Upon landing in Madrid, we had a palette of diverse feeling! Immense excitement and a sense of adventure to have arrived in the place where we would be spending our anniversary `holiday´ (as they say in Europe) and an intense feeling of fatigue. The flight out of Boston: 5:30pm on a Tuesday. The arrival in Madrid: around 8:00am on Wednesday. Do Michelle and I sleep well on planes? Nope. I guess that makes the adventure all that more interesting.
We had an orientation in the lobby of Hotel Ganivet (where we stayed in Madrid) at 10am with the Intrepid Vacation representative essentially giving us maps, train tickets and hotel vouchers and then saying…adios! This is not a complaint though. We liked the idea when we signed up of having the basics out of the way (plane booking, hotel bookings, train tickets between cities) and being able to figure the rest out on our own.
Off we went to walking around Madrid! We were fatigued but somewhere in both of our minds, the oft-stated phrase of Carpe Diem was rattling around. Up the street from our hotel was Plaza Mayor, which we learned was quite historical (we are THOSE tourists who carry a book with basic information about the places we see as well as cameras). Plaza Mayor is pretty rich in history.
The Plaza is a rectangle and is surrounded by 237 balconies (three stories of rooms) with shops/restaurants lining the bottom. Construction on the buildings in this space were completed in 1619 but there was a major fire so the modern square was completed (restored) in 1790 by architect Juan de Villanueva. A statue of Philip III on horseback sits at the center of the square (placed there in 1848). The Plaza has historically been used as a market, been used for bullfights (Ernest Hemingway used to hang out at a restaurant near the square called “Botin”), soccer matches and public executions. The aura of the history of this place was fairly rich to me until I learned about that last tidbit. Some of the executions that took place in the square were during the period of the inquisition. Heretics were killed or converts who were not thought to have legitimate faith. They would be paraded around the plaza before being hung or burned or killed in some other fashion. Aristocrats would rent out the rooms above the Plaza to watch the morbid action.
A street performer introduced himself to us in the Plaza. It was a gentlemen dressed in a white suit, making a strange whistle-type noise who barraged into our conversation then offered to take our picture. We knew what was coming next. He, of course, asked for a ´donation´.
We had lunch in the Plaza as well. The restaurants that lined the square virtually all had outdoor seating. I ordered a pollo (chicken) dish. Michelle ordered fried squid. Her squid did indeed come fried and was draped inside of a baguette bun. She enjoyed her first meal and I had a bite but fried squid is not for me. The food gave us a tad bit more fuel to continue waging the war against fatigue. Must. Experience. More. Madrid.
So, the wandering led us through Puerta del Sol (the center of the city) and to the other side of town to one of the most famous museums in Europe: Prado. Museo del Prado has one of the finest art collections in Europe. The museum seems to be mostly paintings but there are also some sculptures from the former Spanish Royal Collection. Famous artists featured are: Francisco de Goya, Diego Velazquez, Peter Paul Ruebens, Raphael, El Greco, Bartolome Esteban Murillo and others.
I was really struck by Goya’s paintings who is certainly one of the most celebrated artists there. His earlier work seemed fairly non-offensive. He painted portraits of the royal family and merry festivals. He seemed to love painting dogs as canines populated many of his works. Then, Goya went into a dark period around 1793 and started doing more experimental art. The French were about to declare war on Spain and Goya was suffering from illness. One of my favorite works of his was “The Third of May 1808”. The painting depicted French soldiers (Napoleon’s soldiers) massacring Spanish protestors in Puerta del Sol. On one side of the painting are the soldiers pointing their guns. On the other side are protestors either lying dead or preparing to be shot. One protestor is wearing a white shirt and has his arms extended to either side as if he was saying, “why?”
At times walking around the Prado, I felt like I was going to fall asleep standing up. This is not because of a tedious atmosphere, mind you, but to the prevalent jet lag. Conveniently, when we were done touring the museum, Parque del Buen Retiro was right nearby. This park located in the heart of the city was 350 acres and had absolutely beautiful landscaping. We also admired some of the sculptures that added to the stunning ambiance of the park. Mostly, we looked for a shaded spot and lay down on the grass. It was a quick power nap even with construction going on behind us, we still were able to fall asleep.
Upon awaking, we continued to explore the park stumbling upon a peaceful lake dotted with row boats of people out enjoying the day. Across the water was a giant monument, Italian looking columns that led to the center statue of Alfonso XII. We were impressed with the park and stayed there for a few hours, eating ice cream and enjoying people watching.
Dinner that night was back toward Plaza Mayor at Casa Paco, a small restaurant that had tasty Sangria but I don’t know if we enjoyed the food as well as we thought we would.
Seeing a decent amount for the first day was satisfying as was the thought of finally getting some sleep after the flurry of travel. Day two would prove to have a fresher start.