Ye olde travel guide: Madrid 1621

Jules Stewart invites visitors to Europe's literary and arts capital, home to a new king, afternoon bullfights and the ultimate nightlife...

Illustration by Jonty Clark.

This article was first published in the May 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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When to go

Madrid’s climate has turned quite extreme since 1561, the year when thousands of acres of woodlands were felled to provide timber and firewood for the court, which had just been moved from Toledo.
Travellers should heed the Madrid proverb: ‘Nine months of winter and three months of hell.’ Spring is usually the best time to visit; if you go in May, you’ll be in time to catch the best bullfights of the season.

What to take with you

At 2,000 feet above sea level, Madrid is Europe’s highest capital city. While the abundance of sunlight is a source of energy for keeping up with late-night Madrileños (those from Madrid), it is not without its perils, so stay in the shade.
Sensible footwear is another must and, given the almost total absence of paved streets, a pair of knee-length cavalry boots will come in handy. Camillo Borghese, the former papal nuncio, points out to visitors that Madrid’s houses are almost all made of mud and timber, and have neither doorsteps nor water closets. Keep an ear open for shouts of ‘Agua va!’, the cry that precedes the emptying of chamber pots into the street.

Costs and money

The official currency is the Spanish gold ducat. Silver is accepted in most places and a small pouch of reales can be useful for shopping at the handicraft and tailors’ stalls clustered around the city’s Plaza Mayor.
Madrid lies at the crossroads of the Iberian trade routes, so expect to find bargains in almost everything: from Toledo swords and dried salt cod from the Basque Country, to flagons of fine wine from Rioja and embroidered lace mantillas (a veil or shawl) from Andalusia.

Sights and activities

Madrileños are a theatre-mad lot, and even the young king Felipe IV, who has just this year ascended the throne of Spain, is given to late-night escapades in disguise, frequenting the city’s outdoor theatres to see, among others,  Félix Lope de Vega’s celebrated play Fuenteovejuna.
Culture vultures could not choose a better time to visit the city. Basking in the splendour of a ‘golden age’, Madrid is Europe’s literary and arts capital.
Miguel de Cervantes’ second volume of Don Quixote is already on sale in the bookshops, Francisco de Quevedo and Luis de Góngora are slugging it out in their satirical sonnets and Diego Velázquez’s recently completed masterpiece, The Adoration of the Magi, hangs in the Royal Alcázar Palace. The new Plaza Mayor offers a venue for afternoon bullfights and jousting tournaments.

Dangers and annoyances

Madrid is a far safer place today than was the case a few years ago, when street brawling and general riotous behaviour was so out of hand that the authorities banned innkeepers from providing chairs and tables in their establishments, and prohibited patrons from consuming food brought in from outside. The rationale was to discourage people from spending excessive time in these watering holes.
Visitors no longer run the risk of being served wine diluted with water, for as part of the general crackdown anyone convicted of selling adulterated wine receives a hundred lashes.

Sleeping and accomodation

Madrid suffers from a lack of tourist accommodation. However, there is a scattering of inns near the Moorish Quarter, such as the Posada del León de Oro and the Posada del Dragón, offering unheated and open-plan sleeping facilities. These places are not for the faint-hearted and tend to be rather insalubrious. It’s a good idea to sleep with your shoes tied round your neck.

Eating and drinking

You’ll need a lot of energy to cope with Madrid’s hectic nightlife. The city boasts more taverns between Plaza Tirso de Molina and Plaza Santa Ana than in all of Norway.
Try the roast suckling pig, a Castilian speciality, at one of the taverns in the winding streets adjacent to the Puerta del Sol. Be warned: you will feel very lonely if you turn up for dinner before 10pm.
The vast majority of these inns are frequented by a smattering of civil servants and honest wage earners, but at night they are a haunt for swashbuckling soldiers, freshly returned from fighting Dutch insurrectionists in Flanders.

Getting around

Madrid is highly walkable, and it is only a short stroll from the central Puerta del Sol to any of the city’s major attractions. However, the town hall has yet to post street signs or house numbers on the buildings so an oil lantern is vital for getting around after dark.
Jules Stewart is a freelance journalist and author. He is the author of Madrid: The History, published by IB Taurus