Madrid – A Visit
An often repeated proverb dating back to the Renaissance says, with a little exaggeration, ‘Madrid, nueve meses de invierno, tres meses de infierno’ (Madrid, nine months of winter, three months of burning hell). In August the temperature averages 30ºC while in winter it can fall several degrees below zero. Although the saying is exaggerated, the continental climate in the middle of the peninsula and the altitude of Madrid at 646 metres above sea level certainly does make for an extreme climate. Ideally the best times of the year to visit are between April and June and September to October, although I would advise against the time of our visit over the bank holiday which includes 1st November ‘Todos Santos’, All Saints Day, when Madrid seemed to be bursting at the seams with visitors and the Prado Museum was offering free entrance which therefore involved queuing for over an hour to get inside. (The other attractions also involved large queues at this time.)
Madrid is not an ancient city, indeed it has only been the capital of Spain since 1561. When Spain’s Visigoth rulers, not at all barbarian but Romanised Christians, arrived from the Danube Valley in the 5th century, they established their capital at Toledo. Even by the time of the Moorish conquest of 711, Madrid was still little more than a hamlet and did not begin to grow until Emir Mohammed I (852-886) ordered the construction of a fortress (Alcázar) on the left bank of the Manzanares river in 875. The walled town that grew up populated by Moors, Jews and Christians derived its modern name from the Arab fortress ‘Majarit’ which was named after the small streams in the settlement. Suffice to say that it was Philip II who transferred the royal capital from Toledo to Madrid in June 1561. At this time Madrid’s population was little more than 15,000, while wealthy tradition-laden Toledo numbered over 70,000. (Today Madrid’s population stands at over 3,000,000.) Madrid then is a relative late-comer among European capitals. In the last quarter of the 20th century, Madrid has emerged as a capital whose dynamic cultural and social life compares most favourably with any of its older European rivals. To achieve its relatively new vibrancy the city had to remove cold hard layers of political calculation set by Philip II and some 400 years or so later by General Franco who made it the chief focus of his dictatorship.
With many capital cities I have visited I am always glad to leave and return to the “green” of the countryside. Not so with Madrid. With its tree lined paseos such as the Paseo del Prado, its numerous plazas with fountains such as the Plaza de España, the Plaza de la Cibeles, and the Puerta del Sol, and its parks and gardens including the Parque del Buen Retiro and Jardin Botánico there were always quiet green sanctuaries to escape to when the bustle of city life and the hard slog of museum visits became too much for us country mice. The Retiro Park is vast and covers some 321 acres of French-style formal and English-style landscaped gardens. When we visited in autumn the numerous trees were all changing hue, a wonderful sight. The park also boasts the Palacio de Cristal, Palacio de Velázquez, and a large boating lake El Estanque.
As we were only there for four days we had to limit ourselves in the number of places of interest we could visit. Top of the list of course were its museums. The so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ along the Paseo del Prado, between Plaza Cánovas del Castillo and Atocha railway station groups the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemiza and the Reina Sofia. My advice to people visiting the Prado which is vast and still only ever displays one tenth of its paintings at any given time, is to select a very limited number of paintings you may wish to view, otherwise the mind goes into over-drive. Originally built in 1785 as a natural science museum, the Prado was established in 1819 by Ferdinand VII as the Royal Museum of Painting and Sculpture. The royal collections assembled here are rich in quality and variety and contain my personal favourite by Diego Velázquez ‘Las Meninas’ (maids of honour) which presents the artist himself appraising his royal masters, their servants and the viewer of the painting with a stunning command of light, space and colour that makes the painting hypnotically 3D.
As an overall art collection the Thyssen was my favourite. The neo-classical Palacio del Villahermosa houses one of the world’s finest private art collections. Inaugurated in 1993, some 800 works of art dating from the 14C to the present day were donated by German-born industrialist Baron Hans Thyssen after being prompted to do so by his Spanish born wife Tita Cervera (a former Miss Spain). The bulk of the collection was assembled by the Baron’s father in the 1920’s. The works are organised chronologically on three floors from the top down.
However art aside, the two other attractions we managed to fit into a very heavy schedule of lunchtime drinks and tapas and evening drinks and fine dining were the Museo Arqueológico Nacional and the Palacio Real. The former shares its premises with the National Library built in 1892. The collection there traces Spain’s origins from the Stone Age through Roman to medieval Christian and Islamic art. Here we were able to view La Dama de Elche (4th century) and the goddess Dama de Baza. The Palacio Real or Royal Palace was a worthy visit. Nowadays this is only used for state functions, the royal family preferring more modest apartments on the other side of the city. Built in the tradition of Louis XIV’s Versailles, this neo-classical palace built in white limestone and granite has a facade that runs for 140m. Although it has only 30 of its 2,000 sumptuous rooms open to the public the visit can be something of a marathon and adjacent buildings include the Real Armería, Real Biblioteca and the Real Farmacia. The Royal Armoury was a spectacular display extremely well presented and very interesting.
Well if you haven’t lost the will to live, or at least to read more and possibly visit Madrid, the following information may prove useful:
Like in any big city, a car is a liability but the Metro is extremely easy to use and very efficient making the whole of Madrid easily accessible. My advice would be to purchase a ticket for 10 excursions which is valid for unlimited passengers (4 of us used it) and it is valid for more than the day of purchase. This cost is around €7.20 making journeys almost half price. We will be making a return journey to Madrid as we feel that we have only experienced a very small part of the city itself which has so much more to offer, and the next time I will be sure to make a reservation at Sobrino del Botin one of the oldest restaurants in Spain, set off the Plaza Mayor where reservations are a must.
This then is the city that I fell in love with, for Madrid is not just a cultural destination; it is also a lively metropolis with many pubs, cafes, discotheques and night clubs open late into the night. Don’t be surprised if you get stuck in a traffic jam at four in the morning, and the people are not necessarily going off to work!
This article was kindly contributed by Jo Chambers. Thank you, Jo.
For a luxurious stay in Madrid, try Unico Hotel Madrid.