Colorful, cosmopolitan Madrid
Madrid doesn’t feel like a major European city. It feels like a large culture center. No Eiffel Tower, Big Ben or Brandenburg Gate — there is no single structure indicating that you're in Madrid. However, the unification of art, culture and humanity gives Madrid character.
Madrid lacks what you would typically find in most nation centers. There is no major river or waterway, nor is there is any strategic, geographic or economic benefit to its location. You won’t find any old royal tombs or Roman aqueducts, nothing to suggest a former empire resided in Madrid. Rumor has it, Madrid was selected as the capital because it had neither of the above and no significant ties to any royal family. Madrid feels modern in comparison to other European capitals.
Madrid has preserved the charm, character and vivacity that give it and its inhabitants a style of their own — an important aspect of modern Spain, where each region seeks to express its own identity.
Madrid also has taken on a cosmopolitan character with the influx of immigrants, particularly from Latin America, but also from Asia, elsewhere in Europe and North Africa. Madrid is a city that, with its style and flair, absorbs and holds those who live there or know it. In the words of a local proverb, “From Madrid to heaven, and in heaven a little window from which to see it.”
Madrid can be toured many ways, from the recognizable “hop on-hop off” buses to taxis, public transportation and go-karts. Madrid has a robust detailed metro system that can easily get you to all the major attractions. The metro card can be purchased at any station, and you can opt for either a card with unlimited travel daily or one that allows for a certain number of rides with no time limit.
Parque del Buen Retiro
Madrid's main park, El Parque de Retiro, can be easily reached from the main train and metro station. It is a magnificent green space where you feel completely removed from the city. The park is home to several sculptures, monuments, a boating lake and finely manicured gardens.
Walk deep enough into the park, and the city sounds will subside. Wide sidewalks and spacious green areas allow for any degree of fitness or relaxation. A 22-meter-high crystal palace, Palacio de Cristal, sits in the park in the shape of a Greek cross. Clearly and cleverly designed as a glass greenhouse, it houses local contemporary art.
Exiting the park at Plaza de la Independencia gives rise to Puerta de Alcalá, one of the historical gates of the city. This is a large gate similar to the Brandenburg Gate or the Arc de Triumph.
The Palacio Real, or Royal Palace, is Madrid's largest building and the largest royal palace in western Europe. The palace contains furniture, tapestries, paintings and ceramics as well as other important works of art and frescos by Tiépolo. Velázquez, Goya, Giordano and Mengs are all represented in the dozens of valuable tapestries and paintings, making the palace one of Europe's most important museums. It remains open to the public year round, except during official ceremonies and receptions.
Plaza de España
Plaza de España contains a large fountain and bronze statues of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza poised in front of a monument honoring Cervantes. Adjacent to the plaza is the House of Gallardo, which is indicative of the Art Nouveau style that dominates Madrid along the Gran Vía. Turn around and journey up the hill for more views of the Palacio Real. At the hilltop is an Egyptian temple.
Temple of Debod
Many people are surprised to learn that there is an authentic Egyptian temple dating from the 2nd century B.C. in the middle of Madrid and dedicated to the gods Amon and Isis. The temple originally stood in the Nile River valley, but the need for a new dam meant that it had to be moved elsewhere, or it would have remained underwater forever.
As a sign of gratitude for saving other ancient monuments, the Egyptians donated the temple to Spain in 1968. It was dismantled stone by stone in 1969 and shipped to the Spanish port city of Valencia, transferred to Madrid by train, and reconstructed in 1972.
The Gran Vía, the Great Way, is one of Madrid’s most famous streets, mentioned in Spanish operas, books and movies. It starts at Calle de Alcalá and leads across the city to the expansive Plaza de España. There are hundreds of shops, stores, hotels, banks, restaurants, bars and theaters along the road. No doubt the Gran Vía is the most important commercial district in the city.
There are several interesting buildings located along the street. The attention to detail on the building facades will convince you that every building has a historical purpose. I even saw a beautifully adorned McDonald’s that was a UNESCO protected cultural site.
Building after building and block after block will have you gazing upwards at the rich architecture. The rooftops are lavishly decorated, and large statutes peer down from their precarious perches.
Many buildings, cafés and museums along the Gran Vía have rooftop terraces. For 3 euros, you can take the elevator to the rooftop bar of the Círculo de Bellas Artes. The bar is expensive, but the views are breathtaking.
La Puerta del Sol
Puerta del Sol is a short walk from Plaza Mayor and situated east and west. A kilometer zero placard on a stone slab marks the starting point of Spain’s six national roads.
There are three famous statues within this plaza. The “Oso y el Madroño" statue (the Bear and the Strawberry Tree) is the official symbol of the city, but its origin is unclear.
Leading off the Puerta del Sol are several streets of bars, restaurants and shops. This is a very vibrant part of the city where residents congregate outside.
If you enjoy bridges, do not miss the Bridge of Toledo, a Baroque-style bridge that spans the Manzanares River and has a magnificent garden adjacent to it.
Farther down the bank you can find the Bridge of Segovia and a modern artistic footbridge. The Arganzuela Footbridge conical shapes will leave you dizzy.
The three famous fountains — Cibeles, Neptuno and Apollo — represent the elements of earth, sea and fire. They are in a direct line with one another across the city.
The Apollo fountain is situated in a small green space between the two bigger fountains. The monumental Cibeles Fountain has become a Madrid icon and is located at one of the end of the Gran Vía. Cybele, the Greek goddess of fertility, holds a scepter and key while being pulled by two lions on a chariot. Neptune rides in a conch-shell chariot pulled by seahorses, holding a trident in one hand and a coiled snake in the other while being pulled by sea horses.
You will not be disappointed by Madrid ... as long as you don’t expect the beach.
Images courtesy of the writer.