Europe and the UK: exploring the real Madrid

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Europe and the UK: exploring the real Madrid

It’s near midnight in Madrid and the Puerto Del Sol, the historic centre of the city, is pulsating with life. People of all ages are out and about — strolling, meeting friends and having lively discussions over tapas and wine in the beautiful old squares and laneways.

The locals are socialising over small plates of calamari, gambas (deep-fried shrimp), fried potato , pulpas (peppery octopus), stuffed peppers and olives . It is a uniquely Spanish scene as they meet up with family and friends to catch up on the day’s gossip and news.

“This is how the Spanish love to interact; out in the open spaces where they can get together over snacks and socialise, go for walks and meet people. It is an integral part of their daily lives and it adds such vibrancy to the cities and towns,” says our Madrid guide, Joanna Wivell, who fell in love with the Spanish culture and lifestyle over 20 years ago.

She is taking us through the old city on a traditional tapas crawl, Madrilleno style — the way the locals do it. Ambling along La Calle del Arenal, a huge boulevard lined with classical 18th and 19th century buildings, we are met by guitarists, acrobats and entertainers who play to the passing crowds.

The cobblestone plazas and networks of alleyways are edged with traditional Castilian taverns, bars and open air restaurants. All are packed with people.

We are also walking through centuries of history — the grand Plaza Mayor, the Arco de Cuchilleros and the Plaza de la Plaja.

In a hidden laneway we stop at the Villa Rosa which, since the 1930s, has been a bastion of flamenco. You can feel the energy when you walk in as the female dancer, dressed in a red and black laced dress, swirls around the stage, accompanied by a black suited man.

A few doors down, we indulge in tapas at a local bar crowded with local Madrilènes who are winding down after a day’s work. From here it is on to a smoky sherry bar which has remained unchanged for 50 years. This is evidenced by its yellow ceiling, stained by decades of nicotine.

Soldiering onward into the night, we call into Restaurante Botin, founded in 1735 and one of Europe’s oldest restaurants. It is steeped in history; kings and queens have dined here. From its original oven it still creates the Castilian lamb and pork dishes which are famous throughout Spain.

Finally, we descend into the popular Chocalateria de San Gines, where we sip on a cup of thick melted chocolate with churros. You can feel the calories accumulating, but it is a delicious way to end a long night, which for many Spaniards, is only warming up.

The next day is a cultural barrage which starts atop the 70 metre high observation deck of the newly restored Palacio de Cibeles. From here the city of Madrid is spread out before us in all directions.

There is the imperial looking Royal Palace, the vast 6070 hectare hunting Forests of the Kings — now a public park, the long Via Gran winding its way through the city and the Plaza Cibeles fountain right below us. All of them are ornate structures that pay tribute to centuries of royalty who indulged their tastes in grandiose design.

Scanning the horizon, we spot the famed art promenade stretching from the Plaza de Embajadores to Plaza de Colon. It is home to the famed National Prado Museum, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and the Reina Sofia Museum, whose galleries include huge collections of the Spanish painters Goya, Velasquez, Ribera and Picasso. A must-see is Picasso’s Guernica — his renowned 1937 painting on the futility and devastation of war — at the Reina Sofia Museum .

After much walking, and history, we settle down for a long lunch above the trendy San Anton Market, at La Cocina de San Anton, in the heart of the cool Chueca neighbourhood. This area is home to bars, clubs, trendy shops and the annual Gay Pride festivities. From here everyone, in one final mad dash, fans out to do some last minute shopping.

That evening, speeding through the harsh, baked Spanish landscape on the high speed Elipsos train, we commiserate on how short our time has been in Spain, how it has won us all over and how fiercely determined we are to return.

The writer travelled as a guest of Qantas Airways, Accor Hotels, the Madrid Tourist Office and the Spanish Tourist Office