A couple of weeks ago, we took a family trip to Madrid. Following our enjoyable trips to Seville and Bilbao last year, I was keen to see how Spain’s capital compared to two of its other major cities.
The flight time of around 2 hours and 10 minutes from Manchester is followed by one of the longest runway taxis that I’ve ever experienced: a whole fifteen minutes to get to the stand. This was followed by a twenty-minute walk to the metro station. I suppose this is par for the course for an airport the size of Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas, which is one of Europe’s busiest. However, on the plus side, the onward journey from the metro station was a breeze. We used the ATMs to buy a three-day tourist ticket, at a cost of just over €18 each. This gives you unlimited use of Madrid’s metro, buses and overland railway in the central tourist zone. Note that it also includes the €3 Airport tax, which you would otherwise have to pay if buying individual metro tickets. You can ride pink line 8 all the way to Nuevos Ministerios in the centre of the city.
With a few trips to Spanish cities under our belts, it had become obvious that the major cities each have a fabulous transport network that is ideal for tourists. The metro system in Madrid is so good that we didn’t feel the need to use any other form of transport during our stay. Our hotel, the Claridge, is a two-minute walk from a metro station located on the grey circular line (6) so getting to the tourist hotspots was never an issue.
The Claridge itself is a four-star hotel with spacious rooms and a nice little bar. The beds are comfortable, the staff friendly and if we visit Madrid again, we won’t hesitate to stay at the same hotel. The hotel is also situated less than a mile from El Retiro Park (more on this later), although tired feet meant that we never actually walked!
First up on our trip was the Puerta del Sol with its famous statue of the bear and the strawberry tree (El Oso y el Madroño). A short walk away is the Plaza Mayor, a major meeting point sure to be crowded later in the day and evening, but virtually empty at this early hour.
Next up was the Reina Sofia Museum. This forms one-third of Madrid’s famous “Golden Triangle of Art”, the other museums being the Prado and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. With our visit lasting just under 48 hours, we decided to visit one museum and picked the Reina Sofia because it is home to perhaps Spain’s most famous work of art: Guernica by Pablo Picasso. Created in response to the fascist bombing of the town of Guernica in the Basque Country during the Spanish Civil War, the large canvas has become an iconic anti-war symbol known throughout the world. The mural-sized painting depicts a collage of unsettling images, amongst them a bull, screaming heads and dismembered body parts. Standing in silence in front of these powerful images with about thirty other people is a sombre experience. Elsewhere in the museum, I enjoyed some works by surrealist Salvador Dali. I was also fascinated by the architecture of the museum. Built around an 18th-century hospital building, an extension was opened in 2005. The way in which the glass and steel of the new building are fused with the original stonework makes for some interesting photos.
Leaving the Reina Sofia Museum and heading to El Retiro Park, it is worth passing the Caixa Forum building, which features a vertical garden on one of its walls.
As befits a major European capital, Madrid is full of grand buildings, statues and monuments. We decided to take the longer route to El Retiro Park so that we could take in a few of these famous sites. Walking up the Paseo del Prado, a beautiful tree-lined boulevard, and past the Prado Museum, the first of two majestic fountains is the Fuente de Neptuno. Then, on the right, is the Monumento a los Héroes del Dos de Mayo (Monument to the Heroes of the Second of May). Originally built in homage to those who died in the 2nd May uprising in 1808, since 1985, the monument has served as a memorial for all who have given their lives for Spain and features an eternal flame. Further up the road is the Fuente de Cibeles: like the previous fountain, this sits in a traffic island in the middle of a busy intersection, so a good zoom lens is the key to getting a shot.
In fact, this is a good spot to stop and get a few photos of the city. In addition to the fountain, there’s the Palacio de Cibeles, which is basically the town hall, but on a slightly grander scale than most town halls around the world. (In checking the names for this article, I discovered that the palace has a cultural centre and a viewing terrace that is accessible to the public! I wish I’d known when we were there as apparently, the views of the Gran Via are spectacular). Opposite the palace, if you look down the Calle de Alcalá, you can see the iconic black dome of the Metropolis building.
After snapping some photos, we turned right and headed towards the park. Just outside the gates is the Puerta de Alcalá, a triumphal arch that is similar in style to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but this Spanish version predates its more famous cousin by more than twenty years.
When we finally reached El Retiro Park, we were not disappointed. This large open space is a public park and is, therefore, free to enter. We all agreed that walking around this wonderful green space was our favourite highlight of Madrid. Like the rest of the city, the theme of majestic monuments continues inside the park, none more so than the monument to King Alfonso XII, which overlooks the lake that dominates the park. Whilst the area around the lake was bustling with people when we visited on Saturday afternoon, most of the park was much quieter, and there are plenty of walkways where you can stroll peacefully, escaping the busy city.
