Monumental Madrid

The Spanish capital lives life to the full, is open all hours and does everything on a grand scale, writes JANE PHARE.

The first thing I noticed about Madrid was the men. They stare, openly and unashamedly through hooded, sultry eyes and not just at the pretty, young ones.

The second thing is that it is incredibly clean which, for a European city of four million people, is pretty impressive.

Peer through the window of a taxi at the traffic lights, or saunter down the street, and you'll either meet a Spaniard engaged in his favourite pastime - looking at women - or see a street cleaner.

Whether it's 10 am or 3 am, Madrid's army of street cleaners whisk, wash, blast and sweep away any spot of litter. In a city full of cigarette-smoking dog owners, you'll be hard pressed to find a cigarette butt or a doggie doodoo.

In the early hours of the morning, when the streets are full of Madrilenos staggering home after yet another night out, rubbish bins are washed out with disinfectant, public squares are blasted with high-pressure hoses and street-cleaning machines the size of small tanks grind their way endlessly across the city.

With equal energy, and seemingly round the clock, Madrilenos eat tapas, drink, smoke, stay up late, talk, shop, take siestas, walk their dogs and somehow manage to earn a living in between.

Welcome to Spain's capital, a haphazardly smart and beautiful city that is giving Barcelona a run for its money as a Spanish destination.

It's a city where life is lived to the full and the architectural statements are big in proportion to the buildings and streets. Big monuments, pillars, statues, wrought-iron railings, palaces and plazas. Everything is on a grand scale and decorated with lashings of gold.

It's a city of tapas bars, service which is at best lacklustre, good coffee, awful cakes, carbon monoxide fumes, thousands of smart shops, smoke-filled restaurants, young lovers who snatch groping, intimate moments in full view, taxi drivers who drive with terrifying zeal - a city which never sleeps, a city custom-made for people-watching.

Madrid's compact size, at least within the old part, is one of its big advantages. No matter what your interest - architecture, churches, galleries, shopping, eating ... nothing's far away and walking is an adventure in itself.

Only on foot can you appreciate the tiled street signs on each corner - each one unique - the stylishly dressed Spanish women, the layers of old apartment balconies with residents surveying the scene, the lovely statues, fountains and squares.

Stop for a drink or a coffee in one of the many delicatessens and watch who comes in. Ferpals Deli, Cafe and Bar in Calle de Arenal is worth a look. The cheese display in the window is worthy of Harrods' food hall.

Strung in long rows high in the ceiling are sides of jamon Serrano, the strong-tasting smoked dried hams still with their trotters attached. Thin slices of the dark red, chewy jamon, a cross between prosciutto and biltong, are a staple part of the Madrileno diet and are served in every tapas bar.

One cafe, struggling to describe a jamon Serrano sandwich in English, settled on Spanish cow ham beef as both a confusing and unappetising definition. But despite that, it is delicious.

The coffee comes either black or white. Finding a cappuccino is rare and even then it will be more like an espresso with warm milk on top. A flat white is an Australasian invention, so don't bother asking. Sugar sachets are a collectable item in themselves. They're fat and heavy, each containing between three and four teaspoons of sugar, and Madrilenos will happily empty a couple of sachets into a short black.

On the whole, food in Madrid restaurants is unremarkable, old-fashioned and overcooked. Waiting to see what turns up with your order adds to the anticipation. The same item ordered from six different restaurants will produce six completely different versions. Bread is usually served without accompaniments. You will need to ask for olive oil and you'll be lucky to get butter.

But there's no need to go hungry and there's always the tapas bars - thousands of them. If you don't like one place, it is quite acceptable, if not expected, for you to move on to the next. If your Spanish isn't up to much, just point. Tapas are usually displayed under glass counters.

Many of them you will recognise: cheese, artichokes, olives, anchovies the size of sardines, fat chorizo sausage, deep fried calamari, slices of tortilla (Spanish omelette made with potato), and the inevitable jamon Serrano.

Plaza Santa Ana is a good place to start until you find your favourite spots. A string of tapas bars edges this beautiful square which at twilight - around 9.30 pm in the summer - fills with Madrilenos out for a paseo, or stroll, with their exotic and pampered dogs.

To appreciate Madrid, it's best to abandon any thoughts of a breakfast-at-eight, dinner-at-eight routine. In Madrid the day starts late and sleepily, breakfast is often closer to our lunchtime and afternoon tea can still be happening at 7 pm.

Try to change some money at 2.10 pm and you'll find the bank has closed for the traditional two-hour afternoon siesta. Madrilenos eat dinner anywhere between 10 pm and midnight and are often still out in the early hours of the morning. This zest for life and filling every available hour with having a good time is very much part of what the dedicated tourist should try to absorb.

When you're not people-watching, the best place to look in Madrid is up. A ride on an open-air, double-decker bus is a must because most of the majesty, the grandness, the architecture, the photo moments, happens several storeys in the air.

Head for the Puerto del Sol, the centre of Madrid, to find a tour. The buses do a regular circuit and stop at all the major museums so you can get on and off throughout the day. We used Madrid Vision City Tours which local sources advised was the most reliable. Perhaps they are, by Madrid standards.

After more than half-an-hour's wait under a hot sun for the once-every-15-minutes service, we clambered on board, only to wait another 25 minutes for a driver. Ah, the siesta. We used this downtime productively to search for headphones (no, they're not handed out at the beginning) and systematically trying various plug points to find one that a) produced any sound at all and b) gave an English version after pressing 2, as promised.

Curiously the recorded commentary changed from a broad north of England accent, to a cultured English voice to an American accent, interspersed with rousing marching and choral music, adding a surreal element as we toured Madrid's impressive streets.

The old part of Madrid has passed through a tatty stage. Now the city is making admirable progress at smartening up its rumpty buildings, restoring its loveliness, planting trees and building even more statues and fountains.

A ride down the Grand Via, a beautiful wide, tree-lined boulevard, gives an instant taste of what Madrid is all about. It's here you'll see the famous hand-painted movie billboards, controversial to locals for covering up beautiful buildings and amusing for tourists who spot mistakes such as Julia Roberts' name under the face of a male star.

There is no end of beautiful churches, monuments, museums and squares to visit but if you only have the time and inclination for one art gallery, make sure its the El Prado Museum.

Admission is 500 pesetas ($6) but children under 18, and pensioners, are free. The museum is free on Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday. We paid extra for a personal guide, who spoke impeccable English, and was well worth the money.

The museum houses breathtaking paintings from the 12th to the 19th centuries, based on the collection of the royal family over the years. Under one roof you'll see works by Spanish, Flemish, Dutch, Italian, French, German and British artists - greats such as Goya and El Greco.

The Royal Palace, cream and gleaming with its immaculately manicured formal gardens and statues, is also worth a visit. You won't see any Spanish royals - they live in a smaller palace out of town - but you will see plenty of splendour.

While bullfighting probably turns the stomach of the average New Zealander, Madrilenos have no such qualms.

In Madrid, the next best thing to being there is to gather at a bullfight bar and cafe such as La Taurina in Carrera San Jeriamo to eat, drink and watch the fights live on banks of TV monitors.

La Taurina features heavily tiled walls depicting bull-fighting scenes, stuffed bulls' heads and photos of famous matadors. Neither the decor nor the on-screen entertainment is for the faint-hearted.

Allow at least three days to explore Madrid, take comfortable walking shoes, drink lots of coffee and stay up late.

* Jane Phare flew courtesy of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Air Pacific's Bula Europe.

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