Mad about Madrid

(Paris is by far lovelier and postcard-perfect, while London is way cooler and teeming with energy, but there’s something about Madrid, the Spanish capital, that grows on you the longer you stay. Before you know it, you’re in love with the city and its warm, carefree residents.

(For good or bad, Spain and, by extension, Madrid, are still deeply ingrained in every Filipino’s bones. Despite having lost the facility to speak Spanish, I really felt at home in Madrid more than in any other city in Europe.  More than a century after Spain left the Philippines, its endearing legacy still flows through my veins.

(I’d like to share with you a travel story I wrote about my first-ever trip to Spain in March 2010. I hope to come back someday to Spain and do Barcelona and Santiago de Compostela. Have a great weekend!—AYV)

alexyvergara with journalists from all over the world breaking bread during our first night together in Madrid

IF Rome has the tiger for its symbol, Madrid has the bear.

MADRID has no intentions of usurping New York’s claim as “the city that never sleeps.” But if there’s one metropolis in Europe that best mirrors this description, then the Spanish capital could very

A MONUMENT to Cervantes’ characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

well be it.

Its streets, especially within the Gran Via area, are never empty of people at any given time of the day. And since Spaniards start their unbelievably long dinners consisting of four- to six-course meals, served degustation-style, not earlier than 9 p.m., city streets continue to buzz with activity, especially on Friday nights, way into the wee hours of Saturday.

Competing on a typical table for such staples familiar to Filipinos as jamon Iberico and Serrano were various bounties from the sea such as mussels, shrimps and squids as big as baby octopuses.

The latter dish, served in the squids’ own ink and looking a tad like they did in the wild, is an acquired taste. While most of us dove into the gustatory adventure with gusto, several colleagues couldn’t bring themselves to eat “tentacles.”

But wherever we dined, be it at El Mercado de la Reina along Gran Via, the hole-in-the-wall La Tesquita de Enfrente, the trendy Estado Puro and the posh La Terraza del Casino, our supposedly hearty Spanish meal wasn’t complete without “Russian” salad.

I wasn’t able to venture inside, but this place reportedly serves one of the best churros con chocolate in Madrid.

Only one restaurant, the equally classy and exclusive El Club Allard, didn’t offer it in its set menu. For all we know, its chefs probably serve it on a different

VIEW from my hotel window offers a medieval and romantic feel that can be life-altering

day.

It had become a running gag among us as to which restaurant served the best Russian salad, more so after we learned from a Russian colleague that no salad goes by such name in Moscow.

It must be the strong coffee, as Spaniards are naturally lively and blessed with a ready smile. Far from looking like robots walking methodically from points A to B, they seem to savor the scene with a distinct bounce in their steps like any animated tourist.

And speaking of tourists, first-time visitors to Madrid are sure to be overwhelmed. With more than 80 museums, 2,000 monuments, 3,000 restaurants and countless shopping options within a 10-km radius from “kilometer zero” (better known as Puerta del Sol) to choose from, who wouldn’t be?

Aware perhaps of this fact, people at Empresa Municipal Promocion de Madrid, the agency in charge of the city’s cultural, tourism and economic promotion, recently invited a select group of international journalists to exclusively take in the sights, sounds and tastes of Gran Via and its environs.

And rightly so, since Gran Via, the kilometer and a half stretch that connects Calle Alcala to Plaza de España, where a monument to Cervantes and his immortal creations Don Quixote and Sancho Panza stand, marks its 100th year in 2010.

Strategic, historic

FUN-LOVING Spaniards do some street dancing at Puerta del Sol

Strategic as well as historic, the major thoroughfare has been described by not a few writers as Madrid’s answer to New York’s Fifth Avenue and

A ROTUNDA featuring the city’s monument (I think) to spring

Broadway, Paris’ Champs Elysées, London’s Covent Garden and Rome’s Via Veneto.

Theaters and cinemas, as well as hotels and stores housing such global brands as H&M and homegrown labels like Zara, Mango and Sfera, line both sides of the multi-lane Gran Via. Note to shopaholic Filipinos: Zara and Mango are 30-40 percent cheaper in Spain compared to anywhere else.

Many of these stores, including Lefties, a haven for bargain hunters where last season’s clothes and shoes from Zara and other brands cost anywhere from 10-20 euros, are housed in former theaters and office buildings.

Although the buildings’ interiors have been retrofitted to serve the stores’ purpose, said Mauricio, our friendly but knowledgeable tour guide, their new owners were required by law not to alter anything on the outside.

