It never fails to delight. “Insolent and yet perfect” says Almodóvar. Sometimes it’s cosmopolitan and other times it’s dominated by tradition. The Spanish capital has a thousand different faces and presents whichever side it wants. Why? Because it can.
adrid is the most Spanish city of all, the best to live in, with the most accommodating people, and, month in, month out the best climate in the world”. So wrote Hemingway, who preferred to be called Ernest when he visited the city. It was over 50 years ago that the Nobel prize winner walked the streets of Madrid for the final time, but there’s something that still hasn’t changed for those who visit the city nowadays. Its spirit cries out in a way that even though you may have only just arrived, you’ll never be treated like a stranger.
Antonio was born in Andalusia but seems to have been directing the Madrid traffic from inside his taxi all his life. He told me a story about the Plaza Mayor, the heart of the Austrian dynasty: it has had ten names since it was built in 1617. He recommended that I wander around the Barrio de Las Letras district, which is a symbol of the Spanish Golden Age, but he gave me one essential address. Number 2 in Calle Cervantes, where the author of ‘Don Quijote’ lived and died.
A journey through art
Goya and Velázquez are the spoiled children of the Prado Museum, home to the largest collection of Spanish art in the world. Their nearby statues watch over ‘Las Meninas’ and ‘The Third of May 1808’. Behind them, almost hidden, is a Gothic church next to a modern red-brick cube that has a cloister inside. This is the museum’s extension designed by Rafael Moneo, who decided that the past and present should live together in peaceful harmony.
“Don’t they have the Guernica here?” asks a woman, standing in front of ‘The Three Graces’ by Rubens. Cold, colder… in fact the most famous piece by Pablo Picasso and his expression of anti-war sentiment is the jewel in the crown of the Reina Sofia Museum, which is the most visited art gallery in Spain today.
15,000 plants spread over an area of 460 square metres and reaching 24 metres high. This is the urban lifeblood of the city in the form of a vertical garden designed by the botanist Patrick Blanc for the facade of the CaixaForum Madrid arts centre, one of the few industrial buildings that have been preserved in Madrid.
Picasso himself declared, “art is not truth”. Neither is architecture. The Nouvel Building was designed for the extension of the Reina Sofia Museum by the French architect Jean Nouvel and its enormous roof colours Madrid’s skyline red.
The New York Times described the Matadero as “the most innovative and alternative arts centre in Madrid”: the performing arts, film, music, design, architecture and urban planning are all contained in this former industrial slaughterhouse and cattle market that has been converted into an alternative creative laboratory.
The spirit of the neighbourhood
Madrid doesn’t need to have a skyline like New York or Hong Kong, or build skyscrapers that border on megalomania. One look from the panoramic rooftop of the Círculo de Bellas Artes (a private cultural organization) is enough to appreciate that the city escapes formal architecture and tends instead towards a chaotic but attractive combination of the old and the new.
You can see this in the Malasaña area. Its narrow streets are full of people in skinny jeans and thick-rimmed glasses. Here, modern, multi-functional places like KikeKeller, a design shop by day and a cocktail bar by night, live side by side with more traditional down-to-earth places, informal pubs and bars. This is the result of gentrification, an urban regeneration phenomenon that has led to a rise in prices and to it being called the hipster area of the city.
Tourist guides talk about the Soho of Madrid when they refer to the Chueca district. The terrace of Room Mate Oscar Hotel next to Gran Vía, the El Huerto de Lucas organic produce market and the eco-friendly bakery La Magdalena de Proust are three good reasons why nobody dares to challenge its title as Madrid’s most cosmopolitan neighbourhood.
Casto Herrezuelo has been working behind the bar of El Palentino for 60 years and has seen the most diverse people parading into his bar. Even so, he’s still surprised when he sees that the queue to get in goes round the corner. This is one of the most traditional bars in the area, with fluorescent lighting on the ceiling and slot machines. A real legend in the neighbourhood.
In the heart of the Malasaña district, in the Plaza del 2 de Mayo, Malayerba has recovered the tradition of old barbershops, where men used to go to have their cut, get a shave and ‘put the world to rights’. Its interior design is the work of Guillermo García-Hoz who has managed to transport us straight back to the 1950s. However, seeing the beard of a twenty-something being trimmed while he’s glued to his iPhone brings us back to reality.
The aristocracy and the middle-class, a pristine shirt and tie, pearls and handbags that have no notion of global economic crises…the Salamanca district retains the label of the ‘nice part’ of Madrid and is home to the most expensive street in Spain: Calle Serrano. With a symmetrical design with clean lines that is very different from the rest of the city, it brings together all the luxury brands around the streets of Ortega y Gasset, Claudio Coello and Serrano. The narrow street Jorge Juan is more intimate and full of small boutiques, a key stop-off for any shopaholic. Il Tavolo Verde, the organic cafeteria and antique market run by Martina and Leo is the perfect place to have a break. Here you can have a coffee surrounded by 18th century furniture and order a Napoleon III studded sofa to take away.
Ancient yet modern, friendly yet rude. “You’ll only find this paradox in Madrid” wrote Hemingway. It’s in this duality. And if you don’t find it the first time, you’ll have to visit again to search for it.