A short break in Madrid

Great art, architecture, festivals, food and shopping - the capital of Spain has got it all. Fiona Sturges explores a city with a colourful past and stylish present

Madrid denotes a swanky sort of lifestyle: long, well-lubricated lunches, designer shopping, late-night tapas and dancing 'til dawn. Like any self-respecting European city, it has a thriving cafe society and the essence of Madrid can easily be absorbed by simply sitting and watching. But behind the hedonism, there is a tumultuous historical and cultural background, from the rise of the Hapsburgs and Bourbons to the dictatorship of General Franco, that is waiting to be discovered at the city's numerous museums, galleries and political landmarks.

When to go

Autumn and spring are the more comfortable seasons to visit Madrid, when there is intermittent sunshine and temperatures range between 45-65F. Madrid comes to a near standstill in the summer, with an onslaught of visitors and temperatures exceeding 105F. It has all sorts of festivals and fairs throughout the year, though Easter inevitably features colourful religious processions and ceremonies. May Day is also marked by a riotous pageant through the city centre that culminates in a party in Retiro Park (see What To See and Do.)

How to get there

Fiona Sturges travelled courtesy of the Spanish Tourist Board in conjunction with Iberia.

Iberia (tel: 0171-830 0011) and British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) operate daily services from Heathrow. BA is running a special offer with return flights at around pounds 114.10 return, but after 26 March, full-price fares will reach pounds 250.

There are five flights per day from Heathrow with Iberia, with prices starting at pounds 113.10. Prices may reach around pounds 233.10 over Easter.

Getting around

Barajas Airport is 15 minutes drive from the city centre. The taxi journey costs around Pta2,000 (pounds 8.50), including Pta300 for the "special airport charge". Alternatively, you can catch the airport bus that runs every 10-20 minutes from the terminals to the Plaza Coln in the city centre (tel: 0034 91 431 6192).

Trains from France, Catalonia and northern Spain arrive in Madrid at Chamartn station (tel: 0034 91 323 2121). There are also high-speed AVE trains from Seville and express services from Lisbon that terminate at the recently renovated Atocha station (tel: 0034 91 534 0505), situated close to the Paseo del Prado. Both Chamartn and Atocha are on the metro system.

Madrid is easily negotiated on foot, but the metro system is simple, safe and clean (open 6.30am-1.30am.) EMT runs 150 bus routes throughout the city and white taxis are also easy to flag down, identifiable by their diagonal red stripe and green light on the roof.

Where to stay

Madrid is generously littered with hotels, but it is worth doing some research if you don't want to end up in a cupboard under the stairs. Tyrannical concierges are an abiding feature of Madrilenos hospitality but don't let that put you off shopping around. If your nerve fails you, the Brujla agency (see Further Information) will make bookings on your behalf for a small fee.

Hotel Wellington, 8 Velzquez (tel: 0034 91 575 4400). This self-consciously stylish hotel comprises 298 smart, generously proportioned rooms inhabited by smart, generously proportioned executives. Once ensconced, you won't want to go out. Rooms start at around Pta19,520.

Hotel Monaco, 5 Barbieri (tel: 0034 91 522 4630). This quirky hotel was a thriving brothel before it was transformed into a resting place for the cosmopolitan middle-classes. The decor is fabulously kitsch - faux- marble staircases, nymph friezes and flashing neon signs directing you to the dining room - as well as mercifully mild-tempered staff. It only contains 32 rooms, so book early. Rooms start around Pta7,000.

Hotel Ingles, 8 Echegary (tel: 0034 91 429 6551). Not exactly bursting with character, but lovingly looked after. If you are after a lively nightlife, this family-owned hotel is perfectly located with rooms that overlook a bar-filled street off plaza Santa Ana. Rooms from Pta9,500.

Hotel Mora, 32 Pasa del Prado (tel: 0034 91 420 1569). Across the road from the Prado and within spitting distance of the station, this hotel couldn't be more conveniently located or reasonably priced. It also has a sparkly cafe-bar that buzzes with locals at night. Rooms from Pta7,500.

What to see and do

Retiro Park This beautiful park in the heart of the city was once the monarchs' private garden. You can take a boat ride on the lake or hover around the fortune-tellers and the open-air chess enthusiasts.

The Prado, Paseo del Prado (tel: 0034 91 420 37 68). Open Tues-Sat 9am- 7pm and Sun 9am-2pm. One third of Europe's Holy Trinity, along with the Louvre and the Uffizi, the Prado is finally enjoying a renaissance after decades in disgrace. Since the Sixties, the 213-year-old gallery has been plagued by endless bureaucratic wrangling, and stories have circulated regarding the poor treatment of its treasures. But in 1997, 12 refurbished rooms were opened to the public and there are more on the way. There are endless marvels in the Prado, but not to be missed are Goya's "dark" paintings and an amazing Velzquez collection.

The Reina Sofia, 52 Santa Isobel (tel: 0034 91 467 5062). Open Mon, Wed- Sat 10am-9pm, Sun 10am-2.30pm.This enormous, beautifully lit gallery provides as good a guide to Spanish art as any textbook can offer. Visitors cannot fail to be impressed by its star-studded collection which includes such masterpieces as Salvador Dal's The Great Masturbator and Picasso's Guernica.

