We arrived on Saturday morning in June as a family of seven flying in from different places in Asia and the States. Posters for Madrid 2012 Olympics were still up in prominent plazas. By the time we all checked in to the Hotel Wellington and grabbed lunch nearby, we realized that everything was closed for the long afternoon siesta. Given the heat and hot, glaring sun, I understand why they nap during the day and come out just before sunset to work a couple more hours before dinnertime at 10:30pm (when the sun finally sets!).
On our first day in Madrid, we ran smack into a city-wide march whereby 100,000 to 300,000 people (depending on who you ask) showed up at Puerta del Sol to protest or counter-protest gay marriages. Spanish families showed up with several generations, from great-grandparents to babies in swarms of strollers, showing singular support for family values. The first cultural taste of Spain hit me in the face when I realized that all the strollers were equipped with fancy parasols. (That, plus the fact that the local Spanish is thicker accented and more lispy than the Spanish we’re used to hearing in the Americas.) The Spanish are into bringing their babies out for walks every afternoon, so don’t be afraid to travel with yours! Anyways, gays and gay-rights supporters also poured onto the major streets to give strength to their own minority voice. Some guys we passed by pointed to two dogs in front of a bar and said that they (the dogs!) were getting married later that afternoon. What an introduction to Madrid spirit! As for us, we got our hands on the pro-family signs and happily snapped our first cheeky pictures in Madrid. Go family!
As the rest of the city marched in protest, we attempted the Lonely Planet city walking tour. It was a grueling 7-hour marathon to see the major sights. Of course, we made some lengthy stops for churros and hot chocolate at Chocolateria de San Gines (yum!), tapas sampling in the Plaza Mayor (top-attraction pick), and one of our best dinners in Spain at Botin (oldest restaurant in the world?). If we could do it with three generations of folks who never hit the gym and whose favorite sport is shopping, not to mention an 11-month-old who prefers to be carried, anyone else should be able to weather the trek as well. Bring lots of water and wear sensible shoes!
Sunday morning, we had the best breakfast of the trip at Mallorca, a great pastry shop on Calle de Serrano, packed up a dessert picnic from there, and spent the rest of the morning sauntering and enjoying each other's company at Parque del Buen Retiro. The Spanish LOVE babies and dogs, so our baby got plenty of attention and delighted in watching the dogs and pigeons at play. The park has plenty of nice shady, scenic spots to escape the glaring sun and 34°C heat. But by high noon, we rushed to the nearby Prado Museum to cool down and take in the culture. Personally, I preferred the museums in France and Italy to those I visited in Spain, but they do have several interesting pieces in the collections as well. Of note, in particular, are the paintings from the Spanish school featuring Velazquez, El Greco (better than those in the Casa-Museo de El Greco in Toledo!), Goya, and Murillo. My personal favorite was Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, from which God provided the perfect opportunity to explain the evangelical message to a curious father.
Between 2 to 6ish pm, everything shuts down. And since we were in town for only 3 days (during the weekend), we didn't see ANYTHING open other than a few restaurants and the H&M and Nike stores on Gran Via. Not even the highly recommended tapas bars in the seedy, gay Chueca district bothered to open their doors during our entire stay, nor did the swanky stores on Calle de Serrano. We left Madrid wondering whether the locals had ALL escaped the record heat for an early vacation this summer. Guidebooks all warn against traveling to Spain in August, but this is June we’re talking about! Beware of earlier-than-usual summers and heat waves. During our 2-week stay in Spain, Seville and Barcelona were definitely livelier, with more attractions and things to do than Madrid. However, Madrid is, again, a great introduction and place to ease into Spain.