Travel Destinations: Three Days and 100 Euros in Madrid
February, although a short month can be tedious. You're coming off the Christmas and New Year holiday highs and you mostly get a lot of bad weather. It's time to get away and this time I wanted to go to Europe. But the exchange between the dollar and the euro is bad, so where to go in Europe that won't financially pauperize you but will still give you a good bang for your buck. Madrid here I come.
Madrid has a wonderful mix of sophisticated cafe society, history, art, and culture. Because I only had three days there, I wanted to go to a couple of places that were iconic to Madrid. To me that means The Prado and The Royal Palace. And walking around the city is wonderful because of its mix of old and new architecture.
I arrived in Madrid at 7:00 in the morning and was able to check into my hotel, Hotel Convencion; they seem used to people arriving early and I had no problem getting into my room. The hotel, situated on Calle O'Donnell, is not at the city's center. The advantage is that the area is a lot quieter, the hotel rate was more than reasonable and there are many buses and a metro stop nearby that brings you to the city center easily. If you are in Madrid for the first time, I would suggest that you learn how to get around using the public buses. Although the underground train station system is efficient, extensive and quick, you really miss out on all the sights.
I spent the first two days walking from Calle O'Donnell through the Parque del Buen Retiro past Puerto del Alcala at Plaza Independencia to Fuente la Cibeles then a left turn down the Paseo del Prado. This is wonderful walk and not too long. You get to see a nice mix of old and new buildings, monuments and sights. The walk down the Paseo which leads to the Prado museum is tree lined and beautiful.
In addition to the many sights, you'll come across numerous restaurants, sandwich shops, pastry shops, cerveterias (restaurants that have outdoor tables) and cafeterias. You will never be in want for a place to eat. What I did to save money and indulge at the same time is to take advantage of the Menu del Dia that each place had to offer. This menu gives you a choice of appetizer, entree, drink, coffee and dessert. Late in the afternoon, I would go into a cafeteria, restaurant, or cerveteria and enjoy this prix-fixe menu. Many of these menus can be had for as little as 10 euros. By the time I finished one of these big late lunches, it was time for a nap. And when you travel, you will need it. I think the afternoon nap is a great Spanish idea; it gives you time to refresh yourself for the evening activities. The Spanish are definite night owls. You will find both adults and children having fun at various plazas, pubs and restaurants are full of people, Madrid literally came alive at night. Beer or wine and tapas are an inexpensive way for people to get together and have a bite to eat without denting the wallet. Bottled beer and wine could be had for 2 euros or less and the same with the tapas. If you wanted a sandwich, you can't go wrong with a bocadillo. A basic bocadillo is a small spanish hero with a slice of jamon iberico (iberian ham). So tasty and cheap (you can have it for as little as 1 euro). The jamon iberico has to be the prince of deli hams. It is tasty and flavorful and one pound of it is expensive. A bocadillo de jamon was a way to indulge my taste for this pricey ham for an inexpensive price. A jamon with manchego cheese bocadillo is heaven.
Parque del Buen Retiro
On my way to Museo del Prado, I walked through Parque del buen Retiro, a huge park in Madrid. This park is to Madrid what Central Park is to Manhattan. However, unlike Central Park, Parque del buen Retiro used to be a royal park. If a king wanted to unwind and ride his horse or commune with nature, this park is where he would go. It has wide walkways, a man-made lake, formal gardens, and manicured lawns. However, times being what they were, at some point the royals thought it would be a good idea to make it accessible to the public so you will see many Madrilenos jogging, biking, and indulging in may outdoor activities. You can tell that this used to be a royal park because it is fenced in and the royal crest decorates the gated entrances.
On the northwest corner of the park, you'll come up on an immense structure, the Puerta del Alcala (Alacala Gate) on Plaza Independencia (Independence Plaza). This massive monument is as old as our country. King Charles III had it built in 1774 as an entryway into Madrid when the city still had walls. It was finished in 1778. Calle de Alcala cuts through the gate because this old road used to connect Madrid to the city of Alcala.
Museo del Prado
This museum is one of the best repositories of western art in the world. Here, you will see a ton of masterpieces. If there is an advantage to having kings and queens in charge, it is that they do appreciate art. The masterpieces in the Prado used to be part of the private collections of various Spanish kings and queens. Here you will see the iconic works of Velasquez, Goya, Titian, Bosch, El Greco among so many others. Seeing works such as Las Meninas, Third of May 1808, The Weavers, The Three Graces, The Garden of Earthly Delights is such a thrilling experience. The museum itself is not as big when you compare it to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. You can get a brochure from the information desk that highlights the cream of the masterpiece crop, it's a great starting point and goes a long way towards preventing museum fatigue. It's worth paying 3 euros and 50 cents for the digital headphone that will give you brief introductions to the masterpieces.
Did you know that you can get into the Prado for free? Yes! From 6pm til closing time at 8pm, visitors do not have to pay an entry fee. I visited the Prado on two consecutive days during the free hours. The current cost to enter the museum (before the free hours) is 14 euros.
Iglesia de San Jeronimo
Overlooking the Prado is a small church with interesting architecture. I love looking at old churches. I consider them expressions of faith, art, and history. I visited the Iglesia de San Jeronimo while I was waiting for the free hours to start at the Prado. This church actually has ties to the royal family because past princes of Asturias had their investitures here. The current King Juan Carlos was crowned here.
