Madrid is an ideal winter destination. Winter in the Spanish capital is only a mild and short spell of cold weather with occasional outbreaks of rain and frost that never last more than a few days. Contrary to north European destinations where the winter season is long, harsh and gloomy, Madrid is blessed with temperate weather that is never bleak or bitter and consequently allows for leisurely walks, street partying and outdoor celebrations. Unpredictable weather in Madrid is as rare as a snowstorm but it is nevertheless advisable to carry a hooded raincoat if one intends to spend intervals of time in one of the parklands that unfold along the peripheral zones of the inner city.
Come rain or shine, one can never be at a loss when one visits Madrid in winter. Even if one’s trip coincides unexpectedly with inclement weather or bouts of heavy rainfall, one will find in the Spanish capital enough weatherproof attractions to occupy oneself for days, if not for weeks.
Plaza de la Puerta del Sol is Madrid’s geographical centre, a busy square and metro interchange where the city’s three most frequented underground train lines intersect. West of Plaza del Sol and easily reachable on foot or via line 2 of the metro to station Opera is a conglomeration of stately buildings, memorable reminiscences of distinction that expose with excellence the former grandness of imperial Spain. Northwest of this palatial complex and obscured by two distinct green belts of woodland, lawns and shady pathways lies Estacion de Principe Pio, a major transport interchange of metro lines, suburban railways and intercity buses that trippers will find inevitably useful for southbound trips to neighbouring cities.
East of Plaza del Sol and only a half-an-hour stroll away or a short metro ride on line 1 to station Atocha lies one of Europe’s greatest oasis of greenery. Cut across by streets and several endless passageways, this city sanctuary of extensive grasslands, formal gardens and shady woodlands is appropriately named the Parque del Buen Retiro. A grand park of retreat, seclusion and contemplation, it unquestionably is but it represents in addition the entirety of Spanish history, culture and art at its finest and not-so-fine moments. In actual fact, most of the park’s outbuildings, palaces and royal structures, formerly used by the Spanish royalty as auxiliary country residences were turned into some of the best world art galleries. Renowned worldwide for grandness, aesthetics or originality, three of Europe’s greatest museums of paintings are located on the west edge of the park. These are: the Museo del Prado, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. If after visiting these three art centres, your appetite for things cultural has not yet been satiated with excellence, finesse and beauty, then proceed to the Museo de Artes Decorativas located north of the Museo del Prado on Calle de Montalban. It contains a varied and sumptuous accumulation of decorative antiques that symbolise in no small way the former artistic taste of the privileged classes in medieval Spain. Several smaller thematic museums dot the park, making leisurely walking around a feat of discovering their location. The excellent Museo Postal y Telegrafico (free admission) on the northwest edge of the park looking over Plaza Cibeles contains besides other communication-related material complete collections of Spanish stamps, historical postcards and war memorabilia letters that appeal to philatelists and historians alike but obviously for distinct reasons. Three centuries of world philately are represented through numerous stamp collections from all parts of the world while two centuries of telegraphy and telephony are explored through displays of authentic equipment, illustrations, posters and documentation.
South of the Parque del Buen Retiro and only a short eastbound walk away from the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is Antigua Estacion de Atocha, one of Madrid’s two main train stations. Most trains travelling south to other destinations in Spain (Valencia, Toledo, Cordoba, Seville, Granada and many other cities) depart from Atocha. Besides being Madrid’s largest and most popular train hub, Atocha station is one of the city’s major attractions. With a steel-and-glass roof of extravagant proportions, Atocha is a merger of train terminals and shopping malls complete with a stunning tropical garden that occupies most of the central plaza. The station complex is surprisingly beautiful; it turns into a gem of architectural beauty and exquisite design when one becomes aware that this extraordinary feat of engineering has been here for more than a century.
My first tour of Madrid on arrival late in the evening was an unhurried stroll along Calle Mayor starting from Plaza del Sol to Calle de Bailen. Hanging around on Plaza Mayor amidst hundreds of colourful stalls at a time of celebrations, flickering lights and Christmas decorations was the most memorable part of my initial familiarization with Madrid. On reaching Calle de Bailen, it was pitch dark and although the atmosphere in the neighbourhood of the Royal Palace and the Royal Theatre was still lively and exciting beyond restraint (enlivened at times with band music), I decided to return to my hotel with the intention to explore at ease the attractions in the area the next day.
I started early from Plaza del Sol where my hotel was conveniently located with a leisurely walk west along Calle del Arenal, peeping occasionally into the side streets to discover the area in an atmosphere of peacefulness with few people around. Of special interest is the Church of St Gines, a tiny place of worship located on a small atmospheric square midway between Plaza del Sol and the Royal Theatre. Close to the church, another place of worship (obviously not for believers but for lovers of chocolate-filled confections) is the Chocolateria de San Gines, a legendary Madrid institution that serves the best hot chocolate and deep-fried doughnuts in town. Right in front of Plaza de San Gines is Calle de San Martin, a charming old-world street that leads straight to Madrid’s oldest sanctuary of faith. Called the Convento de Las Descalzas Reales, it is a huge working monastery enclosed within high windowless walls that seem gloomy and uninteresting from the outside. But on going inside, one will encounter a museum of frescoes, tapestries and wonderful paintings that decorate befittingly most of the thirty-three internal chapels.
A short walk further west on Calle del Arenal placed me right near the city’s Opera House. Known by madrilenos as the Teatro Real, it is a huge detached building with a hexagonal design, grey, dull and austere with regards to external architectural features but extravagant and gaudy inside with a lot of deep red drapery and glimmering gold ornamentation. A ticket for a night at the Teatro Real is as expensive as a night’s accommodation in a five-star hotel in the centre but for much less, one can enjoy the place (on a guided tour only) without the music.
Right in front of the Opera House lies one of Madrid’s most elegant breathing spaces. Called Plaza de Oriente, it is a monumental semi-circular zone of immaculately-kept formal gardens, gravel-covered passageways and areas reserved for recreation. Lining the crisscrossing passageways is a beautiful display of twenty-five life-size marble statues of monarchs who formerly ruled over Spain. On one edge of the plaza is Café de Oriente, a restaurant and coffee shop with shaded open-air dining areas that afford excellent views over the square and the Royal Palace.
Admiring the Royal Palace (Palacio Real) from Plaza de Oriente does not do justice to this colossal masterpiece of stone and granite. The French classical architecture of the main façade, adorned with rows of statues and Doric pilasters can only be fully cherished and appreciated from Plaza de la Armeria, the huge square around which the palace complex is skilfully constructed. Queues to enter the palace may be long and tiresome and unless one comes early, one will easily spend a whole day here just to get a general overview of the interior. The palace is huge (almost three thousand rooms, although only few of these can be visited) and once one gets in the line of visitors between roped-off areas, it is practically impossible to do anything else other than keep moving. The redeeming factor is the excellent audio guide that dishes out concise but otherwise interesting explanations of the exhibits and leads visitors from one room to the next in an orderly and well-organized manner.
Out of the palace on Plaza de la Armeria, two other attractions (one on each side of the main building) demand a brief stop. Overlooking the Campo del Moro is the Imperial Armoury, a huge display of shiny weapons, breastplates and mannequins of soldiers in armour. More interesting is the Royal Pharmacy on the east side of the plaza. Amidst thousands of old bottles filled with medicinal concoctions, one can see a distilling apparatus that is still capable of producing drops of curative distillate out of herbal leaves.