Other highlights that the park has to offer include the Paseo de la Argentina (a walkway with statues), the garden surrounding the Jacinto Benavente Monumento, the Fuente del Ángel Caído (Fountain of the Fallen Angel) and the magnificent Palacio de Cristal, a giant conservatory made almost entirely of iron and glass, set next to a picturesque lake. There are plenty of cafes dotted throughout the park, so you’ll never be far from a coffee or snack. We stopped twice for churros and also had a refreshing sangria near the crystal palace.
After a short rest back at the hotel, it was time to see Madrid by night. Before our trip, I’d read that the Templo de Debod was a spot favoured by the locals to watch the sunset. The temple, an Egyptian original that was gifted to Spain by Egypt in thanks for its help in saving some of its notable sites, is set on a raised outcrop that overlooks the west of Madrid.
I can confirm that the western sky, in all its brilliant colours, is indeed a spectacular sight.
Heading back into the city, we stopped in the Plaza de España to see the Cervantes monument with the statues of the Spanish writer’s most famous characters, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. There were another two beautiful fountains here – we’ve noticed that Madrid does love a good fountain!
I’m pretty sure that Madrid is always busy on a Saturday night, but given that this was a few hours after the Real-Atlético Madrid derby, plus the fact that political demonstrators were mobilising ahead of a rally the next day, tonight seemed particularly vibrant and colourful.
Sunday kicked off with a visit to the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, Madrid’s bullring. This is an impressive building with some nice statues on the outside. However, I have to say that overall, we were disappointed with our visit. When we arrived, we were told that there were renovations in progress and that we wouldn’t be able to walk out into the centre of the ring. This had been one of our favourite elements of our visit to Seville’s bullring, and to see the centre covered in a large plastic greenhouse-type cover detracted from the views of this famous arena. I accept that maintenance has to be performed at some stage, but given that we’d pre-booked online, there should have been a warning on the website – if there was, I didn’t see it. As an interesting side note, I see that the bullring has hosted some major music concerts including one by The Beatles in 1965.
Later in the day, we visited the Palacio Real de Madrid. Whilst still the official residence of the Spanish royal family, the palace is now only used for official state occasions. This is good news for the tourist because it means that the general public can get a look around the inside of this impressive building. There’s a small but beautiful garden in the walk up to the palace (Plaza de Oriente) and a whole host of street performers, many of whom form some impressive living statues, having covered their bodies in a substance that makes them look like stone statues come to life when they do eventually move. It’s interesting to see how close the local apartments and houses are to the palace, which has no wall on the east side. If you lived in one of these buildings, you could at one point in history have legitimately claimed that the King of Spain was your next-door-neighbour!
Once again, we’d pre-booked online, and this was useful given that there were two queues waiting to go in – the general admission queue was pretty long, snaking across the Plaza de la Armería that the palace shares with the adjacent Almudena cathedral – but we were able to head straight in.
Inside, you can wander around the large courtyard, snapping some impressive photos of the façade and the cathedral across the plaza. Inside, you wander around a pre-defined tour route that takes the visitor through more than twenty rooms. Some of the frescos and artistic ceilings in the palace are a sight to behold. I caught myself admiring the incredible detail on the ceiling of one of the rooms, only to look down and see a note that said this was simply the anteroom for a more impressive space next door! You can also view the Spanish throne and crown – the equivalent of the crown jewels in England.
Our final stop was the Jardines de Sabatini, which is situated immediately north of the palace. This is a beautifully kept public gardens with an ornamental pond, some walkways and yet more statues. Standing at the edge of the pond, you can get a lovely photo of the garden with the palace in the background.
There’s so much to do in Madrid that it was difficult to choose what to do and what to leave out. Having three non-football fans in the family, I was out-voted when I suggested Real Madrid’s world-famous Bernabéu Stadium. Then there’s Madrid Río Park and the cable car. I haven’t specifically mentioned the food because we’re a conservative family when it comes to dining, but there is an abundance of places to eat, with plenty of tapas bars and other Spanish-flavoured eateries. Madrid is a colourful and vibrant city, full of magnificent buildings and monuments, and I’d heartily recommend adding it to your list of city breaks. I have a feeling that we’re not done with the city yet, and I look forward to our next visit.
Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright” and “Black Hearts Rising”, part of a mystery series that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.