Monday, 19 January 2015

Madrid Monday: Visiting the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales

The Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen are nothing new. You've been to the Royal Palace. You even ventured north to the Sorolla Museum once. You've seen Madrid's top sights. Or have you?

Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales: Nothing that special, right?

Behind an unprepossessing facade in an unremarkable square between Sol and Opera lies the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, commonly translated as the Convent of the Barefoot Nuns. You may have walked by without even noticing it. But don't judge a convent by its cover: inside is a very different story.

Originally the site of a medieval palace, the building was turned into a convent by Juana de Austria in 1559. The architect responsible for El Escorial also took on this renovation project, although the exterior result is a little less striking. Following the death of her husband, Juan Manuel of Portugal, young Juana was widowed at 19, and basically wanted somewhere nice to chill out for the rest of her days. The convent became home not only to her, but also to a stream of titled ladies in a similar situation, who turned up with all their worldly goods in tow. And what worldly goods: the art collection and treasury are jaw-dropping.

The upper cloister

These days, visits are by hourly guided tour (English or Spanish options available). Stepping into the quiet cloister, you can imagine nuns swishing along the corridors in their robes. It's pretty enough, but it's not a patch on the staircase. I don't want to spoil the surprise, but let's just say I don't often gasp in awe: given the plain facade, the decoration is utterly unexpected. Unfortunately you can't take photos on the tour, but if you want a spoiler just click through to the convent's website.

And the surprises continue upstairs, where the upper cloister is edged by chapels dedicated to different saints and events from the life of Christ. Even if you aren't at all religious, it's worth a visit to hear the history behind each one; the architects and sculptors behind the statues and richly-adorned alcoves. As well as factual information on paintings and sculptures, our guide helped us to get an idea of life in the convent. There are still a few cloistered nuns living there, but new recruits won't be admitted, meaning that within a few decades, the convent will no longer be in active use.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Eating at the Adriàs': Niño Viejo in Barcelona

A review of Niño Viejo, the Adrià brothers' Mexican taquería in Barcelona

Since the closure of top Spanish restaurant elBulli, celebrity chefs Albert and Ferran Adrià have ploughed their investments and expertise into a handful of new venues in the Paral.lel area of Barcelona. Their first city centre venture was tapas restaurant Tickets, and they've since opened Peruvian-Japanese Pakta, traditional taberna Bodega 500, fancy Mexican Hoja Santa and its more wallet-friendly neighbour, Niño Viejo. Cynics think this could be a collaboration with developers to add appeal to this area of Barcelona, but whatever the case, you can't deny these restaurants are bringing punters to this corner of the city.

My only previous experience of a 'celebrity' chef's restaurant was dining at Jamie's Italian in Oxford (hey, it was the first branch of Mr Oliver's chain), so I was understandably excited to try the Adrià brothers' dishes. Although I booked several weeks in advance, I could only snag a table for the earliest dinner slot, the guiri-friendly 8pm sitting. Niño Viejo is a pocket-sized place on a pedestrianised part of Avinguda de Mistral, accessed through pricier Hoja Santa. Taquerias traditionally serve tacos (hence the name), and as such are more informal than some Mexican restaurants: with it's neon 'Taqueria' sign, wipe-clean floral tablecloths and fun-but-simple decor, Niño Viejo is no exception.

Diners are presented with a short menu on a sheet of paper; choices are indicated by writing an amount in a box with the pencil proffered by the waiter. Our waiter for the evening was Italian, and what he lacked in Spanish skills he made up for in enthusiasm, offering to choose for us. When that failed, he made recommendations and attempted to explain the rather brief descriptions of dishes. The other waiting staff seemed a little less eccentric and a little more comprehensible, let's put it that way. With some guidance, we selected a number of dishes: everything but the tacos, quesadillas and tostadas (which make up a surprisingly small section of the menu) are apparently sized to share.

Linguistic difficulties seemingly out of the way, we sipped our drinks while we waited for our first dishes to arrive. J took one mouthful of his michelada, which had been described as a strong house beer, and pulled a face the Adrià brothers presumably don't often inspire: disgust. With spices garnishing the rim of the glass, the 'beer'  tasted like liquid curry and was soon rejected for a soft drink. Post-Micheladagate research shows that the michelada is actually a beer-based cocktail which is usually made with tomato juice, hot sauce and lime. No mention of curry powder, though.

Guacamole. Is that pestle necessary?