OUR group at Puerta del Sol poses in front of the clock tower where Madrileños congregate every New Year’s Eve to say goodbye to the old and say hello to the new.

One fine example of adaptive reuse is Avenida, a stone’s throw from Callao metro station. Built in 1928, the former cinema now houses an H&M store, one of several H&Ms in the

area.

If you want to look a tad different from the rest, then you should check out one of several stores at Triball. Located off Gran Via, the area was once notorious for its brothels and prostitutes.

These days, cleaned of its filth and given a fresh coat of paint, it’s home to a number of shops such as Dolores Promesas, Kling, El Beso and La Maison de la Lanterne Rouge showcasing clothes designed by Madrid designers. Lopez Pascual, one of Madrid’s oldest ham shops, and avant-garde furniture and home décor shop Kikekeller can also be found in Triball.

Luxury European brands such as Chanel, Gucci and Louis Vuitton are located several blocks from Gran Via, along a stretch of Calle Serrano also known as the “Golden Mile.”

But Loewe, Spain’s homegrown luxury brand of leather goods, apart from its presence on Calle Serrano, retained its first store on Gran Via. Opened in 1935, the store first catered to Madrid’s elite and Hollywood royalty before becoming a haven for high-flying shoppers from the world over.

Gran Via is also several minutes away, either by foot or by car, from some of Madrid’s famous museums and cultural hubs. The list includes Circulo de Bellas Artes (with its famed giant statue, one of many imposing figures overlooking the city, from its balcony), Prado Museum, Caixa Forum, Museo del Romanticismo and Reina Sofia Museum, which prides itself of having one of the biggest collections of works by Dali and Picasso, including the timeless and visually disturbing “Guernica.”

Another must-see venue for culture vultures is the Matadero, a complex of art and performance venues so named because it was once the city’s main abattoir. Again, in the true spirit of adaptive reuse, buildings were retained, refurbished and given new uses.

Not to be confused with a matador or bullfighter, an attraction people from Promocion hardly promotes, the Matadero is, if you will, a one-stop cultural Mecca of sorts, showcasing more avant-garde works, be it in the visual or in the performing arts, including fashion.

Thanks to the chilly spring weather, I took a leisurely stroll from one end of Gran Via to another one slow afternoon, snapping photos and sifting through bargains, without breaking into a sweat.

Famous architects

Designed by some of Europe’s most famous architects during the first half of the 20th century, artsy

buildings of various inspirations and time

frames line the entire stretch of Gran Via. What’s more, major places of interest such as the Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor, Palacio Real and Catedral de Almudena are all within walking distance of each other.

Writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and celebrities of the day from Frank Sinatra to Ava Gardner, Gary Cooper to Grace Kelly, were a common sight during Gran Via’s heydays.

These famous names and other celebrities, such as Rita Heyworth, Orson Welles, Sophia Loren, Luis Miguel Dominguin and the Duchess of Alba used to frequent a bar called Chicote, which opened way back in 1931, whenever they were in Madrid.

The institution, located a few meters away from Calle Alcala, is still open to this day, catering to today’s batch of celebrities and wannabes of various shapes and forms.

Like a typical European city, Madrid’s network of narrow and cobbled streets in the late 19th century was built mainly for carriages. With the advent of cars and a dramatic increase in population, the city was badly in need of a major thoroughfare to connect smaller networks of side streets and byways.

King Alfonso XIII and his advisers saw the need to expand and modernize Madrid’s road network even

before the turn of the last century. Work finally began in 1910 with the clearing of several buildings and private residences, beginning with a sacristy beside St. Joseph’s Church near Calle Alcala.

But it wasn’t until the early 1930s, after a number of upheavals, including a flu pandemic and civil war, which culminated in the mailed-fist rule of Generalissimo Francisco Franco in 1939, that the entire Gran Via, which consists of three distinct but interconnected stretches, was completed.

One need not be an expert in architecture to discern changes in the buildings’ overall look and inspiration as one advances from one stretch to the other. While buildings that line the stretch from Calle Alcala to Red San Luis are more ornate, structures that make up the relatively newer stretches from Callao to Plaza España are more streamlined.

But like all cities with a deep sense of history and respect for the arts, Madrid, through hell or high water, has managed to preserve and retain the look and character of most of its prized structures and bequeath them to present and future generations. And most of these architectural gems are concentrated in a relatively short but storied avenue called Gran Via.

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