Deirdre Mullins savours the food and culture of the Spanish capital.

Ernest Hemingway called Madrid "the most Spanish of all cities", referring to its diverse population that comes from every region of Spain. But Madrid's diversity is not just in its people. The city contrasts narrow cobbled lanes with modern boulevards; towering skyscrapers sit near 17th-century churches. It's a city with a rich artistic history, a buzzing restaurant scene, and enough shops to keep the most enthusiastic of shoppers happy.   

Hemingway left a booze-stained trail during his time in Madrid, and it's hard not to do the same. The Spanish like to drink, albeit in a slow and sophisticated way. The bars and restaurants around the Literary Quarter (Barrio de las Letras) are lively from early in the day and are a good place to people-watch and get the feel for the neighbourhood.

This area was once home to the premier writers of the Spanish Golden Age such as Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote. It's now an affluent area with antique bookstores and vintage furniture shops. The Literary Quarter is an interesting neighbourhood with a 'lived-in feel' and is a good place to spend the day wandering around its 40 or so streets.

Our guide was Seán, who grew up in Madrid with his Irish mother. He brought us into a small tapas bar in the Literary Quarter which was full of locals drinking beer and coffee at 11am. Pointing to a trail of tissues, olive pits and toothpicks that littered the bar, he told us in his strong West of Ireland accent: "Be like a local and throw your litter on the floor." Apparently this kind of mess is a sign you're in a good tapas bar.

Tapas often come complimentary with drinks and are perfect for lunch or a snack. But if you're looking for a more hearty meal, the Madrid landmark Lhardy is a good option. It opened in 1839 and was said to have been the first restaurant in Madrid to serve French cuisine and be called a 'restaurant'. When it opened Lhardy was frequented by the city's royalty, literati and political leaders. It still pulls an upmarket crowd and some gastronomic tourists.

At street level Lhardy is an elegant and busy tapas bar, while upstairs is a fine dining area that has been preserved to maintain the atmosphere that was enjoyed in its heyday. The décor is just as it was, with dark wood panelling, velvet curtains and ornate antique lights. One of the house specialities is Cocido Madrileño, a delicious chickpea-based stew fit to feed an army.

Another historic restaurant is Casa Botín. It is listed in The Guinness Book of Records as the oldest restaurant in the world. Hemingway described it as the best. Established in 1725, Casa Botín is spread over four floors with cosy dining rooms which are tiled and have wood-beam ceilings. The centuries-old cast iron ovens are not a sight for the squeamish, as dozens of suckling piglets lie skewered, waiting to be roasted.

Just a short walk from Casa Botín is Plaza Mayor, an elegant square which was built in 1619 during the Habsburg period. During the summer it's a nice place to pull up a chair and enjoy some local wine, or laze on the cobblestones in the sun. In December and January Plaza Mayor is the location of a Christmas market selling kitsch decorations and nativity scene figurines. On Sunday mornings the area is taken over by traders of old coins, banknotes and stamps. If you follow the streets south on Sundays you will quickly come upon the Madrid Flea Market (El Rastro Market). It's a huge market that draws a big crowd and sells everything from antiques to new and used clothing, jewellery, military surplus and leather goods.

For high street shopping the most important area is around Gran Vía, a wide boulevard that Hemingway described as Madrid's answer to Broadway's Fifth Avenue. It was constructed in 1929 and is a showcase of early 20th-century architecture. Originally it was the main theatre-going area in Madrid. While there are still many theatres on the Grand Vía, it's mostly dotted with hotels and department stores such as Zara and Mango. Many of the streets off Gran Vía such as Calle Fuencarra, Preciados, Carmen and Arenal are also home to high street chain stores. These streets are generally packed and you will need patience to enjoy your shopping spree.

For a more leisurely way to spend time, the Art Walk is an area in Madrid where three of the world's most important art galleries are located. The Prado, the Reina Sofía and the Thyssen-Bornemisza museums are just a short stroll away from each other.

The Prado is one of the most visited attractions in the city. It is home to one of the world's finest collections of European art from the 12th to the early 19th century and includes works by Goya, Velazquez and Caravaggio. It's free of charge to enter between 6pm and 8pm; otherwise it is €14 per adult. For contemporary and modern art visit the Reina Sofía Museum; its highlight is Picasso's Guernica

The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum displays an amazing private collection of Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza. His collection spans eight centuries and is the second largest private collection of art in the world after the British Royal Collection. It's nice to view the work in chronological order and start off at the Gothic and Renaissance periods, and follow it right up to Monet, Van Gogh and Hopper. The collection climaxes with Lichtenstein, Freud and Irish-born Francis Bacon.

Bacon died in Madrid in 1992 after the city became a haunt for the artist in his final years. He, just like Hemingway, was seduced by the Spanish capital, and after a weekend there I found myself falling for it too.  

For more information on Madrid, visit: www.esmadrid.com.

Deirdre Mullins

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