On entering the lobby of The Westin Palace Hotel, I look entranced at the Rotunda, the stained glass ceiling of the historic hotel that has hosted celebrities down the ages from the genius artist Salvador Dali to the mysterious spy Mata Hari. Aysha Maldonado, an employee of the hotel, tells me about how a room at the Westin was painted by the creative Dali and was washed by the maid the next day. If only she had known the worth of that sketch!
Culinary tourism being part of the city’s charm, we stop at the famed restaurant, La Trucha, close to the Spanish theatre, where actors with their manuscripts used to be a common sight. Ceramic plates line the walls at the historic restaurant and huge pieces of jamon (cured ham) hang from the ceiling. The owner makes sure we are plied with platters of fried pimento chillies, deep fried pieces of eggplant, jamon, swordfish with vinegar and garlic and the omnipresent tortillas with egg and potatoes. The popular drink among our band of journalists is the blood red Sangria named after the Spanish word for blood “sangre.” It’s a refreshing mix of red wine, some orange liqueur, slices of citrus, some brown sugar and a splash of soda.
El Neru, recommended on Trip Advisor, is a grungy bar with discarded tissues and olive pits on the floor. This building used to be a printing press and today it is well known for its “filter coffee” style of pouring cider. We feast on blue cheese on toast and black sausage along with apple cider.
Our sweet tooth leads us to the elegant wrought iron and wooden Mercado de San Miguel, an old covered market which was bought by private investors and converted into an Art Nouveau styled gourmet food market. With stalls selling a wide range of food and drinks from fried almonds and traditional sweets like rosquillas (doughnuts) and Bolitas de coco (a coconut confection) to platters of seafood and ham, this is a vibrant space that remains open till 2 a.m. on weekends. All over town I see branches of Museo Del Jamon—counters with ham dangling from the ceiling alongside stalls selling deep fried churros dipped in chocolate.
We explore the historical center of the city—the Puerto de Sol, named after the symbol of the sun which used to decorate the city wall in the 15th century. Today it’s surrounded by shops and buildings and is the preferred destination for protests and rallies.
I drive along the Gran Via, one of Madrid’s most majestic roads, which was a controversial project in the 1920s as over 300 old buildings in the old quarter of the city had to be demolished. It was Madrid’s move to introduce “modern architecture” and build its first skyscrapers. Today this frenetic area is filled with historic art nouveau theatres and cinemas as well as cafes, taverns and shops. I see the winged goddess Victoria and bronze wreaths on top of the iconic Metropolis building. This building was designed by French architects, Jules and Raymond Février.
Art follows architecture. I satisfy my inner muse at the Prado museum, one of the world’s top five museums, with its classics by artists like El Greco, Goya and Velasquez, the result of the relationship that Spanish kings had over the centuries with their court painters. With a $238-million extension by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, it’s now got a new cafe and exhibition space.
The deaf and disillusioned artist, Goya painted murals on the walls of his home with nightmarish scenes, never meant to be seen by others. These “black paintings” as they are called are filled with demonic images including one of the God Saturn feasting on his son. I gaze at the sheer eroticism of the “naked Maja” who reclines provocatively in nude splendor. Those days painting a nude was a great risk and the crafty Goya concealed his deed by painting a “clothed Maja” which was hung in front of the nude and controlled by a mechanical device! Eventually, these paintings led to his being accused of obscenity during the Spanish Inquisition, and he lost his job as the royal painter.
Our guide tells us that he probably used several models, one for the body and another for the face and therefore has almost no neck. Some even say that this was Goya’s ideal woman and he had no model at all.
The 300 acre Retiro Park, situated behind the Prado museum, one of the widely visited parks in Madrid is a great spot to rest our eyes and minds. This marvellous green space is filled with joggers, skateboarders, people walking their dogs and even puppet shows. This was once the domain of royalty till good king Charles III decided to allow commoners.
Madrid is “Hemingway city,” so we follow the author’s trail from the Cerveceria Alemana, a 1904 beer hall to the La Venencia, a bar where he would come to get news from Republican soldiers during the civil war and which became fodder for his novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” We have lunch at Botin, the oldest working restaurant in the world, famed for its suckling pig dishes cooked in a 18th century tile oven (baby pigs that drink mother’s milk for 21 days and then end up being roasted in special ovens). The restaurant has a cellar in rough stone predating the building, colorful tiles and signatures of the famous guests who have visited the restaurant on the wall—Hollywood celebrities, politicians and even a Hemingway corner. Legends abound about the restaurant. The most popular one being that the artist Goya worked as a dishwasher here and that Hemingway tried to learn how to make paella in this kitchen! “We lunched upstairs at Botin’s. Indeed, it is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast young suckling pig and drank rioja alta. Brett did not eat much. She never ate much. I ate a very big meal and drank three bottles of rioja alta,” says an excerpt from the iconic Hemingway book “The Sun Also Rises.”
Our cultural high is at La Carboneras, a tablao or flamenco bar decorated in a modern black and red theme, with an intimate feel. We are mesmerised by the hand clapping, the rhythmic movements and the emotion and energy of the moment. Flamenco, which has its roots in the gypsy culture of Andalucía, is supposed to have Indian and North African influences as well. The best for the last: I chance upon something very unusual as I take a hop-on hop-off tour—an authentic Egyptian temple dedicated to the goddess Isis, dating back to 200 BC which was gifted by the Egyptian government when the temples were at risk of flooding due to the construction of the Aswan dam. Laid out in a plaza with surrounding gardens, the golden glow of the temple against the red dusk skyline of the city is incredibly magical.
Kalpana Sunder is a Japanese language specialist and travel writer based in Chennai.