Blog

First Evening in Madrid

Posted on March 31, 2007 by Holly Hayes
Part of: Southern Spain and Morocco

First Impressions of Spain

*(this section was added later in the trip)*

The first half of our trip was spent in central and southern Spain, which welcomed us with unseasonably cold weather the entire time. That was such a disappointment, but at least we had sunny Morocco to look forward to. And of course we had a good time anyway.

This was the first time either of us had visited Spain, and as always some things turned out to be different than we expected. One rather surprising aspect of Spain was the very limited number of people who speak English. It's not that we think everyone in the world should speak our language, but we've just been so spoiled by our recent visits to Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland - where people are positively eager to speak English and do it better than we do. But after receiving a negative reply to our fifth habla ingles? we gave up trying and just used a combination of rudimentary Spanish and charades to get our point across. Thanks to Taco Bell, at least we know Yo quiero*!

But even more surprising to us was how orderly traffic generally is in Spain. As a hot-blooded Latin country that is the birthplace of the Formula One world champion, we expected the driving to be fully as chaotic as Mexico or Italy. But remarkably, people almost always stayed in between the lines, obeyed traffic signals, and drove even slower and calmer than most Brits! Very interesting. And very pleasant, since we ended up renting a car for some of our later journeys in Spain.

March 31: Madrid

madrid nightlife

Our journey began in Madrid, the capital of Spain that's right smack in the center of the country and has about 3.2 million people. We landed in the early afternoon and took a taxi from the airport to our hotel. Well, almost anyway. The driver spoke no English so communication was difficult and although we knew the name of the hotel and a major road that it was near, he didn't seem to be familiar with it. So when we were close we just said es bueno and got out.

From there we found it on foot in remarkably good time, in part by using a compass! On impulse I had bought us a little plastic compass just before the trip, when I bought my backpack. I got it mainly for use in the maze-like medinas of Morocco, but we ended up using it throughout Spain quite a bit as well. It was rather satisfying to use such a simple tool in the days of digital maps and sat nav.

After briefly settling into our hotel, we set out to do a little sightseeing. We made a general heading for the cathedral and palace, which are next to each other on the west side of the city, but took our time enjoying the sights and sounds along the way.

Our walk took us through the famed Plaza Mayor, which long hosted the Spanish Inquisition and now just hosts overpriced cafes.

plaza mayor, madrid

I tried a grilled sweet potato from a street vendor (pretty good, but half cold); we admired the flags that were put out on balconies all over the city for Semana Santa (Holy Week); we peeked in several small churches that were invariably holding services; and we saw palm branches being readied for Palm Sunday celebrations the following day:

flags for semana santa getting ready for palm sunday

We eventually arrived at the cathedral, which was only recently completed and my reading had indicated was nothing terribly special. But we actually quite liked it.

almudena cathedral, madrid

Inside there was a service going on, of course. We sat for part of it, waiting for it to be over to take most of our pictures. But after it was finally done, most people stayed to pray and then another one started! We're not in Amsterdam anymore, Toto - Spain is decidedly a devoutly Catholic country. But we still managed to get a few photos of the interesting interior, which despite being modern is as impressive in scale as a medieval cathedral. Its ceiling is decorated with designs that looked New World-ish to us, and the stained glass windows were modern and abstract.

almudena cathedral, madrid almudena cathedral, madrid

Next we moved on to the neighboring palace, which once housed Habsburg rulers but I think has been rebuilt since then. The Spanish monarchy doesn't live here anymore but uses it for state occasions. Tours were available, but we had to prioritize and a peek through the fence was sufficient.

royal palace, madrid

Then we headed back across a high bridge, which gave us a really nice view of the back of the cathedral.

almudena cathedral, madrid

We had headed down there to see another large church (San Francisco), which sadly was closed until later in the evening. But on our way back to the hotel we wandered into another one that had some floats all set for Semana Santa processions. These were lovely, but still nothing compared to the spectacular ones we were to see later in Seville.

semana santa float, madrid semana santa float, madrid

By this time it was well after 8:00 and we were more than ready for dinner. We kept our eye out for a nice tapas bar or restaurant, but they were all very smoky and very crowded. But we found a wonderful, albeit non-Spanish, solution: right across the street from our hotel was a Texas BBQ restaurant!

texas BBQ, madrid style

The food was so incredibly delicious! And although the waitresses spoke no English, the western-themed interior decoration made us feel right at home. We were extremely happy and returned to our hotel with full and content stomachs.

hotel il castillas, madrid

I was ready to settle in for the night, but David had brought along his tripod and he was determined to put it to use. So we headed back out to a square called Puerta del Sol a couple blocks away, which we later learned is the geographical and political center of the city (they measure distances from it and hold demonstrations and such there). Here are some of the results:

puerta del sol, madrid tio pepe

Next up: an unplanned day trip to Segovia, which was much further from Madrid than we thought but worth the journey...