Six of us (three couples) had managed to foist our respective progeny on unsuspecting grandparents for a long weekend in the Spanish capital, which, aside from the obvious opportunity for R&R, unmolested by toddlers, was primarily aimed at distracting one of our group from the fact that he would turn 50 the following week. He was the only one who had been to Madrid. Intentionally, the destination was chosen to allow him to wallow in nostalgia: for him this was a return to his youth, when he’d summered in post-Franco ‘70s Madrid, with just a guitar and hopeless leftist ideals to sustain him, wishing it was the 1930s when he could’ve joined the international brigade in doing great romantic battle with the Falangists in the Casa de Campo.
We stayed in the centrally located De Las Letras, an unassuming boutique accommodation with sparse, chic rooms, a dimly lit spa, and a popular off-lobby bar; a favourite of the swish late-night set, given its urbane vibe, comfortable seating, panoramic view of the street outside and table service – the bartenders’ less-than-scientific-measures render your legs useless within a round. De Las Letras also has a promising roof-top bar, frustratingly shut during the coldest of the winter months.
We went in February, so we were unable to stare across the Mary Poppins rooftop-scape of stuccos, gables, spires and follies, laid out like a carpet of broken glass all the way to the foothills of the snow-capped Sierra Norte in the starlit distance. That was a shame because Madrid is a city of unique townhouse rooftops. We could merely glimpse this vista in the darkness rather than savour it over warming liqueurs. The inn is wedged between department stores on Gran Via, that undulating artery that bustles commerce through the city centre. Like much of old Madrid it is worth ambling along. A warning for jaywalkers: don’t. I was nearly nailed several times trying to cross Gran Via on a Saturday afternoon, and not in the good way.
Enough background. From this base, through meticulous planning and sheer luck, we did three tremendous things I would recommend to my worst enemy, the memory of which is likely to linger, well, at least until I’m fifty.
1. The culinary laurels of our weekend went to the La Favorita, which though only open for business since 2000, looks and feels every bit a century-old tradition. Set in an impressive urban mansion, it also houses the Opera Foundation of Navarra (the regional specialty of the restaurant) and the Opera Society of Madrid. The waiting staff double as the operatic entertainment for an appreciative audience; tables are arranged around a gargantuan grand piano (and highly skilled resident pianist) – almost as if it’s the former and not the latter that’s the restaurant’s raison d’être. One minute you’re munching through your dorada a la vizcaína, the next, the conversation shushes to a silence, pregnant with expectation, filled suddenly by the impressive vibrato of a near A-grade mezzo-soprano who meanders through the restaurant, throwing fiery glances at any attempts at conversation during her set. That’ll stop you farting in church, as my father would put it. And why would you anyway, when the quality of the singing from all five of the resident singers that evening was ethereal and the match of anything I’ve heard live in many a year. Oh, and the food’s not bad either.
2. While nursing hangovers over breakfast the following morning, we stumbled on a great idea to see the city. A walking tour with a twist, literally. South African-come-Scot Antony Bruce and his partner Marta Vazquez started Mad Segs in 2006 after falling in love with the Segway. I called it a fad, but after trying it out, I can see its point. Illegal for use on anything other than private land in the UK, requiring helmet, elbow and kneepads in the US, the ridiculously easy-to-use Segway benefits from Spain’s less draconian attitude to health and safety – you can just leap on and get going.
It takes 15 minutes of instruction, conducted in the suitably wide void of the Plaza de Espana. The hardest thing to get used to is the open-mouthed gawking of the locals, before Antony leads you off on a three-hour tour through all the highlights of the Centro barrio (Debod temple, La Almudena Cathedral, Puerto del Sol, Plaza Mayor, etc.), with a lunch stop crammed in – everything included in the price. We all agreed (nervous wives also) that this was the best idea of the weekend. We crammed loads in, avoided the crush of the open top bus. We wore wide-mouth frog grins in the process – even through crowded squares and narrow pavements. Admittedly, my wife sent a sartorially replete old gent sprawling when she collided with him, rounding a sharp turn, but it was in the first five minutes of the tour, and he was asking for it.
Seriously, with three settings of responsiveness, which only the tour guides can adjust, they only allow you up to the still-pedestrian level two for the last half of the tour. If they think you’re competent enough, Antony and Marta watching you like hawks, you’d have to be Matthew Hammond-irresponsible or a klutz of George Dubya proportions to injure yourself or others. The only downside is, you’re too busy enjoying yourself to listen to the informative rolling commentary from Antony you’d otherwise be engrossed in: “In 1547 blah blah.. cathedral this… Inquisition that…”
3. Not everyone who comes across these pages will be admirers of the beautiful game. But what a spectacle! The bullfight it is not, but on a crisp Sunday evening in the majesty of the monster 80,000- seat-stadium, we saw Real Madrid spank Real Vallodalid – La Liga’s resident tongue-twister – 7 to 0. It was every bit the brutal spectacle. I sourced three “category one” tickets for the inflated price of EUR120 each. We sat with the local nutters, who watched not one second of the game, satisfied with chanting incomprehensibilities to each other. I understood not a word, but from their expressions, I doubt they were nursery rhymes or shipping forecasts. Yet, not once did we feel it was something we wouldn’t feel comfortable taking the kids to. On the way to the match, we watched with trepidation as rival fans tried to out sing each other good naturedly in the cramped subway carriage. The trepidation was ours and ours alone, more like rugby than football.
For cheaper tickets, you can buy directly from the stadium box office several days in advance of the game: great if you can arrive early, or you have an obliging local contact. For "category one", temper your expectations. If our seats were on the fringes of category one, the view from category three would be like using Google Earth. Also beware of the strange seat numbering system and the insouciance of the wardens when you have a question. The birthday boy, a lifelong supporter of West Bromwich Albion, used to the glitz, was teary throughout. Our only grumble was the powerful overhead heating. We went dressed for the Russian Steppes and ended up walking away with perma-tan and orange afros. The psycho fans to our right bore naked torsos and tattoos. Wear a T-shirt underneath your layers. A pageant indeed, and no slaughtered bull at the end of it to put you off your dinner. Bonus.
Would I go back to Madrid? For the above alone, in a quickening heartbeat.