Travel Report: Madrid, Spain.
June 2013. In the summer of 2013 my seemingly perfect life in Amsterdam shattered into a thousand pieces. After eight years together, S and I decided it was time to go our separate ways. Our subsequent divorce would eventually see me leave my job and say goodbye to The Netherlands altogether.
It was easily the most difficult period of my life, and one that I’ve documented on these pages through my short stories Wall of Sound and The End of Everything. In those first weeks after the split I decided I really needed to get away. Happily, my old friend Steppers stepped up to the plate and we flew off to Madrid for a three night break.
With the passing of the years, I find myself somewhat perplexed as to why Steppers and I didn’t spend a bit more on a nice hotel. Rather, we went down the cheap and cheerful route with a stay at 360 Hostel Malasaña. It had a great location, right in the heart of downtown Madrid.
The location aside, the hostel was a dump. To this day that bunk bed room remains the most cell-like dwelling I have ever slept in. I’m talking literally two steps from the door to the bed. Moreover, it was the height of the Spanish summer and the air con unit was broken.
As a result, the room became such a sweatbox we couldn’t sleep at night. Indeed I remember the two of us lying awake, laughing like loons at how awful it all was. Unsurprisingly, I see that the hostel has closed down during the intervening years.
Looking back, I can forgive the hostel its failings. Because right across the road in under a dozen steps, stood La Musa Restaurant. Over our three days in the Spanish capital, this was our local hangout for beers and bites.
We even splashed out on one of their set tapas menus one evening. If my memory serves me well, one of the bowls was a delectable chilli con carne with sour cream. Looking at their menu now, I’m pretty sure we also had the chocolate brownie with caramelised walnuts and vanilla ice cream.
The weeks leading up to our trip had been so stressful I hadn’t had the time nor inclination to research Madrid. Hence the visit unfolded in what was essentially one long, therapeutic walk and talk. We speculated on my long term future, in addition to all the usual subjects like music, football and the latest news of our shared college friends.
One of our first stops was Plaza del Dos de Mayo, a city square near the hostel. It was named after the 1808 Dos de Mayo uprising against Napoleon’s army that led to The Spanish War of Independence. A monumental arch marks the event, under which stand statues of two fallen soldiers, Luis Daoíz and Pedro Velarde.
Plaza del Dos de Mayo.
The square is also home to the well-recommended Sandos Pizzería and a small weekend book market. Elsewhere, old men sat chatting on benches in the sunshine as the occasional dog walker passed through. It was all very relaxing and just what I needed.
We came away with a sizeable collection of squares on that trip. Dating back to The Middle Ages, Plaza de la Villa features some of Madrid’s oldest buildings. One of these, the Tower of the Lujanes, was where the French King Francis I found himself imprisoned in 1525 following his capture in The Battle of Pavia.
The square’s single bronze sculpture depicts the legendary Spanish Navy Admiral Álvaro de Bazán. Unveiled in 1891 by the famed sculptor Mariano Benlliure, the sculpture celebrates the fact that the admiral never once lost a battle in his fifty year military career!
Later, on Plaza de Santa Ana, we marvelled at the stupendous facade of ME Madrid Reina Victoria Hotel. Opened in 1923 and named after King Alfonso XIII’s wife, Queen Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg, the hotel quickly became a symbol of Spanish luxury. I’m guessing we wouldn’t have had to worry about faulty air con units in this joint.
The little white statue cowering in the hotel’s shadow stands in tribute to Pedro Calderón de la Barca, a poet and playwright celebrated as one of the most distinguished writers of The Spanish Golden Age.
Photo courtesy of Sebastian Dubiel.
From all the Madrid squares I saw, nothing could compete with the sweeping grandeur of Plaza Mayor. Completed in 1619 upon the orders of King Philip II, the square went through a number of dramatic facelifts over the centuries, due to a series of devastating fires.
Finally, it was the architect Juan de Villanueva who was largely responsible for its lasting neoclassical design. Sadly, he died before its completion and a team of architects saw the project through in 1854.
When Steppers and I passed through Plaza Mayor it was awash with circus performers. In fact, the atmosphere was positively joyous as we walked among jugglers, stilt walkers and dancing mime artists.
Apparently, this is business as usual on Plaza Mayor. Especially on weekends, when performers of all descriptions descend to hone their skills and earn some pennies.
As it turns out, square hunting can be hungry work! To refuel, Steppers and I picked out one of Madrid’s oldest and most revered eateries, Café Comercial. Opening its doors in 1887, the cafe went on to become a melting pot for Spain’s great thinkers, writers and artists throughout the 1920s and 30s.
