My love affair with Madrid was immediate and took me completely by surprise. Spectacular buildings and statues, fountains, wide streets with plane trees - shops, good restaurants, museums, galleries - what else could one want? Add to that the fact that it is mostly spotlessly clean, easy to get around and the purported rude Spanish waiters are either only found on the Costas or only exist in old British sitcom programmes and you have a city of dreams.
We stayed at a smart hotel, the Gran Melia Fenix just out of the centre but convenient for most attractions. Booking on-line and in advance can get you very good deals here. We decided on room only as the food was very expensive and there was not one veggie choice on the menu. The hotel was superb though - our room was quiet, large and luxurious.
We set to work immediately, heading for the Salamanca area near our hotel, where La Galette, one of the oldest vegetarian restaurants in Madrid is situated. Lunch is the main meal in Spain and is eaten quite late - at about 2pm. Restaurants open at 1pm. Most offer a three course Menu of the Day, with perhaps three choices for each course and usually a drink or two thrown in and this is the option we nearly always went for. La Galette is an intimate little restaurant - some might say a bit cramped - but dark and cosy with shabby chic wooden tables and chairs painted white, candles and naïve artefacts and wall hangings. There was quite bizarre background music playing - Mahler in a restaurant? - but it all added to the eccentric atmosphere of the place. Smoking is allowed throughout. They also have a few meat and fish dishes on offer. We had a beer each, salad with hazelnut dressing for starters, a main meal of carrot rissoles served with rice and tofu and spinach and apple cake or cheesecake for pudding. With a coffee to finish, this set us back 22 euros! All home made and all delicious. Was this first time lucky, or were all veggie restaurants in Madrid like this? I could hardly wait until dinner time to find out.
In common with most restaurants, L'Estragon didn't open until 9pm. Like the Galette, the décor was good, but quite different. Here we had tiled floor, blue and white checked tablecloths and fresh flowers on each table. There were smoking and non smoking areas, which I appreciated. Flamenco music was playing this time. I had salad to start and a Cous cous dish with roasted vegetables, dates and sultanas to follow. The apple pie to finish was very good. Strangely, they did not serve coffee, so we were forced to go to a local bar for that. Our bill was around 50 euros.
Breakfast at the hotel was extortionate, so the next morning we gave that a miss and headed to a lovely café we had seen from the taxi the day before. Terraza del Espejo is Art Deco in style, rather like a smaller version of the Palm House at Kew. It had immaculately dressed waiters, fresh coffee and delicious croissants. It was a far cry from Old Blighty where we can't even manage one out of three. There was also an outside seating area under plane trees which we enjoyed later in the week.
In case you think we came to Madrid and just ate for five days, we did fit in a bit of shopping and sight seeing. Madrid has numerous shops of note - my favourite was El Cortes Ingles department store, of which there are several branches. On our way past one of these, we saw a Spanish animal experimentation protest, involving quite a number of people. Perhaps that partly explains the number of veggie restaurants in Madrid - it must be demand driven, and not just by tourists.
Saturday lunch saw us at Yerbabuena. They do a Meal of the Day, but this was in Spanish and the waiter did not speak English. We should have brought a bilingual dictionary with us and this would be my top tip. That and "Move to Madrid now". So I kind of guessed (wrong) and ended up with egg and chips. It was a bit greasy for my taste. The music was good though and the meal was very cheap. Two beers, two meals and bread for a tenner.
We went to Isla del Tesoro for supper. Décor was fantastic with orange painted walls, original art on display, linen cloths, real serviettes and smart service. No smoking throughout, this was proving to be a real treasure. I had pate to start with chunky rustic bread and an unusual platter with tofu, sea weed, nori rolls and dips as a main. We shared a pear tart and with beer, water and coffees the bill was a reasonable 63 euros.
It being Saturday night and by now being well and truly in holiday mode, we headed for the famous Museo Chicote bar, where Hemingway dodged bullets to nip in here, down a few cocktails and then continue up the hill to post his latest instalment. It might be a strange place for a non drinker, but my partner made up for me with a couple of cocktails, a beer or two and a chance to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the music.
