Magical Madrid: The unique charms of the Spanish capital

Madrid the capital of Spain. (Shutterstock)
Updated 13 November 2018
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Magical Madrid: The unique charms of the Spanish capital

  • Madrid is a European capital like no other
  • Madrid’s blockbuster sights regally lived up to their generations-old hype

LONDON: It was bad luck that brought me to Madrid — or perhaps fate. Midway through a two-month road trip around Southern Europe, diligently skirting the coasts of Portugal and Spain, but with no intention of venturing inland, my 20-year-old campervan broke down in the scorching Andalusian planes, some 30 km outside Seville, officially the warmest city in Europe.
My fate was sealed by the calendar as much as the location: It wasn’t just that I blamed the searing summer sun for overheating my ancient engine, but also for thwarting any chance of its repair. For the month of “Agosto,” I soon learned, the south of Spain simply shuts down. There wasn’t a garage in town with the faintest bit of interest in fixing my motor. And so, after a fortnight of shade-seeking 40-degree days and flamenco-filled nights in Seville, I impulsively rented a car and made a spontaneous six-hour road trip to Madrid. And whatever the repair bill ended up being, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Arriving exhausted at dusk, I emerged from my air-conditioned car to find the climate completely transformed, temperatures hovering in the pleasant mid-twenties, surrounded by commuters ambling amiably to street-side tavernas rather than racing to the metro — or hiding indoors like their southern compatriots.

Hurried logic (and a whiff of luck) had brought me to the south-western edge of the central Sol barrio, a maze of winding streets with colorful cafés and tapas joints that seem to be as busy for breakfast as in the early hours, entertaining a constant flow of customers and an insistent throb of lively chat. It was the perfect tonic for the breakdown blues.
Arriving without preconception or preparation had its benefits. I was free to follow whims, enjoying the kind of aimlessness which can only be bred through enforced limbo. Evenings drifted by nibbling gambas al ajillo (garlic prawns) and pimientos de padrón (padrón peppers), while practicing my newly acquired Spanish with friendly locals at Bodegas Melibea, an audaciously decorated café with wide open windows offering cooling vistas of the ever-changing street scene.

Madrid’s blockbuster sights regally lived up to their generations-old hype. The Plaza Major really could not be better named — a bright rectangular space built around the turn of the 16th century, lined with interconnected regal rows of identical three-story buildings, sporting a total of 237 tiny balconies.
Grander still is the Royal Palace of Madrid, a magnificent maze of 3,418 rooms which make it Europe’s largest royal residence. Be sure to stop at the nearby Temple of Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple donated to Spain and incongruously rebuilt in the early 1970s.
I had heard of the Prado Museum, of course, and held some inkling of its famed depth and breadth, but little could prepare me for the boggling floorplan and epic catalogue of art, which stretches from the 12th to 20th centuries. At any one time, only about 1,300 of the institution’s collection of more than 20,000 works is on display — but that still means that if you entered at 10 a.m., stayed until closing time at 8 p.m., and took zero breaks, you would have the equivalent of 27 seconds to view each work. Time is likely to be considerably tighter when an extension is unveiled next year, coinciding with the Prado’s 200th anniversary.

Temple of Debod. (Shutterstock)

More manageable and equally essential is the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, one of Europe’s greatest exhibitors of 20th-century artists which pays homage to the country’s headline exports Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí — including staging the former’s epic “Guernica,” a stark, monochrome Spanish Civil War epic which rightfully ranks among the century’s greatest cultural achievements. At 7.7 meters wide, it’s a work that no postcard or textbook reproduction can do justice to — a statement which needs to be experienced in the flesh, and studied up close, to appreciate even a jot of its power, scope or intent.
Madrid is simply magical. Not in that quaint, stately, Western European way of Vienna or Prague, nor with the pretentious powerhouse vibe of Paris or London. And nothing like the crumbling grandeur of Mediterranean neighbors Rome and Athens. It’s a European capital like no other — and it’s the one I’d move to in a heartbeat.

 


Malaysia welcomes its first durian-friendly hotel

An overview of the Durian Research Center. (AN photo)
Updated 16 July 2019
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Malaysia welcomes its first durian-friendly hotel

  • Tan sees the resort’s agritourism ecosystem as a long-term goal toward creating a platform for durian research and cultivation

KUALA LUMPUR: Durians are known for their distinct, pungent smell, which many foreigners describe as a combination of rotten onions and old socks. As such, most hotels in Asia forbid the fruit on their premises.
But with the rising popularity of durians among locals and foreign tourists, Malaysia is welcoming its first durian-friendly hotel and resort.
Situated an hour from Kuala Lumpur’s city center, the beautiful, scenic Bangi Golf Resort includes a hotel overlooking a golf course, and an agriculture farm.
“When you first go into any hotels, you usually see the signs ‘durian is not allowed’ or ‘durian is forbidden’,” said Tan Ban Keat, director of the resort. “We soften the tone for the hotel to be ‘durians are allowed in durian-friendly zones’.”
Hotel patrons can buy, eat and bring durians to designated zones throughout the resort.
“We’re actually the first hotel to practice that,” said Tan, adding that he does not believe the move will prompt other hotels in Malaysia to follow suit.
“It doesn’t do anything to their business. We do it because we grow durians on the premises. We have the annual durian festival … and we’ll include the Durian Research Center in the near future,” he said.

FASTFACT

Musang Kings are considered premium durians due to their intense yet well-balanced, custardy sweet taste. They are the premier durians for export to China and other overseas markets.

Tan expressed his hope that the center, which is under construction, will become a premier research hub for better durian breeds.
“I hope to create a Super Musang King,” he said. Musang Kings are considered premium durians due to their intense yet well-balanced, custardy sweet taste. They are the premier durians for export to China and other overseas markets.
Tan sees the resort’s agritourism ecosystem as a long-term goal toward creating a platform for durian research and cultivation.
“These durian-friendly zones are created to be a platform for agriculture. Durians have a place in many people’s hearts. They’re a national treasure,” he added.