Three world-class museums, the Palacio Réal, Europe's biggest flea market and Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu Stadium… Vamos Espana!
Holà! India has been romancing Spain big-time what with Goya's works on display in Delhi and ZNMD unfolding the enticing Iberian panorama for Indian cinemagoers.
A month and a half before these Spanish delights hit the scene, armed with a friend's Std.VI Spanish for Beginners, we flew out of Delhi one hot and sultry June, landing in Madrid's Barajas airport next afternoon. Feeling adventurous, we passed up taxi-transfer, choosing the Airport Express bus instead and were gently warned that a gay parade was on in the streets that might be embarrassing for our young boys. Thankfully, the 15-minute bus-ride was uneventful.
Did you know Spain is the second most visited country in the world? I didn't. That spiked my curiosity since my woeful knowledge was limited to Iberian Peninsula, Sierra Nevada, Basque separatists, Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Bah! 24 hours in Madrid! Que bueno! So much to see! We checked into a small hotel within walking distance from Atocha Railway Station for easy accessibility. The receptionist cautioned us to clutch our purses tightly and wear backpacks on the front, take no chances. With just two half-days for sightseeing, we hadn't opted for Madrid Tourist Card; it offers discounts and priority access benefits more useful for longer stays.
We rushed to the two-and-a-half century old Palacio Réal — Royal Palace. The winding ticket queue momentarily dampened our spirits; would we make it before closing time? Beyond black metal gates rose the stately, greyish-white sprawling structure loosely modelled on Versailles. Reported to be the largest palace in Western Europe, the 2800-roomed Palacio Réal is built on a 9 century fortress. We didn't opt for guided or audio-tour; the 50 rooms open to public had information placards anyway.
The exterior facade belies the interiors, the grandeur of which unfolds gradually. Royal Pharmacy's walls are lined with neatly categorised assortment of bottles, vats, vials, medicines, funnels, mixers and powdering equipment used by royals centuries ago. Upstairs, the palace rooms slowly drew us into a splendid visual treat, lavishly decorated and oozing with riches in terms of architecture, tapestry, porcelain, gold and silverware, furnishings, sculptures, frescoes, paintings, gilt-work. Even a complete Stradivarius string quintet is on display! Think an original Stradivari violin now worth several millions of dollars and you can gauge how priceless is this collection. Only 650 violins originally crafted by Antonio Stradivari survive to this day.
Master painters whose works adorn the walls include Caravaggio, Tiepolo, Goya, and Velazquez, to name a few. Alas, photography was strictly prohibited. Interestingly, the royal family does not stay in the palace but use it for important state ceremonies.
Outside on the courtyard, we clicked pictures of the palace garden — Parque del Campo del Moro — visible below, framing them forever in our memory. South-west Madrid stretched beyond Manzanares River hidden from our view.
Famished! Vegetarian food can be a challenge in Spain, we'd been warned. As for drinking water, trusty old web-search certified that tap water in Spain is safe and superior in taste, thanks to it being sourced from deep, unpolluted reservoirs. For bottled water, super-mercados (supermarkets) sell them slightly cheaper.
Across the Palace courtyard, Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Almudena beckoned and held our fascination briefly, seeming an extension of the palace with similar white façade and grandiose architectural style. Renovation was on at one side. What a long-winded construction history it has. Begun in 1883, it was finally completed and consecrated in 1993, Spain's only cathedral to be consecrated by a Pope.
Trudging towards Plaza de Mayor, “CH and CH — Chocolate and Churros” caught our eye. Undisguised glee of our two boys meant “Ch and Ch” it had to be. Thick, gooey, heavenly, large cupful of boiling liquefied chocolate accompanied by hot, crisp, thick twists of churros dunked into chocolate... yum!
