The bus ride from San Sebastian wove its way down out of the green foothills of the Pyrenees. As the bus entered the interior of Spain the landscape changed dramatically. Instead of the forests and hills, the mild Atlantic climate and seabreezes from the Bay of Biscay, we entered a country of brown and red with large wind worn rocks and mountains hammered by the sun. The outside temperature rose steadily from a comfortable 75 degrees to a scorching 95. The ride was long and exhausting and we arrived around sunset. The bus terminal was underground and was connected to the metro system. The metro reminded me of New York’s subway system as the stifling heat was trapped by the tunnels and baked everyone as they waited for the trains. I found my way on the metro to Calle de las Huertas, the busy street near which my hostel was located. It was night as I left the metro tunnel and made my way through the streets seeking my accomodations. The air was hot and dry and filled with an incredible volume of sights, sounds and smells. I had never been so completely immersed in the Spanish language. Hundreds of people milled about; they were thin dark skinned people dressed in the height of European fashion. Eateries, cafes and bars emanated all manner of smells: acrid cigarette and cigar smoke, irresistable smells of seafood, spices, wine, roasted meats. The desert evening air blew pleasantly through the city, which was a relief after the hot sunshine. After getting these first glimpses of the Spanish capital I was excited to drop my bags and check out the city. In a week’s stay I would not be disappointed by Madrid. While I had already experienced two wonderful Spanish cities in Santander and San Sebastian, Madrid was truly an explosion of life.
My hostel, Posada de Colon, was a very busy place. I bunked in a large room with 6 other guys. Most of my roommates were Americans coming from Boston, New York and California but there were others from Australia, Italy and France. Over the 8 days of my stay I would come to meet many interesting people. One of my roommates was Patrick, a dark haired Argentinian who relocated to Australia as an infant and spoke with a thick Aussie accent, was a skilled mountain biker and daily rode out into the desert heat for his rigorous training. Matt and Steve were Americans on their first trip in Europe. They came straight from Boston and though they wore the clothes and grooming of seasoned businessmen on holiday, at heart they were both rollicking frat boys looking for a good time. Everyone was a stranger and everyone was excited to be in Madrid. It reminded me of freshman year in college when no one knows anyone else and everyone makes fast friends. We all bonded instantly and would venture out into the nonstop party of Madrid’s nightlife.
My hostel, while crowded, was well equipped with computers, bathrooms and showers, washing machines and dryers. The kitchen and courtyard were places of nonstop activity where the dozens of guests would come together to eat, drink, play cards and socialize with one another. The balcony of our room overlooked the nonstop activity of Calle Cruellas. a narrow street parallel to las Huertas that was lined with hotels and cafes. On any given night people would hang out, play music or drink wine from a nearby bar. The day I arrived Real Madrid won a major soccer match and all week green and white clad fans roamed the streets chanting fight songs and living it up in the streets around the hostel. Posada de Colon was ideally situated near the heart of Madrid. Several large plazas lined with cafes and wine shops were mere minutes away including Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s answer Time Square or Piccadilly Circus. Several Metro stations could be reached on foot very quickly.
After a day of relaxing, taking in Madrid’s cafes, restaurants, bars and nightclubs, my first priority was to visit the city’s famous art museums. The big 3 in Madrid- are disparate collection of museums housing ancient and contemporary works from Spain, Europe and indeed everywhere else. My first stop was the Reina Sofia, a contemporary art museum known predominately for its collection of spanish exhibits. I visited this museum early, before crowds of tourists arrived. The exhibits that I saw were a wonderful collection of colorful and passionate work. Everywhere were the finest works of Picasso. I could not take my eyes off of the Guernica, a work which I had seen in books, but I was completely unprepared for its power when seen in person. The monochromatic masterpiece is much larger than I suspected. The exaggeration of the human form conveys the horror and hysteria of the Guernica massacre. The stark blacks, whites and greys came to life before my eyes. It was some time before I walked away from the great painting. In the Reina Sofia there were many other Picasso works as well as paintings by Joan Miro and Salvadore Dali. The art which I saw that day rivals anything I have seen in any art museum.
