Friday, 23 April 2010

Madrid: My way or the guide's way?

When I think of guided tours, I automatically conjure up a mental image of a large group of rucksack-wearing, camera-toting middle aged tourists (some of whom are committing that most incomprehensible fashion faux pas of combining socks and sandals) being herded around a city's key sights by a harried-looking guide frantically waving an umbrella in the air for the flock to follow. I realise that my imagination is stereotyping wildly, but there's at least a grain of truth in there somewhere. As I'm the kind of girl who prefers to do some pre-trip internet research, grab a good guide book and go for a wander, I had avoided guided tours until earlier this month. Two friends visiting for the weekend effusively recommended the Madrid tourist board's Gran Vía Centenary Year tour, so I decided it might be a good time to put aside my prejudices and give guided a go. I reasoned that a shorter, more focused tour concentrating on a particular area of interest was probably a safe option for my first experience.

On arrival at the point of departure, I was pleased to note that none of my fellow guidees was sporting a dodgy footwear/ hosiery combo, and even more cheered by our guide's enthusiasm (you need a bit of a kick start on a Sunday morning, after all). Our sprightly guide soon brought the history of Madrid's main street to life, banishing any lingering trepidation: you see, I've never been a big fan of Gran Vía. I tend to think of it as a slightly less hectic Spanish version of London's Oxford street with a bit of the West End thrown in for good measure. Come to think of it, that actually makes it sound quite nice... Devised by the tourist board as part of the ongoing series of events to celebrate Gran Vía's 100 year anniversary, the visit began at the street's oldest end, close to Calle Alcalá. As I followed our guide up the first section of the street, which was built in three distinct phases, she pointed out beautiful buildings I had previously passed without really noticing. One such gem was the Oratorio del Caballero de Gracia, an 18th century church which was cleverly preserved when Gran Vía was constructed, and now sits in a 20th century 'frame' created by its next-door neigbhours. We learned that the vast Telefónica building was designed by an American architect, adding a 1920s Chicago style to the street's architectural medley. As our group was small we had the chance to go inside and witness the clever fusion of art deco and state of the art; a curious juxtaposition of patterned marble floors and staircases flashing with animated graphics. But it was the anecdotes that really made the tour a great experience: our guide was a knowledgeable local lady who regaled us with tales of Gran Via through the years, describing its exclusive gentlemen's clubs and sharing the secret of Sofia Loren's late nights at the famous Chicote bar. Apparently Ms Loren had a weakness for bartender Perico Chicote's gin and tonics and regularly propped up the bar until closing time when she was in town. After an hour and a quarter of architectural insights and amusing stories, I found myself much more disposed to the idea of a guided tour, seeing how a local guide can help to bring a place's history to life and encourage you to really see the streets you walk down. Although I still wouldn't want to take a whistle stop tour of a city's highlights before being shoved on a bus to the next destination, a tour like this one is definitely a good idea for those with specific interests or who want to see a particular area in more detail. Equal opportunities fans will be glad to know that I'm shelving my stereotypes and planning to take a tour of Madrid's barrio de las letras.

Guided tours may never have been trendy, but it now seems that their more successful travel aid the guide book is getting a bad press. The Sunday Times Travel Magazine recently published an avidly quoted and re-tweeted article on guidebook alternatives, which included options such as podcast tours and mobile phone apps. Call me cynical, but aren't these just guidebooks reformatted and tweaked to appeal to the iphone generation? As a traditionalist with a mobile phone that just about has a colour screen, I think I'll be sticking with good old print for now. I do understand why travellers are seeking new options, though, as it's become a common sight to see multiple tables of travellers clutching the same Lonely Planet at restaurants around the globe. The mass-market appeal of travel guides can lead to visitors following the same routes, taking in the same sights and dining in the same spots. That said, I personally wouldn't be without one: I love beginning to research a trip by cracking open a new Rough Guide or Time Out Shortlist, dreaming of the places I'll soon be visiting. However, I always make sure to use them as a starting point rather than the gospel that must be obeyed to the letter, as for me, travel is an experience that broadens the mind, rather than something which follows a rigid itinerary.

