Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sweet Surrender in Madrid

Spain’s traditional capital reveals its playful side in the early hours, when office-bound bankers cross paths with hungry clubbers in the churrerías. These small shops work around the clock crafting churros – deep-fried strips of dough that are Madrid’s classic breakfast or afternoon snack and a powerful late-night restorative, especially when dipped in thick hot chocolate.

By mid-afternoon, there are shopping bags at every table in the churrerías, as intrepid boutique warriors pause for the merienda, or afternoon snack, whether in the cluster of designer shops and custom cobblers of the Salamanca neighborhood or along the bustling streets in the vibrant barrio of Chueca. Churros are often hard to find after dark in other Spanish cities, but not in Madrid, where the tasty fritters imbue Madrileños with the stamina to keep going until they drop. When the flamenco show ends at 1:00 am or the sky shows dawn’s early streaks as the dance clubs close, the churrerías beckon.From its formal old-world plazas and medieval lanes to its modernist offices and galleries, Madrid comes alive each day to the smell of churros.

This essential breakfast fuels office workers and laborers alike, and it also provides a morning jump-start for museum-goers making their pilgrimages to the treasure houses on the city’s Golden Triangle of art: the eclectic Museo Thyssen- Bornamisza, the legendary Museo del Prado with its works by Goya and Velázquez (see also pp136–7), and the thought-provoking, sometimes controversial Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Spain’s national museum of 20th- and 21st-century art.

Thought to have been created as an easy breakfast for mountain shepherds (churra is an ancient breed of Iberian sheep), churros are among the simplest of sweets – a basic batter of flour, salt, and water piped into bubbling vats of oil. Fried into finger-sized sticks that are soft on the inside but brown and crisp on the outside, they must be eaten before they cool – ideally dusted with sugar and dipped into coffee or a cup of mud-thick Spanish hot chocolate – for an explosion of warmth that radiates from mouth to fingertips.
So central is the shepherd’s breakfast to Madrileños that no festival in the city is complete without churro carts. As the street music rises to a proper Spanish din, vendors fire up their gas heaters to bring their oil to a bubbling sizzle, squirt in the dough, and transform a simple batter into a sweet celebratory treat.

A Day in Madrid
Madrid remains as vibrant at night as during the day. The monumental fountains of Neptuno and Cibeles along the Paseo del Prado are most dramatic when illuminated. The complex rhythms and mournful song of flamenco only begin after dinner (that is, midnight), and the trance beat of the dance clubs starts throbbing in the madrugada, or early morning.
Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica, is reason enough to visit the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, but don’t miss the extensive collection of paintings and sculptures by Madrid-born Juan Gris and the ever-cryptic and mercurial Joan Miró.
Seek out fashions by many of Spain’s young, avant-garde designers in the trendy Chueca neighborhood, also known for its gay-friendly nightlife. For the best in Spanish footwear at bargain prices, peruse the shops on Calle Augusto Figueroa.
Begin with drinks in the upmarket culinary center of Mercado San Miguel. Eat dinner and watch Madrid’s best flamenco at Casa Patas. After the show, dance until dawn at Disco-Teatro Joy Eslava and end the evening’s revelries with churros and chocolate.
Madrid lies near the geographical center of Spain. Most international airlines fly into Madrid-Barajas Airport, 7 miles (12 km) from downtown Madrid. The best way to get around the city is by metro.
Hotel Plaza Mayor (inexpensive) is a welcoming option in a 200-year-old church building.
Room Mate Oscar Hotel (moderate) is a playful designer hotel in hip Chueca.
Catalonia Las Cortes (moderate) offers rooms in a converted 18th-century palace.
Plaza Mayor 27; www.esmadrid.com

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