The following day I visited the Museu del Prado. The Prado specializes in older works from the Renaissance through the 18th century. The Prado’s collection of religious artwork is unparalelled and reflects the deep influence of Catholocism on Spanish culture. My favorite works were those by Francisco de Goya, who is considered by many to be the greatest Spanish painter in history. Goya’s 3rd of May contains many elements of the impressionism movement although it was painted a half century before impressionism’s acceptance. The Prado also houses works by Velasquez, Titian, El Greco and other ancient masters. Outside of the Prado is an extensive botanical garden which I visited to escape the heat which is a constant feature of Madrid’s arid climate.
Later in the week I visited Madrid’s third major art museum the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. The Thyssen is very different from the Prado and the Reina-Sofia in that it does not specialize in any category of art. Rather the exhibits are an immense private collection sold to the Spanish government. The collection spans centuries and decades, serving as an art history lesson to the untrained eye. The collection contains lesser known pieces by Van Gogh, Monet, Miro and Dali. I was amused and somewhat homesick to see an American exhibit of 18th and 19th century landscape painting, depicting forests, waterfalls and mountains of the American frontier. The Thyssen rounds out Madrid’s incredible exhibitions of art, but there was much more still to see.
A regular destination during my stay in Madrid was the Plaza Mayor. The plaza is surrounded by a red palace dating back to the 16th century. Nine of Madrid’s oldest and most important streets intersect at the plaza and can be seen through the large archways which serve as Plaza Mayor’s entrances. In the center is a statue of King Phillip II, one of Spain’s most famous monarchs. The Plaza Mayor is a popular tourist spot and is always filled with people. Several cafes and restaurants are located inside the plaza as well as numerous shops selling souvenirs. Another feature of the plaza is the presence of street performers who dress up as statues and move in slow, eerie movements, thanking those who drop a coin into their cup. The Madrid tourist information center is located in the Plaza Mayor and has computers that visitors can use free of charge for 15 minutes.
Only yards away from the Plaza Mayor is the Puerta del Sol, the largest and most popular tourist destination. The Puerta del Sol serves as the heart of the city with the most important thoroughfares extending from the plaza to the various districts of the city. Thousands of people can be found in the large plaza day and night. Giant billboards and neon signs shine down upon visitors. In the center is a fountain and equestrian statue of King Charles III. During the day Puerta del Sol was a regular sight as I travelled along Madrid’s streets admiring their architecture and window shopping. At night the plaza was a place for meeting up with friends and a cool place to hang out.
Madrid is a city with so many things to do and see. In addition to art and architecture the city has many gorgeous parks which are cool sanctuaries from the heat. The parks are always filled with people playing games or relaxing. The Casa de Campo is largest park in Madrid. On the outskirts of the city, Casa de Campo is filled with wooded paths, picnic tables and a very large lake. The lake is always studded with kayaks and rowboats. Nearby is the Palacio Real, or Royal Palace, an immense palace with extensive grounds. The palace houses the royal armory. Adjacent to the palace is the Cathedral de Almudena, a white cathedral of impressive size built for the Spanish royal family. Most of the buildings in Madrid were all built between the 16th and 20th centuries. In fact the city has only been the capital of Spain for the past few centuries, the medieval capital of Toledo has much older palaces. This modern character does not take away from Madrid’s appeal, however, as the city is incredibly fashionable and beautiful in a more renaissance style.
The nightlife in Madrid is incredible. Most days during the summer people flock to the clubs and bars of Madrid. Bourbon Cafe on Calle Jeronimo is bar with a New Orleans theme. There are extensive wooden dance floors and a DJ playing contemporary American and European hip hop and dance music. Palacio Guaviria, on the other hand is a huge club near Puerta del Sol with many different rooms each with different themed music. The classic decor of Palacio Guaviria is set by plush curtains, chairs and sofas with chandeliers. Palacio is always filled with hundreds of people enjoying cocktails and dancing. In Madrid tourists and locals have no problem getting along and everyone focuses on having a good time. Everywhere my friends and I went we had a great time. After a week immersed in the irresistable culture of Madrid I found it hard to part company with the city and my new friends.