Friday 20 April 2018

Madrid: Football, food and fabulous art

Spanish City Breaks

Capital life: The Plaza Mayor in Madrid, a city of many attractions, including a vibrant nightlife
Capital life: The Plaza Mayor in Madrid, a city of many attractions, including a vibrant nightlife
Salud!:Karl, left, and Jamie enjoy a drink in a sherry bar

Jamie Blake Knox

When I told my girlfriend Caoimhe that I'd been invited for a "lads weekend" with some old school friends, she recoiled in horror.

Perhaps, she imagined something similar to the Inbetweeners in Torremolinos. In reality, our plans were much more modest. The four of us - myself, Karl Alvin Peters, Mark Kenny and Reggie Lyons - were heading to Madrid to watch a football match. We all support different teams, so we wanted to see a first-class team play in a game which would not involve us personally in the competition. That was what led us to a city that has an exceptionally rich and romantic footballing tradition: Madrid.

We were staying in a spacious and light apartment off the Calle del Limon. Our balcony looked out onto a quiet tree-lined plaza - a square built to commemorate an uprising against Spain's occupation by Napoleon's Grande Armee in 1808. The uprising was ruthlessly suppressed by the French, but that led, in turn, to the War of Spanish Independence. Nowadays, the district is famed for its vibrant nightlife, and its streets are crammed with bohemian cafes, fashion boutiques, butchers, patisseries and vintage shops.

Hungry and in search of some tapas, we headed out on our first night to the remarkable wrought-iron-and-glass Mercado de San Miguel. After six-years of painstaking restoration work, this historic venue finally reopened in 2009, and has quickly re-established itself as one of the liveliest night spots in the city. While the prices are slightly higher here than elsewhere in Madrid, they are still very reasonable. Like most Spanish cities, Madrid operates on an entirely different timescale to Dublin. It was nearly midnight when we arrived at the Mercado, but all of the stalls were still open and buzzing with activity. As we walked through the district, there seemed to be a huge variety of fresh seafood on display: oysters, monkfish, tuna, caviar and stuffed sea urchins. There were also stalls selling traditional tapas that offered a range of culinary delights, such as banderillas - small skewers of olives, peppers, cucumbers and pickled onions - and gambas al ajillo, succulent garlic prawns. We washed it all down with some of the dry house vermouth, and plenty of crisp local caña, or small beers.

It was only a short stumble to La Latina - one of Madrid's oldest and most iconic neighbourhoods. The Islamic citadel inside the city walls was located here, and it has retained some of its medieval character, with narrow winding streets interrupted by large squares. The neo-Classical Royal Basilica of San Francisco el Grande is illuminated at night, and presents a striking spectacle. It once functioned as Spain's National pantheon, where the remains of the nation's most famous artists and politicians were laid to rest. The Basilica also contains a number of important paintings by Francisco Goya and Zurbarán.

I have visited Parma before, and I didn't think it was possible to find anywhere in the world where so much of the local cuisine involves pork dishes, but I was wrong. Everywhere you walk in La Latina, there is the unmistakable aroma of Jamon iberico.

La Venencia is something of an institution in Madrid. It is an intimate tobacco-stained cavern, where the plaster is slowly pealing from the walls. The only decoration - aside from a few faded posters of matadors - are a number of handsome antique Sherry casks. Not surprisingly, the only tipple on offer is a glass of dry sherry, drawn straight from the barrel. The tapas are simple, but perfectly balanced mojama - salt-cured tuna, local cheese, and, of course, some delicious sliced-to-order Jamon iberico. The proprietors may seem quite eccentric, but they are clearly passionate about sherry. It is hard not be impressed by the level of professional commitment: tipping is actively discouraged; photography is strictly forbidden; and - trust me - it is best not to disturb the sleep of Koschka, the resident Russian blue mouser. You should also be warned that sherry is both cheaper and stronger than wine, and has a habit of creeping up on the unwary.

We all felt slightly the worse for wear the next morning, and stumbled outside for a late brunch at the Taberna de Abajo. I had patatas bravas, with runny fried eggs and chorizo. It was the perfect antidote to the excesses of the night before. Emboldened, we slowly but steadily made our way to the Atocha train station. Dating from the 1890s this ornate steel, glass and brick beauty is so vast that it now houses a botanical gardens with over 7,000 plants and countless terrapins.

Salud!:Karl, left, and Jamie enjoy a drink in a sherry bar
Salud!:Karl, left, and Jamie enjoy a drink in a sherry bar

It was only a short walk from there to what is now known as the Golden Triangle of Art: a mind-blowing collection of extraordinary galleries which includes the Prado, The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and the El Museo de arte Thyssen-Bornemisza. In terms of quality and sheer quantity, these galleries are a match for any city in the world. Unfortunately, all this wonderful art comes at a considerable cost: in that it attracts droves and droves of tourists. Among its many treasures, the Prado has Goya's remarkable Black Paintings. Contemplating these eerily intense and haunting works - which reflect Goya's inner turmoil during the Peninsular War, his fear of insanity and his increasing bleak outlook on humanity - while badly hungover proved too much for some of our small crew. I managed to persuade them to follow me to the Reina Sofía, which houses Picasso's Guernica along with a host of other seminal works by Dali, Miro, Braque, Ernst and Philip Guston. I would have liked to have lingered and explored this remarkable collection, but time was against us. The kick-off was looming, and my friends' patience with me was running low.

We became part of an immense tidal wave of fans, inexorably moving towards the iconic Vicente Calderon stadium. On the way, I was shocked to come across a small but vociferous group of fans, chanting right-wing slogans and giving the Fascist salute. It was a stark reminder of the bitter legacy of Franco to contemporary Spain. It may seem somewhat ironic that some of his supporters can still be found in a city that Il Generalissimo had asked the German Luftwaffe to bomb into submission. However, in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, Franco adopted Real Madrid as his favoured team, and exploited its rivalry with Barcelona in order to undermine the cause of Catalan independence.

We had come to watch a local derby between Real Madrid and their distinctly less glamorous rivals Atletico Madrid. The atmosphere was frenzied. Needless to say, we were cheering on the underdogs who have only a fraction of the spending power of their star-studded neighbours, whose players include the multi-millionaire metrosexual Cristiano Ronaldo. It was the same Ronaldo who crushed Atletico's dreams of a rare victory that night. We were briefly privileged to be able to share in the collective misery of the Atletico fans.

After the match was over, we headed back to La Latina. We had heard glowing reports of Bar Santurce. However, our first impressions were not promising, but appearances can be deceptive; its seafood tapas were delicious. We devoured countless sardines straight-off-the-grill, fried calamares and fried Pimentos de Patrones all accompanied by crisp beers and what seemed like fishbowl sized gins.

There was just time the next day before our flight to visit the Rastro Flea Market. Usually I avoid flea markets, but this is among the largest and oldest of its kind in Europe. Aside from the usual tourist tat, you can buy almost anything here from fine leather boots to kitsch 17th-century religious art.

Naturally, there is much more to Madrid than its soccer teams. In the few days that I spent there, I felt that I had only scratched the surface of all that this fabulous city has to offer. It is full of restaurants, bars, theatres, galleries and shops, which I didn't get a chance to visit. I am already looking forward to returning in the not too distant future, and who knows next time I might even bring my girlfriend with me.

Getting there

See and

Aer Lingus -

Galleries: Prado -

El Museo de arte Thyssen-Bornemisza -

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía -

Taberna de Abajo, Mercado de San Miguel -

La Venencia, Bayres Beef -

Atletico Madrid -

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