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Take time to taste your tapas
Veronica Matheson Calle de Alcala is Madrid's main thoroughfare.

Madrid is a Grande Dame who stealthily wins hearts. Elegant, cultured and aloof, she knows that sooner or later everyone falls under her charismatic spell.

First-time visitors invariably rush around the Spanish capital, take in the sights and tire rapidly.

It's not until they wander lazily around the city that Madrid reveals her charms.

As a typical tourist in Madrid some years ago I raced around ticking off the well-trodden sights, including the glorious rose- coloured Prado Museum that is home to some of the greatest works of European art.

Sadly, I left the city on my first visit without touching her passionate soul, but returned months later to find her true worth.

I wandered, and wandered some more, occasionally stopping at a bar, or two, to sample tapas and chat with locals, known as Madrilenos. Happily, I left that time knowing I would be back in Madrid again, and again.

Now I am back, sitting in the large, beautifully-proportioned Plaza Mayor sipping sangria in an outdoor cafe. Sure, this cafe is a tourist trap charging double the amount I would pay in any cosy bar along the cobblestone lanes of Madrid's old city. But it is shaded from the afternoon sun by elegant arches, and there is an eclectic passing parade in the car-free plaza that warrants the inflated prices.

A band of wandering minstrels arrives to make wild gypsy music while pavement artists check out performance spots as the lazy day stretches into a musky dusk.

Later I head to crowded tapas bars and to a flamenco hall, but there is no rush as Madrilenos are known as "Los Gatos" (the cats) because of their love of late nights that stretch into early mornings. No wonder churros and hot, thick chocolate, are a guaranteed sugar kick after a heady night.

For my final day in Madrid, I want to eat in a restaurant with history but decide against another dish of suckling pig at Restaurante Sobrino de Botin, Europe's oldest restaurant (1725), and mentioned in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.

Instead, I find infectious conversation at Antonio Sanchez's cosy tavern in a cobbled street of the old town. Opened by a famous matador in the 1800s, it is still run by former bullfighters and is a veritable museum to the spectacle.

While many sniff at the Madrilenos' passion for bullfighting and Madrid's impressive Moorish-style Plaza de Toros. locals argue that bullfighting is part of Spanish culture, with a tradition dating back to AD711.

The Antonio Sanchez Tavern is packed with diners who gather in dark booths amid walls decorated with sepia photographs and posters depicting the history of the bullring. One of the most popular dishes ordered here is morcilla (blood sausage).

There, Curro, a former matador who runs the tavern, holds court recounting his clashes with the bulls. He even produces a colourful cape to show how a few twists and twirls entice the bull.

At that moment I imagine Madrid's Grand Dame swelling with pride at the passion of one of her proud citizens.

FACT FILE

>> Emirates will fly into Madrid from Perth, via Dubai, from August 1. See www.emirates.com/au.

>> Insight Vacations' Highlights of Spain tour starts and ends in Madrid so travellers can extend their time in the Spanish capital. The 10-day tour also visits Barcelona, Valencia, Granada, Seville and Cordoba from $2425 per person twin share, including coach transport, accommodation, many meals, tour director and guide. Go to www.insightvacations.com.

>> Buy fashionable espadrilles as these shoes are still made to order, or find a richly decorated fan, or traditional lace mantilla. Leather goods from jackets to shoes and handbags are also great buys.

>> Carry a Spanish dictionary because English is not widely spoken. When assistance is required, ask a young person. English is now on the Spanish school curriculum.

>> For more, see www.esmadrid.com .