A mad whirl

Behind its formal mask, Madrid has a deliciously wild streak. Bring a big appetite and forget the alarm calls for a spring fling that’s equal parts lazy and crazy, says Dana Facaros


There are trips you plan for months, and then there are the ones that start with an email out of the blue from a friend you haven’t seen in years that reads: “Can you come to Madrid next weekend? I’ve booked an apartment, but Jeremy’s mum broke her foot and he has to stay and take care of her. Please say yes!” It took me about five minutes to see if there were any available flights, before tapping back, “I’ll be there!”

I had known Astrid only a little when we first visited Madrid 15 years ago. She was a former ballet dancer, and our boss had sent us to the city for a book presentation. She was glamorous, but I was the one able to muddle through in Spanish. Since neither of us knew Madrid, we’d tacked on a weekend to explore. Astrid turned out to be one of those endlessly enthusiastic people who make you laugh and do things you normally wouldn’t. Maybe it would have been different had we gone to some stodgy city, but being together in Madrid – where a good night’s sleep is a rarity – was so fabulous that we always swore we’d do it again.

And thanks to Jeremy’s mother’s broken foot, it was now actually happening. We hooked up on landing and, as our taxi headed into town from the airport, the moon was rising over the city, as large, golden and round as a tortilla – a good omen.

“I always remember what fun we had years ago,” Astrid was saying. “And, unlike Jeremy, you don’t care if I look in every shoe-shop window. And since he’s never been to Madrid, I’d have had to spend a whole day doing the Prado and the Reina Sofía galleries, all the showcase stuff, rather than getting under the city’s skin. Oops!”

We both grabbed the side straps as our taxi slammed on the brakes, narrowly missing two elderly nuns who’d stepped into the street. They waved merrily. Our driver waved back, then shook his head. “You know why this city is crazy?” he asked, as we wove back into the traffic. “It’s because of its name – mad, mad, mad Madreeeeed!” He sounded like a demented chicken.

Madreeeed, like New York, is a city where you immediately feel at home. This was brought home when the taxi left us at an address in La Latina, one of the city’s castizo barrios, to pick up the key to our lodgings. The elderly couple handing it over insisted we come in for refreshments, then bombarded us with questions. On our first trip to Madrid I’d had to do all the talking, but this time Astrid babbled away like a native.

Madreeeed, like New York, is a city where you immediately feel at home

As we left, I said, “Well, listen to you, Señorita Patata!” (the nickname I’d given her last time for ordering spicy patatas bravas wherever we went). “Spanish classes,” she said, with a wink. “And this weekend you’ll see it’s not the only thing I’ve learned!” Astrid had become a Madrid pro right before my eyes.

We dropped our bags at the apartment, and in five minutes had joined in the Friday-night tapas crawl down La Latina’s Calle Cava Baja. It seemed half of Madrid was there, the young and the not so young.

Tranquil lake at the heart of Buen Retiro
Tranquil lake at the heart of Buen Retiro

The tapas had improved since our last visit, too: after ordering her patatas bravas, the now-fluent Astrid asked locals for suggestions, leading us to creamy risotto with boletus, foie gras and poached egg at Casa Lucas (casalucas.es) – so heavenly we had it twice, sucking up every molecule.

We ended up in La Latina’s funky, main Plaza de la Cebada, sitting on the curb at 3am, talking politics with a group of earnest university students, with plenty of ‘¡Ay ay ays!’ about the current state of the world.

I was so tired I could have slept in a bin, so we didn’t get out the door before 11am the next morning, stepping into a glorious blue day. As we walked into the centre, Madrid’s radiant dry light filled the Plaza Mayor, the majestic inside-out palace of a square, highlighting each ornate detail. Giggling toddlers chased each other around the plaza’s stern equestrian statue of Philip III. Astrid had put me in charge of the day, saying she wanted to go to all the best places that we missed 15 years ago. At the top of the list was the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, a short walk down stately Calle de Alcalá. Most visitors to Madrid fall prey to the Prado/Reina Sofía/Thyssen-Bornemisza triangle of art indigestion before they make it to the Real Academia (realacademiabellasartessanfernando.com), missing out on some fascinating, quirky paintings.

