An April 2005 trip
to Madrid by Owen Lipsett
Quote: As the youngest of Europe’s great capitals, Madrid is bereft of ancient monuments but enjoys an incomparably vibrant present. More representative of its country than most of its international counterparts, Madrid is where Spain’s seemingly non-stop nightlife, passion for football, varied cuisine, and artistic tradition find their greatest expression.
Understanding this relationship is central to appreciating Madrid and its appeals to every sense – it may be a world city, but it’s a Spanish one first and foremost. Time moves at a Spanish pace – be prepared to wait until 1pm for lunch and 9pm for dinner, and be sure to take a siesta in between in order to enjoy nightlife that runs later than anywhere else in Spain (or the world for that matter!). Madrid offers a dazzling diverse selection of cuisines from all around Spain, and despite being farther from the sea than anywhere else in the country, the country’s freshest seafood trucked in from its four coasts. Similarly, be prepared for most information to be offered in Spanish only, even at major sights. Resist these rhythms and you’ll be frustrated; embrace them and you’ll be certain to return!
Madrid is rightly most famous for its "Art Triangle" composed of the Prado (pre-modern Spanish and European art), Thyssen-Bornemisza (a compendium of Western art since the Middle Ages), and Reina Sofia (Modern art). Madrid’s public parks are works of art in their own right, in particular the Parque del Retiro, which is just east of all three museums. The balance of Madrid’s major sights, the Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, and the immense Palacio Real describe a triangle of their own, containing some of Madrid’s oldest (and most touristed) streets.
Madrid’s greatest visual charms may be found in its eclectic architecture. Strolling from the Palacio Real to the Puerta del Sol and from there to the Plaza de Cibeles offers a wonderful overview of the city’s development, although just about any ambulatory itinerary in the relatively compact (but somewhat unevenly sloping) center is likely to be equally rewarding.
Madrid’s tourist office, the most helpful in Spain, is located on the south side of the Plaza Mayor, offering maps, information on museum opening hours, and helpful advice and timetables for day trips to surrounding cities.
Most restaurants serve lunch between 1 and 4pm, and dinner from 9pm onwards. For lunch, a decent menu del día (three-course set menu) shouldn’t cost more than €10. If you get hungry in between, El Museo de Jamón is the best option for reasonably priced meals and snacks (not just of the porcine variety) at innumerable locations around the center.
Try to stay south of Gran Vía. In the area between Calle de Bailen and Paseo del Prado, there’s a good deal of accommodation to fit any price range, and you’ll be within walking distance of the majority of the major sights. Also, avoid staying in Lavapiés (dangerous) or the immediate vicinities of Puerta del Sol and Gran Vía (noisy).
Getting Around Madrid:Madrid is extremely walkable, but you should keep in mind that the city’s altitude generally increases as you go north and west. Consequently it’s a pleasant walk from the Puerta del Sol to the Museo del Prado, but the return journey is arduous. Fortunately, Madrid’s Metro is excellent, clean, frequent, and comprehensive. Journeys cost €1.15, but it’s a good idea to buy a 10-trip ticket, which costs €5.35, and thus halves the price. These tickets may be used by multiple passengers. Between 1:30 and 6am (when the Metro doesn’t run), there are night buses run by EMT from the Plaza de Cibeles.
Location:The hostal is on the fifth floor (reached by elevator) of Calle Magdalena 8, a major thoroughfare that connects Plaza Tirso de Molina (whose eponymous Metro station is a minute’s walk away) and Calle de Atocha. It also divides Central Madrid from the scruffy multinational neighborhood of Lavapiés, although the area around the hostal itself is quite safe and remarkably quiet. It’s approximately ten minutes by foot to the Plaza Mayor and fifteen minutes to the Puerta del Sol, both of which are slightly uphill. It’s a straightforward ten to fifteen minute stroll downhill to either the Prado or the Reina Sofia, and the restaurants of the characterful Huertas neighborhood and the Rastro (Madrid’s legendary Sunday flea market) are only about five minutes away. Personally, I couldn’t have been happier with the location.
