LET­TER FROM MADRID: VIVA ES­PAÑA

Euro­pean joie de vivre, af­ford­able liv­ing and world-class dining seem­ingly on ev­ery cor­ner – the Span­ish cap­i­tal holds its own

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Contents - CHRIS RAE Chris Rae is a free­lance writer and pho­tog­ra­pher who calls Van­cou­ver his home. He has a pas­sion for writ­ing about cul­ture, tech­nol­ogy and en­ter­tain­ment.

Au­tumn has set­tled on the Span­ish cap­i­tal of Madrid like the re­turn of an old, fa­mil­iar friend. The hel­lish tem­per­a­tures of the sum­mer heat­wave dubbed “Lu­cifer” have fi­nally abated and Madrileños who fled to the rel­a­tively cooler climes of the Mediter­ranean coast have now re­turned to their city. Restau­rants and busi­nesses that closed up shop through the op­pres­sive heat of sum­mer are now back up and run­ning. On the foot­ball pitch, Cris­tiano Ron­aldo and his col­leagues at Real Madrid are look­ing to es­tab­lish their dom­i­nance in La Liga for an­other sea­son.

Madrid has the high­est num­ber of green spa­ces per in­hab­i­tant in Europe and in its many fa­mous parks the leaves have be­gun their tran­si­tion to hues of red and yel­low. The fa­mous Par­que del Buen Re­tiro, or Park of the Pleas­ant Re­treat, cer­tainly lives up to its name much more in this sea­son, when the av­er­age day­time tem­per­a­tures sit at around 20 de­grees, and one doesn’t need to con­stantly seek shady respite un­der the next tall tree. A stroll through the park leads to Sala­manca, a lux­u­ri­ous en­clave in the ge­o­graph­i­cal heart of the city.

Built dur­ing the ex­pan­sion of Madrid in the 19th cen­tury, the district takes its name from the man who over­saw its de­vel­op­ment, the Mar­quis de Sala­manca. Along the wide, man­i­cured streets, in­ter­na­tional brands like Ver­sace, Her­mès and Chanel nes­tle shoul­derto-shoul­der with lo­cal la­bels like Mas­simo Dutti and the ubiq­ui­tous Zara. Fall fash­ions are on full dis­play in exquisitely de­signed re­tail spa­ces carved into his­toric build­ings, many of which have lived for­mer lives as gal­leries or play­houses. Calle de Ser­rano, the district’s main shop­ping artery, is of­ten called the “Golden Mile.” There is a cos­mopoli­tan vibe in the air, and its no won­der, with a num­ber of em­bassies and diplo­matic mis­sions sit­u­ated nearby, in­clud­ing those of Switzer­land, France, Italy and the United States.

Peel your eyes away from the mes­meris­ing win­dow dis­plays, take a step back, look up and you’ll be re­warded with a view of the or­nate fa­cades adorn­ing the build­ings. Be­hind those lav­ish ex­te­ri­ors lie apart­ment and pent­house homes that are at­tract­ing in­vest­ment both lo­cally and abroad. Sala­manca has his­tor­i­cally been a de­sir­able area (Salvador Dalí once called it home) and in the past two years it has come to sym­bol­ise the broader eco­nomic re­cov­ery now un­der­way in Spain fol­low­ing a long pe­riod of stag­na­tion. Homes in the area now boast the high­est cost per square me­tre in Madrid, go­ing as high as €1,000 (HK$9,300) per square foot for a fully ren­o­vated pent­house, and have seen prices rise more than 10 per cent in the past year. Lured by its cen­tral lo­ca­tion and so­phis­ti­cated ca­chet, buy­ers from as far afield as South Amer­ica are snap­ping up a lim­ited sup­ply of prop­er­ties as soon as they hit the mar­ket.

Madrid is home to a to­tal of 14 Miche­lin­starred restau­rants, and four of them lie within Sala­manca. The Homage Menu at Ramón Freixa in the Ho­tel Unico en­tices with an al­most ridicu­lously ex­pan­sive tast­ing menu billed as “a soft and con­tin­u­ous trip through our uni­verse in 25 mo­ments.” But to ex­pe­ri­ence an even broader spec­trum of flavours, all while rub­bing el­bows with true Madrileños, a short trip across the city is called for.

Spain’s rep­u­ta­tion for culi­nary de­lights and tasty li­ba­tions is now firmly es­tab­lished, and Madrid is no stranger to this gas­tro­nomic in­dul­gence. There is a def­i­nite lo­cal pro­cliv­ity for less-struc­tured plans, where groups of com­pan­ions hop from one lo­ca­tion to the next, car­ried along by lively con­ver­sa­tion and the buzz of cava or san­gria flow­ing through their veins. For this kind of evening, dining at one of Madrid’s mar­kets fits the bill.

Many vis­i­tors to the city will find them­selves jostling for po­si­tion to sam­ple the tapas on of­fer at Mer­cado San Miguel, a hip, wrought iron and glass struc­ture mere steps from the fa­mous Plaza Mayor. But be­sides those serv­ing the food, it would be a dif­fi­cult feat to pick out a lo­cal in the place.

Mer­cado San An­ton, lo­cated in the Chueca district, is the coun­ter­point to this. It is, in lo­cal par­lance, “un mer­cado para los ve­ci­nos” or a mar­ket for the neigh­bours. The mar­ket re­ceived a ma­jor ren­o­va­tion, and re­opened in its cur­rent in­car­na­tion in 2011. The stylish space, lo­cated on a dis­crete side street, fea­tures three lev­els look­ing into an open atrium. Pa­trons have a chal­lenge se­lect­ing from the vast ar­ray of de­lights on of­fer, from lo­cal favourites like co­cido madrileño to re­gional

del­i­ca­cies from across Spain in­clud­ing An­dalu­sian squid and Basque pin­txos. For an all-en­com­pass­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, one could se­lect fresh seafood from the first-floor mar­ket and carry it to La Cocina de San An­tón, the rooftop restau­rant, to be pre­pared by the chef. At this time of year, a warm sweater will make the out­door ter­race that much more com­fort­able for watch­ing the sun set and the lights come up on the sur­round­ing ur­ban ex­panse.

Madrid is still one of Europe’s more af­ford­able cap­i­tals, but from res­i­dences to re­tail to restau­rants, the city is prov­ing it de­serves a place on the map. While it may be in the mid­dle of the coun­try, Madrid is cer­tainly not mid­dle of the road.

SPAIN’S REP­U­TA­TION FOR CULI­NARY DE­LIGHTS AND TASTY LI­BA­TIONS IS NOW FIRMLY ES­TAB­LISHED, AND MADRID IS NO STRANGER TO THIS GAS­TRO­NOMIC IN­DUL­GENCE.

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