Considering its status as a major European city, it is notable that Madrid evades a certain characterisation. Alongside the romance of Paris, the edginess of Berlin and the grandness of Rome, the Spanish capital has a comparatively indistinct personality. This makes locating the heart and soul of Madrid all the more riveting an adventure – and what I discovered was far from a city lacking novelty, but on the contrary, a place so packed with life that its essence is too multifarious to define.
As the geographical nucleus of Spain, it is apt that Madrid is itself a city of ‘centres’. It has one of the most thriving cosmopolitan centres on the continent, an aristocratic centre which boasts of the country’s royal heritage, and in recent times, is becoming a centre of artistic reputation enough to give Barcelona a good run for its money. Indeed, it is rare to find oneself in a city where the commercial, the historical and the cultural can share a space so harmoniously.
Madrid has an array of recognisable landmarks, each of them majestic in importance and architecture. In particular, the Almuneda Cathedral is memorable for its beautiful if unusual coloured ceiling, the porticoed Plaza Mayor is a charming space for a drink, and the Royal Palace, the largest in Western Europe, is an emblem of sheer opulence – it is worth catching the small military spectacle that accompanies the changing of the guard every Wednesday at 11am.
Perhaps more than usual for such a city, however, the true delights remain stubbornly hidden. Normally spontaneity is the best policy when travelling, but I ended up agreeing with a friend who recommended being guided through the city by someone knowledgeable about its best spots. Such gems include the bilingual pub quiz at La Morena Cantina, the Arabic-style Hammam Al Ándalus baths and the quirky Gaudeamus Café for its amazing views atop an old university. Additionally, Madrid houses the world’s oldest restaurant, Sobrino de Botin (1725), which offers traditional Castilian dining. These experiences give a full flavour of what constitutes true Madridian culture.
But it is Madrid’s superb collection of art galleries and museums that left the greatest imprint on me. Known as the ‘golden triangle’, there is the Prado, the Reine Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. The Prado contains an attractive assortment of Romanesque, Gothic and Early Renaissance paintings; famous works include The Garden of Earthly Delights (1504) by Bosch and Velazquez’s royal paintings. The Reine Sofia, however, is like no other museum I have seen of its kind: its engaging display of contemporary art is curated in such a way that provides a comprehensive, historical documentation of the modern art world.
As the saying goes, ‘if you’re in Madrid, you’re from Madrid’: this not only echoes the diversity and hospitality of the capital, but it also encapsulates my belief that Madrid must be ‘lived’ rather than ‘visited’. It might reign supreme on several levels – food, history, culture – but fundamentally it supersedes by leaving you wanting to be fully immersed, to merely ‘be’ in the city and pulsate along with the rhythm of its daily activity. Like no other city around it, Madrid is a city bursting with life, of which its refusal to be classified is the ultimate proof.