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What to See and Do in Madrid, Spain

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Photo: Monika Höfler & Jens Schwarz

It’s 4 a.m. on a Tuesday night—New York and London are mostly asleep, Berlin and Barcelona are getting tired, Hong Kong and Frankfurt are completely tuckered out—and here I am surrounded by throaty, amorous singers, some in their sixties and seventies, jammed around a piano at a bar called Toni2, hollering lustily about amor and besos and all that good stuff. Where am I? Where could I possibly be? Madrid, of course. And nowhere else.

The seniors are singing a ballad by the Spanish crooner Nino Bravo. My companion on this journey into night is Diego Salazar, a young Peruvian writer and foodie who came to Madrid a decade ago and never looked back. “If Nino Bravo hadn’t died in a car accident,” Salazar tells me, “Julio Iglesias wouldn’t exist.” I consider the tragedies that could have been averted. Salazar tells me of a right-wing pundit who got into a fine mess at Toni2 after touching someone’s ass. Many stories in Madrid seem to end this way. In any case, some 30 years from now, if I decide not to go gently into that good night, if I decide to push the limits of mortality and common sense, this is where I want to be, crooning and drinking and being goosed by a right-wing pundit and generally just being alive.

“You go to Barcelona to have children,” Salazar tells me in a way that makes me understand that he’s not quite ready to reproduce. Great cities need archrivals. St. Petersburgers routinely hate Moscow. Bostonians still can’t seem to get over the rise of New York (and the success of a certain baseball team). But nothing in the world beats the rivalry between Madrid and Barcelona, the two competing international faces of Spain. Some sample quotes: “Barcelona’s much more closed if you’re not Catalan.” Ouch. “We have more rhythm, friendliness.” Perhaps. The truth is both cities are worthy of respect, sometimes love. But Barcelona, the sixth-most-visited city in Europe, is ruthlessly gorgeous, while Madrid’s beauty has to be uncovered, her sweltering summers and freezing winters endured. And then there’s the pollution cloaking the place, watering your eyes and tickling your throat.

And yet, Madrid is on the rise! The city has been going to the gym, cutting out the trans fats, and taking summer courses. Today’s Madrid, despite the economic nightmare that is Spain circa 2012, is both lean and welcoming, with a recently reclaimed river, a burgeoning new arts district within the walls of an old slaughterhouse, oodles of creative cuisine, and, yes, nocturnal 70-year-olds gathered around a piano in the rollicking Chueca neighborhood waiting for the sun to rise.

The first time I came to Spain I was recovering from a mild nervous breakdown. The year was 1996, and I had just barely survived 13 months of my first postcollege job as a paralegal in New York. After the arduous, exacting nature of being a junior legal eagle, I recall stepping off a crowded Spanish train, walking into a bar near Valencia, and getting misty-eyed at the sight of used napkins and shrimp shells on the floor. What a terrific, easygoing lifestyle awaited me! (Almost 20 years later, what impresses me most is how clean those barroom floors always are the next day.) I befriended a clutch of young miscreants in a small village and was invited to join their little summer club, the Penya Colpet (roughly “Club Shot Glass”). Together we welcomed the summer fiestas, taunted a bull, ate enough pulpo a la gallega to empty out the northern region of Galicia, and slept maybe four hours during the entire month of July. I remember coming to a little pensione in Madrid where the elderly landlady sized me up and said: “I have just one rule: No women in your room.”

“It will not be a problem,” I told her sadly.

My other memory of Madrid consisted of being chased down at least two blocks in the city center by a heroin-addicted transvestite clamoring for my patronage.

Downtown Madrid will now have none of that, thank you. The city has gentrified tremendously, but you can still catch a little flicker of grit in your peripheral vision. There are fancy new olive-oil stores next to shoe-repair shops whose proprietors live in darkened holes illuminated only by the flicker of the TV behind thick curtains. In the oh-so-cool area of TriBall, short for Triángulo de Ballesta, there are prostitutes being edged out by fashion boutiques, cooking schools, artisanal hamburger joints, and the Belgian-owned Al Cuadrado Taglio & Bar pizza shop. The remainder of TriBall’s streetwalkers like to cluster outside Al Cuadrado, perhaps getting a whiff of the spicy salami, rosemary, caramelized sweet onion, and potato slices, a nice addition to the Roman pizza al taglio canon. Most places would not survive being called the “new SoHo” for long, but TriBall is still slightly gritty and semi-weird. For one of the world’s party capitals, the cleanliness and general order are amazing. Parts of Madrid have gone from The Panic in Needle Park to Al Cuadrado’s surgical cleanliness seemingly overnight.

