Culture and cuisine in Madrid

HIDE AND SEEK: Do your research to find Madrid’s tucked-away treasures.
HIDE AND SEEK: Do your research to find Madrid’s tucked-away treasures.

There's unabating energy in this city that never sleeps, says James Blick.

Why did you move to the city?

Love. I met my Spanish wife, Yoly, in France in 2006. Then, after living in Auckland for a few years, we headed back to Madrid (her home town) just over two years ago.

WIDE AWAKE: Madrid is a city that never sleeps, says expatriate Kiwi James Blick.
WIDE AWAKE: Madrid is a city that never sleeps, says expatriate Kiwi James Blick.

What do you do there?

I'm a travel and food writer and also partner in a company called Madrid Food Tour, which offers a range of culinary experiences in the capital.

What do you like/dislike about Madrid?

I love Madrid's intensity. The crowds, the noise, the unabating energy. Sitting right now in my apartment, so many voices are floating up from the street. I can hear people talking, shouting, arguing, as well as the "snip snip" of the fishmonger's scissors and a Gypsy woman selling garlic below my window.

The corruption in Spanish politics is frustrating. It's sad to see the country being ripped off by crooks dressed up as politicians.

How does the cost of living compare to New Zealand?

Rent costs more. Wine costs (a lot) less. And, like anywhere with a large population, you have more choice (to spend a little, or a lot). Eating out is cheaper because tapas portions allow you to nibble, instead of committing to a full meal. But the fluid tapas culture also means you eat out more often.

What do you do on weekends?

If I'm not giving a tour, Yoly and I will try a new bar, or head to a local favourite. Sometimes we'll see an exhibition at the Prado or Reina Sofia. Or we'll simply walk. I once read that Madrilenians love the intimacy of a crowd. And it's true. Come evening, the locals flood the streets and squares, and it's invigorating diving into the steady stream of bodies.

What do you think of the food?

Spanish food is spectacular. It's a cuisine that manages to be both simple and sophisticated. And it's also very regional - each part of Spain serves quite different fare. The beauty of living in the capital is you can get the best dishes from around the country.

I love boquerones en vinagre - fresh anchovy fillets, marinated in vinegar, then served in a bath of olive oil, garlic and parsley. A tart slap across the tongue!

What's the best way to get around the city?

The metro is fast and reliable. But I mainly walk. Madrid's old centre is tiny and you can get almost anywhere on foot.

What's the shopping like?

I'm not much of a shopper. I get my biannual supply of T-shirts from H&M, and that's half my wardrobe sorted. But if you're looking for Spanish style, there are lots of low-cost, trendy options (like local chains Blanco and Mango) or higher-end designers such as Skunkfunk and Divina Providencia. Also, Spain has a formidable footwear manufacturing industry and Calle de Augusto Figueroa is a shoe shopper's Shangri-La.

What's the nightlife like?

Madrilenians have the enviable ability to go all night and, as such, the city barely sleeps. La Latina is a popular after-dark barrio, with the cheek-by-jowl tapas bars and pedestrianised streets brimming with locals till the wee hours. Madrid is also known for its multi-level uberclubs, but I'm not really into clubs (particularly uber ones).

What is your favourite part of the city?

My own neighbourhood, Lavapies. Five minutes from Puerta del Sol (the city's central square), the barrio's mix of Spaniards and immigrants creates an invigorating cultural collision. It has narrow medieval streets, gorgeous 19th-century buildings, busy food markets and a feisty sense of neighbourhood identity.

What time of year is best to visit and why?

May, June, September or October. Winter is bitingly cold (though dry) and the temperatures in July and August (upwards of 40 degrees Celsius) zap the will to live.

What's your must-do thing for visitors?

Madrid's Golden Triangle of Art - the Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen galleries - are unmissable. But the city is littered with fascinating lesser-known galleries and museums. My favourites are the Sorolla Museum, the Cerralbo Museum and the Barefoot Nuns' Convent (with true-blue cloistered nuns in residence).

What are your top tips for tourists?

Do your research on where to eat. Madrid's best bars (and most eating is done in bars) are largely tucked-away treasures, off the main tourist squares and thoroughfares. If you head for the obvious eateries, you may wind up with a plate of fritanga - greasy, fried food. And that's a shame given the calibre of food that's available for not much money.

How easy is it for you to get back to New Zealand?

It's tough because Spain and New Zealand are literal antipodes (dig down in Madrid and you'll surface southeast of Dannevirke). I try to get back once every two years.

If you know an expat who wants to share the inside knowledge on their home away from home, email with Expat in the subject line.

Sunday Star Times