Mad about Madrid: A 24-hour guide to Spain's capital in a land of fiestas and siestas


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MADRID, Spain -- The clink of a cafe con leche against a china saucer, the clatter of horse hooves on cobblestones, the laughter of tartan-clad children sent to retrieve a baguette from the ambulant baker: These are the telltale sounds of Madrid rising to greet another blazing Spanish day.

Travelers seeking to fit as many destinations as possible into a two-week Euro trip often trade the Spanish capital for the art-deco streets of Barcelona or the Moorish provinces of the Costa del Sol. Yet to deny Madrid is to deny the unique feel of Castilian Spain, palpable in the ancient stone blocks of its palaces, cathedrals and monuments that defy the march of modernity. 

As I stand on the edge of the Plaza Mayor this morning, the improbable sight of gypsies selling rosemary sprigs against a backdrop of colorful neoclassical architecture tells me that Madrid, against all odds, abides. I step into the bustle determined to make the most of my short 24 hours in the capital.

The emblematic main square – one of the largest in Europe – plays host to daily fiestas, markets, religious ceremonies and other performances, attracting locals and tourists alike. Today is no different, as street artists prepare to sell caricatures of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and musicians brandish their tambourines. I grab a complimentary city map at the tourist center before slipping through an archway onto the Calle Mayor.

Like most streets in Madrid, the narrow confines of Calle Mayor are packed with peddlers of tweed berets, wooden canes and brightly painted hand fans. Vendors pushing overflowing food carts yell their fares across the crowd: horchata for one euro. Coconut slices for two. The prices change even as I step out of the alley into the Puerta del Sol.

All roads lead to Sol, goes the old Spanish proverb. The semi-circular square is the national ground zero and a must-see for any Madrid visitor. In an ironic twist that is both characteristically and endearingly Spanish, the “Sun” square is cast in shadow by the City Hall clock tower, providing a welcome shield from the heat that has by now become nearly unbearable.

Not wanting to test my luck against a temperature of 120 degrees, I walk down to the Paseo del Prado – a grand Victorian boulevard flanked by world-renowned museums that include the Caixa, the Thyssen-Bornemisa and El Prado. I purchase a general admission ticket for 14 euros and wander the air-conditioned galleries of Velazquezes, Goyas, Rubens and Tintorettos until lunch time.

Madrid meals are one of the uncontested delights of any visit to the capital. Casa Labra – tucked into a side street near Sol – has been a popular culinary destination since 1860. The family-owned tavern offers a survey of traditional local dishes. From stewed entrails to platters of cured ham to 2 euro pitchers of tart sangria, there is something here for both the adventurous and conservative traveler.

After hoisting myself up from my dining chair, I decide to take part in the time-honored siesta that marks the rhythm of Spanish life. I stroll down to the Oriente theater where Wagner debuted his timeless opera “Rienzi,” past the Baroque-style royal palace adorned with the weathered marble statues of five centuries of Spanish kings and into the West Park.

The pine grove is peppered with tan youths and entwined couples basking in the summer sun. I find the perfect napping spot under a fig tree at the foot of the Debod Temple. Gifted by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970 to Madrid engineers for their help in controlling the flooding waters of the Nile, the fourth-century B.C. temple stands in exquisite contrast to the steel skyscrapers just visible beyond the trees. My eyelids flutter shut to the sound of nearby castanets.

As the siesta hour draws to a close at 5 p.m. and the city stirs back to life, I let my thoughts wander to the coming evening. Between April and September, Las Ventas bullring features corridas where matadors armed with sparkling red capes and 18th-century swords dance out of death’s way and into the hides of 1,000-pound bulls. Olé! For those who prefer a less ill-fated performance, dexterous guitarists and fierce flamenco dancers draped in flowing shawls and dresses gather each night at the Corral de la Morería – a simple venue with a wooden stage and a manzanilla sherry bar in the cobbled district of El Casco Viejo.

I eventually settle on the most popular evening tradition of all: watching a soccer game at the local bar. As I seat myself on a wooden stool in the Marca Sports Bar, my eyes sweep over the crowd, gathered to root for the Real Madrid team. A soccer match provides the perfect opportunity to observe a cross section of Spanish society – businessmen in tailored suits enjoying a cana, weathered viejos toying with silver pocket watches, women balancing babies dressed only in diapers. Even at dusk, the sweet summer heat will allow for nothing else. 

At 9 p.m., the bells of Almudena Cathedral – the wedding venue of the newly crowned King Felipe and Queen Letizia – chime throughout the city, signaling dinner time. Like their Portuguese neighbors, Spaniards dine as late as midnight, typically requiring the evening hours to digest a large lunch.

With a now growling stomach, I return to the Casco Viejo and the Mercado de San Miguel, an indoor market featuring a wide array of Spanish tapas. The market offers samplers of vegetable paella, fried bechamel croquettes, potato tortilla and boiled snails. A battered sign reads “God sends those He loves to eat in Madrid.”

San Miguel is conveniently situated near the city’s most lively nightclubs. Rivaled only by Amsterdam, Madrid proudly stands as the capital of European nightlife, inviting all to dance the night away. For an entrance fee of 10 euros, the clubs of Pacha, Kapital, Joy and Gabana open their doors from midnight until morning. At 6 a.m., partygoers leave the dance floors, savor a traditional breakfast of churros dipped in hot chocolate at the Chocolateria San Gines, and head – exhausted – to bed.

Sitting outside San Gines with an empty cup of coffee and saucer, I feel the sandman weigh on my own body. As I sink into the Metro seat that will carry me back to the airport, I hear the distant clatter of horse hooves and the laughter of children, signaling the dawn of a new day in the Spanish capital – and the end of my 24 hours in paradise. Madrid beats on.

If you go ... Madrid

Getting there: From Pittsburgh, a smart strategy is to fly to New York JFK or Newark Airport. From there, the Spanish airline Iberia (www.iberia.com) offers direct roundtrip flights to Madrid Barajas airport at fares beginning at $807.

Lodging: Hotel de las Letras: Located on Madrid’s main boulevard and a short four-minute walk from the Puerta del Sol, the best new hotel in town contrasts modern architecture with wall panels featuring the literature of Cervantes. 034-91-523-7980; www.hoteldelasletras.com; doubles from $165. Vincci Capitol: A few doors down from the Hotel de las Letras, the Art Deco hotel attracts throngs to its popular basement theater Cinema Capitol. 034-90-454-585; www.vinccihoteles.com; doubles from $98.

Dining: Casa Labra: 034-91-531-0081; www.casalabra.es; dinner for two $80. Mercado de San Miguel: 034-91-542-49-36; www.mercadodesanmiguel.es; tapas from $2.70.

Travel Tips: If you’‍re visiting Madrid from May to September, count on 90-degree temperatures. A sun hat or Spanish hand fan to be kept as a souvenir are worthwhile investments, and they are sold on most street corners of the city center. 

Rocio Labrador: rlabrador@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1370. 


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