“Madrid is an ex-convent schoolgirl, a rebellious teenager who pushed the boundaries of hedonism and then grew up and got sophisticated without ever forgetting how to have fun. That’s why this is a city as at home in the nightclubs and bars that give the streets their soundtrack as it is in the hallowed halls of high culture.” ~ Lonely Planet, Madrid
Following our volunteer week in Morocco, my daughter and I planned an extended layover in Madrid, Spain before heading to Germany where we would be visiting a friend for 2 weeks. I was so curious about this city and from everything I had read (and yes, I read ALOT about it being the travel guide and research junkie that I am – see more on that here), Madrid had a lot to offer: great food, entertaining night life, and gorgeous architecture.
I couldn’t wait to get out and explore once we had settled into our hotel, the Hostal Santa Cruz, which was really more of a hotel than hostel. We had our own very clean room and tiny bathroom, all of which was plenty of space for us since we were not in the room very much.
My friend in Germany connected us with a friend hers who lives in Madrid and was happy to show us around for a bit. Karen was so helpful not only because she speaks Spanish and English fluently and flawlessly (as well her native German), but also because she has a genuine love of the city and enjoys showing guests around to many of the sights.
We met up with Karen outside of our hotel late in the afternoon and began our walking tour of the city at the Plaza Mayor, just a short walk away.
Funded by the Austrian dynasty of Habsburgs, the Plaza Mayor was completed in 1620 for Felipe III. A statue him was erected in the center in 1847. The Plaza was used for the nobility to chase bulls on horseback (the common folk joined in on foot) in the 17th century, a tradition that came to be called corrida (from the verb correr which means to run). The Plaza also has a more gruesome history as the site of the Inquisition’s auto-da-fe’, trials of faith, as well as public executions.
Today, it is filled with tourists and locals strolling between cafes and enjoying performers and musicians. The juxtaposition of the present day jovial atmosphere with the horrors of the past is a fascinating and somber fact to reconcile as you walk in the shadows of those who came before you. It never ceases to amaze me how the gruesome history of a place is easily overlooked in the present.
Next, we followed Karen to the Catedral de San Isidro. The patron saint of crops, farmers and Madrid, Isidro is said to have been a humble person though the cathedral built in his honor as his final resting place is anything but that. It was brought to the city in 1769, then razed during Spain’s civil war, and later restored. It was Madrid’s main cathedral from the late 19th century until 1993 when Catedral de la Almudena was consecrated.
Karen next took us to the Puerta del Sol, the Gate of the Sun, in the heart of the city. It is named such for the gate that stood there in the 1500’s. It also served as a dividing line between the families that financed the major monuments of the city, the Austrian Habsburgs (Madrid de los Austrias) and the Bourbons who ruled after them (Madrid de los Borbones).
In the center of the Puerta del Sol is Kilometre Cero (Kilometer Zero), the very center of the city as well as the symbolic center of the country. The eight main roads in Spain begin and radiate out from Kilometre Cero.
From the Puerta del Sol it was a brief walk over to Madrid’s largest park, Parque del Buen Retiro, a sprawling 300-acre bit of land that was created in the 1630’s by Felipe IV as his own personal retreat. Today, it is open to the public to stroll along its promenades, watch performers, eat at a cafe, enjoy a drink at a bar, play tennis or soccer, or listen to musical performances while watching the sun set over the lake.
The park was gorgeous and reminded me a lot of Central Park. We walked around for a while and then found a place to sit and take it all in as the sun was beginning to set.
When we boarded the metro for a quick ride back towards our hotel, I noticed the tight crowd of people standing right in the doorway to the train. Karen and my daughter had made it through them without a problem but for some reason I was not being allowed to pass. After a few minutes, I was finally able to squeeze in between two women and make my way over to Karen and my daughter.
It wasn’t until the train had cleared out at the next stop that a woman sitting down near us pointed at something on the floor and said something to me in Spanish. Karen quickly translated and said, “The woman is wondering if that’s your wallet there on the floor.” I looked down and to my horror, my wallet lay open on the floor of the train a few feet away. I quickly grabbed it up and checked to see if anything had been stolen.
By some grace I was sure I hadn’t yet earned in my life, everything was still there, including my driver’s license and a couple of American dollars. Nothing had been taken. Karen surmised that when I pushed past the women blocking my path into the train, my bag (which was slung across my body with a hand always on it) had slipped towards my back and that’s when someone reached in and grabbed my wallet. Thankfully, I had been smart enough to be wearing a money belt in which I stored our passports and euros, the two things Karen believed the pickpockets were looking for when they grabbed my wallet. I had read about things like that happening on the metro in big cities and thought I was being very careful. Obviously, I wasn’t paying as close attention as I thought. Lesson learned.
My intrepid traveler confidence was a bit shaken even though everything was fine and could have been a lot worse. I had to keep reminding myself of that and not let my fear of it happening again taint my time in Madrid. Sensing my wariness of getting back on the metro, Karen thought it would be relaxing to walk to the Templo de Debod (Temple Debod) after dinner. It was a beautiful night, warm and gentle and a walk to an Egyptian temple sounded like the perfect thing for my rattled nerves.
The 2200 year-old Templo de Debod was given to Spain in 1968 and was literally reassembled brick by brick in the heart of Madrid. It was a gift of thanks from the Egyptian government for the help Spanish archaeologists provided in rescuing the Abu Simbel temples from the floods of the Aswan Dam in Egypt. It was originally built to honor Isis and Ammon and was later added on to by Roman emperors Augustus and Tiberius. The temple is tucked inside the Parque de la Montana which affords great views of the city from a mirador, or lookout point. The temple was gorgeous all lit up at night.
To finish off our evening, Karen took us to a tapas bar where I had my first taste of Spanish tapas and a refreshing sangria (me, not the teenager). It was heavenly after an afternoon of walking, sightseeing and almost getting my wallet stolen.
The next day the teenager and I decided to spend the day doing some shopping as a way to take a break from our non-stop sightseeing whirlwind. Our flight to Germany didn’t leave until later that evening, so we spent the day popping in and out of shops, practicing the few Spanish words we felt confident saying.
Soon, it was time to pack up and say our goodbyes to Madrid. I really enjoyed the city – almost stolen wallet aside – and would definitely go back someday to be able to see more. We had just enough time there to get a taste of it and I knew I would have to return someday, probably without a teenager in tow so I could explore more of Madrid’s nightlife. Like our brief time in Marrakesh and Fez, I knew we had hardly seen anything that the city had to offer.
Next up: flying to Frankfurt, Germany where we would be staying with our friend, Anne, and her family. We hadn’t seen Anne in several years since she had last visited us in the U.S. so we were both excited to get to see her and meet her family.
Now it’s your turn, intrepid readers: Have you been to Madrid or any other cities in Spain? What were your experiences like? Have you ever had your wallet stolen or thought you were being careful when traveling only to find out later you weren’t? Do tell!