We’ve just returned from a short visit to Madrid, and I’m in love – with this noisy, beautiful, glorious, delicious city. The unexpectedly sudden 36° heat brought everyone out onto the streets and made the city into one big living room every evening. The young thronged the graffiti-decorated, cobble-treaded narrow-ways of Malasaña; the elderly walked their dogs at a sedate pace, and sat on benches to watch life stream past. We browsed vintage and upcycled furniture at a street market, and pitched up at a succession of shaded bar tables where a free bowl of something always appeared with the drinks, usually followed swiftly by a perusal of the menu and several more plates of outstanding deliciousness.
We were lucky that our British/Mexican hosts have lived in Madrid for long enough to know the tricks for spotting a good bar, finding the best open-air swimming pool, and using the Metro. At the same time, they’re still finding out about the city themselves, so were happy to find new things with us – the perfect combination. So what did we learn?
1. Try not to arrive during a heatwave
Hot in Madrid is like opening the oven door every time you leave the house/restaurant/shop/Metro. It’s can’t-breathe-in hot. Madrileños seem to have worked out ways of dealing with this: have a siesta; let children stay up later; live in apartment buildings built around cooling courtyard wells; stay in the shade; use a fan; most of all, escape to the coast in July and August. We arrived on the day the thermometer jumped from 25° to 35°, sooner than expected, and I was relieved to find that I wasn’t the only one struggling.
One of the first things I discovered was that buying a fan does not make you look like a tourist. They were in evidence everywhere, used by men as well as women. They look great, they work, and they don’t need batteries.
Luckily we were able to take advantage of one of the city’s great open-air swimming pools at Centro Deportivo Municipal Peñuelas. Two pools (one just for kids), lots of grass and shaded areas, a cafe and a covered area with picnic tables. Tip: arrive near to opening time to get a good spot and expect to retreat, at least from the water, once school is out. A pool full of over-excited tweenagers recently released from school is not relaxing. It is slightly terrifying.
2. Drink like a local
In Madrid, vermouth is called vermut. It is always red and served with ice and a slice of orange. It’s often on tap, and some bars have their own blend. It’s delicious, especially with a chunk or two or three of tortilla de patatas and a handful of olives.
I knew the delights of vermut from a previous visit, but my new discovery this visit was tinto de verano, a lovely light refreshing summer drink a bit like a spritzer. It arrives in a huge glass which is a bit daunting, but it’s basically red wine and Sprite mixed 50/50 with a ton of ice and a slice of lemon – not too alcoholic, a tiny bit sweet, and just what you need when it’s hot.
3. Eat lunch
You know the saying: if you want to eat like a king in Britain, have breakfast for every meal? In Madrid, it would be lunch. We had three fabulous lunches, all great for different reasons. The first was a selection of tapas at a bar in the Barrio de las Letras. We ate tortilla de patatas, olives, smoked salmon and cream cheese on bread, a salad with bacon and goat’s cheese, croquetas, and a dish of fat prawns and mushrooms, scrambled with eggs and surrounded by toasted bread. The latter was so delicious that the table behind us immediately ordered it for themselves.
The second was a picnic at the swimming pool. We made a swift visit to Carrefour (which could have been much much longer – foreign supermarket shopping is literally my favourite holiday activity) for crusty bread with saucisson iberico, jamon curado, soft goat’s cheese, olives stuffed with anchovies and the most delicious tomatoes, with cherries for dessert. Also an enormous bag of crisps. Gourmet isn’t always good.
On our last day, we had a menú del día at a local bar, El Patio de Chamberí. For 12.90€ I had a three course meal: ensaladilla rusa, pollo cordon bleu served with chips, chocolate mousse, bread, and a glass of vermut. Others had gazpacho and croquetas de jamón, tuna teriyaki and a huge bowl of pasta with tomato sauce and vegetables. There was sharing, but not much. It was all too yummy to give away.
4. Wear the right shoes
There are a surprising number of hills in Madrid. Not steep hills, just persistent ones. And cobbles. I took the wrong shoes and my feet swelled up in the sudden heat so they just didn’t fit. Fortunately the one thing it’s always worth shopping for in Madrid is shoes. I have a pair of desert boots, bought on my last visit for 20€, that have taken me through three winters now. This time round, I found a great pair of leather sandals in a small, busy, friendly local zapateria with a walking-appropriate Birkenstock-style sole and the reddest strappy uppers. They were only 26€. Would have been rude not to.
5. Look up and listen out
It’s easy to experience Madrid at eye level but it’s always worth looking up. There are a variety of architectural styles from the medieval to the modern but, regardless of the period, the interesting bits of the building are often higher up. In addition many of the balconies are festooned with plants and vines, and rooftop gardens abound.
But perhaps the thing about Madrid that will stay with me the longest is its noises. The peep-peep-peep of the traffic crossing lights; screaming engines of mopeds roaring away; and above all the cries of the swallows, zooming down into the narrow streets and away again in the morning and evening feeding frenzies.
So that’s what we did in Madrid. And here’s the thing I didn’t do: I forgot to bring a present back for my lovely work colleagues. So I made polvorones – shortbread biscuits, coated in icing sugar, traditionally made for Christmas. You can make them with spices or grated citrus rind, but these are almond-flavoured. The originals are made with lard, but that was a step too far for me. So they may not be totally authentic, but they are easy and delicious.
- 4oz softened butter
- 2oz castor sugar (I always use golden for baking)
- few drops almond extract
- 5oz self-raising flour
- 2oz flaked almonds
- Icing sugar for dusting
Preheat the oven to 180°C, Gas Mark 4. Beat together the butter, sugar and almond extract. Stir in the flour and almonds, and mix till it starts to comes together as a dough. Divide into 16 pieces and roll into a ball. Place on a greased baking sheet and press each down slightly, then bake for 15-20 mins till slightly browned. Place on a cooling rack and dust liberally with icing sugar while hot. (I put clingfilm underneath the rack to save the worktop from becoming a sticky icing sugar ant-trap.)
Polvorones y vermut, anyone?