Madrid, Spain

Our little trip to Madrid was the ultimate in spontaneous getaways. Charlotte, Ella and I decided to have a weekend getaway after finding cheap flights to Madrid online. We decided to open up the invitation to our other group of pals at work; the UTC and one hour later, after much organisational involvement from Charlotte, we were all booked in and confirmed– all 9 of us! It looks like our little trip had turned into a mass getaway…!

The day of the trip soon arrived and a few of us decided that we would plan a secret tapas party at lunch as we were all working that day and heading to the airport straight from the office in the evening.

Getting far too excited, we made little goody bags, complete with the all the holiday essentials (gin and tonic cans, paracetamol, rehydration tablets, sun cream, dry shampoo, plasters, tissue, shot glasses, etc etc). The piece de resistance however; UTC branded ‘on tour’ t-shirts complete with the crocodile logo at the front and specially selected nicknames at the back; that’s right – we had officially reverted to our 18 year old selves and appeared to be heading off on mass to Malia – well – not too far off anyway!

We decorated one of the board rooms in the office, adorning the table with the gift bags, plates of tapas and glasses of sangria. We even had Latina music playing in the background to really set the mood. Madrid we were ready!

After probably not the most productive afternoon at work (shhh don’t tell the partners) – we made our way down to Victoria and hopped on the train to the airport with obligatory cans of gin and tonics in hand – the holiday spirit had well and truly taken over.

At the airport, we stocked up on duty free booze and free samples (!) before boarding the plane and making our way towards the sun. Safe to say, none of us opted for a party nap during the journey…

Having arrived in Madrid at around 11.30pm, we hopped in cabs and made our way across to our Airbnb apartment which was in the Palacio district off the city, just down from the Campo del Moro. Charlotte (team captain) had found the place for us, and she didn’t half do an amazing job; it was beaut!

The rest of the evening was a bit of blur if I’m honest. Many drinks were consumed. Many games were played. Many songs were sang and apparently in my case; many grumps were had…

We did unfortunately make one fatal error; in our haste in duty free alcohol shopping at the airport, we totally forgot to buy mixers of any kind… After a quick google translate and a very applaudable phone call to McDonalds by Naomi, we were soon the proud owners of 15 sprites. We ended up heading to bed sometime around 4pm; safe to say the neighbours weren’t particularly our fans. That is unless their through-the-wall banging was them trying to join in?… perhaps a Spanish thing.

The next morning, amazingly, we woke up pretty much unscathed from the night before. We had organised to join a free city walking tour so after a quick coffee stop we made our way to the Plaza Mayor where we met our guide Edward; an Irish guy who had lived for most of his life in Madrid.

Edward started off by explaining that the area in which we were currently in, El Madrid de los Austrias, was the original historic centre of Madrid, established when, in the 16th Century, Philip 2nd decided to move the capital from Toledo to Madrid. The area took the name of its builders, the Spanish Habsurgs, who are known as ‘the Austrians’ in Spanish. The Plaza Mayor is a large, rectangular, plaza with arcades and nine entrances. It is maintained in a colourful dark red and orange; the colours having been chosen in a citywide poll.

Edward explained that historically this plaza was full of baker and butcher shops and that the centre of the square was used for public executions and bull fights – how hygienic when you simply want to pick up a loaf of bread…! Below the square lay a torture chamber where prisoners were held prior to their executions. A stickler for detail, Edward went on to explain to methods of killing those condemned in the ancient city. Of course, there were the beheadings, and even the burnings at the stake, but it was the ‘garrotte’ method which was the most popular. The garrotte was a wooden contraption on which the prisoner was seated with their back to the main post with a rope placed around their neck and the post. The executioner twisted a stick inserted to the loop of the rope, tightening it until the prisoner was strangled to death. Tom kindly stepped in and allowed Edward to demonstrate how executions of this sort worked; safe to say he fully embraced getting into character. Something that I found completely baffling to learn was that the last state execution using the garotte was in 1974!!

