Exploring Madrid makes cents - even on the rand
Janine Bywater finds ways to stretch her cash while exploring the Spanish capital, Madrid, and the nearby towns of Toledo and Valencia
My daughter moved to Madrid last year, so I flew over to see a bit of the life she has embraced.
Madrid was a joy. Clean, organised, creative, quirky and beautiful. Transport is typical of European cities - on time and affordable. For €12 you get 10 trips on the bus or metro.
The food is excellent and very varied. If you order a beer or a wine (or a sangria or Tinto de verano) you get some kind of tapas with it. One restaurant plonked down a huge basket of fried chicken and ham croquettes when we ordered three drinks.
You can get a really good main course in a mid- to upper-range restaurant for between €9 and €12 - but most of the time you can order a few starters and not spend more than €6. I was fortunate enough to have a kitchen to cook in so the markets were a regular haunt. The quality of the seafood is exceptional and you can get 2kg of mussels for just €5.
HOT IN THE CITY
Madrid is really hot in summer, every day it's between 30°C and 34°C. The sun sets at 10pm so the days are long and the siesta tradition becomes quite understandable.
You can lose yourself just walking the various districts, exploring the Prado (€16 and you can wander around for hours).
The Buen Retiro Park is gorgeous - the Spaniards take such pride in their gardens and their public areas.
A walk around the districts of Chueca, Universidad, Justica and Embajadores gives you a real insight into the lifestyle and architecture of the city.
I spent one night in a hotel, Hostal Ballesta in the Universidad area - a room with two beds for €80. Ask for a room with a balcony.
Across the street from the hotel was a cocktail bar called Santamaria, with incredible and creative cocktails but pricy at €10 each. Up the road there is a deli called Medri selling only tiramisu.
MARKET FOR MILES
The Sunday market at El Rastro in La Latina goes on for miles of steep hills, and there are a few real gems to be found. There are thousands of people though so it might be best to stay on the fringes if you are claustrophobic.
A trip to a government building in the middle of Madrid was a pleasant surprise. The Cybele Palace building houses a division of the Department of Arts and Culture and, besides the beautiful architecture, has a rooftop cocktail bar with views over the city.
JUST DON'T LOOK AT THE BILL
I decided to do an overnight trip to Valencia. The train fare was a bit of a shock - €77 each way per person, but the experience was worth it.
You leave from Atocha station, a stunning piece of architecture housing a central atrium with lush gardens and, I believe, a few families of terrapins.
The lightning-fast train took less than two hours and delivered us to a delightful seaside town steeped in history, culinary yumminess and a beachfront that stretches for miles with not a single piece of litter in sight and plenty of restaurants to choose from.
We ate at Tinto Fino Ultramarino on Carrer de la Corretgeria in the old market area. The food was delicious, and I refused to take too much notice of the bill as we drank plenty of cold sangria and enjoyed a variety of tapas dishes.
ESCALATORS TO THE OLD CITY
I also made a day trip to Toledo. That trainfare was much more reasonable at less than €13 per person each way.
Less than half an hour and you think you're on the set of Game of Thrones.
You need to get a taxi from the station up to the city on the hill. Ask the driver to drop you at the bottom of the escalator - yes, you can enter the walled city by escalator.
Wear flat, comfortable shoes.
The streets are a feast of history and beautiful old churches. The city is home to a number of artisans, making swords and knives for big Hollywood movies and very intricate gold filigree work.
The monastery at San Juan de los Reyes was the highlight of the day. We enjoyed a glass of cava at Hacienda del Cardenal, a beautiful hotel just outside the city walls.
Something I learnt about the Spanish is that they have a really caring attitude to their fellow citizens, particularly the old and infirm. Young men will stand up on the bus, not only to give up their seats for doddering grannies, but also to escort them from the entrance as the bus moves off.
Market stall holders were always happy to part with cooking tips when I bought their produce, and no transaction takes place without a genuine "How are you?" and chat about the day.
Of course, it helps if you actually speak Spanish, but they do make an effort to speak English.