Similar to other big cities like Paris or Berlin, Madrid has a dense concentration of shops as exceptional and diverse as to render shopping around a thrilling feat of exploration. Discovering the delights of shopping in the Spanish capital has become the aspiration of many visitors who include in their Madrid tour long hours of shopping at leisure.
Most big cities are endowed with shop-until-you-drop department stores and Madrid is no exception. El Corte Ingles is Madrid’s comparable and only answer to Berlin’s Galeria Kaufhof or the Galeries Lafayette in Paris. With several branches spread out across the city, El Corte Ingles represents all that is good about retail business, particularly where the selection of commodities is concerned. The range of merchandise on display is vast beyond imagination, the quality is first-class and the prices are on the expensive side.
It must be said that the opening of several branches of the El Corte Ingles chain (I have counted six but visited just three) across the entire city of Madrid has blown most retail competitors out of the water and consequently the chain has to some extent monopolized the market. The largest and most well-stocked El Corte Ingles branch is well out of the centre on Paseo de la Castellana in the neighbourhood of the Real Madrid stadium. If your time in Madrid is too precious to waste on travelling (at least, two metro rides are needed to reach the Nuevos Ministerios station near which this branch is located), then give this a miss and concentrate on the most central and oldest branch on Calle de Preciados, only a short walk north from Plaza de la Puerta del Sol. Although a dwarf (but it still occupies several blocks) when compared with the Castellana branch, it is a treasure-trove of practically anything you might need. Be it a particular book (surprisingly, it stocks a wide range of travel books in English, Rough Guides included), an item of hip clothing, a fine piece of jewellery or the latest range of tablet, they were all there on display when I visited. For your day-to-day consumables, move down to the basement floor where the wide range of groceries and delicatessens makes choice exacting and challenging. For souvenirs and gifts of quality (no gaudy plastic items, no made-in-China knickknacks), make a pilgrimage to the tourist department on the seventh floor where prices are reasonable and merchandise has …well, a touch of Spain somewhere. Several worthwhile facilities that have rendered shopping at El Corte Ingles a painless experience have recently been introduced. Worthy of mention are: money exchange service, a tourist information centre that provides multilingual interpreters, free distribution of city maps and a shopping card that allows for payment of all purchases in one transaction.
Not quite a department store but still a megastore by the sheer size of the building is the French-owned FNAC, a multi-storey storehouse of books, movies, DVDs and the latest in technology gadgets. Located in the best part of the city on pedestrianized Calle de Preciados (with another entrance on Plaza de Callao) only a short walk away from the Preciados branch of the El Corte Ingles department store, FNAC is more than an ordinary book store where one calls in, makes one’s pick, pays and leaves. Visiting FNAC is an experience of browsing through books for as long as you like or listening to your favourite music on the deliberately and conveniently installed CD players. The ground floor is packed with display stands filled to capacity with international newspapers and periodicals. The adjacent cafeteria is an ideal place where you can skim through a magazine of your choice over a cup of coffee. No obligation whatsoever to buy; you are only obliged to put the magazine back on the stand before you leave. English-speaking book lovers will find a real treat on the third floor where the multilingual book section is located. The range of English paperbacks includes all the current bestsellers together with a fantastic selection of classics and book gift packs. The travel book English section includes most Rough Guides and Lonely Planet titles in addition to a wide range of atlases and city maps. Any literature concerning Spain whether travel, history or politics seems to be given pride of place, this section being so vast that I was spoilt for choice when I tried to look for a book about the Spanish Pyrenees.
The district of Chueca, northeast of the centre consists of a conglomeration of narrow streets and quaint corners; it’s a wonder that amidst this hotchpotch of disorientation, one finds whole areas filled to capacity with the best bodegas and the most atmospheric tabernas (serving the widest range of tapas I’ve ever seen in Spain) in the capital. On the western periphery of Chueca is Calle de Fuencarral, a lengthy boulevard that runs across Madrid from north to south. The southern edge of Calle de Fuencarral has recently been pedestrianized offering a welcome relief to the dense concentration of shops that inhabit the area. Since the street has emerged from its noisy and traffic-choked atmosphere of yesterday, it has become a landmark of modernity and design, the hub of Madrid’s trendy fashion scene.
Nowhere is this feeling of contemporaneity and creativity (or fashion mania?) savoured better than within the Mercado de Fuencarral. Originally a substandard vegetable market, the ‘mercado’ as it is still referred to by locals has been converted into a funky shopping centre geared to youth fashion and trendy wear. For her, three-coloured striped leggings, torn jeans and fluffy handbags seem to be the first choices; for him, silver-studded jackets, torn T-shirts and black leather are given priority above anything else. The names of the shops are as nasty and flashy as the merchandise inside but who cares? The ‘mercado’ is a Madrid symbol and will remain so until it keeps on providing an alternative off-the-mainstream shopping experience. A guarantee of exclusivity over purchases is confirmed later when friends keep asking: "Where did you buy that?"
Madrid teenagers are indisputably passionate about the Mercado de Fuencarral; yet this sanctuary of grungy fashion is miles away from becoming the cream of the voguish crop. The place for upmarket high street fashion is not Chueca but Salamanca. Further east than Chueca, Salamanca is a district packed with gorgeous spaces where the best international fashion designers rub shoulders with their Spanish counterparts. Three main streets and several radiating side streets in Salamanca have turned into an arena of chic shops where stunning collections of exquisite clothes, groovy shoes and hard-to-find accessories are waiting to come into the possession of their choosy prospective buyers.
Calle de Serrano is the busiest and most interesting street in the area. The exquisite and expensive fashion shops that line the walkways on both sides are a delight to explore, even if your budget is well below the high prices asked for design clothing with a personal touch at Agatha Luiz, Adolfo Dominguez or for that matter, any other fashion shop in the area. A sigh of relief is however felt as one turns on Calle de Goya where the quality remains high but the prices are more reasonable. Right on the corner between Serrano and Goya is a small eighteen-shop mall where fashion shops and cafeterias elbow for space amidst an abundance of greenery. The appropriately chosen name, El Jardin de Serrano, says it all.
One more street where a sense of style and quality predominates is Calle de Jorge Juan. A considerable number of Spain’s outstanding designers congregated here and opened design centres where they could manufacture handmade items of exclusive quality and distinction. A pair of shoes from Maison Clergerie is a treasure to own; a pair of trousers from Sita Murt is a guarantee of a perfect fit, stylishness and absolute uniqueness.
Madrid’s fashion shops are unquestionably as great as the international hot couture houses in Paris. In addition to these present-day storehouses of fashion and design, the Spanish capital embraces as well hundreds of small intimate shops where buying is a simple one-to-one affair and each transaction takes the form of a personalized conversation. One-room shops are obviously not restricted to clothing and fashion but indulge in all sorts of commercial activities. Central Madrid, particularly the area around Plaza de la Puerta del Sol is the hub of small-size businesses. The most apparent and those most frequented by visitors are the chocolate shops and the wine stores. But nothing is more reminiscent of Spain’s capital than a work of art, handmade in one of the several craftsmen’s ateliers that grace the old streets of Madrid. For genuine religious sculptures of distinction, head to Santarrufina on Calle de la Paz, right behind the main post office. The three-storey display of hand-sculpted statues, hand-woven church vestments, stained-glass panels, silverware and paintings is as appealing and priceless as the pieces one sees in a museum of art.