Rushing Madly in Madrid
I am excited as the plane comes to land. This is my first trip to Spain and I have been looking forward to it for some time. My daughter and her friend are also travelling with me but I don’t reckon on seeing much of them.
The yellow airport bus is just outside the terminal and for €2, it brings us to the centre of town. We get off at Cibeles and walk to our Hostal (something between a hostel and a hotel). I had selected it based on internet reviews and in general, I was quite happy with it. Very central, clean, wi-fi access and reasonably priced. I wish they had tea and coffee facilities, I missed that.
As soon as we checked in, we went out to get some lunch and made our way to Plaza Mayor to start out walking tour at 3 am. It advertises itself as free but tips are expected. It lasts for about 3 hrs and is a great way to get acquainted with the city. The tour starts outside the tourist office; you don’t need to pre-book.
Plaza Mayor is busy and full of tourists. It is lined with eateries which cater to many tourists who throng this Plaza.
We walk out of the south-west corner of the Plaza. Inside the walls is an old tavern which was once used by the Robin Hood of Madrid. In the same street is Botin, which proudly displays a Guinness book of Records certificate of being the oldest restaurant of the world. I am thinking ‘How do they know? I bet there is a chai-walla in Varanasi whose ‘restaurant’ is even older!’
We head next to the Plaza de la Villa. The town hall (to the left in pic) is an imposing building. Opposite it is the Torre de los Lujanes, a 15th century tower built in the Mudéjar style. Not seen in the pic is Casa de Cisneros, a 16the century castle. A very impressive square.
We amuse ourselves by spotting the Madrid city symbol which appear ever so often around the city. This is set in the pavement. I wonder if bears really like strawberries? And do strawberries grow on trees? I thought they grow on vines…I was puzzled about this until a kindly reader informed me that ‘strawberry tree’ is just a name for madroños or Arbustus Unedo, the berries of which are eaten by birds and bears!!
Our next stop is the Parque del Emir Mohamed I. The wall you see is one of the oldest remains in Madrid. Parts of the wall are from Moorish times in the 9th century. You can see the cathedral behind.
We then stop to admire the Palacio Real from outside. Its an impressive building and I look forward to visiting it tomorrow.
We also admire the Cathedral de la Almudena from the outside. Another place to visit tomorrow.
Beside it are the gardens called the Jardines de Sabatini, a manicured garden which sets off the beautiful lines of the palace beside it. I would have liked to have a stroll in the gardens but I know that I don’t have the time for such luxuries. Tourism is serious business, no time to linger !!
We pass through the Plaza de Isabel II with the Opera house. We hurry through Sol, the main square, admiring the statue of the bear and the strawberry tree but my pictures are bad, I have nothing to show you!
Passing through the Plaza de Sainta Ana it strikes me that one can visit Madrid, wandering from plaza to plaza (ie. a few mins walk each time) and collapse in café after café sipping Sangrias and eating Tapas! Why am I not doing that kind of tour?? !!!
Our next stop is the literary quarter. I am rather pleased to see the house Cervantes lived in. Don Quizote was my first introduction to the world of Spain; an extract from this book was in a textbook in secondary school, if I remember correctly. What did we Indian kids in New Delhi reading under whirring fans in dark classrooms understand about Spain, so far away from all we knew ?? The book gave me the impression that the Spanish were a funny lot….instead they are a dark and brooding lot – or so it seems from the paintings they paint and the dances they dance!
This was more or less the end of our walking tour. We went back to our hotel for a rest. The afternoon had been hot and we had had an early start from Switzerland.
I had booked in advance to see the Spana Baila Flamenco show at 9pm. We have a quick and light dinner and head to the theatre except that its not as easy as all that. We have to pass Sol and there is a protest on. We don’t realise how bad the crowds are and get into the stream of people to cross over to the other side. Its a mistake. We are swept along willy-nilly with no control over which direction we are heading. Its overwhelming. I am in a panic about missing our show. A man ahead holds a board saying ‘Bastas’ and a path is opening for him. We join him (I am tempted to shout slogans too!) and after some pushing and shoving for 10 mins we are at last free of the crowd.
It is a very entertaining show with passionate singing which I take to immediately. Men and women stomp their feet passionately, swirling colourful clothes and interesting accessories such as fans and cloaks. Lots of rhythm…the music, the sound of the shoes on floorboards, the click of the castanets. I need to buy myself a skirt like that for flouncing when I am in a temper I think. “Wait a minute dear, while I change my clothes before we continue our argument”, I can hear myself saying…..
