Saturday, 16 April 2011

Tourist Tips on visiting Madrid

So you are thinking of visiting Madrid and want a bit of advice on what to see? One of my favourite things about living abroad is being a personal tour guide for my friends when they come and visit. So as I’m leaving now, I thought I would share a couple ideas, if you are visiting in the near future, although obviously, this is only from my experience:

Food Glorious Food
The Spanish know how to eat well. Oh yes they do. In fact they eat five times a day. Churros (like long, thin fried donuts!?) and hot chocolate, the traditional breakfast, but equally good as an afternoon snack, can be found in most cafes, but for a great experience, seek out San Ginés, right in the centre, and find a seat downstairs.

Paella of course is an important part of any trip to Spain. The restaurants in the centre are a bit expensive and touristy, but if you are happy to do a bit of map reading, you will find a gorgeous little Spanish restaurant down a side street near the centre - Calle Moratín - called Champaneria Gala, where you can share an enormous paella for 15 euros each, and enjoy some very nice sangria as well!

Night life

Madrid comes alive at night! The shops are all open till past 9pm, and if you want to eat out Spanish style, 10pm is the time to do so. The centre near Puerta del Sol is obviously full of all types of bars and clubs. Find a nice salsa bar if you like a bit of Spanish dancing. My favourite is a quirky little bar near Plaza Santa Ana, called El Imperfecto. A jug of sangria for 10 euros, and a very youthful and lively atmosphere. The coffees served there during the afternoon are also to die for (particularly the cafe bonbon, pictured above), and they have an incredible selection of exotic teas.  For a more authentic Madrileno vibe, head down through plaza Mayor (which is also definately worth a visit during the daytime) to the La Latina area, and enjoy a mojito in one of the many bars along Calle Cava Baja.

A bit of sight-seeing

Puerta del Sol is the place to start – basically the centre of Madrid. In fact, it is actually the centre of Spain! If you look carefully you will find the plaque called “Kilometro Cero” or Kilometre Zero, which is the point from which all the roads fan out all over Spain. The statue of the bear and the tree is the symbol of Madrid, and also makes a good meeting point.

To the East, the Royal Palace and its gardens are lovely to look at, although not worth paying to enter. Entry is free on a Wednesday however, if you are there during the week. To the left of the palace you can see the Cathedral. This took over 500 years to complete, so the styles vary greatly as you walk around. Note the patches of darker stone in the walls. After the destruction during the Spanish Civil War, the holes made in the buildings were filled in with a darker coloured stone to remember what had past. The plaza Mayor is a beautiful, medieval square near the centre. If you would like a short but interesting tour of Madrid in English, there is a free walking tour every hour on the hour at the weekend, starting from the bear and tree statue in Sol, and finishing at the Cathedral.
Heading East of Sol, towards Gran Via, you pass the Circulo de bellas Artes, where for 2 euros you can go up to the terrace and have a fantastic view of the whole of Madrid. If you carry on a bit further down Gran Via you will reach Cibeles, where the stunning white palace in front of you is actually the central post office! You can even send your postcards from there! 

Interested in art?

The two main art galleries in Madrid are the Prado and the Reina Sofia. The Prado, a world famous art gallery, holds plenty of beautiful pieces, particularly those by Goya. It’s amazing the incredible amount of expression and personality that Goya manages to reflect in his portraits, compared to the notably more drab portraits by other artists. 

If you want to see some Picasso, the Guernica, one of the most viewed pieces of art in the world, is on exhibition in the Reina Sofia, just down the road from the Prado. This piece is a lot more impressive in stature than the disappointingly small Mona Lisa in Paris, and on the opposite wall you get to see its creation in stages, as it was documented by Picasso’s girlfriend. My favourite piece is the picture of this girlfriend which is in the next room – certainly not the most flattering of pieces – I wonder what she thought of it!

Both the Prado and the Reina Sofia are free in the evenings – the Prado after 6 and the Reina Sofia after 8. Perfect for a quick look around before dinner if you are trying to be Spanish and eat late. Another gallery worth a quick visit is the small gallery sponsored by Caja Madrid, which is found right in the Centre near Sol. This hosts temporary exhibitions that can be well worth a look and entrance is always free.

Want to get some exercise/ sunshine?

Madrid boasts plenty of lovely parks. The Retiro park is situated to the east of central Madrid – just a short walk from the Prado. It is a lovely park to walk around, with lots of different areas, including a memorial of the Atocha train bombing, and the “Glass Palace” that houses free modern art exhibitions, and is a nice place to take photos. Most importantly though, the Retiro has a lovely lake, where you can rent a rowing boat for 45 minutes for just 4.50 euros and enjoy the sunshine on a romantic (or otherwise) boat ride. 

