Madrid in summer is an unbearable haunt of stifling hotness that leaves visitors breathless and takes away their enthusiasm for exploration and sightseeing. For this reason, well-off madrilenos (and most residents appear to fall in this category, showing that the economic recession in Spain seems to have left little or no dire effects on the capital) leave the capital for a summer recess and travel north where the temperature is more tolerable and the sea ambience provides a cool invigorating atmosphere that contrasts deeply with the hot humidity of the inland cities. I was in Madrid last summer but my repeated attempts to travel around independently and look into the churches, museums and gardens for which the Spanish capital is so gloriously renowned proved futile. Steamily hot, the capital was rendered unwalkable except perhaps at night when obviously all places of interest were closed. Consequently, I decided to cut short my Madrid tour after a stopover of only two days but with the intention to revisit as soon as the weather cools off.
My second visit to Madrid in December was contrary to the first one a real treat. Although the streets and squares of the central zone were invaded by swarms of visitors and I was on many occasions compelled to push to make my way through, the general ambience was so great and the atmosphere so intimate that I enjoyed every minute to the full. The weather was perfect for strolling around, the parks and grasslands were as green as any well-groomed house garden in spring and with Christmas just round the corner the partying atmosphere of fiesta reached an all-time high.
A tour of Madrid probably starts at Madrid’s Barajas airport, ten miles northeast of the city centre. The best way into town from any of the four arriving terminals is the metro, line 8 offering a direct twenty-minute link between Barajas and Nuevos Ministerios, north of the centre. Being a major metro interchange, Nuevos Ministerios connects with line 6 (a circular route that runs around the inner city) and line 10 (a route that cuts diagonally across the city from its northeast station Hospital Infanta Sofia to its southwest station Puerta del Sur), making one’s way to the centre an easy feat of travelling quickly and cheaply.
Madrid’s most popular square and meeting place is also its geographical centre. Named Plaza de la Puerta del Sol but popularly referred to simply as Sol, it is the best place to linger around if one wants to get a real taste of old Madrid. The square has no particular attractions but the atmosphere of rowdiness created by noisy madrilenos on the move is enough to justify a repeated leisurely walk around. The buildings that surround the square are typical of imperial Madrid, ostentatious and imposing but their otherwise monumental architecture fades into insignificance as the restaurants that occupy their ground floor open their doors for a long day of activity. Restaurant owners are undoubtedly privileged to occupy a nook here from which they can make good money but … aren’t such spots of indulgence out of place within a historical quarter? The network of busy metro lines under the square are rightly out of sight except for two unobtrusive access entrances that lead to the city’s most frequented abysmal stations.
On the east edge of this vast space stands a small monument that is neither artistic nor particularly attractive. Often missed out by sightseers due to its out-of-the-way location and its diminutive dimensions, it is nevertheless a symbol of the city, a historical representation of allegory and folklore. A smaller-than-life bronze bear, black with pollution stretches itself upright against the trunk of a ‘madrono’ tree in an attempt to reach the fruit at the top. Two other more imposing monumental statues stand on Plaza de la Puerta del Sol but it is the bear and the ‘madrono’ tree that madrilenos find most endearing and precious.
December on Plaza del Sol is a month of non-stop celebrations. Madrilenos have a passion for religious festivities and needless to say most are well versed in the art of merrymaking. During the Christmas season, Plaza del Sol and the streets that radiate from it turn into one huge manifestation of carefree enthusiasm where the holiday spirit can be experienced twenty-four hours a day. An eighteen-metre high Christmas tree brightened with thousands of Christmas lights and glittering decorations is set up on the square right in front of the old post office. Several smaller but equally eye-catching nativity decorations like five-pointed stars, artificial snowmen and life-size Christmas statues are thrown in here and there to add to the Christmas atmosphere. Coming here after six in the evening is tantamount to experiencing more than three million dazzling lights that are spread over the most popular streets of the centre like coloured speckles of brightness joined together with partially visible strands. Shop fronts are needless to say decorated with more flickering lights that add to the Christmas spirit and tempt passers-by to look more closely at the display. Blanketed in more dazzling lights is the widespread façade of the Corte Ingles department store, an exposition of dangling threads of sparkles and multi-coloured radiance.
A repeated up-and-down leisurely walk along Calle Mayor from Plaza del Sol to Calle de Bailen is an unforgettable encounter with the characteristic features of medieval Madrid. Although most of Calle Mayor has been unfortunately transformed heedlessly into a clamorous shopping district of small individual shops, the street is nonetheless still crammed with old-world charm and stunning architecture. A short westbound walk from Plaza del Sol followed by a sharp turn left on Calle de Felipe III brings one right on Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s most imposing piazza and its most important centre of attraction. Sitting on an elevated rectangular plot of land, Plaza Mayor is indisputably Madrid’s heart, an enclosure formed by four rows of grand buildings that retain uniformity of design and colour. The unique appearance of the piazza reaches its height in the exterior architectural beauty of the Casa de la Panaderia, an impressive building that boasts two side towers and three tiers of exquisite frescoes that run along the whole length of the façade.
During the Christmas season, Plaza Mayor turns into an open-air market that brims with rows of colourful stalls stocked to capacity with all sorts and sizes of Christmas statuettes and other Christmas-related creations. Some items on display are mass-produced moulds of resinous material and have little artistic value; other items are handmade works of art, sculpted, painted and gilded by Spanish master craftsmen and consequently carry a certificate of origin. Under the arched walkways and conveniently sheltered from rain and frost are several more stalls that do not however deal in Christmas items but are entirely reserved for philatelists, numismatists and card collectors. The atmosphere on the square particularly after dark when everywhere glitters and flickers with colourful incandescence is lively, exciting and bustling but never business-like. Coming here at night is a guarantee that the Christmas spirit of the Spanish capital will tug at your heartstrings and stir your emotions to join in the fun and merrymaking.
Down from Plaza Mayor followed by a short walk west on Calle Mayor brings one near Plaza de la Villa, an unpretentious piazza that embraces a wealth of Madrid-style architecture that is at least four centuries old. Well preserved, the buildings on the square are composed of brick, stone and granite merged in such a way as to create a unique style of design and adornment. The most eye-catching building is the Old Town Hall, a red-orange graceful baroque structure with two slate-roofed corner towers. The oldest is the Gothic Torre de los Lujanes, another merger of brick and stone that dates back to the fifteenth century.
The last section of Calle Mayor, further west than Plaza de la Villa is less crowded and has fewer crowd-pulling attractions. It is chock-a-block with small shops of all sorts; to peep in even if you do not intend to buy is a delightful experience shop owners in Madrid accept with favour. Bakeries, florists, souvenir shops, tea shops and coffee shops abound. Less abundant but perhaps more tempting are the artisanal shops and antiquarians whose displays of fine art, artistic handicrafts and collector’s items are often as interesting, fascinating and nostalgic as the pieces you see in a museum.
The westernmost edge of Calle Mayor is characterized by a number of nondescript buildings that lack architectural features worthy of note. But further west across Calle de Bailen, the area is one huge venue of sightseeing attractions that can easily keep one occupied for a whole day. The highlight is indisputably the Royal Palace, a huge baroque three-storey place that incorporates in addition to the Royal Chambers, the Royal Library, the Imperial Armoury, the Royal Pharmacy and the meticulously kept Sabatini Gardens.