Spain is a gorgeous country with a fascinating history. It’s easy to travel around on your own and if you’re not inclined to rent a car, then take the trains and if there is no train then a bus. I was therein the month of April, first in Madrid and then travelled the Andalucía region before flying to Lisbon, Portugal. The weather was just about perfect and there weren’t horrendous lineups at any of the main attractions.
Travel in southern Spain is surprisingly easy and so rewarding
Córdoba and its Mezquita
Alhambra, Granada’s palace-city
Seville, the capital of Andalucía
The drama that is Ronda
First stop Madrid and Toledo
I expected Madrid to be big and busy but it’s also beautiful, a capital with extraordinary architecture, art collections, and public spaces.
I can’t recall being in a city and seeing so many people standing around staring at maps, so expect Madrid to be a little challenging to navigate. It must drive the locals crazy with all these tourists asking for help. Here’s my theory on why it’s so confusing: There are simply too many landmarks. Like you see this gorgeous structure ahead of you and think, ‘Why this must be the Royal Palace’ and when you reach it you discover it’s the city hall.
Roads don’t tend to be straight so you soon lose your bearings and there are all these narrow alleyways that lead anywhere and everywhere. While that’s part of the city’s charm I do think they can do a better job with signage. The metro system is great though and stops are close together. You can purchase a Tourist Ticket that can be used on all public transportation for an unlimited number of trips within 1,2,3,5, or 7 calendar days. I found the metro a better option than the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus.
My recommended tour of Madrid
#1 The Museums
There are three ‘must-see’ museums. Take the metro to Plaza del Emperador Carlos V and exit at Paseo del Prado (the Atocha train station is on the opposite side of the roundabout), the most elegant avenue in Madrid, which runs between Plaza del Emperador Carlos V and Plaza de Cibeles.
The Reina Sofia Museum is on nearby Calle de Santa Isabel and it’s easy to recognize because of the two transparent elevators on both sides of the entrance. The art here is a documentation of the history of 20th century Spain and it is fascinating. There are many Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró masterpieces—wow—and Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, which is an incredibly moving depiction of the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War.
Go back to where you exited the metro, cross Paseo del Prado, turn left on the pedestrian walkway that goes beside the Botanical Gardens and walk along the incline until you come to the Prado Museum (metre stop Atoch or Banco de España). The museum is massive with one of the finest art collections in the world: Spanish (El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya), Flemish and Dutch (Rubens, van Dyck, Brueghel), Italian (Botticelli, Tintoretto, Titian, Caravaggio, Veronese) and German (Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, Baldung Grien). You really should think about what you want to focus on before entering to avoid wandering around aimlessly. You can do this by having a look at the museum’s online brochure. I, for example, pre-selected Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights and Table of the Seven Deadly Sins, (Room 56A), El Greco’s Knight with his hand on his Chest (Room 8B), Caravaggio’s David Victorious over Goliath (Room 6), and one of Goya’s Black Paintings Saturn devouring his Child (Room 67). Behind the museum is the church of San Jerónimo el Real, one of the most important in Madrid.
Back out on Paseo del Prado, continue walking up the walkway until you reach the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Art (metro stop Banco de España), a highly distinguished private collection spanning the period from the 17th to the 20th centuries. Highlights for me were Hans Holbein the Younger’s Portrait of Henry VIII of England (Level 2 Room 5) and Salvador Dali’s Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second before Waking up (Level 0 Room 45).
#2: Walking Tour
Here’s the path that I would take to see the city’s highlights. You may well break it up into two or three walks or give your feet a rest by taking the metro at times.
Start by locating Avenue Gran Via on your map. It was built at the beginning of the 20th century and represents ‘modern Madrid’ with a mix of architectural styles with lots of shops and restaurants and easy to stroll down. At one end of the avenue is Plaza de España, a good place to start a walking tour of the city. The metro stop has the same name as the plaza. You can grab a coffee at the nearby Starbucks, find a spot on one of the park benches, and watch people get their photo taken in front of the Miguel de Cervantes statue.
Cross Calle Bailén and turn left towards the Royal Palace. It’s a relatively short but pleasant walk through the English style Parque del Oeste, then the French style Sabatini Gardens before coming up to the Palace. Behind the Palace is the Campo del Moro garden, famous for its ancient trees.
The Royal Palace (Palacio Real de Madrid), built where a Muslim fortress once stood, is one of the biggest palaces in Europe and an important symbol of Madrid. The tour through the palace takes you to the throne room, the king’s chamber, the hall of mirrors, the gala dining hall, all lavishly decorated. it is used for ceremonial functions since the royal family no longer lives here. Next to the palace is the Almudena Cathedral and behind that the cathedral crypt.
Across the road from the palace is the Plaza de Oriente. There you will see the first convent built in the city, the Royal Monastery of the Encarnación, and Madrid’s opera house, the Teatro Real.
Walk along Calle Mayor into Hapsburg Madrid, a delightful area of charming shops on narrow, twisting streets. Consider stopping at the Market of San Miguel for a glass of wine and tapas. The old city hall is at Plaza de la Villa. Other notable buildings are Descalzas Reales, Palacio de Santa Cruz, and the Church of San Nicolás de los Servitas, the oldest in Madrid.
Much is made of Plaza Mayor, another symbol of the city. The square is a little hidden and you enter it through one of the arcades that connect it to pedestrian streets that run around it. I think it is a little overblown, too touristy with waiters at the outdoor cafes competing for business.
Puerta del Sol is another square that is much promoted because it’s the geographic centre of the city and where the New Year’s street party takes place. Check out the equestrian statue of Charles III and the one of a Bear and the Strawberry Tree, yet another symbol of the city. Two broad pedestrian-only streets start here, Calle de Preciados and Calle del Carmen, both known for shopping.
Turn onto Calle de Alcalá, the oldest and longest street in Madrid. The architecture along this avenue is truly outstanding. There’s the Royal Customs House (Real Casa de la Aduana) with its Italian façade, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando), which was once a palatial home, the French-style Casino de Madrid, the Madrid-baroque church Concepción Real de Calatrava, and the Metrópolis building, to name a few.
Plaza de Cibeles is one of the most important squares in Madrid. In its centre is the fountain of Cibeles, and yes, it is also a symbol of the city. Behind it is the most impressive Palacio de Comunicaciones where the city’s council meets, and opposite is the Palacio de Linares, which today houses Casa de América.
Continue walking along Calle de Alcalá until you reach Plaza de la Independenia where you’ll find the gate to the city Puerta de Alcalá. It’s made of granite, stands 19.5 m tall with 5 open arches. Yet another city symbol!
#3: Day trip to Toledo
Toledo is 74 km south of Madrid and easy to visit as a day trip, taking the RENFE train from the Alocha Station in Madrid and catching a taxi at the Toledo station up to the Holy Church Cathedral. Toledo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a city of three cultures: Christian, Arab and Jewish. It is also where the famous artist El Greco lived and painted.
The cathedral is considered to be one of Spain’s finest, Gothic style with French influence built over a former mosque. It is enormous, measuring 120m long by 60m wide. The altarpiece in the Main Chapel is made of golden wood and it is said to have the most beautiful choir of all the European cathedrals. It’s a little excessive. The historic district in itself is charming with steep narrow streets with high walls.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses™ 2015