My white wine was a safer bet, and thankfully so was most of the food. While ordering, it came to light that J hates coriander: well done me for booking a Mexican restaurant. We started with guacamole, which was served in a mortar and garnished with both the avocado stone and a pestle: signature Adrià quirk on show. I later learnt the presence of the stone was to stop the guacamole from turning brown, but the pestle was entirely unnecessary as the dip was already prepared, especially when you're sitting on  table the size of a postage stamp. Presentation irks aside, it was wonderfully tasty, and the serving size generous (as you'd hope for €9.50). Presumably because avocado is an expensive ingredient, this was one of the priciest dishes on the menu: other items ranged from €2.50-14.80.

Ensalada de quelites

The menu is quite meaty, with the few fish dishes being a little unusual, from sea urchin to oysters. I opted for an octopus tostada, which was as delicious as it was diminutive, while J enjoyed his carnitas (pork) taco. Tacos, tostadas and quesadillas come with a selection of homemade salsas, some spicy, some less so. We also shared the queso fundido con rajas poblanasan Adrià spin on a traditional green chilli-based dish which was pretty damn tasty, with a great gooey texture thanks to the melted cheese. This one also came in a decent-sized portion (although if you were sharing between more than 2, you'd only be lucky enough to taste a couple of mouthfuls. I also sampled a baby corn salad, the ensalada de 'quelites', which was fresh and flavoursome.

Tequila macaroon

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Budget Break: A Cheap Weekend in Valencia

To me, Valencia is the quintessential Spanish city. When you think of Spain, images of sunny streets, sandy beaches and pretty plazas swirl into your mind. But in this case, these aren't the retouched images shared by the tourist board to attract coachloads of visitors, they're the real deal. Valencia's a natural beauty.

Valencia's Plaza de la Virgen

This coastal city has an international airport and is now linked to Madrid by the high-speed AVE train, making it easier to visit than ever. Valencia may be Spain's third-largest metropolis, but its scale feels completely different to that of Madrid and Barcelona. The suburbs may extend further than the casual visitor may ever see, but the centre is compact and easily walkable. The casco antiguo is also mostly pedestrainized, so its traffic-free streets enhance the sensation that you're in a relaxed little town rather than a frenetic city. Throw in plenty of green space, quality eateries, top-notch architecture and the beach, and you've got a pretty perfect weekend break destination.

Where to stay

Unless you're looking for a dedicated beach break, the best place to base yourself is in the casco antiguo (also referred to as El Centro; includes some areas of El Carmen too). Here, you'll be nestled among city sights such as the Cathedral and the market, as well as in easy reach of the much-photographed City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia's architectural highlight. If you're a hipster looking for cool cafés by day and alternative nightlife after dark, try the trendy Russafa area to the south of the centre.

View of central Valencia from the cathedral tower, El Miguelete

The hippest spot to stay on a budget is Home Youth Hostel, located smack bang in the middle of the casco antiguo. Opposite La Lonja (one of Valencia's top sights) and around the corner from the Mercat Central (ditto), this bargain base is a cut above most hostels, with funky decor and a maximum dorm size being 4 people.  Unusually for a hostel, there are no bunk beds and private rooms are available, meaning it's entirely possible to escape the backpacker vibe if you wish. If you do want to get involved, there's a lounge stocked with plenty of information on Valencia and beyond, and organised events such as paella cooking classes.

Other good bets on a budget include stylish 7 Moons near the Jardines del Turia, and Pensión Paris, which has ensuite doubles for €30 a night. Valencia also has a wealth of great Airbnb apartments to rent; on a recent visit I bagged a sizeable studio close to the Torres de Quart for €100 for 2 nights.

What to see

As you'd expect of Spain's third-biggest city, Valencia isn't short on sights. Luckily, many of them can be visited or at least glimpsed for free; a walk around the casco antiguo feels like sightseeing in itself. Adjacent squares Plaza de la Reina and Plaza de la Virgen are both pretty and worth a wander, particularly the latter with its views of the Cathedral and next-door church (Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados) and its central fountain, depicting the River Turia. Plaza de la Virgen is pedestrianised, meaning it's a great spot for a relaxing drink. Valencia's cathedral is also worth a peep (although there's a charge for a full tourist visit) , but the main attraction is climbing the 207 steps of its bell tower, El Miguelete (€2), for unrivalled views of the city (and shaking thighs).

La Lonja

A number of sights in the casco antiguo are free on Sundays or at certain others times, so it's worth asking at the tourist information office in Plaza de la Reina for the latest list. La Lonja is one of these sights: the city's former silk exchange is a building so handsome it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If your legs couldn't handle El Miguelete, try climbing either the Torres Serranos or Quart, two old city gates which provide a lower-level city view. On a rainy day, check out either IVAM (the Valencian Institute of Modern Art) or the Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum) depending on your taste: the latter has a pretty extensive collection, while IVAM is in an impressive new building and hosts regular temporary exhibitions.

