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By Ute Junker
Spain’s most underrated city is its classy capital, Madrid. Often overshadowed by its flamboyant rivals, Barcelona and Seville, Madrid seduces visitors with its unexpected charms.
London has one. So do Munich and Budapest, Brussels and Monaco. Vienna has whole clutch of them. Each of these cities has its own royal palace; but none have a royal palace quite like Madrid’s Palacio Real.
You would expect a royal palace to have priceless treasures on display, and Madrid’s certainly does, from Stradivarius violins to Goya paintings. You would also expect a royal palace to be a work of art in its own right, and Madrid’s certainly is, with frescoed ceilings, mahogany doors, and walls hung with embroidered silk and crimson velvet. However, what makes the Palacio Real so remarkable is its size.
The plans for the palace were drawn up by King Felipe V. Had he lived to oversee the works, which started in 1738, things might have turned out differently. However, the king died before the palace was completed, and his heirs decided to scale things back. The current palace is just one quarter of the size that Felipe had envisaged – but with 2,800 rooms, it still dwarfs its western European rivals.
The royal palace is a metaphor for Madrid as a city: both are full of surprises. Madrid has a surprisingly low profile for a capital city, and is often overshadowed by other Spanish cities. It doesn’t have the Islamic influences of Seville, the perfectly-preserved buildings of Toledo, or the surreal architecture of Barcelona. What Madrid does have is the ability to quietly steal your heart.
Wander and explore
The lovely, historic city centre, with its elegant buildings and sunny squares, is compact enough to navigate easily.
Colourful neighbourhoods such as La Latina and Lavapiés, Chueca and Malasaña, offer plenty of nooks and crannies to explore: venture into one of the winding alleys and see where it leads you. During the day, you’ll find plenty of character-filled cafés and old-school barber shops. At night, you can stroll from one tapas bar to the next.
Madrid is made for walking and the royal palace isn’t the only attraction that will test the strength of your calf muscles. Art-lovers should be prepared to clock up a serious kilometre count when exploring the city’s dazzling museums.
Master of artworks
The world-renowned Museo del Prado houses masterpieces by the likes of Diego Velázquez, El Greco, Titian and Peter Paul Rubens. Once a private collection, the equally impressive Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum houses works from artists as diverse as Claude Monet and Caravaggio, Vincent Van Gogh and Jackson Pollock.
The third museum in the ‘Golden Triangle of Art’, and perhaps the most inspiring collection, is the Reina Sofía, which specialises in modern and contemporary art. It showcases an astonishing array of works by Spanish masters such as Picasso, Miro and Dali. Don’t let the big names consume all your attention though: one of the joys of this museum is the opportunity to explore the works of lesser-known Spanish artists, such as Antoni Tàpies and Eduardo Arroyo. But be sure to leave enough time to sit in front of the museum’s most famous canvas, Picasso’s Guernica, one of the great anti-war works of all time.
Flea market meanderings
If you were planning a Sunday sleep-in to recover, think again. Sunday mornings are set aside for the mighty El Rastro flea market.
This is no small-time affair; the market stalls take over the entire El Rastro district. On any given morning, it feels like at least half the city is here, searching for bargains. The stalls lining the main thoroughfare, Calle de la Ribera de Curtidores, display a fairly standard selection of goods. However, wander down the side streets and you may find some real gems – anything from handmade leather goods to old flamenco records.
It’s easy to spend hours wandering through the market, and if you work up an appetite, some of Madrid’s best bites are close at hand.
The glass-walled market Mercado de San Miguel is filled with tasty food counters; pick up some classics at la Casa de Bacalao or gourmet tapas at Lhardy, and grab a seat at one of the tables to rest your feet.
Madrid’s food scene is an attraction in its own right. An amazing selection of artisanal outlets makes for excellent grazing. Must-visits include the hip Poncelet, which showcases literally hundreds of traditionally made cheeses. And don’t miss the old-school Museo del Jamón, where hams hang in clusters from the ceiling – for a real treat, try the acorn-fed jamón ibérico.
Of course, plenty of tapas bars and restaurants make up the Madrid culinary experience too. Be sure to try some of the traditional outlets, such as El Botin, which dates back to 1725. Foodies should also sample cutting-edge options such as Sergi Arola Gastro or DiverXO.
Memorable sites within easy reach
If that’s not enough to keep you busy, Madrid also makes a great base for exploring. Recommended day trips include Ávila, with its wonderful collection of Gothic and Romanesque architecture. The mighty El Escorial, a monumental imperial complex including a palace, a museum, and a monastery in its grounds is around 45 kilometres northwest of the capital. And the extraordinary hilltop town of Cuenca, two to three hours east, is a World Heritage site, where the buildings literally hang from cliffs.
Surrounded by mountains, Madrid stands more than 650 metres above sea level, making it the highest capital in Europe – another aspect to a city where art, food, and beauty are all around.