I just wrapped up my first city on my multi leg solo tour of Europe: Madrid! I had always heard that Madrid is renowned for nightlife. Since I’m not a huge fan of clubbing I was prepared to be underwhelmed. I’m happy to report that Madrid is worth visiting for the daytime attractions alone, but also for the lively people who reside there.
Day 1: Palacio Real, Museo del Prado
I arrived in Madrid by plane at around 8am and took the convenient Metro line into the city center. On my way to the hostel I walked through the famous Plaza Mayor, but at 9:30 it was pretty deserted.
I checked in early, changed, and headed out to the Palacio Real, or Royal Palace. It was 8 Euros or so to get in, but it’s a must see. The inside is super ornate. Highlights include the massive throne room and dining room, and the chamber with five Stradivarius instruments on display.
Next I visited the adjacent Catedral de Almudena which is worth a visit. It is impressive in scale but doesn’t have that certain Gothic “heft” since it was only recently completed.
Then I took a quick siesta to deal with the jet lag before walking over to the Prado art museum. It’s free to get in from 6-8pm most nights and that is about as much time as I can handle in an art museum anyway. This museum is unbelievable. Classic works by El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya anchor the collection. I was particularly struck by the contrast in Goya’s work; from beautiful portraiture to the haunting “black paintings”. Saturn Devouring His Son is particularly apt nightmare material. I finished the night with some tapas at the very Madrid time of 11pm and crashed.
Day 2: Toledo
The side trip to Toledo completely stole the show from Madrid in my opinion. This old city, dating to the time of the Romans and Visigoths, is just a half hour train ride from Madrid. I took the 10:30 train and walked to the old city (about half an hour from the station: saves a couple of Euros) which was great since I entered through a Roman era bridge and gate over the river. Very cool intro to the city!
I then toured the main Cathedral, which is truly spectacular in its scale and sheer volume of artwork and treasure.
I paid a bit extra for a tower tour, the highlights of which are a great view of the city and a chance to see Spain’s biggest bell, at over 37,000lbs.
The most impressive part of the cathedral is a carved wall called El Transparente, one of the finest examples of baroque sculpture in Spain. I liked that there was a skylight specifically cut to illuminate the altarpiece.
There was also a gold processional box supposedly commissioned by Queen Isabel using the first gold from the Americas, and a complete set of El Greco saint paintings. Well worth the steep 11 Euro entry fee.
Then I enjoyed a menu del día lunch at an out of the way bar, featuring Spanish tortilla (actually a potato and cheese omelette; will make when I return home!). Why yes, I will have wine with my lunch if it’s included, thank you!
Then I walked to the Jewish Quarter and visited both the Sephardic museum and the El Greco museum. The Sephardic Jews were driven out of Spain by Fernando and Isabel in 1492, and this is one of the last synagogues remaining from the era. It is well worth a visit. The El Greco museum was alright. Another set of saints but not much else of particular interest to me. I hiked back to the train the long way around the north wall and made my way back to Madrid. I ate late again, and hung out in the plaza people watching. I love how Madrid doesn’t get going until after midnight; and it’s not just people clubbing. I saw jazz musicians jamming, couples of all ages on date night, and a general fun loving nature that seems to be firmly planted in the way they do things in the capital.
Day 3: Parks
I am tired of entrance fees already, so I spent the day hanging out in the local haunts. I ran 6-7 miles in the morning around the Parque del Retiro and Palacio Real, then picked up my Kindle and walked back to Retiro since it seemed like an awesome place to spend the afternoon. There’s many acres of shade trees, so even though every Madrileño and their family was in the park on this beautiful Saturday, I had plenty of room to myself.
There’s a huge pond with rowboats, a crystal palace, and lots of stores sellling ice cream.
After reading all afternoon I met up with my friend from Michigan (finishing up her study abroad) for another tapas dinner. The Spanish sure love their jamón… basically every sandwich and most tapas have some sort of cured meat.
The next morning I took a bus to Granada, and that will be my next update. Things are going very smoothly so far. Hopefully that continues as I head to Andalusia and beyond.