Hearing we were heading for Madrid another Devon friend has sent us a personal recollection of a recent visit there.
We had a week in Madrid in October. We loved the bars around Plaza de Santa Ana and had amazing seafood at a marisqueria in a side street near our hostel - the Ribeira de Mino in Calle de Santa Brigida - if you like seafood don't miss it! We were amused by a peripatetic jazz band that we kept bumping into all over the city, the queues for prayers the whole length of a street outside a church on a Friday evening, the gay couples with their dogs in Chueca, and shoe shops everywhere! We loved Madrid and found the menu del dia very good value whilst for tapas enjoyed pimientos de padron, deliciously salty but look out for the rogue hot one! One day we went out on the train to the mountains at Cercedilla about an hour away. Do watch out for pickpockets though, I often think we must look like the scruffiest tourists about but we still stand out as tourists all the same and we did have one incident when we were walking back to our hostel and two young boys started to follow us and undo the pockets on our rucksack, like you though, nothing to take but be warned.
Monday 20th April 2009, El Escorial
We discovered there is a bus that passes along the highway to Madrid just 20 minutes walk up a rural lane from our campsite. So this morning we were waiting as it passed by and clambered aboard. Forty minutes later we were on the Madrid metro from the bus station into the centre of the city, a journey of less than ten minutes!
Apart from passing through the airport on our way to Guatemala last year, neither of us has ever visited Madrid and we were rather excited at the prospect. It is a pleasant city, particularly when the sun is shining and there are glimpses of the snowy Sierra de Guadarrama. It's not though the most exciting European capital we've visited by a long way. It seems to be a collection of suburbs joined together by numerous pleasant plazas and there is a great deal of rebuilding and street renovation going on. Monday is probably not the best day to visit however as all the museums are closed, and to be quite honest, there is not an enormous lot else to keep visitors amused during the afternoon.
Until Philip II decided to make it his capital in 1561 Madrid was just a minor Spanish town. It sits though, exactly at the centre of the Iberian Peninsula and provided the best location for the king to access every point of his kingdom. It is now a city of around 4 million people and what buildings of importance it has are widely scattered around the centre. The Plaza Mayor is a very attractive square that forms the real heart of the city with the oldest streets leading off from it.
We viewed the royal palace from outside. It is currently closed for several days for official functions.
Nearby is the cathedral. It is very new having taken over a hundred years to build and was officially inaugurated by Pope John Paul II in 1993. It is a huge neo-gothic construction of grey granite and looks very severe. Inside it is a strange mixture of styles with gothic vaulting but modern stained glass in the windows. The furnishings and paintings too are often modern reproductions of 16th century works that generally do not suit the bright modern painted ceilings and icons which give some welcome relief from the austerity of the building.
We wandered right across the centre of the city discovering its various districts, such as the Chinese quarter in the Rastro with its own community and shops. Somewhere in one of these backwaters we found somewhere for a snack lunch which Ian followed with a cake so huge and full of cream the waiter couldn't believe he wanted it to eat there rather than take it home for several to share!
We noticed several interesting productions showing at the city's theatres including Chekhov's "Cherry Orchard", Shakespeare's "Winter's Tale" and Oscar Wilde's "La importancia de llamarse Ernest"!
During the afternoon we sought out the museum quarter, a very pleasant area with the beautiful gardens of Retiro behind the Prado with a huge boating lake, avenues of flowering chestnut trees and several attractive small palaces, originally exhibition buildings, including Spain's very own Crystal Palace, used for exhibitions.
Later in the afternoon, seeking the metro to return to the bus terminal we discovered the railway station at Atocha. It's really stunning, both as a building and for the way it has been turned into one of Europe's most agreeable places to wait for a train. The trains have been moved further back and the original entrance hall and platforms have been transformed into something resembling the glass house at Kew Gardens! There are palm and banana trees, tropical plants and a small lake containing hundreds of terrapins! In the trees sparrows chirp and around the edge several restaurants and coffee lounges cope with the needs of travellers.