Rooms: My single room, a bargain at €22, was small but not cramped, and furnished with a closet, small table, and writing desk, as well as a sink and mirror, all in excellent condition. The single bed was the most comfortable of its kind I encountered in equivalent lodgings elsewhere in Spain and amply furnished with blankets, an important consideration given Madrid’s interminable and cold winter, which had not fully dissipated at the time of my visit in April. The room itself was well-heated, although there was nothing to suggest it was air-conditioned in summer. The window was quite tiny – so while the room was comfortable I wouldn’t recommend it if you intend to spend much time inside (then again, if you are you’re missing one of Europe’s liveliest cities!)
Service: I’ve never seen anyone take more pride in keeping their guesthouse a clean and welcoming place than Lola and Ludmil, and its spotless halls and bathrooms were the result. They’re wonderful hosts, full of insights about Madrid and Spain, and as immigrants to the capital themselves take special care to welcome solo travelers, which I particularly appreciated. They also introduced me to others traveling alone and staying in the hostal. They’re incredibly responsive to questions submitted by email and pride themselves on replying quickly.
Madrid is a wonderful city, but one best appreciated if you can get into its rhythms. Staying at Hostal Numancia and Lola and Ludmil’s copious and helpful advice, as well as introductions, enabled me to do so. It’s in large part due to their hospitality that I look forward to returning to Madrid and (naturally) staying here again.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on September 30, 2005
Calle Magdalena 8, 5º Izquierda
+ 34 91 4686876
Attraction | "Museo del Prado"
Simultaneously grandiose and austere, the Prado’s interior remains just as impressive as it must have been when it opened – and consequently you should set aside a full day for even the most cursory examination of the collection as a whole. Whether you have this amount of time or only a few hours, it’s wise to pick up a free map upon entering. Regardless of your particular interest, you shouldn’t miss Diego Velázquez’ "Las Meniñas" (Room 12) and Francisco de Goya’s "Disasters of War" (Room 39), the highlights of unrivalled collections of these two competitors for the title of Spain’s greatest painter.
The other greats of Spain’s rich pre-modern artistic history are amply represented as well, with entire galleries dominated by the works of El Greco (60A-62A), Zurbarán (17A-18A), Murillo, and Ribera, the latter two sharing Rooms 25-29. The eschatological paintings of the Hieronymous Bosch (a native of Spanish-ruled Flanders) are concentrated in Room 58 and sharply contrast with the Prado’s Spanish and Italian works, although his eccentric masterpiece "The Garden of Earthly Delights" (Room 58) would stand out anywhere! The Prado boasts several paintings by Raphael and the great Venetian triumvirate of Veronese, Titian, and Tintoretto but the greatest Italian work in the collection is Caravaggio’s "David Defeating Goliath" (Room 65).
I’ve provided these room numbers as the free map is rather basic and nearly all the labeling inside the galleries is in Spanish. I suspect these to be part of a concerted plan to convince foreign visitors to purchase painter-specific gallery guides from machines strategic placed in the Prado’s most visited galleries for €1 each. A rather more shameless fundraising ploy is the overpriced fare in the Prado’s mediocre cafeteria - El Botánico around the corner from the Murillo entrance at Calle Ruíz Alarcón 27 offers much tastier options!
Visiting the Prado requires some planning; it’s open 9am to 7pm Tuesday to Saturday, and 9 am to 2 pm on Sunday, but admission is free only on Sundays and after 2:30pm on Saturday, with the result that the museum tends to be most busy at these times. In addition, if you’d like to see the typically excellent temporary exhibitions (for which there is invariably a line) you have to enter by the northern Puerta de Goya, otherwise it’s better to use the far less busy southern Puerta de Murillo.
