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MadridThe pace of Madrid
  is rather laid back,
  but it is a cultured and
  stylish place with
  a vibrant nightlife that
  never seems to stop

Tim Stevens visited Madrid to find out how it fares as a holiday destination. And what a surprise it turned out to be!

Lucky old Posh and Becks. They may have drawn the long straw with Madrid, but is it their sort of city? They will discover that the Spanish capital does not have the arrogance of the usual European capital city and that the people are friendly and helpful — except for the occasional disinterested railway ticket office attendant or ambitious rip-off airport taxi driver.

The pace of Madrid is rather laid back the hot weather slows most people down but it is a cultured and stylish place with a vibrant nightlife that never seems to stop. There are some impressive streets but not overbearingly majestic boulevards to intimidate visitors, nor anything else of great or threatening stature to impose upon the
pleasant surroundings.

Although its style is different, Madrid's near provincial atmosphere bears comparison with Norway's Oslo and Slovenia's Ljubljana
surprising, considering close neighbours France and Italy.

Once the scale of Madrid is grasped, you will find most places you
want to visit are within walking distance. The city centre quite neatly divides into the 'old' 18th Century and the 'new' 19th Century with a little spice in between. All the big names in shops are in Salamanca district, the heart of the new part of the city.

There is not the pulse of London, but you will notice that final endorsement of chic
those immaculately turned out 'Ladies Who Lunch' enjoying café society. Cooks will be able to track down
the elusive turron (its nearest equivalent is nougat) as recommended by our Delia but rarely found at home. Alternatively, you can buy
some online at
Click to go there now.

The traditional grocers and department stores have a good selection at less than half the price of Duty Free. There are treasures to be found whatever your penchant; galleries selling pictures and ceramics, the colourful gay area between the two parts of the city or a new chic label in a small boutique at prices to tempt.
And we were delighted to discover a real gem — a time capsule of an art nouveau bar.

The old town has several focal points. Plaza de la Puerta del Sol (Gateway to the Sun) has the longest name and traffic jams, even at 1.00am, and the car-free, classically-designed Plaza Mayor is largely the preserve of coin and stamp dealers. Around the corner are the beautiful and delicate 19th century buildings with the local provisions market. But even more spectacular is the Atocha railway station, where you almost expect men to appear in top hats and frock coats in a scene straight from a film set.

One of the most lively and social night spots is the Plaza Santa Ana, ironically formed by demolishing a convent. If you want to shop, Calle de Serrano has more than enough boutiques to satisfy even Posh together with shoe shops galore in the old town area.

If you can't beat them, join them! Everything stops at midday and a three course meal is eaten at two o'clock. Most restaurants offer a bargain fixed-price meal with wine or beer included, some from as little as £5. If you want to push the boat out, £10 in a smart restaurant represents genuine value for money.

Madrid used to be full of family-run, no frills restaurants and there are still plenty of places offering traditional fare should you wish to sample paella or other Spanish dishes. But the real finds are a new generation of gourmet restaurants serving modern dishes in high-style surroundings. You would reasonably expect to draw breath at the prices but, in each of the five we enjoyed, the bill was just over five pounds each.

Complementing these restaurants is La Gloria de Montera. Inexpensive and stylish, it is situated close to the Museo del Prado so you can rest your weary feet after a morning of culture. None of these restaurants takes booking and getting a table is a challenge unless you revert to nearer UK meal times. The Spanish seem to eat lunch from 2.00pm onwards and dinner from 10.00pm. The restaurants open half an hour earlier when tables are freely available. Arrive at 10.00 p.m. and expect to wait an hour-and-a half.

Another gem near the Prado and the Retiro park worth a visit is the smart but relaxed La Gamella. Booking is essential as it is patronised
by politicians and top executives. We chose the menú de degustación
and were served six courses, costing in the region of £25 a head including wine. Excellent value from American owner, Dick Stephens, who has lived in Madrid for forty years. In the process of handing over his ownership, he says his imaginative food will go on.

To many, The Prado is Madrid. A grand dame of galleries housing a collection of the premier division and you expect it to be the best. However, you shouldn't miss the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia for Picasso's Guernica — his famous painting of the horrors of the Civil War
great Dalis and lots of other modern pieces. It, too, is considered one of the major museums of the world and is situated in a former hospital with two heart-stopping all-glass lifts outside the building providing fantastic views.

Our favourite, without doubt, was the beautiful Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Housing one of the widest ranging private collections of European art in the world, there is a little something for everyone —
all attractively presented.

Spain's historic conquests sit alongside those of the Dutch and in the mid-18th Century leading European royalty created, amongst others, France's Versailles and Vienna's Schonbrunn. In the same period Madrid's Royal Palace, the 2,800 roomed Palacio Real, was built. Impressive
yes, but not quite in the same league of grandiose and sophisticated design. Needless to say, the Spanish Royal Family prefers to live elsewhere.

No city is just the trophy sights. The botanical gardens (Real Jardín Botánico) are quite delightful and relaxing
more attractive than the much-hyped Parque del Retiro. Alongside are the bookstalls, reminiscent of those by the Seine in Paris and well worthwhile spending a lost hour or two browsing.

If you enjoy bargain hunting in flea markets, a Sunday morning stroll with the Madrilenos in the touristy and centuries-old El Rastro
(open 8am-2pm Sundays and holidays) will be well rewarded.

The countryside outside Madrid lacks interest, but for children and the young at heart there is Warner Brother's 'Movie World' with roller-coasters and cartoon village some fifteen miles south of the city.

If you crave European history, the historic town of Toledo is the choice for an out of town excursion. Easily accessible by either train or bus,
it is as well to remember it is on a hill and the streets are cobbled.
The main attraction is the cathedral
a magnificent mediaeval building
that took over three hundred years to complete. However, as there is a lack of signposts in the town it is probably advisable to take an escorted tour to make the most of your time in Toledo.

We were constantly advised to beware of pick-pockets and bag snatchers by locals, who clearly recognise it as a problem as everyone clutches their bags to their bodies. Conversely, roaming the streets at night is totally unthreatening wherever you go.

We could well take a leaf out of this book as every night there are throngs of young people letting their hair down well into the small hours, enjoying drinks in and outside the multitude of bars and clubs. And there was not one drunk nor even a broken glass or bottle to be seen.

Madrid is a wonderful place to visit and we have no doubt that the Beckhams will find their new home town has much to savour and enjoy.

Bargain flights to Madrid are available with several airlines. BMI gave us a good service and ample legroom. We would advise you to take advantage of the hotel buses or the metro which is cheap, quick and pleasant to use. — Tim Stevens back to top of page

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Madrid