MADRID – THE CAPITAL CITY OF SPAIN
Madrid is a big city with a city population of around 3.2 Million people, the biggest city in Spain with twice the population of Spain’s second biggest city, Barcelona which has a population of around 1.6 million.
The greater Metropolitan population of Madrid is however around 6.5 million people, almost all of them being fans of the world famous Real Madrid football Club based in Bernabéu Stadium in the centre of Madrid.
The city of Madrid dates back to around 722, to the time of the Moors and by the 1300’s the city took on the appearance of a walled medieval city. The Moors were finally expelled from Spain and Granada in 1492, but it was only in 1561 that Madrid was proclaimed as Spain’s Royal Capital by Catholic King Filipe II (1527-1598).
Madrid is around 300 kilometres inland from the Mediterranean Sea, and is connected to Barcelona by the AVE fast train service, a distance of 624 kilometres.
To travel from Barcelona to Madrid, the AVE train takes just 3 hours to travel the distance which by car would take around 7 hours. You could also fly from Barcelona to Madrid on the Iberia Air Shuttle.
Madrid is both the political and economic centre of Spain with great museums, art galleries, parklands and with a vibrant food and night life too.
Here on these pages, we have set down some information on what best to see in Madrid.
GETTING AROUND MADRID
As a tourist the easiest way to get around and see the biggest city attractions is to use the open top Hop on- Hop off bus that stops next to the main attractions and at the same time you get to travel the main streets and see out from the bus too.
Madrid also has a vast Metro Rail system with 12 lines and different Zone areas – Zone A being where the main city Metro stations are located and also most of the city’s main attractions. You can buy individual tickets for one Metro journey or a 10 Journey ticket.
As a tourist there is a 1 up to 7 day ‘Abono Turίstico’ ticket that allows you to travel on the Metro trains and MetroBύs buses too. These tickets can be purchased to allow you to travel in all zones or just Zone A.
If intending to travel on the Metro, get a Metro map and mark the stations and Line numbers that you wish to travel to. With 12 lines and trains arriving and departing every few minutes, it can be very confusing when you are new to the city. Always check to make sure that you are heading in the right direction and are also on the right platform and/or train and if you wear glasses, make sure you carry them with you to help read the small print on the map.
The Major ‘Centro de Turismo de Madrid’ is located on the Plaza Mayor (Main Square), a good place to start your exploration of Madrid, with Metro Sol the closest Metro station to it. It is a grand square surrounded by many historic buildings.
There are many ‘Plazas’ in the central historic parts of Madrid and each has its own character and atmosphere, often with a central monument depicting an important event or i religious, political or heroic person, with ‘terrazas’ - terrace lines of buildings with their overhanging balconies, small shops and eating and drinking places on each side and smaller streets running off the Plazas in different directions.
Just one of the many Plazas is Plaza Puerta del Sol where you will find a 4 metre high statue of a giant Bear and Strawberry Tree (El Oso y El Madroño) that was erected here in 1967. The Metro station closest is Sol.
‘Plazas’, sometimes big and other times small, are very much a central part of traditional Spanish town planning – designed essentially as a community living room and meeting place with activities, fiestas, market days, street vendors and sometimes also used for political protests and in the past to public executions, bullfights too.
Today, many ‘plazas’ in Spain, Central and South America are under threat from traffic and population growth with new shopping centres becoming more attractive destinations for people wanting air conditioning, movie theatres, fashion and food courts and not just an open square of space.
From a tourist perspective however, the charm of a city is in most cases the historic parts of the city, and certainly Plaza Major is right in the heart of Madrid.
Plaza Major is a great starting point for your visit to Madrid with the Tourist Office here too where you could pick up a city map, brochures and other information about places to see. You can also book tours and get tickets from the Tourist Office too.
Madrid has many museums, art galleries, churches, parks and grand buildings and of course lots of places where you can eat, drink and shop too.
Here is my pick of what to see –
#1 Palacio Real – Metro Opera station – Calle de Balién
This is the grand Royal Palace of King Filipe V with some 2800 rooms, though you won’t see most of them.
