Reemerging from the clouds low enough to see Spain take shape, the first thing that strikes you is the colour. The Earth is brown, almost rusted in places with spots so yellow, they glow. The green, what there is of it, is muted and partched as if desperately clinging to its last supply of chlorophyll.
Minutes later, wheels down in the capital’s airport, scenery is forgotten as the practical tasks of retrieving luggage from what may be the world’s shortest conveyer belt and navigating to Madrid city centre – easy thanks to a good public transport network- take over. Then, with hotel found and baggage deposited, it’s time to start discovering.
It’s refreshing to come to a city without expectations or much prior knowledge. Madrid isn’t a European capital that gets as much press as its nearby rivals, and I was keen to find out why.
With a desire to wonder and wander, it was immediately curious how quickly the volume changes in Madrid. One minute, you’re very much in a major city surrounded by traffic, hustle and bustle, people, and, well, noise; but it takes seemingly seconds and two streets of left or right turns before you find yourself on shopless streets with only the echo of your own feet for company. It’s not unnerving or unpleasant, it’s just unusual.
Madrid feels like it is a city of many personalities. It’s both royal and political, with grand residences and government buildings proudly flying the red and yellow flag. Then there’s a romantic side, where quaint, narrow streets, that remain cool and shaded thanks to the six or seven storey buildings flanking each side, open onto glorious Plazas primed for eating and drinking, meeting and dating. For those needing urban escape, there are green spaces and parks for walking, jogging and cooling off from the burning sun.
For all this, I can see why Madrid doesn’t rank as highly amongst other European cities in the fame stakes. It’s not as regal as London, not as romantic as Paris or Prague, nor is it as historical or political as Berlin. But it does feel lived in; even it’s central neighbours feel like areas where local people go about their lives.
And there are some great things to do. Some of my highlights include:
1. The Reina Sofia Museum – with its cool, shaded interior and huge floors of white gallery space, there is so much modern art to enjoy. The highlights include Picasso’s Guernica, but with works by Dali and Miro as well as a wealth of other arists, it’s a bargain at 8 Euros a ticket.
2. El Retiro Park
A wonderful green space with wide avenues, sculptured gardens, a boating lake and cafes, this oasis is a short walk from the city centre.
3. Plaza Santa Ana
This medium – sized Plaza is perfect for eating and drinking as well as watching the world go by. Lined with mainly Tapas places but some Italian restaurants and bars, there’s a lively but relaxed atmosphere all overlooked by some beautiful buildings.
It takes more than three days to know a place, obviously, but as a starting point in a short holiday to enjoy and learn a bit about Spain, Madrid has done a fine job. It might not make my top ten list of personal favourite cities, but Madrid is welcoming, different, with sights to see and some fabulous sights to visit (admittedly the Naval Museum is probably only for hardcore ship enthusiasts like the one I married). Most importantly it left me wanting to know more about Spain, its history and its politics.
So, with this in mind, having navigated the main station with its enormous indoor jungle, security check point and train boarding system akin to an airport gate, I’m on the train to Seville, wondering what more I’ll learn about Spain and whether or not I’ll give Madrid another taste one day.