Under the Spanish Sun
The lights at the Coliseum Theatre on Gran Via in Madrid have been dimmed. The red seats are filled with an eager audience waiting for the performance of Anastasia to begin. I settle down to watch the critically acclaimed Broadway show in what I learn is the first European city to stage the musical. When the curtains rise I am transported into the romantic, adventure-filled production that takes me from the twilight of the Romanov Empire to the euphoria of Paris in the 1920s. Even though the language is beyond my comprehension, the emotions are not. And the male and female leads, played by Iñigo Etayo (Dimitri) and Jana Gómez (Anya — Anastasia), essay their parts to perfection. It is no wonder then that the actors receive a standing ovation at the end of the performance.
Just a few days earlier, I, along with a small group of co-travellers, stepped out of the Madrid Barajas International Airport into bright Spanish sunlight after a comfortable flight from India. This is my second outing to the European country — the first being to the beach destination of Valencia, and hence I am keen to explore the urban topography. I am glad that I have packed two pairs of my sturdy Adidas walking shoes, as Madrid seduces you into exploring it on foot. And that is what we choose to do — walk, walk and walk at all hours of the day and even night, and soon learn that it has much more to it than the football culture and chilled sangrias.
Luckily for us, Hyatt Centric Gran Via Madrid, our address for the duration of our stay in the Spanish capital, is in the heart of — and on the prime avenue of — the city from which the property draws its name. The hotel, in sync with the Hyatt Centric philosophy, invites you to settle down and step out for your own tryst with local culture, taking in what pleases your heart. As soon as we enter the hotel, our eyes are drawn to an enclosure that is drenched in bright red. This is a paean to Madrid’s first radio station that we learn was, until a while ago, situated opposite the refurbished 1920s-era building. (Incidentally, the street was the birthplace of the first national station, Cadena SER). A seat invites you to pose and preen and go ‘on air’, as you experience your own paparazzi moment in the popular selfie spot. The reception area is seamlessly incorporated into the vibrant ground-floor Ondas: Vermuteria and Coffee Lounge that is inspired by a music studio and which cleverly does away with the traditional image of a hotel lobby bar. Later one evening, we sit on the bar stools sipping a curated selection of vermouths, enjoying the varied tapas plates that satiate our appetites, as we indulge in animated conversation over cocktails.
The business of the official welcome is soon dispensed with; we quickly retreat to our well-appointed and stylishly decorated rooms that boast a great view of Gran Via. After refreshing our minds and bodies, we regroup to raise a toast to our arrival at the Hielo y Carbón, where the restaurant’s enthusiastic bartender stirs and shakes colourful cocktails for our pleasure. We then stroll through the Malasaña area of the central district, walking in and out of vintage shops, grabbing a bite at one of the hip cafes. Soon, we find ourselves taking in the sights of the rainbow-hued neighbourhood, Chueca and looking up at the sky we spot the multi-coloured flags on several balconies and buntings fluttering above the cobbled lanes in solidarity. In Plaza de Santa Ana, a statue of the gay poet Federico García Lorca, who was murdered during the Spanish Civil War commemorates his contributions to the nation, while a square in Chueca is named Plaza de Pedro Zerolo after one of Madrid’s most prominent LGBTQIA+ activists. As we relax at a table, sipping beers, hot chocolates or cappuccinos — by then it is almost the witching hour and I can feel the nip in the winter air — I sense why Chueca is such a cool place to spend time in. Its upscale eateries, trendy bars, avant-garde shops, and tattoo parlours are one reason, but the all-inclusive, welcoming environment is where people of all kinds mingle with an open heart. I am struck by how much we, as a country, have to learn and accept.
The Sky’s The Limit
Thinking out of the box, the organisation Cultura Viva Madrid takes us on a tour of five buildings that starts in Plaza de Cibeles — it is a walk that gives us a bird’s-eye view of the urbanscape, making us spontaneously exclaim, “Good heavens, Madrid!” We soak in a sighting of the metropolis that stretches as far as the eye can see under a sky that stays remarkably clear, even though the morning had begun with predictions of a light drizzle. Our pit stops are the rooftops of landmark monuments like the Mirador del Palacio de Cibeles or the Círculo de Bellas Artes. We spend ample time on each one, as we train our lenses on the domes, turrets and statues of winged goddesses — the guardians of the sky are powerful women — that stand proudly against the skyline of the city. If only we didn’t have to descend to ground level soon!
