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How I spent 48 hours in Madrid


With its wide paseos, impressive squares, world-class museums, and tapas bars on every street corner, Madrid was at the top of my list of places to visit in Spain. It didn’t disappoint. I spent two days walking everywhere from my well-located hotel on the Gran Via and a fascinating city was opened up to me.Madrid, Retiro Park

GRAN VIA and the PLAZAS

The Gran Via is a busy boulevard that crosses the Old City from the Metropolis building in the east to the Plaza Espana in the west. It is filled with ornate white marble 18th and 19th century Baroque gems and chic shops, hotels, restaurants and tabernas.

Not far from the Gran Via is the grand Plaza Major, a magnificent square built at the end of the 15th century when Phillip II moved his court to Madrid. At one time it was the site of bullfights, soccer matches, public executions, and even a beatification. Today it is first and foremost a tourist destination.

Sitting proudly in the center of the square is a majestic statue of Phillip III on horseback. The Casa de la Panaderia, former headquarters of the bakers’ guild, is the most impressive building in the square and the model for all the others. Only the portal and ground floor survive from a fire that burned the building down in 1672. Frescoes of mythological figures dating from 1992 adorn the upper stories.

Plaza Puerta del Sol is not far away. Meaning “gateway to the sun”, this is considered to be the heart of the city. A marker in front of one of the historic buildings that now houses a regional government office indicates “kilometro cero”. This is the place from which all distances in Spain are measured. The statue of the pig climbing the strawberry tree on the northeast side of the square has become a symbol for Madrid.

RETIRO PARK—WHERE LOVERS SERENADE EACH OTHER

Created in 1680, it belonged to the Spanish Monarchy until the late 19th century when it became a public park. It’s serene and beautiful here, with manicured gardens, fountains, historical monuments, and a sculpted cypress tree that is 400 years old. A large man-made pond features stone urns, mermaids, fish, horsemen, gods, goddesses, cherubs, and white marble colonnades—a great place to rent a boat and serenade your lover.

Madrid Retiro Park

This park is a beehive of activity any day of the week. As I strolled and enjoyed an ice cream cone, street musicians performed, children fed the ducks, families picnicked on the lawns, and lovers rowed their boats.

Two buildings are used by the Museum Sofia Reina for special exhibitions—the Crystal Palace which was built in 1887 and is a fine example of cast iron and glass architecture, and the Velasquez Palace not far away. I stopped in to admire the work of some new avant garde artists.

THE PRADO—A WORLD-CLASS MUSEUM

This world-renowned museum opened in 1819 with a treasury of art that included acquisitions by the Spanish kings. In paintings of the Spanish school, the Prado has no equal. There are 114 paintings by Goya alone on display and 50 by Velasquez, but the Prado also has excellent Italian, Flemish, and Dutch collections. Goya’s work makes up such a large part of the museum that a statue of the artist stands outside the main entrance.

The collection is enormous so I came prepared with a list of some of the highlights that I wanted to see—Las Meninas by Velasquez, The Third of May and the Nude Maja by Goya, The Adoration of the Shepherds by El Greco, and The Garden of Earthly Delights by Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch.

The famous painting, Las Meninas, takes center stage throughout the city. The figure of the little Infanta Marguerite in her gown has been reproduced in the form of large outdoor sculptures that have been placed in squares and parks and on sidewalks all over the city. Local artists paint them and they are a colorful and whimsical addition to the streetscape of Madrid.

SOFIA REINA MUSEUM—FOR THE AVANT GARDE AND GUERNICA

This is another one of the top museums in the city. Its focus is on the Avant Garde and Art Nouveau periods.

I came here to see the highlight of the collection, Guernica, Picasso’s indictment of war and all its senselessness. There also are other works by Picasso as well as by Miro, Dali, and Tapies. Photos of Guernica are not allowed, but you are free to take photos in other areas of the museum.

The courtyard with its pleasant landscaping and important sculptures by Calder and Miro is a pleasant place to sit and relax after touring the museum.

PALACIO REAL—THE ROYAL PALACE

The building dates from 1734 when it was rebuilt following a fire that destroyed the former Alcazar palace of the Habsburgs. It is the official residence of the Spanish Royal family although it is only used ceremonially; they do not live here. This is the largest royal palace in Europe with 2,800 rooms. (Compare to 700 in Versailles and 1,441 in Schonbrunn.) About 30 rooms are on the tour.

The Palacio Real was home to the Kings of Spain from 1759 to 1931 and provides an excellent history of Spain through its art, frescoes, porcelain, watches, furniture, silverware, gold, and armor. Here you will also find the world’s only complete Stradivarius string quintet.

TAPAS FOR BREAKFAST, LUNCH AND DINNER

Enjoying tapas is a cultural and social experience. Small tabernas and tapas bars are found everywhere. You can either stand or sit at the bar and select a variety of these “small plates” from the vast assortment under glass in front of you. People tend to be international and friendly, and it’s easy to strike up a conversation around the tapas. One of the tapas bars has such a large variety (51 different selections to be exact) that it provides a printed list along with photos and descriptions that you check off and give to the wait-staff.

Besides the small tabernas and tapas bars that generally are privately owned and operated, you can also go to the grand Mercado de San Miguel located along Calle Major. This is a large marketplace with a mouthwatering assortment of tapas and other foodstuffs. It is also a major tourist attraction and not always easy to find a seat..

There’s even a ham museum here in Madrid on one of the small streets leading into Plaza Major. It has a wide display of different types of Iberian ham in a deli-counter setting. It is very lively with customers buying ham and sausage and others standing at the counter off to the side drinking beer and eating samples of their sausage.

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If you go:

Highly recommended is Hotel Atlantico, Gran Via 38, 28013 Madrid. It is well located within the old city close to both the Callao and the Gran Via metro stops, and walking distance of most of the major sights. It also is a beautiful building with stunning architectural details, on a road with other similarly beautiful gems.

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About the author: Elizabeth von Pier is a retired banker and an avid traveler, photographer, and writer. She has been published in the Los Angeles Times, GoNomad, Travel Thru History, and various online magazines and recently published her first book, “Where to Find Peace and Quiet in London” (Amazon CreateSpace). Ms. von Pier lives in Hingham, Massachusetts.

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