The third most popular tourist destination in the world, Spain entices travelers with its cultural pride and passion for life. Madrid is the throbbing heart of the nation, a festive society with social warmth and old-world enchantment, musical vigor and artistic beauty, historic sights and appetizing flavors.
In Madrid you will luxuriate in the elegance of sprawling plazas, and dine in the open air of a cafe, savoring rich food and sipping red wine. A vigorous and open society, Madrid lures the culture-loving traveler like an eager stranger warming to a new friend.
Once you arrive in Madrid, the most dependable choice of transportation is also your first encounter with the city’s thriving music scene. The busy underground metro will box and ship you within walking distance of any part of the city, and often with the accompaniment of live music.
The subway cars and station halls echo with the sounds of traveling musicians from all parts of the world. Playing Latin, blues, jazz, folk and acoustic rock, local and foreign talent can earn a decent pay in the metro, and some even make a modest living.
As you ride the train your surroundings may unexpectedly brighten with a burst of South American guitar and pan flute, played by musicians wearing the colorful weaves of their Ecuadorian homeland. Before a band reaches its stop, one of their members will make a round of the car accepting contributions from anyone willing to make a jingle with a coin or two.
Ascending out of the metro, you see massive buildings, plazas and crowded streets unfold with old-world grandeur. The city has been inhabited since prehistoric times, but as a European capitol it’s a newcomer, not fully developing until the 18th century.
Today the city celebrates life with an intense enjoyment of friends, food and music. The night clubs, bars and concerts attract energetic crowds that regularly top off their nightlife festivities with the next day’s breakfast. Because Madrid is a popular center for international visitors, locals are accustomed to greeting foreigners and proudly promoting their beloved social traditions.
With so much to experience there is no better place to start than a restaurant. Throughout Spain food fulfills the craving for a lovingly prepared meal with flavorful ingredients. While fast-food continues to rise in popularity, local dishes remain a fresh and healthful example of Mediterranean cuisine.
Soups, stews, meats and vegetables are cooked with olive oil, garlic, paprika, cumin and saffron, and are often accompanied by potatoes or rice. Spain’s world-class Manchego cheese is like a flamenco guitar solo. Its depth and subtlety need no accompaniment. Cured meats and sausage, especially jamón serrano and chorizo appear regularly in appetizers and meals. Although Spain’s own dietitians admit to some over-consumption among the population, the native dishes are forgiving on a characteristically slender population.
When choosing a restaurant in Madrid, one choice will never fail to impress. In the heart of the city, next to the classical Plaza Mayor, you will find the Restaurante Botín, founded in 1725 and recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest restaurant in the world. Earnest Hemingway extended the fame of Botín by mentioning it in the next to last page of The Sun Also Rises.
Botín preserves history as it continues using the original 18th century wood-burning stove, fed with fragrant green oak logs. The dining rooms are adorned with sturdy oak beams lining the ceiling. Polished copper pans, oil paintings, and painted tile decorate the walls. Guests are also served in the vaulted wine cellar, a large cave-like interior enclosed with red brick. Botín’s ambiance immerses you in a distant time when kings feasted and revolutionaries plotted their overthrow. The same royal splendor and revolutionary vigor exist today in the vivacious crowds celebrating the Spanish dinner.
Botín’s most famous dish is the roast suckling pig, cooked for two and a half hours to tender sweetness and infused with olive oil and herbs. Also well-known are the roast lamb, stewed partridge and golden glazed potatoes. The sangría is refreshing and sweet and beloved by all. Spain has a proud and abundant winemaking industry, and Botín offers a worthy sampling in the valdepeñas house red. Desserts include fruit marinated in sherry and the house-made caramel custard with cream.
While dining at Botín you may recall the subway, not just because of the subterranean dining quarters, but because of the guitar-strumming college youths who appear for a musical interlude. This 700 year-old fraternal group, known as La Tuna, will entertain the crowd with traditional Spanish songs and good humor. The Tuna only initiate new members after they pass a rigorous examination of musicianship and wit.
As with the bands in the subway, this group plays for income so be prepared to give a donation as they make the rounds to your table.
Spain’s love of food and music proceed naturally from a culture of artistic passion. There is no better demonstration of this than the historic Prado museum in Madrid. Constructed in the 18th century under Charles III, the Prado is the legacy of Spain’s royal patronage to the arts. In his famous Iberia, James Michener refers to the Prado as the heirloom of kings.
Prado’s vast halls boast the greatest collection of masterpieces by Spanish painters Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya, as well as those of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. You will also find an excellent assortment of works by El Greco, Peter Paul Rubens, Raphael, Titian, and Murillo, in addition to fine pieces by Botticelli, Caravaggio, Durer and Rembrandt. Through the museum’s many rooms you will see living artists as well, working at their easels and paying tribute to the masters through imitation.
Among the Prado’s many delights, one painting stands with preeminence, Las Meninas, painted by Diego Velázquez in 1656. Viewing Las Meninas is similar to visiting a throne room where tourists take a seat to have their picture taken. Like many great works of art, Las Meninas casts an aura that draws viewers into its presence, but here the phenomenon is heightened because you, the viewer, are the focus of attention.
A simple presentation of the painting goes something like this: at the center of the foreground the Infanta Margarita, daughter of King Philip IV of Spain, greets you with a face of sweetness and dignity. Her blonde hair is bathed in angelic light, and her white hoop-skirt cascades to the floor. She is attended by her ladies-in-waiting (meninas), a court dwarf and her disinterested mastiff, which is playfully nudged by a small boy.
The painting invites you into the intimacy of the royal court where Velázquez himself appears, brush and pallet in hand, behind an enormous easel. The subject of this unseen painting-within-the-painting implies another layer of subject-matter because Velázquez faces outward, studying the viewer. Who, then, is the intended viewer that Velázquez is painting?
On the far wall behind the Infanta is a mirror that frames a portrait of the king and queen. It now becomes clear that the implied subject of Las Meninas and the viewer are one—the royal couple. The whole scene is an entertainment for the king and queen, who are greeted by the Infanta, who is in turn entertained by her entourage.
Velázquez included himself in the painting to honor the king and queen with both his art and his person. He is an attendant to the crown much in the same way the meninas are the attendants to the Infanta. The king accepted this honor with royal gratitude. Three years after Las Meninas was completed, the king invested Velázquez with the Order of Santiago. The red cross of Santiago, painted on Velázquez’ breast, was added to the painting only after his death.
The red cross was a magnanimous gesture, paying tribute to an intimate of the court. Adding the cross did not make the painting greater, just as Hemingway’s praise does not make the food and ambiance any better at Botín. Such gestures are a way of preserving recognition for an art that outlasts the usual expressions of gratitude. It is the pride of great artists to offer their talents as a service, the service of which is more than the compensation or fame it receives.
Such is the tradition alive today in Madrid, where artists of all kinds are devoted to serving you with their trade. Whether enjoying a subway musician, a skilled Spanish guitarist, a celebrated restaurant, or a masterpiece painting, you will find that the sights, sounds and flavors of Madrid are an experience worthy of a king’s favor.