Discovering the real Madrid

August 20, 2016

This post is a part of the Excess Baggage series

Picture: Fernando Monte da Silva

The Royal Palace of Madrid, often referred to as the jewel in Madrid’s crown



The linkage between Goa and Portugal is one that has been explored, ever so often, by many a traveller. Some travel on business, others to explore the historic links between the two; students go there in the hope of learning something new and still others go there because of familial ties. Of course, because of this bond and linkage, not too many travellers from these reaches travel to Spain, which lies just beyond the border, and those that do usually focus on Barcelona and Ibiza, due to their more vibrant and colourful natures, bypassing some amazing sites like Valencia, Zaragoza and very importantly, Madrid. This, to be fair, is a shame, for Madrid is a city with much to offer. Managing to cram it all in is no easy task. From a host of sprawling museums to more traditional restaurants and bars, literally every street corner has a spot to uncover.


There is no doubt that Madrid lacks the historic significance of Greece or the cachet of Paris. However, as a city, Madrid finds a way to blur the lines between being a cosmopolitan capital and a hub of cultural and artistic heritage, with a legacy of centuries of exciting history. Walking through the Plaza de España at the western end of the city’s principle road, the Gran Vía, you can see a few stray botellónes in the process of making merry. A botellón (pronounced boh-tay-own) is nothing more than a group of people having a little party outside in a public space. To get the ball rolling, money is collected, bottles, cups, food and all requirements are procured, and the gathering begins. be it in a park, plaza, street, or by the beach. This is not to say that such 'behaviour' is 'permitted'. It is, in fact, illegal. But rather than clamp down on it, the authorities prefer to merely frown upon it with a finger-wag when they chastise participants in such revelry. As a result, Botellónes are a common activity, and they're certainly a cheaper alternative to going to a pub or club, and spacious enough to have an infinitely better atmosphere.


Further down the way from the Plaza de España lies the spectacular square known as the Plaza Mayor. Inaugurated in 1620, this is one of the most popular and typical sites in Spain, and a living example of the nascent splendour of the city in the 16th and 17th centuries. Come nightfall, and the square comes absolutely alive with all things Hispanic and beyond.



Picture: Fernando Monte da Silva

Tourists gather around the Plaza Mayor



Hawkers from northern Africa make their way here, peddling everything from Louis Vouitton knock-off bags to Real Madrid jerseys, all claiming to be ‘authentic’, but at a ‘fraction of the cost’. However, they pack their wares in an knapsack held together by a drawstring. The moment they hear the sirens that herald the constabulary, all it takes is a tug of the drawstring for the the knapsack to fold away neatly, before said hawkers disperse into the shadows of the night, via the metro station of Sol, a stone's throw away from the square. 


Not too far away from here, also lies La Puerta del Sol, the city’s most central square and originally one of the city's gates, which faced the east and was adorned with an image of the sun, thereby giving the square its name. Its near semi-circular shape is attributed to the major renovation work that was undertaken in the square between 1854 and 1860.


If you’re in the mood for tapas, beyond the walls of the plaza lies the gastronomic wonder called Mercado San Miguel. Here, one can treat themselves to everything imaginable, from sea urchin to cured bull innards. It is due to endeavours such as this little market, as well as a host of restaurants that line the square, that Madrid has risen above the humble claims of its local cuisine, and wantonly embraced the innovation of Spain’s gastronomic revolution.



Picture: Fernando Monte da Silva

A skewed look at the Plaza de la Villa



I chanced upon the next place which caught my fancy rather accidentally. I constantly think I've got an inbuilt version of 'Google Maps' which can take me where I want to go. This is one time when I was gloriously wrong, having stumbled out of the Mercado San Miguel, in the wrong direction. I stumbled upon the Plaza de la Villa, which is in my opinion, one of Madrid’s daintiest squares. It is fenced in on three sides by wonderfully preserved examples of 17th-century barroco madrileño or Madrid-style baroque architecture: a combination of brick, exposed stone and wrought iron, and was the seat of Madrid’s city government from the Middle Ages until recent years when Madrid’s city council relocated to the Palacio de Comunicaciones on Plaza de la Cibeles.