Giles Tremlett is the Guardian’s debonair correspondent in Madrid and author of Ghosts of Spain, a definitive guide to the country’s postwar history. Tremlett has lived in the city for decades and he tells me the story of one of his friends, a Muslim man who, wearing a white robe, was seen by the neighborhood kids as “an angel.”

“But now Madrid is used to the diversity,” he says. Indeed a stroll through the Lavapiés neighborhood, a stone’s throw from the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, reveals a palimpsest of the waves of immigration that have washed over this barrio, an indicator of how wealthy Spain has become, and how relatively tolerant Madrid is perceived to be. “First the Arabs, now the Pakistanis and Chinese,” Lawrence Schimel, a New York–born author who now speaks English with a slight castellano accent, tells me over excellent Basque pintxos and a caña of the ubiquitous Mahou beer.

We’re at Lamiak, a tapas establishment at the center of Lavapiés, the pleasant muted yellows and the exposed brick lending the bar a cheerful demeanor. Prolific Schimel has published more than 90 books, from a collection of short stories in English entitled The Drag Queen of Elfland to Spanish-language children’s books like Mi Gata Eureka (“My Cat, Eureka”). Being smoothly bicultural, Schimel has been perfect at charting the way immigrant groups spill in and out of Lavapiés. “The Chinese used to sell lighters on the street,” he tells me, “but now they have little establishments and entire industrial zones away from the center.” Schimel is a vegan, but that doesn’t stop me from viciously attacking a three-bite tartare of bacalao and tomato, along with a little solomillo de cerdo al oporto, pork tenderloin marinated in port and covered in pineapple and onion, which tastes classier than it sounds. Outside, vegan stores jostle with dark Chinese markets. An overwhelmingly Pakistani street gives way to an array of local hippies. We are far from the land of bullfighting and beachfront siestas, yet we do manage to find flamenco.

The Mercado de Antón Martín is a vital neighborhood market. The second floor of this vast building is an odd place to put the exquisitely named Amor de Dios flamenco school. But there it is: crowded with Japanese girls (flamenco is another unlikely Japanese obsession), resounding with castanets. I wish Renoir were here to capture a half-dozen women standing in a row, their postures perfect, practicing their clicks. Directly downstairs, Variantes y Bollería Juanjo, an olive shop, dispenses buckets of tasty pickles and marinated baby eggplant (berenjenas de Almagro) stuffed with red pepper and fennel.

In less than four typed pages I realize I’ve mentioned three people and nearly twice as many dishes. Madrid does that to you. The feast is not just movable, it is endless, with much of it boiled down to 10 square city blocks. Malasaña, directly north of Calle Gran Vía and northwest of gay-friendly Chueca, is still the hippest stretch of town. I’m strolling through with my friend, the wonderful Spanish writer Mercedes Cebrián, author of La Nueva Taxidermia, or “The New Taxidermy” (authors in this town have the coolest book titles). We cross Malasaña’s main plaza and make our way to Casa Fidel. “Traditional cuisine,” Cebrián tells me, “with a touch of modernity” (read: chicken curry). I am introduced to salmorejo, a dish from Córdoba made chiefly from tomato and bread and the holy trinity of oil, garlic, and vinegar, garnished with jamón serrano and hard-boiled egg. I quickly fall in love with this cold, thick, and hammy gazpacho substitute. Next up, a dish of porky lomo embuchado, which Cebrián says “tastes like the bastard child of jamón and chorizo.” I notice that, appropriately enough for a place called Fidel, most of the men are wearing thick, lovingly maintained beards. Finally, chipirones en su tinta con arroz, squid in its own ink with rice; the squid is as dark as night, darker than Goya’s black paintings. Javier Blasco, the friendly owner, comes around with a bottle of orujo, a Galician spirit, somewhat grappa-like. After drinking it, I’m told: “You sleep very bad.” Sleep very bad? The problem with Madrid is there is no sleep at all.