The next morning we start our tourism day by a visit to the Palacio Real. Unfortunately photography is not permitted inside. Though its very far from being a Versailles or a Schonbrunn, it is quite impressive in its luxurious decorations. I love the rococo room, some of the vases on display, the huge chandeliers, the curtains. Well worth a visit.
Next we visit the Cathedral de Almudena. It’s a large cathedral but from the 20th century. With my firm love for old Cathedrals, I am not sure I like this much.
Thankfully, the Basilica which we visit next is beautiful..in fact, its quite perfect…though from the relatively recent 18th century.
It was time for some lunch and then we headed out to the Reina Sofia Museum which is free from 2:30pm to 9pm every Saturday, as it is today. I am very excited to see this major and very well recommended museum. Yet…..I don’t like it. No, I definitely don’t. I do not have a great liking for this period of art or for the major artists displayed such as Picasso, Miro or Dali. Even the much celebrated Guernica leaves me cold. Blasphemous? Yes, to some. But I like only a handful of pictures, some of which I am showing above (Miro, Dali, Picasso, Delaunay, Dali, Balbuena). I had planned to spend a happy day browsing. Instead I am ready to leave by 5, disappointed and puzzled as to why my tastes remain firmly rooted a few centuries behind the rest of the world.
Before leaving I go up to the terrace for a look around. A great spot for photography!
I meet up with my daughter and her friend. They don’t like the Reina Sofia either, they are giggling about it. I am secretly pleased to know that its not my age which is affecting my taste. After enjoying a cool and long Sangria (I could fall in love with this drink!) we head to the Prado, to make it for their free 6pm-8pm admission.
I love this museum (on the right above). We queue for 15 minutes but once its 6pm, the queue moves fast. Inside a treat awaits me. I love it. I love it so much that I am going to come twice more during this trip and spend a total of between 7 to 8 hours here. Those of you who are art lovers and museum rats like myself, do read my very detailed post ‘Prado, My Selection’ for my recommendations. For those who don’t think they’ll make it to Prado, I have linked my recommendations to the very high resolution pictures provided by Prado so you can do armchair museum-ratting.
Very happy at the end of the day, I find myself some dinner before heading back to the hotel, sleeping in total exhaustion.
It is Sunday morning and the day of the El Rastro flea market. I enjoy visiting markets and on this beautiful day its a pleasure to be outdoors. I don’t take my camera so the shot is from the internet. All of Madrid (including the protestors at Sol) seem to have descended here. The stalls are colourful, the people even more so. I spend a good few hours here and as I head back to the hotel, I find a wonderful beads and jewellery findings shop – simply the best I have seen anywhere. I spend an enjoyable time browsing.
I eat a leisurely lunch and then head to the Retiro park. The Madrileños are very lucky to have such a large (350 acres) green space in their city. In fact, Madrid is blessed with a number of parks and green areas, a very welcome break from the business of its streets.
There are many people enjoying a boat ride in front of the monument to King Alfonso XII.
I walk around the Palacio de Cristal admiring the play of light.
Then I visit a small art exhibition inside the airy Velázquez Palace.
Then it is back to the Prado for three hours of happy browsing. My feet ache terribly by the end of the evening but my spirits are lifted by the beauty of the art I have seen.
Today is Monday and all the museums are closed. We plan to take a trip to Toledo and head out to Atocha station. The station has a surprising indoor garden which I enjoy. Unfortunately there are no tickets until the 12:30 train so we are a bit stumped. I kick myself for not buying the tickets yesterday – I am spoiled by Switzerland where I rock up to the station at any time.
The train ride is only half an hour. From the Toledo station, we take a bus up to the city centre. It is not too far but its all uphill and in this heat it would be exhausting. The bus drops us close to the Alcazar (on the right above) but today it is closed. I don’t care, I’ve come to see the Cathedral really.
I wander to the Zocodover Plaza and like all squares I have seen in Spain, it is lively with people enjoying coffee / drinks / food in the eateries surrounding.
