Madrid through a local’s lens

Delve into the heart of the Spanish capital by visiting the places Madrileños go – from their favourite chocolaterías 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.

For flamenco aficionados, the name of Don Flamenco commands a similar cachet. For decades, this streetside cobbler on Calle León is where the city’s dancers have come to buy their zapatos de flamenco, or flamenco shoes. Each pair is still finished by hand by Don Flamenco himself. Dressed in an old apron and spectacles, and surrounded by old tools, he buffs the leather, polishes the shoes to a sheen, and finally taps hobnails into the heels and toes – the crucial design feature which allows the dancers to produce the distinctive flamenco tap.

Back at José Ramírez, Amalia explains the continuing appeal of Madrid’s craft tradition. ‘I think we often forget the value of handmade things,’ she says, raising her voice to be heard above the drone of sanders and saws. ‘When something’s been made by a craftsman with love and skill, there’s a beauty to it that you can almost touch.’

The soul of flamenco
It’s Saturday morning at the Amor de Dios flamenco school and the day's classes are underway. The corridors echo to the sound of clacking heels, backed by the strum of a flamenco guitar and the drone of traffic. On the walls, faded posters and photos cover every inch of empty space, and in a few places hide patches of peeling paint and plaster.

Perched on the first floor above the busy Mercado de Antón Martín, this city-centre school isn’t glamorous, but for locals it’s the home of flamenco in Madrid. It’s here that amateurs and the stars of tomorrow alike come to train, refining their technique under the guidance of professional dancers who spend their nights performing in the city’s tablaos (flamenco venues).

‘Flamenco is an important art form and must be taken seriously,’ says Joaquín San Juan, the school’s director. ‘But many Spanish people think they understand flamenco when they really don’t, or dismiss it as something for tourists. You need to devote time to understand flamenco properly, and many Spanish people never bother. That’s what we’re trying to do here: to help everyone discover the real flamenco.’

As he talks, a pair of his students practise their latest routine, accompanied by the school’s star guitarist, Joni Jiménez. Bathed in dusty sunlight filtering through the classroom’s windows, their performance is part-courtship, part-confrontation: a flurry of twirling bodies, stamping heels, clapping hands and jangling strings. ‘Flamenco is essentially a dialogue between dancer, musician and singer,’ Joaquín explains. ‘Each contributes to the mood and character of the performance. It’s a spontaneous expression of emotion that happens right in front of you, and is different every time it’s performed. That’s what makes it exciting.’

Flamenco as a genre of music, song and dance originated in Andalucía, but it’s in the tablaos of Madrid where it developed as a theatrical spectacle. These purpose-built venues were established to bring flamenco to the attention of a cosmopolitan city audience – and while it’s true that some are touristy, the top tablaos attract many of the most prestigious names in the world of flamenco.

On a side street near the Royal Palace, Corral de la Morería is one of the oldest and best-known tablaos. Inside, it resembles a rustic Spanish bodega, with whitewashed walls, rough beams and cast-iron fixtures. It concentrates mainly on classical flamenco, while more modern venues such as Las Carboneras offer a more experimental take on the art form, with innovative performers blurring the lines between traditional flamenco and contemporary dance.

‘It’s important that flamenco doesn’t stand still,’ says Joaquín. ‘Of course it’s vital to learn the foundations, but it needs to keep moving or it will die. There are many talented young performers emerging at the moment and there’s no telling where they’ll take flamenco in the future.’

He disappears into the school’s office as the next batch of students files into the classrooms, and the rhythmic drum of heels on floorboards begins to beat again.

