Madrid: Spain’s Heart and Soul

The first thing that surprised me about Madrid is what a young city it is.  World capital cities are usually populated by older, conservative bureaucrats but not Madrid it seems.  Oh I saw lots of suits walking around or sitting having lunch especially in the government and business districts, but Madrid has a young energy about it with young people everywhere, hanging out and having a good time.  I never saw so many young lovers out on the streets and in the public squares and parks as I did in Madrid (eat your heart out Paris and Venice).

I had only four days in the city but I lucked out with the hotel I’d booked; right in the heart of the city about 100 meters from Isabelle II Square and Opera House, 500 meters from the Royal Palace and Cathedral.  Since I had such a short time I opted for the Double Decker City Bus Tour.  What I found really strange is that you really have to take both Routes 1 and 2 to get a lay of the land.  While I started on Route 1 I was disappointed that the commentary wasn’t telling me about all the landmarks we were passing.  But it all made sense when I took route 2 which covered much of the same area but helped to fill in the blanks. I was able to take in Madrid’s neighbourhoods, architecture; old and new, as well as the city’s big Football stadium.

The Palacio Real de Madrid or The Royal Palace is a must-see, and this is coming from someone who was already burned out on palaces, cathedrals, museums etc.  It rivals Versailles and in my opinion is even more spectacular (though considerably smaller).  It certainly is better preserved (though about 100 years younger).  What was disappointing though is that cameras even without flash are not allowed inside, instead you are encouraged to buy a souvenir picture book from the gift shop.  But the interior details, the furnishings, the fixtures, etc. are magnificent.  If you are ever in Madrid, do not miss this monument to regal opulence.  Across the courtyard is the Cathedral, which I took a pass on (re: burnout).

I toured the Prado museum (Prado not Prada) and was just as overwhelmed there as I was at the Louvre in Paris or Uffizi in Rome.  It is a complete history of art, with an emphasis on Spanish artists (naturally) confined to one massive museum. What I enjoyed even more though was my visit to the Center d’Arte de Reine Sophia, the modern art museum with the massive Lichtenstein statue in its courtyard.  I hunted it down (it wasn’t so easy to find until I realized it’s almost beside the main train station) because I knew I couldn’t visit Madrid and not see Picasso’s Guernica masterpience.  I was surprised to discover one entire floor of this massive complex is devoted to the painting. There are many Picasso paintings and sketches showing his development and even his ‘tests’ of various elements he was working on during his work on Guernica. But there are also other masters from the same era on display; Joan Miro, Alexander Calder….  whose paintings and artwork were representative of the period and a similar artistic style. After getting a sense of the era and significant artist styles you enter the central room where the massive painting is installed.  There are two gallery staff seated on either side to make sure no one takes photos or crosses the line and gets too close the painting.  I spent about a half hour just staring at the masterpiece, trying to absorb as much of it as I could.   The rest of the museum features more modern and contemporary art installations including videos and three dimensional pieces but everything else pales after seeing such magnificent works by Picasso and Miro (can you tell I’m a fan of both?).

As I wandered Madrid’s streets on a Sunday I was disappointed that most shops and businesses, even cafes and restaurants were closed (some of the cafes and restaurants opened later for dinner).  But I did stumble on the Madrid Cycle Race and watched as dozens of world class cyclists sped along a route through Madrid’s streets, so fast they were a blur and it was almost impossible to make out a specific rider.  When the race ended I wandered through the backstreets and discovered rainbow flags everywhere along with same sex couples… I had stumbled into Madrid’s gay neighbourhood.  Unlike most of the European cities I had visited, Madrid’s gay area is all together in one place with cutting edge art and fashion shops, cafes, restaurants as well as bars, saunas and nightclubs, with no question about who their clientele is.

The architecture, the food, and even just the Spanish Vibe helped me to fall in love with Madrid and next time I visit it will be for a lot longer.

 

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