Visiting Madrid… and liking it!

While sharing my itinerary and chatting with other travellers, I was advised that I had scheduled too much time for Madrid. “It’s big,” people pointed out, “but not that great. There’s nothing to do.” I always find it strange when people say there’s nothing to do in a city – each city has residents and those people manage to get through life every day. I spent the months before my trip living in a small town in Nova Scotia, in the midst of a miserable winter, that really didn’t have much to do. I was sure that I’d manage to fill my days in a city of over 3 million people.

My hostel, the Mad4You, was really well located. It was close to the Busabout drop off hostel – a plus for the day I left – and close to many of the city’s major attractions. I only used public transit to head out into the suburbs to buy a sleeping bag for my Pamplona adventure. I didn’t find it overly social nor did I like the room I was first assigned to (at 4:15am one night I finally had enough and insisted on a room change), but hostel rooms really are luck of the draw.

Botin Restaurant, the oldest continuously operating in the world and the setting for the last scene of Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”

I was located quite close to an area of Madrid, near Tribunal metro station, that had a lot of very cool boutiques featuring either local designers or well curated vintage clothes. Calle Fuencarral is also home to a lot of shopping, including what can only be described as an indie shopping mall, and is definitely worth an afternoon or so of browsing.

houses in the older part of Madrid

Continuing my tradition of free walking tours, I opted against the one recommended by my hostel (complete with a strangely aggressive bear mascot) and opted for The New Sandeman’s tour. I’ve found that these have consistently offered the best experience for free walking tours with respect to time allocated for the tour and the professionalism of the guides. The New Sandeman’s walking tours of Madrid – the free one, which covered the “Hapsburg Madrid” and the paid “Majestic Madrid” were both excellent. The free guided tour had a large group of almost 30 people but the guide was able to make himself heard over the crowd. During this trip I’ve found that there are lots of little bits and pieces to learn about Spain, each with a regional context, but I would like to achieve a broader overview of the country when I return to Canada and have a bit more time. Spain used to consist of many kingdoms and I’ve found, through my travels, that each of the cities are really quite different. Not just in appearance or geography, but in culture, attitudes, food, etc.

old town hall… that took close to a century to build due to meetings and the like

The tours started at the Plaza Mayor, a major square located almost in the centre of Madrid. It’s very close to kilometre zero, the starting point for all roads in Spain, but Plaza Mayor was conceived and built in the late 1500s. It’s surrounded on all sides by buildings, most of which have restaurants and shops located along the street level with patios spilling into the plaza itself. This, apparently, is one of the most expensive places to buy a drink in Madrid and one of the worst places to find a bite to eat. Our free tour guide, Erik, told us that of the 10 worst restaurants in Spain, three of them were located in Plaza Mayor.

One interesting observation is that Madrid seems to be one of the most ridiculous cities with respect to weird street artists and strange sales people. I’ve become used to the sunglasses on cardboard, designed to disappear in seconds, or the fake Louis Vuitton, Coach or Prada handbags on sheets… but Madrid takes things to a whole new level. People offer you massages and backrubs, comfortably seating you on buckets that vanish upon the arrival of police cars. There were different toys in Madrid as well… but the annoying squeaky guys were still there. Anyone who has travelled in Barcelona or Rome this summer knows exactly what I mean about the squeaky guys.

There are a number of statues like this in Madrid, which depict normal residents… but sometimes people get confused and think these statues are living statues so they leave coins out

I’m really quite grateful that I don’t have to earn a living as a street artist. There’s a Fat Spiderman in the Plaza Mayor, who saunters around making rapid fire jokes; a woman who has placed herself in a baby carriage with her head sticking out and weird doll hands and feet that she somehow operates from inside the carriage; people who dress in strange, goat-like tinsel costumes and lay on the ground; the levitating wisemen; living statues of all shapes, sizes and genders… I’m not sure if this is a result of the economic crisis or if these people genuinely consider themselves to be artists, but it’s a phenomenon that I don’t really understand and I really feel that it’s been taken to a whole new level in Madrid.

I couldn’t get a picture of the bear from the other side without looking like a creep since every child in Madrid is placed on this statue by their parents

With the free tour we wandered through parts of the old city, stopping near a relatively new cathedral and seeing the site of Spain’s second deadliest terror attack. When Erik asked if anyone knew the first, I was the only one who piped up, correctly guessing that it was the train bombings which happened in 2004. Talking about things like terror attacks, or the bridge that used to have the highest suicide in Madrid, or even Franco, definitely brought an air of sobriety to the tour.

