Spotlight on Madrid, Spain


             Madrid, Spain, is certainly one of Europe’s great cities. There are so many significant attractions that several days should be allotted.  Perhaps most important, because of its location and its popularity as a gathering place, is the Plaza Mayor, one of Europe’s greatest squares.  It is huge, surrounded by beautiful, majestic buildings which houses shops, restaurants, etc.  It is a wonderful place for strolling or for sitting and enjoying a “cervesa” (beer) or coffee.

            The Palacio Real (royal palace) is a spectacular chateau in the tradition of Versailles or Buckingham Palace, although much smaller.  It is still the residence of Spain’s King (Juan Carlos). The rooms display splendid opulence with their ceiling frescoes, sculptures, tapestries, and beautiful furniture.

            El Rastro, the acclaimed flea market of Madrid, is certainly a gathering place (especially on Sunday morning) and great for people-watching, but the items being sold are mostly junk.

            On the eastern side of the city, in what is often referred to as Bourbon Madrid, besides the significant architecture, there is a greater amount of open space and greenery, accentuated by beautiful fountains and squares.  Here also are Madrid’s major museums and celebrations of the Arts, including the world-famous Prado Museum as well as the smaller Reina Sofia, famous for its Guernica, perhaps Picasso’s best painting.

            The Prado is another one of the great museums of the world.  There is no better repository of Spanish art — works, for instance, by Goya, El Greco, Velazquez, and Murillo, but the collection goes far beyond Spain.  Italian and Flemish artists are well represented, as well as many others.

            Nearby, note the exquisite Fuente de Cibeles, with its Goddess of Nature in a chariot pulled by lions.  The elegant building behind the fountain is, of all things, the main post office. Although it is in a very busy traffic area, try to frame a picture of the fountain. 

            Also in this vicinity is Retiro Park, a splendid place for strolling and escaping the hectic city scene.  There are miles of walkways, pools, fountains, and interesting buildings, particularly the Crystal Palace.

            One of the most popular excursions from Madrid is west to El Escorial (more precisely, Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial), which has been the summer palace for the Kings of Spain since 1564.  It was built by Philip II and completed by his son.  It is another great chateau in the spirit of Versailles.

            Yet it is more than a residence; it is also a monastery with a lovely chapel.  As expected, the rooms are extremely ornate, with beautiful artwork and tapestries.  Especially noteworthy are the five wooden doors, gifts from the Kingdom of Austria, which are incredibly detailed, with inlaid wood of different colors.  Also significant are the Pantheons, the crypts of the kings (all but 3 monarchs since 1564 have been interred here), and the Pantheon Infantes, the tombs of the royal children who did not become kings.


            Gary’s Gem:

                        1.  Madrid is a perfect place to attend the “obligatory” bullfight.  Madrid’s Plaza de Toros (bull ring) is one of the country’s finest and attracts some of the best matadors.  Even though the spectacle is revolting for many, and its continuation is being challenged by animal rights groups, the bullfight has been part of Spanish culture for hundreds of years and should be experienced by any traveler who believes in becoming familiar with the culture of an area.

                        2.  Another “obligatory” rite of passage through the culture of Madrid is the dining experience at Sobrino de Botin, a famous haunt of Ernest Hemingway and reputed to be the oldest restaurant in the world (from 1725).  The restaurant interior attractively resembles a cave, and the food is excellent, especially the specialty, roast suckling pig.  Ask your waiter to show you the wine cellar for an even more cave-like experience.

                        3.  In the Prado, don’t miss Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, his most famous painting.

                        4. A popular day trip from the city involves a visit to Aranjuez, actually the Palacio Real de Aranjuez, only about thirty miles from Madrid, another summer palace of Spain’s royal family.  It is a particularly opulent estate on the River Tagus, which is made more delightful by its 740 acres of gardens which offer solitude and respite from the oppressive Spanish summers.  Inside, note, in particular, the Chinese Porcelain Room, the Hall of Mirrors, and the Smoking Room.

                        5.  Near El Escorial is an interesting tourist attraction that harkens to the time of the dictator, Francisco Franco.  Valle de los Caidos, (the Valley of the Fallen, in English), is a monument, erected by Generalissimo Franco, to all the Spaniards who have died defending their country.  It consists of a tall, stone cross at the top of a rocky hill and, beneath the cross, a huge basilica, which, incidentally, contains Franco’s tomb.  There are security guards near the tomb who try to prevent visitors from spitting on Franco’s grave.
                       6.  Many of Madrid’s most important sights can be visited on my walking tour, which was the blog entry on 10-9-08.


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