Tapas, past and future
Midday on the busy boulevard of Paseo del Prado, and the lunch queue stretches around the block at Estado Puro, the city’s most talked-about tapas restaurant. Waiters hurry to and from the kitchen, while diners sip cocktails and browse the newsprint menus – but it’s the antics of head chef Alfonso Castellano that capture the most attention. Wielding a steel soda siphon, he puts the final touches to one of his signature dishes – a deconstructed version of tortilla española, or Spanish omelette, served in a cocktail glass. First comes a bed of caramelised onion, next a swirl of egg-yolk foam, and finally a fluffy potato emulsion, applied with a flourish that elicits applause from the watching diners. ‘There you have it: my 21st-century tortilla española!’ he announces with a smile, before disappearing back into the kitchen, as another batch of diners joins the lunch queue outside and car horns blare along the boulevard.

Alfonso is one of a new generation of chefs who are pushing the boundaries of traditional tapas in Madrid. ‘Essentially, tapas are bar snacks,’ says Alfonso. ‘The word tapa means to cover something up, and in the old days people would put plates on top of their drinks to stop the flies getting in. Madrid has one of the best tapas scenes in Spain, but traditionally it’s a rustic style of cooking, quite heavy, quite oily. So when we started the restaurant, we wanted to create our own version of tapas, revisiting the classic dishes, and reinventing them in surprising and imaginative ways.’

Matching a taste for madcap presentation with retro murals and a minimalist interior, Estado Puro is the brainchild of chef Paco Roncero, who developed his style of molecular gastronomy while working for Ferran Adrià (of El Bulli fame). From crispy croquetas de jamón (ham croquettes) to mini burgers with a powerful mustard kick, Estado Puro’s take on 21st-century tapas is modern, creative and full of humour.

Not all Madrid’s chefs are as forward-looking as Roncero. Hidden on the backstreets are neighbourhood tapas bars where patatas bravas (potatoes in a tomato sauce) are still served the old-fashioned way. One such bar is La Trucha (The Trout), a taverna that brings the countryside into downtown Madrid. It’s a local’s hangout; the same faces swing by for lunch every day and the barmen know everyone by name. Legs of ham dangle from the ceiling beside copper pots and butcher’s knives, and the day’s dishes are scrawled in chalk at the serving hatch. For Alfonso, it’s the blend of tradition and innovation that makes the city’s tapas scene interesting. ‘Tapas is as much a way of eating as a style of cooking,’ he says. ‘It’s part of our culture, sharing food, spending time with friends.’

Calle de la Cava Baja, in the district of La Latina, is where Madrileños head when they’re after a street snack. Every one of the wall-to-wall bars here has a tapas speciality: grilled crab claws at Casa de Abuelo, pintxos (Basque-style tapas) at Taberna Txakoli, crispy bacalao (salt cod) at Casa Revuelta. As twilight falls, scores of diners jostle for space at the streetside tables. The food is simple, served on wooden platters accompanied by dishes of olive oil, tomato sauce and alioli mayonnaise, and the night air sizzles with scents – grilled meat, seafood, charcoal smoke and frying spices. Even in modern Madrid, it’s a sign that, sometimes, the old ways are still best.

The city’s sweet tooth
‘There’s a saying in Spanish,’ says Sergio Trapote Mateo, owner of Madrid’s most famous chocolate café, the Chocolatería San Ginés. ‘One must think clearly, but one’s chocolate must always be thick.’ He slides a china cup along the café’s counter, and fills it to the brim with a thick stream of hot chocolate, rich and dark as burnished mahogany. Straight after comes a plate piled with churros, a string-shaped doughnut, still crisp and golden from the café’s deep-fat fryer. ‘Ah, chocolate and churros,’ Sergio laughs. ‘A marriage made in heaven! That’s the true taste of Madrid.’

Since 1894, this historic café on the narrow alleyway of Pasadizo San Ginés is where the city has come for its daily chocolate fix. Open all hours day and night, its décor remains much the same as when the shop opened. Gleaming brass and marble tiles conjure the air of a fin-de-siècle café, and beside the counter, a glass door peeps into the kitchen, where the chefs make the thin churros and fatter porras by hand – a skill that takes years to master.