Another 'alternative' highlighted in the Times article is the phenomenon of local travel, where visitors turn to the residents for tips and inside information. One key player in this arena is Spotted by Locals, a 'cityblog' site which recruits locals from an array of European cities to share details of their favourite bars, restaurants, cafes, clubs and experiences. Websites like this provide an excellent resource, but I believe that they are still a guidebook supplement rather than substitute. After all, locals may know where to go for the best grub, but they probably won't point you in the direction of the Prado museum, and although it's great to know where to grab a bargain brunch or what the latest hip hangout is, most visitors also want some information about the sights too. For similar reasons, travel writer Vicky Baker believes that expats might just be the best guides: as foreigners, they know what visitors want to see and can understand cultural differences, yet as residents, they often possess a significant stack of information on where to eat, drink and party. As I'm a temporary expat, I frequently play host to friends from the UK. As a result, I've developed a bit of an expat tour of my own (tailored to visitors' interests, naturally), which gradually evolves as time passes and I get to know the city better. So, in order to test the expat guide theory, here's my guide to seeing Madrid in a weekend. Forthcoming visitors, look away now.

Saturday usually begins at Sol, Madrid's centre point. After pointing out the giant Tio Pepe sign dominating one end of the square and the statue of Madrid's emblem, a bear nibbling a strawberry tree, I lead my party up to the Plaza Mayor, past a long line of street mimes (the disco goat and the fat spiderman are personal favourites). After taking in the splendour of Madrid's main square, we might make our way to Chocolatería San Ginés for chocolate con churros or to the recently re-opened gourmet market, the Mercado de San Miguel, for a glass of wine and a tapa. The bustling indoor market is a lively place at all hours of the day, offering a perfect introduction to Madrid's reputation as the real city that never sleeps. After that pit stop for refreshment, I hoist my umbrella in the air and lead my merry band to Plaza de Oriente, a beautiful pedestrianised square with the opera house on one side, the royal palace on the other and statues, fountains and ornamental hedges in between. We might visit the palace itself, or perhaps the next door cathedral, which is admittedly rather unimpressive despite the colourful stained glass windows. After a quick stroll around the palace's formal gardens, if the weather is kind we would head across Plaza de España to Parque de Rosales to admire the views across the city to the palace, watch passers by and contemplate the strange sight of an Egyptian temple in the Spanish capital. A present from the Egyptian government to thank Spain for its help in saving the temples of Abu Simbel from the Aswan dam, the Templo de Debod has stood in this spot since 1972, bringing a touch of the Middle East to this corner of Madrid.

As I'm a tour guide of little mercy, this rest will be followed by more action: perhaps a jaunt over to Casa de Campo, Madrid's 'wildest' park (in more ways than one, as night time visitors would discover) on the cable car (teleférico), or a visit to one of Madrid's world-famous art museums, the Prado, the Thyssen or the Reina Sofia, depending on my visitors' artistic preferences. If however they were more inclined to spend an afternoon perusing rails of clothing than rooms of paintings, we would head back to the centre to hit the shops on Gran Vía and Calle Fuencarral, wandering into Chueca to check out a few independent boutiques, and maybe stopping for a cup of tea at Lolina Vintage Café or a cupcake from Happy Day Bakery, both on Calle de Espíritu Santo.

When dinner time comes around, we might make our way to Malasaña, home of the 1980s movida madrileña and a perenially 'cool' neighbourhood despite the fickle nature of fashion. For creative, trendy tapas in a buzzy atmosphere, La Musa on Calle Manuela Malasaña is a good bet, while for classic Spanish cooking with a slight twist, I would choose Albur on the same street. For something more central, we might try Ginger close to Plaza Santa Ana, putting up with the quirky service for the sake of the low prices and, more importantly, the lip-smackingly good white chocolate cheesecake. From here it's just a few steps to the Me by Melia hotel and its glamorous rooftop bar, the Penthouse, which is the perfect place to spend what we saved on dinner on a swanky cocktail, to be sipped as we gaze out at the city's skyline. And if any of us have any stamina left after that intensive itinerary, the many bars of the Huertas area are nearby to keep us busy until the early hours.