In the Plaza Mayor stands the impressive statue of King Philip III about which we learnt a very interesting story. During the early stages of the Franco dictatorship of Spain, relics and statues with connections to the Spanish monarchy were defaced or destroyed. The statue of Philip Statue was no exception and it was pulled from its stone mount. As the bronze statue toppled and smashed onto the  cobbles hundreds of small bones tumbled out of the hollow statue. The superstitious vandals instantly stopped their destruction, thinking that the bones were from the guardian spirit of Philip. They therefore stopped and refused to damage the statue any further.

The bones were later identified as skeletons of the small birds. A hole was discovered in the statue which allowed the birds in, however the angle of the hole did  not allow them to escape. The statue, over the centuries had trapped hundreds of birds and their unfortunate bones collected in the base. Today the statue takes pride of place in Madrid’s main square, however, it is now bone free as the small hole has been sealed!

The next stop on the tour was a little restaurant just outside the Plaza Major. Non-descript from the outside, it turned out this little restaurant housed quite the colourful history. The restaurant ‘Las Cuevas de Luis Candelas’ takes its name from the legendary Spanish bandit, Luis Candelas, who is affectionately regarded as the Spanish equivalent Robin Hood. According to legend,  Luis Candelas would rob buildings and stagecoaches, wearing, of course, his signature turquoise blue jacket, trousers of Mahon and Corinth wide belt. After his thefts, Luis went to the Archo de Cuchilleros, where the restaurant is today located. Under the restaurant you can still find the caves where Luis Candelas, hid with his gang and housed their loot. Nowadays, these caves are less full of criminals and bags of swag, however you can choose to dine in them!

Frome one restaurant to the next, just across the street from Las Cuevas stands the Sobrino de Botin, which has been recognised by the Guinness Book of records to be the oldest, continuously operating, restaurant in the world. The restaurant was founded in 1725 by Frenchman Jean Botin and was originally called ‘Casa Botin’. Interestingly, apart from using the original records, the restaurant has also kept the flame burning in the oven continuously – never to have been extinguished! The book is even mentioned in an Ernest Hemingway!

Just down from the restaurants you soon enter the area of La Latina. Historically there used to be a gate here which separated the Plaza Mayor from La Latina which was known to be the area of the ancient city where you could find bars, street urchins and, erm, ladies of the night. The gate was removed in the 16th century and a crucifix erected with the intention of cleansing the area of its smutty inhabitants and their ‘questionable’ life choices.

Edward explained that this area was one of the main places historically where you could come to purchase tapas; in fact, it was likely to be the area where tapas was in fact created. Edward explained that pre 19th century, workers in Madrid were very poor and often only had enough money for either wine, or food. Often wine was the chosen option and therefore, more often than not, workers returned in the afternoon inhibriated! Concerned about the state of the countries task force, the King at the time made a rule that all alcoholic beverages must be served with food –normally a slice of bread or meat which was rested on top of the glass. This is where the word tapas therefore derives; tapas translates as ‘to cover’ – literally, the meat or bread was used to cover the drink so that the workers could return in the afternoon slightly more able! Super interesting.

After wandering around La Latina a little bit, Edward pointed up and asked us to admire the small statue sat on top of one of the little buildings; a small bear leaning on a tree eating the berries. Apparently, the ‘bear and the strawberry tree’ is known to be the motif of the city of Madrid. Legend has it that the bear would eat the fermented berries from the trees, intoxicating itself. This representation of drunkenness supposedly characterised the people of Madrid. God, I would hate to think what the representation of us Londoners would be…!

From here we wandered around the area some more admiring the beautiful buildings before Edward proceeded to give us an impromptu synopsis of the royal family of Spain’s history. Now, I must admit, I zoned out a bit my this point, but various members of our group did some stella acting in order to depict the certain, erm, characteristics, of various historical figures.

After the quick acting, I mean history, lesson we wandered down to the Segovia Viaduct. The bridge was built in 1934 and since completion has earned the reputation of ‘suicide bridge’. The pandemic of people choosing to end their lives here culminated in the nineties when suicides occurred at the rate of at least four per month. The total is unknown but it is thought to be around 500 deaths just for the 20th century alone. Nowadays glass panels have been installed to prevent this!