Inside it's amazing to look at the art and stain glass windows. The modest wooden pews of the church are a humble contrast to the gold gilt of the various art works. The church sits on a former site of a monastery for monks that belonged to the order of St. Jerome.
A Walk Around Gran Via
Since I spent the first two days on the Prado, I decided to let my last full day in Madrid be a combination of shopping and a visit to the royal palace. From Calle O'Donnell, you can take the #2 bus all the way to Gran Via which is Madrid's major shopping place. You can find the haute couture houses on the Gran Via. What I liked better was the mass shopping areas on the side street of Calle de Fuencarral. The side streets are narrow and remind me a little of Greenwich Village but of course, this being Spain, these streets are more ancient and gave me a little taste of what regular living in Madrid is like.
You can find a lot of mass brand names on Calle Fuencarral, such as Mango, Marithe Francois Girbaud, and Zara. On weekends many people shop and taking advantage of sales. And yes you can find a Starbucks, KFC, Amorino (the Italian ice cream shop), and other global food brands. Yes there is a McDonalds, of course! You can find it on the other side of the Gran Via on Calle Montera. In fact as you walk down Calle Montera it will bring you to Puerta del Sol, a lively plaza where there are people dressed up as characters so that tourists can take pictures with them for a fee. There also seemed to be some kind of demonstration so I actually stayed clear of the area.
I stopped by a KFC because I got a hankering for protein. Surprisingly, a two-piece chicken value meal was priced at 6.60 euros, way more expensive than what you would get in the US. It goes to show that you should try to eat local.
Not far from Puerta del Sol, as you walk along Calle Arenal, you will come upon El Corte Ingles, a very popular department store in Madrid. It's also a great place to get souvenirs, batteries, and other stuff that you might need replacing. At the sublevel is a supermarket which is also very popular. El Corte Ingles also has other branches in Madrid, in fact there's one two blocks away from Hotel Convencion.
Calle Arena leads you to the royal theater and past that you will see the Plaza de Oriente a nice park that leads up to the royal palace. I would suggest that you take a sit and rest in the park as you will be on your toes for a couple of hours as you go through the wonders of the palace.
The Royal Palace is massive and situated on top of the hill and overlooks a part of Madrid. As an American I really didn't have a concept of what a royal palace would be like. I mean when I think of castles and palaces, what pops up in my mind is the castle at Walt Disney World and that was fake. This is a real palace and still serves as the home of Spain's royal family but they've made several parts of the palace accessible to the public. You pay your 10 euros to go in and you are immediately in the gift shop. There is no floor plan, instead if you want to have a floor plan, you need to rent the headset that comes with the floor plan for another 10 euros. As a true republican and non-supporter of royalty I declined. There are descriptions in each room that help explain the purpose of this room as you go through.
Once you get past the gift shop, you will find yourself outside in this huge courtyard. You can probably fit a whole army in it. There are huge street lamps and sconces attached to the outer walls. You go through the front entrance and go through a marble staircase that will lead you to the upper floor where the rooms are. I can imagine horses pulling the royal carriage going through the front entrance and stopping in front of this impressive staircase and seeing the royal family crest.
You are not allowed to take pictures of the palace rooms, which is unfortunate because the whole place is eye-poppingly opulent. And the term opulent is an understatement to describe the rooms. There are works of art everywhere; on the ceiling, the wall covering, the furniture, you could literally bump into works of art if they weren't cordoned off. The throne room and formal dining room are amazing. The smaller rooms are also impressive. I can't imaging living amidst all that manufactured splendor but if you're royal I guess you can get used to it. You can also see the appreciation that the kings and queens have for works of art and craftmanship.
The royal pharmacy and the armory are also available to visit. Between the two, I thought the armory was amazing. The collection of swords, armor for men and horses, and other medieval warfare paraphernalia is a great piece of European history.
Catedral Santa Maria La Real de la Almudena
Right across from the Royal Palace, you can't help but notice the Cathedral. Its spires and dome are so dramatic. Although it looks like it's been there for years, it really wasn't completed until 1993, although work started in 1883. Of course because it is a cathedral, and a royal cathedral at that, no expense was spared. Since 1993, the royal family has used the cathedral for religious occasions instead of the Iglesia de San Jeronimo. The cathedral is named after the Almudena Virgin, Madrid's patron saint. It is said that King Alfonso VI found an image of the virgin inside the city wall of Madrid. Almudena is the arabic word for city wall. Inside the cathedral is a golden altarpiece that houses an image of the Almudena Virgin attributed to Diego Copin of Toledo in the 16th century.
As I took a sip from my last cafe con leche at the table of my favorite bakery, I knew I was going to miss Madrid. Even though my spanish was pretty non-existent, the Madrilenos were gracious in helping me out. And Madrid is one of the few cities in Europe that you can enjoy with the dollar going far. For breakfast, a cafe con leche, orange juice and roll with tomato puree and olive oil was a wonderful way to start the day and it only set you back 3 euros. The menu del dia or having bocadillo or two for your meal was satisfying and inexpensive. It also helps that the Spanish don't have tipping as part of their custom. In the evening, tapas and an Estrella Damm beer was a good way to end the evening without emptying your pocket. There is so much to enjoy in Madrid, more people should find a way to spend some vacation time here and engage in Madrid's movable feast.
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