Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.
Madrid is a beautiful city with a real focus on art, culture, and food. Sound like any other European cities you know? While it’s obviously a stunning city with some amazing architecture, there were times when 1) it felt like the other places we’d visited along the way and 2) I felt as though I wasn’t really even in Spain. Tour groups outnumbered locals two to one and while I understand that we ourselves obviously added to the number, it’s a bit grating to hear people on the street complaining about how they couldn’t get their Starbucks or their favourite McDonald’s menu items.
Still, it’s not impossible to escape the tourist route. There’s a beautiful city park right on the edge of the inner city called Buen Retiro, which offers some picturesque shaded walkways. It was particularly beautiful in the time that we went as the leaves were just starting to turn for autumn. If you’re lucky, you’ll also find the little courtyard in the park where there’s a large family of stray cats – we counted about fifteen gorgeous little felines, though unfortunately they’re not keen on being petted by humans!
We also spent some time in the district around our Airbnb apartment as for the first time on our European journey, K and I found ourselves staying in a relatively multi-cultural area of a city. Less impressive monuments, more doner kebabs and stir fries. This got me particularly excited as I was able to buy noodles, frozen dumplings, and bokchoy from the local Asian supermarket to make some classic Chinese dumpling noodle soups for dinners in our apartment. It definitely helped to calm some of the Chinese food cravings that I had been having!
We didn’t just stay in for our meals though. We did have a few meals out (Martina Cocina, Taperia de Malasana), and most importantly, we went to the famous Chocolateria San Gines which has been open since 1894. They’re famous for what is arguably one of the most famous Spanish desserts – chocolat con churros. I’m happy to advise that they’re just as amazing as you would hope them to be – thick, creamy drinking chocolate that isn’t too sweet, and crispy, crunchy churros that are delicious both by themselves and dunked in the chocolate. There were other snacks along the way as well – countless numbers of iberico jamon baguettes for example.
I fear however that the general Spanish lifestyle isn’t particularly conducive to the lifestyle that K and I enjoy. Neither of us are night-time revellers – we prefer to go out during the day, have lunch out, and then retire to our accommodation at night to cook dinner and watch a movie in bed. I don’t think I could ever get used to just drinking and eating tapas at bars until late. One night, I think a party in our neighbourhood didn’t actually kick off until midnight and ended around dawn. Definitely not my kind of scene!
So rather than having a goal of drinking multiple varieties of wine in multiple tapas bars around town, my main goal for our stay was to visit the two museums – the Prado, their national art gallery, and the Reina Sofia, their modern art museum. Entrance to both museums can be quite pricey, so if you’re on a budget like us, I suggest visiting them during their free opening hours. Reina Sofia is free after 7pm during the week and all Sunday afternoon, and the Prado is free after 6pm on all days. Just make sure you start lining up about half an hour before the gates open for free entrance, as the queue to get in does get quite long!
The pride and joy of the Reina Sofia collection is Picasso’s Guernica, one of the most powerful and recognisable pieces of art in the world. I remember studying the piece for an Art class at school and while I only just barely understood the anti-war implications of the piece then, seeing it in person as an adult with a better understanding of the human impact of war creates a much more emotional experience. Thinking about it in the current European context of the refugee crisis is particularly sobering – why haven’t we learned from the lessons of the past? Why are we not more compassionate? While I’m not the biggest fan of modern art, there’s no denying that it really does make you think about wider world issues.
The Prado is a beautiful museum as well, housed in a stunning neo-classical building. The Goya collection is particularly impressive, and I always enjoy going through the galleries housing portraits of the royal families – when you’re a royal history nut as myself, seeing the faces of kings and queens who you’ve read fictionalised stories of is a bit of a thrill. Particularly interesting was going through and looking at the portraits of all the Spanish Habsburgs, paying attention to the Habsburg jaw!
Madrid is beautiful, however I fear that it’s not really my cup of tea. I feel like a square compared to the locals (what, you don’t drink?) and some of the other Spanish cities we visited later on were more my scene – Sevilla for example, is just wonderful! Keep your eye out for that entry!