Welcome to central Spain; home of the monarchy and Spain´s government for the past few hundred years. Although there are several languages in Spain, this was this region that was the dominant power when Spain unified, so it´s language (Castilian) became what we know today as Spanish. Since I have some time, I will give you the details on my days here in Madrid and Toledo before I leave tomorrow morning. This is a long one.
After a seven hour train ride from Santiago de Compostela, I arrived in Madrid on April 30 at night. The place I am staying in is close to Puerta Del Sol, which is the literal center of town (there´s even a marker in the square from which all distances in the city are measured). The next day I set out intent on doing a lot of sightseeing, but I had forgotten a critical fact: May 1 is Labor Day in Spain, so nearly everything was closed. This threw off my plans, but I decided to make the most of it by walking around town and seeing as much as I could. Madrid has more street performers, souvenir salesmen and beggars than any city I´ve been to so far (but let´s wait until I get to Barcelona or Rome to see if that record holds up). But the city is also possibly the best looking one I´ve been to so far. Grand architecture is all around and even mundane buildings get elegant facades. These buildings are reminders of Spain´s past, back when it had a giant empire and tons of cash to throw around. Another nice thing about Madrid is that almost all the sights are in the city center, so you can walk everywhere. Walking through town I came to Plaza Mayor and then moved on to the Royal Palace and the cathedral right next to it. Though the palace was closed, the cathedral was open so I got to go inside and check that out. The cathedral is quite distinct from others ones I´ve seen in Europe, and that´s mainly because it is much newer than most other cathedrals. The stained glass windows are in a modern style and the exterior is much more angular than older cathedrals. After leaving the cathedral I moved north, checking out a few parks along the way. One of them has an ancient Egyptian temple in it that was transplanted from Egypt. I then proceeded down the Gran Via, which is kind of like Broadway in New York City, though with fewer lights and outdoor screens. The street is arguably not very “Spanish” as most of the stuff there you can find in America, but it´s still an interesting street to walk. After reaching a roundabout, I turned south and walked to the Prado Museum and then on to Atocha train station, where I made my reservations for my train to Toledo, the next day. When I left the station it was the late afternoon and I was getting hungry since I had skipped lunch. On top of that, being Labor Day almost everything was closed, including grocery stores, which are my main source of food out here. But the day was saved by one of the valiant defenders of the American Way; a true American hero named Burger King. I know some of you might be worried that I´m insulating myself from the local culture by eating fast food, but relax, I only do this when I´m out of other options. Here´s an interesting fact for you; in Spain, American fast food is considered both unhealthy and an invasion against the culture, but the Spanish can´t stop eating it and American fast food is booming in Spain. Anyways, after this I wandered around a little more before going back to my hostel. Along the way I discovered that Dunkin Donuts has a few outlets in Madrid, though it´s called Dunkin Coffee over here. Donuts don´t seem to be a big deal over here, so the place has adapted itself by focusing more on the coffee. That concludes day 1.
On day 2 I took a trip to Toledo, which was the former capital of Spain before Madrid. For the first time I got to ride a fast train, and the trip to Toledo only took about 30 minutes. Toledo´s old town is on a large hill, so I got quite a bit of uphill hiking in that day. The town is a good day trip from Madrid as you can leave Madrid in the morning, see everything in a day and be back in Madrid in the evening. The town center is dominated by Toledo´s main cathedral. There are also a number of smaller churches, convents, monasteries and museums dotting the hill. You can see bits of the old Moorish influence in some of the buildings, though you have to look for it. After a few hours in the main part of town I walked down to the southern edge, down to the river that flows along the town´s eastern, southern and western sides. There are no tourists down there, and it seems that´s where most of the locals live. I spent some time down by the river and walked along the riverside path for awhile before going back up to the main part of town. Back at the top of the hill, I went into the main cathedral. Officially, there´s a no photography policy, but it wasn´t being enforced. The cathedral´s interior is a bit dark, but also extremely ornate. I can´t really describe to you just how it looked, you´ll have to wait for pictures to get an idea of how over the top some parts of this cathedral were. When I had finished with the cathedral, I went back over to the west side of town to look around a little more before leaving. There I ran into a lost American who I helped find a museum he was looking for. This man was in his 60s and had a very thick New York accent. He thanked me for my help and told me about some traveling he had done back in the 70s in southeast Asia. He told me how he had hitch-hiked from Singapore to Cambodia and then traveled around from there. Some old photos he had showed him back in those days and were cool to look at. We parted ways and I then grabbed my train back to Madrid. Upon returning I checked out the Reina Sofia Museum, which is dedicated to modern art. I honestly don´t have much respect for much of modern art, but the museum had free entry at the end of the day so I decided to take a look. That concludes day 2.
Day 3 (today) is when I got in the core of my Madrid sightseeing. I started out at the Royal Palace, which is a lot like Versailles, but without all the acres of gardens. Though Versailles is better overall, I think I liked the interior of Madrid´s palace a bit more than the interior of Versailles, but it might be because the Madrid palace is more generous in showing off their fanciest stuff. After the palace I walked across town to the Thyssen Borezman Museum, which is a short distance from the Prado. The museum is made up of works that a rich German baron´s family has been buying over the years and some time ago sold to the city. Much of it is Impressionism. I finished with the museum and then ate lunch before moving on to Retiro Park. The park used to be a royal retreat and hunting ground (they kept and hunted bears in it) but it is now an expansive public park. I actually got lost for a short period in it, and since it was so cloudy I had some trouble reorienting myself. Thankfully Retiro Park is not a bad place to get lost, and after awhile I found where I was on my map and moved on to the Prado Museum. The Prado is Madrid´s main art museum and is kind of like their version of the Louvre in Paris, but not as big. I had saved the Prado for last as it becomes free from 6-8pm, though that meant I had limited time and a lot of other people had the same idea as me. I managed to see almost everything by moving quickly through the rooms, but I stopped for the major works by Goya, El Greco and others. When I left the museum I figured my day was done, however Madrid had one last surprise for me. It seems that Real Madrid, the city´s soccer team, had just won the nation´s soccer league, so there was a large crowd celebrating just north of the Prado. Police had closed the street to traffic and the crowd was growing steadily bigger as more people arrived. I walked over to take a look and saw the members of Real Madrid up on a platform leading the celebration. I stayed for a few minutes, and then I left and returned to the hostel, where I am now typing this blog post.
Tomorrow I leave for Seville, and after that comes Grenada, Valencia and finally Barcelona before I leave Spain. Hopefully it stops raining before I´m gone.