Author Chris Wright
DAY TWO | I start the day with a classic ballast—sorry, breakfast—of Spanish eggs, served in a pan with spicy tomato sauce and chorizo. Less traditional is the place serving the dish: the swish, geometrically patterned eatery at Hotel Villa Magna. Egged up, I head out onto Paseo de la Castellana, passing a guy unloading a van singing “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” in the local language.
I walk between the legs of a large bronze frog and cut right into Chueca, a once-shoddy, now-gentrified area just north of Gran Vía that’s become a hotbed of fashion, food, music and gay culture. I twist and turn in the direction (I hope) of Plaza de Chueca, where I’m meeting the musician and DJ Miguel Barros—a.k.a. Pional—a local boy and one of European electronica’s rising stars.
It’s a lovely day, so we sit at an outdoor table and order a beer. “Not long ago, this area wasn’t 100 percent safe,” Miguel says. “Now it’s very chic, very expensive.” To prove his point, he nods in the direction of a middle-age woman sitting at the next table: “She’s a TV actress.” Seconds later, a willowy fashion designer approaches Miguel to say hello.
Miguel, like Leonor Watling, says Madrid is defined by its youthful, transient population. “I’m from here,” he says, “but almost everyone I know came from somewhere else.” And, like Leonor, he believes that this fact has lent the city an air of inclusiveness. “I was born here and you landed here,” she had told me, “but you belong to this city as much as I do.” Miguel puts it a little more plainly: “It’s a very welcoming town.”
I ask him to recommend a local nightspot, expecting a flickering techno club. “Toni 2,” he says. “It’s a weird piano bar with 20-year-old kids sitting next to 70-year-old women.” We make our way out of Chueca, pausing to look at the disco balls in the quirky electronics shop Lámparas Especiales. “I love this area,” Miguel says. “I feel at home.”
From here, it’s a few blocks northeast into the funky Malasaña district, a jumble of streets jammed with dive bars, organic cafés, pop-up art spaces and shops selling Sex Pistols throw pillows. It’s not as fastidiously fashionable as Chueca or La Latina, but the grunginess is part of the appeal.
This is where I’ll be having lunch, at La Bicicleta Café, a popular morning-after spot that combines raw, Brooklyny design with rustic cuisine. My Ploughman’s Brunch comes on a cutting board and involves pastrami, Spanish omelet, cheeses, pickles and bread. It’s a good, hearty meal, nicely (if incongruously) rounded off with a gin and tonic. I linger for a while, eavesdropping on two women sitting across the workbench, one of whom is trying to teach the other English. She walks to the shops … She werkess doo-a chops … Etc.
Next I’m off to neighboring Tribunal, another slightly grungy but increasingly trendy area. I’m here to see Museo de Historia, a former hospice that now serves as a city museum, and which has Madrid’s most outlandishly ornate entryway—an explosion of Baroque detailing that hardly seems real. Inside, Madrid’s story is told via architectural models of its landmarks, portraits of its erstwhile citizens and various household items. “Ooh,” says an Englishwoman, eyeing a case of decorative fans. “We’ll go shopping later,” her husband says. “Pick up a few.”
From here, I spend a while crisscrossing the bustling lanes of Malasaña, buying a few essentials along the way: a poster depicting a crudely drawn carton of leche (milk), an arty T-shirt bearing the cracked outline of a bull. Malasaña, as one local put it to me earlier, is “the multicolored heart of the city,” and there’s no doubting the place has character. And yet, when it comes to falling in love with a place, character will only go so far. Looks are always going to be important.
I head back down to Gran Vía, the city’s main architectural catwalk, a parade of Art Deco/Beaux-Arts/Moorish Revival masterpieces that incorporates some of Madrid’s most recognizable landmarks: the black dome of the Metropolis building, the Manhattan-esque facade of Edificio Telefónica. If you can ignore the fact that many of these buildings are occupied by fashion franchises, the spectacle approaches the sublime.
Near the western tip of Gran Vía is Parque del Oeste, where I wheezingly climb a hill to take a look at the Temple of Debod, a transplanted 2nd-century Egyptian relic featuring blocky stone arches and a squat, pillared sanctuary. This is also a great place to look out over the city, especially when, as now, the sun is going down, lending the buildings a shimmering violet hue. But man cannot live on sightseeing alone. It’s dinnertime.
I descend the hill and catch a cab to Punto MX, the first Mexican restaurant in Europe, I’m told, with a Michelin star. I enter the narrow, understated dining room and brace myself. My meal will consist of a five-course taster, and each course will be paired with a mezcal. In the upstairs bar (the “Mezcal Lab”) they stock 30 varieties of the drink, including one—God’s Eye—that goes for 150 euros a shot.
“Just leave the bottle on my table,” I quip.
“Ha ha,” the waiter responds, as though he hasn’t heard that one before.
Things get off to a promising start with the guacamole, which is prepared at the table and is the best I’ve ever had. The rest of the meal, too, is eye-wateringly good: sole and shrimp in a chili broth; a braised duck and green salsa enchilada; “bullock tacos, northern style”; charbroiled sea bream with pineapple pico de gallo; charred marrow, served in the bone. Finally—drumroll—I am invited to sample the God’s Eye. I’m no expert, but I can tell this is a quality drink, smooth but with a bite, a warm buzz that starts in your stomach and spreads through the veins.
“You like it?” the waiter asks.
“Welcome to Mexico!”