Thursday, 29 July 2010

My Madrid: Traditional tapas and tweed in Salamanca

As nostalgia is setting in before I've even left Madrid, I thought I should share my favourite after-work haunt with my dear readers. Unlike the trendy barrio Salamanca cocktail bars that host 'after works' (pronounce with a Spanish accent for full effect), El Rincón de Goya is a traditional taberna with tiled walls serving tapas and vino tinto to a tweed-wearing crowd.

Despite the tweed, the atmosphere is far from stuffy. Once the clock hits 7pm, the bar quickly fills up with  from nearby offices keen to tuck into some ali-oli soaked potatoes, jamón or pimientos de padrón. For those with more exotic tastes, the 'special' section on the chalk-board menu offers such delights as crispy prawn rolls on a bed of balsamic vinegar-dressed rocket. And although the menu does feature beds of rocket, El Rincón de Goya is friendly and unpretentious, with waiters dishing up free plates of tapas with every drink order. Varying from olives to montaditos to some rather mayonnaisey options, the freebies aren't the bars finest offerings, but they're certainly far tastier than the plates of slop on offer at a certain often-touted bar which also offers tapas gratis with the purchase of a drink.

For those looking for more than just a little bite to accompany their copa, there's also a dining room serving raciones.
  • Taberna El Rincon de Goya is located at Calle de Lagasca 46 (metro Serrano).

Monday, 26 July 2010

Brushing shoulders with Brits on the Costa del Sol

People can be very sniffy about the idea of the Costa del Sol, instantly associating it with 2 for 1 drinks offers, red-raw sunburnt shoulders and overdeveloped towns filled with holiday apartment complexes. Goodness knows there's some truth in these images, my own blog being based on the idea of my 'alternative' Brit Abroad experience, so far removed from jugs of sangría in Torremolinos. But the thing is, the Costa del Sol is where my love affair with Spain began: as a teenager, we spent a couple of family holidays at a villa in the hills above San Pedro de Alcántara, exploring nearby towns, the coastline and further afield to the most famous pueblo blanco, Ronda. So it was with these memories in my (relatively open) mind that I returned to my adolescent holiday destination, joining my family for a long weekend of relaxation and culture. Yes, culture on the Costa del Sol, you read that correctly.

After arriving at Málaga airport, my break began in untypical fashion with a visit to the city itself. Overlooked by many visitors to its nearby resorts, Málaga is a typically Andalusian city with a smart centre made up of pedestrianised streets, inviting squares and a number of attractive monuments. Although it can't compete with the sights of Granada or Seville, as Picasso's home town Málaga boasts an enviable cultural heritage, with the Museo de Picasso and Picasso's birthplace tempting fans of the city's most famous son to visit. For those more into architecture than art, Málaga's Alcazaba (Moorish fortress) is an oasis of archways and fountain-filled gardens perched on the hillside with a view of the sea, well worth the couple of euros entry fee.

Alcazaba, Málaga

After acquiring a flavour for the seaside city, we moved on to the famous 'auction-style' restaurant, El Tintero. Located on Playa El Palo a couple of kilometres east of the city centre, El Tintero specialises in Málaga's signature pescaíto frito (fried fish) and seafood. The food on offer is tasty enough, but the novel dining experience is the real attraction: a team of waiters patrol the shaded terrace carrying armfuls of steaming plates, shouting out the name of the dish they're carrying in their best market-trader voices. 'Llevo paella, ¡ay qué rico la paella!' and 'Gambas, ¿quién quiere gambas?' are common calls as the waiters weave their way through the tables; customers signalling to them as they pass by. With most portions just €7.50, lunch at this atmospheric joint certainly won't break the bank: we paid €55 between four, including drinks.

La Virgen del Carmen
After eating our fill, it was time to head to our home for the weekend, Estepona. West of trendy Marbella, this little beachside town still maintains a fishing industry in addition to its role as a holiday hotspot. Much more low-key than resorts such as Benalmadena and Fuengirola, development in Estepona has mostly taken the form of small apartment buildings rather than high-rise horrors, and the old town is a typically andaluz area of white-painted houses. It boasts a number of beaches and a wildlife park, and is an easy drive to other resorts as well as the interior of western Andalucia. My family had rented a comfortable apartment in a small gated complex in a quiet area close to Playa El Cristo, just ten minutes to the main beach and half an hour to the old town. Our first night coincided with the Fiesta del Carmen, a festival in honour of the patron saint of fishermen. Walking down the seafront promenade, a few British and German voices mingled with the cheery chatter of heavily-accented locals, but unlike flashy Puerto Banus, foreign strollers were merely a sizeable minority rather than the dominant group. We took a seat at one of the many chiringuitos (beach bars) overlooking Estepona's Playa de la Rada, waiting for the procession carrying a figurine of the saint to come by. As is typical of these processions, a marching band headed the parade, with the heavy image of the virgin following behind, wielded by a number of muscular men calling out ¡guapa, guapa, guapa! (pretty) in honour of the saint. Behind the elaborately decorated float came local dignitaries and a number of penitents, some walking barefoot as a symbol of their atonement.

The next day was spent as so many days on the Costa del Sol are: soaking up the sun on the beach. As it was Saturday, plenty of Spaniards mingled with the foreign holidaymakers, their children playing together (or more accurately in one case, terrorising each other) despite the language barrier. I was amused to overhear a young Spanish boy proclaiming to his English playmate that 'We don't speak English here, we speak Spanish!' With only some minor sunburn to show off, we dined at traditional restaurant Casa Pablo in the aptly-named central square, the Plaza de las Flores. Prices were reasonable and my huge swordfish steak attracted plenty of admiring glances from passers-by. Afterwards, we made our way to the holidaymakers' end of town, the waterside puerto deportivo, a strip of restaurants and relaxed bars far removed from the quayside area of Puerto Banus, which turns into a parade of designer clothing and top-of-the-range cars as soon as the sun sets. Installing ourselves on the terrace of a busy bar, we sampled some rather ropey cocktails (caiprinha with lemon and no sugar, anyone?). Disappointing drinks aside, the lively area was ideal for a bit of people watching, with some more serious nightlife options available for those who want them.

My remaining days passed in much the same fashion: sunbathing, swimming, sampling a Greek restaurant at the puerto deportivo. I departed Estepona with a tan and an improved opinion of the Costa del Sol: yes, it's overdeveloped, but there are still relaxed resorts and pockets of charm. With sandy beaches, an interesting city in the form of Málaga and good transport connections from all over Europe, plus easy access to the rest of the region (we also drove to Granada in just 2 hours 20 minutes and spent the night there), holidaymakers could certainly choose far worse destinations.

Friday, 23 July 2010

My Madrid: My new friend Nina

My longest-standing friend is called Nina. We bonded over our packed lunches on a school trip to Blackpool Zoo aged 5. Given the positive connotations of the name, I've been meaning to try the namesake restaurant on Manuela Malasaña for the past few months, but it wasn't until last night that the appetising menu and minimalist surroundings finally tempted me inside.

Unlike the usual rough-and-ready-but-still-trendy dining options in Malasaña (yes, I admit it, it's probably my favourite barrio, although it had to fight with Lavapiés for that hallowed title), Nina is an oasis of exposed-brick and dimily-lit chic, offering surpisingly reasonably-priced modern Spanish/Mediterranean dishes accompanied by an extensive wine list. They may not have had the cava we initially chose, but the 2008 cabernet sauvignon rosé we ordered instead was a delicious substitute - in fact the best rosé I've ever tasted - that went down far too easily.

Once the difficult decision of what to eat was made - the menu features pastas, fish, meat and a summer specials section, in addition to starters and platters to share - we were presented with a basket of warm bread and a serving of gazpacho to whet our appetites. Appetites suitably whetted, I tucked into my tuna and courgette milhoja (layers) with asparagus, roasted tomatoes and a romesco sauce, while my date for the evening K polished off a cod fillet glazed with honey alioli. As can be expected such stylish surroundings, the portions were just-so rather than ginormous, but for €12.90 you can't exactly complain. Much as I love Albur across the street for its down-to-earth atmosphere and great Spanish grub, Nina's tuna options undercut its neighbours' by at least €4.

The New York cheesecake was a definite cut above many Spanish dessert offerings (no frozen La Mallorquina offerings here, oh no) and brought our evening to a tasty conclusion. Given the relaxed ambience, attentive service and high-quality food and drink, I can only say that Madrid's Nina is now a firm Malasaña favourite.

  • Nina is at Calle Manuela Malasaña 10 (metro Bilbao).

Thursday, 15 July 2010

My Madrid: Aperitivo Italiano at El Naranja

If you're on a tight budget but don't want to limit your social life, look no further than cosy cafe El Naranja. Every Wednesday and Thursday evening from 20.30, this little Malasaña hangout loads its bar with Italian food. For just the price of a drink, punters can pile their plates high.

Bringing the Milanese tradition of aperitivo to Madrid, El Naranja offers a variety of salads, pasta, bruschetta and some items with a more dubious connection to Italy such as brussels sprouts and cous cous. Still, it's pretty much free, so you can't argue. If you're hungry, make sure to get there early - by 10pm El Naranja is always packed with buffet-hounds.

  • El Naranja is located at Calle San Vicente Ferrer 53 (Metro Noviciado).

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Spain's World Cup victory, near hysteria and the goalie's cheekbones

6pm on Sunday 11 July 2010 and the streets of Madrid were already filling with flag-wielding folks dressed in red and yellow, excitedly chanting 'Yo soy español, español, español' in anticipation of the World Cup final match that evening: Spain versus Holland.

7pm and the metro was packed with screaming girls and sweaty bodies. Our aim to watch the match in an Irish bar near Cibeles, the major scene of football victory celebrations in Madrid (well, unless you're an Atlético fan), was quickly abandoned when we saw the crowds. Heading to the calmer - but still lively - calles of Chueca instead, we found a suitable bar and settled in to watch the match.

And what a match it was, marred by dirty tactics and dragging on into extra time. Concentration was starting to flag and the smoky atmosphere was taking its toll on our band of Brits plus an enthusiastic Swede. But then Iniesta scored and the bar was open-mouthed: finally, goooooool!! Vuvuzelas sounded, strangers embraced, I was lifted into the air. A few minutes later it was official: Spain were the world champions for the first time.

The streets rang with cries of 'Campeones, campeones'; men inexplicably took their shirts off (guys, you didn't score the goal, it's really not necessary); revellers sailed down Gran Via perched on office chairs and wheelie bins. The scene around Cibeles was a sea of red and yellow; police vans restraining would-be fountain jumpers. Taking the sensible option given that I had to work the next day, I made my way home, surrounded by happy faces and over-exuberant Spaniards.

The next day, the victory parade route was announced. Shameless glory-supporters K and I headed to Moncloa, at the beginning of the route, where the team's bus would begin its tour of Madrid. Half an hour before the scheduled departure, we took our places: one and a half hours later, standing in something that vaguely resembled a flowerbed (not an actual one, Mum, in case you're reading), we were still waiting. There's a reason the Spanish aren't famed for punctuality. Finally, the bus swept by us and cameras flashed, but we were surprised by the lacklustre crowds and matching responses from the players. As we watched, the proceedings burst into life further down the street: we took one look at each other and decided to follow the boys down Calle Princesa to get closer to the action.

Dashing down a series of sidestreets, we emerged just as the bus was passing again. The Spanish national team was now on form, with Casillas and Torres waving flags, Ramos larking about and a couple of players sipping cans of Mahou. The crowd was overjoyed; chanting, singing, frantically photographing. Although my Swedish partner in crime and I can't claim to be remotely español, there was something about the atmosphere and the sense of being a part of history (and Casillas's cheekbones - incredibly chiselled close up) that turned us two sensible young women into something reminiscent of a pair of teenage groupies at a boyband concert. We still hadn't had enough: we took to our heels again and raced down back streets to emerge on the other side of the bus. With a little help from our elbows (and K's tall, blonde good looks), we were somehow in the front row. Never a Torres fan until now, I was almost reduced to dribbling as he grinned down at us. It's amazing the effect a few sportsmen wielding a trophy can have on a girl. But my finest moment was yet to come: in true teenage style, I screamed at Ramos 'I'm your future wife!' Oh dear. Fortunately I wasn't the worst though: a minor TV presenter standing in front of me pulled down her T-shirt to reveal breasts painted with footballs. Classy.

An estimated 1 million took to the streets of Madrid last night to celebrate and welcome la selección home. Of course, some think this public outporing of joy is ridiculous and excessive: after all, the boys just scored a goal, they didn't broker world peace. However, coming at an uncertain time for Spain, with 20% unemployment and a troubled economy, the victory arguably meant much more to the population. Of course, winning the World Cup is no small thing, and this was Spain's first taste of such glory, but their success also gave the country something to celebrate, a reason to be happy and to feel proud. Some have even analysed the effects on regionalism, observing the attitudes and celebrations in the Basque country and Cataluña, but many believe that football can't even begin to solve the issues of separatism. Still, there seems to be no doubt that the victory has caught the national imagination and united the population behind something, if only temporarily. Let's just hope this feeling lasts longer than my teenage behaviour... Better leave it there, I'm off to pore over photos of my beloved. Did I mention Jesús Navas's blue eyes?

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Saturday, 10 July 2010

Summer in the city: Escaping the Madrid heat

Some wise sage once observed that living in Madrid involves surviving nine months of winter and three months of hell. Based on the past year, it's a pretty accurate assessment: after bizarre weather that saw me firmly glued to my umbrella handle in mid June, the hell has arrived. As temperatures top 40 degrees, I'm beginning to wish I had opted for an apartment with air conditioning, and I have become insanely jealous of those with a swimming pool (not to mention increasingly friendly towards them).

So, when the heat is on, how should the poor folks without the precious aire stay cool and avoid being reduced to a sweaty puddle on the pavement? Well, if you don't fancy retreating to the nearest café blasting out cool air for the day, there are thankfully a few more inviting options.
A dip in the pool

Las Presillas
Madrid boasts a fair number of open-air public swimming pools, which are finally open now that July is here. Varying in size and facilities, they all have one thing in common - crowds. As leaving your towel on a sunlounger at 2am German-style is not really an option here, make sure to get there early to stake your claim on a sunbathing spot. Details of outdoor piscinas can be found here, but the pick of the bunch is the 3  pool complex in Casa de Campo (metro Lago), with shady spots on the grass above the huge main pool in addition to the usual concrete. If you can't cope with the screaming children and want something a bit more private, you could always try befriending colleagues/passers-by who have a swimming pool at their block of flats, or if you're feeling flush, hotel pools provide a more exclusive experience. For those who like to pose, you can't beat the rooftop Splash at the Room Mate Oscar hotel in the heart of Chueca: the pool area features swanky sunloungers, a bar and a stunning view over the city, plus a mini splash pool. For €40 a day, stylish sunbathers have access to the pool area and use of a towel. With a maximum of 35 people allowed in, it's certainly more tranquil than a municipal pool. If you would prefer to escape the city altogether, head to the natural swimming pools at Las Presillas, in the sierra near Rascafría - the location in the hills guarantees a lower temperature, and swimming while surrounded by mountains is a memorable experience (although the water is bloody cold!).

Picnicking in the park

El Capricho
Madrid's Retiro park is well-known as a central picnic spot, full of shady corners and home to a boating lake for those who want to dangle their toes in the water. However, like those municipal pools, it can also get pretty packed at the weekend. For somewhere a little more secluded, head to El Capricho (metro of same name), an 18th century English-style pleasure garden filled with fountains, follies and plenty of shade. Unfortunately the 'door staff' (yes, this park has bouncers) are rather strict when it comes to enforcing the 'no food and drink rule' (although I did manage to eat a handful of crisps inside, but that's just between you and me), so picnics can be eaten in the nearby Parque Juan Carlos, which also loans mountain bikes for free if you're feeling active. A more central option is the vast Casa de Campo, which has some shaded picnic tables near the cable car stop, as well as a large boating lake and a swimming pool.

Taking advantage of aire

If operación bikini failed or you're fed up of park life, you could always take refuge in air-conditioned art galleries or shopping centres such as La Gavia (metro Las Suertes). A visit to the cinema becomes more tempting too, but if you're looking for somewhere a bit more sociable, retreat to the cool confines of in-demand chef Sergi Arola's 'gastrobar', Le Cabrera, which serves up top-notch tapas and a huge menu of cocktails to chic punters. The curious 'English-style' decor (a mix of retro and country house, with some strangely Cath Kidston-esque touches) takes a little getting used to, but after a couple of cocktails you'll be a convert. 

Once evening draws in and it's safe to step outside without your make-up melting within thirty seconds, it's time to embrace the warmth and head for a terraza. In addition to year-round standbys like the Penthouse at Me in Plaza Santa Ana and Gaudeamus in Lavapiés, summer-only terrazas are popping up everyhwere. A few worth pausing for include Jardín Brugal-Casa de América next to Cibeles, and La Terraza de Chamartin, next to the train station, a trendy terraza with its own mini-golf course and views of Madrid's skyscrapers. If you're looking for a glamorous open-air experience with a difference, try the Terraza del Bernabéu at the Real Madrid stadium, accessed through the Real Café at puerta 30*. One of the stands behind the goal becomes a split-level terraza during the summer months, hosting after-work cocktails before transforming into a fully-fledged discoteca as the night draws on (entry €12 with drink).

*2012 update: The terraza is now accessed through the restaurant at puerta 46. The Real Café is also open in the evening, but it's not al aire libre.

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