The moment we entered through the revolving doors, it felt like stepping back in time. Soft jazz lilted across the airwaves as old men sat playing chess at marble tables. A waiter, dressed in a crisp white collar shirt, took our order with poised pencil and paper. When our pancakes came, stuffed with cheese and ham, they more than lived up to the hype!
Our post-pancake wanderings took us past a number of stunning churches. At San Jerónimo el Real, I felt more than a touch of melancholia as wedding guests filed up the grand stone steps. Hidden away behind Museo del Prado, this Roman Catholic church hosted King Juan Carlos the 1st’s coronation in 1975 following the death of Franco.
We also paused to take in the exterior of Almudena Cathedral, with its statue of Pope John Paul II. It was he who consecrated the cathedral in 1993 after a long and troubled construction process that drags all the way back to 1879. In 2004 Prince Felipe and Letizia Ortiz got married here.
I’ve always considered green spaces as a form of medicine for the wounded soul. No wonder then that I packed in as much of Madrid’s parks and gardens as I could. One of the city’s biggest and most impressive oases is El Retiro Park, a 350-acre retreat with a boating lake.
What’s more, there are sculptures, peacocks, a rose garden and a stunning iron-framed exhibition space called Palacio de Cristal. Frankly, we could have spent the entire afternoon here. #nexttime
At Sabatini Gardens we got to enjoy the columned northern facade of Madrid’s handsome Royal Palace. The gardens took their name from the Italian architect Francesco Sabatini, who devoted much of his life to royal design. However, he wasn’t actually responsible for these gardens, which I’m guessing was a kick in the balls for the actual designer.
At some point, in response to our complaining legs, we decided to take a load off on the padded lawns of Parque del Oeste. Within minutes Steppers was out for the count, lightly snoring in the mid afternoon sunshine.
Alone with my thoughts, I found myself plummeting into a very low moment. One of those existential dread quagmires that had me wondering how the hell my life was going to turn out.
The Egyptian Temple.
Luckily, it wasn’t long before Steppers returned from the land of nod and we were back on our feet. Within just a few minutes we’d stumbled upon Templo de Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple dismantled and transported to Madrid in 1960!
Photo courtesy of Jiuguang Wang.
Of all the things I thought we might see in the park, I certainly hadn’t anticipated this! The temple was a gift from Egypt in 1968. An ostentatious thank you for Spain’s role in saving the The Abu Simbel Temples.
When I think back on that trip, one of my fondest memories is floating above the city on The Madrid Cable Car (Teleférico). It took us a swift 11 minutes to glide away from the city towards the dense, green-brown terrain of Casa de Campo, a giant public park and former royal hunting estate.
The journey saw us pass over The Manzanares River, while a crappy educational recording played out over the speakers. “What is Casa de Campo daddy?” “Well, son…”
Casa de Campo features several heavyweight attractions, such as an old amusement park (Parque de Atracciones) and Madrid Zoo. But we were happy simply spending a few hours tackling the various crisscrossing walking trails.
Both Steppers and I are huge football fans. I usually keep an eye on Spain’s top division, La Liga, but have never liked Real Madrid as a club. In fact, I inherently dislike the very idea of The Galacticos, while their fans often strike me as an exceptionally spoilt bunch. That distasteful breed of supporter who routinely turns on their own club legends the moment standards start to slide on the pitch.
Nevertheless, when Steppers suggested we take the self-guided tour of Real Madrid’s world famous stadium, The Santiago Bernabéu, I thought why not. When in Rome and all that.
The Santiago Bernabéu.
Despite my general distaste for Real, I had to be impressed by the sheer scale of The Bernabéu. We visited the small museum about the club’s history, which included a trophy cabinet and a collection of antique boots and balls. We could also walk all the way around the 85000 capacity arena, largely uninhabited save for a few groundsmen watering the grass.
Down in the dugouts, I got to do my Gareth Bale impression, even if it was several years before his career in Madrid went so horribly pear-shaped. And, perhaps the highlight, Steppers and I posed for a silly photograph in the press room.
The idea was that we were Real Madrid’s manager and assistant manager (I won’t suggest who is who) facing a bloodthirsty pack of reporters after a disastrous home defeat to bitter rivals Atlético Madrid. I think, looking at the photo, I dealt with the stress far better than Steppers.
That already long ago trip to Madrid was a special one for me. I can’t say I went as deep into the city’s sights as I would’ve liked, far from it. But I’ll always see it as the crucial beginning of what became a long and hard healing process. Definitely a city I’d like to do again one day.
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