The magic in Madrid
While the song Y Viva Espana may be considered a bit tacky nowadays, the country that inspired it certainly isn't. Anne Marie Scanlon is entranced
DURING my childhood Spain became a popular holiday destination for the Irish, and within a few years the land was blighted with Spanish dancer figurines, cheap castanets and pictures of bullfighters. Worse again, Y Viva Espana was routinely belted out by tourists en route to the airport.
As any decent armchair psychologist will tell you, childhood experiences form our adult opinions, and I never had any desire to visit Spain. (I thought the sitcom Benidorm was a fly-on- the-wall documentary). Pure snobbery. My, how a few days in Madrid showed me just how ill-formed my ideas were.
This stunning city is crammed with wonderful museums, prestigious galleries, amazing restaurants, great shops and fantastic hotels. Just walking through the city and admiring the architecture is a treat, and nowhere more so than the Gran Via, Madrid's most acclaimed street, which is celebrating its centenary this year and is a showcase for early 20th-Century Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture.
I stayed at the Vincci Capitol, a four-star hotel located in the landmark Art Deco Capitol building, constructed in 1930, which is perfectly situated for both shopping and sightseeing,, as it is right in the heart of the city. From the hotel, I could walk to most of Madrid's major attractions (the Prado was only a half an hour away).
Although the subway was right on my doorstep, and very easy to negotiate, I stayed above ground because this is a city best experienced on foot. The buildings are spectacular, and you cannot walk more than a few steps without encountering sculptures, both classical and modern.
It's rare, as an adult, to have a moment of pure wonderment, a second when you look at something and think you are witnessing magic. In the recently reopened Museum of Romanticism, I had such a moment. The museum is essentially a record of middle-class Spanish life in the 19th Century. In one room I came across a large doll's house, and when I looked in the window I let out an involuntary gasp of pure delight as I saw small animated figures having a meal. In another room a couple danced, and in the kitchen two poor, exhausted-looking girls prepared a meal.
It didn't take long to work out the technicalities, but even knowing how the trick was done did little to diminish the absolute joy I felt. I wasn't the only one: I watched several people (the place is extremely popular, with queues outside even on a wet Wednesday morning) utterly transfixed by the same scenes.
While Madrid is well known for its classical art galleries, there are plenty of modern venues too. To be honest, I only have to hear the word "installation" and I immediately think "arse". Yet at the Matadero, a new arts space located in the former city slaughterhouse, I quite literally had to be dragged away from Quadratura, a mesmerising light installation by Pablo Valbuena.
You cannot visit Madrid without paying homage to Picasso's Guernica, which is housed, along with many other examples of Cubism, in the Reina Sofia museum.
Just around the corner, the CaixaForum also houses a fine collection of modern art. The building itself, a former power station, is a prime example of postmodernism. In front of CaixaForum there's a vertical garden growing on the side of a building, designed by French botanist Patrick Blanc, which really is a must-see.
For food lovers there are many restaurants where you can sample the local cuisine. At La Tasquita de Enfrente the food is fresh (practically leaping or swimming around on the plate) and unpretentious. The signs on the toilet doors in this establishment are essential viewing, as they are anatomically correct. Despite this, one elderly gentleman managed to follow me into the ladies. I don't know which of us was more embarrassed when I had to show him the "bits" that denoted the gents.
If you like your grub a bit fancy, there are two places where your expectations will be surpassed. Sightseeing and fine dining are easily combined at La Terraza del Casino, which boasts two fully deserved Michelin stars. The food is spectacular, as are the views over the city from the rooftop dining room.
I've always steered clear of venison but it looked far too good to resist and, despite my guilt at eating Bambi, I enjoyed every mouthful. Book well in advance as currently there is a three-week waiting list for a table. Also, gentlemen are required to wear a jacket -- which the restaurant can supply if needs be. It sounds terribly stuffy and formal, but the food, apart from being ridiculously delicious, is a lot of fun. Many of the dishes on the menu follow the template popularised by Heston Blumenthal, where food is disguised to look like something else.
El Club Allard is another restaurant that prides itself on producing amazing dishes which both look and taste exquisite. I cannot even begin to describe my excitement levels when I saw that they served petit fours in the form of a miniature sand garden (complete with rake) and even the sand was edible.
In between sampling the cuisine and the art, I managed to find time to hit the shops. Apart from Zara, Spain has a number of well-known chain stores including my brand-new favourite, Desigual. El Corte Ingles department store is right beside the Vincci Capitol and the view from the terrace restaurant is stunning. (You can also get a three-course lunch for €12, which is pretty good value by any standards.)
On the opposite side of Gran Via, in the Triball and Fuencarral areas, there are a number of funky boutiques which sell a variety of clothes and accessories but there wasn't a flouncy dress or a castanet in sight.