15 October 2017
Spain has become one of my favorite countries, a temptation to return again and again. I lacked appreciation, too much a novice during my initial 1972 visit to Madrid and Barcelona. However, my return in 2016 left me with the desire to explore in more depth. Thus, once again, I sit enjoying a churros and chocolate with my friend at Chocolatería San Ginés.
Madrid is a beautiful, easily walkable city with first-class museums, energetic markets, an active night life, delicious food and wonderful wine. What more could one ask? My spoken Spanish is poor but I manage. However, I have brought along a Spanish-speaking friend. I expect this to pay off in better tapa offerings, at the very least.
The metro system is excellent, as are the trains. I love a city with easy access from the airport to my hotel. I am staying at the well-located Hostal Mayor just feet from Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor. The weather is perfect, the city not obnoxiously crowded, and those tapas are waiting.
When in Madrid, there are museums that should not be missed whether this is your first or third visit. The Prado and Reina Sofia are excellent. The Neo-Gothic Almudena Cathedral is known for its colorful chapels and a Neo-Romanesque crypt where I hear a Catholic service in Chinese. Almudena was late to arrive on the scene, started in 1879, recent for Spain’s churches, and consecrated in 1993. Up until 1561, the seat of the church was in Toledo. This is not the grandest cathedral you will visit, but it is a nice example of Baroque and Romanesque architecture and located just across the plaza from the Palace.
The Royal Palace, with its very long queue waiting to enter, is worth a visit. It is still used for official state ceremonies on occasion, but the royal family lives elsewhere. A few of its 3,412 apartments and salons are open for visitors, many of which challenge norms of taste. Though there are paintings by Goya, Velázquez and Caravaggio, there is so much porcelain, tile and decorative pieces that I would have nightmares waking up to it. The wonderful fresco above the main staircase makes up for the extravagant taste in other rooms of the palace. Browse the Crown Room containing the throne, royal crown and abdication speech of Juan Carlos I. Fortunately, his son Felipe VI retains more popularity. From the courtyard, enjoy the views over the city.
No better place exists to usher in the twilight than Debod Temple. The shrine was a gift of Egypt, wanting to thank Spain for their assistance in saving the Abu Simbel temples destined to be flooded as a result of building the Aswan Dam. Due to be lost under the waters, Egypt gave the Debod to Spain in 1968. It is one of the few works of ancient Egyptian architecture seen outside Egypt. In the evenings, people flock to the temple to witness the sunset and dramatic lighting of the temple gateways. It was especially pleasant because it seems the city has stopped people from wandering around the archways making for better views as the temple is backlit by the sunset and reflected onto the surrounding pools.
Plaza Mayor, built at the beginning of the 15th century, is a 3-minute walk from my hotel. Surrounded by historic three-story buildings, frescos, countless balconies, and arched entranceways, in the past the plaza hosted executions of heretics and undesirables. It now is filled with coin and stamp sellers (sold my Kennedy and Sacagawea coins), cafes, mimes and musicians. The El Rastro “Thieves Market” is just behind the plaza and adjoining streets abound with tapa bars. Surrounded by history, sipping a cerveza or Rioja wine, the view of Madrid life is marvelous.
San Miguel Market is touristy and over-priced. However, it is a hotbed of activity with beautifully displayed foods, wine bars and spice markets. Take a look, preferably not when totally packed in the evenings. Nearby are dozens of wonderful restaurants and outside cafes with inexpensive meals.
I love to independently wander and visit sites of interest; I spend my time how I choose. However, I also recommend joining a free walking tour offered by informed and energetic locals. In Madrid, Free Walking Tours by Locals leaves daily from Puerta del Sol. I appreciate that I can join the group last minute, thus allowing for weather or change of plans. Walking tours provide local insight, tips and historical tidbits. Our 3-hour tour with Tatiana was excellent in all those ways. Cheerful, knowledgeable and interesting, it was a tour well worth taking.
Toledo – the “Imperial City”
A day excursion to Toledo is more than tempting – it’s a must. It is an easy trip if you consider a couple tips: go to Madrid’s Atocha Station and buy your train tickets the day before or from online before you leave home. (The slowness of the lines at the station suggests buying them online. Its kiosks sell tickets but most U.S. credit cards will not be accepted, nor cash.)
Your first “wow” sight will be the glorious Toledo’s Neo-Mudéjar Train Station. Built in 1919, it reflects the historic architecture of the city; its clock tower is iconic. The station is on the plain. The city of Toledo is up a steep hill. From the train station, walk or take a bus up the incline. There is an escalator part of the way but a bus in front of the station will drop you off at Plaza de Zocodover, central to everything you will want to see in this city. And there is much to see. Don’t for a minute consider not visiting the Cathedral, one of the most impressive and beautiful in Spain. Visit the Alcazar and Museo del Greco, wander narrow streets, enjoy the architecture, and haunt the Mazapán shops!
I would encourage you to splurge on a taxi ride around the fortified hill of Toledo toward Mirador Del Valle. The view over Toledo is spectacular! You could take a taxi from the station and encircle Toledo, entering the city from the west. Trip is about 4 miles but stop for the views. Uber may also be available.