Thursday, 10 January 2008
There is something about landing on Spanish soil that makes me deeply happy. It is hard to be gloomy even momentarily in a country where you start every day at the humane hour of eleven with crisp churros accompanied by a hot chocolate so thick you could stand a spoon in it.
To me this is a country of indulgence, relaxation and the most intoxicatingly rich culture I have ever encountered. After my visit to Barcelona earlier this year I was firmly convinced I could happily spend a lifetime in Spain and even a few days in Madrid on this trip were enough to lift the spirits and leave me smiling for weeks.
Perhaps unsurprisingly my holidays are structured around gastronomic delights. After the consumption of the aforementioned pastries are the best hours for some leisurely sight seeing before the customary lunch hour at 3pm. No visit to Madrid would be complete without a morning at the Museo del Prado. With the most exceptional collection of masterpieces, it is impossible not to be moved. Squares such as Plaza Mayor have a delightfully rich atmosphere but the overpriced meals in tourist haunts dotted around them are best avoided.
It's a joy just to wander and you can easily stroll from the Prado to the Palace at the other end of town. Surprisingly the historic quarter of Madrid is sufficiently quaint and small that within hours the geography seems familiar. Although Barcelona will always be my first and greatest love, I adored Madrid. Its grand architecture and majestic monuments stand in contradiction to the slower pace and quieter nightlife.
Of course all that walking will leave you famished but fortunately sustenance is to be found in the laneways surrounding Calle de Postas. Unpretentious cervecerias or beer bars are filled with the gentlemen of Madrid enjoying a drink and a cigarette. A plate of jamon and a cold frothy beer will only set you back a few euros and is almost customary at around 1pm. If you adore charcuterie as much as we do you’ll struggle to go past the chain known as Museo del Jamon dotted around town. Lined with deli counters packed with jamon, cheeses and pastries surrounding a bar where shoppers, tourists and locals stop for a beer and plate of chorizo, it’s the type of food chain I wish we had back home.
If you’re ready to sit down to lunch at 3pm and already in the area it is hard to go past Restaurante Rodriguez on Calle de San Cristobal, steps away from Calle de Postas. With three course lunches starting at around ten euros including wine and coffee, you would be hard pressed to find better value for money. The restaurant is filled with Spanish families raucously devouring platters of paella and finishing with a light flan or some seasonal fruit. Grandparents dish up portions of grilled whole fish while grandchildren joyously run around the table. It isn’t hard to understand that you’ll inevitably require a siesta after dining at this establishment but you won’t be alone as the city winds down for the late afternoon hours. Given the Spanish affinity for late dinners, it’s only fitting you prepare yourself for a long night.
Refreshed and ready to take on the town, an excellent place to start is Las Huertas. This street of cervecerias and tapas bars was recommended to me by a friend with a wonderful knowledge of food and drink and a better understanding of the Spanish language than I could ever wish for. When in Spain we have always tended to graze on tapas rather than sitting down to a heavy meal in the evening. I adore this approach not only because you get to experience a wider assortment of food but because you get to meet more wonderful people. A champagne and garlic prawns here, sangria and octopus salad there with cold beer and a terracotta dish of spicy chorizo to finish perhaps.
You will get countless recommendations about where to find the best cuisine from locals, perhaps that perfect custard filled pastry to seek out tomorrow morning. The willingness of the Spanish people to share stories about their own lives and the secrets of their cities is what draws me back to this place. Not only is it sensationally beautiful and filled with the most wonderful food, history and culture but the sort of people you would like to spend your life surrounded by. As we wander home in the early hours it’s all too easy to start planning a move to this wonderful country so that every day can be so exciting and perfect.