Today, Travel to the Majesty of Madrid
In this program we wander the Plaza Mayor, ogle the lavish Royal Palace, rub shoulders with aficionados at a bull bar, ponder perplexing art at the Prado Museum, stare down a flamenco dancer, take in the cost of Spain's civil war at the Valley of the Fallen, look deep into Picasso's greatest work — Guernica — at the Centro Reina Sofía, and munch on pigs' ears in a "tapa tango."
Carlos, a Spaniard who led tours for my groups for more than a decade, and his wife from Seattle, Jennifer, run Letango Tours, offering itineraries within Madrid and beyond, as well as customized tours (whether city, regional, or country-wide) and bookings anywhere in Spain (mobile 655-818-740 and 661-752-458, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Royal Palace (Palacio Real)
This is Europe’s third-greatest palace, after Versailles and Vienna’s Schönbrunn. It has arguably the most sumptuous original interior, packed with tourists and royal antiques. Today’s palace is ridiculously super-sized — with 2,800 rooms, tons of luxurious tapestries, a king’s ransom of chandeliers, frescoes by Tiepolo, priceless porcelain, and bronze decor covered in gold leaf. While these days the royal family lives in a mansion a few miles away, this place still functions as the ceremonial palace (call ahead to make sure it’s not closed for a royal function), used for formal state receptions, royal weddings, and tourists’ daydreams.
La Oreja de Jaime
Here, the specialty is sautéed pigs’ ears (oreja, €5). While pig ears are a Madrid dish (fun to try, hard to swallow), this place is Galician — they serve pimientos de Padrón (sautéed miniature green peppers) and the distinctive ribeiro (ree-BAY-roh) wine, served Galician-style, in characteristic little ceramic bowls to disguise its lack of clarity (Calle de la Cruz 12, tel. 647-293-693).
Run by Toni, this memorable little place has a helpful English menu and several fun, classic dishes to try: patatas bravas (fried potatoes in a spicy sauce), berenjena (deep-fried slices of eggplant), champiñones (sautéed mushrooms), and gazpacho that is generally served only during the hot season, but available here year-round just for you (closed July).
La Casa del Abuelo
This is where seafood lovers savor sizzling plates of tasty little gambas (shrimp) and langostinos (prawns), with bread to sop up the delightful juices. As drinks are cheap and dishes are small and pricey, you might just want to share a ración or sample some wine. Try gambas a la plancha (grilled shrimp) or gambas al ajillo (ah-HEE-yoh, shrimp cooked in oil and garlic) and a glass of sweet red house wine. They serve gazpacho May through September.
The Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial is a symbol of power rather than elegance. This 16th-century palace, 30 miles northwest of Madrid, gives us a better feel for the Counter-Reformation and the Inquisition than any other building. Built at a time when Catholic Spain felt threatened by Protestant “heretics,” the construction of this palace dominated the Spanish economy for a generation (1562–1584). Because of this bully in the national budget, Spain has almost nothing else to show from this most powerful period of her history.
Madrid has a few easy and affordable options: Intimate Taberna Casa Patas (“House of Feet”) attracts big-name flamenco artists, with contemporary flamenco that may be jazzier than your notion — it depends on who’s performing (reservations smart). Las Carboneras is more downscale — an easygoing, folksy little place a few steps from Plaza Mayor with a nightly hour-long flamenco show (reservations recommended). Las Tablas Flamenco offers a less expensive nightly show respecting the traditional art of flamenco, held in a modern, nondescript office block just over the freeway from Plaza de España.
With sleek marble, red carpet runners along the halls, happy Muzak charm, and an attentive staff, Hotel Europa is a tremendous value. It rents 100 squeaky-clean rooms, many with balconies overlooking the pedestrian zone or an inner courtyard. The hotel has an honest ethos and offers a straight price.
Valley of the Fallen
Six miles from El Escorial, high in the Guadarrama Mountains, a 500-foot-tall granite cross marks an immense and powerful underground monument to the victims of Spain’s 20th-century nightmare — its civil war (1936–1939).
Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
Home to Picasso’s Guernica, the Reina Sofía is one of Europe’s most enjoyable modern art museums. Its exceptional collection of 20th-century art is housed in what was Madrid’s first public hospital. The focus is on 20th-century Spanish artists — Picasso, Dalí, Miró, Gris, and Tàpies — but you’ll also find plenty of works by Kandinsky, Braque, and many other giants of modern art.
Retiro Park (Parque del Buen Retiro)
Once the private domain of royalty, this majestic park has been a favorite of Madrid’s commoners since Charles III decided to share it with his subjects in the late 18th century. Siesta in this 300-acre green-and-breezy escape from the city. At midday on Saturday and Sunday, the area around the lake becomes a street carnival, with jugglers, puppeteers, and lots of local color. These peaceful gardens offer great picnicking and people-watching (closes at dusk).
With more than 3,000 canvases, including entire rooms of masterpieces by superstar painters, the Prado is my vote for the greatest collection anywhere of paintings by the European masters. The Prado is the best place to enjoy the great Spanish painter Francisco de Goya, and it’s also the home of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, considered by many to be the world’s finest painting, period. In addition to Spanish works, you’ll find paintings by Italian and Flemish masters, including Hieronymus Bosch’s fantastical Garden of Earthly Delights altarpiece.