Travel: Madrid for starters

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How do you get a feel for a city when you are visiting for only a couple of days and you don't know your way around? Simple. Put on your most comfortable shoes and go out walking.

Madrid is the ideal city to explore on foot. By the time you have located the old town, the shopping streets, the parks and the museums, it will almost certainly be time to find something to eat. However, that might be easier said than done. Most of the three million people who live here don't go out to eat until 10pm, and there are particular customs that you want to get the hang of before you join them.

Don't even think about looking for a nice restaurant in which to enjoy a three-course meal. That's not how it works in Madrid. Before you head to bed hungry, or worse, take comfort in the familiar surroundings of a fast food emporium, get advice from the friendly locals.

The gastronomic mavericks at Adventurous Appetites believe in taking tourists off the beaten track in search of authentic Madrileo fare, but it's actually more than that. They want to tell you a bit about the history of the city and explain its habits and customs.

You learn insider tips, such as to order a drink and pause before you choose anything to eat – bars will give you free tapas with your drinks, but skip this vital stage if you go straight to the menu.

Or this. It's not considered rude to chuck your olive stones or used paper napkins on the floor, so don't stick your head in the door and think a bar is really dirty – a lot of debris on the floor is a sign that you've picked a popular place.

Our guide was James Fraser, a friendly Scot whose barely detectable accent, softened by time away from home, became stronger the longer we spent in his company.

Wandering around the city centre on a busy Saturday night in search of delicious morsels is an original way of getting a feel for a destination, and I would recommend that you seek out James and his colleagues at the beginning of your break so you can make use of all their tips when you are left to your own devices.

We sampled cider, poured from a great height in the traditional manner and accompanied by a delicious blue cheese, during our four-hour tour. Kicking off at 8pm, we explored different foodie traditions, from cold red wine spiked with fruit and soda water (much nicer than it sounds and great for getting rid of mediocre red wine in a refreshing summer tipple) paired with jamn on rustic bread handed around on a large white platter. We all tucked in happily until there was just one piece left. Everyone was looking at it, but no-one wanted to be the glutton who gave in and scoffed it. Turns out this is not an unusual occurrence and there is even a name for "the piece of shame" – it's la vergenza in Spanish.

The following day, we revisited several of the bars and restaurants James had taken us to, trying to remember what he had ordered for us, and experimenting with a few different racins (platefuls) of our own choosing, always careful to avoid the tripe, callos – write it down!

We were particularly pleased with ourselves for locating the Chocolatera San Gimes which, with daily opening hours from 6pm to 7am is a favourite late-night hangout of Madrileos. It serves both alcoholic and soft drinks, but in terms of food there appeared to be only one dish available – chocolate y churros – a thick, hot, chocolate soup served in large teacups which you scoop out with deep-fried doughnut sticks. Men and women of all ages tucked into this comforting sweet snack while watching the world go by. Someone must open a similar cafe in Scotland – chocolate and doughnut sticks would surely be better for us than chips and kebabs?

With all the culinary delights on offer we failed to fully explore the cultural attractions of Madrid on this visit, but as I'm sure we'll return sometime, I don't feel too guilty.

We should have taken in the Prado, which houses famous collections by Spanish artists including Velsquez, Goya and El Greco. Those planning a long weekend should note that it is shut on Mondays, but free on Sundays.

If you're a fan of modern art, the Reina Sofia is the museum for you. Find works by Salvador Dali, Joan Mir and, most famously, Picasso's Guernica within its portals.

If you'd like to see it all under one roof, visit the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza collection at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, as we did. Spanish steel magnate Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza (check out the maker's mark next time you are on an escalator – it probably says Thyssen) supported his wife in her desire to create one of the most important private collections in the world, which chronicles art movements from the 14th to the 20th centuries. Here's a tip – while it is a good idea to start on the top floor, home to the oldest paintings in the collection, and work your way down to the Francis Bacons at ground level, don't spend too long on the 17th-century Dutch paintings in the middle or you will lose the will to live by the time you reach the modern stuff. I'm ashamed to say that we sped past the Impressionists – we had seen some recently in Edinburgh. Yet we were still in there for around four hours.

With days and nights packed with sightseeing and near-constant eating, we were looking for simple comforts from our hotel, and it delivered. The five-star InterContinental Madrid is in the business district, 15 minutes by cab from the airport and the city centre. The rooms were extremely comfortable, and we particularly enjoyed the fresh, tropical fruit buffet at breakfast (oh dear, eating again). It may attract mainly business travellers – the well-appointed club lounge is ideal for meetings as well as for catching up with the papers or doing a bit of work, should you be so inclined – but a large wedding party was staying the weekend we were there; and the helpful concierges had lots of good advice for first-time visitors to the city.

Spanish for haste ye back? Hasta pronto, of course.

Factfile: Madrid

How to get there

• Easyjet flights (08712 882 236, www.easyjet.com) from Edinburgh to Madrid start from 90 return.

Where to stay

• The InterContinental Madrid, Paseo de la Castellana 49, 28046 Madrid (00 34 91 700 7300, www.madrid.intercontinental.com or e-mail icmadrid@ihg.com).

Prices from 138 (approx 120) per room per night, based on two sharing a deluxe room and including breakfast, until the end of March.

And there's more

• James Fraser at Adventurous Appetites (00 34 63 933 1073, www.adventurousappetites.com or e-mail adventurousappetites@ yahoo.es) for tours which start from 50 per person.

• Preferred Travel Services has ten-day trips to Galicia, starting in Madrid, from 769pp, departing 11 May, 21 September and 5 October. Tel: 0116 279 3929 or e-mail sales@preferredts.com and quote "Scotsman". For other options visit www.holidays.scotsman.com