Fiona, Jane and Louise outside the Prado Museum in Madrid

Three 50-something señoras travel to Spain’s capital in search of shops, culture and tapas

Fiona, Louise and I have known each since our schooldays but we had never been on holiday together before writes Jane Slade. We chose Madrid as none of us had been there before and I reckoned my ‘O’ level Spanish combined with Louise’s ‘A’ level history of art and Fiona’s easy going but sensible disposition would be a winning formula.

Madrid does not sizzle like Seville or bustle like Barcelona. Here the siesta is still sacred (the shops close between 3-5pm). Instead this is an elegant, sedate capital with squares, gardens, smart shops and cafes and a royal palace which are all conveniently concentrated within walking distance of the Emperador, the four-star hotel which was our home for two nights (www.emperadorhotel.com) .

Our three-bed suite was more faded elegance than edgy chic but in a great location on the Gran Via, 10 minutes from the Museo del Prado, (www.museodelprado.es) and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Gallery (www.museothyssen.org) which were on our cultural hit list.

Louise came into her own in the vast galleries of the Prado; her knowledge of Renaissance art being remarkably fresh after 25 years. However we all preferred Baron Thyssen’s private collection down the road which included Holbein’s famous portrait of Henry VIII and paintings by Canaletto, Constable and Dali.

Hans Holbein's portrait of Henry VIII Madrid retirement

Hans Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII

The Prado museum shop was better though with posters from €9.50 and the chance to print your favourite painting. I loved the framed hand printed silks of masterpieces from €95, and the fact that you could splash out €970 for an original poster of a 1962 Chagall exhibition.

Madrid sits at odds with most capital cities having no river running through it or great bridge to cross. Surprisingly it became the Spanish capital on the whim of Phillip II after many centuries as a fortress starting life on a rocky crag which is where the current Royal Family’s Palacio Real now stands.

We didn’t have time for the two-and-a-half hour palace tour, but enjoyed admiring its exterior and the views out to the suburbs and beyond into rural Spain.

The Royal Palace

The Royal Palace

I did worry whether I had ordered a donkey instead of butter at one café

We found the taxi drivers friendly and patient particularly when I thought I had lost my mobile phone; and one of the policemen outside the Prado even took our picture. Madrid is easy to walk around and navigate with a map but I do not advise visiting in high summer when temperatures can soar into the high 30s.

We shopped, drank, ate, and stopped in little cafes for a plate of grilled prawns, cakes and crème caramels; although I did worry at one point whether I had ordered a donkey instead of butter at one café, using the Italian word ‘burro’ for butter, which means donkey in Spanish. No one was offended.

There are dozens of great tapas bars around the Plaza Santa Ana including Bar La Trucha, recommended by our Spanish friend who works at the British Embassy, and Bar Tomate in Calle Fernando el Santo. The great thing with tapas is you can eat very cheaply depending on how much or little you order.

The city’s heart is the Plaza Mayor – a stunning cobbled square, which in my view rivals St Mark’s in Venice. Here is where you will find the Madrileños sitting and drinking on a Sunday listening to a busking guitarist or just standing around with friends chatting. This is also where you will find the Casa Maria, a fine dining restaurant where you can order a main course and dessert with a glass of wine for just €23 while you sit watching the world go by (www.casamariaplazamayor.es).

As a professional gardener Louise had to pop into the Botanical Gardens, conveniently next to the Prado Museum. Here we wandered around ornamental cabbages, hellibores, mimosa trees, camellias, roses and potager, which was a nice relaxing respite before hitting the shops.

Wall-to-wall designer boutiques

The Calle de Claudio Coello district has wall-to-wall designer boutiques including Karen Millen and Diane Von Fustenberg but we loved Cortes Ingles best, Spain’s affordable answer to Harvey Nichols. There were branches everywhere and Fiona had been struggling to find a dress for a friend’s wedding. Here she found a great black and white number for just €50.

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Dining in the cellar at Sobrino de Botin

Madrid does not operate at the same frenetic pace as London or Paris, probably because the Madrileños are saving themselves up for some late night partying. If you dine before 10pm you will probably have the restaurant to yourselves. In our case our friend could only book us a table at the historic Restaurante Sobrino de Botin (www.botin.es) on Calle Cuchilleros at the ‘tea-time’ hour of 8.30pm. Such is its popularity; Botin is allegedly the oldest restaurant in the world, that even at that hour people were queuing to get in. We ate down under the brick arches in the atmospheric cellar and feasted on the speciality dish of roast suckling pig which we washed down with a few glasses of good Rioja.

The restaurant is in the medieval district of the city opposite the bustling and fabulous glass-covered Mercado de San Miguel. This is the trendy place to go for an aperitif, where you can join the locals standing among the giant hams, sipping fine wine sampling stall holders’ tasty pasta dishes while admiring the fruit and vegetables.

Worth a visit to admire the Mudejar décor which is a copy of the interior of the Alhambra Palace

After dinner we popped into the Torres Bermejas, Tablao Flamenco off Gran Via to see some traditional dancing (www.torresbermejas.com); it was standing room only when we arrived but the atmosphere was electric. It is worth a visit if only to admire the Mudejar décor which is a copy of the interior of the Alhambra Palace. A drink and a show costs €39.

If you want to enjoy a weekend where you don’t feel rushed or crushed Madrid is perfect. You can sit around all day drinking and chatting in one of several magnificent squares, linger in a museum, and not have to bother about being late for dinner. How relaxing is that?

If you are aged 65 or over several museums offer concessions so take your passport. For more luxurious accommodation book a room at the Hotel Villa Real (a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World (www.slh.com) which is very central on the Plaza de las Cortes. Superior doubles from €179 per night.

The Plaza Mayor - the heart of Madrid

The Plaza Mayor – the heart of Madrid