In the following series of posts, about my trip to Spain, I will try to give you some observations and tips that you do not find in most travel guidebooks.
Madrid is one city, and many cities at once.
It’s a typical modern western European capital city, and a very grand former Imperial capital. A home for the Hapsburgs, a vibrant, individual cultural scene at once an integral part of the current European culture. It’s vibrant, courteous, charming, imposing, inviting all at once.
Our hotel, the Atlantico, is in a perfect location for getting to know this city. It’s situated on the Gran Via, one of the main east-west thoroughfares and a major shopping street. Traffic here is fast, but no worse than any other large city. Wide avenues and lots of roundabouts keep it flowing well. Drivers honk frequently, but not as frequently as those in Rome, and it’s more to warn other drivers than to protest or punish them.
The Atlantico is about mid-way between the Palacio Real and the cathedral to the west and the Prado Museum and botanical gardens to the east, and walking distance to either. On the south side of the Gran Via begins a tangle of streets around the Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor. Some of the streets are pedestrian-only, but not all, so be careful. Taxis like to push down the streets honking at you to get out of way.
After we check into the hotel and take a little rest, we walk over toward the Palacio Real. It was March 31, the last day of the winter schedule, and the Palace closed at 6:00 p.m., which meant the ticket office closed at 5:00 — just as we arrived.
Non-travel-guide tip: starting on April 1, the Palacio, the Prado and most of the other attractions are open until 8:00, and after 6, admittance is free.
We decided to take a tour on a double-decker tourist bus. It’s 20 euros per person for the day, but you can hop on and off at will. We take one circuit on Route 1, from the Palacio and cathedral, along the Calle Mayor. We can see the Plaza Major, but it’s strictly pedestrian-only and separated from the main streets. Then there’s the Puerta del Sol, the city’s main intersection, jammed with people, taxis, buses, soccer experts demonstrating their foot-ball juggling prowess in front of a sporting goods store. There are even a few policemen mounted on horseback.
This is a great way to get oriented to the city. We see the Gran Via, the Bank of Spain, several fountains and other grand buildings. We are introduced to various neighbourhoods. When the bus goes past the Prado Museum—Madrid’s art scene crown jewel and home to more art than any other capital, or so it claims—we see a long line-up. It turns out, though, that that’s because late admittance to almost all Spanish museums is free.
After one circuit on Route 1, we walk to a fairly tony shopping district, where, according to Frommer’s guide, a store sells espadrilles — Spanish shoes that tie at the ankle. Just as we’re beginning to doubt Frommer’s reliability, we find it—ten minutes before closing. Roxanne picks out some espadrilles, and then we look for the tour bus back to the hotel. We’re jet-lagged and our strength is ebbing fast.
We’re the only passengers on the Route 2 bus as it nears the Puerta del Sol again. On one side is a temporary wooden wall around some kind of construction, built in a curve. As the bus rounds it, it gets very close to the wall.
There’s a shadowed movement at the side window. “STOP STOP STOP!” I yell out. The bus has nearly crushed a woman against the wall. The bus lurches to a halt, and the woman slides out of the narrow space, rounds the front of the bus and continues into the square as if this is something that happens every day.
It’s late, but the Spanish don’t eat supper until 10:00, or so the guide-books tell us. This seems true: restaurants are almost deserted after 8:00 p.m. Roxanne wants tapas, and Frommer’s lists one of the best choices for Tapas as the Taberna Toscana. It’s on a street called Manuel de Huertas. I ask the guide on the bus for the street, but he’s never heard of it nor the restaurant. “There are many small streets here,” he says. “You can look for it.”
We’re not very hopeful. The street is not marked on any of the four tourist maps of Madrid that I’m carrying, nor in the guide book. We wander for a few minutes, and just as we’re about to give up on this particular restaurant, I notice the street sign.
It’s a narrow street, more of an alley with restaurants down each side. They’ve all set up tables and umbrellas in the street. The Taberna Toscana is at the far end.
Toscana appears to be more of a locals’ hang-out than an internationally known restaurant. It’s just past nine, so there are only a few people at the bar or sitting on low stools around the tables. A waiter greets us in Spanish, but speaks perfect English. He beckons us to a window table, where we can lean back against the wall. It’s tight, but comfortable enough once we get in. The food is excellent, and a great value: with a half-bottle of excellent Riscal white wine and more food than we can eat, tax and gratuity, the bill is less than 50 euros. Watch for a future post about dining in Spain.
Finally, we go back to the hotel. It’s only about a 10-minute walk away, through the Puerta del Sol again. For a nightcap, the hotel has a wonderful top-floor lounge with a rooftop patio. What a great way to end our first day in Madrid.