Like most metros of the world, the historic city of Madrid has different things for different people. We stayed there for all of two days before we launched into Morocco followed by Andalusia. I have tried to capture most of what we did. It is a full itinerary for two days, especially if you do what we did – walked at leisure, rested frequently, visited favorite places more than once and soaked into the distinctly colonial atmosphere.
Bunk at Posada Del Peine
Modern squeaky clean rooms, each with a view, smiling alert staff and a great breakfast. If that does not do it for you, it is based in the heart of the historic district – every landmark mentioned later in the post is within walking distance – and is directly opposite Plaza Mayor, the best place in Madrid to rest your feet after a tiring day.
Also, did I mention the hotel is 400 years old?
Sunrise at Temple DeBod
Arrive before sunrise at this magnificent monument and grab a seat at the south east corner of the artificial lake. You are looking at a 3rd century BCE Egyptian temple dedicated to Amun and Isis and was originally situated in Aswan. The new dam threatened the temple and the Egyptian government gifted the temple to Spain. The temple was moved here stone by stone and reconstructed. When the sun rises, it lights up the colonnaded porch first and progressively the two evocative portals. This is a great spot to shoot a time lapse photo. If you are carrying a binoculars, check out the hieroglyphics on the west side of the building. Walk around the temple once, then head out to Palacio Real, a short easy walk.
Gawk at the splendor of Palacio Real
The palace is built over 135 thousand square feet and has 2800 room. So you are hosed unless you know what you want to see.
The palace is built to epic proportions with imposing arches, marvelously lit by large round porthole style windows, ceilings frescoed in brilliant colors with every inch of the wall feverishly decorated. The place reeks of opulence, sumptuous wealth spent sometimes tastefully, but mostly, extravagantly. For anybody other than the possessor of this grandiose, it is meant to bedazzle, belittle, confound - even induce diffidence. It is an unabashed celebration of wealth.
I had picked three rooms to see in detail – The royal library, armory and apothecary.
Knowledge, weapons and medicine - three things in this place that are necessary and sufficient for a common man.
Bow at the Almudena Cathedral
Despite its proximity to the Palacio Real, less than half a kilometer, the cathedral is a new construction, completed and consecrated in 1993. The best part of being here, is that there is not much of historical or cultural significance. So there is no compulsion to walk around and stand in lines. Find a cool corner, sit down, crane your neck around a bit and doze.
Promenade on Gran Via
Gran Via, the major thoroughfare in Madrid, can easily consume an evening: strolling, window shopping, every once in a while ducking into an edifice to look closely at an object of desire behind large glass windows. The road is laced with elegant boutique shops, theatres and restaurants.
Rest a while at the Parliament Building
The building is a magnificent example of neoclassical architecture in Madrid, if such a things means anything to you. While strolling on Gran Via, on the way to the Prado, we turned somewhere and came across the Parliament. We rested on the warm stone stairs for a while. The two stone lions that flank the colonnaded portico provide a good photo-op.
Steal a Velázquez at the Prado
Prado has a room full of Goyas, a classic collection of Rafaels, spellbinding Bottichelli, exceptional Titians, unmistakable Rembrandts and three beautiful David Roberts - a personal favorite. But the artist to go watch at Museo Nacionale de Prado is Spain’s very own Diego Velázquez, and of all his tremendous work, his magnum opus - Las Meninas.
Some of Velázquez’ paintings look like an amateur point-and-shoot photo – an impromptu angle, subjects in everyday motion unaware that they are being targeted, simple setting, no extraordinary lighting. Las Meninas is the absolute masterpiece of this category. If there is only one painting you can see in Prado, it is this.
So here is one way to interpret this deliciously cunning composition: At first glance, it seems like the pretty girl in the center is the focal point. She is a princess and has her personal companions, chaperones, dwarfs and a body guard fawning around her in a very natural setting. Then notice the outline of a canvas on an easel on the left. Standing in front of it is a painter, ready with a brush and a palette of colors. The painter is looking out of the frame straight at you. You are his subject and are posing for him. He is painting you! Now notice the mirror on the wall in the background. You can see your reflection. You are the king and queen!
It is magical how Velázquez converts the viewer seamlessly into the subject. The original subject, the princess, is easily forgotten and you can almost smell the varnish in Velázquez’s studio. Then notice the figure in the back, framed in a well light doorway. The man seems to be unmindfully walking down the stairs, notices something and halts, each foot on a different step. Halts, as if he wants to stay out of a photo, a photo being taken by a photographer with a point and shoot camera. You, the viewer who recently turned into the subject, are now the painter. Classic Velázquez!
By the way, photography is not allowed in Prado.
Gulp Gazpacho anywhere in Madrid
I am not a foodie. For me food is something that gets in the middle of doing more important things. Spain is also the beef capital of the world. Every part of a bull can be ordered and relished in some form or the other. For a selective vegetarian, that meant I pretty much survived on Paella.
There are two things I tried and loved.
A fried octopus tapas, which I tried as a thing to put a check against in a list – like the fried spider in Cambodia – but loved it and repeated. Which goes on to prove that anything fried turns tasty. And the find of the trip for me was gazpacho. In the Spanish summer sun, the parsley garnished cold tomato based vegetable soup was ordered with every meal and relished.
Dine al fresco at Plaza Mayor
The historical plaza is a scene of festivities in the evening. The large square surrounded by buildings on all sides has been painted in the same shade of maroon since the eighteenth century, the color chosen by public consensus. At the center of the square is a splendid equestrian statue of Phillips III. Around the border, as the dusk sets in the restaurants set up table and chairs, a perfect place for a tourist to put his aching feet up and order a chilled Estrella Damm and …