After a nice buffet breakfast at the hotel, we boarded our bus for a guided tour of the city. A local guide performs this job which we were told is required in Spain. Madrid, Spain’s capital, is a fabulous city.
We were immediately impressed with the cleanliness of the streets and maintenance crews were very visible planting and maintaining green areas and colorful flower boxes and gardens. As part of its unsuccessful bid to host the 2012 Olympics, Madrid had begun a series of improvements which continue today and reflect very favorably on the city.
Our first sights were some of the favorite icons of Madrid. The Puerto del Sol is the hub of the city and boasts lots of unique shops and cafes to attract crowds of tourists. Plaza Mayor is a town square which dates to the 17th century and has seen it all; bullfights, executions, pageants, royal weddings, and even trials by inquisition. Today it’s a pedestrian area only and surprisingly quiet and subdued.
We stopped at the grand and massive Royal Palace, commissioned by the Bourbon King, Felipe V, and home to Spanish royalty until 1931. Today the royal family lives in a mansion some miles away and the 2,000+ room Palace is used for state functions only.
Art lovers could definitely while away days or even weeks at the world-class museums here. Our tour took us to the Museo del Prado. The Prado is overwhelming to say the least with over 3,000 canvases and entire rooms dedicated to famous artists. It houses impressive collections of many European artists; but the jewels are the works of Spain’s three great masters - Goya, Velazquez, and El Greco. No photography permitted for obvious reasons and security guards were everywhere watching closely to enforce this rule.
We had lunch at VIP’s, a casual family restaurant; Joe had a salad and I had a small pizza…pretty good. Then we had a little time to wander around before boarding our bus for a trip to Toledo.
Madrid is the civil capital of Spain; but, Toledo is definitely the spiritual capital. The natives pronounce it ‘To-lay-doh’ rather than ‘To-lee-doh’ as in Ohio. We know where the expression Holy Toledo! comes from now, not out of any particular piety but from all the spires of the cathedral and other religious institutions. Toledo is situated high on a hill overlooking the River Tagus. From the Romans to the Moors to the Christians, a rich cultural heritage makes the old town a melting pot of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim cultures.
The Cathedral was absolutely magnificent but we couldn’t take any pictures. It would be really hard to adequately describe the vast and lofty interior with its high altar, choir area, cloister, and sacristy. Our guide did her best but, unfortunately, they were tuning or cleaning the organs and she was totally drowned out by the obnoxious continuing noise. This was not a pleasant tour; instead of wandering around with a ‘wow’ expression on our faces, we were covering our ears and hoping the guide would just get on with it.
The next stop was Santo Tome, a simple chapel, but home to El Greco’s famous painting, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. Again, our guide did her best to do an in-depth analysis of the painting, but she was drowned out by the male guide behind us. Our guide was being very soft-spoken and reverent because we were in a church; the other guide was obviously gunning for a large tip. The painting depicts the burial of the Count, a great benefactor of the church, and St. Stephen & St. Augustine miraculously appear to assist at the funeral. There are subtle transitions from heaven down to earth and it also appeared that the folks at the funeral were in more contemporary clothing. It was interesting but could have been better if we had some brochures or we could hear the guide better.
Toledo is a UNESCO world heritage site, only about an hour from Madrid, and well worth seeing for an appreciation of the religious significance and architectural contributions to the region.
On our way back into Madrid, we drove by the Atocha Train Station. This was, of course, the site of the March 2004 terrorism attack. The station is very impressive looking but we had no time to go riding the metro to get a closer look.
A group of us went for a Tapas dinner. Tapas are simply appetizers or snacks of various foods like seafood, chicken, salads, olives, etc. They can be hot or cold and there’s lots of folklore surrounding their origins. I read in one book that they got their start when an Innkeeper serving one of the Kings covered a glass of wine with a slice of ham to keep out the dust and bugs; hence the word cover or tapa. Dinner was served with a big pitcher of Sangria which was really good. We took a walk after dinner and headed back to get ready for morning. Tomorrow is the first day we must have our bags out in the hallway at 7 a.m.
We enjoyed our time in Madrid but it’s not a city which can be experienced from a bus. It’s a city where you need to get out and walk around to get up close and personal to really see and feel all it has to offer. If the opportunity presented itself, we would definitely return to Madrid for a week or so.