Revamped for two unsuccessful Olympic bids, the Spanish capital has quietly overtaken Barcelona for chic Spanish city living.
On a museum tour, distracted by Madrid's artful changes
It's a sparkling day with just the hint of a chill in the air. On Calle Serrano in Salamanca, the smartest shopping street in Madrid, a city of grand boulevards and elaborate 18th-century buildings, I wait for my local guide. I've arranged to meet Margarita before I give myself up to the museums of this great art city for the weekend. And here she is, walking towards me, flapping her hands and looking around in apparent ecstasy. "So quiet! At last! And no cars on the pavement."
The flagship, boutique-lined Calle Serrano was, she says, the epicentre of activity during mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon's recent massive programme of improvements. Madrid has been Spain's capital since 1561, when Felipe II decided royalty should rule from the old Muslim town in the very centre of Spain, but the great boulevards and baroque buildings that grew up around medieval Madrid (many put up by his successor, a battle-victorious Carlos III, as an instant copy of the best bits of Paris and Rome) had been looking rather weary until the energetic mayor's city-wide makeover got underway. Backed by boom years and European Union funding to supplement the city council's contributions, the makeover was to aid Madrid's bid to win first the 2012 and then the 2016 Olympics.
Madrid lost out on both counts, first to London and then to Rio de Janeiro. But the city is looking terrific. And it's not a case of all dressed up and nowhere to go. As Margarita points out, at least the city has eclipsed its eternal rival, Barcelona, once again. That other cultural capital, which was awarded the 1992 Olympics, is now looking decidedly grubby again, an overcrowded victim of its own success.
According to Margarita, had I been here six months ago when the huge new underground car park on Calle Serrano was being excavated to get rid of some of the cars that clog the city, I would have been shrieking to make myself heard above the sound of road drills. But it is now possible to walk around Madrid without ending the day covered in cement dust, and to hold a conversation in a normal tone of voice. "And now we are broke, no money, huge debts, but we like our city more," she shrugs, smiling wryly as she starts her mini-tour.
The city has a new pedestrian-only zone around the main shopping area radiating out from Puerto del Sol, and new parks where the ring road (now underground) used to be. The 12-lane Paseo del Prado highway in the centre of the city, which once made me feel exhausted just looking at it (let alone trying to cross it), has been split so there are now six lanes of traffic each side of a long green park set with benches and fountains. The grand 18th-century facades have been cleaned. Wi-Fi has been introduced to the main squares and is about to be introduced to the spotless Metro system which, with its marble-platformed stations and air-conditioned trains, now has to be one of the smartest underground systems in Europe.
"And all we need now is tourists. Many, many tourists. Our mayor says that is our only hope," Margarita sighs two hours later as we collapse at the heavenly little Chocolateria San Gines to reward ourselves. Just off Puerto del Sol, at Pasadizo de San Gines 5, this is an institution in Madrid; it opened in 1894 and has hardly changed since, with its marble-topped bar and wood panelling. We have the house speciality - a cup of thick chocolate and, to dunk, a stack of churros, the quick-fried light-as-air dough sticks whose slight saltiness contrasts blissfully with the rich drink. Before we say goodbye, she shows me the equally old-fashioned cake shop nearby on Carrera de San Jeronimo 30, which I love so much that I buy a package (OK, three) of its traditional nougat. The wood-fronted La Violeta, which has sold sugar-glazed violets, chocolates and marrons glacés, at Plaza de Calalejas 6 since 1915, is similarly captivating. And then I am on my own for the rest of the weekend, which is really the way it has to be if you're going to soak up art.
Madrid is essentially a small city that has expanded outwards as its population has grown - from just 400,000 in 1900 to 3.5 million now - and virtually everything a visitor might want to see is in the very centre. Even more conveniently, the city's three most famous art museums - whose recent extensions cost €150 million (Dh727m) - are all within a 10-minute walk of each other. The famous Prado, which opened in 1819 and is one of the world's first public museums, contains Spain's royal collection of paintings; the Reina Sofia is home to the country's biggest collection of modern art; and the Thyssen-Bornemisza is home to a private collection amassed by Baron Hans-Heinrich and his wife, Carmen. Together they form the city's "Golden Triangle", and a single ticket for all three in the Paseo del Arte, or art stroll, is sold at each for €18 (Dh87).
