A Riot for the Senses
Enjoying the sights and flavours of the Spanish capital, Madrid
Article by Mark Nicholls Photograph by Cel Lisboa
It is the majestic beating heart of the city. The incomparable Plaza Mayor is the alluring focal point of Madrid for many visitors, drawing people in as they begin their exploration of the Spanish capital. With bars and cafes that line its sides and the historic apartments that overlook it, Plaza Mayor is a treasure to wander within before sitting in the sunshine with a coffee, watching street entertainers, or eaves-dropping the drifting tones of tour guides to absorb morsels of history.
Designed in 1619 by Juan Gómez de Mora, it has seen bull fights, religious ceremonies, royal weddings and the ritual condemnations of heretics during the Spanish Inquisition, followed by gory executions. But today, with the warm-textured apartments and wrought iron balconies, provide a place to sit, take time and absorb the atmosphere.
From Plaza Mayor, streets lead off in different directions, but our favourite was to head off toward Mercado de San Miguel, a veritable Aladdin’s cave of culinary delights. It is a fabulous indoor food market where you can find Spain’s finest cuisine; from tapas and paella, sausage, seafood, fresh fruit, breads, cheeses and gourmet snacks to wines and soft drinks. You can wander the aisle and graze, tasting food from various stalls; from olives to oysters, sit and take coffee or wine at a bar, or enjoy takeaway paella. And here, the choice is diverse: from paella negra, a black paella with squid, shrimp, pepper and given its unmistakeable pallor with squid ink; paella costra, a meat paella with chorizo, sausage, and chicken; paella de verdure, the vegetable paella with green beans, carrots, peas and pepper; and my favourite, the arraz abarda. This is the traditional seafood paella with squid, shrimp, red peppers, clams and peppers and was great value and wonderfully tasty at four euros for a small plate, or seven euros for a larger plate. If you love seafood, you’ll be in heaven with everything from mini crab rolls, langoustines, whelks, sea urchins, prawns, shrimp, and oysters on sale, and with or without a glass of Champagne.
We had earlier checked in to the stylish Barceló Emperatriz hotel in the Salamanca district and boarded the Madrid metro at Gregorio Maranon for Caello and the old part of the city. Central Madrid has many small squares, often with tables laid out with people eating tapas, and you’ll never be without somewhere to stop off for a casual lunch. There’ll be an accordion player or classical guitarist wandering among the diners but as a city of opera, you will also hear string quartets or sopranos singing on street corners and a baritone voice echoing down an alleyway.
The walk from Plaza Mayor also takes you down to the main Catholic cathedral, Santa María la Real de La Almudena, which is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Madrid. Construction only began in 1879 with the building consecrated by Pope John Paul II in 1993. Opposite the cathedral is the Palacio Real with some 2,800 rooms, where a tour of its interior will takes you past works by Goya, some 200-plus clocks and the main stairway, leading to the Halberdiers’ rooms and Throne Room.
Just across the park is the imposing Opera house but Madrid is more than its old heart with many wonderful museums and galleries such as The Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums. The Museo del Prado, for example, holds 7,000 paintings with around 1,500 on display including works by Velázquez, Goya, and art from across Europe. It hosts Goya’s El dos de mayo and El tres de mayo, Velázquez’s Las Meninas, as well as an outstanding collection of Flemish Art with paintings from Rubens, Bruegel, Rembrandt and Anton Van Dyck.
After exploring, we headed back to the five-star Barceló Emperatriz, which had opened in January 2016 in the 19th century building and subtly blends in with the neighbouring small boutiques, embassies and elegant streets close to the tree-lined Paseo de la Castellana promenade. It is a hotel inspired by the life of Eugenia de Montijo, the wife of Napoleon III and the last Spanish empress and shades of violet – her favourite colour – dominate the decor.
With 146 rooms fitted and decorated with avant-garde furniture, there are also two suites, named after Napoleon and Eugenia, plus a bar and roof terrace with small pool and a gym. For those who revelled in the cuisine of the Mercado de San Miguel, the hotel’s Mutis restaurant offers an exquisite buffet breakfast and a select dinner menu reflective of the seasons. We enjoyed the chargrilled octopus with creamy avocado and Pico de Gallo sauce, the foie terrine with dried fruit tiles, goat’s cheese and sun-dried tomato ravioli with a walnut cream and the veal fillet steak with courgette tagliatelle.
The Emperatriz has also created its own series of bespoke guides for guests, led by experts passionate in their specific areas of interest. Following carefully chosen routes, they take in themes of food; parks, flowers and gardens, lifestyle; and must-see places. Madrid is a city to savour – head off on your own, or follow the quirks of a guidebook that perhaps offers an alternative perspective of the Spanish capital. And for certain, there will be much to discover, as well as a mouth-watering array of culinary tastes and flavours of the city to enjoy as you wander.
Mark and Sharon Nicholls stayed at the Barceló Emperatriz, Calle Lopez de Hoyos, 4 (Junto al Paseo de la Castellana) MADRID 28006, / 0034 913 42 24 90 / www.barcelo.com/en-gb/hotels/spain/madrid/barcelo-emperatriz/