Jardines del Turia

If wandering is more your thing than ticking off museums, you'll love the Jardines del Turia: 9 kilometres of former riverbed, reclaimed after the river burst its banks and was diverted. It's now landscaped with areas for runners, footballers, children  - and casual wanderers. It leads down to Valencia's most-photographed monuments, which together comprise the City of Arts and Sciences. Designed by top architect and local boy Santiago Calatrava, the 'city' includes a science museum, an opera house, an IMAX cinema and Europe's biggest aquarium, the Oceanografic. Entry to some of these sights is pretty pricey, especially the aquarium at almost €28 per adult, but you can wander around the complex for free.  

Monday, 5 January 2015

Madrid Monday: Monuments & museums with permanently free entry

Free admission to monuments and museums in Madrid part 3

January: the budget month of the year. After the lavish Christmas presents, party frocks and seasonal travel expenses, January is a time for spending small. In honour of everyone's limited funds, here's the third and final part of my guide to free entry at museums and monuments in Madrid: those that are always free to enter.

Whether you're on a weekend break to the capital or are a longtime resident, there are bound to be a few charge-free sights you haven't heard of, never mind experienced. Given the lack of price tag, there are some fairly quirky choices in this category, so whether you're into firemen or fossils, Madrid's got you covered.

Click the links to read part 1 and part 2 and find out which sights offer free admission on specific days of the week or year, most commonly Sunday.

Matadero Madrid: Always free to visit


Casa Museo Lope de Vega  – Spanish playwright's former home. Advance booking essential.
Museo del Aire (Air Museum) – Located at the Cuatro Vientos airbase
Museo de Bomberos (Firefighter Museum) – Closed for refurbishment until October 2015
Museo del Escritor – within the Centro de Arte Moderno
Museo de Historia – Reduced display as currently under refurbishment
Museo Geominero (Geomineral Museum)
Museo de la Guardia Civil (Civil Guard Museum)
Museo de Homeopatía (Homeopathy Museum) – booking required, tours in Spanish
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo – closed temporarily; check website for reopening information
Museo de San Isidro – Also known as the Museo de los Orígenes, exhibits detail the city's early history)
Museo Nacional de Ciencia y Teconologia (National Science & Technology Museum) – Located in Alcobendas
Museo Naval
Museo Tiflológico (Typhological Museum) –  Run by the ONCE, the Spanish Association for the Blind, this museum is aimed at visually impaired visitors but can be enjoyed by all. Also shows temporary exhibitions by blind artists.

Other sights

This list includes monuments, cultural centres and more.
Anden Cero – Consists of two Madrid Metro exhibition centres, the old Chamberí Metro station and the Pacífico Engine Shed
La Casa Encendida – Cultural centre with lots of exhibitions and activities
Centro de Arte Moderno  
Centro Centro – also known as the Palacio de Cibeles, this impressive building hosts several changing exhibitions. There's also a mirador (viewpoint –  advance booking recommended), restaurant, bar and shop.
Conde Duque Cultural Centre – Military headquarters turned cultural centre; home to the Contemporary Art Museum and various archives. Hosts lots of activities, from ice skating in winter to outdoor cinema in summer
Ermita de San Antonio de Florida – Pretty little church with frescoes by Goya, which is also the artist's final resting place.
Espacio Fundación Telefónica – Exhibition space in the cool Telefónica building on Gran Vía, mostly shows photography exhibitions including an Instragrammers' gallery.
Fundación MAPFRE – Two different spaces in the Salamanca area showing art exhibitions from different eras. Recent exhibitions include one focusing on Sorolla's works.
Matadero Madrid – The coolest cultural complex in town, this former cattle market and abattoir contains industrial-chic exhibition spaces, the Casa del Lector ('House of the Reader') and a cinema. Often hosts events, concerts and arts festivals.

If you're having trouble choosing, I'd recommend Centro Centro for impressive architecture (even if there aren't any exhibitions you fancy), Fundación MAPFRE for top art on the cheap and Matadero for the cool factor. With its high-tech video exhibitions of woolly mammoths and the like, plus a high level of visual content, the Museo de San Isidro is good for kids, who will also love exploring the now-closed Chamberí Metro station. If you're into all things scientific, the MNCYT (Museo Nacional de Ciencia y Teconología) opened in December 2014, so is likely to be a cut above Spain's usual fusty science museums.

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