Further out from the centre, but in my opinion even more worth a visit, is the Juan Carlos park (Metro Line 8, Campo de las naciones). This is an enormous masterpiece of modern landscape architecture, and is full of surprises! You can rent a bike – or even a tandem if you are brave enough – for free (don’t forget your passport) and cycle around this enormous and stunning park for an hour. Similarly there is a lake here where you can rent rowing boats over the summer.

Beautiful plazas
Madrid is full of very quaint plazas, or squares, the perfect place to sit out and enjoy the sunshine. My favourite is without a doubt the plaza Santa Ana, just 5 minutes from Sol. There are innummerable restaurants to choose from, but my advice would be “Montaditos”, a cafe which offers 100 varieties of mini baguettes, not to mention shandy (“clara”) or beer for 1 euro. You write down which sandwiches you want on the paper provided and they bring it out to you.

Romantic Sunset?

Don’t miss a beautiful sunset over the Sierra and Casa del Campo forest. The Templo de Debod, and Egyptian temple given as a gift to Spain, is an idealic spot to watch a colourful Spanish sunset, with its trees and foundains. The Temple and its lakes are lit up at night and it is a beautiful place, not far from the centre, to enjoy the last rays of sunshine.

Of course, the list is endless, these are just a few suggestions. Shopping, dancing, drinking, relaxing, eating... Madrid offers it all. Have a great trip!

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The day my baking was appreciated by the former Spanish Minister of Defence.

My cakes never turn out exactly how I envision them. But fortunately, cake is cake, and with the amount of sugar that goes into them, it is hard to seriously fail. Perhaps my problem is that I rarely actually follow any sort recipe. But then I never expect my humble attempt at a lemon cake to come under the gaze of anyone famous. Ha.

On my penultimate day in my job here in Madrid, I baked a cake for my colleagues - a lemon cake no less - as a farewell. As is custom, we went down to the cafe beneath our office for our morning coffee break and to cut the cake.

One of the advantages of having an office backing onto the entrance to the Spanish Congress of Deputies is that we often find ourselves sipping coffee next to Spanish politicians and famous journalists... not to mention occasionally crowding round the office window to watch a distinguished guest enter the parliament.

So this morning it just so happened that as we were happily tucking into my cake, who should walk in but ... Bono. Unfortunately no, not the Bono you are thinking of. It was José Bono, the President of the Spanish Congress of Deputies, and also the former Defence Minister, so still, not someone to be sneezed at. He was passing us when he noticed our happy faces and full mouths, smiled, raised his eyebrows at seeing my cake, and stopped to wish us all "buen provecho" (bon appetit). What a proud moment it would have been for my mother had she been there. All those years of letting me help her bake cakes as a child and allowing me to lick the bowl.

I, naturally, had no idea who the distinguished guest was, apart from the slightly awed expressions of my ten colleagues, so was slightly late on the uptake.

A few moments later a band of video cameras and microphones entered, in the pursuit of a young man in jeans, wearing a blindfold and being led by the arm, apparently thoroughly enjoying the experience. Again, I had little idea what was going on, but it turned out this was "El Follonero", the presenter of a popular Spanish news program, about to interview Señor Bono.

Altogether, a rather exciting morning. Perhaps I should bake more often...

Saturday, 2 April 2011

French Kissing...

Anyone who has moved around in Europe has experienced it: that awkward moment of greeting a person from another country, when someone is left hanging, expecting a second/third/fourth kiss on the cheek. 

As a teenager visiting France I was introduced to the concept of the two kisses on the cheek, a novel and bewildering experience for a young Brit. After several mornings of the rather pretentious air-kissing with an entire class of French schoolgirls, I became acutely aware of the importance of remembering to brush your teeth when abroad! Later, moving to Brussels, I was embarrassed to be left hanging repeatedly, until I eventually found out that, of course, in Belgium only one kiss is necessary. 

However, this is not merely a question of Brits adapting to continental life and kissing personal space goodbye. Among other Europeans there appears to be confusion as to exactly how many kisses are to be anticipated. Even now, accustomed to the traditional two kisses in Spain - and foolishly assuming that I had sussed the European ways - I met my friend’s parents from Luxembourg a few weeks ago, expecting two kisses as I greeted them, only to discover that a third kiss was required. Yet another awkward moment.

When my boyfriend visited me last month in Madrid and was introduced to my work colleagues, he was taken aback to find himself for the next three minutes being kissed on each cheek by every single female member of the office! His girlfriend was a lot more amused by the situation than he was...
Similarly my sister, in Paris a few years ago ,was traumatized as we walked home one evening, to find a strapping young Frenchman on a dark street come and kiss her, not just on one cheek but two. He turned out to be a colleague of mine from the restaurant I worked in.

For a Brit who is used to their own personal space, European greetings can come as quite a surprise. So, before you go travelling unsuspectingly around Europe – beware!  It is unbelievably easy to offend perfect strangers all over Europe by miscalculating such a simple affair as how many kisses. One, two, three, four...? Well, that depends who you meet...