Its construction began in 1735 following a fire the previous year that destroyed the Alcázar (Moorish Castillo – Castle) that was located here. The Palacio Real is the official residence of the Royal family, but is only used by them on Ceremonial occasions, so it is open to the public to see pretty much year round.
When you think of a room – all rooms, no matter what their purpose or size all consist of a floor, walls, ceiling, doorways, doors and windows, but then it is a question of how each of these surfaces are scaled and it is the décor that changes a room from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
If you love décor, you are bound to be overwhelmed by the grandeur of the Palacio Real and its rooms, the opulence and sheer genius of those who built and furnished it.
Sure, the Palace reflects great wealth but it also reflects the vision of those who paid for it, designed and planned it, as well as the incredible skills of the carpet makers, violin makers, tilers, marble crafters, stone masons, weapon makers, gunsmiths, stair makers, carpenters, joiners, plasterers, clock makers, curtain makers, fabric designers, weavers, embroiderers, fresco painters, gilders, garden designers, landscapers, glass makers, masons, furniture makers, jewellers, ceramic artists, sculptors, portrait and landscape painters – so many artisan and craft skills and such amazing rooms to see.
Even though you will only see some of the rooms in the Palace, you will no doubt enjoy the grand style and marvel at the sheer beauty of all that you see here. There are tours, mostly in Spanish, but you can also take your time to just see through the rooms that are open to the public including the Throne Room.
Outside the Palace is equally impressive with the Gardens, statuary, lawns, Plaza and nearby in the Campo del Moro, the grand Fuente de las Conches fountain. If you head to the Palacio Real first and then afterwards, just spend time in the surrounding area, you are bound to have a great day. The Cathedral de Nuestra Señora de la Almudena is here too.
On the first Wednesday of each month (but not January, August or September) there is the Changing of the Guard ceremony on Armory Square. The ceremony starts at 11am and lasts about an hour.
#2 Museo del Prado – Metro Banco de España, Paseo del Prado
This is one of the great Art Gallery Museums in the world with paintings by Velázquez, Goya, Rubens and a number of other master painters from the 17th and 18th Century. There are around 1500 paintings on display at any one time from a vast collection, so certainly a lot to see and enjoy.
The Museum Gallery is so huge that you need a map to highlight the various rooms and see everything and with many visitors, the Gallery can get very crowded too. There is also a gift shop and café too and tour guides there to provide more information about some of the most famous paintings here in the Gallery. #3 Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza - Metro Banco de España, Paseo del Prado
This Museum Gallery is opposite the Museo del Prado and if you buy a Paseo del Arte ticket, this will give you entrance to the three big Museum Galleries – Museo del Prado, Museo Thyssen- Bornemisza and the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. The Madrid Card, on sale at the Tourist Office also includes entrance to these three museums too.
If you have travelled on a lift elevator or escalators almost anywhere in the world you might have seen the ThyssenKrupp company name as the manufacturer. The name ‘Thyssen’ and ‘Krupp’ are both famous German Industry names, with the Thyssen family dynasty dating back to the days of its founder, August Thyssen (1842-1926) who built his fortune owning steel mills, coal mines, ships and many other mining and industrial businesses. He is said to have lived by the motto – “If I rest, I rust!” and he lived by this motto until the end of his life.
August Thyssen, apart from his business interests, he commissioned the famous French Sculptor, Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) to sculpt a number of sculptures for him in marble, and this would be the beginning of a family interest in the Arts and collecting.
His son, Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza (1875-1947) continued to build up a collection too, which was then inherited by his son Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza (1921-2002). He too was passionate about the arts and continued to build one of the greatest private art collections in the world in his home in Lugano, Switzerland.
In 1993, the Spanish Government successfully exhibited the collection and then purchase the whole collection and establish it in a dedicated space, the Villahermosa Palace here in Madrid. The price of the 773 Paintings in the collection was around US $350 million, with the actual value said to be about two billion dollars.
The collection has since been added to and new spaces added to the Museum Gallery, with paintings by Titian, Rembrandt, Rafael, Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Renoir, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso and many others including some of the sculptures by Rodin.
You could easily spend a day here in this Gallery seeing some of the work of the world’s greatest artists.
#4 The Centro de Arte Reina Sofia – Metro Atocha, Calle de Santa Isabel
This Museum Gallery of Queen Sofia (Reina Sofia) focussed on 20th century and the works of contemporary artists.
