Madrid on the Cheap

November 11, 2009 by

Europe, Food, Drink & Travel, Suggested Itineraries

Before the arrival of the euro, Madrid was well known as one of Europe’s cheaper destinations. These days, as on the rest of the continent, you can go through money like water if you don’t come prepared. You need to plan ahead, and go with the local flow, to make Madrid achievable on a budget.

First let me explain my reason for a budget-friendly jaunt in Spain. For while I have back-packed and couch-surfed with the best of them in days gone by, these days I prefer my travel inclusive of a few of life’s little luxuries like decent restaurants and beds without bedbugs. A recent visit to Madrid, however, came with a hefty price tag before we’d even touched down, courtesy of tickets to a Leonard Cohen concert and pre-booked lodgings in the monument to modern design that is the Hotel Peurta de America, our two reasons for visiting the Spanish capital.

Madrid on a budget? Yes, it is still possible. Maggie has suggestions for you.

Madrid on a budget? Yes, it is still possible. Maggie has suggestions for you.

We knew we had to look for ways to cut costs in other areas. With a little bit of forward planning and some bumbled Spanish phrase work, we were able to limit our supplementary spending considerably and still see some of the best Madrid has to offer.

Making the most of your euros in Madrid

Madrid is no rambler’s paradise. It lacks Barcelona’s labyrinthine alleyways filled with smoke-stained tapas bars and quirky boutique. London, with its green spaces and Victorian buildings, is lovely to stroll through, In cities like Paris, you can happily wander for hours, rarely opening your wallet, and still feel like you have glimpsed the city’s soul. Like sharing a smile with a complete stranger across a crowded room.

Madrid, however, especially on a hot day, can be dirty, noisy, and unappealing if you don’t know where to go. More like a bad date at an amusement park. As in any big metropolis, bland pedestrian malls littered with retail chains and big name labels are fairly easy to find. In the case of Madrid, this is Gran Via for the High Street stuff and the glamorous Salamanca district (in particular Calle de Goya) for the more luxurious offerings.

Given our meagre budget, however, we weren’t keen to join the ranks of boggle eyed window shoppers. We wanted to experience a bit of the Real Madrid (pun intended). So we hopped on the train.

Eating & sleeping (not always on the cheap)

Madrid’s Metro system is vast, easy to navigate, and cheap. For 1 euro you can traverse the city, and 7.40 euros will get you 10 tickets – enough for a long weekend’s worth of travel. Clear signage displaying a simple system of colours and numbers means you can work it out as you go along. We didn’t encounter a single station without an escalator or lift, meaning that even travel with heavy suitcases was manageable. Very useful for us given that we arrived on a Friday evening just as Madrid’s streets were clogging up with taxis ferrying clubbers to lofty podiums and strobing subterranes. The Metro was a much cheaper way to get to our hotel and I suspect even marginally quicker than a cab.

Our first night in the Peurta de America – in the immaculate chamber that was the White Zaha Hadid Club Suite – revived us sufficiently to hit the streets early the next day. First thing on the agenda was the sourcing of olives and cheese, two provisions we have reluctantly discontinued since relocating to Iceland, where import duties leave a very bitter taste in one’s mouth. It’s far better, we have conceded, to enjoy proper deli goods in situ as part of the overseas experience.

Our suite at the Hadid

Our suite at the Zaha Hadid

The sidewalk was verily slick with our own salivation from thoughts of tapas bars festooned with olives and walled with blocks of cheese. We assumed we were in for a merry old time of it. Not so. In fact, all we managed to unearth in the streets surrounding our hotel was grimy sports bars and endless offerings of potato tortilla. And then we stumbled on a supermarket, a veritable Mecca for impoverished travellers everywhere.

This particular store was filled with excitingly unfamiliar groceries (my preferred litmus test for local culture), an abundance of fresh fruit and vegies, an impressive seafood section (the crustaceans were actually moving!), and a deli section staffed by a squadron of staff dishing up olives, cheese and meats of all kinds. Ay caramba!

