Madrid – Lisbon
Madrid is known for being an incredibly hot city. Situated in the centre of Spain, its temperatures regularly brush close to 40 degrees, and rain is not a common occurrence, especially in the typically dry months of July and August. So, naturally, the weather hovered around 20 degrees for the entire three days I spent here, complete with torrential rain and a couple of thunderstorms for good measure.
On my first full day here, having arrived from Oviedo at around 8pm the previous night (a solid twelve hours after my initial departure from La Riera), I opted to do something that I hadn’t yet taken advantage of on my travels: a hostel-organised free walking tour of the city. Despite being offered in most hostels I’ve stayed in thus far, I’ve always chosen to take a self-guided version to ensure I saw what I wanted, when I wanted. But I had longer than usual in Madrid, so decided to go for it this time.
The tour itself was lacking somewhat. We started off in Plaza Major, the city’s main square, before moving over to Puerta del Sol and back towards the palace. From here we saw the Cathedral de Santa María, peppered with dark grey patches from bullet holes caused during the civil war, then circled back round towards the hostel. The whole thing lasted around two and a half hours, dragging significantly towards the end, and I came away feeling I had learned very little. The point of these tours for me is to learn more about the history of the city, but this one unfortunately fell short, so I probably wouldn’t recommend it unless you really have time to spare. But at least it was free, bar a tip to the tour guide at the end.
One good thing that came from this tour, however, is it gave me the chance to meet a lot of people from the hostel. After a quick lunch, I headed out to further explore the city with Maddie, who was in my dorm, and cousins Nick and Alex, who she had met at breakfast. We strolled towards the palace with the intention of heading up to the Egyptian temple (Templo de Debod), but our plans were thwarted when the heavens opened around two minutes in to our walk. A quick change of plans was in order, and thankfully we were stood right next to one of Spain’s best tourist attractions.
Thus, we came to spend the afternoon strolling around the royal palace, part of which has been made in to a museum. Photography is forbidden in the buildings, so I have little to show for the visit, but the palace interior is truely spectacular. We started in the armoury, marvelling at the intricate metalwork that forged the collection here – from enormous jousts and masks for horses to children’s suits adorned with images and colourful stones, the craftsmanship is incredible. Even the weaponry is beautiful to look at, though the dates associated with each artefact serve as a stark reminder of just how rapidly humans have developed different ways to kill each other.
Upstairs, we moved in to the palace itself, where a series of rooms have been restored and opened to the public. There are 25 rooms to see here (out of over 3,400 that form this seven-storey building – the second largest royal residence in Europe), each one meticulously decorated and astounding to behold, filled with ornate furniture and painstakingly intricate tapestries, frescos and paintings. Some rooms have been decorated using more atypical materials – one has all four walls covered in ceramic panels expertly pieced together; another has three-dimensional vines branching from the ceiling and silver thread embroidery on the silk walls. The real masterpiece here, though, is the royal chapel – it took eight years to build, surrounded by cool black marble pillars and topped with a golden dome. It is simply exquisite. If you ever get the chance to go to Madrid, the palace is definitely worth a visit, because it really is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
Following the disappointment of the walking tour the previous day, on day two I decided to embark on my own version. I began by heading over to Parque de El Retiro, where I happily spent a short while pottering about in the brief sunshine, strolling through the rose garden and around the boating lake. In the centre of the park is a crystal palace (‘palace’ is perhaps a strong term – it’s smaller than some greenhouses, and consists only of one large open room), overlooking a small lake.
Inside, this building is beautiful, lit by the sun shining through the surrounding trees. Constructed from glass panels in 1887, it is now houses art installations, with coloured glass sheets suspended from the ceiling when I visited. Being the animal lover I am, though, I was more interested in what could be found outside the palace – the lake is home to ducks, black swans, and even turtles (presumably illegally released pets), while elsewhere in the park I was amazed to encounter several green woodpeckers.
Moving on from here, I walked towards the main shopping street, Gran Vía, via the Puerta de Alcalá and Plaza de Cibeles, where I’m told Real Madrid head to celebrate following a big win. By this point, the rain had returned, so I ducked in and out of shops on my way to the Egyptian temple on the far side of town. Reaching the temple, I was met with amazing views straight across the city’s suburbs, a stark contrast to the ancient Egyptian construction next to me.
The temple wasn’t originally built here, off course – it was actually dismantled and rebuilt as a gift from Egypt in 1970, in thanks for Spain’s help in securing UNESCO status of the Abu Simbel temples. It is one of four transported for this purpose, with the others sitting in Turin, in Italy, Leiden, in the Netherlands, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (unbeknownst to me at the time, I actually visited this last one back in 2012).
The last place I visited on my wanderings here in Madrid was the Jardines del Campo del Moro, a scenic park located just behind the palace. The main avenue here offers a beautiful view of the palace ahead, complete with ornate fountains and flowerbeds lining the way. There are peacocks wandering the grounds, too, with their chicks in tow. Typically, my camera was out of battery by this point, so as per usual there are no pictures of these sweet baby birds to show (somehow I had failed to charge any of the four spare batteries I brought along). Still enduring the rain showers, I then headed back to the hostel, where I collected my luggage and set off for the train station to board the night train to Lisbon that I’m currently snuggled up in bed on.
All in all, Madrid was fantastic. While Barcelona still has the edge for me (wide streets lined with trees, fascinating Gaudí architecture, and a decent beach will always win me over), Madrid is a charming city full of history, and definitely somewhere I would consider re-visiting in the future. Perhaps when the weather is drier, though.