‘We make everything ourselves using just the key ingredients – flour, salt and water, nothing else. Many bakeries sweeten their churros, but we don’t do that here, as it spoils the flavour. It’s the same with our chocolate: we use only the best cacao beans, and just the right blend of water, milk and chocolate. It’s a secret recipe. People have been trying for years to find out how we do it, but of course we never tell,’ says Sergio.

From almendrados (almond biscuits) to fluffy magdalenas (sponge cakes), this is a city that needs no excuse to indulge in something sweet and sticky – especially if it comes from Casa Mira, Madrid’s oldest and most prestigious confitería (sweet shop).

Founded in 1855, the shop makes its confectionery using the same recipes developed by its founder, Luis Mira. It’s halfway between a sweet shop and a museum, with wooden walls, glass cabinets and a vintage till. The shop is especially known for its turrón (nougat), which is traditionally eaten at Easter and Christmas; it comes in several flavours, laced with fruits, hazelnuts, chocolate or marzipan, or made the old way with rosemary, honey and Marcona almonds.

‘It’s true, in Madrid we enjoy the good things in life,’ laughs Sergio, ‘Even if they’re not always good for us! But then again, what’s life without a little pleasure, eh?’

He winks and heads off through the chocolatería’s marble-tiled saloon, carrying a silver tray laden with cups of fresh chocolate and piles of churros, as the sound of clinking cups and conversation drifts into the café from the street outside.

A toast to the past
‘Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night,’ wrote Ernest Hemingway in his classic bullfighting novel, Death in the Afternoon. ‘Appointments with a friend are habitually made for after midnight at the café.’ Eight decades on, Hemingway’s words still ring true. Madrid’s cafés remain the centre of its social life – and in a city where there are allegedly seven drinking establishments for every 100 residents, that’s hardly surprising.

Rafael Torrico has been a waiter in Madrid for most of his life. ‘We’re lucky we still have places like this,’ he says, as he bustles between the scuffed wooden tables at the Cervecería Alemana, a classic café founded in 1904. ‘Many other Spanish cities have lost their old cafés, or have modernised them. But you can still feel the history here. That’s the reason I like it.’

With its frosted glass windows and mahogany panelling, the café is a genuine relic of turn-of-the-century Madrid. Waiters in bowties and white jackets glide between tables, serving plates of tapas and pitchers of wine, while whiskered locals prop up the bar, supping wheat beer from ceramic flagons. Fittingly, the Cervecería Alemana was one of Hemingway’s favourite haunts; he thought the café served ‘the best beer in Spain’, and could often be seen sitting at the same window table, watching the life of the city go by in plaza Santa Ana outside.

On nearby Calle de las Huertas, Casa Alberto has an even older literary connection. A plaque on the wall bears the name of Cervantes, who was said to have written the second part of Don Quixote here, when the building housed an inn. It’s been a taberna since 1827, famous for its vermouth, a fortified wine flavoured with herbs, seeds, flowers and spices. The vermouth is piped from antique taps and served on a century-old zinc bar. Unsurprisingly, the café was a frequent haunt for the city’s artists, as well as the bullfighting fraternity. Matadors and banderilleros regularly popped into the Casa Alberto for a shot of courage before their bout, and a collage of bullfighting memorabilia covers the walls.

Close to the city centre is another of Madrid’s landmarks, the Café Comercial. The café opened in 1887 and has many of its original fixtures, including mirrored walls and chandeliers, some of which predate the civil war. Between 1936 and 1975, when Spain was governed by a fascistic dictatorship under General Franco, the café was a meeting place for anti-government activists, although these days its clientele reflects the area’s residential character. Office workers rub shoulders with artists and out-of-work actors over breakfast, while silver-haired gentlemen play chess, gossip and sip anisette in the evening sunshine.

Back at the Cervecería Alemana, Rafael is pouring another beer. ‘Every café in Madrid has a story to tell,’ he smiles. ‘If you want to see the city through a local’s eyes, I can’t think of anywhere better to go.’

The article 'Madrid through a local’s lens' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.