The biggest drawcards to the Museum are the works of Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Joan Mirό and Max Ernst, though there are many other lesser known but equally talented artist’s work exhibited here too. This museum has 4 floors of rooms to showcase the works of these famous artists, presenting some of their best known works, including Picasso’s oil painting Guernica that he painted in Paris in 1937. The painting is on a giant canvas, 3.47 high metres by 7.77 metres wide, painted in his Cubism style and depicting the destruction of war, his choice of subject no doubt highly influenced by The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) that was happening at that time.
If you have the time and inclination, you should try and see all three of these great Museums here in Madrid.
#5 Plaza de la Cibeles and the Palacio de Cibeles – Metro Banco de España
There are many Plazas in Madrid surrounded by great classic buildings and this Plaza that you should try and see both in the daytime and also night when statue and buildings are lit up. It is one of the most spectacular Madrid Plazas, with the centrepiece being a fountain and statue of the Greek Goddess, the Mother of the Gods, Cibeles on top of a four wheeled chariot, drawn along by two lionesses. It was constructed in 1777 and Cibeles is said to be the protector of the city and also the Madrid Football Club.
The Statue is located in the middle of a major roundabout here on Paseo de Prado, with a mass of cars circling the statue, so hard to get close to, but there are a number of classic buildings to each side, the main ones being the Palacio de Cibeles, built in 1919 as the main Post Office and now the home of the Madrid City Council and the limestone Palacio de Linares and Casa de América. You can take tours of these buildings, the Casa de América, focused on the connection of Spain with the Spanish colonies in Central and South America and the Caribbean and the Palacio de Linares housing a stunning interior décor and exhibits. This is a good place to grab a coffee and just sit and admire the view from the top floor roof or the garden space with its great staircase leading onto it.
#6 – Let’s go shopping – Metro Gregoria Marañon
As much as seeing Madrid’s great art museums is almost essential to see on your visit to Madrid, there is of course great shopping – be that buying fashion, clothes, shoes, browsing, people watching or just taking in the scenery and atmosphere.
Madrid is home to a number of high end fashion designers and established well known fashion retailers and the best way to get a feel for all of this is to head to Calle Serrano and Calle José Ortega y Gassett, both streets being in the suburb (Barrio) of Salamanca. Here people dress up to go shopping which all adds to the atmosphere and enjoyment.
Here you will find brand names like Bulgari, Chopard, Cartier, Luis Vuitton, Zara, Loewe, Adolfo Dominguez, Agatha Ruiz de la Prada and the El Corte Inglés Department Store, shoes by Manolo Blahnik and many other brands – both Spanish and also from France, Italy and elsewhere.
With wide footpaths and some parts being pedestrian only, you are bound to enjoy just window watching and people watching as much as buying some of the big name merchandise on sale.
#7 What makes a great Tapas?
Much of the enjoyment of travel is finding interesting food that you may not have been able to find at home and there is almost no doubt that in coming to Spain you will visit one or more ‘tapas bars’ . These bars serve wine, sherry, vermouth, beers and as part of their service, they also mostly have meals with a menu, as well as what Spain has become famous for are ‘tapas’.
Tapas are small snacks, appetizers, a selection of nibbles and they will vary from bar to bar, based on their specialities. The Tapas may be savoury, hot and/or cold and be made up of a plate with shrimps (prawns), clams, mussels, squid, ham, other cured meats, conserves, mushrooms, different cheeses, olives, gherkins, pickled onions – any of the above mixture of small treats.
Sometimes the tapas will come free with a drink that you buy one and other times you will pay for them, but always you can be assured that the tapas mix will reflect the quality of the bar.
The best way to find a good tapas bar is to look for an attractive entrance to the bar and get a feel for the place. There are lots of bars so the choice and luck is yours. There are bars with lots of character and newer ones, as well as some very noisy ones too. The ideal is to take a seat at the bar and order a sherry or other drink and find a seat where you can sit and take in the ambience.
It is best to try a few different tapas bars, so that you get a better feel for the differences between the tapas that are being served.
#8 Bull fighting, football or Flamenco?
