Budget-luxury city break in Madrid
Being a thoughtful girlfriend, I decided to surprise my boyfriend Harry with tickets to Madrid for his birthday, with the promise of Real Madrid match tickets for his Christmas. Generous yes, but also a great excuse for a 4-day treat away together in the bleak mid-winter that is Scotland in February.
We lucked out on the gamble I made on purchasing us a hotel deal on LivingSocial.com, with a four night stay in a superior room at the Gran Hotel Conde Duque turning out to be the winning ticket. The hotel was close to the metro, full of character and very elegant, the staff were friendly and most importantly, the room was lovely with the comfiest hotel bed I have possibly ever stayed in. I breathed a sigh of relief that the £400 saving, to-good-to-be-true hotel deal was actually perfect. The welcome tapas and big glass of Rioja upon arrival was a lovely added touch.
Ironically, after a slightly circumspect recommendation by the hotel, we followed their directions to a nearby Plaza and accidentally ended up in an Italian restaurant on our first night in Spain. The risotto and pizza was still good after our late Friday evening arrival stopped our feet from feeling adventurous, even if it wasn’t quite the chorizo and paella we’d had in mind.
The following morning, after a churros-heavy breakfast, we made the Royal Palace our first destination. Given the size of the queue by the time we left later that morning, I’d say it’s worth making this feature on the morning itinerary for those considering visiting at the weekend. The palace was beautiful and opulent inside, as one would expect a Royal Palace to be, and is of course a must-see on the tourist to-do list. We then took a leisurely walk through the gardens and back up to the Plaza del Sol, where I decided it was time for the first glass of Sangria before we stumbled upon the food haven that is El Mercado San Miguel for lunch (with luxury food stalls selling everything from punnets of chorizo to fruit skewers and tapas with every type of cheese you can imagine). Feeling full, and pleased with our very Spanish lunching, we jumped on the metro to Retiro Park. My sister (who previously lived in Madrid and fell in love with the city) told us we must go take a boat out in Retiro Park. It was a beautiful, crisp day and it was a romantic, fun way to spend the afternoon, with the lake Estanque de Retiro being surprisingly full with others passing their Saturday in the same way despite it only being February. I can only imagine how beautiful the park must be in summer.
We then walked on to the Prado, although with it being late in the day and neither of us being art aficionados, we didn’t exactly spend the half-day there others had recommended we did. However, I can completely understand how you could do, whether voluntarily or not, after getting lost in the overwhelming collection here. It is certainly no surprise that it’s hailed one of the greatest art collections in the world, even if I saw more depictions of Jesus on the cross than is necessary in a lifetime. I would recommend going on a Sunday if possible though (no, not because with all the paintings of Jesus it’s a good alternative to the Sunday Mass) because the Prado is free entry at certain hours, although if you are a student like myself you benefit from free or discounted entry at most galleries and museums.
That evening we went to Lateral restaurant for dinner in the lovely Plaza de Santa Ana, and tasted food so good that we managed to justify coming here again for our final lunch in Madrid. The tapas are delicious, creative, very reasonably priced, and well worth it if you have to queue briefly for one of their outside tables – trust me.
After breakfast on Sunday morning we headed to El Rastro flea market in La Latina which was a lot of fun to browse, although you’ll find less staples for the wardrobe than gas masks (don’t ask, we didn’t!), cheap scarfs and plenty of football paraphernalia. We then made our way back to the city centre for a lunch date at El Botin, the oldest restaurant in the world and once claimed by Ernest Hemingway to be the “greatest restaurant in Europe”. While I’m not sure I’d quite agree with Hemingway on that one, it was a lot of fun to dine at a restaurant with such a sense of history and tradition behind it, and if you’re brave enough, it’s well worth trying the ‘specialities’ of roast suckling pig or roast baby lamb (when in Rome…). I’d definitely recommend booking ahead for this treat.
That evening was the big football match, and we headed along with the excited crowds to the infamous Estadio Santiago Bernabeu to watch Real Madrid play Rayo Vallecano to what ended as a 2-0 defeat. Being there to witness two Madrid teams playing each other in an 85,000 capacity stadium was an incredible atmosphere to be a part of. With a red card being pulled on Real Madrid’s captain twenty minutes in and three more yellow cards to follow, a man beside us became so outraged that he threw his plastic chair onto a poor fellow spectator below. The anger of the victim quickly subsided as an explanation was followed by a complete acknowledgement that such behaviour was understandable when there was such a biased referee in charge of where the match was going. As a novice to watching any sort of match and not someone who tunes into the sport at home, I still think it was one of the major highlights of the weekend and I would highly recommend attending a match if you get the chance, even if just to feel and see what matters so much to so many in Spain. We bought our tickets ahead on Viagogo, but you can purchase tickets at the stadium on the night or even at an ATM in Madrid (showing just how important football is to many Spanish).
Monday morning we hopped on the metro to the Reina Sofia, the more contemporary sister to the Prado, most famous for Picasso’s epic piece the Guernica. The museum has an extensive and impressive modern collection, with everything from the best of Picasso and Dali to what I tend to call the “emperor’s new clothes” modern art which is sadly lost on me, whether it be a blank canvas or a frame with twigs. We spent the afternoon browsing through the shops on the Gran Via and Plaza del Sol, and taking a short break to dream up the next adventures in the wonderful National Geographic coffee shop.
That evening my next “deal queen” buy featured. I’m (almost) ashamed to say I signed up to the Madrid Groupon and purchased a two-course dinner, with a bottle of Rioja and an evening Flamenco show for two for 39 euros instead of 160 euros. Once again anxious about what the result of my corner-cutting would be, we ventured off the metro to a quiet area where the luminous lights outside the ‘Casa de la Pachecha’ made me worry (and Harry probably hope) that it was a very different kind of dance show we were in for. We arrived at 8.30pm on the dot as the place opened, which was very un-Spanish of us and of course we were the first to arrive. However, the place soon filled out more and our bottle of Rioja and huge, delicious paella for two was a perfect accompaniment to a fantastic Flamenco show. The show and dinner felt like a perfect overdose of Spanish culture for the final night in Madrid.
We had a late check-out included in our deal which was an extra bonus before our Tuesday flight home. We took a stroll down to the slightly underwhelming Templo de Debod in the morning (the Egyptian Temple in the Parque del Oeste), but I imagine it is much lovelier in summer and when the Teleferico rides are operating from the same park. After a final tapas lunch at Lateral and jug of sangria, we also found the most famous place for churros in Madrid, Chocolateria San Gines. Having been recommended it, we came upon it by chance by seeing it up a narrow alley near the Plaza del Sol, so we picked up a ticket at the counter and waited in anticipation in one of their booths for these Spanish doughnuts which turned out to be well worth the hype.
Madrid is certainly not the most beautiful city in Europe, but it makes up for what it lacks in classical beauty with its atmosphere, activity and culture, from the sports and art galleries to the wonderful cafes and tapas restaurants. February may not be the best month of the year to visit weather-wise, but there is plenty to offer to make it a memorable, magical and affordable city break.