Blasco, who seems to pop up in every second establishment I visit, either in human form or as a subject of conversation, also happens to own my favorite clothing store in Madrid, L’Habilleur, on the small Plaza de Chueca. By their striking wooden doors ye will find this very Eurocentric shop. The clothes have a classic vintage feel; the fabrics are sumptuous. Here are designs from Italy’s Coast & Weber & Ahaus and the French at-ease stylings of Hartford. My ritual is to shop until I am ready to swoon, then walk to nearby Antigua Casa Ángel Sierra, a dark and lovely space with cherubs gracing the ceiling and a beautifully rendered crustacean out front. There, along with a glass of vermouth, I feed myself anchovies, vinegary boquerones and salty anchoas (together, Cebrián tells me, they are called el matrimonio). The vermouth here is de grifo, or “from the tap.” Which can pose problems the next morning.

The contours of a Madrid visit are familiar to many: art, tapas, dinner, short, troubled sleep.... The fact that a sophisticated city is buzzing outside your window is a bit shocking when you wake up at 4 p.m. to run to the Museo Nacional del Prado. But run to it you must. The golden triangle of Madrid museums has been made into a golden square with the 2008 addition of the CaixaForum Madrid, Herzog & de Meuron’s five-year-long conversion of the Mediodía Electric Power Plant, roughly equidistant from the Prado and the Atocha train station. The arts center, a clean, well-lighted place, is a mix of intelligent design and smart exhibits. When I visit the centerpiece is a show on Soviet architecture featuring such gems as Le Corbusier’s famous Tsentrosoyuz building in Moscow. It is one of the best and most comprehensive exhibitions of Soviet architecture I’ve seen anywhere. The museum’s gorgeous steel-and-brick exterior is wowed into place by a 79-foot-tall “vertical garden,” making it a true example of Cool España.

Across the street, the Jerónimos addition has given the Prado a 21st-century, vaguely Nordic redo, the accent on soothing burnished copper. The museum, once a sweaty scavenger hunt for Goyas and El Grecos, is now almost antiseptically user-friendly. The Reina Sofía sports a pretty new, 350,000-square-foot Jean Nouvel expansion, cleverly matched to the bulk of the original 19th-century hospital building.

But perhaps the most notable expansion has taken place at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, when the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection was added in 2004, comprising some 300 works, the majority of which are on display at any given time. The new collection fantastically reconfigures the museum. Corot’s mesmerizing Solitude. Recollection of Vigen, Limousin stepped up this dazed visitor’s hungover melancholy, the solitary woman at its center a placeholder for the loneliness of travel. There’s no sense in resisting the strange but effective jumble of it all: Van Gogh’s splendid Watermill at Gennep living down the hall from Frederic Church’s lush South American Landscape, down the hall from Pissarro’s The Cabbage Field, Pontoise, the cabbages covered in serene morning mist, while, nearby, a fresh-faced young docent cools herself with a large black fan. I haven’t left Spain, after all.

But now it’s time to cross retiro Park to see Giles Tremlett again. We’re in the middle-class part of the Retiro neighborhood, one of Madrid’s “Zonas Nacionales”: according to Tremlett, many of the ugly apartment houses here were built for nationalist supporters of the Franco dictatorship in the 1950’s. Madrid may have embraced edgy pizzas by Belgian newcomers, but there’s still nothing like an old-fashioned tapas crawl in a middle-of-the-road, decidedly un-happening neighborhood. First stop is La Castela, a noisy, well-lit, cheek-by-jowl, all-ages, napkins-on-the-floor kind of place. The Thursday rush is crazy. We eat a plateful of garbanzos con langostino, enjoying prawns and the poor man’s bean soaked in olive oil and studded with ajete, the green stalk of the young garlic plant.

Walking down the main drag, Calle del Doctor Castelo, we hit the next bar, La Montería, which is crammed with young Retiro residents. We match a hearty Ribera del Duero with a heavenly fatty oxtail, the rabo de toro, and a plate of cecina de ciervo, blood-red dried venison meat soaked in salmorejo, the thick tomato-and-bread soup I’ve fallen for. This is still a real neighborhood, even if its demographics are changing. People look out for one another here and being alone is not a part of the lifestyle. Tremlett tells me of a local store owner, a Chinese woman, who just had a baby and got sick of the adoring locals dropping by to ask “Bebé bien?” “Bebé bien,” she’d growl back.

