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Madrid, magical for all ages

Author: David C.
Date of Trip: October 2009

I have been to Madrid before but, in spite of many visits to Spain, I had never spent any real time there. The only sight I had managed was Picasso’s Guernica at the Reina Sofia museum. This year I was not sure where to go so I used Skyscanner to see what I could afford. I found I could get to Madrid and back for under £50 so that was that. I booked for 4 nights at the Hostal Splendid on Gran Via. ‘Hostal’ is not a wrong spelling. A Spanish hostal is not the same thing as a hostel and is often hard to distinguish from a hotel.

From Madrid Airport (where unfortunately Easyjet does not use Terminal 4) I had no hesitation about using the Metro. It’s far cheaper than anything else and the Madrid Metro is almost alarmingly efficient. A ticket for 10 jouneys by Metro or bus can be obtained for €7.40 (with a €1 surcharge each way for using the airport stations.) I am happy to say that during my trip I used it exactly 10 times and had no need of anything extra – without any contrivance of the result! There were two changes but on all my trips on the Metro, I never waited more than 3 minutes for a train.

I spent a while finding my hostal on the Gran Via. It was on the fifth floor of a vast building with a fast lift. It was very friendly and the service was well up to standard. However I should only go again if I were taking my own towel. I think they must have bought a job lot that had been rejected by an establishment that practiced flagellation!

The evening of my arrival I had time to walk down and see the Plaza de Cibeles, one of Madrid’s grandest. Unfortunately it was spoiled to some extent by roadworks. I will get my remarks about roadworks out of the way. I know that city streets need to be repaired and that a number of European cities have inadequate and outdated sewers. However I have never, anywhere, seen so many roadworks going on at the same time. The fine squares at Sol and Colon were like building sites and that was only for starters. Can it be that all works except dire emergencies are done in Madrid to avoid the terrible cold of winter and the almost insufferable heat of summer?

I ate at a place called Mercado de la Reina on Gran Via near my hostal. It is a market only in name! The food was excellent and the prices very reasonable. I digress briefly to comment on the attitude that I, aged 72, encountered in this establishment that was almost entirely populated by people in their 20s and 30s. Far from the barely (if at all) veiled hostility that I have often encountered in England, a chair was vacated for me and many were happy to converse. This attitude, that was replicated wherever I went makes me think of Madrid as a city of enjoyment for all age groups.

Then I went back to my room and prepared for the next day. Friends had suggested that I should hop on and off tourist buses the first day to get my bearings and I couldn’t think of any better idea. I started fairly early and found the tourist bus stop easily enough. Madrid Vision offers two routes, Historic and Modern Madrid respectively. I started on Historic but the ticket (half price for ancients – they call it something more polite) allows hop-on-hop-off on both routes and I later changed – several times.

As well as some picturesque squares, not ALL like building sites, I had excellent views of the Temple of Debod, the Royal Palace, the Cathedral and the Basilica de San Francisco. The Plaza de la Villa was visible to one side, smaller than the other major squares but as beautiful as any.. The Modern Madrid route was particularly obras-ruined. However it was from this one that I did my longest hop-off to see the Outdoos Sculptures and the Museo Sorolla.

The Outdoor Sculptures are a thoroughly good idea. One major road crosses another by a kind of viaduct and there is a dual flight of steps from one to the other. The sculptures are contained beside and between them. They are of course free to view. However as a resident of Yorkshire I go sometimes to the beautiful Yorkshire Sculpture Park with works by Henry Moore and Dame Barbara Hepworth – so I felt somewhat underwhelmed by the Madrid sculptures.

There was nothing in the least underwhelming about the Sorolla Museum. I feel astonished that I had never heard of him but I am not alone. I have met numerous people with more knowledge of art than I am ever likely to acquire, who have only heard of him from me! To put this in context, there was an exhibition of his works from numerous private collections in the Prado – that I sadly missed by 3 days. The attendance at this exhibition was the highest in the Prado for 10 years and well higher than for some names far more exalted outside Spain. He is generally regarded as an Impressionist.

Sorolla was also an avid collector. The museum is housed in the lovely house where he lived, built in 1910 with an equally beautiful garden in a very unremarkable street. The rooms nearly all have some wonderful furniture and porcelain from Sorolla’s collections as well as his studio much as he let it and a wealth of his paintings. He has been described as a master of light – Without knowing this I paraphrased it in my mind, thinking of him as a master of white. For an illustration of this go to http://museosorolla.mcu.es/colec_pintura.html and click on ‘Madre’. Going here is a different kind of experiece from a visit to the Prado or the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, both of which will come later..

I had one amusing episode immediately after leaving thhe Sorolla Museum. I wanted to connect with the Modern Madrid route on its way back to the centre. It was easy enough to find the Calle Serano but I did not know whether to turn right or left. There, as though pre-arranged, were two policemen so of course I asked them, showing them my map. I hope they never have to use those guns they carry – Heaven only knows who they would gun down if their performance equalled that of finding where I should go!

