Masters of the dark arts

Madrid resident Paul Richardson nominates his favourite late-night venues in a capital where life begins after dark.

In Pedro Almodovar's film The Flower of My Secret, Marisa Paredes's estranged husband phones from Brussels, asking if it's not too late to call. She replies, "In Madrid, it's never late." This might serve as a tourist slogan for a city whose fondness for nocturnal living has few rivals.

Spain as a whole is, of course, highly attuned to late-night life. Playwright Federico Garcia Lorca once said that the moment just before dawn was when a gentleman should retire to bed, and cities such as Barcelona, Seville and Valencia can lay convincing claim to the title of nightlife capital of Spain.

But it is Madrid that has cultivated most assiduously the image of a city where life is lived more intensely after dark.

Visitors are often astonished to see, in the early hours of any summer morning, young children and their parents out and about in the parks, traffic jams along the Paseo de la Castellana and queues at stalls selling crisp fried churros and cups of hot chocolate as thick as custard.

Spend any length of time in Madrid and you are struck by the city's unique and occasionally unfathomable biorhythms. Lunch is often at 3pm or later, dinner never earlier than 10pm and no one in their right mind would think of going out dancing before two or three o'clock in the morning.

When I came to Madrid from London in the late 1980s, I would be dressed in my glad rags well before midnight and spend the next few hours rapping my fingers or, worse, getting so tanked in the pre-club bars that when the disco hour arrived I was practically ready for bed. Coping with Madrileno nightlife requires careful pacing and, if at all possible, a long afternoon snooze - the siesta is one of Spain's greatest gifts to the world (along with jamon iberico and Penelope Cruz).

Madrid's obsession with la noche is partly conditioned by the climate: the fact is that, in the summer months, only after sundown is it actually pleasant to venture into the street. Nightlife is, then, less about raving than routine, about having to do at night those things that you might otherwise do during the day. It covers all ages and activities, from watching your grandchildren play on the swings, drifting around an art gallery (late-night openings at the Prado and Thyssen were a huge hit last year), or grazing on tapas in some old-town square, to dancing at Ibiza-style megaclubs such as Fabrik (Avenida de la Industria 82; grupo-kapital.com/fabrik) and Space of Sound (Plaza Estacion de Chamartin; spaceofsound.com).

The nature and rhythm of Madrid nightlife varies according to which barrio you wander into. Chueca, the once-derelict neighbourhood north of the Gran Via, has become one of Europe's most vibrant gay quarters, with the result that many of Madrid's dens of iniquity - leather clubs and the like - sit cheek by jowl with straight-friendly cafes, dance clubs and bares de copas (drinking bars) in a rainbow-coloured simulacrum of San Francisco's Castro district.

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Madrid's strong point, apart from its incombustible energy, lies in its diversity. Barrio de Salamanca is good for sleek, chic nightspots such as 4 Bajo Cero (Calle de Alcala 90) and the Starck-designed Ramses (Plaza de la Independencia 4; ramseslife.com), where the patrons are well-groomed pijos (posh types). Multiracial, leftie Lavapies, on the other hand, scores for the cheerfully grungy feel of its boozy bars and boozeless teterias (tea shops).

A long-term Lavapies favourite is the hilariously down-at-heel dive bar La Lupe (Calle Torrecilla de la Leal 12). Malasana acts as a magnet for indie rockers and narrow-trousered young trendies - check out Calle del Espiritu Santo, a funky street of shops and cafes that takes on an edgier feel after midnight. TriBall, the triangle of sordid streets north of Gran Via, is worth a look to see how groovy bars and boutiques can be made from old knocking shops. Moncloa, student heaven, is best avoided unless you have an anthropological interest in sticky-floored discotecas where the screams of a thousand 18-year-olds almost drown out the thudding Euro-trance.

Success in la noche Madrilena means getting to grips with certain concepts. No.1: la terraza. In a restaurant context, terraza means an outdoor space with tables for eating, drinking and (crucially) smoking. On a hot summer night, such spaces are sought after; since the smoking ban they are often the only place you can light up a cigarillo with your cerveza.

In the 1980s, it was the open-air bars of Paseo de la Castellana where the city's movers and groovers spent summer nights. Street-level terrazas have lost their edge in the intervening years, though Diego Cabrera's gorgeous open-air cocktail lounge in the gardens of the Casa de America (Plaza de la Cibeles 2; casamerica.es), which was all the rage last summer, is an exception.