The Majestic Madrid tour, which I did the next day, was much lighter and the group itself was much smaller with only five or six people. The guide took us in the opposite direction of the free tour and we wandered through the Puerta del Sol (home of the famous bear statue and kilometre zero) before venturing into some of the smaller streets and alleys. There was a bit of a literary focus as the guide discussed many famous Spanish authors, showed us their homes (or their streets) and even talked a bit about everyone’s favourite tortured writer, Hemingway. There’s a hotel in Madrid that has traditionally hosted many of Spain’s famous matadors – a group that is so superstitious that they generally request the same room each time – and it was, of course, conveniently located just down the road from a famous Hemingway watering hole.

kilometre zero!

There’s one bar in Madrid, actually, that proudly proclaims Hemingway never drank there. I think that says a lot.

Madrid does have some truly majestic buildings with the sort of strong, proud architecture that you would expect of a capital city. We strolled down some of the busy avenues, admiring the fountains and hearing about the traditions of the soccer fans – there are two teams in Madrid: Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. The teams play in the same league, but Real Madrid is apparently a bit more of the upper class, rich person’s team while Atlético is supposedly the grittier, working class team. Each team also has a fountain that has become iconic in Madrid and fans used to rush the winning teams fountain to dance around in the water or decorate it, but that practice had to stop when both people and city property were getting damaged too often. They actually found the fingers of one statue in the manmade lake of Retiro Park.

The royal palace, apparently the largest in Europe. The royal family currently only uses it for ceremonial purposes as it’s too big and fancy for every day life… so they use a smaller palace.

The tour finished up in Retiro Park, home to two guys in Mickey Mouse costumes and one of Madrid’s favourite outdoor places. We were warned that most of the city comes to the park during the weekend and that the crowds could be unbelievable but, as we walked around, it actually seemed to be a fairly quiet day. The park used to be the property of the Royal family who then agreed to open it up to anyone who dressed appropriately, regardless of their social class. Eventually the dress code was dropped and the park was opened to everyone in the city. It was quite beautiful, despite the murkiness of the lake (which is drained and cleaned once a year), with lots of benches, grassy areas and flower gardens.

Congress building

If you’ve been following my blog, you’ve likely noticed that I have an aversion to crowds and a lack of interest in art museums and galleries. Until this point, I hadn’t been inside a real, traditional art museum… I skipped the Vatican, the Uffizi, the Academmia… it was time to rectify the situation. The Prado, one of the largest art galleries in the world, is free for two hours each day. I lined up about ten minutes before the free hours started and was assured by the staff member that the line, which seemed rather daunting, would take less than 20 minutes. She was incorrect – it took 15 minutes for me to get inside.

The Prado had some beautiful works, but it really reinforced my decision not to visit the Louvre on my upcoming trip to Paris and definitely assuaged any guilt I felt over skipping the art galleries of Italy. Yes, there were some masterpieces… but I can’t really tell the difference between a Raphael and a picture painted by some other guy. I also found there to be an overabundance of religious art and while I understand the historical context, I really started to suffer from “picture of Jesus looking sad” fatigue. I’m sure that, if you counted the entire Prado collection, you could find a few thousand of these pictures throughout the museum and its stored artworks.

the lake in Retiro Park

My favourite part of what I saw were the “Historical Paintings.” These were painted in the 1800s and were basically what they promised to me – paintings of historical events. They were massive, with canvases taking up most of the wall, and each painting had an informative plaque beside it which described both the historical event and the artist.

I need to confess that I desperately tried to stick it out until the full two hours were up, but with just over fifteen minutes to go until closing I was on my way out the doors. I realize that I was potentially squandering an opportunity to see priceless masterpieces… but it’s really just not my thing. The girl I met in Cinque Terre, Danika, had told me that she felt this enormous pressure in the Louvre to see as much as possible and not to waste the opportunity, but it really just made her a bit anxious and miserable. I didn’t pay to get into the Prado, but I was definitely starting to feel the same way. I’m usually quite content to see a city my way, and quite unapologetic about it, but when coming face to face with a tourist “must do” like the Prado I must admit that my resolve weakens and a bit of anxiety starts to creep in.

the Prado!

I think that part of the problem is when people say you’re on a “once in a lifetime trip.” I heard that when I went to England with the Girl Guides, when I was 12, in 1995. Realistically, it was a once in a lifetime trip because a) I will only be 12 once, b) I certainly wouldn’t find myself travelling with the same group of people and c) I would never wear the dorky outfits that we had in public ever again. I can tell you right now that going to Madrid was not a once in a lifetime experience – I really enjoyed the city and was genuinely sad to leave.

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