Madrid: Delights await off the beaten path
By PEGGY SIJSWERDA | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: March 24, 2016
Madrid is an easy city to love. It’s clean, the people are friendly and the climate is mild and sunny. Best of all, this world capital has so many interesting sights that it doesn’t feel crowded. My husband, Peter, and I never felt overwhelmed by armies of camera-wielding sightseers during our spring visit. Sure, tour groups congregated in Plaza Major, one of the city’s main squares, and plenty of folks streamed into El Prado, the city’s renowned art museum. But overall, Peter and I found it easy to blend into Madrid’s colorful neighborhoods and feel at home.
Everywhere we went friendly Madrilenos welcomed us, from smiling waiters to the accordion player on the street corner. We saw random acts of kindness on the city’s modern metro system: A young man offered to switch seats so I could sit next to Peter, and three men jumped up to aid another Spaniard who didn’t know the best route to take to his destination. The cold-shoulder vibe you might expect in a world-class city was conspicuously absent — much to our delight!
Over the course of four days, we explored a few of the city’s tourist attractions — El Prado, the Royal Palace and the Botanical Gardens — but our favorite moments were spent walking along cozy streets, sitting on sunny terraces and eating tapas in cafes. I think it’s important to find a balance between must-see attractions and more relaxing activities. Here are a few places to enjoy off-the-beaten-path Madrid.
Hammam al Andalus
This underground network of baths invites you to immerse yourself in history. Situated on a centuries-old cistern built by Moors during their occupation of Spain, these co-ed, pool-size baths offer a peaceful escape from the city streets. Tiled walls, stonework and vaulted ceilings transport you to another time and place. Guests are invited to follow a route: warm bath followed by hot, then a splash in ice-cold water before the Turkish (steam) bath, after which you do the circuit in reverse. Add-ons include a bubbly scrub and massage. TIP: Bathing suits required. www.hammamalandalus.com/en.
The friendly attendant at Hammam al Andalus suggested this cozy cafe when we told her we liked jazz. Located on the Plaza of the Angels, Cafe Central features a shady, outdoor terrace, where we enjoyed an afternoon glass of wine and complimentary tapas. Later we returned for a lively jazz performance inside, featuring the Maureen Choi Quartet. A violinist from the U.S., Maureen performed Latino-inspired, mostly high-energy tunes (think Jean Luc Ponti). Peter and I sat with a lovely couple from Nantes, France, sharing wine and travel stories between sets. TIP: Reservations recommended for shows. www.cafecentralmadrid.com
Tapas and Wine Tour
Taking a food tour is a perfect introduction to Spanish cuisine. As oenophiles, we chose one that featured Spanish wines. The three-hour tour included three restaurants and was led by Andres Jarabo, a local who knows the best places to go. At each one we sampled an array of amazing cuisine: Spanish tortillas (potato omelet) dripping in olive oil; tender, grilled octopus (my favorite); and medium-rare pork loin (a common way to serve pork in Spain). At each stop, we tried new, different wines — red vermouth on tap, oloroso sherry, a raisin wine from Malaga, and varietals from Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Joining Peter and me were couples from California, Australia and Florida. Getting to know the people on tour is half the fun. TIP: Wear comfortable walking shoes. www.walksofspain.com Mercado San Anton
More than the average market selling meat, fish and produce, this market in the chic Chueca shopping district aspires to be a destination and delivers. Of course, you’ll want to spend time roaming the main floor — past tidy displays of vegetables and fruit, glistening fish on ice and mouth-watering cheeses. Then head upstairs to dine at communal tables on oysters and champagne, tapas, salads and jamon. We sat at a large table next to a well-dressed couple. I immediately eyed their delicious tomato salad and told the waiter, “I’ll have what they’re having.” We added an order of calamari and had the perfect-size lunch, while chatting with the British gentleman and his Spanish-born wife. TIP: Don’t miss changing art exhibits on the third floor. mercadosananton.com
Parque de El Retiro
Take a break from the city and head to El Retiro, perfect for walking, hiking or cycling along shady lanes. We rented bikes a block from the park from a friendly fellow, who kept apologizing about his English, and cycled around the park, which was busy with sun seekers. Stop by the Crystal Palace — originally a greenhouse built in 1887 and now managed by the Reina Sofia Museum. The regal building hosts contemporary art exhibits in its sunlit interior. TIP: Bring a blanket and a picnic and join the Madrilenos sunbathing in the park. esmadrid.com/en/tourist-information/parque-del-retiro/
It’s about a six-hour trip by bus or train from Naval Station Rota to Madrid, Spain. A flight from Sevilla takes about an hour. Major airlines such as British Airways, Air France and KLM provide service to Madrid’s Barajas Airport, along with budget airlines such as RyanAir. If you’re at the airport and have time before your flight home, visit Esenza Spa in Terminal 4 for an on-the-go massage and a healthy smoothie. esenzabysha.com
Madrid’s airport is connected to the city by the metro, making it easy to visit Madrid without a car, and the metro system is clean, efficient and safe. TIP: You’ll have to pay an airport supplement, but for trips in the city, save money by getting a 10-trip ticket, which can be used by more than one person, for about $14. metromadrid.es/en
Get free entry and priority admission to museums and attractions, plus discounts in restaurants and shops with, a Madrid Card, available for 24-, 48-, 72-, and 120-hour periods. madridcard.com
We found a stylish apartment in the suburbs close to the metro for $65 per night on airbnb.com. Our friendly host, Willem, provided lots of helpful advice. Visit airbnb.com/rooms/797030
Just a block from Plaza Mayor, Petit Palace Posada Del Peine is Madrid’s oldest hotel. It’s been refurbished and is now part of the Petit Palace chain of boutique hotels. Doubles from $80 per night. petitpalace.co.uk/hotel-posada-del-peine-from-madrid
For a more upscale experience, head to ME Madrid, an urban-chic hotel that’s part of the Melia brand. Don’t miss the stunning view from the rooftop bar. Doubles from $225 per night. mebymelia.com