Fortified, across the road we spied a quaint antique-looking glass structure framed with ornamental metal and wood. A constant stream of trendy Madrileños and tourists flocking to it lent it a festive air. Mercado de San Miguel is invitingly colourful, crowded, genial. Rows of stalls sell all manner of confectionery, groceries, meats, pastas, paella, ice-creams, wafers, bright colourful utensils, mineral water bottles, beer and tapas, coffee, sea food, you name it! The charming structure opened in 1916 on a site where once a 13th century church — San Miguel Church — stood and which was declared unsafe after a fire nearby. More recently, a group of 33 persons collectively revived the Mercado de San Miguel and the completely refurbished market reopened two years ago. What an avant-garde design, that.
7.15 pm. It was still blazing hot like 4 pm back home. Ahead, everyone seemed headed up an alleyway. The steps opened out onto a massive rectangular plaza skirted by three-storey buildings on all sides. In the past, this 400-year-old Plaza Mayor had witnessed weddings, executions, bullfights, markets, multiple fires. We witnessed painters and entertainers strutting their stuff in the middle of eateries, all under the watchful eye of Felipe III whose statue stands in the centre of the Plaza.
Snacking on olive oil wafers, we clumped towards Puerta del Sol, so named because 500 years ago, the eastern entrance gate of the city walls located here had an image of the sun (sol). We skirted a demonstration demanding fiscal stability for Spain. A golden symbol on the road-side caught our eye. I recalled reading somewhere that this symbol marks the central point of Spain's highway network.
Metro de Madrid, the second largest metro network in Europe, is 92 years old. (Delhi Metro is finally catching up nine decades later.) The planning and execution of such remarkable, futuristic transport systems a century ago never ceases to amaze me, be it Madrid, London, New York.
Sol station, right within Madrid's historic district, has one metro line dating back to 1919. If Sol is one of the busiest, then where we were headed — Atocha — is Spain's largest and oldest railway station going back to 1851. Now, Atocha handles both metro and all regional and high-speed rail traffic like Cercanias and RENFE, including AVE.
Madrid is an art aficionado's delight, thanks to three world-class museums situated in close proximity to one another: Museo del Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen. Being a minor art buff, I rued about the paucity of time, more especially the irony that our hotel was just a stone's throw from these. The permanent collection of El Prado can be viewed free of charge from 6-8 pm Saturdays and I had just missed the hour. Well, you win some, you lose some.
9 pm. Walking up a main avenue — Paseo del Prado — and over towards Anton Martin station scouting for vegetarian food, I was reminded of Calcuttans who begin cooking their dinner after 9 pm. Spaniards too have late lunch and dinner. Every eatery must display the menu with prices on a board outside. We lamely settled for cheese pizzas.
Next morning, I wanted to see El Rastro, reportedly the biggest flea market in Europe, close to metro stations Tirso de Molina and La Latina. Timings: 9 am to 2 pm every Sunday. However, succumbing to the boys' football craze, we set off instead o tour Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. Seeing the memorabilia, dressing room, pitch, players' dugouts, trophies, photographs of football heroes, their shoes, everything scaled up to larger than life, I couldn't help wondering why Feroz Shah Kotla, Wankhede, Eden Gardens, etc. couldn't also have a stadium tour for this cricket crazy nation? Surely, the masses would love it and it might be a money-spinner too?
Time to bid adios to Madrid. We had a few anxious moments when taxis were reluctant to ferry all four of us adults and our entire luggage at one go to the station. Thanks to well-designed pavements and roads, we trudged to Atocha without difficulty. We had seen Atocha's metro station, but its other long-distance train station took our breath away. Its high, cavernous concourse unexpectedly overlooks a lush tropical garden below! Were we within an airport or a shopping plaza instead of a train station? We gazed in wonder at the unique glass-and-wrought-iron work dating back to the 1890s when the station was remodelled after a fire brought down the original structure. Colourful stalls sold jewellery, bric-a-brac, clothes, even batik, alongside cafeteria and a restaurant named Samarkand. Having gotten used to railway stations back home where one needs to race down platforms, climb up and down dilapidated staircases, dodge maddening and jostling crowds, all the while carefully balancing one's baggage, Atocha's dignified and comfortable access to floors via inclined walkways, the uniformed train attendants providing assistance to passengers, sleek trains and platforms, were altogether a pleasurable experience. An agreeable way to round off our 24-hour Madrid sojourn.