BARCELONA may have the glamour as far as Spanish cities go but there's more to Madrid than meets the eye, discovers WILL METCALFE
THERE is an expectation among many that a capital city will be the most invigorating, most exciting part of a country with the biggest, brashest attractions – but that is not always the case.
For London, Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam this could be said to ring true but in Spain all eyes are on Catalonia, leaving the capital Madrid, in the heart of the desert, often overlooked.
That’s a shame, because with its gentle hills and meandering streets it makes a great location for a chilled break.
Best known for its football teams, Madrid is as much a city of food and drink as it is sport.
Visually it is a stunning city, the Gran Via – the cities main artery – is lined with multi-story architecture that points to a different Europe.
Where it’s southern European counterparts are packed with hustlers and tourist traps there is something about Madrid, stranded in the middle of the Spanish peninsula, that remains hassle free.
Even in its busiest squares, and in the packed shopping streets, you can wander worry free.
In terms of sights, sport vies with culture for centre stage.
North of the city sits the stunning Bernabeu – home to Real Madrid, the most successful football team in European club history – while their rivals and Spanish league champions Athletico Madrid play across the city at the Vicente Calderon with a somewhat more chequered history.
But really, it’s the culture that should draw you. With three of the best respected galleries in Spain within spitting distance of each other you are almost guaranteed to be wowed at every turn.
The Museo Del Prado holds masterpieces by Rubens, Goya and Rembrandt while the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum has Van Gogh, Salvador Dali and Picasso and the Reina Sophia hosts the heartbreaking homage to the brutality of the Spanish Civil War – Picasso’s Guernica.
One thing that is inescapable in Madrid is the history – from cathedrals painted by the Spanish master Goya, to hotels that have housed the likes of Picasso, Dali and Ernest Hemingway.
We stayed in a hotel on the edge of the so-called museum district, which itself played a cultural role as the one-time residence of Ernest Hemingway during one of his stints in the city.
The Innside Suecia is tucked down a quiet side street near the Banco de Espana and the Cafe del Art, a one-time training centre which counts Picasso among its alumni which is now a restaurant/bar with a brilliant view over a bustling city interchange at Gran Via.
Around two minutes walk from Gran Via, the hotel is in a prime location, not only for exploring the museums and galleries but for the bars of the lively Chuecha district.
It’s in the bars and the restaurants that you get the real feel of the city and luckily while the brusque reputation of the waiters goes before them it’s not always true – especially if you escape the brash metallic tourist areas and find yourself surrounded by throngs of Madrileños enjoying a post work glass of wine or four.
There is also a bit of revival going on around the food markets, including the sprawling Mercado San Miguel where you can chow down on doughnut-like churros or try something a little more exotic (barnacles, anyone?) to the more modern, and less busy, Mercado San Anton.
The markets are a brilliant place for people spotting but also a great place to sample some Spanish delicacies for just a few euros.
Once you’ve taken in the sights of the city there is always Parque del Retiro, just behind the Prado.
The park offers a retreat and boasts one of the few statues dedicated to the devil at 666m above sea level – but don’t let that put you off.
The dusty paths lead to a boating lake and if the sun is shining, which it almost certainly will be, it’s impossible to resist hiring a rowing boat.
Unlike other city breaks I’ve encountered there was something relaxing about Madrid – sitting in the city squares while pensioners idly took in a coffee and made small talk, or watching the scores of scrappy dogs being taken for a midday carry, the city is made for people spotters.
While Madrid is no shrinking violet, fans of Barcelona might notice the city isn’t as tourist orientated but this is no bad thing, as after even a few days you’ll feel like an adopted Madrileño.
Weather wise there isn’t a bad time to visit Madrid; if you go in summer you can expect temperatures in the high 30s and while winter does get a bit chilly you’re guaranteed to have an amazing time.