Madrid Stories and Tips

Habsburg Madrid: Palacio Real and the Gran Via

The baroque facade of the Palacio Real Photo, Madrid, Spain

Madrid is not mentioned along with the great spectacular capitals of Europe. It does not capture images like other European capitals with their great squares, baroque domes or monumental avenues. Yet Madrid has all these and they are not the smothered in tourists like the rest of Europe. Above all Madrid is a great place to live, its renaissance plaza's and narrow streets are inhabited by Madrilenos instead of the rich and fashionable or international backpackers. And this is what makes it a great city and a very rewarding one to explore. And the best place to see this is at the western part of the centre. The Madrid created by the Spanish arm of the Habsburg family with its royal palace and the throbbing heart of Castile - the Gran Via.

The best place to start is the Puerto del Sol. This is the geographical centre of Spain and all distances are measured from it. It has heaps of atmosphere like all great squares should have, and is surrounded by renaissance 17th houses and overlooked by the famous 'Tio Pepe' advertisement. The plaza is thronged with tourists, pigeons, newstands, lottery-sellars, fountains and an equestrian statue of Felipe III. If you head west you enter the Madrid built by the Spanish Habsburgs and a quick step to the south brings you to the Plaza Mayor. But if you head west along the narrow Calle Mayor you will eventually hit the Palacio Real (Royal palace). Calle Mayor is fascinating with its fishmongers, tapas bars, nightclubs, fastfood joints and the famous Museo de Jamon - with its forest of hanging hams.

Not far away, past the Teatro Real, is the magnificent Palacio Real. The royal palace of the Spanish Bourbons is enormous and built of white Colemar stone (see photo). On a sunny day (pretty frequent in Madrid)the effect of the sol on the stone can be so dazzling that your eyes water. The Spanish Bourbons built the palacio in 1764. Their desire was to make Madrid as elegant as other European capitals and to make themselves secure as they had only recently rested the throne from the Spanish Habsburgs who had inbred themselves to extinction. The current monarchs, Juan Carlos and Reine Sofia, only use its 3,000 rooms for state occasions prefering to live somewhere more modest.

The palacio itself has a setting on the edge of a cliff and from the elegant Jardins de Sabatini you can see the green/brown Campo de Moro (field of the Moor)stretching into the distance. Once you enter there is the great stone expanse of the Plaza Almeria, two baroque wings of the palace enfold this massive area and there is a columned balcony overlooking the Campo de Moro. Inside you can take a tour or wander around on your own viewing the Hall of Halbardiers or the Hall of Columns. The Throne room is very impressive with glittering chandaliers, brown and gold decor and brown marble lions guarding the two thrones. The dining room was the most impressive with giant chandeliers hanging so low they almost touched the dining table.

Once you leave the best place to head is back to the Gran Via for something to eat and drink. Here, the possibiliites are endless with its restaurants, bars, cinemas, car showrooms, banks and department stores. It is the capitals showpiece avenida and stretches to the Paseo del Prado to the east to the Plaza Espanya in the west. This plaza (see photo) is magnificent with the towering monolithic gothic of the Edificio Espanya looming over all. In the centre is a monument to Cervantes with his famous creation Don Quioxte. But I made a real discovery in this area. If you take the subway in the southwest corner it will take you to the Parc Oreste. This peaceful park contains the 4th century BC Egyptian Temple of Debod. But if you pass this there is a fence giving a magnificent view of the Campo de Moro. Here is a vista of the rear of the Palacio Real, with its domes and the scrub and trees of the Campo de Moro. Spain is very lucky to have such a amazing view in the centre of its capital.

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