Whenever we have the option of taking just one train to our destination, that’s typically what we do because of the convenience and comfort. For example, settling into your reserved seat in Marseille just in time for a glass of champagne followed by dinner and then stepping off across the street from your London hotel before Big Ben sounds the 10 PM hour can’t be beat. Today’s train had that same Mediterranean origin point but this time we picked it up along the way in Narbonne as it headed south for Madrid where we arrived even before some restaurants had cleared away their lunch dishes. We had two days to explore this capital of Spain and its largest city so we had a very full itinerary. With several hours of daylight left in this “bonus time” on the first day of our stay, we set out to explore the neighborhood right outside the hotel including the renaissance square, Plaza Mayor from the 1600s and just one of the 3 chocolaterias that were within a couple of blocks of each other, yum!
Although I’d been to Madrid 40 years ago, this was Bill’s first visit and there were two sites that impressed me back then that I wanted to be sure he saw. The first was the art museum, the Prado, featuring renaissance and baroque masterpieces with names we recognized from trips to the Netherlands like Rembrandt, van Dyke, and Rubens and to Italy including Titian, Caravaggio, and Botticelli. Naturally Spain is very well represented by Goya, Velázquez, and El Greco, to mention a few. Sorry, no photos from the inside since that was prohibited.
Given that the building in which the Prado is now housed was constructed under the King’s order from 1785 it was no surprise to find a royal garden, Ritiro Park, a short walk away. There are 15,000 trees spread across 300 acres but there was one in particular that we wanted to see: the Montezuma Cypress planted in 1633 and surrounded by a decorative iron fence that will protect it for another 400 years. There’s also the Crystal Palace, a cast-iron and glass greenhouse built in 1887 that is now an exhibition center and nearby, several fountains including the Fallen Angel (more on that below.)
Our next stop is often compared to France’s Château of Versailles which might be why it has remained so memorable to me over the years. The 18th century Royal Palace of Madrid remains the official residence of the King of Spain but it’s also a museum with some walls lined by paintings from the same masters we had seen at the Prado such as Velázquez, Goya, Rubens, and El Greco. The lookout from the ledge of the palace over the adjacent garden Campo del Moro with its fountains, walkways, and even a miniature chalet for the Queen (did someone say Versailles?) is still one of my favorite views in the city (featured photo at the top is an eastern view).
The Gran Via is the emblematic street in Madrid that is packed with shoppers in the daytime and seems even busier at night with lively restaurants, bars, and nightclubs that apparently stay open until dawn. We can’t confirm those late hours since it was enough of a challenge for us to wait until 9:00 PM for the beginning of the traditional Spanish dinner time.
Whether you call them a square, a place, a platz, or a plaza, European cities are famous for these gathering spots and Madrid is no different with 2,636 of them according to the city’s public employment office. We only had time to visit a few so we started with the largest, Plaza Mayor, that’s said to have 700 balconies that have overlooked the canonization of saints, the crowning of kings, bullfights, theater presentations, and duels. At “Kilometer Zero” in the very center of the city is Puerta del Sol, the rallying point on May 2, 1808 that formed the resistance to Napoleon’s invasion and now is the busiest transit hub around. In contrast, the much quieter Plaza de la Paja hosts a 16th-century chapel that one blogger called “gemlike”. We liked the early 1920s architecture in Plaza de Canaleja. To “round out” our square visits we went to Tirso de Molina, known for its color: apartment buildings and multiple flower sellers.
Earlier I’d mentioned the Fallen Angel statue from 1878 in Ritiro Park and now we went to #3 Milaneses Street to see a modern and whimsical version of the same theme. On the roof of a five-story building (best viewed from Calle Major) sits another angel but this one is called “Air Crash” that sculptor Miguel Beato installed in 2005 as his interpretation of falling. Comparison photos here:
Obviously in two days plus a few bonus hours we weren’t going to see anything except the highlights of this beautiful city. I was grateful to return to the Prado and to the Royal Palace with the overview of its gardens. There are only 60 more museums to see and an equal number of chocolate shops for our next visit!