Then I went to the Museo.Thyssen-Bornemisza. Two membes of that family had acquired huge collections, mainly of paintings. They seem to have had impeccable taste and to have examples of the best of everything and everybody in the world of painting. I had been advised to see this museum ‘properly.’ as opposed to the Prado, where I should concentrate on only one or two painters. The advice on the Prado was good (see later). I think I would give anybody the same advice for the Thyssen-Bornemisza. Because I tried to see too much, it is the place of which I have fewest memories to treasure and it certainly deserves better.

I ate at mid day and went for tapas in the evening. The term ‘tapas’ seems to have strayed from its original meaning of a small amount of something served free with a drink. Pinchos or canapes seem ore like tapas were – but all are now more often sold as small snacks. At the ‘Tigre’ on Calle de las Infantas, parallel with Gran Via, I saw a lad with a large plate of mixed tapas. I asked him what he had asked for and he told me that if I asked for a large beer (€6!) they would give me the tapas with it. What a problem – the beer was truly huge and at one time it would have suited me fine but heart problems mean that was far too much alcohol for me now – but I hated the idea of leaving half of it. The problem was solved by a young Spanish woman beside me who said in perfect English, ‘Ignore that idiot – the tapas do not depend on the size of the beer. Get one of those if you prefer.’ ‘Those’ were reasonably sized glasses of beer and I paid €3.50 for the drink and enough food to satisfy my appetite.

The next day I had it in mind to see a lot in Madrid as I intended to use my third full day for a trip out of the city, leaving some good things to finish with before my flight on the final day. I guess my capacity for city sight-seeing is limited! I started with using the Metro to Principe Pio and walking to the Ermita de San Antonio de Florida. I did not spend long at the Ermita; it is small but memorable for some paintings by Goya. His remains are there as well but I can’t say I found that a major attraction!

I took a bus back to the station and then walked to the Temple of Debod (free) which was well worth seeing. It’s a genuine Egyptian temple from the second century BCE. When the Aswan Dam was built in the 1950s the temple had to be dismantled or it would have been flooded. It was crated in parts and given to the Spanish Government as a ‘thankyou’ for their help with the dam. I then gave up on the Royal Theatre because the only way to see it was a guided tour in Spanish lasting about an hour and I did not think my Spanish was up to that. So to the Royal Palace – the royals do not live there but it is used for affairs of state. There were guided tours in English but the next one meant waiting over two hours. Perhaps I might as well visit the Cathedral and come back. Having realised the immense size of the palace from walking past it to the Cathedral, I chickened out of the idea of a visit. However I had noticed that entry to the Cahedral Museum (not my thing) enabled entry to the cupola (very much my thing once I had checked that it could be done by lift.) The views over Madrid were indeed stupendous and on the way down, through the cathedral itself, I was impressed by the mixture of traditional Baroque with very new architecture. The sight of San Francisco from the Cathedral made me even more eager to see it. However I got there just after it had shut for its first session and the next was at 17.30.

This time I did not give up hope but I felt I had ample time to see the Archaeological Museum and I used the Metro to get to Serano. I somehow found my way round the Colon roadworks, only to find that the museum itself was submerged in works for its extension. I have no doubt that it will be most impressive. Currently however it means that only one large exhibition hall is open to the public. Even so it was well worth the trip. I was really taken with La Dama de Baza (see photo at least on Spanish-only site http://www.dearqueologia.com/dama_baza.htm) It seems that the Dama and her chair were carved from a single rock.

Then I returned by Metro to La Latina and made my way to the San Francisco el Grande (of Assisi) Basilica. An official guide was giving a tour with a talk about the paintings in the Basilica, its chapels and various rooms and passages behind. To my surprise I was able to understand most of it. I then walked to the lovely Plaza Mayor and went on to see the Mercado de San Miguel, an old metal based structure that I should have like to have visited for a meal. Lastly I went to the Plaza de Villa and admired the Ayuntamiento (town hall) and other buildings. Though a very small square I found it as beautiful as any.

I found various alternatives for a trip out next day at not too high a price but most would have involved more looking at buildings so I decided on the one that would be country only. My only reservation was that I found it hard to believe in the cost I had deduced from the Internet. I was reassured on this final point by very clear notices at Atocha Renfe Ceranias station and confirmed it with enquiries. It was indeed only €10 return to travel on two trains each way, one of which was a special narrow gauge route through the mountains for about two hours (each way) including about a quarter of an hour between trains. (fare as of Oct 2009).

The first train was to Cercedilla, a small town on the edge of the Sierra de Guadarrama and on the line to Segovia. The scenery was increasingly attractive as we approached the mountains. For a short time it was possible to see the huge cross at the Valle de los Caidos, not an attraction from my point of view but we all have our own political reaction to such places. I had no breakfast before leaving Atocha and I was delighted to be able to get a coffee before the next train.

