After Athens, Madrid might be the most-scrutinized world capital this month, as global leaders anxiously train their eyes on the Mediterranean financial meltdown.
But while cultural offerings are taking a hit in other cash-strapped cities, Madrid is the defiant exception. From the lavish gardens of the Royal Palace to expanded hours at the Prado, visitors to the Spanish capital will see scant evidence of crisis.
There’s more for the Jewish visitor these days as well. The Comunidad Judía de Madrid (Madrid Jewish Community) recently launched a comprehensive English-language website (cjmadrid.org), with resources that include kosher dining and shopping — a lifesaver in this ham-obsessed town. The Comunidad also inaugurated a small museum of Spanish-Jewish heritage, open to visitors with advance reservation.
The best part? Almost all of Madrid’s pleasures are either free or half what you’d pay in other capitals. For budget travelers, it’s the ideal city break — with a price-quality ratio that’s wildly skewed in our favor.
In the past few years, I’ve sadly concluded that any number of erstwhile frugal destinations are no longer cheap: Portugal, southern Italy, Rio and Eastern Europe are among them. Madrid isn’t necessarily cheaper than any of these places, but it alone has art and culture to rival Rome, New York or Paris. With round-trip flights this time of year running as low as $500, it’s my budget pick for an urban winter getaway.
I remember when you could find a nice, if modest, hotel room in central Paris for $75 or so. In Madrid, you still can. Inexpensive, family-run “hostales” — not to be confused with hostels — pepper the atmospheric small streets that emanate from the Puerta del Sol, the Plaza Santa Anna and the Plaza Mayor in Madrid’s historic core.
Madrid is also the land of the free tapa with a drink order. Anything from potatoes in paprika sauce to Spanish tortilla on baguette might come sliding your way with the purchase of a $2 beer or glass of wine. Alcoholics could eat for free this way. The rest of us can supplement it with a “racion” — a generous helping of some traditional, rustic plate served with bread, for about $9 in any of the city’s ubiquitous 18th-century taverns, with flamenco on the stereo.
You can walk to most any place you’d want to visit, but Madrid’s excellent metro is also a bargain by European standards. And taxis are dirt cheap.
At a time when most museums are saving money by trotting out exhibits from their permanent collections instead of borrowing, Madrid’s fantastic Prado Museum has managed to snare the ultimate traveling show: “The Hermitage in the Prado,” which opened this week and runs through March 25.
The secret was a cultural exchange between Spain and Russia, with St. Petersburg having played host to the Spanish capital’s treasures earlier this year. “The Hermitage in the Prado” is not only the largest exhibition of art from that storied museum ever to be shown outside Russia — 90 works that span seven centuries.
It’s also a recreation of the Hermitage experience itself. An entire section of the Prado is transformed into the palace Catherine the Great called home — with royal portraits, imperial jewels, Catherine’s dresses, Peter the Great’s swords and Fabergé gems.
The best part is that beginning this month, the Prado is open seven days a week until late evening. Daily hours are just for the Hermitage exhibition right now, but the permanent collection — the world’s best place to see Goya, Velazquez, Raphael and Bosch — will be on a similar schedule starting in January.
At 10 euros (about $14), the Prado is also a relative bargain. But even cheaper is the Museo Centro de Arte Reína Sofía, the MoMA to the Prado’s Met. Just a short stroll down the Paseo, it’s free on weekday evenings, Saturday afternoons, and Sunday mornings. Full price is only 6 euros (about $8.50) — a small sum indeed for Picasso’s “Guernica” and highlights of the 20th Century’s most experimental art.
But head down the street for the real steal. Caixa Forum is a bank-sponsored exhibition space where a Delacroix retrospective — a blockbuster in any lesser art town — is on view through Jan. 15. At the far south end of Paseo del Prado, Caixa Forum is open every day until 8 p.m., with 4-euro chamber music concerts on Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 4.
It’s still a warm autumn in Madrid, where afternoons are in the balmy 60s and the Retiro — Spain’s answer to Central Park — beckons with its lush greenery just across the Paseo.
The Holocaust Memorial, designed four years ago by the Sephardic architect Samuel Nahon, is now on display at another park, the Juan Carlos I in the ritzy Moraleja district. The memorial is part of the Three Cultures Garden — an acknowledgement that, 500-plus years after its expulsion of Jews and Muslims, Spain is once again a multicultural society, with growing communities of both minorities.
Madrid Jewry has gotten a vibrant boost from an influx of South American immigrants and foreign Jewish professionals, and its numbers are growing. The central synagogue, Beth Yaakov (Orthodox, Sephardic), holds daily services in a pretty neighborhood north of the historic center.
The Madrid Jewish Community is betting that its museum will involve more visitors in the city’s Jewish revival. American Jews are encouraged not only to visit the museum, but to reserve through the Center to attend a service at Beth Yaakov — located in the same complex — or to share a Shabbat dinner with locals (25 euros adults, 18 kids). For details, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.