Even under sunny blue skies and temperatures around 10˚C, Madrid felt cold when we visited for three days. Not that the people were unfriendly. The city was in a bit of a cold snap, even for that time of year, explained the kindly proprietress of the laundromat near our hotel at the Plaza del Sol. We carried on a friendly conversation in mangled French (hers more so) and Spanish (mine) as she explained the workings of the incredibly high-tech washing machines (seemed like they took about a cup of water for each load!) and dryers. I was a bit disappointed to learn that her favourite Canadian singer was Celine Dionne.
We realize on this trip that we are getting old. The cold seeps into our bones and we’re sore in a way we never used to be after walking. Our hotel room in the Best Western Carlos V becomes our sanctuary, where we rest and recuperate for the next day.
The choice of things to see and do here is overwhelming and about half of our stay was already scheduled for the big three art galleries — the Prado, the Thyssen and the Reina Sofia. So we once again bought tickets on the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus. These things are a great way to get a quick view of a city; we’d already used them in Munich and Barcelona. But here, we again got cold sitting on the open top deck in the breeze. And I, thinking it wouldn’t be quite this cold, am in a barely adequate summer-fall windbreaker.
Madrid seemed more cosmopolitan somehow than Barcelona. Perhaps it was because we seemed to see more gradations of skin colour and facial types here. And people seemed very patient with our Spanish, or maybe knew how to better respond in a way in which we would understand, moreso than in other places. Getting vegetarian food was not generally a problem for Ana, unlike Barcelona and (with one notable exception) Segovia.
Around the Plaza del Sol, where we stayed in the centre of the city, a whole district had been pedestrianized and was crowded with shops, restaurants and hotels. We particularly noted the Spanish obsession with pork in the many franchises of the Museo del Jamon, where huge smoked quarters and delicious-looking specialty sausages were on display in abundance. There were a number of well-stocked souvenir stores. There was a branch of the Corte Ingles department store, where I bought a pair of gloves to ward off the cold and we discovered a hidden supermarket. The restaurants and bars were jammed to capacity at lunch. There were still a fair number of people around until 9 or 10pm, when the street sweepers seemed to take over.
Just down the street from our hotel was the headquarters of a protest group which had set up a camp beside what looked to be a shuttered bank. There was a tableful of literature and a petition to sign. The installation was closely watched by police from at least three jurisdictions that I could count.
We saw several protests against IMF-forced austerity programs while we were in Madrid. The demonstrations were large an noisy, but peaceful. One of them, by healthcare and hospital workers opposing cutbacks, filled the large Plaza del Sol near the hotel.
Despite high unemployment, we saw no obvious signs of street crime, no threatening characters in the metro system and never felt unsafe walking around the area of our hotel at night. We wondered if a stronger family structure (which itself might be a leap of logic) mitigated the effects of the recession somewhat. Still, there were areas of Madrid that looked pretty grim when we saw them from passing trains: rows of crumbling apartment towers in dense agglomerations.
The galleries were amazing. We bought a discounted pass which got us into all three of the ones mentioned above at a big discount. My favourite was the Reina Sofia, where the emphasis was more on the contemporary and there was an obvious grappling with what happened in the Civil War. But who could criticize a museum like the Prado? The Heironymous Bosches alone would be worth the trans-Atlantic trip. But I think the half-day we allocated to the Prado was not enough and we tried to see too much, so the whole experience was rather overwhelming. The Thyssen, while outstanding in its own right, was perhaps again left to a day on its own. But they nevertheless had an excellent museum shop, where we bought some gifts for friends.
The city carried on with the monumentality we saw in Barcelona, except a lot more so. The Gran Via is a veritable smorgasbord of architectural styles, all of which tend to the monumental. And, of course, palaces abound, as do stately parks and boulevards.
Madrid was a vibrant, exciting city to visit. If ever it had a reputation of being dull or stodgy, it is anything but now.