This was a real treat and even if it had been one of the days on which I feel unable to walk far, I would have regarded the train part of the day as a thoroughy worth while trip out. It was the only Madrid Cercanias line that goes nowhere near the city of Madrid, narrow gauge and for most of its route single track. A number of halts are shown on the timetable but stops at them are only by request. There was only one actual stop before the terminus where there were two lines to allow trains to meet. The views were excellent as the route snaked up into the mountains. The terminus was Los Cotos, a place of which I knew nothing except that there was a ski resort somewhere around.

Never having been a skier, I don’t regard the signs of the activity left for the summer as an attraction but I quickly realised that it was easy to avoid being inconvenienced by them here. I had thought of going straight back but it was only an hour later to the next train and I was hungry. So I would eat on the station but I might have a quick look at the scenery first. I had only gone about three or four minutes when I came to the entrance to the Pe ñalara Natural Park. A map post made it look as though there was a viewpoint close by – and the park office was only a very few more minutes away – so I would go there and ask about it. Nature and habits are not so easily denied however. I did not ask about the viewpoint! What I actually asked was whether there were any easy walks and there was one. Hunger?? – acute but it would have to wait

The walk was supposed to be about an hour each way. I was right in guessing that for me it would be an extra 50 minutes going out and an extra 5 coming down but that would leave me time for the 15.45 train with luck and if not, definitely for the 17.45. The first part of the walk was qite rough and steep but that did not worry me much (the very helpful lady at the office had told me about it) as I was fresh from the train. After only about 150 feet the path became a contour route for all of two miles. The path left the trees and the open views across the valley were just what is needed for a break from a city. Then came what for me was the difficult part. The path going upwards to the Laguna Grande de Pe ñalara winds through one of the specially protected areas of the park and the park lady had told me that the laying of planks to preserve the environment had made it easy, Certainly it had obviated any roughness but it had not reduced the slope! If I had not been able to see clearly where the lake had to be, I think I might have chickened out!

As it was I persisted and reached rocks where I could sit and look at the wonderful lake below the peaks. By this time I was really concerned to get the 15.45 train if at all possible and this prevented me exploring further. I took the same route back and arrived at the station at 15.28. That left me time for a drink, after doing what a chap has to do, but hunger was becoming dreadful!! Fortunately in country areas the traditional tapas habit still lives. The free slice of tortilla was just small enough for me to enjoy it (ENJOY – I mean) before the train.

All in all a great day out – and, incidentally I reached the Mirador del Gitano (viewpint of the Gypsy) only a very few minutes into my walk so if I had asked about viewpoints – – –

So we reach the last day. I started by taking the Metro to Atocha, having checked out from my lodgings. It was not far up the Paseo del Prado to find the CaixaForum (sic). This is the Madrid unit and there are others in Barcelona and some other cities. It is a large FREE cultural centre with performances in the auditorium and visiting exhibitions on two floors of massive exhibition halls. The one when I was there was a exhibition (now ended) of the works, (completed, started, unstarted and even rejected) of Richard Rogers and his firm.of architects. With numerous models, films and literally hundreds of photos I could hardly fail to learn a lot as well as spending some delightful time.

Outside the centre is a vertical garden by Raymond Blanc – the only one I have seen. It contains 15,000 plants of 250 different species. Just to cap my satisfaction the CaixaForum had large luggage storage lockers and I was able to dispose of my luggage until I left for the airport. Whether it was meant to return the €1 that I had paid it I don’t know – but it did!

So to the Prado. If that sounds like a sort of climax, so be it. It was. I kept strictly to the advice I had been given, even though it pained me a bit not to look at works by some favourite painters. I had been advised to pick very few, preferably only two, and spend as long as I could with them. It seemed obvious to me that I should opt for Spaniards. I rejected El Greco because I had seen a lot of his work already in Toledo on a previous occasion. That left Velasquez, Goya and Murillo. I chose Velasquez and Goya but there is so much Goya that I decided to choose again. Having seen some before in France, I opted for the very distinctive ‘Black Paintings,.’ Did I enjoy them? I hope you don’t think me a nutcase and who else would enjoy seeing children being eaten. I imagine I enjoyed them exactly as much as Goya meant people to – not at all. However their sheer emotive power is immense and I am certainly glad I chose them. If you have not looked before and, after reading that, you still want to, try http://www.eeweems.com/goya/black_paintings.html

However I am also glad to say that I did enjoy the Velasquez rooms immensely. I knew that I would be bowled over by ‘Las Meninas’ but I think I was just as impressed by ‘The Drinkers’ and ‘The Spinners.’ All can be seen at http://www.spanisharts.com/prado/velazquez.htm.

Now it was time for lunch, Metro, plane and home.

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