Stocking up on supermarket goodies, including fresh rye bread and a thrillingly inexpensive bottle of plonk, we savoured a hotel picnic back in our alabaster abode before hopping the Metro to the Chueca district – the barrio de homosexual and reportedly the place to go for good shopping, dahhling.

In & around Calle Fuencarral

Disembarking the Metro at Sol station, we unwittingly fell into the slipstream of pedestrians flowing down the pedestrian mall, making a few accidental breakthroughs in the field of deli-foraging. Contentment, thine name is Manchego cheese. Wandering with, and then against, the crowd, we discovered the usual offering of chain stores, and a couple of exceptional retail oddities, such as the fan shop and ballet store stocked full of pointe shoes and tarantella skirts, transporting me straight back to my childhood.

But the Chueca beckoned, so we made our way towards the smaller streets of Calle Fuencarral and Calle Augusto Figueroa. That’s when things started to get interesting. The way was peppered with flamboyantly gay couples and lycra-clad prostitutes. The shops were filled with cheap shoes. Mountains of them. There were boutiques of various kinds too – fashion stores, health shops, sunglasses and accessories vendors – but if you are after an affordable retail thrill in Madrid, I suggest you start with footwear. And we would have done just that, if not for the ticking clock. We had a date with Leonard.

The Reina Sofia

Madrid's Museo de Reina Sofia

It’s irrelevant in a blog about frugal travel experiences, I know, but just in case you’re interested, the Leonard Cohen concert experience was sublime. After five self-effacing encores, prompted by twice as many ovations, he left me with the feeling that I had just witnessed the last of the great entertainers. Prolific, intelligent, humble, he let his songs do the talking rather than merely being the humanoid accompaniment to an expensive pyrotechnics showcase. The man and his songs are all you need. No public relations or media gimmicks required. And it’s my other half who is the diehard fan; I was essentially a tag-along.

Post-concert experience, we spent our second night in the Hadid suite sopping up the remains of the olives and wine and soaking in the cavernous bath. The height of luxury and a perfect way to recharge for another day of penny-pinching.

Madrid’s museum trail

Some forward-thinking internet research had revealed that if we visited the Museo de Reina Sofia after 2.30pm on a Saturday or from 10am-2.30pm on a Sunday, we would pay precisely nada for entry. Given that the Reina Sofia houses a staggering collection of Picassos (including Guernica, back in Spain after two years in New York), countless Dalis, Calders, Miros and other Spanish masters, this was an opportunity too good to pass up. And so we took the metro to Atocha Renfe and joined the Sunday morning crowds. This museum is big and its collection worth taking the time to appreciate. The gnashing teeth and protuberant tongues of the Picassos are offset by the uncomplicated joy of the Miros and the calm balance of the Calders. Green spaces located in the inner courtyards provide opportunity for reflection and escape from the deluge of art inside.

Next on the list was the Museo Nacional de Prado. Entrance in free on Sunday from 5-8pm. In reference to the size of the gallery’s permanent collection, three different visitor routes are suggested. We selected the one-hour route, which highlighted masterpieces by El Greco, Fra Angelica, Rubens and Rembrandt. Not bad for a free afternoon.

If ambling is your cup of sangria, stay within the streets of the historic centre and pay a visit to the Plaza Mayor and the Palacio Real de Madrid, both excellent places to capture the architectural glory of Spain. If markets are more your thing then the Sunday Rastro market, a flea market between Plaza Mayor La Latina and Puerta de Toledo that sells everything under the Spanish sun, might be a better way to spend your remaining Euros. Regrettably we had a train to catch and so had to give it a miss.

Next time.

A word of warning about Madrid: unlike its northern sister Barcelona, English speakers are apparently thin on the ground. If it’s a bargain you’re after, or some local knowledge, it’s well worth taking the time to brush up on your Espanol.

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