Prado Museum/Museo del Prado
Calle Ruiz De Alarcón 23
Madrid, Spain 28014
+34 91 3302800
Although critics claim the Thyssen-Bornemisza’s works vary in quality and offer only a cursory introduction to innumerable painters and periods, I personally find these criticisms unjustified – next to the unusually airy galleries the museum’s scope is its greatest charm. Nevertheless, if you’re interested in seeing comprehensive displays of the work of specific artists or individual famous works the cavernous Prado and Reina Sofia, the other two points on Madrid’s "Art Triangle" will be more to your liking. If you’d prefer a more approachable collection, and a broad introduction to Western art, however, read on…
Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza’s collection is arranged roughly sequentially over three floors, with the earliest works on the highest level (which can be reached by elevator) and modern works on the ground floor, which are arranged according to style rather than in the strictly chronological fashion of the upper two floors. It’s worth renting an audioguide (€5) to make sense of the assemblage, although most paintings are accompanied by labels that provide basic information in both Spanish and English. Tita Cervera’s collections are displayed in separate galleries (located in what were once different buildings) on the upper two floors. This thoughtful design doesn’t disturb the harmony of the Baron’s collections (which were installed here under his supervision) and still allows you to compare the two as paintings from the same period are located in adjacent rooms. Tita’s collections are more heavily geared toward nineteenth and twentieth century art – particularly by non-Spanish artists who are underrepresented in the Prado and Reina Sofia – and consequently make a wonderful addition to the "Art Triangle" as a whole.
Choosing favorites from the collection is entirely a matter of personal taste – its greatest charm may be that there’s literally something for everyone. Although I personally find the display of works by Caravaggio and Ribera, thoughtfully placed together in Rooms 13-15, and the who’s whos of Post-Impressionism (33) and Expressionism (35-37) most compelling, your interests are likely to be different. Indeed one of the collection’s joys is that it confronts you with styles you might seek to ignore in another museum and that it places works by artists of different nationalities together in contrast to their usual segregation – illustrating both points I personally found the assemblage of British, French, and American nineteenth century landscapes in Rooms 29-31 delightful.
Further information: http://www.museothyssen.org
Paseo Del Prado, 8
+1 34 91 3690151
Parque del Buen Retiro: Located just beyond the Paseo del Prado and the "Big Three" art museums, the "Retiro" was once a royal pleasure garden but today is Madrid’s answer to London’s Hyde Park and New York’s Central Park. Paths named after Spain’s former colonies lead you to the Estanque a vast artificial lake which you can hire paddle-boats to navigate and that is a center of activity of all kinds (you’ll often see street performers in the summer or on weekends) that creates a boisterously festive atmosphere.
Further south, the Palacio de Exposiciones and Palacio de Cristal often host excellent (free) contemporary art exhibitions as well as being attractive in their own right. Further south still is the delightful Rosaleda, a quiet rose garden incongruously watched over by the Monumento al Angel Caído, probably the world’s only monument to Lucifer! It’s best to avoid the Retiro’s eastern edge, which is popular primarily with drug dealers and pickpockets. Unless you’re keen on seeing all of Madrid at play, it’s wisest to visit during the week.
Campo del Moro:Little-visited because it can only be entered from a single entrance along the Paseo de la Virgen del Puerto, the Campo del Moro takes its name from the Almoravid army that massed here in an unsuccessful attempt to retake Madrid in 1110. Just below the Palacio Real (which stands on the sight of the fortress the Moors sought to take) of which it offers wonderful views, the Campo del Moro’s location illustrates how daunting their task must have been. Seemingly boasting more peacocks (and staff) than visitors, its immaculately kept green lawns are the prettiest in Madrid and its side-paths the safest (as opposed to those of the Retiro), it was originally laid out in 1844 as the Palacio Real’s English-style gardens.
Parque del Oeste: Known to most visitors to Madrid as the home of the Templo de Debod, the Egyptian temple saved by Spanish engineers from the rising waters created by the Aswan High Dam, the Parque del Oeste is even prettier and better maintained than the Retiro, although a bit further off the beaten path, and consequently far less busy. Some of Madrid’s more interesting minor sights stud its sides: the Ermita de Florida (a small chapel whose ceiling was painted by Goya who is also buried there), Museo de America (detailing Spain’s conquests and colonies), and Faro de Madrid(Madrid’s best observation tower). Unfortunately it becomes unsavory at nightfall when it becomes popular with the city’s transsexual prostitutes – at this time it’s best to retire to one of the open-air terrazas of the neighboring Paseo de Pintor Rosales for a evening drink, a Madrileño tradition!
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