Delve into the heart of the Spanish capital by visiting the places the locals go – from their favourite chocolaterías, cafes and tapas bars to the shop where they buy their flamenco shoes.
Handmade in Madrid
Madrid is a city that seems to run on a soundtrack of Spanish guitar. You hear it everywhere: humming from café radios and car stereos, drifting from windows, seeping under the doorways of bars. Buskers hammer out flamenco tunes on the street corners, while bands drift from bar to bar, serenading drinkers with songs of lust, love, loss and longing.
‘For Spanish people, there’s something about the sound of the guitar,’ explains Amalia Ramírez, whose family has been making fine classical guitars since 1882. ‘It has an expressive tone, full of emotion, and conveys a passion few other instruments can. It’s the sound of the Spanish soul.’
Founded by and named after Amalia’s great-great-great-grandfather, José Ramírez has been the luthier of choice for many of the 20th-century’s top guitarists – including George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Andrés Segovia, perhaps the greatest of classical guitarists, and a close friend of Amalia’s father, José Ramírez IV. While each generation has honed the Ramírez design, the basics of their guitars have remained essentially unchanged for a century.
Amalia leads the way into her family’s workshop, tucked away on a shady backstreet in Madrid’s businessy Tetuán district. Inside, craftsmen lean over workbenches, and bits of half-completed guitars line the walls: trusses, braces, headstocks and soundboards, along with finished instruments awaiting a final polish before being shipped out to their owners.
‘There are no shortcuts to making a great guitar,’ Amalia says as she picks one up from a workbench and drags her fingers across the strings, producing the rich, full tone for which her family’s guitars are famous. ‘We still do everything by hand. And while each instrument has the same basic design, many things affect its tone: the type of wood, the finish, the hand of the craftsman who makes it. Our guitars are all one-offs, and each has its own character. That’s the difference between something handmade and something mass-produced – and that’s why they cost more.’
Just as in her great-great-great-grandfather’s day, guitar-making by hand is a long and laborious process. Each guitar takes around four months to complete, and only 50 or 60 are produced every year. As such, they command eye-watering prices – from £2,000 for basic models up to £17,000 or more for custom designs.
Guitar-making is but one of many old crafts which endure in Madrid. On Calle de la Cruz, Capas Seseña is the only place in Spain that still makes the heavy woollen cloak known as the capa española, a garment traditionally reserved for formal occasions, such as bullfights or nights at the theatre. Each cape consists of a five-metre circle of Salamancan wool, cut and sewn by hand. The feel of the shop is deliberately old-fashioned: framed photographs of clients line the boutique downstairs, beside hundreds of capes suspended from brass clothing rails, while seamstresses work in the upstairs studio, surrounded by swathes of cloth and dressmakers’ mannequins.
Traditionally, capes were for men only and came in just three colours (blue, black and brown), but these days the shop also produces designs for its female clientele, in brighter colours and lighter fabrics. Starting at around £170, a Capas Seseña cape has always been an exclusive product: Michael Jackson owned one, Hillary Clinton has one in her wardrobe, and Pablo Picasso liked his so much he was buried in it.
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