Spain Travels: First Stop, Madrid

October 31, 2015

“Down the road — down any Spanish road — lies Madrid.”
— Jan Morris, Spain

Bird's eye view of Madrid from the rooftop terrace of Circulo de Belles Artes

Bird’s eye view of Madrid from the rooftop terrace of Circulo de Belles Artes

Madrid is a modern, vibrant city, and yet from the moment we stepped out of our hotel to begin exploring its streets, I knew I was in Europe and not in Kansas the United States anymore.  All those balconies and wrought-iron grills are so emblematic of Spain.  And Madrid is also characterized by hundreds, no, thousands of statues which embellish the architecture and impart a sort of formal, historic dignity to the city.

Early morning near the Atocha train station, Madrid

Early morning near the Atocha train station, Madrid

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Madrid skyline with statues

Madrid skyline with statues

Typical Madrid street

Typical Madrid street

“Seen from a suitable eminence, the most essential characteristic of Madrid is the flatness of its roofs.  Layer upon layer of roofs rise one behind the other, their continuity broken by innumerable attic windows and odd additional storeys; creepers, which in season bear red and purple flowers, twine about them.  The sea of tiles, toned by the sun and mellowed by grime to a charming compromise between black and yellow, with faded touches of gold, is an altogether Spanish and most attractive sight.”
— Norman Lewis, The Tomb in Seville

Rooftop view of Madrid

Rooftop view of Madrid

Our first footsteps took us to the Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s central plaza, “from which road distances in Spain are measured.”  (James Michner, Iberia)  The major tourist gathering places, like this plaza, invariably attracted street performers who added lively points of interest to the gatherings.

"The hub of Madrid's wheel is the Puerta del Sol -- the Gate of the Sun . . ." -- H. V. Morton, A Stranger in Spain

“The hub of Madrid’s wheel is the Puerta del Sol — the Gate of the Sun . . .” — H. V. Morton, A Stranger in Spain

Street performer in the Puerta del Sol

Street performers in the Puerta del Sol

Serendipity gave us one of our more colorful and unexpected encounters in Madrid.  As we were walking by the Palacio Real (Royal Palace), we saw people gathering for some unknown event.  When we asked what was going on, we learned that the Royal Horse Guard goes on parade at noon on the first Wednesday of each month. How fortunate that we stumbled by at just the right time to see this!

Royal Horse Guard on parade, Palacio Real, Madrid

Royal Horse Guard on parade, Palacio Real, Madrid

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Two of our Madrid highlights were our visits to the Prado and to the Real Ermita (Royal Chapel) of San Antonio de la Florida, both places where photography was prohibited.  The vastness of the Prado reminded me of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, rooms upon rooms of superlative art.  We were appreciative of the Prado’s brochure which identified 50 of its most popular masterpieces and their locations within the museum.

“The collection of paintings has such a plethora of riches that I know travelers who plan any trip to Europe in such a way as to have a couple of days in Madrid, not to see the city but to stroll once more through this forest of masterpieces.  If I want to see eight top paintings, I go to Venice.  If I want to see eighty, I come to the Prado.”
— James Michner, Iberia

“In museums . . . we can go from the 16th century to the 18th century by simply walking through a door . . .”
–Philippe de Montabello, from Rendez-vous with Art

“If [Madrid] had nothing else than the Prado it would be worth spending a month in every spring . . .”
— Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

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As far as the top art experience in Madrid goes, I would rate the Royal Chapel of San Antonio de la Florida higher than the Prado.  It is off the beaten track about a 20-minute walk from the Royal Palace, and is a small domed space, feeling very intimate.  The ceiling and the walls display frescoes by one artist, Goya.  This was an opportunity to see the works of a master painter in the setting for which he designed and created them over the course of six months in 1798.

“To Goya we look most of all, for Madrid is his city.  It is a special experience to go from the Prado to see the Goya frescoes in the church of San Antonio beyond the north station.”
— V. S. Pritchett, The Offensive Traveller, 1964

“Goya did not believe in costume, but he did believe in blacks and grays, in dust and in light, in high places rising from plains, in the country around Madrid, in movement, in his own cojones, in painting, in etching, and in what he had seen, felt, touched, handled, smelled, enjoyed, drunk, mounted, suffered, spewed-up, lain-with, suspected, observed, loved, hated, lusted, feared, detested, admired, loathed, and destroyed.  Naturally no painter has been able to paint all that but he tried.”
— Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

Madrid street scene

Madrid street scene

Madrid is a lovely city for strolling, and we liked nothing more than to walk and see what we could see in the crisp, clear air.

“Outside of Greece there is no light to compare with the Spanish, especially the light of Castile:  Madrid is less the capital of Spain that the capital of Castilian light. . . . By day the light has the radiance of enamel.  It is rare to see a cloud in the sky above Madrid after March and before November . . . The effect of such a light, without mists and without soft shadows, is to remove illusion; everything stares in its detail, as if every leaf or brick or rock were crowded with impersonal eyes.”
— V. S. Pritchett, The Offensive Traveller

Here are a few more photos from the streets of Madrid:

Used-book stalls lining a street near the Prado

Used-book stalls lining a street near the Prado

Book stalls lining a street near the Prado

Book stalls lining a street near the Prado

79-foot vertical garden, La Caixa Forum, Madrid

79-foot vertical garden, La Caixa Forum, Madrid

Living wall designed by French botanist Patric Blanc

Living wall designed by French botanist Patric Blanc

I loved this building, which we stumbled upon on one of our walks

I loved this building, which we stumbled upon on one of our walks

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2 Responses to “Spain Travels: First Stop, Madrid”


  1. Nice post and you have some great photos there 🙂 I haven’t been to Madrid but still in my list.
    Safe travels

  2. shoreacres Says:

    The vertical gardens are amazing, but the rooftop views are my favorites. Your photos are beautiful.


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