Part 2 in a series:
Madrid is a modern metropolis, the third-largest in Europe and the capital of Spain. The business of government and industry dominates the streetscape. But lose yourself in the parks, alleys and El Museo del Prado, and the ancient city emerges. Fortunately, we had no problem getting lost.
We arrived from Barcelona via high-speed rail, whizzing smoothly past olive groves and recently harvested wheat, barley and corn fields at speeds reaching 300 kph (186 mph). Add a café car stocked with Coca Cola Lite and a closed caption movie so The Geek could practice her Spanish between catnaps, and we couldn’t help but be impressed.
The train ride was swift. The journey from Atocha Train Station to our hotel seemed endless. Take the bus, the guidebook said. It’ll be easy. Wrong. We eventually found the right bus, but someone forgot to tell the bus driver to open the door at our stop. (What? Us?) Just one stop but 20 frustrating minutes later we found ourselves flat-footed at Madrid-Barajas Adolfo Suarez Airport. Perhaps its no coincidence the airport code is MAD.
Wary of our bus aptitude, we put our mutual subway skills to use and finally made it back to town and the hotel, where after a light lunch of cheese croquettes and patatas bravas at a neighborhood café we immediately boarded … a bus. It was the hop-on hop-off variety. We figured it’d be a good way to get our bearings and an overview of the city without expending much of our waning travel-day energy. In reality, the tour offered little beyond an expensive seat in the hot afternoon sun.
So, we hopped off. And decided to do some slacking at Buen Retiro Park, where first Spanish royals and later the public have enjoyed their down time for more than 500 years. Easily our best decision of the day, our walk in the 350-acre park took us past gardens, monuments, fountains and even a petite lake, perfect if you want to take your sweetie for a row. The Geek was not interested in a row, however, so we simply admired the scene amid early fall leaf flurries that would have played nicely in a 19th century Impressionist painting.
Retiro was a favorite retreat of MontaraManDan’s Grandpa Ray, who lived in Madrid along with Grandma Katherine for a couple of years in the 1960s. Grandpa Ray noted in a letter shortly after the move that he was looking forward to enjoying his cheese sandwich with a beer or bottle of wine in Retiro during his afternoon siesta time from work. Grandpa always did know how to enjoy his down time. He felt very near.
Monday dawned and we actually arose rested. Breakfast was pan con tomate and café Americano at a neighborhood bistro. Yup, MontaraManDan enjoyed mashed tomatoes on a sliced baguette. Who knew? Next stop, Old Madrid, where we immediately got lost. Even Google maps was lost. Resorting to the tour book map and our limited orienteering skills, we managed to move in the general direction of our target destination – Palacio Real de Madrid.
The great thing about being lost in ancient alleyways is you’re virtually guaranteed to stumble across something interesting. In addition to enjoying the hustle and bustle of the ancient neighborhood as it went about its morning business, we particularly enjoyed the colonnaded Plaza Mayor. Don’t ask us how to find it again. Buy a map.
We finally emerged at the Almudena Cathedral and took the tour. Begun in 1879, construction was suspended during the Spanish Civil War and not restarted until 1950. As Cathedral’s go, it’s sleek and modern with lots of contemporary art inside. That said, it’s no Sagrada Familia. But the exterior matches the gray and white façade of the Royal Palace, just across Plaza de Oriente. We can respect that.
We’d love to show you images of the interior of the Royal Palace, which serves as the ceremonial “official residence” of the royal family. And we’d love even more to show you images of the Royal Armory. But photos weren’t allowed. Sigh. You can, however, find some online here and here, respectively. As becomes apparent in the images, the palace is the customary gilded anti-room laden showplace common to Europe’s royal residences. Unique to this palace was the Porcelain Room. Yup. A room covered in porcelain. Glad we didn’t bring the grandsons. Skip the garden out back. It’s a steep grade to the entrance and there are better parks in Madrid. #Retiro
The armory was much more interesting. Turns out Philip II was heavily into steel and leather battle accouterments. You’ll find ancient battle armor and modern ceremonial armor. Armor from Japan. Armor for children. Armor for horses. And weapons – lances, battle axes and more, doubtless designed to defeat the armor. The armory even had ridiculously long-barreled rifles and preposterous pistols that had to be way more dangerous for the soldier behind the trigger than the one in the sight.
Wind our way back to the Bourbon Distric and seeking dinner at the egregiously early hour of 7 p.m., we stumbled across an excellent bistro, Huerta de Carabaña. Fortunately, our Canadian waiter kept his fellow Norte Americanos entertained over drinks until the kitchen opened. Dining is hard to come by before 8 p.m. in Spain.
Our last day in Madrid was dedicated to sleeping in and touring The Prado, but not before a side trip back into Old Madrid for morning pastries at Puerta del Sol, which was indeed a sunny plaza, and a tour of the Convent of Las Descalzas Reales, or Monastery of the Royal Barefooted. The convent was founded as a monastic home for widowed and spinster nobles.
We’d love to dish details about the monastary, but the tour was in Spanish. MontaraManDan took Spanish in college, but his advanced class was in reading, not conversation. He understood little of the tour beyond the admonition to refrain from flash photography. The Geek, who had spent the previous six weeks immersing herself in the Pimsleur Conversational Spanish Course, fared a bit better. A bit.
The monastery is housed in a 16th century palace. Where else would you house pious ladies? No porcelain rooms here, but we particularly enjoyed the tapestries, wood-beamed ceilings and paintings of the royal family. We could have done without the hand bone relics in hand-shaped jars. Yuk.
Our afternoon at The Prado was magnificent. Spain’s 200-year-old national art museum houses a renowned collection of European Art largely rendered in the 16th to 19th centuries. And yes. Though we tried to wander the 200-year-old hallways sequentially, we regularly lost our path and lost each other. We even had trouble finding the restrooms. But it was worth it!
Our favorites included the unique and dark “Black Paintings” of Spanish artist Francisco Goya. The 14 bizarre and sometimes disturbing renderings – “Saturn Devouring his Son,” for instance – were painted on the wall of his home during his rather unhappy later years. Decades later the plaster that holds the renderings was somewhat inexpertly transferred to canvas. Fascinating work. Another crowd-pleaser – both of us – was Hieronymus Bosch’s oil on oak triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” Other Old Masters represented in the Prado include El Greco, Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, and Diego Velázquez,
And once again, we also felt the presence of family history. After paying a visit to The Prado with Grandma Katherine some 50 years ago, Grandpa Ray wrote how much he enjoyed the collection. Never the one to pull punches, however, he also lamented the lack of proper lighting. Fortunately, at some point over the last five decades the curators addressed that deficiency. Grandpa would be pleased.
As closing time neared, it seemed only fitting that we make our way back to Retiro and toast the grandparents with an early evening beer and a glass of wine.
Next Stop. Seville. Cheers!
This is the second of a multi-part series of our travels to seven Spanish cities across three weeks in the fall of 2017. Special thanks to The Geek for the comprehensive journal she kept throughout our journey.