How to survive 4 days in Madrid winter

Location MapIt never rains in Spain they say. Whoever said that obviously had never been to Madrid in the middle of winter! Madrid was off to a shaky start after a very enjoyable visit to Barcelona. On the first day the sites were average, the weather was bad and the food was terrible, but after giving some other city precincts a chance and chucking in some day trips things turned around.

We scored a 3€ upgrade to first class (68€ total) on the train from Barcelona to Madrid so we arrived feeling very refreshed. Surprisingly the Spanish AVE was even newer and nicer than the French TGV. After dumping the luggage we set off to make the most of the remaining sunlight and headed towards the Temple of Debod which is apparently the best place to see the sunset in Madrid.

The temple was a gift from the Egyptians after the Spanish responded to their request for international help in 1968. It was interesting to see that there exists at least one Egyptian monument that was gifted to Europe rather than stolen like all their other national treasures (nothing nasty intended here towards Europeans, I just find it amusing that everyone has Egypt’s stuff). The temple was moved from it’s location in Egypt stone by stone to Madrid. Low lying clouds in the overcast sky blocked any chance of a sunset, but there were some moments where the sun peaked through.

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View from the temple at sunset

With sunset quashed by the clouds, we walked down to the Palacio Real de Madridcastle grounds, but we arrived 5 minutes after last entry and had to gaze longingly through the bars instead. Since we had walked down so far and couldn’t cut through the grounds, we were left with a very long and roundabout walk back up to the Catedral de la Almundena. To be honest I was more interested in some of the architecture across the road than inside the circa 1970 church. The mandatory 1€ “donation” was a bit silly – I don’t get why they don’t just call it an entrance fee?!

Tapas apparently means something different in La Latina compared to what it did in Barcelona. The La Latina precinct came highly recommended by our accommodation, but we walked around for half an hour, and everything just looked like an average Spanish pub (maybe it’s meant to?). We picked a place with a lot of good ratings from locals on Google, but our fears were confirmed. Loads of really cheap food, but it was all American style portions with a salty flavour to match – a far from satisfying meal. I drank three glasses of water afterwards and had the same post-food remorse that you do after binging on a 21 piece feed at KFC.

Apparently the area picks up after 10pm when people finish work, and I imagine it’s the place to go to get really drunk, really cheap, but that’s not what we were looking for. If you just want drunk food and to party until the early hours of the morning perhaps La Latina should be your go to. The area of Cortes closest to Plaza del Sol seems pretty much the same.

The next day was drizzly, but we found a nice cafe in Malasaña called Toma Cafe. We had high hopes as the barrista was an Aussie. Amusingly he was also from our hometown, Canberra (don’t be a hater), and he also worked at one of the most well known coffee shops there. The coffee did not disappoint and it kept us warm as we walked east to Plaza de Colón, Plaza de Cibeles and then across to Parque del Retiro.

Parque del Retiro is massive and isn’t a bad place to walk or jog around during the day. If I had my joggers I certainly would have done a few rounds here. The highlight was the Palacio de Cristal which is surely a great place on a warm sunny day. Essentially it’s a very extravagant greenhouse near a small lake filled with ducks and geese (or maybe they were just the duck equivalent of a Capon). There was a small art exhibition inside the palacio and they seem to host functions as well.

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The Palacio de Cristal

We decided to leave the Prado Museum until after 6pm when it is free and went and found some lunch. As is good practice anyway, check your bill, because the place we went to tried to rip us off by charging for complimentary items and adding confusing surcharges for dining after certain times which weren’t applicable (they add 1€ per meal for dining on the terrace, 1€ per meal after 12pm and 2€ per meal after 1pm but we ate inside and ordered well before 1pm).

Unfortunately, I can’t say we found good churros in Madrid. We tried the famous Chocolateria San Ginés, but whilst they were cheap, they were very disappointing and the service staff were rude. I think I had a better hot chocolate (made with real chocolate), with less sugar and a less floury taste in Cuenca. I strongly suggest looking elsewhere for churros.

We waited in a long line, in the rain, from 5.40pm at the Prado to get in for free at around 6.15pm. Again you’ll hear me say the word disappointing again (you’re probably starting to think I’m a glass half empty person, but the disappointment turns around – I promise). The Prado is famous yet all we found was loads of boring religious art and repetitive side on portraits of Spanish people who had enough money to pay for a portrait back in the day (I guess it was the equivalent of the modern duck face selfie). It all reinforced my loathing of those categories of art and it reminded me that I appreciate other art like landscapes, sculptures or portraits that at least show some sort of emotion or character.

On the wet walk home we explored the area of Cortes closest to the Prado and Atocha station. I think this is where it all turned around for me. There were lots of cosy looking tapas bars and shops that looked unique and had some character. Why did it take so long to find this? We had dinner at Tinto y Tapas and we each enjoyed a delicious salad, a crispy toasta and a drink for between 10-15€. We were obviously the only non-locals in the bar, and the warm faces and jovial nature of the other inhabitants made for a good atmosphere. The waitress didn’t really speak any English, but was very friendly nonetheless and they also had some interesting portraits painted in red wine displayed in the bar.

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One of many interesting tapas bars in east Cortes

On the walk home we found more and more attractive looking places until we got closer to Plaza del Sol again. I filed away a mental note of these places to come back to.

Feeling a little bit jaded about our Madrid experience we organised some day trips to get out of town hoping to see something else. The first trip was to Segovia which was a little touristy, but certainly an interesting place to see with snow capped mountains in the distance. The second was to see the hanging houses on the cliffs of Cuenca. Both very different but definitely good experiences leaving us with both nights to go out in Madrid still.

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Left: Segovia Right: Cuenca

The next night we caught the train to Anton Martin station, back to the good area of Cortes, and went to a place we spotted the night before, El Azul (“The Blue”). A group of Spanish people were congregating outside so we quickly ducked inside and secured the last table. What we found was another great tapas bar. Probably a little more hippie and geared towards vegetarian food, but again just 10-15€ for a satisfying toasta, a salad and a drink. Finding these local places was fantastic and meant that a) everything felt more enjoyable and authentic, b) it tasted better and c) it’s often cheaper too. The place was alive with conversation and good-hearted drinking, but at the same time it wasn’t too noisy.

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El Azul tapas bar in east Cortes

On our last night in Madrid we ventured back into the up and coming Malasaña for dinner. There are lots of small takeaway type places and small bars there which gave the impression that maybe it’s a more student-oriented area. We stopped in at a Greek place where we got what we paid for with a fiver and then headed off to find some dessert.

Where we ended up was Le Jardín Secretó, a really wacky place that oozes character and has equally colourful descriptions on the menu. You can do dinner there if you want and if you do you can treat yourself to some bizarre carpaccios made with zebra, ostrich or kangaroo (ahhhh a little taste of home – don’t knock kangaroo meat until you’ve tried it!). The place seems much more like a dessert place though filled with all your gluttonous delights.

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Yogurt based milkshake like a lassi

If you’re unsure what to get, a good place to start is the orgasm menu (every orgasm seems to be one of their brownies) which you can have any way you like, including one that comes with “screams of pleasure from the chef”. They also have some yogurt based milkshakes, plus plenty of other cakes with all sorts of drinks to wash them down (you may need water or tea to get through dessert). The decor and interior is much more interesting to look at than the Prado. I feel like this is the sort of place all hipster places admire and try to emulate, but here it all feels genuinely artsy and creatively recycled from pre-loved items and junk.

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Le Jardín Secretó

From there we stumbled back to our accommodation feeling a little overindulgent, but happy. Not a bad way to end what started off as a bit of a failure.

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