Sunday, July 15, 2012

Madrid, Day 1: Exploring the city (or, How to fend off jet lag)

I got to the hotel around 11am and met Amanda in the room.  We caught up quickly, congratulated ourselves on being in Madrid, and then I jumped in the shower to freshen up.  Once clean and sunscreened, I put some eyedrops in my eyes (it's easier to pretend you aren't tired when your eyes aren't red), grabbed my camera, and headed out with Amanda to explore the city. 

The weather couldn't have been better:  Clear and sunny, about 75 F, with a light breeze, not humidity.  It was as far from the swampy DC summer as I'd hoped it would be. 

Plaza de la Puerta del Sol

A marker in the ground in the Plaza de la Puerta del Sol marks the geographic center of Spain.  It's also in the middle of a bustling hub of city life, with multiple crossing subway and bus lines and radiating streets lined with boutiques and historical buildings and full of tourists, shoppers and street performers.

The center of Spain

For some reason this bear is the symbol of Madrid
Plaza Mayor

The Plaza Mayor is an impressive 16th Century square flanked by towers and shady arcades.  The deep burnt red color was decided by popular vote the last time the square was restored. 

Bas reliefs in the pedestals at the base of the lamp posts described the fun things they used to do in the plaza.  For example, there were bull fights . . .

public executions of religious heretics (during which, we were assured, the accused were "reassured by the priests reading holy scripture" as the life was squeezed from their bodies) . . .

and, of course, the occasional massive inflagration (this image is of the Great Fire of 1870, I think).

Alas, nothing quite so exciting happened on the square while we were there.  The balconies -- once the favored perch of weathy enthusiasts of auto-da-fe -- are now home to sleepy flower pots.


Nearby the Plaza Mayor we discovered this delightful enclosed market that sold a variety of delicious-looking tasties.  We regretted having just eaten lunch and made a note in the map for future reference.

Plaza de la Villa

This plaza is dominated by the old City Hall and surrounded by a network of narrow medieval streets and carefully restored medieval buildings.


The neighborhood surrounding the Plaza de la Villa had some lovely doors.

Hoorah for the Moors!

Palacio Real

The Bourbons (best known as the last ruling dynasty of the French monarchy) took the Spanish crown after the fall of the Habsburgs.  The new king Philipe V (the grandson of Louis XIV) decided he couldn't rule this backwater of Europe without a decent place to live.  So he built a palace to rival Versailles.  Had the original plan been executed, it would have been the largest palace in all of Europe; unfortunately the king died before that ambition could be realized.  Even so, the remaining work is generally considered to be one of the finest palaces in Western Europe (Rick Steves puts it in a class with Versailles and the Schonbrunn).

To be honest, we were skeptical.  The exterior was lovely but resembled every other classical palace we'd seen -- and between us, we've seen a lot (certainly all the major players).  Then we went inside.  We couldn't take photos, so you'll have to take my word:  It was astonishing.  The Gasparini Room, in particular, was the most exquisite example of the rococo style I've ever seen, with embroidered tapestries, sculpted stucco ceilings, and an inlaid marble floor.  And then there was the furniture -- the inlay on one of the tables gave me goosebumps -- and the massive chandelier (which was technically Empire style, but still impressive).  That room alone was worth the admission price and warranted the "must see" classification for the palace.  To get a sense of what the room was like, check out this virtual tour.

Fearsome Guard

Atahualpa, Emperor of the Incas
Labyrinthine box-wood garden



Across the parade ground from the palace stood the royal cathedral.  We didn't go inside (we've seen a lot of churches; after a whle they run together) but we did sit on the shady front steps.  It would have been a nice spot if there hadn't been a street violinist scraping out ear-rendingly bad arrangements of "Memories" from Cats and Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" just a few feet away.  Honestly, it was so bad we had to leave after a few minutes to avoid having our will to live sucked out of our bodies.

Other City Shots

Royal Theatre


Ashley said...

Very impressive! That marble is amazing!

Anonymous said...

So gorgeous! Lady