside of which stands a circular wooden contraption. The contraption spins and a box appears. I put 10 euros down and it spins again. “Receipt?” I shout into the hole. Nothing. I tell Fran this, and he rolls his eyes again.
I manage to resist ramming the cookies into my mouth, which is good, as I’m about to indulge in a dining bonanza at the Iberian-Asian eatery Sudestada. My meal includes spicy pork and shrimp dumplings; a platter of Japanese rice, egg, mushroom and eel; tandoori quail; a Thai curry with aged beef; and lots of wine. Each course, meanwhile, comes with a tableside disquisition, ranging from the provenance of the ingredients to how best to consume them (“Mix in the mouth, not on the plate”). It’s a flavorful, fascinating meal—and a very long one.
I end the night with my new friend Fran at La Venencia, a onetime haunt of Hemingway’s. This sounds like a hook, but the bar turns out to be wonderfully and genuinely run-down, a quality shared by most of its patrons. They serve only sherry here, and they keep tabs with chalk on the bar top.
An old black cat falls asleep in my lap. “The village I was born, there was a place just like this,” Fran says. “It’s like time has stopped.” Right now, I kind of wish that it would.