After, erm, admiring (?) the bridge we wandered into a little square for a brief break on the tour. By this point hunger had got the better of most of us so we stopped off at a little café called Robin Hoods for a quick snack and a beer. All the bravas!

Feeling much better, we headed towards the Cathedral of Madrid; the Almudena. Construction of the cathedral commenced during the Spanish Civil war and wasn’t finished until in 1993. For this reason, the Cathedral is an extremely interesting mix of architecture and is even heavily adorned with a pop art theme interior! Super interesting to see.

Just across from the Cathedral stands the beautiful Royal Palace; the official residence of the Spanish Royal family. I for one couldn’t get over how much, from the outside, it resembled our very own Buckingham Palace, however apparently it was actually modelled on Versailles.

Edward explained that on Christmas Eve 1734 a fire was started in the rooms of the French painter Jean Ranc’s room. The fire was not detected quickly due to the warning bells being confused with the call to mass. For fear of looting, the doors of the building were kept closed, hampering rescue efforts even further. The fire lasted for four days and resulted in the palace being completely destroyed and having to be rebuilt from scratch. The building of new palace took a crazy 35 years to complete, however the palace can now boast the title of the biggest in western Europe. Apparently if you were to sleep in every room of the palace it would take you a crazy 7.5 years to try them all…

Interestingly, on top of the palace used to stand statues of the previous Kings of Spain. One night however in the mid 1700s the current King Charles’s wife; Maria, had a dream in which one of the statues strangled her in her sleep. Maria ordered that her husband remove the statues and replace them with sculptures of the flowers in the palace grounds. Charles followed Maria’s instructions and hastily replaced the Kings with flowers. Unfortunately the stone flowers were too heavy for the palace roof and had to be removed; you can now see these all over the city. The Kings however were never replaced….!

From here we wandered through the gardens opposite the palace, stopping off of course for a group photo next to the statue of Philip 4th.

We were swiftly approaching the end of the tour, but Edward wanted to quickly show us the Opera House of Madrid; the Teatro Real. Just as we were admiring the outside of the Opera House we suddenly became aware of a huge procession of giant figures making their way towards us – they were AMAZING. Edward explained that these figures were known as ‘gigantes y cabezudos’ –’giants and big heads’ which normally depict archetypes of the town such as the bourgeois and peasants, or historical  figures of local relevance such as founding kings and queens or Christian nobles. Edward explained that these figures were very typical of Seville and that we were quite lucky to be able to watch them here in Madrid. We stood and watched the whole procession go by which was super interesting to see!

That brought the tour to an end. We all definitely enjoyed morning, however I have for sure been on better city walking tours. Even though Edward was a fab tour guide and had some really interesting stories, we did unfortunately feel like we didn’t really see many of the main sites of Madrid. It looked like we had better start hitting those pavements…!

From the tour ending, we all had a wander through the city centre. Tim and Tom couldn’t resist the lure of fake Madrid football shirt which they bought from a guy on the street. Tim was so impressed with the quality of the shirts that I think we all pretty much heard him say ‘you know what, I think these might actually be real’, about a million times. Bless.

Having had a bit of a shop,  a few of us decided that it was well and truly drink time, so we sat out in the sun, in the beautiful Plaza Santa Cruz, sipping on Sangria! Eventually the rest of the group joined us so more pitchers were ordered to erase any lingering hangover from the night before…

Soon it was well and truly time to eat so we wandered further up into the town where we were meeting Ella’s brother; Simon (aka Doctor Westby). Simon is living and working in Madrid at the moment so it was the perfect chance for us all to meet him; and of course, he could recommend somewhere to go to for a good lunch.

Simon recommended a super lovely restaurant called Puertalsol which, interestingly, is on the roof of a sports shop! Not really where you would expect to find such a place – it certainly made for an interesting journey up to the table though!

We all sat down had the most leisurely lunch ever out in the sun. One thing to note about eating in Madrid… there is absolutely no, no, sense of urgency, at all. We ordered a few bottles of wine and they took nearly an hour to arrive… as did the food. That said, the food was delicious! I opted for paella, whilst others in the group had lamb, tortilla, bravas and croquettes – amazing!

