The minute my trip to Spain was confirmed, silly smatterings of that song from way back when started running through my head — you know the one: “Oh, this year I’m off to sunny Spain…yeah viva España…” I was clearly not “taking the Costa Brava plane” as in the song, but travelled instead in perfect comfort on Turkish Airlines, which works rather well as a gentle and geographically logical transition from Asia to Europe. I was not going there to “chat to a matador in some cool cabaña” either, but this was not going to come in the way of great anticipatory glee.
Spain is many things. It is bound to be. In its heyday as a global power, its conquistadors and armadas spread their tentacles far and wide, and those tentacles did not return empty. Many, like neighbouring Arab countries, the Romans and the French at various points, lusted for a slice of this Hispanic land and left behind their imprints too in some successful and some not-so-successful forays. With its long history, its constant and continuing presence and influence in the world of arts and culture, the list of must-dos and must-sees is bound to be very long.
But when life is short and the visit shorter, if you can’t do the full-course meal (metaphorically speaking), do it the ‘tapas’ way — many plates of many things, delicious samplers that leave you replete. It seemed appropriate to start our Madrid visit with just this — tapas (now speaking literally). Our excellent guide Joanna (who left England twelve years ago in pursuit of flamenco — and Spain — and stayed on impenitent) trotted us down to La Trucha, where we regaled ourselves with an array ranging from swordfish and Iberian ham to fried peppers, asparagus and of course the standard, and in this case decidedly delicious, tortilla. Washed down with highly satisfactory jugs of sangria or full-bodied Spanish wines. We wove our way down more cobbled streets, past the National Theatre on Plaza de Santa Ana and through the enormous, rectangular Plaza Major thronged by tourists and lined with traditional shops and cafés.
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At the café El Ñeru, we watched waiters expertly pour cider from a great height into the glass to air the cider and then finished off with macaroons and truffles at the Mercado de San Miguel, a market of gastronomic delight with rows of stalls where you can make a meal of chorizos from one, cheese from another, wine from a third, and so on…
It is a long day that started in India and ends in Madrid, so it is rather wonderful to retreat to the comforts of the majestic Westin Palace, the last word in old-world hospitality, for the night. This splendid hotel’s location means that we are ideally located for our tapas-style tour the next day — to walk around and about the historic city centre and to visit the El Prado museum in the Triangle of Art (the triangle including the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sofia museums). Here, we see a few choice pieces by the Spanish masters from among the multitudes of galleries and corridors. I have a hankering to see their newly discovered Mona Lisa, almost identical to the other, but have to content myself with a fridge magnet — the original has gone off to hang beside Da Vinci’s at the Louvre for a bit.
Try as I will to avoid it, I feel compelled to return to the mention of food. Without elaborating much further, lunch in the oldest restaurant of the world (1725; listed in the Guinness Book of World Records), Restaurante Botín, was an experience, not merely a meal, even if I did not have its famed suckling pig. If it made its way into a Hemingway novel as “one of the best restaurants in the world”, I can hardly fail to mention it in my humble write-up. Or to mention that I also had coffee the next morning in the hundred-year-old Café Commercial, where the anti-Franco army once used to huddle.
Other testaments to heroic activities include the Santiago Bernabéu stadium — where you can do a full tour, from stands to museum to the dressing rooms. Some of the heroes who played here have now victoriously carried away the Eurocup.
No visit to Spain can be complete without a flamenco performance. I would think it impossible not to be enthralled despite not having even a remote understanding of the skill, lyrics or nuances. Or maybe I just lucked out with splendid performances at Las Carboneras on this trip and Casa Patas on a previous one.
In 2011, my arrival coincided with Gay Pride, where a million people took to the streets — or rather the one very long street — and floats, music and dance sashayed forth in, I have to say it, gay abandon. In 2012, I am here on May 15, the day of San Isidro, Madrid’s patron saint. On the previous night, I had flocked with thousands of Madrileños to picnic with friends in the botanical garden, where a music, light and water show concluded with spectacular fireworks. In another part of town, the ‘indignados’, citizen protesters, were also gathering at the Puerto del Sol, to celebrate an anniversary of protests against governments and austerity measures. I felt for them — this is not a place for austerity.
The monks in San Frutos or the La Hoz monasteries may disagree — but there are few of them left in these magnificent edifices. The monasteries are nestled in a valley that can be seen from the ridge of a large expanse of protected reserve in Duraton in the province of Segovia. The capital, also Segovia, is a Unesco World Heritage city with an amazingly intact Roman aqueduct and the astounding Alcázar fortress, situated high on a rock within walls approached by pavements.
Quite different from the summer palace La Granja de San Ildefonso, built in the eighteenth century by Felipe V — a vast, airy palace with galleries upon galleries of arched open hallways with enormous statues and stately rooms displaying enormous Belgian tapestries, including a ‘moral science’ room with a nine-piece Honours set testifying to the virtues required by an Emperor. This was received by the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V as a coronation gift. I was distracted from my examination of the tapestries by a twinge of sympathy for the royal domestic help when I learnt that these were rolled up and travelled with the royal family annually from this residence to the next summer palace and back.
The region of Segovia seems to be a closely guarded secret — I don’t think I saw too many nationalities in the throngs of tourists. Palaces and castles aside, we visited ridges and canyons and also embarked on a little kayaking trip organised by tour operators Naturaltur. My first attempt at this was more fumble than glory but very exhilarating on calm, placid waters that don’t run too deep, while the guides patiently tried to guide and several schoolchildren practised their English politely on me as I bumped into them: “No problem”, “No it was my fault”.
