We walked out of our hotel, determined to fight off the jetlag that was screaming at us to sleep. But the rain came down. It teemed. We were in Spain. And the rain was falling mainly on the plain and … well … us. Even with our $5 tourist plastic ponchos, we got soaked.
In New Zealand we grew up astounded that if we were flipped into Europe, we’d arrive in Spain! It also sits on latitude 40, but enjoys the benefits of the Atlantic Gulfstream and a continental climate. Usually. In late April 2007, Spain was suffering from an unseasonal cold spell. Even the Americas Cup races in Valencia were postponed day after day because of the cold, still weather. But once the rain stopped and the flooded pavements drained, and we awoke from our jetlagged nap, we discovered that Madrid was a great destination for three or four days.
Madrid surprised me. Spain isn’t as rich as Germany or France, and admit that I expected to find Madrid a bit run down, a bit tired, more like Rome. But Madrid – central Madrid at least – is beautiful. The buildings are grand, and spotless, and looked as if they were from more feted cities, such as Prague or Vienna.
The Royal Palace (or Palacio Real) is open to visitors and reminds of Spain’s imperial past.
Madrid is an artistic city. Even the street signs are works of art, worthy of attention even if you know which way you are heading.
And then there are the galleries. I have never enjoyed art galleries so much as I did in Madrid. The Prado is magnificent, the Thyssen-Bornemisza with its medieval religious art that usually leaves me cold but here had me in awe, and the Reina Sofia. Madrid is worth visiting if only to see these galleries. Visiting Madrid without seeing these galleries is a travesty, an opportunity lost!
Of course, this is Spain. So restaurants don’t open for dinner till 9 or 10 pm, a struggle for a jetlagged couple like ourselves, and the bars, where you can enjoy tapas at an earlier hour, are quite literally smoke-filled and not places we felt that we could linger and remain breathing. It was still a little cold to sit out at the restaurants at the Plaza Mayor, but after the rain cleared, and we had had our fill of paintings and sculpture, we found that it was a great place to walk. In late April the evenings are still light, and the locals emerge from their afternoon siestas and go shopping or take a promenade themselves, children play soccer in the streets and parks, the prostitutes walk freely in their startling white outfits down the Calle de la Montera just off the Gran Via, and hawkers sell sunglasses and other trinkets carefully laid out on cloth ingeniously configured to be swept up in an instant if the constabulary happens along.
The area between the Gran Via and Plaza Mayor bustled with locals enjoying shopping in the pedestrian only streets, and protesters made their opinions known.
Europeans know how to live in towns and cities. A walk is an event, a way to meet neighbours and friends, to take the air and to be part of a community, not just a means of getting from A to B. And for travellers, a stroll with the locals is always a gentle introduction to a new town or country.