Saturday, October 15, 2016

Spain 2016- Part 1- Madrid

Spain has been on our travel wish list for several years, as evidenced by the travel guides dated from 2002 that line our office walls.  It finally made it to the top as we decided to visit Madrid, San Sebastian and Barcelona in October 2016.

For this post, I'm focusing on our first stop in Madrid. We flew direct from LAX to Madrid on a late night flight, arriving a little after 2pm on Saturday. As we rode in a cab to our hotel, I was pleased to look out the window and see the "Refugees Welcome" sign hanging above the entrance to the Palacio de Comunicaciones building. Not all European countries share that sentiment.
Palacio de Comunicaciones
We arrived at Hotel Villa Real and loved the location- right in the middle of everything! The hotel staff were friendly and luckily for us, spoke excellent English. 

Hotel Villa Real located at Plaza de las Cortes
View from our room at Hotel Villa Real
We had our first meal in Spain at Doro's Bistro, a cozy little place within walking distance of our hotel. (Well, practically everything was walking distance.) I especially loved the iron chandelier designed in a traditional Spanish style.
Doro's Bistro
Carl has always done an incredible job of researching and planning our travels.  He's really good with maps which is not one of my strengths.

The next morning, we awoke to spectacular weather and planned our day to include the Prado Museum, the Decorative Arts Museum and a bullfight.

The Prado museum houses the most comprehensive collection of Spanish painting in the world. It opened for the first time on November 10, 1819. Thanks to the determination of Isabella of Braganza, married to King Ferdinand VII, the building that Juan de Villanueva had initially designed to house the Natural History Cabinet finally accommodated an important part of the royal collections. Years of private donations and acquisitions enlarged the museum's collection.  While a fantastic collection, it wasn't our most favorite style of art.

Prado Museum
I had read that we might be able to see some traditional Spanish dancers at Retiro Park and we did. They bright and colorful costumes made my day. We strolled through the beautiful park, enjoying the relative quiet from the busy city streets.

Right around the corner from the park, the Decorative Arts Museum was right up my alley.  Housed in a 19th century palace overlooking the Parque de Retiro,  its rich collection mainly consists of furniture, ceramics, and decorative pieces from Spain dating back to Phoenician times. The exhibits cover over sixty rooms in the building's five floors, with the highlight being a fine 18th century kitchen that was moved to the museum from a mansion in the city of Valencia. Of special note is a panel of 1,500 tiles depicting a domestic scene from that time. When we visited there was a special exhibit of jewelry and accessories by contemporary Spanish designers.

Decorative Arts Museum
I was drawn to this sterling button bracelet with colorful embroidery thread accents
And this vest designed from leather and metal
Recreation of a tiled kitchen
And then came the bullfights. This was a bit of a controversial choice for us as bullfighting is not as popular a sport as it used to be. There were moves to have the corrida de toros (bullfighting) banned throughout the whole country at the beginning of 2010, but Madrid Community President Esperanza Aguirre thwarted them and had the event declared "Of Touristic Interest," thus preserving it for some time to come. We decided that since the sport was such an important and historic part of the culture that we would buy tickets. As it turned out, we didn't stay long. It is not a fair fight and it was upsetting to see how the bull was treated.

Plaza de Toros

Mounted police outside Plaza de Toros

We were all smiles before the bullfights started. Especially because we heeded the advice of a travel writer who suggested we rent the padded cushions to sit on. That concrete was hard.
While I don't regret our decision, I left the bullfights feeling a bit sad and depressed.
Friends suggested that we visit the Royal Palace, saying it was more "over the top than Versailles." So on Monday, we decided to add that to our itinerary. Unfortunately no photos inside were allowed. Trust me, it was over the top.

The Royal Palace (Palacio Real, in Spanish) is the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family at the city Madrid, but is only used for state ceremonies. King Felipe VI and the Royal Family do not reside in the palace, choosing instead the more modest  Palacio de la Zarzuela on the outskirts of Madrid.

Palacio Real
When someone offered to take our picture, we said "yes, please." We aren't very proficient at selfies.
We walked a lot. There was so much to see and we tried to fit as much into the visit as we could. One can become a bit "Cathedral weary" in Spain, but Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Almudena was an exception.

Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Almudena
When the capital of Spain was transferred from Toledo to Madrid in 1561, the seat of the Church in Spain remained in Toledo and the new capital had no cathedral. Plans to build a cathedral in Madrid dedicated to the Virgin of Almudena were discussed as early as the 16th century but even though Spain built more than 40 cities in the new world during that century and plenty of Cathedrals, the cost of expanding and keeping the Empire came first and the construction of Madrid's cathedral was postponed. Making the cathedral the largest that the world had ever seen was then a priority, all other main Spanish cities had centuries old Cathedrals, Madrid also has old churches but the construction of Almudena only began in 1879. The cathedral was not completed until 1993, when it was consecrated by Pope John Paul II. 

The Neo-Gothic interior is uniquely modern, with chapels and statues of contemporary artists, in heterogeneous styles, from historical revivals to "pop-art" decor from Kiko Argüello.
Painted vault In Catedral De Nuestra Senora De La Almudena- amazing and so different from anything we'd ever seen.
We enjoyed many wonderful meals in Madrid. One of my favorite sidewalk cafes was Estado Puro. The chef Paco Roncero won a Michelin star for his avant-garde dishes at Madrid's La Terraza del Casino but at Estado Puro he creates the classics, albeit  with a highly innovative approach. Loved the signage and interesting ceramic tableware. I'm always drawn to the details.

Estado Puro
Loved the ceramics that echoed the logo of the peineta, a hair comb worn by flamenco dancers
We enjoyed the beautiful architecture, wrought iron, tiles, balconies and all of the details that you expect when you visit Spain. Here are a few more photos of things that caught my eye.

Gorgeous wrought iron
The amazing architecture at Galeria de Cristal, City Hall
The largest plaza in Madrid, Plaza Mayor.  This panoramic photos helps illustrate its size.
Colorful signage reinforced what I imagined Spain would look like
Good looking people
Not to end on a bad note, but you can't hide from the facts. Our last dinner in Madrid was at Lhardy- an exquisitely appointed, white tableclothed old school restaurant in the heart of the city. We ordered Foie Gras Caesar salad, and a beautiful steak to share. The service was wonderful, the food tasted good...but we both ended up with food poisoning which hit us around 2am, the morning of our departure from Spain.

Dinner at Lhardy was an experience to remember....

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