We have been in Madrid for just about a month, and of course we haven’t/couldn’t see everything. That is a difficult concept to accept at times, but for the experiences we want, it is essential. The days that have no defined purpose or destination are often the most rewarding; because it seems that for those brief moments we feel as if we live there.
We have seen many if not most of the major tourist sites, yet we have still made time to stop and really see the city and its people. And like any big city it’s not always pretty, but it is always fascinating.
One of the marvelous things about Madrid is its architecture. Almost every facade is grand. Balconies have beautiful wrought-iron railings, sometimes used for drying clothes or airing bedding. From the grandeur and ostentatious opulence of the Royal Palace and Cathedral to the worn and grimy barrios encrusted with decades of neglect, the buildings possess a formal and elegant design that most evokes the splendor of imperial Madrid.
An additionally delightful aspect of the architecture of Madrid is the vast number of very modern designs, some of which stand out making their statement or more subtly blend in to their surroundings. They range from the futuristic to the sublime, and from the controversial to the acceptable, yet they all seem to fit in.
The grand boulevards and roundabouts that traverse the city are an integral part of its architecture, as are the plazas that punctuate the neighborhoods to provide additional open space and vistas.
Being the capital of Spain extends beyond just the physical. There is a stoic attitude that Madrid is the center of Spanish culture; indeed it is the physical center of Spain from which all roads and train lines radiate out. Yet there is a feeling of a balanced blend of tradition with the modern, and a sense of strong nationalism with tolerance.
You don’t have to look far to see the depths of tradition. This is a city that still embraces Flamenco as a passionate art form, and reveres bullfighting’s bulls almost as much as the matadors. And if you want to start trouble insult their football (soccer) team, Real Madrid or Real Madrid Club de Fútbol.
Nowhere are the feelings of nationalism and tradition displayed more than in the art museums. Madrid is home to an incredible array of museums that rival any city in the world. The Prado, Thyssen and Reina Sofía are collections of breathtaking breadth, with collections that include Durer, El Greco, Bosch, Rubens, Fra Angelico, David, Zurbaran, Raphael, Titian, Ribera, Van Dyck, and Rembrandt. But importantly is the dominance of the Spanish masters such as Goya, Velazquez, Picasso, Miro, and Dali.
One of our favorite small museums, Museo Sorolla, was dedicated to the works of Joaquín Sorolla. We went there on the recommendation of a friend and were delighted. An artist who was unknown to us before we visited this museum, Sorella, 1863 – 1923, is often considered a neo-Impressionist, and it was the quality of the light that he captured in his paintings that captivated us.
Madrid feels less traditionally “Spanish” than the smaller towns we visited. Just as most large cities we have visited, the international cultures of business and commerce slowly replaced the traditional soul of the city; the siesta, or midday nap, is slowly disappearing and being replaced by more modern business working hours. Yet, most Madrileños still take time in the mornings for an hour-long coffee break.
Of course one cannot come to Madrid without being overwhelmed by food. The breakfasts are very light and usually nothing more than coffee con leche or hot chocolate and a small pastry, such as churros. The hot chocolate is wonderfully thick and rich and is exceptionally good for dunking the subtly sweet churros in.
Throughout the day small snacks are eaten at coffee break just to tide one over until the big lunch between 2:00-4:00. Boccadillos (small sandwiches) and tapas, which are so varied that they defy description, are usually available at all bars, cafes, and small restaurants. We have tried an amazing array of foods and generally enjoyed the small portions and prices.
The city’s most famous sandwich, the bocadillo de calamares, or fried squid sandwich is my favorite and is delicious. Another favorite was the Cocido Madrileño, a huge and hearty stew served at La Bola Taberna, still run by the same family that founded it in the 19th century. The Madrileño style stew is only served at lunchtime, and is still cooked the traditional way, in individual earthenware pots oover an oak charcoal fire.
The beverage of choice in Madrid is invariably cerveza or beer. Next to that is an incredibly fine selection of wines that, besides being delicious, are very inexpensive. We often enjoyed a delightful glass of vino tinto or red wine with a meal for less than $3 per glass.
Other wonderful beverages included local Vermut Negre or red vermouth usually served over ice with a slice of orange; local cider poured from above the head to glasses held below the waist in order to create lots of bubbles; and of course sangria is served everywhere but was refreshing but generally tame. Also refreshing, and a favorite cocktail in Spain is the gin-tonic (they don’t use the “&”) a delicious mix of gin, tonic, herbs, and citrus peel in a wide-rimmed glass.
After a month here it was difficult to think that it was time to move on. Yet we had had a wonderful time here. It was difficult initially making the transition from France, both culturally and linguistically. But the people have all been warm and friendly, and we enjoyed the experience far more than we expected.
Now we move on to Barcelona and to a different culture, Catalonian, another language, Catalan, and another adventure.