Madrid’s aristocracy is of course deeply rooted in all of its being. Along the Plaza Mayor is the area known as the ‘aristocratic centre’ where the Royal Palace lies. It is the city’s largest building and possibly the most striking. Located beside the equally beautiful Plaza de Oriente, an interesting factoid is that Madrid's Royal Palace is the largest royal palace in Western Europe. It was built on the site of the old Alcázar, the Moorish castle destroyed by fire in 1734. However, the area was occupied since the 10th century by the Moors, who in turn named the city's Manzanares river, ‘Al-Magrit’, meaning source of water. This led to the area being referred to as Mayrit, which turned to Magerit, then Madrid.


The area also acts as the home of the Plaza de Oriente, the Teatro Real opera house, and the modern Catedral de Santa María la Real de la Almudena. The latter is the city’s principle church of the Diocese of Madrid. The Cathedral is a relatively modern building, on which the work started in 1883 going on until 1993. The delay until as little as two decades ago on a building as significant as a cathedral can largely be attributed to the fact that Madrid was part of the Archdiocese of Toledo, which was reluctant to relinquish it.



Picture: Fernando Monte da Silva

Tourists row along the lake in Madrid's Retiro Park



But keeping all of its history aside, which is synonymous with most of Spain, it is Madrid’s green revolution that really sets it apart from its more bustling counterpart, Barcelona. The Retiro Park, once the recreational estate of Spain’s monarchy, the Casa de Campo and the Juan Carlos I Park are just some of the green escapes open to inhabitants and visitors alike, offering the opportunity to enjoy the sunshine, stroll through its beautifully manicured hedges, or row along its crystal clear lakes, in one of the greenest capitals in Europe.


While this is my favourite part of the city, there is no doubt that it has far more to offer, and countless other sights to see. One such mention absolutely has to go to La Plaza de Cibeles, where the fountain shows Cybele, the Greek goddess of fertility and nature, holding a sceptre and a key while being pulled by two lions on a chariot. The pull of the wild lions symbolises the power of nature or of the goddess. It originally stood outside the Prado Museum facing the fountain of Neptune. It is said that this original fountain dates back to when Madrid was a Moorish settlement and provided water to the local population. However, in the 19th century, it was moved to the centre of the square where it is found today, before being adorned with additional embellishments.



Picture: Fernando Monte da Silva 

The Palacio de Comunicaciones, which became famous for its pro-refugee sign



It is all of this, this nearly zealous and infectious passion for life, that sets Madrid apart. Strings of concerts, be they Grammy Award winners in grand auditoriums or buskers in back alleys, exhibitions of art, be they masters in majestic galleries or street artists in the park, all of it comes together here: food, art, dance, history, culture and everything else. And with that being the bottom line, why would anyone with half a drop of blood infected with wanderlust, not want in on the adventure?



Fernando's Findings

Like most of Spain, Madrid does not have public washrooms, barring one adjacent to the Museo Nacional Del Prado. Establishments, acknowledging this sad fact, have printed signs placed right at the entrance or beside the bar, saying "Washrooms for paying customers only." As such, be prepared to have to pay for random things that you may not even need at a host of places, in order to be able to 'use the facilities'.

Make the fullest use of the metro. It is a cheap alternative to taking a cab and goes just about anywhere. In certain cases, you may have to work out the connecting stations, but it is fairly straightforward.

Be cautious with the vending machines. I have had poor experiences in Madrid, with three of the ones I used having died on me, midway through the process. You lose your money and do not receive the product.

Do a lot of research when it comes to the airport and its many connections. Madrid has four terminals, which are more like different structures altogether, situated many kilometres away. The staff is not very helpful and can be downright rude sometimes. However, there is a green colour bus that takes you to the remaining terminals, parked just outside the main airport (incidentally Terminal 4), and a metro at the -1 level of the airport, which will take you into the city.




My love for travel is second only to my love of food. Excess Baggage is a series of posts that delves into my experiences with the places that I’ve been to, why they are special to me and my sharing of my own insight that may lead you to take the path I have, which is quite often the path less travelled.

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The views here are completely my own, and may not reflect those of any other members of the human population, which is why it is 'my blog'.






I will always do my best to not be offensive, but sometimes, just sometimes, there are things that annoy me. So if I'm writing about one of them (and if anyone involved is reading this), I apologise for any hurt sentiments in advance.






Try not to be overly sensitive and take offense to things like beef, bikinis, sex scenes in movies, Donald Trump's inability to be an effective president and so on. The world is happier with unicorns in it.


© 2015 by Fernando Monte da Silva