Donal O'Donoghue goes on a whistle-stop tour of the Spanish capital for the RTÉ Guide.

It’s a Monday night in Madrid. Less than 24 hours later we’ll be flying home. Tomorrow we’ll be asking Kevin Costner why he wanted to play the man who shot Bonnie and Clyde (in the Netflix film, The Highwaymen; the European publicity machine fixed on Madrid) but tonight is ours.

I lob my list of top-rated tapas bars at the hotel receptionist who shakes her head sadly, who scribbles directions to another establishment: Celso y Manolo. We hop in the cab. "Calle de la Libertad, por favor," I call out to the cab driver using up 40% of my Spanish. Soon we are in trendy Chueca district, with its shiny bars and glittering clientele.

I have visited Madrid just three times. The longest stay was 30 hours, the shortest 16. The first time was in 1996, to interview a troupe of tango dancers from Argentina; the mutual language barrier meant lots of miming and hand gestures. Spain was playing France in Euro ’96 that very afternoon.

With fellow journalist Frank Shouldice, long gone on to greater things, we ducked and dived through the heat and dust of the city, before finally settling at a bar girded with hard-eyed Madrileños. There we grimly sucked our beers, matching the cries of the locals, lest they think we be French interlopers, as the two teams slugged out a 1-1 draw.

Earlier I had done a 90-minute whistle-stop tour of Museo del  Prado, many of those minutes devoted to the magnificence of Velázquez’s 'Las Meninas', but didn’t have enough time for Hieronymus Bosch’s 'The Garden of Earthly Delights'.

Within a short hop of this glorious space are two other world-class museums, the Museo Reina Sofía, packed with 20th-Century art, including Picasso’s 'Guernica'; and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum with a collection of historical and contemporary art.

On that Madrid visit, we survived on three hours sleep, breakfasting at a fast-food joint, before heading for the airport. On that occasion, I left the Spanish capital thinking it would always play second fiddle to Barcelona. Not any more.

Last March, I visited Madrid twice in the space of three weeks. Both were flying work visits. It had been 23 years but I couldn’t tell if much had changed. The Prado is still glorious; you can party until dawn; and the locals are still friendly, chattering away even though we hadn’t a clue what they are saying. In one bar, sangria was ordered. A rat-a-tat of Spanish suggested it was not on the menu but the barman listed the ingredients anyway. "Is he asking us how to make it or telling us?" 

At Celso y Manolo, we nabbed two stools at the marble bar. "Dos cerverzas, por favor," I cry, using up the rest of my Spanish and we’re off: fried calamari, cod croquettes with spinach, pine nuts and raisins, organic cured pork with fried almonds and a salad that looked like a Carmen Miranda hat but tasted infinitely better (although I have never actually eaten the former).

The next day, before going to work with Señor Costner, there was time for a ramble down the city’s most historic boulevard, the Gran Vía (among its many names down the years was Howitzer Avenue during the Civil War) past the iconic Metropolis Building.

For old time’s sake I walked by the Museo del Prado before walking back to the hotel via El Retiro, not as a place for elderly da trippers, but the city's most beautiful green space. Later, I wondered how much of the real Madrid I’d seen. Like other great cities, it has many earthly delights, but my take on Spain’s two major cities has changed utterly. Next time I have a chance, I'm planning to go mad and stay at least three days in Madrid. I can't imagine what that might be like.

Customers eating foods at Mercado San Miguel Market in Madrid,Spain
Customers eating foods at Mercado San Miguel Market in Madrid,Spain

Eat & drink

Celso y Manolo, Calle de la Libertad
Classy tapas bar in Chueca that offers a modern twist on some traditional dishes without losing any of the flavour or goodness.

Platea Madrid, Calle de Goya
A former cinema, the Carlos III, has been transformed into this stylish food market in the Salamanca district with lots of restaurant choices as well as cocktail bars and gourmet food stores.

Frida, Calle San Gregorio
Make sure to get table outside this café/restaurant on a delightful plaza not far from the centre. Service can be slow and don’t order sangria.

Tapas at Cava Bodega
One of Galway's most popular restaurants, JP McMahon’s Cava Bodega is worth a visit for its popular tapas menu of croquetas, patatas bravas and pork belly. See cavarestaurant.ie for details.

mussels
Cava Bodega Cookbook. Photo Credit: Julia Dunin

Visit

Museo del Prado
The city’s greatest museum is part of the city’s Golden Art Triangle along with Museo Reina Sofía and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.

El Retiro
Stunning gardens in the centre of the city, dotted with magnificent monuments and glorious flowerbeds.