Author Chris Wright
DAY THREE | I wake up in the second hotel of my stay, the boutique-y Hotel Urban, bang in the center of town. Not far from my bed there’s a small sandstone bust, an 11th-century Khmer depiction of Buddha. (I have a vision of the departing pilferer: shampoo, bathrobe, vanity kit, priceless cultural artifact…). The hotel continues in a similar vein in the lobby, an achingly modern space with an illuminated white spine running up the atrium and a bunch of large New Guinean tribal sculptures placed throughout. The bar, closed right now, will later on buzz with Madrid’s beautiful people.
In order to avoid exploding, I’m skipping breakfast. Instead, I take a brisk 10-minute walk to Parque del Retiro, a 17th-century royal retreat that ranks among the world’s great urban parks. I enter via the northwest gate, near the ceremonial arch called the Puerta de Alcalá, and join a stream of strollers on the promenade. Then, having paused for a while to ogle the massive, elaborate monument to Alfonso XII, I cut down one of the pathways to Palacio de Cristal, a hothouse-like 19th-century structure that serves as an art exhibition hall. Before leaving the park, I have an alfresco coffee overlooking a statue of Satan. The garden of earthly delights.
Next, I take a cab to the district of Chamberi, just north of the park, where I find the creatively cluttered apartment of Belén Fernández-Vega. A local artist who transforms discarded objects—cuff links, belt buckles—into an elegant line of jewelry, Belén is part of the thriving creative community in the city. “There are lots of artistic people in Madrid,” she says. “It’s the light that attracts them, I think.”
There’s a place near Belén’s home that she wants me to see. A few minutes later we’re in a small herb garden, looking up at the brick Residencia Estudiantes, a building that hosts art exhibitions and literary events, and which once served as a salon for the likes of Salvador Dalí, Igor Stravinsky and H.G. Wells. “This is a very powerful place for me,” she says. “I feel very well when I come here.” She picks a sprig of rosemary and hands it to me. “Put it in your pocket.”
I say goodbye to Belén and head down to Restaurante Taberneros, a hole-in-the-wall eatery known for its selection of wines. I start the meal with salmorejo cordobés, the Córdoba take on gazpacho, topped with ham and eggs. A flurry of courses and paired wines later, the final dish arrives: callos, or tripe stew with crayfish, which is far better than a bowl of stomach and intestines has any right to be. I wash it down with another glass of very agreeable wine and head out into the afternoon sunshine.
I walk a few blocks west, aiming for the Royal Palace. Built in the heady days of the 18th century, the former royal residence is a glorious expression of imperial power, a blend of solemn bulk and manic detailing—but that doesn’t quite explain the huddled masses outside. “We are waiting for the king to come out,” explains an old lady. Oh.
King Felipe VI doesn’t come out, so I go in. Whoa. I move between rooms (there are 3,418 of them) trying to process the froth of gold, the frenzy of frescoes. Everything is either gilded or bejeweled or carved into the shape of a mythical beast. Were we allowed to visit the royal restrooms, I’d fully expect to find a golden sphinx hand sanitizer with emeralds for eyes. “We’re rich!” the place says. “Rich!”
Speaking of the high life, from here I’m off to nearby Parque del Oeste, and the terminal for Teleférico cable cars. Riding this 50-year-old system requires that I climb into a small box, which dangle-trundles for two miles into an expanse of urban countryside called Casa de Campo. At one point, I pass so close to an apartment building I could high-five the tenants. At the other side, I stand on a viewing deck for a bit, then take another box back, a speaker emitting the easy listening hits of Phil Collins.
Back on terra firma, I catch a cab to tony Serrano, where I’ll be experiencing one of Madrid’s more unusual dining locations. Set in a refurbished cinema, Platea amounts to the world’s fanciest food court (or at least the only one with six Michelin stars to its name), its swank eateries serving all manner of regional and international cuisine. I have six fantastically fresh oysters, gorgeously marbled lomo Ibérico ham, and the addictive cod fritters known as buñuelos de bacalao, along with several glasses of sweet vermouth.
This sets me up nicely for my visit to Corral de la Morería, a tiny flamenco club tucked away on a side street on the west side of town, whose previous guests have included everyone from Pablo Picasso to Jennifer Aniston. To the ululations of a backing group and a couple of furious guitars, a duo of dancers strut, bicker, flirt, stomp, clap and twirl. At times, the show becomes a frenzy, but there are also moments of tenderness, the mournful solos from the lady at the back. The only downside is that it has to end.
Outside, unable to find a cab, I jump onto a bus. In broken English, the driver explains that he can’t take me where I want to go, but this might not be a problem. “You can get off here,” he says, “or come with me and see Madrid.” So, I spend my last moments in town moving slowly along its narrow streets, the driver pointing at this and that, the rest of the passengers hardly paying attention, as if this sort of thing happens every day.
Wouldn’t that be something.