Why Madrid is the Real deal - a flying city break in the Spanish capital
Madrid more than merits a visit, writes Tom Sweeney. Here are his picks of what to see and do...
It’s a Wednesday night, and I’m in the crowd pouring out of the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, where Real Madrid have just drawn 1-1 with Athletic Bilbao.
Only just drawn — the visitors went ahead in the 14th minute, and it wasn’t until the 87th that Cristiano Ronaldo struck to salvage a La Liga point.
My watch shows 11pm — time for an early dinner.
Early? Well, yes. In a city where lunch often lasts beyond four o’clock, the evening meal rarely starts before half-past nine.
I hop on the Metro to Plaza España, where I’m staying in the recently opened five-star VP Design Hotel and where all the nearby bars are bunged with disappointed Real fans.
The best lager in Spain is Madrid brew Mahou. In the cafe I choose, it’s flowing faster than the fountain in the plaza — and nearly as quickly as the trays of tapas behind the glass on the counter are emptying.
When I get the bill at 1.30am, the boss asks for €16 — for four beers and three generous plates of Serrano ham, Manchego cheese and potato omelette (in tourist trap Plaza Mayor, which is nothing special, that would have cost €25).
The VP Design serves breakfast until 11am, which is a much-appreciated mercy. However, I foolishly mention the Lisbon Lions to another late riser, a Real supporter from out of town, who quizzes me relentlessly. When I flee into the plaza an hour later, it’s already 24°C — away from the prying fan, into the fire.
Around the corner is the Royal Palace, worth seeing, but only from the outside. Spend the €10 entrance fee instead on a CD of classical and movie theme-tune favourites played on 40-odd drinks glasses by the busker at the main entrance. He’s brilliant, as are most of the city’s street musicians.
None of Madrid’s umpteen world-class visitor attractions are more than half-an-hour’s walk from La Puerta del Sol, the heart of the city, where I spot a chap dressed as Charlie Chaplin.
A sign in front of him, with a little tricolour attached, reads: “English spoken here by man who left Cork 65 years ago.”
This is former builder Tony O’Connor, from Gurranabraher, who made a million and then lost the lot a decade ago when the construction boom went bust.
Tony, who isn’t in the best of health, sits in the same spot every day, hoping to make a few bob from passing tourists.
“I can’t compete with those young guys over there with their acrobatics,” he says. “They make a decent living. I’m lucky to collect maybe €400 a month in the winter, but I can make around €1,400 in the summer.”
Above the fancy patisserie behind Tony is the third-floor luxury apartment that he and his wife had to sell when it all went wrong. If it were to come on the market now, it would be with a price tag of at least €600,000.
“Ah, well, that’s life,” says Tony, who breaks off to direct an English couple to Madrid’s top tourist attraction.
The Prado Museum (€15 admission) is a 15-minute stroll down Calle San Jeronimo, past the daily demonstration outside parliament, and houses one of the most remarkable art collections in the world, including famed works by El Greco, Goya and Velazquez.
It also has one of the best air-conditioning systems, which is a life-saver in July and August when afternoon temperatures can soar to 35°C.
Next door is the Royal Botanic Gardens (€4), in glorious bloom year-round and worth a wander before the short walk to the Reina Sofia Museum (€8), where the star is Picasso’s remarkable painting, Guernica.
Measuring 7.8 by 3.5 metres and completed in black, white and grey oils on canvas, it was produced (in a mere six weeks) in response to the aerial bombing by Nazi and Italian warplanes of the eponymous Basque village during the Spanish Civil War in April 1937.
Art experts consider it the most powerful anti-war painting of all time. When it was first put on display, in the Prado in 1981, it was behind bulletproof glass — Civil War wounds were still raw for many people, and it was feared it would be vandalised.
Madrid is full of parks, and the daddy of them all is the Parque del Buen Retiro (Pleasant Retreat), which is close to the Prado. It’s often called “the green lungs of the capital”, but that doesn’t go down too well with those whose stomachs are easily turned.
The centrepiece is the artificial lake, which is overlooked by the spectacular colonnaded monument to King Alfonso XII. When I drop by on Thursday afternoon, every one of the dozens of rowing boats for hire is out on the water.
A few hours later, as I stroll past packed terraces back towards Plaza España, it looks like everyone is out on the beer, but behaving impeccably — Madrid has made it clear it won’t tolerate the marauding stag and hen parties that have left so many Barcelona citizens and business owners feeling bitter.
Back at the VP Design, all is sweetness and fading light. From the terrace of the 12th-floor Ginkgo Sky Bar and restaurant, I enjoy 360-degree views taking in the Royal Palace and the plaza, with its monument to Miguel de Cervantes, who gave us nutty Don Quijote and his faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza.
At 9.26pm, the sun dips out of sight behind the distant mountains. Time for an early dinner.
Five-star Fact File
The 214-room VP Plaza España Design 5*, which opened last month, is in the heart of Madrid. The 12th floor of the 17-floor property is set to become a new social hub, thanks to the Ginkgo Sky Bar and restaurant. There’s a 24-hour gym, spa and wellness centre, lobby bar and buffet restaurant.
As if that weren’t enough, the staff are out of this world. The hotel is the fifth property for VP Hoteles joining VP Jardín Metropolitano, VP Jardín de Recoletas, VP el Madroño and VP Jardín de Tres Cantos, all in Madrid.
Double standard rooms at the VP Plaza España Design 5* start from €180 on a room-only basis. See plazaespana-hotel.com for more.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) fly daily from Dublin to Madrid. The yellow airport express bus shuttles between Madrid Terminal 1 and Plaza Cibeles (30 minutes, €5 one way).