Madrid’s answer to Knightsbridge, Barrio Salamanca is often overlooked by visiting tourists. But Beverley Fearis finds that among these wide, elegant avenues, just north-east of the city centre, there is plenty to see, do… and buy
1. Plaza de la Cibeles
Start at the home of one of Madrid’s most famous and impressive monuments, a fountain depicting the Ancient Greek goddess of nature, Cybele, riding in a chariot drawn by two lions. This square is the focus of celebrations for Real Madrid fans when the team wins a big game, although police wisely board up the fountain to stop excited fans jumping in. Stand and admire what is possibly the most stunning post office building you will ever see, the 1904 Palacio de Comunicaciones, and next to it an equally elaborate bank, the 19th-century Banco de Espana.
2. Parque del Retiro
Walk down the Calle de Alcala until you see the entrance to the Parque del Retiro. No visit to Madrid would be complete without a leisurely stroll through this elegant park. Initially on the palatial grounds of King Felipe IV (1621-65), the park was opened to the public in 1868 after the ousting of Isabel II. Today, its shady tree-lined avenues and artificial lake attract a colourful and eclectic mix of cyclists, joggers, couples, business people, buskers and fortune-tellers all year round. The park comes into its own on Sunday afternoons, when it is positively heaving with families in their Sunday best.
3. Geografic Club
Continue up Calle de Alcala until you reach this bar/café/restaurant at number 141, easily recognisable by its enormous, beautiful stain-glassed doorway. Hugely popular with locals, Geografic Club is a vast, lively, three-storey space with a coloured skylight that lets the sun seep in during the day. It’s decked out in a fun colonial explorer theme, with posters and artefacts collected from the far corners of the world, including African masks, snow shoes, and the first hot-air balloon to land on Spanish soil. If you’re just about ready for a full-blown lunch, there’s a reasonably-priced restaurant upstairs but most people come here for a beer, a snack (fried vegetables and deep fried goat’s cheese are highly recommended) or a coffee and a chocolate brownie. Open daily 1300-0200 and until 0300 Saturday, tel +34 91 578 08 62.
Head up Calle Principe de Vergara until you meet with the cross-street Jose Ortega y Gasset. (Like New York, Salamanca is laid out in an easy-to-follow grid system so it’s much easier to navigate than the windy streets of Madrid’s old town.) At number 16 you’ll find one of Europe’s largest and most stylish wine shops, Lavinia (tel +34 91 426 06 04). It’s stocked with an impressive selection of tipples from all over Spain and the rest of the world. Staff are highly knowledgeable and helpful, so take advantage of their expertise and buy a bottle or two. Even if you’re not into your wines, you’ll appreciate the stunning contemporary design, both inside and out.
5. Calle Serrano
Keeping your wallet within easy reach, carry on down Calle de Jose Otega y Gasset until you hit Calle Serrano, Madrid’s smartest shopping street and home to all the top designer names. This grand, wide street is always heaving with traffic and stylish shoppers, but get there before midday and it’s less busy. Splash out at Adolfo Dominguez (18), which stocks collections of Spain’s leading designers, and at Purificacion Garcia (28) on a fine selection of clean-lined, minimalist clothes, bags and accessories. Calle Serrano is one of the oldest streets in Salamanca, so while you’re here consider the history of this district. It became the city’s rich neighbourhood towards the end of the 19th century when the Marques de Salamanca, a banker, politician and rogue known for his rather dubious business practices, built the first block of houses here. These properties were the first to have flushing toilets and the Marques ensured that the same “luxury” was installed in all new developments. Quickly, other wealthy aristocrats realised the benefits of wider streets, new housing (and flushing loos) compared with the narrow, dirty streets of old Madrid, and flocked here in droves. Today it remains home to Madrid’s “yuppis” and their offspring (pijos or pijas), who dress head to toe in designer clothes, wear shades year-round, and create traffic jams in their top of the range sports cars. You’ll see plenty of them here in Calle Serrano.
6. Paseo de la Castellana
Go one block west and you’re on the Paseo de la Castellana, Madrid’s answer to Park Lane and home to the city’s largest and most luxurious business hotels, including the Hotel Hesperia Madrid, Hotel Villa Magna and the Gran Melia Fenix. This wide thoroughfare is also home to the plush office blocks of the city’s leading banks and insurance companies.
7. Plaza Colon
Two sculptures commemorate the discovery of the Americans in this central square. One is an 1885 sculpture by Arturo Melida of Columbus on a pedestal surrounded by historical characters involved in the conquest. The other, a more modern tribute to discovery by Joaquin Vaquero Turcios, consists of four heavy cement blocks decorated with inscriptions by philosophers and indigenous leaders about Columbus’ voyages. In the middle, the arts centre – Centro Cultural de la Villa – is hidden beneath a cascading waterfall.
8. Café Gijon
Make your way down Paseo de Recoletos, back towards where you started, to your final stop – Café Gijon. Classified as a literary monument, this famous tertulia has been a meeting point for artists, writers and intellectuals since 1898. Today, Café Gijon still attracts a colourful clientele and retains its literary tradition by sponsoring an annual award for new writers. Its formal but gracious grey-haired waiters clearly have a real sense of pride to be working in such an infamous establishment. Although it’s on the busy Paseo de Recoletos, once you’re settled at your table inside you won’t notice the noise of the traffic. Sit back with an Irish coffee and watch the “old-school” waiting staff in action. Open 0730-0130, Friday and Saturday until 0200, Paseo de Recoletos 21, tel +34 91 521 54 25.