Spain is the home of Bull fighting with the pageantry, picadors, toreadors, matadors, costumes, ceremony and rituals are all part of Spanish culture and history. Between March and October bullfighting happens in many Spanish cities, including Madrid and the best place to get a ticket is from the website www.servitoro.com . For me personally, seeing one bullfighting spectacle was interesting, but I would not want to see another.
More fun comes perhaps comes from watching a football match in Madrid – with Real Madrid club’s home ground being the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium where up to 80,000 screaming fans can be seen in a big match. To get tickets click on the club’s website – www.realmadrid.com/en/tickets . The stadium is located opposite the Metro station, Santiago Bernabeu – Line 10 the Dark Blue line. They also have tours of the stadium too where you can see and hear more about the club’s history and players.
Every country has its own cultural differences, and certainly the Spanish are renowned for their ‘passion’, with Spanish being a very expressive language not just in words spoken, but also in facial expressions and hand and arm movements. Often loud, boisterous but never dull, the Spanish enjoy living life and the Flamenco dance is symbolic of this. There are classes but also live shows where you can see some of the best dancers perform in Madrid. To find a venue and see a show, click on www.theflemencoguide.com
#9 Gardens and Zoo – Madrid has many great parks and also the Madrid Aquarium Zoo is located close to the city and around a 10 minute walk from the Casa de Campo Metro station. The Zoo has lots of animals, birds and marine life, with the highlights being the Pandas and the Birds of Prey show. Like many Zoos, it is relatively expensive to visit, but if you like seeing animals, this is a good Zoo to visit.
The Jardin Botanico de Madrid (Botanic Gardens) is located off Plaza de Murillo, next to the Prado Museum, so easy to get to. Construction and plantings began in 1755 and today the Gardens, set out over 8 hectares in 3 terraces contains plants from all over the world.
#10 Small cities close to Madrid
In most big world cities like London, Paris and New York, it is the centre of the city where you will find the most history, museums and places of interest to see and Madrid is no different. Like other big cities, Madrid has its big attractions, but also just outside the city there are numbers of smaller cities, towns and villages that are worth seeing too.
Just one of these cities is Aranjuez, a medium size city just about 50 kilometres south of Madrid that you can easily travel to by road or train. The city and its Palace (Palacio Real) took 400 years to build and if you love to see magnificent rooms, decorative ceilings, amazing carpets, furniture and magnificent gardens with avenues of trees, fountains, ponds and the Royal Boat collection in the Museum de Faluas, then Aranjuez is the city to head to for a great day excursion. The city centre is easy to get around and depending on the season, there is a small tourist train to take you around some of the places of interest.
Avila is another special city too about 45 kilometres north west from Madrid. This is a walled city with some 80 crenulated granite stone towers linked by high walls of stone that it is possible to walk along some of the top sections, with access via 9 gateways in the wall. It is an incredible sight to see the over 2.5 kilometres of towers and walls of the city, both in the day and at night when the lights come on too.
The city itself has many churches, palaces, museums, convents, monasteries almost all built in stone so a great city to see and take in the architecture and ambience. There are a number of festivals during the year and the city celebrates its most famous person, Saint Teresade Cepeda y Alumada, a Carmelite Nun who lived here in the 1500’s.
Segovia is also a UNESCO World Heritage listed city as are the two cities above. Segovia’s main attraction is the Roman Aqueduct, around 900 metres long and 28 metres high, set out on 2 levels of arches. There are around 170 arches, making the Aqueduct an amazing sight to see! The Aqueduct was built in the first century AD by the Romans using 25,000 local granite blocks and designed to bring water from the Guadarrama Mountains to the city.
The city is surrounded by a stone walls and sits atop a small hill with the massive Gothic Cathedral built in the 1500 and 1600’s standing on top. It is spectacular in both the day and night too. Also look to see the fortress castle that is said to have inspired Walt Disney to build his own in Disneyland in California.
THE TEN BEST THINGS TO SEE IN MADRID – The above list of places to see are just my choices of what to see and do while in Madrid. There is a lot more to see than the listed places I have written about, but certainly if you see some of the above sights, you are bound to have a great time.
Geoff Stuart www.FlightsHotelsInfo.com