Travel itineraries built around Spain are often unkind to Madrid. They tend to focus on the glamour and Gaudi of Barcelona, as Madrid seems to offer little apart from the Big Three museums (Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza) and the Royal Palace of Madrid.
However, a leisurely walk around the city brings out the vibe of Madrid, and the city certainly has something magical in its air. It’s not the expected magic of Barcelona, the kind you know you’ll encounter when you turn into a street filled with gawking tourists and catch sight of an unmistakable Gaudi creation, a structure so audacious yet brilliant it knocks the breath out of you for a moment. Nor is it the famed, well documented magic of Paris which wafts out of pancake shops and envelopes the Eiffel Tower and breathes life into a Mona Lisa gazing sombrely back at you; the kind of magic you’ve seen so often in movies that you demand it with a sense of entitlement as you land foot in the city. No, the magic in Madrid springs at you from unexpected nooks of the city, as subtle as it is pervasive, and as much a part of regular goings-on about the city as it is extraordinary.
Here’s some ideas on how to find magic in Madrid, beyond what the guidebooks write about.
1. Walk through streets of magic
This one is in-your-face and tends to give Madrid an unfair advantage but the sheer number of street magicians and sleight-of-hand artists performing per square mile of this city must beat most other places on earth. Ironically, there are more artists performing the Great Indian Levitation Trick here than in India. And no matter how many times you’ve seen the act, or how deeply you’ve researched on the artfulness that makes it possible (internet sure can kill that reverent bafflement which any good magical spectacle deserves), there is something about a colourfully draped man sitting meditatively in thin air that makes you stop in your tracks and gape for a while.
Fully suited invisible men, people made of stone that blink at you unexpectedly, even snake charmers of confused ethnicity (dressed half Indian, half Arab) pop up from time to time, especially if you are hanging around main tourist attractions like the Royal Palace or the perennially buzzing central plaza, Puerta del Sol.
2. Catch a glimpse of Egypt, a dash of Moorish Iberia
Prepare to be taken by surprise as you walk away from the Royal Palace and an Egyptian temple starts drifting into view.
The Temple of Debod turns a little part of Madrid into ancient Egypt, and those who stumble upon it unknowingly find as much joy in discovering its hieroglyph-inscribed walls as those who come to see it from afar. The temple was donated by Egypt as a gesture of gratitude for Spain’s help in saving the temples of Abu Simbel from floods during construction of the Aswan Dam. Dismantled in Egypt and transported over thousands of miles through ship and train, it now stands reassembled in Madrid’s Parque del Oeste.
If a stray Moorish experience in the middle of modern Europe catches your fancy more, find near the Atocha station an old hammam inside a centuries-old well, restored with modern accoutrements.
The luxurious bath house recreates the era when Islamic rulers reigned over Andalusia and built a citadel next to the Manzanares river flowing through today’s Madrid, calling the river al-Majrīṭ (Arabic for ‘source of water’) which later gave the city its name.
3. Hunt for treasures in the flea market that never ends
On Sunday mornings, all roads mysteriously lead to El Rastro, Madrid’s most popular flea market and the biggest in Europe. Around since the 15th century in one form or another, the place was known for its tanneries in the earliest times, before it evolved into a marketplace. ‘El Rastro’ in Spanish translates to ‘the trail’ and according to one gory explanation, the place was named after the trail of blood left behind by freshly slaughtered cattle that were brought to the medieval tanneries.
Over time, El Rastro has grown in size and spilled over into adjoining by-lanes and neighbourhoods. Once you enter the market, no matter how much or how fast you walk till midday (when the market packs up), you can be sure you have seen only a fraction of its gigantic spread.
Toys crafted out of recycled cans, flamenco costumes for souvenirs, vintage wedding dresses, posters revealing the face behind the Guy Fawkes mask in V for Vendetta (surprise, it was Gandhi!), postcards written to faraway beaus that have turned yellow with time – the market is a treasure trove for those willing to dig into it patiently.
4. Step into taverns from long ago
The city has little gems which exude an old world charm: cosy, welcoming dens that lure you in once you spot them. Some of these are well known, others mostly obscure and discovered along the way.
Sobrino de Botin, a Madrid restaurant dating back to 1725, finds a place in the Guinness World Records as the oldest surviving restaurant in the world. Although this is contested by several other restaurants, including one in Austria that claims to be 1200 years old, Botin’s legacy goes beyond the official record. Prominent Spanish painter Francisco de Goya is said to have worked here as a dishwasher in his early days, and Ernest Hemingway was not only an admiring patron but also included Botin in two of his books, once making a special reference to the restaurant’s legendary cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig).
Chocolatería San Ginés is a proud Madrid institution since 1894 and best known for its rich, dark hot chocolate served with freshly prepared churros. For generations, ordinary Madrileños and the rich & famous alike have been streaming into this 24-hour open chocolatería for the same sinful delight but the place remains fairly small, half hidden inside an alleyway, with tasteful decor and oodles of ‘character’.
Several other establishments dotting the cityscape qualify as ‘quaint’ (that much overused word in travel literature) – a dungeon-like La Catedral close to Puerta del Sol; Taberna Alhambra that looks time-transported from the yesteryears; Cafe Lhardy, another Madrid restaurant with ‘history’ and ‘atmosphere’; and countless sleepy-looking tapas bars frequented as much by locals as by curious tourists looking for an ‘authentic’ experience.
5. Finally, jump down the rabbit hole
At the snap of a finger (or perhaps as long as the high-speed AVE train might take), leave behind Madrid’s city trappings and lose yourself in a medieval world among the ancient barrios of Valencia, or the winding streets of Toledo, or the fortified town of Avila, or the Roman aqueducts of Segovia.
A seriously compelling reason to prolong the Madrid leg of your Spanish trip is the capital’s convenient location and excellent train connectivity, both of which make the city an ideal base for making day trips to several UNESCO Heritage Sites. History buffs would find their Spanish experience incomplete without spending some leisurely hours walking around these oases of times gone by, which have preserved their medieval air and cross-cultural legacy.
While several operators conduct half-day, full-day and 2-day tours to these cities, footloose travellers might consider heading to Atocha station, buying a one-way ticket on the next train (who knows where it may take them) and jumping on, for kicks.