Finally, we nightcap at the Antigua Taberna Arzábal, farther down Calle del Doctor Castelo. We are looking for some cava to “cleanse the palate.” After the madness of the previous two places this one is over-polished and slick, with champagne soaking in silver buckets. We eat the tasty olive-oil-soaked anchoa and sip the bubbly, while next to us some wannabe urbanites are posing with a bottle of Tanqueray.

This is perhaps the right place to talk about Spain’s newfound love of the Gin and Tonic. If I were a juniper berry I’d be scared of the Spaniards. Rivers of gin are consumed in Madrid. The best new place to do so is La Chula de Valverde, back in TriBall, a sweet, exposed-brick kind of place with the Johnny Cash version of “Personal Jesus” on the stereo. The preparation of the sacred Gin and Tonic lasts five minutes, as the bartender Carlos moves the lime around the rim, gently, oh-so-gently pouring in the tonic. The G’Vine version is made with grapes and raspberries. If the gin and tonics fail, try the old clara con limón, draft beer with a helping of lemon Fanta. At the start of the evening (9 p.m., basically), there are shy older men here with sex sells T-shirts and manically groomed terriers. Bears from Chueca, hipsters from TriBall, everyone comes for the company and the Citadelle Gin, made in a French cognac distillery with aromatics including Chinese licorice and Spanish lemon rind.

After a few G&T’s, the question: straight to dinner, or tapas? We stop at the recently modernized Mercado de San Miguel, the wrought-iron foodie’s paradise off the Plaza Mayor. Here are some fine little things to pick on: the mussel canapés and garlic brandade from La Casa del Bacalao, and the heavenly, eggy tortilla from an outpost of good old Lhardy restaurant (desde 1839, no less!).

And then there’s Sergi Arola Gastro, the Michelin two-starred Art Deco tunnel of fun over in the quiet Chamberí district. I’m thinking of their play on the bocadillo de calamares, the squid sandwich that is a Madrid tradition, here reduced to a little handful of bread and thoughtfully fried seafood. Then there are the deconstructed patatas bravas; the “bread nougat,” a thin tube of caramelized bread filled with tomato and ham (it tenderly goes to pieces in your mouth); and a counterintuitive cornet of trout roe and wasabi ice cream. The scorpion-fish panna cotta comes with percebe, a goose barnacle, and seaweed powder. The barnacle, which looks like your old college roommate’s big toe on a bad day, is a briny knockout. Down the menu, the king prawns with peaches are simple and delicious, as are the roasted sardines. I’ve never been inducted into the wonders of the powerful Priorat wines, such as the plummy and chocolaty, larger-than-life 2004 Francesc Sánchez-Bas Montgarnatx, but there’s no looking back after the first sip. And I’m not the only person falling in love. The woman in tight sequins next to me, looking like she just stepped off the set of an Almodóvar movie, is making out hard with her date, one hand deep into the opening of his blue oxford shirt, her minidress rustling under the table. In their defense, it is well past midnight, almost time for the main course.

Daylight reveals Madrid’s new gems. Matadero Madrid, the repurposed municipal slaughterhouse by the Manzanares, Madrid’s anemic little river, is already a crowd-pleaser. The vast space buzzes with art, such as Mexican artist Gilberto Esparza’s Urban Parasites, a collection of robots programmed to seek electricity wherever they can find it. The whole thing is “made of technological waste and electronic systems,” so don’t feel guilty if you get the robotic fruit flies excited.

The new river park, Madrid Río, is itself worthy of a detour. Snaking through large apartment blocks on its way to the royal palace, the river has become a truly democratic space—older women wearing hats made out of newspaper lounge around with their Sunday beers, there’s a “beach” where young children play under sprays of water enjoying the last stretch of summer, and the whole thing is threaded through with happy-looking poplar trees and attractive playgrounds.

But, as far as I’m concerned, the best architecture in Madrid is still the Richard Rogers–designed Terminal 4 at Madrid-Barajas Airport. Muscular but sinuous, flooded with natural light, the design reminds you that Spain—a country that sent so many of its citizens abroad during its worst days and now welcomes so many immigrants from across the globe—has mastered both the art of greeting and, sadly, the art of farewell.

Gary Shteyngart is a T+L contributing editor.

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