Saturday, 10 July 2010

Summer in the city: Escaping the Madrid heat

Some wise sage once observed that living in Madrid involves surviving nine months of winter and three months of hell. Based on the past year, it's a pretty accurate assessment: after bizarre weather that saw me firmly glued to my umbrella handle in mid June, the hell has arrived. As temperatures top 40 degrees, I'm beginning to wish I had opted for an apartment with air conditioning, and I have become insanely jealous of those with a swimming pool (not to mention increasingly friendly towards them).

So, when the heat is on, how should the poor folks without the precious aire stay cool and avoid being reduced to a sweaty puddle on the pavement? Well, if you don't fancy retreating to the nearest café blasting out cool air for the day, there are thankfully a few more inviting options.
A dip in the pool

Las Presillas
Madrid boasts a fair number of open-air public swimming pools, which are finally open now that July is here. Varying in size and facilities, they all have one thing in common - crowds. As leaving your towel on a sunlounger at 2am German-style is not really an option here, make sure to get there early to stake your claim on a sunbathing spot. Details of outdoor piscinas can be found here, but the pick of the bunch is the 3  pool complex in Casa de Campo (metro Lago), with shady spots on the grass above the huge main pool in addition to the usual concrete. If you can't cope with the screaming children and want something a bit more private, you could always try befriending colleagues/passers-by who have a swimming pool at their block of flats, or if you're feeling flush, hotel pools provide a more exclusive experience. For those who like to pose, you can't beat the rooftop Splash at the Room Mate Oscar hotel in the heart of Chueca: the pool area features swanky sunloungers, a bar and a stunning view over the city, plus a mini splash pool. For €40 a day, stylish sunbathers have access to the pool area and use of a towel. With a maximum of 35 people allowed in, it's certainly more tranquil than a municipal pool. If you would prefer to escape the city altogether, head to the natural swimming pools at Las Presillas, in the sierra near Rascafría - the location in the hills guarantees a lower temperature, and swimming while surrounded by mountains is a memorable experience (although the water is bloody cold!).

Picnicking in the park

El Capricho
Madrid's Retiro park is well-known as a central picnic spot, full of shady corners and home to a boating lake for those who want to dangle their toes in the water. However, like those municipal pools, it can also get pretty packed at the weekend. For somewhere a little more secluded, head to El Capricho (metro of same name), an 18th century English-style pleasure garden filled with fountains, follies and plenty of shade. Unfortunately the 'door staff' (yes, this park has bouncers) are rather strict when it comes to enforcing the 'no food and drink rule' (although I did manage to eat a handful of crisps inside, but that's just between you and me), so picnics can be eaten in the nearby Parque Juan Carlos, which also loans mountain bikes for free if you're feeling active. A more central option is the vast Casa de Campo, which has some shaded picnic tables near the cable car stop, as well as a large boating lake and a swimming pool.

Taking advantage of aire

If operación bikini failed or you're fed up of park life, you could always take refuge in air-conditioned art galleries or shopping centres such as La Gavia (metro Las Suertes). A visit to the cinema becomes more tempting too, but if you're looking for somewhere a bit more sociable, retreat to the cool confines of in-demand chef Sergi Arola's 'gastrobar', Le Cabrera, which serves up top-notch tapas and a huge menu of cocktails to chic punters. The curious 'English-style' decor (a mix of retro and country house, with some strangely Cath Kidston-esque touches) takes a little getting used to, but after a couple of cocktails you'll be a convert. 

Once evening draws in and it's safe to step outside without your make-up melting within thirty seconds, it's time to embrace the warmth and head for a terraza. In addition to year-round standbys like the Penthouse at Me in Plaza Santa Ana and Gaudeamus in Lavapiés, summer-only terrazas are popping up everyhwere. A few worth pausing for include Jardín Brugal-Casa de América next to Cibeles, and La Terraza de Chamartin, next to the train station, a trendy terraza with its own mini-golf course and views of Madrid's skyscrapers. If you're looking for a glamorous open-air experience with a difference, try the Terraza del Bernabéu at the Real Madrid stadium, accessed through the Real Café at puerta 30*. One of the stands behind the goal becomes a split-level terraza during the summer months, hosting after-work cocktails before transforming into a fully-fledged discoteca as the night draws on (entry €12 with drink).

*2012 update: The terraza is now accessed through the restaurant at puerta 46. The Real Café is also open in the evening, but it's not al aire libre.

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