The last rooftop is our very own — and we are standing on the terrace of the Hyatt Centric Gran Via Madrid, in close proximity to the figure of the mythological huntress, Diana, who is captured aiming an arrow at Phoenix on the terrace opposite. It is here that the hotel’s rooftop bar — aptly named El Jardín de Diana — provides a beautiful vantage point from where guests can soak in some of the best views of the city, as they partake of the signature cocktails.
We take the attractive spiral staircase to the lower levels of the hotel, along the way absorbing the history that is infused in its very design. The rollout of its interiors was commissioned to Henry Chebaane, an architect and interior designer who is known to create multisensory spaces for diverse luxury brands in the global hospitality industry. Here, he has drawn from different local cultural, architectural and historical references. An important element is an architectural beam, the history of which is tied to the Spanish Civil War, which preserves the signs of bombardments from the battlefront. In the hotel, an art installation draws from the historical reference.
At the Puerta del Sol square — the centre from which Spain’s six major roads originate — is a little plaque that reads ‘Km. 0’. After our toes play footsie with this sign that is embedded in the ground, we head towards the quaint La Casa Del Abuelo, a little eatery in a bylane off Plaza Mayor which holds centuries of history in its cobbles and has been the scene of everything from coronations to bullfights and beheadings. The restaurant’s owner ushers us to a table on the first level, and encourages us to try a variety of fare. Once again, mugs of beer and pitchers of sangria find their way to our tables — and from the dishes that we have chosen, two climb swiftly to the top of our list of favourites from the trip: the first is the black bocadillo de calamares (a squid or calamari sandwich). Made with a fresh bread roll filled with squid rings that have been coated in flour and deep fried in olive oil, each sandwich is made to order and the squid has the perfect crunch! The second popular plate — which we order at dinner at Bocaito — is huevos rotos which literally translates to ‘broken eggs’. This dish epitomises traditional Spanish cuisine’s love affair with meat and potatoes. Potatoes are fried in oil and then tossed with sea salt and topped with sunny-side-up eggs. To enhance the flavour, fish or ham is usually added. We love ours that comes with slices of Iberian ham that give the dish its unique burst of colour and taste.
On our last afternoon, after the adventurous few have zipped through the neighbourhood on electric scooters known as Scroosers on a ‘historic tour’ in Centro, the rest of us choose to browse through some of its attractions on foot. We converge at the extremely coveted La Bola Taberna for our afternoon repast. The exterior of the restaurant — that fills up within minutes of throwing its doors open — is a bright red, and it can even be seen from a distance. It is popular for cocido madrileño, a simmering pork stew. The preparation comprises a broth full of vegetables, chickpeas and pork meats. The stew cooks for over four hours, which gives it the robust flavour its patrons swear by. Interestingly, the broth is separated from the simmering stew and used to make soup, which is served as the first course. The rest of the ingredients are then served as the main dish, making it a meal in itself.
No visit to Madrid can be complete without indulging in hot churros (a sweet Spanish snack consisting of a strip of fried dough dusted with sugar or cinnamon). Plenty of churrerias (shops or stalls selling churros) will serve Spain’s sweet staple to you. We relish this sinful delicacy at Chocolatería San Ginés. We are seduced into venturing forth late one night after a four-course dinner at Hielo y Carbón. A couple of hours have elapsed after our dinner, and guilt pangs, if any, are overpowered by the number of steps that our pedometers have clocked for the day. While some of us opt for the churros with chocolate, others choose to indulge in pastries with ice cream and, believe me, both are delicious. We return to our rooms, and running on a sugar high, I find that sleep eludes me. I perch on a chair, looking out at the road, comparing its stillness in the night to the hustle and bustle of the day.
Shopping, done intermittently on the first two days, occupies a large chunk of the last morning — it is very easy to accomplish, given the fact that we are staying on a promenade that offers the best of both Spanish and global brands. I finally succumb to the call of my children and spend a few hours picking out trendy bags, clutches and accessories. My first halt is Zara — the outlet here is reportedly the biggest in the world — and I then return to the hotel’s vicinity for the last purchase at the adjacent Real Madrid store. For the icing on my cake is a ‘Modric’ jersey (coveted due to prolific player Luka Modric who sports the number 10) that I know will make me ‘Mom of the Month’ in the eyes of my son for some time to come! Mission accomplished, I bid adios to this new slice of Spain that I have discovered — carrying with me unforgettable memories of a destination that author Ernest Hemingway had called ‘the most Spanish of all cities’!