The Cathedral is indeed one of the best I have seen. No photography allowed inside so I have only this shot to offer you. The inside is treasure trove. There are hidden altars and chapter houses, each one more rich than the other. Remarkable! The only negative point is the constant announcements over the loudspeakers telling people to be silent and respect the environment – as far as I could see, it was only the loudspeakers which were making noise. It was often enough (every few mins) to be a nuisance.
Toledo is pretty and colourful; I am enjoying all the photo ops here!
Next stop, the former synagogue, now a museum. Built circa 1180, it is disputably the oldest standing synagogue building in Europe.
I head next to the monastery but I find my energy flagging. The last few days of non-stop tourism has taken a toll on my feet, which I had twisted badly just before travelling, and all I want to do now is sit down. The girls tell me later that it is beautiful inside.
I shuffle slowly back to the bus stop. We take the train to Madrid and there is no energy for anything but dinner tonight.
The next morning I head back to the Prado for my last visit. I even manage to see the temporary exhibitions and I am very satisfied. But there is no time for lunch. Chewing some trail food for energy, I head to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. I didn’t take a picture, the above pic is from the internet. Oh what a treasure trove! I am rapt! What follows is three hours of agony and ecstasy – agony because my feet are giving up on me and ecstasy because I have seldom seen a private collection of this quality. Masters from different periods, different schools and different countries are represented here. It is a great collection and deserves at least double the mere three hours I spent here. The audio guide is recommended.
For those who would like to examine the collection online, the museum provides a wonderful online visit. On choosing the floor, you get to see a 360 view of the rooms and clicking on paintings allows you to read information about them and examine them in high resolution detail. I will soon write a Thyssen-Bornemisza, My Selection’ post to present the paintings I like best.
On this high note, I finished my trip. I had planned to walk around the city doing some photography to fill in the time before flying out but my plans were too ambitious. I decide to reach the airport an hour earlier than I planned and just rest. Which I do.
I have loved my visit to the city. Its a warm and lively city, colourful and picturesque. I forgive all the café owners for never smiling when I went for my morning tea, I forgive all the restaurants for not thinking of vegetarians, I forgive all the cleaners for leaving the city quite dusty (I was forever sneezing). I forgive even the Prado ticket seller for not understanding English (surely, at such a big tourist attraction one should find English speaking staff? I cannot be expected to learn Spanish for a 5 day visit, surely?). I forgive all the revellers in the night who made sleep a bit hard, I forgive the inquisitors for making me shiver in Plaza Mayor. My first trip to Spain has been very satisfactory and I shall be back again. Absolutely.
Weather : This last week of May it was hovering between the mid-twenties and mid-thirties (celcius). Late nights were cooler, but never really cold. We had no rain. Shorts, dresses, light t-shirts are all that’s needed. Pack comfortable footwear, there is lots of walking to do!
Transport : Airport to the city and return – the Airport express that I mention above is very convenient. I didn’t use any public transport within the city, preferring to walk everywhere. Nothing exceeded 20 mins of walking.
Hostals : Mine was comfortable, I wouldnt hesitate to recommend it. They do not provide breakfast but there are plenty of cafés within a couple of mins.
Restaurants: Spaniards keep strange hours!! Lunch time seems to be between 2 and 4, dinner time after 9pm. There are cafés opened outside these hours but restaurants are often closed. Vegetarians will find it difficult, especially if you don’t speak the language. There seems to be ham in everything! I was told by our guide that even churros are fried in animal fat. I ate in Maoz, a vegetarian Felafel and salad bar open all day (near Sol), Artemisa – an excellent vegetarian restaurant but it does include 2 or 3 non-vegetarian dishes, Taj – an Indian restaurant in Calle de la Cruz and Miranda- a restaurant on Calle de Leon which served a nice salad.
Supermarkets : There are plenty of shops selling drinks and snacks in the city. Normally ‘Alimentacion’ was written in the front. I went to a supermarket close to Cathedral de San Isidro (not far from Plaza Mayor, on Calle de Toledo) which had everything one needs.
Number of days needed : I was there for 4.5 days, which would have been sufficient if I hadn’t kept one day for visiting Toledo. But it does depend on how long you want to spend in museums. I spent a total of 13 hrs inside museums and if you count the time needed to come and go and queue up, its nearly 15 hrs of sight-seeing time!
Toledo : Book tickets at least one day in advance. There are plenty of trains. Costs 19 Euros return. You need at least 4 to 5 hours there. The trip takes only 30 mins each way.