Keen for a mid-winter getaway and with the lyrics of Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me jingling in our heads, we scanned the easyJet sale and selected the cheapest location that appealed. Shunning more obvious but less budget friendly destinations such as Reykjavik and Stockholm, we settled on Madrid – perhaps an unusual choice for the season, but hey, a break is a break…
Our first stop was the extravagant Royal Palace. The sensation is of stepping back in time, from its vast stately façade approached through the Plaza de Armas to the absorbing collection of medieval armed horsemen.
Inside, and beyond the imposing marble double staircase, there are magnificently sumptuous public rooms, such as the ornate banqueting hall, sitting up to 160 diners, and the gilded crimson Throne Room, lit by rock crystal Venetian chandeliers.
Also on the route are the more intimate areas of Carlos III’s bedroom suite, the décor frequently displaying the baroque taste for all things Oriental.
For art mavens, there’s the world-famous Prado. Here you can have your fill of Spanish masterpieces, highlighting Velazquez (often religious and mythological) and Goya (lots of monsters and war).
While it would be sacrilegious to suggest omitting this from your itinerary, if you want something a little lighter, then opt for the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.
Housed in the elegant 18th-century Villahermosa Palace and exhibiting one of world’s most important private collections, its selection from the Dutch and Flemish Golden Age is well worth seeing, with paintings by Brueghel, Rembrandt and Frans Hals (of Laughing Cavalier fame).
It’s also very strong on Impressionism, with important works by Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh and Gauguin. A tip is that a number of Madrid art galleries offer free admission for the last two hours of one day every week.
For a day out with Jewish interest, we took the pleasant half-hour train journey to Toledo. The 14th-century El Transito Synagogue’s huge main hall features a stunning multi-hued wooden vaulted ceiling surrounded by a frieze of finely-wrought filigree Hebrew inscriptions. Attached is the Museo Sefardi, which through its display of sacred objects, clothing and manuscripts, traces the history of Jewish culture in Spain.
Elsewhere, you can lose yourself in the town’s historic winding alleys, exiting suddenly to wonderful views back over the imposing ramparts of the Alcazar fort or, in the opposite direction, towards the emerald, winding gorge of the River Tagus.
A break from the culturefest is afforded by the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. Home of Real Madrid Football Club and the city’s second most popular tourist attraction, this easily accessible 80,000-seat edifice offers guided or self-guided tours.
After drinking in the atmosphere with a spectacular panoramic overview, you move inside to be cocooned in a high-tech display of touchscreens and multi-media, illuminating the self-styled “Best Club in History”.
There is the glittering bling of the trophy room, then it’s the players’ experience of the changing rooms, tunnel, coaches’ dugouts and the pitch itself. And you can have a (Photoshopped) picture with Ronaldo.
By the end, you’re as exhausted as if you’ve played the full 90 minutes against arch-rivals Barcelona, ready to drop into the official store for the usual overpriced paraphernalia.
Our chosen hotel was the Gran Melia Fenix, location of the Beatles’ press conference before their only Madrid concert in 1965, offering old-style palatial opulence in its stained-glass, marble-floored lobby and comfortable and well-appointed bedrooms.
An enormous buffet breakfast is taken in designer-room luxury and in the evening the Dry Martini Bar transforms into a softly-lit, sophisticated restaurant. If you wish, you can upgrade to the Red Level, with your own private butler and personal whirlpool.
Kosher eating is tricky. Accessible by bus is La Escudilla where, though the chicken and chips were passable, there was a noticeable lack of vegetables, style and any kind of staff charm – a case of “could do better.”
Madrid is compact enough to be a city made for walking. If the weather’s fine, the best place is Retiro Park, previously the grounds of the king’s palace and round the corner from the art galleries.
We were there on Boxing Day and, with the temperature soaring and the picturesque boating lake full of rowers, we sunbathed to the incongruous strains of seasonal favourites played by an accordionist. Madrid is also the “City of Fountains”, where you’ll find attractive sculptures draped with flowing water at every main traffic intersection.
Frank Sinatra can have his April in Paris and autumn in New York, because we were charmed by midwinter in Madrid.
Just don’t tell Ol’ Blue Eyes it all began with a search for a budget flight.
Where to stay
Barry stayed at the Hotel Gran Melia Fenix (melia.com), where rooms with breakfast start at £190 per night. Easyjet (easyjet.com) flies from London Luton to Madrid from £46 return.