Spain's cosmopolitan capital city warmly embraces travelers with famed sights, cultural highlights, a rich history, and the bustle and beauty of its streets and plazas. Madrid is Europe's fifth largest city, home to a population of just over 3 million. The city limits sprawl a large distance but the city center, where the majority of the population lives and visits, is actually very compact. Experiencing Madrid on foot is highly encouraged, both during the day and at night. From wandering down the charming one way side streets of Old Madrid and stumbling upon a historic square teeming with excitement, to taking in an impressive expanse on the streets of Grand Via or Calle de Acalá; walking this city was a completely rewarding and fulfilling experience. It is practical to stay at a centrally located hotel, which makes for an easy beginning and ending point to the days explorations. I thoroughly appreciated our hotels location in Plaza Santa Ana, adjacent to Puerta Del Sol, the central square and spiritual heart of the city. This lively plaza (which I totally should have photographed from a nicer angle instead of that uncharacteristically shoddy looking building under construction) is the perfect place to begin exploring Madrid. Puerta del Sol translates to "Gate of The Sun", its origin rooted from when the rising sun decorated the entry on one of the east facing gates of the ancient city wall. It is here where the infamous El Oso y El Madroño (the bear and the madrono tree) statue is located, the iconic symbol of Madrid. We noticed the statue symbol embedded in the sidewalks and elsewhere along our city travels.On our first day we joined a walking tour group, our spirited guide was sure to let us know that if you ask a Madrileño what the bear is doing to the tree, you will get different answer every time. Why he is hugging, kissing, eating or licking it, of course. Puerta del Sol is also the center of the nations roadway network, designated by a kilometer zero plaque in front of the Casa de Correos (Post Office). The distance points on all Spain's major highways are measured from here. A hop, skip and a jump away from Puerta Del Sol to the southwest lies the marvelous Castillian Square known as Plaza Mayor. Its 16th Century facades and off-shooting arcades were once witness to bullfights, pageants, public execution, royal cebrations and more. During the middle ages, this area was was merely a market place outside city walls. It wasn't until around 1560 that King Phillip II commissioned architect Juan de Herrera to turn the space into a real square. The construction was completed under the reign of King Phillip III, at the center stands a bronze statue of him made by Italian sculptor Giovanni de Bologna. The prominent focal point of this uniform square is Casa de la Panaderia or The Bakers House, which lies between the symmetrical towers where colorful murals of angels and saints adorn the facade. These murals were added somewhat recently in 1992.Nowadays this handsome enclosed public space is perfect to sit outside and people watch; during the late morning with a frothy cappuccino, or early evening with a pint of cerveza. We visited to marvel in its beauty and soak up its atmosphere on more than one occasion, charmed and amused each time for sure. Ahh vacation and the luxury of spending five days in a foreign city. You start to embrace deeper the connection with places that tug at your soul. You smile for the camera and make faces at certain persons who "mess up" that perfect shot. I actually like the above picture, it captures the reality of the situation, and reminds me that all the perfect photographs in the world don't measure up to the experience. Though clearly, taking pictures is one of my favorite parts!Continuing on just a handful of blocks west of Plaza Mayor sits the lavish Palacio Real, the official home to the Royal Family and largest royal palace in Western Europe. The neoclassical home contains 2,800 rooms, of which 50 or so are open to the public by way of self guided tours. The jaw dropping interior spaces showcase regal decor from lush ornate tapestries and carpets, to detail rich chandeliers and clocks, to painted ceilings, porcelain statues and gilded furniture. I definitely recommend the tour (€10 per person) for a glimpse into the luxurious life of Spanish royalty. We showed up on Friday, September 9th, with every intention of taking the tour, but it just so happened to be a city holiday and the Palace was closed; confining us to view its grandeur from outside the gates only. We returned that Sunday afternoon, not wanting to miss the interior on display. Photographs are not allowed inside - except for the entryway which is highlighted by a marble staircase flanked by grand lion statues and the ever popular painted ceiling. Of course, I took and posed for pictures to my hearts content in the sprawling granite courtyard - The Plaza de la Armería.The impressive building is constructed of granite from the nearby Guadarrama Mountains, combined with white Colmenar limestone. Be sure not to overlook the neighboring Catedral de Santa María la Real de la Almudena.(Which we certainly might have had we not shown up to tour the palace on a city holiday when it was closed.) Since we were right there and the cathedral was open, we decided to duck in (€6 each) and check out this fairly modern masterpiece. Its construction began long ago in 1883, but was not officially completed until 1993. The delay in building a cathedral in Madrid was largely attributed to the fact that city was part of the Archdiocese of Toledo, (the countries original capital) which was unwilling to relinquish it.
Along the journey beginning through the back entrance of the cathedral we came upon distinctive mosaic walled rooms crafted from tiles in bright eye catching colors and museum-esque hallways housing artifacts of the church. After meandering through these halls and climbing up quite a few stairwells, we were exposed to balcony front views of the palace.Eventually we reached the roof, offering panoramic landscapes from numerous vantage points, this 360 degree walkabout is defined by bronze human figure statues with their hands outstretched to the heavens. The uniquely modern Gothic revival style interior with ornate altars and high roman ceilings was equally as captivating.
Etched with vivid stained glass windows brilliantly reflecting the sun and decorated with varying forms of Christian artwork.From classic paintings and sculptures to contemporary rainbow colored murals, there was a sight to behold from every angle.After taking in both visually stunning landmarks to our hearts content, we headed on to the Sabatini Gardens, just beyond the palace. The gardens embody a formal neoclassical style, consisting of sheared hedges and trees in geometrical patterns. Fountains and statues among them, the gardens prove a tranquil spot from which to enjoy different views of the palace.
These enthralling city landmarks all within close proximity to one another are sure to impress those looking to soak up some major culture and history. While they encompass so much of what I adore about Madrid, they only just begin to showcase what the city has to offer. And I know you're probably wondering by now what we ate....(working on it!)