La Movida – the Happening – was how Madrid presented itself in the heady days after the dictator’s death. That’s thirty odd years ago but still Madrid has a certain something – joie de vivre, plain hedonism – that it likes to share with visitors. Does any city have more bars, cafes and restaurants, and interlocking squares full of the chatter of chilled out human beings. You can’t help but be charmed, especially if you avoid the summer cauldron. Go in spring or autumn, choose a small hotel on the edge of the city centre, somewhere like the Lope de Vega on the street of the same name, just across the road from El Prado, the art gallery, and on the edge of the buzzy Huertas barrio.
Make yourself at home at Casa González, just up the street on Calle León, a shop where you can perch on a stool and sample their superb cheese, ham and wine selection (there’s also a restaurant at the back). Make time to visit the Prado but be warned, it is vast. Better to go early and join the queue before it opens and then make a beeline for your favourite artist. We spent the best part of an hour gazing at Velázquez’ Las Meninas and wondering at the audacity of the man who made himself the centre of a portrait of the royal family.
Lunch? How about Gaudeamus – al fresco, on the top floor of Spain’s Open University, in the fascinating Lavapies area. You get wonderful views of the city and, if you walk up rather than take the lift, the interior of an ancient building stunningly converted. (Calle Tribulete 14, Edificio Escuelas Pías, gaucafe.com.) Go the whole hog with the menú degustación (€28) which includes, memorably, pumpkin tempura, lamb cous cous and an intensely rich salt cod scrambled eggs with crispy onion. And with it drink cooling tinto de verano – red wine and lemonade.
After a snooze you’ll be ready for Madrid’s other great art attraction, the Thyssen, just up the road from El Prado. Housed in a coolly elegant building, this is the personal collection of the Thyssens, husband and wife, housed separately, and includes snapshots of every period and style. Unusual and worth spending time on are the mini collections of American landscapes (hers) and German inter-war art (his).
Although not renowned for music, Madrid does have an impressive concert hall, the Auditorio Nacional (metro: Cruz del Rayo) and a chamber music series every year. We heard a young generation quartet, Cuarteto Noga, playing Mozart, Ravel and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. It was an invitation concert – publicly advertised – and the seats were free.
It’s easy to spend a few days in Madrid and not realize it’s built above the river Manzanares. Don’t miss a stroll along the 10 km. walkway/cyclepath lined with parks and the occasional café that loops lazily around the city’s western fringes. Drop down to the river from Calle Segovia.
Finally settle down for a couple of cañas of beer, some ham, anchovies and tortilla in Taberna La Dolores, just up the road from the hotel in Plaza de Jesús 4.