The terrazas to head for now are of the rooftop variety. The fashion was started by The Penthouse at the ME Madrid hotel (rooms from €160 ($205); Plaza de Santa Ana 14; solmelia.com) and the top-floor terraza at Hotel Urban (rooms from €190; Carrera de San Jeronimo 34; www.derbyhotels.com), where there are great views and anaesthesia-inducing cocktails. But the rooftop bar-under-the-stars idea is such a brilliant one it's only surprising no one had thought of it earlier.

The rooftop bar at the Room Mate Oscar hotel (rooms from €98; Plaza Vazquez de Mella 12; room-matehotels.com) ticks all the boxes, with DJ beats, nice-looking punters and a pool. The new Mercado de San Anton, which hopes to do for Chueca what the Mercado de San Miguel has done for the Plaza Mayor area, has a gorgeous corner terraza, La Cocina de San Anton (Calle de Augusto Figueroa 24; lacocinadesananton.com), with tantalising views of old-town rooftops and people's sitting rooms.

Nightlife trends are explored and exploited in Spain and Madrid's fascination with cocktail culture goes back several decades. Classic bars such as Chicote (Calle Gran Via 12; www.museo-chicote.com) are still among Europe's temples of mixology. Latterly, however, the cocktail scene has taken off in new directions. Places to try are Javier de las Muelas's Dry Cosmopolitan at the Gran Melia Fenix (Calle de Hermosilla 2; solmelia.com), the Bar Cock (Calle de la Reina 16; barcock.com), Belmondo (Cuesta de los Canos Viejos 3; belmondococktails.com) and the gin bar at Mercado de la Reina (Calle de la Reina 16; mercadodelareina.es).

These days, Manhattans and martinis are as common as Madrid's traditional vermu (vermouth), cana (draught beer) and big glasses of red wine. Cocktails with tapas at gastro-coctelerias such as Seven & Six (Paseo Pintor Rosales 76; gastrobar76.com) are now the height of modishness.

Anyone ordering a G&T should be prepared, not just for Spain's legendary generosity when it comes to pouring the liquor but also for the barrage of questions that precedes it. Which gin would you prefer? Any decent Madrid bar will have all the newest designer brands. Which tonic? Ditto. And which kind of glass? Local preference is for a balloon the size of a goldfish bowl.

La noche Madrilena would be nothing without la musica. The live-music scene was hit by a wave of municipal clampdowns and closures, but has picked itself up and dusted itself down. Jazz, blues, folk, world music and flamenco all have their place at venues such as Clamores (Calle de Alburquerque 14; salaclamores.com) and Sala Caracol (Calle de Bernardino Obregon 18; salacaracol.com). El Sol (Calle de los Jardines 3; elsolmad.com) and Joy Eslava (Calle del Arenal 11; joy-eslava.com) are veterans of the city centre, the latter in an old theatre, while La Riviera (Paseo Virgen del Puerto; salariviera.com), with its famous palm tree, is simply the doyen of Spain's live pop venues. (Primal Scream, for example, chose to unveil their rebooted Screamadelica there.)

When I first moved to Spain, at the height of acid house in Britain, I was amazed by how full on the Madrid club scene was - and it still is. The capital's what's-on guide lists no fewer than 249 discotecas - not bad for a city half the size of London. The big-night-out clubs such as Goa, Pacha, Macumba and Fabrik are always there if you should need them but veteran watchers of la noche tell me the best fun is at small and sweaty club nights where Madrid is finally creeping up on Berlin and London as a club-cultural hub. Alcohol-fuelled trashiness and eclecticism rule. Charada (Calle de la Bola 13; charadaclub debaile.com) is the house club of the moment (Zombie on Wednesdays and Pantera on Saturdays, I'm informed, are the best nights).

It has to be said, though, that the nightlife most Madrilenos prefer is more sedate: walks in the Retiro park, or along the spruced-up Manzanares river. Tapas and beers followed by a foreign movie in the early hours at the Cine Ideal (Calle del Doctor Cortezo 6; www.yelmocines.es) is another option, or chocolate con churros at the Chocolateria San Gines (Pasadizo de San Gines 11).

In summer, I like a late-night concert in some atmospheric urban setting: Daniel Barenboim and his Palestinian-Israeli orchestra playing muscular Beethoven in Plaza Mayor and a flamenco group in the Sabatini Gardens.

Madrid caters well to its own need to live nocturnally. The Metro, easy to use as well as a bargain, closes about 2am. White taxis are cheap and plentiful. If all else fails, central Madrid is compact enough to make walking home less of an ordeal than a pleasure. And one thing's for sure: no matter how late the hour, you'll never walk alone.

Emirates has a fare to Madrid from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2115 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr), then to Madrid (8hr); see emirates.com. Thai Airways and Korean Air also fly to Madrid with one stop.

- Guardian News & Media

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