Our much-travelled guide from Naturaltur was a man of many talents. Besides guiding, he had converted a medieval manor into a restaurant, and also ran a charming guesthouse in Duraton, where he kept a pet wolf. Much more wildlife was to be encountered apparently if one took a stroll with the wolf but this was speculative until the walk had been walked. I believed him though. Not all his tales could be tall. He had a wolf.
And now I must return to food. While there are only so many meals that can be had in so few days, each one deserves a mention. If I refrained from eating suckling pig in Botín in Madrid, it was to reserve the moment for Segovia, from where all good piglets come. And the sign of a perfectly cooked one? That it is so tender it can be sliced with a quarter-plate, as the master chef demonstrated at the Duque restaurant.
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This practice was apparently introduced by the legendary Chef Candido, whose portraits bear an uncanny resemblance to Hitchcock. Segovia has a statue in his honour and, though we did not dine at his restaurant, we lunched at a hotel named after him, which obviously serves outstanding meals. Surfeit meant that we could not savour the delights of El Soportal in the charming town of Pedraza, but meant that we could regale ourselves next day on more excesses of appetisers, greens, cheeses and meats at Jose Maria, under the aegis of another quarter-plate slicing master.
They may not call it ‘Golden’ but golden it is and a triangle too, when we finish our tour with Toledo. It was not my first time — I had come as a backpacking student two decades ago. The central walled city is still as indomitable. The bridges are down over the moats, the cathedral is as magnificent. The roads are still cobbled. The castle where I had lived, on a hill across from the walled city, was a youth hostel and still is. New properties, some ugly, some delightful, have come up, but they are on neighbouring hills, looking out at the same little walled town that was once the capital. Toledo too is a Unesco site, its heritage layered — with successions of Muslim, Hebrew and Christian settlers leading to it being called ‘the city of three cultures’. It was here that El Greco, the Greek artist, having failed to make a mark in Madrid, lived and died. They still insist that this is where marzipan was created.
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It is slightly disconcerting to have a guide who speaks some Malayalam — apparently they now have a little community of Keralites too. I am loath to write history notes about a place that fills books and tomes. It is far more captivating to listen to the accounts of stories of yore while soaking in the atmosphere, leaning on cold stone that has absorbed centuries of whispers and shouts.
We are spending our last night in a hotel that skirts the outer walls of Toledo, the erstwhile residence of a cardinal. No one knows or dares tell me which room might actually have been his, but I can tell you that I slept easy and well, after yet another over-indulgent meal.
It would be a glaring omission in any account of Spain to not add that a primary reason to return, time and again, is the sunny, warm, welcoming disposition of the people. Sorry, the song’s running in my head again. “España por favor!”
Return flights to European destinations hover between Rs 40,000 and 70,000 for economy class during the summer months. Turkish Airlines offers a most comfortable flight, a good transit airport, without miles to cross and convenient daily connections from Delhi and Mumbai to Madrid and back. Check here for deals and offers.
These can be obtained from VFS.
Madrid is built for walking, and most of the places you would want to visit as well as the main shopping area are within walking distance of the city centre. The city has a comprehensive and convenient metro railway and public bus service. For tourists, a good option is to travel on the hop-on-hop-off, open-top buses that do sightseeing tours around the city.
Where to Stay
Madrid has no shortage of hotels, hostals and other options. There’s something to fit every pocket.
High end For stately luxury and old-world comforts, try the Westin Palace hotel on Plaza de la Cortes. The city’s oldest luxury hotel, the Ritz Madrid, continues its tradition of being a hub of Madrid’s most glamorous and, of course, most wealthy.
Mid-range The NH Eurobuilding is a well-serviced business hotel located in the heart of the city. The NH group has several other hotels in the same price range dotted around the city. An old favourite, Hotel Santo Domingo, is now run by Mercure Hotels and continues to offer good value for money).
Budget The friendly Hotel Opera, near the Royal Opera House, offers classic accommodation for good prices. The Room Mate collection of minimalistic trendy hotels has four in Madrid. Check them out here.
Where to Eat & Drink
La Trucha: a tapas bar par excellence with outdoor seating too.
El Ñeru: serves Asturian specialities, such as tuna pie and apple cider (https://restauranteelneru.com/).
Mercado San Miguel: a great market for a gastronomic spread. On Plaza de San Miguel (https://mercadodesanmiguel.es/).
Café Commercial: another of Madrid’s old-timers. At Glorieta de Bilbao (http://cafecomercialmadrid.com/).
What to See & Do
There are millions of things to do in this vibrant city, but if there are two must-dos, these may be it:
Catch a flamenco performance: ask a local for recommendations or head to either the stylish new nightclub, Las Carboneras, Plaza del conde de Miranda, or for more ‘true’ flamenco, Casa Patas, Calle de los Cañizares.
There are regular trains from Chamartin train station in Madrid to Segovia. The journey takes 30min.
What to See & Do
Visit the Roman Aqueduct, the Alcázar fortress, La Granja de San Ildefonso, the medieval town of Pedraza including its erstwhile jail. Go camping in the region’s natural parks (check here and here). Go wine-tasting at Bodega Vinedos de Nieva (check here).
There are trains every hour from Madrid’s Atocha station and the journey takes about half an hour.
What to See & Do
Visit the many monuments including the Cathedral and the Jewish Sinagoga del Transito. El Greco’s masterpiece El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz is to be found in the church Iglesia de Santo Tomé.