My brilliant year: seven reasons why I fell in love with Madrid
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
This article is part of a new guide to Madrid from FT Globetrotter
One dark evening during an endless winter lockdown in Paris, my wife and kids and I decided we needed an adventure. We agreed to go and spend a school year in Madrid. We would improve our Spanish (mine being quite primitive), enjoy the sun and discover a new city.
Like many Europeans, we barely knew Madrid. The city is out on a limb on the edge of western Europe, and tends to make a bad first impression because of the ugly avenues that you barrel through coming in from the airport. But our year in Madrid shot by. The city enchanted me. Here are some of my favourite things about one of Europe’s most delightful capitals.
After spending nearly 20 years in Paris, almost any other city is bound to seem friendly, but I found Madrileños particularly informal and easy-going. My favourite phrase, designed to smooth over any disagreement or mix-up, is “No pasa nada”: literally, “Nothing is happening” or roughly, “Don’t worry, this isn’t a big deal.” Everyday language is warm: people tend to use the familiar tú rather than the formal usted, and a common greeting for a friend or acquaintance is “Hola, guapo/guapa” (“Hello handsome/pretty”). Un abrazo (a hug) is a perfectly normal sign-off to an email to someone you might have met once or twice.
It’s also easy being a newcomer in a city where so many people come from elsewhere in Spain or from Latin America. Waves of immigration this century have turned what was quite an insular capital into something more cosmopolitan. Madrid now rivals Miami for the title of capital of the Spanish-speaking world.
Having spent too much of my life in northern Europe, I hadn’t realised how happy the sun would make me. Madrid is on a plateau, over 600 metres above sea level, and often a single winter’s day has two climates: frosty, pink-skied mornings, followed by balmy afternoons. Sometimes, having lunch outside in January and February, I’d think, “This is the best place I’ve ever lived.”
The structure of the day
On average, Madrileños wake up blessedly later than Parisians or Londoners. Lunch is at 2pm or 3pm, and tends to be enough to carry you through the evening, allowing you to make do with a light supper at 9pm or 10pm. In periods when I stuck to this rhythm, I actually managed to lose weight.
Of course there are some excellent restaurants in Madrid, but what I treasure here isn’t so much the quality of the food. Many places serve mediocre fare, which may be inevitable in an arid region that could never develop much of an indigenous cuisine around vegetables or grazing animals.
It is more the locations and the relaxed vibe that make eating here so wonderful. In between Madrid’s car-ridden main drags are gorgeous and increasingly pedestrianised squares and side-streets. I had memorable breakfasts at the Federal Café on the Plaza del Conde de Barajas, a breathtaking medieval square in the La Latina neighbourhood. I often wondered why it wasn’t entirely surrounded by hotels and film crews. (Admittedly, the café gets packed on weekends.)
The Plaza de Olavide is a tree-lined octagonal square, and though its restaurants are mediocre, it’s the perfect spot for coffee, cañas (small draught beers) or wine in the sun. Like so many Spanish squares, it has a children’s playground situated strategically between the cafés — one of those little things that make family life do-able.
The elegant, wood-panelled Bar Cock — a favourite of the artist Francis Bacon, who died and was cremated in his beloved Madrid — is the place for old-fashioned cocktails. Sitting here, you feel transported back to the 1920s, in a good way.
Getting to the Azotea del Círculo, the rooftop restaurant at the Círculo de Bellas Artes private cultural centre, involves a somewhat Soviet procedure. You generally need to book a table in advance, then pick up a ticket at ground-floor reception, before taking a beaten-up little lift to the seventh floor — but it all helps make the rooftop one of Madrid’s hidden treasures.
Here you can eat perfectly decently in the sun with unbeatable views over the city. You see how low-slung Madrid was until this century, when the skyscrapers known as the “five towers” went up on Real Madrid football club’s former training ground in the north of the city — an area now transforming into an almost Chinese-style boomtown. Further north still lurk the mountains, a favourite weekend destination for Madrileños.
I like the elegant Retiro, but the Casa de Campo on the south-western edge of town became my family’s favourite weekend escape. We went there to play tennis, then eat shellfish on the terrace of one of the lakeside restaurants. The park’s Arcadian tranquillity belies the fact that it was one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of the Civil War, as witness the odd surviving concrete bunker.
There may be no city on earth where it’s easier to get tickets for high-quality football. Living four metro stops from Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu stadium, I regularly attended matches with a friend who’s a club member. Getting in is easy for Madrid’s matches against smaller clubs. My friend would regularly buy us tickets for about €35 each on the club website, then use his local nous to lead us to better seats than we’d paid for. That’s usually do-able, as the 90,000-seater stadium rarely fills up.
Essential to these outings is the prematch previa (preceding) with a group of friends in one of the restaurants in the business neighbourhood around the ground. The Taberna de Daniela, known for its cocido madrileño (a huge plate of meat, beans and vegetables in soup) is always packed with Real Madrid socios (members).
Getting tickets for Atlético Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano stadium just outside town is even easier — the club website is a good place to start.
The Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sofia are world-class museums a few minutes’ walk from each other. It’s also worth seeing the quirkier Sorolla Museum, set in the former home of artist Joaquín Sorolla, and featuring work by him and his family. My personal favourite is the Thyssen: the German barons of that name had impeccable taste in 19th- and 20th-century art, and assembled their collections in the first decades of the 1900s while the stuff was still affordable. This little museum doesn’t overwhelm you like the nearby Prado does. And you can often spend a full minute alone in front of a Van Gogh, a Georg Grosz or a Lucian Freud — one of the joys of this underhyped city.
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