By Linda Heslegrave
Lace up your walking shoes, head out to Madrid’s streets and reward yourself with some
of the best food in the world! On the last Sunday of April, Madrid hosts its international Marathon and 30,000 participants assemble on the streets near the Parque del Buen Retiro, impatiently waiting for the starting horn. It’s a great way to see a city on a beautiful Sunday morning, cheered on by thousands of locals who lift the spirits of the runners and walkers aiming toward the finish line.
If you prefer a more leisurely pace, don your walking shoes and stroll through Madrid. We did just that after our race work was finished. We explored this most elegant of cities that, despite its size, is easily accessible to those who like to take it slow and meander through neighbourhoods, parks and museums. We started out from the Hotel Wellington. Situated in the ritzy Barrio de Salamanca, this five star hotel hosts an international clientele. Matadors stay here too and offer a colourful scene as they exit the hotel on their way to bullring.
The hotel is one block from Parque del Buen Retiro, commonly known as “Retiro,” the immense green space of Madrid built in the 15th century as a retreat for Queen Isabella I. To afford her more privacy, she had the monastery of San Jeronimo moved and a new church was built beside the relocated monastery. Renamed San Jeronimo el Real it’s now behind the Museo del Prado, Spain’s national art gallery. Retiro has been enlarged and improved over the centuries and its 350 acres were opened to the public in the mid 19th century. It’s now the ‘green heart’ of Madrid. It is immaculately maintained despite difficult economic times.
Madrileños head to Retiro by the thousands to stroll, listen to buskers or row a boat on the pond, and to eat. The park is pet friendly and some simply sit with their dogs to enjoy quiet time.
Strolling through Retiro is a great way to reach museums and galleries including the Prado and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Gallery, a few blocks outside the park boundary.
Food, food, glorious food: Plaza Mayor is a beautiful Renaissance square with nine entranceways. The square’s buildings are all residential and there are 237 balconies! It has dozens of restaurants and cafes. Spaniards love to eat but you usually won’t find them here. You will find them at one of the best markets in the city, just outside the Plaza.
The Mercado san Miguel is a busy place and it’s easy to see why. It’s on the list of “Bien de Interés Cultural” (Spanish property of cultural interest) and it’s a gem. Everything is on offer to make a meal at home or to eat on the spot. Vendors offer soup, nuts and everything in between. Appreciative patrons flock to consume it all. Kiosks piled high with fruits, vegetables and sweets entice even the most casual eaters. Fresh fish is available ‘on ice’. Oysters, clams, prawns – shellfish of every type – are also available ready to eat.
There are so many varieties of olives that you could easily spend all your time discussing their merits and tastes – or just ask the merchant to make up a mix to take home.
For cheese fans, there are dozens of varieties available, some in interesting shapes that fool the eye into thinking they must be made of cream! Choose a glass of wine or beer and your meal is complete.
Are you ready for a ‘museum’ dedicated to ham? The Museo del Jamon pays homage to all things ham. Customers drop by for lunch and late day tapas or to buy the famous Jamon Iberico by the slice or the kilo. If the place looks familiar you must have seen Pedro Almodóvar’s 1997 movie ‘Carne Trémula’ (Live Flesh) – some scenes were filmed there.
Walking a city is often the best way to see it. With Madrid’s myriad of food choices there’s also a reward at the end!
Avoid the long entry lines at the Museo del Prado and arrive at noon when there are fewer visitors. The Thyssen–Bornemisza Gallery is free to the public on Monday afternoons.
Hotel Wellington is in the Barrio de Salamanca near the Retiro Metro station. Buffet breakfast is offered. There are dozens of good restaurants in the area. On Callejón de Jorge Juan, a pedestrian street a few blocks from the hotel, are Meson Cinco Jotas, Los Callos and NO.
Mestizo is a funky Mexican eatery on Calle Villanueva.
Mercado san Miguel is located at Plaza san Miguel. The Museo del Jamon has a few locations in Madrid. We visited the one in Plaza Mayor.
Photo credits: Dan McCaughey, Toronto, Canada