Having got a taxi for the ten-minute journey across the centre from Puerto del Sol - the traffic is dense along Paseo del Prado, the pavements and tree-lined boulevard thronged with people gazing around in that giveaway-tourist manner - I start in the big, grey Prado, Madrid's top tourist attraction, where the extension is housed in a big cube, along with a cafe and shop.
Velasquez' Las Meninas, described as the greatest painting in the world, Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, Breughel the Elder's Triumph of Death - this is one of the world's most important collections of 12th- to 20th-century Western art, comparable with the Louvre. I trudge from one vast, gloomy gallery to another. The paintings are inarguably magnificent, the Goyas in particular. But after half an hour of El Grecos and Murillos et al, I am sorry to say that I am starting to feel repelled. So many of the huge canvases look almost gelatinous - there's too much glutinous flesh, too many expanses of shiny satin and silk. I can't even face the new cafe.
So I leave and head for the Thyssen across the street. And within five minutes I am in love. "The greatest private art collection in the world", says my trusty Time Out guidebook, and I really cannot imagine anything better. Its 1,000 paintings span six centuries: every major Western school from 13th-century Flemish religious paintings through 17th-century Dutch painting, German Expressionism, Russian Constructivism, Impressionism and Pop Art. All are hung in the superlatively well-lit Palacio de Villahermosa and I reel delightedly from one painting to the next.
I feel bathed in bliss when I emerge at closing time at 7pm on the Saturday evening, so weakened by beauty that all I can do is drag my dazed self around the corner to the Estado Puro cafe, listed in my 100 Contemporary Hotspots guide as being part of the cutting-edge new cafe scene that has arisen in this traditionally very formal city. The waiter looks doubtfully at me as I order a 21st-century Spanish omelette. "It's in a glass, not on plate," he says.
Yes, I recognise the influence of Ferran Adria and El Bulli, muchas gracias, I don't say, but it is not what you'd call filling. It's not expensive at €7 (Dh33), though; in tapas tradition, you are supposed to order several such trendy items, and talk non-stop and intensely in between scoffing, to judge from my fellow customers.
A 10-minute walk brings me to the Caixa Forum, the avant garde cultural centre with its adjacent "vertical garden" or living wall of plants and rusted metal appearance; it looks as if it is about to topple over. It opened in 2008 and is the city's much-liked, newest landmark, converted by the cooler than cool Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron from the former Mediodia electric power station, one of the few industrial buildings in the heart of Madrid.
In the company of arty-looking residents and earnest tourists, I spend a happy hour looking at an exhibition of Soviet Russian 1920s architecture. The top-floor cafe serves delicious coffee and cakes (I resist neither) and even the shop is engrossing: you could find a small gift for virtually anyone among the international stock here; a Japanese lunchbox for your niece or nephew; art photography book for your cool buddy; modernist-print scarf for your mother; donkey-shaped memo holder for, er, me.
Next stop: the Reina Sofia museum, where the extension, all glass and steel, is one of those examples of chop-chop gorgeous modernity we have become used to in the UAE but can still make your heart sing. I join the crowds surging along to see Picasso's Guernica, commemorating the destruction by German bombers of the Basque town of Guernica in 1937, and then meander happily through rooms of 20th-century art. And by late afternoon on the Sunday, it is time to get the Metro to the airport. I step on to the train feeling saturated in beauty, nourished by all the great art I've looked at, and hoping the mayor's mad spending spree pays off. This is a fabulous city, unfairly neglected. You simply have to go.
If you go
The flight Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Madrid cost from Dh3,310, including taxes.
The stay The Westin Palace hotel (www.westinpalacemadrid.com; 00 34 91 3608 000) has double rooms from €301 (Dh1,458). per night, including taxes.
The info Madrid’s tourist office offers informative booklets and a website packed with useful detail, www.esmadrid.com.