Like a defiant, self-absorbed bad boy who refuses to follow the rules, Madrid has always seemed to be wrapped up in a sort of Bacchian narcissism that’s not entirely interested in you unless you go where he wants to go and do what he wants to do. And that typically means partying all night, until seven in the morning, drinking pacharáns and grazing tapas. Hemingway did say “Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night.” Unfortunately, I go to bed at eight (and don’t drink much), which makes it rather difficult for me and Madrid to find common ground, let alone get to know each other more intimately.
But try I do. And, as with any strained familial relationship, I visit each year, with slight reservation, always trying to see the good, for the sake of getting along.
Why I try so hard is simple: it’s the home of my kids’ grandparents. And if it weren’t for them, whom I love dearly, Madrid and I would have parted ways back in 1997, when I packed my bags and said, good riddance.
I used to live in Vallecas on calle Monte Igueldo when I was first married. We lived in a two-bedroom piso on the forth floor of an apartment building with no heat or hot water due to an empty butane tank that took a good two months for the butane company to fill. It was December and it was cold as hell. It even snowed. I used to percolate hot water in my coffee machine (we did have electricity) and mix it with a bit of cold water so that I could wash myself. We were so broke that McDonald’s was a luxury we couldn’t afford.
Poverty gave me a very limited and rather working-class understanding of the city. I knew key tourist spots that you could visit for free–the Plaza Mayor, where Americans and Brits would sit at cafes that lined the inner courtyard, the Retiro, Madrid’s version of “Central Park,” the Rastro, a huge Sunday flea market in Lavapies, and Casa de Campo–another big green space that includes a pool, tennis courts, and a park. But other than that, I worked every day as an English teacher and commuted with the throngs of Madrileños, heading to Recoletos, up the Castellano or other parts of the city. And because I had no set location, no office or classroom–I took an English teaching job wherever one was offered–I probably spent more time underground than above it. Pair that with a hubby who didn’t exactly have friends that I could relate to or socialize with (he and his childhood friends would meet once a week to play Dungeons and Dragons, or drink at Irish pubs). And so, I never experienced the deeper Spanish roots of the city–or found any of those unwritten-about places that are not discovered, per se, but shared like a secret, among friends.
I think I may have actually said, me cago en la leche, when I finally left Madrid but who knows.
Yet, I keep coming back. As often as I can. And if I am to be brutally honest, I have to admit that it may be partly for selfish reasons. There are, after all, the warm and embracing Spanish people. And the amazing food. And the dry, desert climate I love so much. The European experience is well-preserved in Spain. And Madrid, itself, while lacking in aesthetics, has the potential for deeper exploration. And so, each time I come here, I have the best intentions: to see a side of Madrid I never knew, overlook our rocky past, and once and for all learn to love this untamed rebel.
Last year, was a giant leap in that direction. I finally decided to rent an apartment on the Plaza Santa Ana as opposed to my usual– staying in Vallecas with my in-laws. What a difference!
We were able to explore more of the center instead of just taking the train in for a few hours. We were free to dine out at night–though it kills me to miss anything my mother-in-law cooks. And we were able to connect a little more directly with the vibe of Madrid, as we were right there in the heart of the city, living la vida, as opposed to being insulated in a touristy hotel, or isolated in an outer barrio.
Foregoing a hotel to stay in one of the new-style super modern luxury apartments has other benefits too. There’s far more space for less money, it’s far more modern than any hotel in Madrid (with the exception of Only You a sleek, modern hotel at $350 a night, or Oscar, in the gayborhood, which is beautiful, including the naked men on the walls, but not the best spot for two teen boys and their mum; basically a sex hotel in Chueca, easily identified by the banner over it’s front door “Do You Want to Sleep With Me?”)
Check out Home Club. They offer fully-furnished two, three and four bedroom luxury apartments in the heart of Madrid. Ours this year is a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment with a fully equipped kitchen (including washer and dryer), living room and views galore for the price of € 135 per night. It’s located on Calle Leon on a quieter street than the Plaza Santa Ana, which can be a party plaza.
Keep in mind, normal hotel rooms in Madrid are small. So, if you’re traveling with two rather large teenagers, or children in general, an apartment is ideal. Watch out for illegal AirBnBs. Madrid is really cracking down. Make sure the landlord or property owner shows you their license.
Years ago, I would do my usual loop around the center: Sol, then the Plaza Mayor, a little of the Gran Via, Atocha, Retiro, maybe the royal palace, and that was pretty much it. This trip is all about branching out. And if you’re no stranger to Madrid, my guess is you already know about these gems.
Malasaña: I have since discovered the hipster Malasaña district, with pleasant delight, never knowing it existed. Duh. With cool cafes like La Bicicleta, that offers amazing coffee and French croissants, and a pretty well thought-out “workspace” (tables have drawers with keys so that you can leave your laptop locked up without losing your space when you go to the W/C), and Lolina Vintage Cafe, a thoroughly mesmerizing cafe popping with 1950’s-style diner color and design (and a kind of quirky menu), and Cafe Naif, one of my favorite restaurants for a good burger or avocado toast, it’s hard to resist this more urban-industrial style, vibrant district. The Plaza del Dos de Mayo is its center and it has great vintage and trendy clothing shops, fabulous bars and hip cafes. Use metro Tribunal.
Huertas: This year, we will be staying in the Huertas neighborhood, which is the literary quarter:
Also known as Barrio de las Letras, Huertas was once home to prominent literary figures, Miguel de Cervantes and Lope de Vega among them. Calle Huertas itself is inlaid with quotes from celebrated authors, street names pay homage to them, and second-hand bookshops pervade. neighborhood, everything becomes a little more cramped and slightly less refined, and takes on more of an underground feel. Live music is at the heart of Huertas: by night, its subdued bars are ideal for meeting friends, sipping cocktails, and chatting quietly while enjoying jazz or singer-songwriter performances. —TripAdvisor
Be sure to stroll down the narrow calle de las Huertas, which has the Plaza de Angel and Plaza Santa Ana on one end, and the Paseo del Prado on the other. This area is also known for its jazz clubs, live music venues like Cafe Central, neighborhood bookstores, The Teatro Español, and yes, more cafes and restaurants. Best people-watching spot: an outdoor cafe on the Plaza Santa Ana.
While I’ve known about La Latina for quite a while (it is, after all where the Palacio Royal and a part of Plaza Mayor are located), I have never explored it as thoroughly as I’d like, nor have I done so knowing its history. La Latina is the oldest quarter in Madrid, and one of the most beautiful. It is here you will find the best concentration of tapas bars, including Café Bar Delic, Casa Lucas, and Casa Lucio, the latter two located on calle Cava Baja, one of the oldest streets in Madrid and a popular cafe street in La Latina. Interestingly, the Cava Baja (and its twin street, the Cava Alta) were named after caves or “moats” that allowed subterranean access to Christians and Moors who could enter and exit the city even when the doors of the walled city were closed. In later years, merchants who would come to the city to trade would stay on these streets, which were lined with inns and taverns.
Also in La Latina is Madrid’s oldest street, the calle de Grafal, which, according to historians, dates back to 1190. But stick to the calles Cava Alta and Cava Baja where all the action is. And only long after dark.
La Latina’s main squares are the Plaza La Cebada and Plaza de La Paja. And you can also find the Rastro, a huge flea market open on Sundays on the outskirts of La Latina in a sub-district known as, El Rastro.
To read more about Madrid’s neighborhoods, TripAdvisor has a great page devoted to them.