About three hours later (no joke) we all made our way back down to earth (via an extremely entertaining lift ride for Krupa, Tom and I) before hitting the streets again for a wander and a churros stop.

Sweet tooth’s satisfied, we stopped off for a quick supermarket dash (no  risking being stuck without mixers tonight) and after an impromptu photoshoot for Tom we made our way back to the apartment to get ready for the night ahead.

After a couple of hours of pre drinks, games and music we ordered cabs to take our way out on the town. The club, Teatro Kapital, had been recommended to us as a good place to dance, and with 7 floors of different music it seemed like a good option – we were off!

We literally had the most fun evening together ending with huge burgers at around 4am. Of course, it wouldn’t be a night out with these lot without a bit of drama…. Tim and Tom got locked out the flat, we left their subways in the uber, and no biggie, I broke my hand….! I’ll let the photos do the talking!

The next morning, as much as we would have all loved (and all probably needed) a lie in we had to get up pretty sharpish to clean the flat and check out! We hopped in some cabs and made our way across to this random cereal café where we could pay a small fee to store our luggage for the day. I must admit, at this point I think we were all still pretty boozy from the night before…

There was an opera performance taking place in the Plaza Mayor which we all stood out in the sun enjoying (at this point any excuse to just stand still was pretty much given, opera or no opera…!)

The only way to cure a hangover? Food. And that was exactly what we had planned… We had been recommended to visit the Mercado de San Miguel, and indoor food market which, genuinely, was a dream come true. I hate to think how much time we spent here in total but we were constantly in and out, in and out, trying as many delicious treats as we could.

Krupa and I discovered the most amazing 3 euro pizzas which were EXACTLY what the doctor ordered! Tom unfortunately wasn’t quite so lucky and by accident ended up paying 20 euros for a cone of ham…. Well, I mean he did say it at least tasted good. 20 euros though. 20…

We literally took turns in popping into the market and sitting out in the sun with coffees – it was amazing! Exactly the chilled evening we needed after the night before…!

Having stuffed ourselves silly we peeled away from the markets and decided to go check out the Buen Retiro Park – literally translated as ‘the park of pleasant retreat’. The park is one of the largest in the city and, having previously been owned by the Spanish Monarchy, became a public park in the late 19th century.

We all lay out in the sun, chatting away about the night before and dispersed our hangover one step at a time. Safe to say some of us were in better shape than others…

There is some super super nice bars and restaurants in the park which we had a wander around. Something I don’t understand though, a restaurant will only have ONE toilet which genuinely takes about 30 mins minimum to queue for. What did I say about Madrid being super chilled…?

Having relaxed a bit, we decided it was probably time to have a little wander around the park grounds to understand more of what the fuss was all about. Well, its safe to say we understood after 5 minutes – it literally was beautiful. We walked through the beautiful gardens and up to the stunning  Retiro Pond which is towered over by the incredible monument to Alfonso XII of Spain. You can rent little rowing boats here if you wish – it is literally so gorgeous – we spent a little while just staring out and people watching!

After a couple of hours in the park, again, hunger got the better of us so we decided to stop off at one of the restaurants near the pond for some late lunch and, of course, a jug or two of sangria. It must be said, we didn’t have the best meal in the world, but to be fair it was exactly what we expected. I’m sure had we wandered out a little further into the park, or even back where we started, the food would have been remarkedly more, erm, sophisticated, but needs must and we all just wanted to sit around, chat and enjoy the views. Simon popped over to see us and say goodbye before he went off to work which was lovely – of course I made him look at my broken hand for about the 1000th time in the last 12 hours..!

A couple of hours later, we left the restaurant and continued wandering around the park grounds, admiring the amazing scenery and taking in the last of those Madrid vibes.

That pretty much brought our trip to an end; from the park we hopped in ubers, collected our luggage and made our way to the airport. Even though this trip was short and sweet we literally had THE most fun time together and all of us equally agreed that Madrid was place we would all want to return to in the future – what a place! At least I managed to take a little souvenir of Madrid back to London with me….!

Until the next UTC trip….!

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