Text and Photographs Elsa Young The award-winning Barajas airport sets the tone for my week-long sojourn in Madrid, Spain’s capital and its largest city. Airy and light, Barajas – designed by British architecture firm Richard Rogers Partnership – features wave-like structures that undulate across the roof, allowing beams of lovely natural light to pass through them. It also gives travellers their first experience of Madrid’s mesmerising light. The city is situated on Spain’s plateau at an altitude of 654 metres, so the sun colours the summer sky cobalt blue, softly illuminating the grand avenues and bustling streets late into the night. In summer, Madrid is hot but not stifling, and the balmy weather creates the perfect excuse to sip chilled cava and take in the city from the rooftop terrace of a chic hotel before hitting the streets. I stayed in the Huertas district, a short stroll from the Museum Mile, which is one of the few places on the planet where you can meander from one awe-inspiring art museum to another. The world-famous Museo del Prado (museodelprado.es), Centro de Arte Reine Sofia (museoreinasofia.es) and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (museothyssen.org) are all there, with the famous Retiro Gardens and a host of other splendid sights just around the corner. There’s a soft rhythm to life in Madrid. Madrileños seem to sashay along the streets, rather than walking or strutting as the natives of other European cities do. They also couldn’t care less who you are or where you come from as long as you habla un poquito Español (speak a little Spanish) and go with the flow. As evening approaches and the temperature drops ever so slightly, my husband and I wander the narrow streets in search of tapas, not hard to do as there are so many tapas bars to choose from. Our first stop is Los Gatos, a beautiful ceramic-tiled gem of a place crammed with happy Madrileños enjoying drinks and eating tostas – toasted bread topped with cheeses, peppers and capers – and bowls of plump olives. By 9pm we’ve moved on and the long queue outside another eatery, Taberna Maceiras, suggests it’ll be an excellent choice. It turns out to be so good that we visit twice, feasting on outstanding char-grilled pimientos de Padrón, fried calamari, decadent potato croquettes filled with melting cheese, spicy sausage, gorgeous slices of jamon and creamy, salty paella, all washed down with sangria served in a pottery jug, complete with a spoon for stirring. Our appointment with Madrid’s awe-inspiring galleries begins at the astonishing Museo del Prado. It’s a rare privilege to wander the Prado’s halls – which are home to one of the world’s most complete collections of art through the ages – and you’ll need more than a few hours to take it all in. The experience of standing in front of Diego Velasquez’s exquisite ‘Las Meninas’ and Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ for the first time is unforgettable. Then there are works by Goya, Titian, Tintoretto, Dürer and El Greco, among a long list of masters from Spain and the rest of Europe. The next day we visit the Centro de Arte Reine Sofia, home to many modern pieces. In contrast to the traditional buildings that surround it, its edgy modern style features glass facades and red and black walls. Inside is an impressive body of work by Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí. Viewed up close, the details are awe-inspiring. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ – his ode to the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War – is the highlight of our visit. Although people crowd around it, its sheer size – almost eight metres wide – makes me feel as though it’s all mine to gaze at. Completing the trio of ‘grand dame’ art museums is the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, housed in an old palace and surrounded by lush gardens. Its vast collection, which includes Van Goghs, Lichtensteins and Gauguins, are sure to satisfy any desire you might still harbour of seeing a wider range of artists. As you must when visiting Madrid, I spend time wandering through several of the city’s most picturesque barrios, or districts, each of which offers something special. The oldest is Las Lavapiés, characterised by a proliferation of tiny water fountains and benches on which locals – both old and young – meet to chat or catch 40 winks. Although this cosmopolitan barrio has a reputation for being a little on the gritty side, I soon stumble upon a charming bookshop café with organic vegetarian dishes that rapidly convinces me otherwise. The La Latina district seems to be made up of end-to-end tapas bars. In some of them it’s still customary to toss pips, toothpicks and nutshells on the floor as they did when my parents visited Madrid back in 1969. If you’re a serious cured-ham addict, the renowned jamon deli in this barrio, Jamones Julian Becerro on Cava Baja, should satisfy your craving, for a while at least. At the very heart of Spain – Kilometro Zero – is the Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, where animal-rights activists stand silently protesting the consumption of the nation’s famed ham, alongside heavily made-up mime artists and fire-eating entertainers. The night lights blaze through the indigo sky and Madrid’s symbol – the bear – stands alongside his Madroño tree, a sight that, like that of the many statues of mounted riders, you will come across time and again throughout the city. Los Austrias, named after the Spanish Habsburgs – the reigning dynasty in the time it was built – is home to the Plaza Mayor. Designed in 1619, it’s seen more than its fair share of bloodlust: bullfights, the condemnation of heretics, hangings and executions. These days it’s lined with shops and restaurants, and the plaza is crammed with people celebrating, dancing with flamenco buskers or chatting beneath the legs of the statue of Felipe III (on a horse, of course), who built it. Exit from one of the Plaza Mayor’s nine archways and you’ll come to the Palacio Real (or royal palace). An extravagant structure, its plethora of rooms are lavishly decorated in velvets and silks in shades of regal purple and gold, the walls adorned in porcelain and whirligigs of colour. For shopping, the fanciful boutiques of Malasaña are the place to go for designer shoes, bags and clothes. The exclusive shopping parade of the Calle de Serrano (calleserrano.net) has me in its thrall, so much so that Spanish fashion chainstore Zara doesn’t even get a look-in! The gardens of the Parque del Buen Retiro offer a welcome respite with their cool, exquisitely landscaped flowerbeds and lawns complete with lollipop-shaped cypress trees and the estanque, a man-made lake dotted with boats, each of which appear to contain an amorous couple. Another equestrian – Alfonso XII – perches Quixote-like atop a huge column, endlessly surveying the throngs of people passing through the park. Minders spray giddy gaggles of schoolchildren with water, no doubt to prevent heat stroke. I watch as the sun sets slowly while a saxophonist raspberries out a tune – it’s just before 10pm and the temperature is still 26˚C. Madrid is saturated with culture and modernity, and immersing yourself in it all is just heaven. You can’t help admiring the Spanish explorers who set out on voyages of discovery hundreds of years ago, so full of passion and pioneering spirit. At moments like this, I find it hard to imagine that any of them could have come from Madrid. After all, how could they have brought themselves to leave in the first place? How to Get There Iberia has direct flights to and from Madrid from Johannesburg. Other airlines, including British Airways, Lufthansa and KLM, can get you there with a minimum of stopovers. Where to Stay We stayed at the luxurious and centrally situated Hotel Urban but there are myriad accommodation options in Madrid. Try to book a centrally situated hotel, as staying within walking distance of the city’s main attractions is a major advantage. Good to Know Madrid’s restaurant and bar proprietors can choose whether they prefer a smoking licence, or the custom of families with children. Smokers tend to win hands down, so be prepared to put up with a good deal more cigarette smoke than you may be accustomed to while eating. This feature originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of House and Leisure.