Our return journey was as quick and convenient as our morning one, the bus stopping just the once, to drop us off on its way to El Escorial. We walked back down the country lane to the campsite, past the farmyard of cattle, the field of horses and the stork's nest on top of the electricity pylon. One stork was flying just overhead, blown by the wind, the other was in the field clattering its bill and sounding exactly like one of the street vendors we saw in Madrid, rattling his castanets for the tourists!
Wednesday 22nd April 2009, Segovia
Yesterday we returned to Madrid, this time with a definite purpose rather than to wander across the city soaking up the atmosphere. Ian had told me that one of the four surviving Maya codices was located in Madrid and that he would like to tick this one off in his I-Spy Maya Codices book, having seen the Dresden codex during our travels in 2006. Right next to the Moncloa bus station is the Museo de America. The staff were charmingly helpful explaining exactly where the Mayan codex could be found and once we said we were EU pensioners they waived the six euros entrance fee!
The museum is one of the most fascinating I can recall seeing in Europe and a complete contrast to everything we have seen so far in Spain. It covers every aspect of the New World from Spanish exploration to the indigenous peoples of Central America. We saw more Mayan artefacts in Madrid than we did in the entire Yucatan Peninsula and Guatemala combined! All that is left there, after the Spanish conquistadors and subsequent archaeologists had looted the sites, are the walls and monuments. So, almost everything is either back here in Spain, in the United States or else in the National Museum in Mexico. In Madrid we were able to wander through gallery after gallery of ceramics, textiles, ceremonial and funerary artefacts, feathered robes, items of religious and social significance and written or pictographic texts. Represented were not only the Mayas, but also the Aztecs and Olmecs in Mexico, the Nazca, Mochica and Incas in South America, and many North American cultures. There were jade, silver and gold items of jewellery, tiny figurines and ceremonial vases. There were textiles over 2,000 years old in near perfect condition. There were mummies found in tombs in the Peruvian desert, still sitting there, fully dressed, as if they'd just nodded off to sleep for a while! Of course there was also much on the early European inhabitants of the Americas and the way they interrelated with the indigenous population and how the different cultures affected each other. The museum closed at three and we left reluctantly just beforehand. Ian has now seen his second Mayan codex and we both felt it was worth coming all the way to Madrid just to visit this one museum!
After that, the Prado was just the icing on the cake! Here we went our separate ways for a couple of hours as we were interested in different things. The Prado is huge and very crowded with tour groups and as in any major art gallery there is a permanent hubbub of different languages. Photography was not allowed so no pictures, but they are all so famous anyway!
Just walking through the different galleries there were familiar paintings in almost every room. The museum has possibly the very best collection of classic art in Europe, founded, like El Escorial, on the collections established by Philip II in the 16th century. Particular mention must be made of the works of Spanish painters – Velasquez, Goya, El Greco, Ribera, Zubarran and Murillo, but there were also examples of the works of Titian, Raphael, Tintoretto, Veronese, Caravaggio, Bosch, Dürer, Breughel, Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Dyke. The majority of the works time permitted us to see dated from the 16th and 17th centuries and included landscapes, religious works and portraits. One surprise was an excellent special exhibition of the works of Pre-Raphaelite painters, on loan, not from Britain, but from a collection in Puerto Rico!
After the entire day gazing at some of the World's finest art treasures our feet were protesting and it was with some difficulty we dragged them down to the metro and across the city to the bus station. We have greatly enjoyed our couple of days in Madrid but it is the museums that are the main draw. It is a city with many parks and green spaces, but its buildings are widespread and frequently difficult to find. It is not a city to wander in though the metro is immaculate and efficient so it's fairly easy to get to any specific location.
We were lucky, seeing no evidence of pickpockets, though we were approached by a Lebanese person who was too charming for words, making an excuse to kiss my hand and treating us as if we were his personal friends before showing us some Lebanese money and asking if we had any English money he could see. He told us he longed to visit England and would so love to visit his brother, who lived in Birmingham, but he couldn't get a visa! Needless to say, we refused to take out our purse, which we suspect was what he wanted us to do, and eventually he went away.
Less fortunate it seems was an American friend who happened, by chance to be passing through Madrid yesterday on his way to Devon. Pickpockets on the metro took his driving license, leaving him to cope for two weeks in England without the hire car he'd arranged to use!