Sunday is a time for R & R: Rastro and Retiro. Madrid's El Rastro fleamarket takes place every Sunday until 2pm in the La Latina area, drawing a heaving throng of folk to browse or buy anything from handmade jewellery to frying pans to gas masks, and everything in between. After all the pushing through the crowds that a Rastro visit entails, it's time for lunch at Calle de la Cava Baja's bustling tapas bars or outside on Plaza de la Paja (ideally at vegetarian Viva la Vida if my meat-eating friends don't object). Madrid's other Sunday tradition is a walk in the beautiful Parque del Buen Retiro (Retiro to the locals), a former royal retreat. The palace it surrounded has now gone, but there's more than enough to keep you occupied: a boating lake, formal and less formal gardens, exhibition spaces and the Bosque del Recuerdo, a miniature forest designed in memory of the victims of the 2004 bombings in Madrid. Even on a busy day like Sunday, Retiro still has plenty of quiet spots and is perfect for a lazy afternoon in the sun to relax and round off the weekend.

And with that, it's time to put down the umbrella, shove my visitors on a bus and go home.

Photo 1: Felipe Gabaldon/Flickr
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Sunday, 11 April 2010

Alcalá de Henares: A capital escape from Madrid

Plaza Cervantes in winter

Most visitors to Madrid choose either Segovia or Toledo as their day trip destinations. Their popularity is understandable: Segovia boasts an impressive 894 metre long Roman aqueduct and a fairytale-esque castle said to have inspired its Disney counterpart, while Toldeo is renowned as 'the city of three cultures' and has a wealth of Christian, Jewish and Muslim monuments to explore. However, being so appealing comes at a price: from spring to autumn, both towns are almost taken over by tourists, especially at weekends. So, for those seeking a bit more solitude on their sojourns out of Madrid, the university town of Alcalá de Henares is a great option.

Often overlooked by foreign visitors to Madrid, Alcalá is a mere 35km and 35 minute train journey from the city centre. Not only is it home to the third-oldest university in Spain (after Salamanca and Valladolid), Alcalá is also the birthplace of the renowned author of Don Quijote, Miguel de Cervantes. As the self-titled 'city of arts and letters', modern-day Alcalá certainly isn't lacking in culture either: it has an annual Cervantes festival in autumn and a nineteenth-century theatre with a diverse programme of concerts and performances. In June it plays host to a month of plays by Golden Age greats including the famous dramatists Calderón de la Barca and Lope de Vega. If you're wondering what I'm rambling on about, it's probably worth pointing out that I'm a closet Spanish theatre geek who once studied these two writers.

For those of you who don't share my admittedly specific interest in Spanish theatre, fear not: there's plenty to attract the casual visitor too. Stepping off the cercanías commuter train from central Madrid, it's a short walk from the station to the centre of town. And what a centre it is; full of well-preserved medieval and Renaissance buildings, pretty plazas and the colonnaded Calle Mayor, part of Alcalá's former Jewish quarter. My visit began with a bargain breakfast on the sunny terrace of Café de los Libreros – just €2.50 for coffee and a generous serving of toast. After soaking up the spring sun for a while, we took a wander through the town, acclimatising to the relaxed atmosphere and gentle pace – a welcome change from the constant commotion of the capital city. We noticed lots of storks' nests perched atop the towers and spires of Alcalá's historic buildings: a bit of research has since informed me that the town is home to around 90 pairs of storks, attracted by its location near the Henares river. Whatever the reason for their presence, it was certainly quite an experience to see the huge birds swoop through the sky before landing in their rooftop nests. We reached the beautifully-designed Plaza de Cervantes, Alcalá's main square, and sat for a while on a bench amid the flower beds, watching the alcalaínos saunter past and being watched by the storks, sitting proudly above us.

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