Tapas literally means a cover or lid and the concept comes from the old tradition of placing a slice of bread or ham on top of a glass to keep out flies. Tapas range from plates of olives to soup to fried baby squid. In Madrid, they’re not just a type of food but a way of dining and socialising. A tapeo describes a sort of pub crawl from tapas bar to tapas bar.
The ideal accompaniment to tapas is a class of sherry. The fortified wine originates from Spain, so it’s the best place in the world to sample it. Don’t write off sherry as the dodgy stuff in your grandparents’ decanter, the quality of the product here makes it worth a second look.
Then, loosened up, you’ll be ready to hit the town. Madrid’s nightlife offers it all, from flamenco shows to cheesy clubs and intimate bars. The barrio with the best nightlife surrounds Plaza de Santa Ana, where the majority of the city’s 20,000 bars are situated. When there’s so much to choose from it’s easy to see how the locals stay out all night.
To alleviate the pangs of guilt you may experience from spending your entire time in Madrid pursuing hedonistic pleasures, there’s plenty to do by day. One of the best places to go to recover from a hangover is the cool, softly lit, quiet environs of a museum. In Madrid you’re spoilt for choice.
The king is the Museo del Prado. This is where classics by Spain’s Old Masters such as Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya are housed. Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is the place to go if you like modern art. The highlight is Picasso’s Guernica, inspired by the German bombing of the basque town Gernika in 1937.
Your next stop should be the magnificent Italianate baroque palace that sits on a terrace above the royal gardens, soaring over the outlying suburbs of Madrid. Built in 1734 when the Antiguo Alcázar (Old Castle) burned down, King Felipe V, the first of the Bourbon kings, seized upon the opportunity to give the city of Madrid a palace of truly royal proportions. The result is a study in opulence – it took 26 years to build, and has 2800 rooms.
Among the many treasures on display are portraits by Goya and the remarkable porcelain room. The tour takes in around 50 palace rooms and by the end you’ll be more than ready for a siesta. After that, it’s up and out again to prowl with the cats. •
• Ainsley Thomson travelled to Madrid with Opodo. Return flights plus two nights’ accommodation in Madrid, staying at the Sofitel Madrid Plaza, start at £25.
A controversial pastime, la lidia (as bullfighting is known) is regarded as a sacred artform by those who love it and a mindles; cruel slaughter of innocent animals by those opposed to it.
One of the greatest champions of the sport was Ernest Hemingway, who loved the spectacle from the first time he saw it (and often took part in amateur bullfights) and once said: “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing and mountain climbing; all the rest are games.”
Watching a bullfight can be both confronting and compelling. The skill and horsemanship the matadors exhibit is breathtaking, but watching the bull’s energy slowly drain away as it is repeatedly lanced is sickening. Whatever your views of bullfighting you can’t escape its importance in Spanish culture and the fact that it is an incredible visual experience.
Madrid is regarded as the home of bullfighting, particularly in May as part of the city’s celebrations for its patron saint, San Isidro. The biggest bullfighting ring in world – Plaza de Toros Monumental de Las Ventas – is in the city and hosts the world’s top bullfighters. The season runs from March to October.