After visiting Sevilla and Granada, we only had three full days to explore Madrid. Madrid is the kind of city that is so huge and so rich in culture and history that, as first-time visitors, we decided that the best and easiest way for us to get a good introduction to it was to join a guided tour.
Some web surfing led us to Sandeman’s New Madrid Tours which offers a free half-day walking tour of the city. Yes, free. (Tips, though, are very much appreciated — and deserved — by the tour guides.)
On the day of the tour, we slathered ourselves with sunscreen and walked the short distance from our hotel to the Plaza de España.
PLAZA DE ESPAÑA is a square at one end of the Gran Via (the city’s main shopping district). The monument is in honor of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, creator of Spain’s most famous literary figure, Don Quixote.
From Plaza de España, we took the underground Metro to Puerta del Sol (Gate of the Sun), a grand (and I mean grand) square from where one can easily reach most of Madrid’s historic sites. From Puerta del Sol, it was an easy walk to Plaza Mayor where we met up with the tour group.
Our guide was a friendly young musician whose demeanor immediately reminded me of my Ma’s brothers, Tito B and Tito N. (They were hippies and political rebels in the Groovy Seventies who lived the rest of their lives with the aura of the perpetually stoned, haha. They were really, really cool.)
So come along now on this walking tour of Madrid, starting with the least pretty picture of a beautiful plaza:
PLAZA MAYOR – Madrid’s main and most famous square.
In the old days, it was the site of bullfights, public executions and trials of ‘heretics’ (the Inquisition was a dark period in Spanish history).
There’s much less bloodshed nowadays — on tour day, crews were dismantling scaffolding and equipment used in a concert the night before.
STATUE OF FELIPE III — he who managed to turn Plaza Mayor from a second-rate (trying-hard) meeting place into the imposing square that it is now. (The original plans were drawn decades earlier by Felipe II, after whom the Philippines was named.) Behind the statue is the Casa de la Panaderia or The Bakery which used to be the headquarters of the Bakers Guild.
Across the Casa de Panaderia are residential apartments famous for their balconies and frescoes. Hmm, I wonder what it’ll be like to live in one of those.
~ A closer look at the FRESCOES ~
Onwards from Plaza Mayor…
SOBRINO DE BOTIN is the world’s OLDEST RESTAURANT, established in 1725 and situated in a building that dates back to the 16th century. ‘Sobrino’ means nephew, in this case the nephew who inherited the restaurant from the original owners (the Botin spouses). I bet he is no longer alive.
CASA DE LA VILLA — Madrid’s old Town Hall and prison. Dating back to around 1650, it was the city’s seat of government until 2007. It is situated at the Plaza de la Villa, a small square that’s just a short walk away from Plaza Mayor.
CATEDRAL DE ALMUDENA is the main cathedral of the Diocese of Madrid. Built out of granite and marble, its construction took more than a hundred years and it was finally consecrated in 1993 by Pope John Paul II (who also has a statue in front of the Catedral).
This is NOT that statue.
The north facade of the Catedral de Almudena. The massive doors and columns still show some damage from the Spanish Civil War. The square fronting it is called PLAZA DE LA ALMERIA and right across is the world-famous…
The Royal Palace is Madrid’s largest building and the largest royal palace in Western Europe.
The Palacio also houses works of art by Velasquez, Goya and other Spanish masters, making it one of Europe’s most important museums.
Of course, since we were on a walking tour that also happened to be free, we were not able to set foot inside the palace.
But then, neither did these guys…
These are some of the 44 statues at the PLAZA DE ORIENTE (east of the Palacio Real) depicting kings from the medieval period. These were intended to be placed on top of the Palacio but stability (and overcrowding) became a concern and they were then plunked down here. This is not to be considered a demotion, mind you, as Plaza de Oriente is really a lovely park (see the photo up top).
STATUE OF FELIPE IV, Plaza de Oriente
He’s on a horse. The horse is rearing up. The horse is able to rear up because of Galileo. Yes, that Galileo (The Father of Modern Science who was damned to rot in hell during the Spanish Inquisition and was later popularized by Queen, hehe). You see, the statue is based on a painting of the king by Diego Velasquez, and the sculptor Pietro Tacca had no idea how to prevent the horse figure from toppling over. He turned to fellow Italian Galileo who then made some calculations and advised Tacca to make the rear end of the horse solid bronze and the front portion hollow. Did it work? Is the sun the center of the solar system?
The statue of Felipe IV was commissioned by QUEEN ISABELLA II, whose statue stands at the Plaza Isabel which is across Plaza de Oriente. Behind her is the TEATRO REAL (Royal Theater) which was officially inaugurated on her birthday in 1850.
(Girls, the billboard shows Spanish flamenco dancer and choreographer, Antonio Gades, who unfortunately succumbed to cancer in 2004.)
From Plaza Isabel, we walked some distance back to Puerta del Sol. Our guide led us through side streets and to plazas and historical buildings,and during a sudden heavy downpour, guided us as we made a mad dash across Puerta del Sol towards shelter (which turned out to be the foyer of a hostel with a very interesting history). I don’t have pictures of these places to show you because the ones I have are mostly of someone half-blocking the view.
We stopped for lunch at the Museo del Jamon where, for 2 euros, one can enjoy a bocadillo de jamon (baguette with slices of ham, usually jamon serrano) and a drink. Museo del Jamon is a chain of delis/restaurants and can be found in several locations in Madrid.
Alright, since your brain might already be exploding with all the historical factoids and I only have a few more pictures to show you, let me wind down the tour with these:
This is the house where Miguel de Cervantes died, in a street now called Calle Cervantes.
Trivia: Contrary to popular belief, the famous novelist did not die on the same day as Shakespeare. Yes, they both died on an April 23 but Shakespeare actually died ten days later. The discrepancy lies in the different calendars that Spain (Gregorian) and England (Julian) were using at the time.
The tour ends here, in a small park infront of the PALACIO DE LAS CORTES, which houses Spain’s lower house — the Congreso de los Diputados or House of the Deputies.
The small triangular park also overlooks Madrid’s “GOLDEN TRIANGLE OF ART”, an area so called because within it are three major museums — the Thyssen, the Prado, and the Reina Sofia.
So there you go, kids, I hope you liked the tour.
Madrid is a fine city and there’s more to it than I could see in three days. It is a tourist-friendly city, with helpful signs and directions everywhere. I do plan to go back so if you have more tips and suggestions for me and everyone else, do share.
Alright, adios for now. Now go and have some vino español. Or coffee. Or agua. That last one is on me.
If you are ever on a first-time visit to Madrid, I encourage you to try out the tours offered by New Madrid. The tour is far from the stuffy sort. Our guide was able to make otherwise boring historical narratives sound like Real Housewives of the Hapsburg Dynasty or something. The pictures here show only some parts of the tour. The guides were also quite generous with tips on where to find the best anything (like churros!) in the city. (They have paid tours such as the popular Pub Crawl for those interested in another type of cultural experience.)
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