I find Madrid very different from most European capitals – it is surprisingly chilled and relaxing. Everyone is very friendly and takes time to chat courteously. That fits with the city’s regal, old-fashioned character, which I find charming.
I love the Gran Vía, the early-20th-century street in central Madrid. The buildings here look grand and imperial, especially compared to very modern ones like the ABC Museum of graphic art and illustration, the spectacular Four Towers – the city’s only real skyscrapers – and the circular Eco-Boulevard, a futuristic ‘air tree’, green public space and solar energy collection point in Vallecas.
Before designing my first collection for Loewe, I spent a year getting to know Madrid and the distinctive local culture. I really wanted to get under the city’s skin. The relaxed attitude, with everyone eating late and staying out until the early hours, is mirrored in the effortless way Madrileños do designer chic – simple linen for summer, leather dresses or suede shirts for winter, a little glitz for evening, but never too formal. I like city spots that reflect this approach.
It took me a while to find a hotel I really liked. I love the Gran Meliá for its atmosphere – it is old-school Spanish, maybe a bit rotary club in places, but incredibly comfortable and with staff who cannot do enough for guests, in a friendly, non-pompous way. It can be a little eccentric, but I like a touch of Fawlty Towers. Plus, it has a really good spa. I am also very fond of the Palace hotel, which is also traditional and has an amazing rotunda foyer with the best flower arrangements, as well as several really good restaurants. It’s just a great place to turn off and be pampered.
Going out to eat, especially in summer when everyone lives outdoors, is a great joy, especially for someone who grew up in Northern Ireland on traditional food and attitudes. My favourite restaurant in the evening is Luzi Bombón. It’s very modern, hip and buzzy, so you might expect the food to be underwhelming, but it does excellent fish – the best ceviche I’ve had. The terrace is beautiful, definitely a place to be seen. For somewhere less showy, the family-run Korgui, in an old house up an alley in the oldest part of town, is lovely. The interior is surprisingly modern, but outside is the place to be, with its spectacular view of the Puente de Segovia. The menu is a cool mix of Spanish, Mexican and Japanese – it’s mainly upmarket tapas (my favourite dish is the rollitos de primavera), but you can have a full meal and the food is beautifully presented and very reasonable.
My favourite for lunch, as it’s very central, is Ten Con Ten, which is big and lively with a modern Spanish menu – tapas, pasta and salads. The crayfish with a light curry sauce is special. It’s a great evening drinks spot too, but lunchtime is more relaxed. People don’t realise what a great variety of cheeses Spain has, and another good lunch spot is Poncelet Cheese Bar. It is very modern but warm, with lots of light wood and a vertical garden; you can treat it as a tapas bar and just sample the cheese or have something simple like my favourite, gnocchi. It serves meat and fish too and, though cheese is usually an ingredient, it also does versions without that are equally tasty. I had a very convivial Christmas party there.
As everyone eats late, there is a thriving bar culture for drinks and snacks beforehand and more drinks and live music after. Everyone has their special place, but mine is a classic – Bar Cock, which dates back to 1921 and has a great history yet is somehow quietly hip. The original decor is awesome and very atmospheric – a huge fireplace, big leather sofas, dark wood and candlelight – plus it plays good music late on. It’s in the Chueca area, which is now fun and a little edgy and where I like to spend my evenings. Here you’ll find a big choice of stylish bars: the rooftop terrace of the Oscar hotel has good tapas; the bar on top of the very modern Mercado de San Antón serves great drinks and food fresh from the market below, including delicious burgers, until the early hours at weekends; and then there’s the Terraza de la Reina, the place to go for people- watching. I find Spanish women have a confidence in their sensuality. They dress up, but their beauty is in being more laidback and freer than most. Spain seems more of a woman’s world than many countries and its powerful women are very attractive.
If you want to go dancing, El Amante is fashionable and friendly whether you’re gay or straight, with great music and a stylish lounge area. Chueca has a legacy of great drag clubs; they’re not tawdry, but part of the area’s psyche. The best acts are hilarious, eccentric and refreshing, and easy to understand even in Spanish. The most fun place in my view is LL Showbar. By contrast, I can think of nothing more exciting than serious modern flamenco. I was privileged recently to see María Pagés perform a rehearsal of I, Carmen at the Teatros del Canal. The choreography was fascinating, modernised in a giant, physical, almost brutal way; it was very visceral and reminded me of Irish dancing. A figure like Pagés seems to me the strongest form of woman.
Of Madrid’s world-famous galleries and museums, I like the Reina Sofía best, though you have to go early, before the crowds. I went one morning to see Guernica and it was one of the most emotional art experiences I’ve ever had. The way the city’s museums cover Spain’s art heritage, from Goya and Velázquez to Miró and Picasso, sums up both its pride in and rejection of its culture at different times. I like the way classic Spanish religious art reflects its Catholic history; there is a romance to it. Then, by the early 20th century, Madrid was a very intellectual and bohemian place, attracting artists like Francis Bacon.
For me, the places that most reflect Madrid’s historical and cultural mix are the flea markets, especially El Rastro and the tiny bookstores in the lanes behind it. El Rastro is very unspoilt compared with most European markets, which have been commercialised – here you can still make amazing finds, much like Portobello 20 years ago. My life is run by books – I could spend all day, every day leafing through them, especially photography and art books. In Madrid I’ve found an early Miró catalogue, an antique book of photos of bullfighters and work from the 1930s, which was a pivotal period here. These books make me feel connected to the city. There is also a brilliant annual book fair held in late spring in El Retiro park, and another every other autumn. And I regularly visit Ivorypress, a wonderful art and design bookshop owned by Norman Foster’s Spanish wife Elena. It has a great gallery space and its own publishing house too.
Aside from shopping for books, I find Tiempos Modernos inspiring for its choice of mid-20th-century furniture, especially its 1930s pieces. I also love Matarranz, a very idiosyncratic place selling bed linen made by the old ladies who run it. You can have sheets made to order and there are cashmere and lambswool blankets as well. I also recommend a walk down Calle de Serrano, a beautiful 19th-century street that has been recently restored, with avenues of trees and wide pavements. It is becoming home to the big luxury brands, but in between you’ll get a feel for the character of Spanish retail, from thriving, well-priced fashion chains you’ve never heard of to beautiful old-fashioned artisan chocolatiers.
For a complete change of atmosphere, I like to walk in the city’s surprisingly spacious parks, especially in the heat of summer. They’re historic as well as beautiful, going back to Spain’s royal heyday. My favourite is the Royal Botanic Garden, which was designed to showcase its plants’ scientific properties but its terraces are such elegant places to wander. El Retiro is much bigger, with amazing buildings and monuments added by assorted monarchs from the 16th century onwards, though most of the palace was destroyed in the 19th-century Peninsular War. But it’s also the hub of Madrileño outdoor life – everyone goes there to walk, run or have picnics. The pavilions often house art exhibitions, but it’s those book fairs I like best. Imagine browsing vintage books in that beautiful environment – my idea of heaven.