The April evening was mild and the irresistible scent of fresh grilled prawns and squid, the laughter, rapid-fire chat and music poured into the streets

Of these, five Goyas steal the show: dark scenes from early 19th-century Spain, among them The Madhouse, The Trial Of The Inquisition (which wasn’t abolished until 1834) and my favourite, The Burial Of The Sardine, on the surface a festive, masked dance, but full of menace, foreboding and rising hysteria. Unlike Goya’s ‘Black Paintings’ in the Prado, there are no demons in these, which only makes them more disturbing. We headed for comfort food at Chocolatería San Ginés (chocolateriasangines.com), where they’ve been making hot chocolate since 1894, along with churros – crispy doughnut ‘snakes’ made to be dunked in cups of the thick, dark chocolate. As staff bustled amid mirrors, marble tables and photos of celebrities, the waiter raised an eyebrow when Astrid ordered another round. “Her name is Señorita Patata,” I explained, upon which his brow rose even higher.

We were still laughing as we walked to the Buen Retiro, Madrid’s regal park of ‘Pleasant Retreat’. First-timers spend so much time queuing at the city’s museums they inevitably miss Madrid’s lovely parks. Glistening fresh leaves fluttered on the trees, flowerbeds glowed with technicolour pizzazz, and Goya-esque clouds bubbled in the heavens. Couples rowed around the lake under the huge wedding-cake monument to Alfonso XII, whose main claim to fame is that he managed to do no harm before he died, age 27.

We needed a taxi to reach our last wanna-see, the Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida (sanantoniodelaflorida.es). Few Madrid virgins make it here, but the plain vanilla façade hides Goya’s most transcendent frescoes, the perfect antidote to his darker works. Here, the great master of magical atmospheres defies convention and places humanity in the dome high above a tumble of angels. And they, as Astrid pointed out, looked just like Madrileños with wings. We refuelled on squid-ring sandwiches, before heading back to the apartment for a rest. I didn’t think I’d sleep, but Astrid had to poke me awake at 10pm. She had big plans; her enthusiasm level had shot up from tail-wagging dog to small child on Christmas morning: “I’ve been thinking about this night for weeks!”

Calle Cava Baji to Plaza de la Cebada, Madrid's tapas scenes
Calle Cava Baji to Plaza de la Cebada, Madrid’s tapas scenes

It was a 10-minute walk to Lavapiés, the upbeat multi-ethnic district next to La Latina. Astrid had made dinner reservations at the small, austere, but excellent Taberna Badila, where we demolished generous portions of squid and slow-cooked goat. After, we chatted in a bar, watching the currents of people out after midnight.

“Do you know what I loved most about Madrid 15 years ago?” Astrid asked. “Flamenco,” I recalled,
without a pause. We had gone to see a touristy tablao at the Corral de la Morería, Madrid’s Carnegie Hall of flamenco, and Astrid had been smitten. “Ready for more?”

She checked her map, and led the way through Lavapiés’ mesh of lanes to Candela (flamencocandela.com), a grungy late-night flamenco bar. On the tiny stage, before a weathered painting of an Andalucían village, a guitarist, drummer and singer performed. At 2am, early by Madrid standards, it was still fairly empty. But even so, the pounding percussive guitar, drum and the cante jondo were powerful and passionate, tragic and cathartic. We sipped on drinks, feeling the rhythm in our blood, in our bones. And then, as the night drew on and people had a go at dancing, Astrid sprung her next big surprise: she stood up, gracefully lifted an arm, bent dramatically backwards and took command of the floor. She had the attitude and gestures down perfectly, her red shoes pounding like a machine gun on the floor as she swirled. When she sat down everyone applauded.

Flamenco
Flamenco

“Along with Spanish classes,” she exclaimed, after she caught her breath, “I’ve been taking flamenco lessons for years.” Dawn wasn’t far off as we wove our way back to the flat. Astrid, who had danced herself dizzy, was exhausted, but elated, as the epiphany struck her. “Remember that artist we met on our first visit to Madrid? Now I understand what he said.” “What was that?” I asked her, dredging my memory. “Madrid is killing me, but it’s a great way to die.”

The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing