This year my sons and I decided to spend a few days in Madrid over Christmas. Madrid is their home town so not such a random destination! Of course, the Spanish do the giving and receiving of presents part on January 6th, el Día de Reyes, so whilst all my English relatives are busy playing Santa on December 25th, all my Spanish relatives have to wait another 12 days – in other words, we English celebrate on the first day of Christmastide and they celebrate on the last.
Barajas, Madrid’s airport, has expanded since I was last there and we arrived at the newest terminal, 4, late in the evening to see the unusual tubular design at its illuminated best!
We had so many relatives to catch up with that our stay turned into a bit of a culinary marathon. We arrived on December 28 so we got TWO Christmases in – first ours in the UK and then theirs! The first big Spanish family feast we attended was on New Year’s Eve, (I had originally written New Fear’s Eve here before I proof read – which could be more accurate, actually – fear that we were going to explode with all this food!) Anyway, in for a penny, in for a pound!
At my oldest sister-in-law’s we kicked off with a glass of cava and the customary toast and then started off gently with a consommé, quickly followed by the tenderest cutlet of hake you can imagine, served with shellfish and washed down with wine or more cava. This was a night time meal so fish was the star of the show. We also polished off platefuls of ‘gulas’ (‘angulas’ to give them their official name – elvers, or baby eel)
and to tell the truth I don’t rightly remember what pud was! It’s all a bit of a blur now but the meal would have been rounded off by the ubiquitous ‘roscón de reyes’ (kings’ cake) – a sort of giant doughnut – some are filled with cream, some not, and traditionally they contain a trinket and an ‘haba’, a bean, which these days are made of plastic – if you are unlucky enough to break a tooth or choke on either of these it’s meant to bring good luck !! The ‘roscón’ serves the same purpose as our English Christmas cake – everyone has some tucked away in the larder in case unexpected guests drop in.
Obviously, you have to leave a bit out for the Three Kings too when they drop in on their camels with the presents on the eve of January 6th.
The next spread was the very next day – New Year’s Day. In between, the younger element went into town to La Puerta del Sol to celebrate New Year’s Eve in the traditional way, by drinking too much and falling into the fountain – much the same as Trafalgar Square in London, really. So back to the dinner table – my middle sister-in law was in charge this time (there are three of them so they spread the load!) First seafood soup, and for the main course, ‘cochinillo asado’ (suckling pig – this family does not cater for vegetarians!!) Apart from ‘roscón’, the other traditional Christmas sweet in Spain is ‘turrón’, which these days you see made of all sorts of ingredients – chocolate, coconut, crystallised fruit – though still the most popular (and some say the ‘only authentic’ ) is the original one made traditionally from honey and almonds. They’re all delicious – so I say ‘Bring it on!’! She then brought in the most enormous pot of coffee to finish off – or to finish us off!
No room at the inn!
At any other time of year when we visit Madrid we stay with relatives, but as everyone had lots of their other relatives staying because it was Christmas, we rented an apartment which was bang in the middle of the old quarter of the city in La Latina, a stone’s throw from La Plaza Mayor. To work off a few calories, over the next few days we explored the area around our apartment, starting with the Plaza Mayor – the beautiful, historic and atmospheric main square of Madrid – if it ain’t happenin’ around here – it ain’t happenin’!!
The Segway seems to have become the transport of choice for the more intrepid tourist. The Tourist Information Office in the La Plaza Mayor is one of the departure points for these tours and and now that a lot of Madrid’s central streets have been pedestrianized it’s the ideal way to go – plenty of ramps and flat surfaces to whizz down – you can be outside the Royal Palace or the Prado Museum in no time!
Wherever there are visitors, there are street artists and La Plaza Mayor is no exception – very interesting to watch them work, although they usually have a zealous ‘minder’ hanging around to stop you photographing their creations – except for one here, who had left a phone number and a note saying ‘Call me if you want to buy something’ !!
The Plaza Mayor is an architectural gem, a beautiful part of the old city, but it’s a typical tourist trap – they lure you in and are quite happy to charge 3 or 4 times the going rate even for a beer or a coffee. But you’re paying for the surroundings and to watch the world go by – this is true winter or summer.
At Christmas time, as in any big city, the square fills up with the weird and the wonderful – like Merlin here, who didn’t seem entirely sure of what he was doing!
Or would you miss this photo opportunity?
The square is lined with great shops – natty headgear – suits you, sir!
or some Toledo steel – Toledo is a town just south of Madrid famous for two things – one is the painter, El Greco, born in Crete, but who settled in Toledo and worked there for over thirty years till his death in 1614; and the other is the production of steel, dating back to 500 BC – lots of daggers, and swords etc but since knights are a bit thin on the ground now they have taken to selling these weapons to tourists and collectors.
Below is a traditional Belén, the Nativity scene you see depicted all over Spain at Christmas in homes and public places. This particularly detailed one was on display in a glass cabinet in the Plaza Mayor, but all the churches have one, some much more elaborate than others – some life size, others more modest, some with moving parts, and, although younger Spaniards are not church goers, a lot take their children to see a Belén or indeed help them to build one at home. Of course, some families have a Christmas tree instead or as well – I prefer the Belén.
The Plaza mayor was the perfect place on the way home from the hubbub in town to chill with a glass of wine or a beer – they even put on a nightly light show and a jazz trio up in one of the balconies.
The main shopping areas around Calle Mayor, Preciados and Gran Via were building up nicely to a last minute pre – Christmas buying frenzy, with people snapping up those last few items – funny, this was all over and done with in the UK but here we were again – Christmas lights, wrapping paper, street stalls with seasonal food to sample, choirs singing carols, cash tills pinging – it all felt a bit Ground Hog! One of the main streets, the Gran Vía has some very swish shops – fancy some jewellery ?- the Spanish are nothing if not ostentatious!
or some shoes ? These were beautiful quality.
or at the other end of the scale, despite being housed in this very grand building, I am told you can bag a bargain here in the Mercadillo del Gato,
Or when you tire of shopping you can just admire the contours and lines of the city’s apartment buildings and urban architecture.
Although it gets bitterly cold in Madrid in the winter, most of the time you can be assured of a brilliant blue sky which really lifts your spirits. This means, of course, that you also get a beautiful sunset, and one of the best places to appreciate it is from the Parque del Oeste, just up from the Royal Place, where you will also find El Templo de Debod (or Debod’s Temple) which was gifted to the Spanish by Egypt in the late 1960s. With the sunset as a backdrop and the strategically placed floor lights, it’s a dramatic sight and very popular with visitors – in fact, we were being elbowed out of the way by people wanting selfies or just nice pictures – but at any other time of year it’s a beautiful spot to look across to the Royal Palace and the Almudena Cathedral, which take on a fairytale quality when they are lit up at twilight.
as does the esplanade in front of the Palace, where we came across this wonderful old carousel, and a very enterprising ‘musician’ getting a tune out of some wine glasses!
Of course, Christmas is all about children! I don’t have any small children of my own now as mine are grown up but that didn’t stop me going to see a brilliant exhibition of Comic Book Superheroes, all made from Lego! You have to admire the ingenuity of the exhibits.
See if you recognise anyone!
I will finish with a bizarre sight that met us on our way home from the cinema on our last night there – two science bods (unless they were just two geezers who had stolen a very expensive piece of equipment!) had placed a big telescope
out in the street near Opera so that, for a small donation obviously, you could gaze up at the moon! And the donations disappeared into here!