The Thyssen-Bornemisza, Palacio de Villahermosa, 8 Paseo del Prado (tel: 0034 91 369 0151). Open Tues-Sun 10am-7pm. This collection of 775 paintings was one of Madrid's biggest artistic coups. It was purchased from the collector Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza after a nine-and-a-half- year loan, and is now one of Madrid's major art galleries. From Holbein to Lichtenstein, this eclectic collection will perfectly fill the gaps that you may find at the Prado and the Reina Sofia.

Where to eat

Madrid is dismissive of the design-led restaurant culture that flourishes in so many European cities. The motto appears to be "more food, less fuss" and evening eating habits revolve largely around tapas, that delicious stroke of genius designed to stave off the effects of hard drinking. You will find the best tapas bars clustered together in the narrow streets around the city centre. They overflow with olives, spiced bread, chorizo, tortilla, cold meats and seafood, as well an immense array of beers and fine wines. Residents prefer to take their time over lunch, a meal that can start at two and then linger on until late afternoon.

Lhardy, 8 Carrera de San Jeronimo (tel: 0034 91 521 3385). This oak-panelled restaurant-cum-deli is as famous for its belle epoque decor as it is for exceedingly expensive food, though there is a tapas bar for those with more modest budgets. Lhardy is credited with bringing French haute cuisine into Madrid, and its menu offers an enticingly French twist to typical Spanish food. Around Pta7,000 per person.

Cabo Mayor, 37 Juan Ramon Jimenez (tel: 0034 91 350 8776). The nautical decor of this restaurant is naff, but it is worth enduring for the sake of the seafood. Madrid may be 200miles from the sea, but this restaurant bears testament to the fact that the city still has the freshest fish in Spain. Approximately Pta6,000 per person.

Casa Lucio, 35 Cava Baja (tel: 0034 91 365 3252). This cosy restaurant is frequented by locals as well as visitors, though the staff are more than a little terse. For local cuisine, don't overlook Castilian roasts and judas con faisn (pheasant and bean stew). Around Pta5,000 per person.

Casa Mingo, 2 Paseo de la Florida (tel: 0034 91 547 7918). Local students gather to feast on cider-soaked chorizo, spit-roasted chicken and Cabrales cheese in this labyrinthine eatery which is always packed to the rafters. The food is superb and mercifully cheap at around Pta4,000 per person.

Shopping

Smart dressing is the key to infiltrating Madrid. Whether stepping out for a pint of milk or going out for the evening, the women of Madrid teeter around on stiletto heels with a thick line of kohl around their eyes. Consequently, the shopping is fabulous. The Salamanca and the area surrounding Calle Preciados is considered a fairly exclusive shopping area, though a stroll down Calle del Almirante will yield more affordable fashion, both second-hand and brand new.

Galera del Prado, 7 Plaza de las Cortes. From belts and handbags to jewellery and fur, classy accessories are the speciality of this modest- sized shopping centre situated in the basement of the Hotal Palace. The prices are exorbitant, but it is still worth a look.

La Corte Ingles, 3 Preciados (tel: 0034 91 556 2300). Open 10am-9pm Mon- Sat. No self-respecting visitor can return home without an armful of goodies from this Spanish institution, though self-respect can quickly be lost if you adhere to its fashion dictates.

Rastro Market. Situated in one of the old working-class quarters of Madrid, the Rastro street market is a hotchpotch of "designer" clothes, antiques, assorted pets and chipped pottery designed to look as if it has been dug up from an ancient burial ground. Sunday mornings 10am-3pm along Ribera de Curtidores.

Out of town

El Escorial This gloomy yet commanding edifice must rate as one of the most extraordinary structures in Spain. Philip II built it as a memorial to his father Charles V and used it as a sanctuary for prolonged periods of prayer. Here, he also stashed his collection of paintings by El Greco and Hieronymus Bosch - artists that were frowned upon by the elders of the court. You can also admire his magnificent library, embellished with a multicoloured barrel-vaulted ceiling, whose 50,000 volumes are reputed to rival even the Vatican's holdings. Open Tues-Sun, April-September 10am-6pm, October-March 10am-5pm. Admission Pta500.

Aranjuez Famed for its Royal Palace, luscious gardens and oversized strawberries, Aranjuez is a regal haven situated 45km from Madrid. The palace was originally built by Philip II in the 1560s but was regularly enlarged by succeeding monarchs. The palace now exhibits room after room of royal treasures and garish furnishings as well as a series of touring exhibitions.

Deals and packages

Time Off (tel: 0990 846363) offers a three-night break in Madrid during March from pounds 242 per person, based on two travelling, staying in a three- star hotel in the city centre, and including return flights, transfers and breakfast.

Inghams (tel: 0181-780 7700) has a three-night break in Madrid during March from pounds 264 per person, based on two travelling, staying in a central three-star hotel, and including return flights and breakfast.

Currency

There are approximately 234 pesetas to the pound.

Further information

For general information, contact the city's main tourist board, the Oficina Municipal de Turismo, 3 Plaza Mayor (tel: 0034 91 588 1636). Open Monday- Friday 10am-8pm, Saturday 10am-2pm. They will provide free street maps and guide books, though they do not provide an accommodation service.

Accommodation bookings for central hotels can be made through the Brjula agency, 1 Princesa (tel: 0034 91 559 9705).

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