Last month I spent a week in Madrid, taking part in a session on sustainability in tourism at the vast, overwhelming, FITUR travel trade show. I gave a radio interview in Spanish, then a speech about sustainability and tourism. It was like hectoring passers-by at Paddington during the rush hour, with frequent announcements over the intercom and the buzz of humanity all around.
I sat on a panel with five formidable Spanish women and discussed how we can build on the great work done by the national parks system. Gosh – they can talk, the Spaniards. My Spanish is good, but embarrassingly not up to Spanish speed via sound systems.
Madrid is a tonic, more interesting by far than most of us imagine. I could spend hours in the Mercado San Miguel listening to the chatter and trying out new dishes. It is a handsome 19th-century market building, exquisitely ‘done’. I am struck by the conviviality; everyone is up for a chat, and sharing food comes naturally.
A night of flamenco is not to be missed, especially as Carlos, our Man in Spain, chose a tiny bar as a very special alternative to the more touristy places: La Quimera, close to the Madrid Plaza de Toros in Ventas. Weate ‘jamon’ and ‘tortilla’, drank red wine and plugged ourselves into the frenetic ‘zapateado’ of the five dancers. I was exhilarated, but needed moistened dough in my ears to reduce the noise.
One evening we welcomed a dozen of our Spanish owners to drinks in the hotel. This was memorable for the eclecticism of the group and the fantastical talk that ensued. Grand Spaniards and humble Spaniards, with wildly differing politics, mingled with similarly differing English owners. It was warm, funny and touching – and a reminder of the wonderful range of types Sawday’s embraces.
To Alcala de Henares for the Saturday night, to catch up with the Parador system. The Paradors are a feather in the Spanish cap. There are nearly 100 of them, most of them ancient buildings rescued from decline to create a network of state-run hotels. So the visitors are sleepingin buildings that are unique and magnificent. Alcala is a short train ride away from Madrid, a 16th-century town of almost perfect beauty, a collection of monasteries, convents and ecclesiastical buildings preserved now by the University of Alcala. This was the world’s first purpose-built University campus, we are told. The Parador is in a 17th-century convent, with vast rooms and the finest modern additions. We are hoping to include some Paradors in our collection, as they are all pretty special in their own way.
I will definitely be returning to Spain in the near future. My next visit may well be to the south-west, to Cadiz and Jerez – both over-ignored – and to the long and empty beaches nearby. We have some remarkable, and eccentric, places down there.
Planning a trip to the Spanish capital? We recommend:
Independence, clever design and lots of light make this handy hotel the perfect pad to whisk someone away on a spontaneous city break!