For Sunday lunch we ended up at El Granero de Lavapies in a residential suburb of Madrid. It was very simply decorated with plain walls, wooden tables and chairs and the original tiled floor. Through the open door to the kitchen I could see three middle aged women, who were presumably the cooks. No jumped up young chefs here with Andy Pandy trousers and a deep fat fryer. We were seated at 1pm when the place opened and by 1.45pm they were turning people away. The Meal of the Day was on offer - although the waitress knew no English, she did provide us with a sort of written English translation of the menu. However, since up to now I had not had a bum meal, I was prepared to take risks and decided to go a la carte. I started with what turned out to be avocado salad. Fortunately, I adore avocadoes and my salad must have consisted of at least three, beautifully ripe and green, sliced thinly and served with marinated minced onion and chopped fresh tomato. It was heaven. For main I had little vegetable pies served with fresh salad - and it really was fresh as I could see it being prepared. This is simple, lovingly prepared food at its best. You drizzle on the required amount of oil and vinegar - which every place has on the table - and there you have a meal you couldn't improve on yourself. (I had a pizza at Gatwick the night before we flew. I asked for vinaigrette for my salad (salad = a bag of leaves dumped on the plate). The waitress looked at me as if I had enquired after her sexuality. Eventually she turned up with some balsamic vinegar "Will this do?" Actually, even a superb vinaigrette would not have redeemed the meal, but I bravely chomped through half the pizza as I knew this farce of a meal was setting us back stupid money.) We had a gorgeous fruit tart for afters. With coffee, bread and beer our bill was 36 euros. This was my favourite place - it felt like being in someone's private dining room.
Fancying a change in the evening, and being a sucker for Lebanese food, we headed for Mil y Una Noches. You walk through a bar area, where a party were already enjoying their pipes, then a prep area and finally the two room restaurant. One part is for smoking, one is not. The décor was very Arabian with illustrative pictures from the famous 1001 nights on the walls and plenty of gold and red. We asked the chef to prepare us a vegetarian feast and that is what we got. Pitta bread, houmous very good babaganoush, stuffed vine leaves, delicious falafel, roasted vegetables served with scented rice and spiced vegetables served with cous cous. We managed to force ourselves to eat the baclava which magically arrived with the mint tea. With beers, our meal came to 43euros. I was beginning to feel like a gambler who kept on winning. When would my lucky streak end?
Monday morning saw us at the Reine Sofia Museum. We had worked out that the sensible way to get round Madrid is by the Madrid Vision open top tour bus. This runs two circular routes that cover most of Madrid and you get on/get off as you please. Taxis are cheap and plentiful but they drive at breakneck speed - not good for the old ticker. There is a lot to see here but our main quest was the Guernica painting by Picasso. It was much larger than I expected and quite shocking to see it so close up with the stark, haunting images. Picasso had been commissioned by the Spanish Government to paint a mural but when the bombing of Guernica happened, he changed his mind and started to work on this anti war piece named after the bombed town. It was completed quickly and ready in 1937. In 1940 when Paris was occupied he handed out photos of Guernica to German officers. When asked "Did you do this?" he replied, "No, you did". "Guernica" has travelled extensively but Picasso's wish was that it should end up in Spain, but only "after Fascism".
Monday lunchtime found us at another smart place specialising in home cooking: Artemisa. Once again we were seated at 1pm but very soon the place filled up. Meal of the Day was gorgeous. I had gazpatcho and a mixed plate of three items for main, served with salad - a small pie, some risotto and curried lentils - all delicious. The other option was onion soup with a seitan and onion filled pitta which was equally yummy. The mango cheesecake to follow was very tasty. With beer and coffee our meal was a ridiculously low 21 euros. The restaurant is non smoking.
After some more shopping, we arrived for our evening meal at the only disappointing place we visited. Al Natural was easily the smartest and most attractively decorated restaurant we visited, but the food did not deliver. I had an Arabian salad to start, which was basically lettuce, tomato yoghurt, raisins and pine nuts. The pine nuts hadn't even been toasted - so it was all store cupboard stuff with very little flair in evidence. My main was equally disappointing (and forgettable) and the portion quite small. We decided against coffee and sweet. The bill was relatively high for what we had and the only restaurant I would not recommend.
Our spirits a bit deflated, we headed for the Café Central. This is a bar that features live jazz and on the night we visited the four piece ensemble was superb and soon we were toe tapping with the rest of them. For a few extra euros, you sit with your beer and enjoy the music. We stayed until nearly midnight - the thought of packing and an early morning flight persuading us back to our hotel.
If you are vegetarian and fancy a break abroad with plenty to do, without having to worry about the food, I can think of no better place than Madrid. The people are friendly and the sun nearly always shines.
Vegan food: in many of the places we visited, we ate vegan food. Certainly, there did not seem to be overkill in the cheese department as in the UK.
We flew using Easy Jet from Gatwick. The earlier you book, the cheaper it is. We paid £25 per person each way. Stick needles in your eyes if you must but don't stay at the Gatwick Hilton. The noise of the air conditioning kept us awake all night plus, you are trapped in Gatwickland and have to eat in the terminal.