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With its spectacular architecture, its grand boulevards, its museums, its ‘Art Nouveau’ cafes and restaurants, its flamenco dancing and its bull fighting, Madrid is one of the leading focal points for global tourism today.
We reach the city center shortly after arriving at Barajas Airport. The first thing that strikes our eye is that this is truly a city with a European air, because there is not a trace of haphazard construction. Soon we come to ‘Puerto del Sol’, the Sun-Gate and heart of the city.
Puerto del Sol is in the quarter known as ‘old’ Madrid. But if you ask me, Plaza Mayor is the city center. All the great public ceremonies (Auto-da-Fé) were held here in the old days when rows of benches were set up specially to enable the populace to follow the proceedings. Today however the Plaza is the first place tourists go to soak up the atmosphere of the city. Everything is alive with color on this square teeming with outdoor cafes.
The uniquely Spanish snacks known as ‘tapas’ are served at every hour of the day but particularly at evening. And when you see the array of seafood, mussels, tiny fish, shrimps and crayfish and the varieties of Spain’s special ham, as well as, in some places, the ‘Paella’s quintessential to Spain, your mouth will immediately start to water.
MUSEO DEL JAMON
Museo del Jamon, in other words, the Museum of Jambon, is the name of a delicatessen that caught my eye. So central is ham in Spanish cuisine that some delicatessens have even been named for it and are jammed with customers at all times of day. Another corner of the Plaza Mayor has been taken over by street painters. It is of course great fun to watch these artists at work, as on London’s Leicester Square or the Montmartre in Paris.
We continue our tour. After Old Madrid, we start from the Plaza del Callao, one of the city’s most important intersections in the Bourbon period (19th century). The traffic congestion and crowds of people leave us in no doubt that we are in the right place. Movie theaters, department stores and brand names line the avenue on both sides. Continuing down the Gran Via, we arrive at the Plaza de Cibeles. This avenue, which connects with the Calle de Alcala, is reminiscent of the broad avenues of Paris. The fascinating architecture of the imposing buildings erected at the beginning of the last century is a treat for the eyes, and the Metropolis building is one of them.
Not out of steam yet, we can head from Cibeles to the Paseo del Prado, Madrid’s most delightful quarter if you ask me. Sometimes it reminds me of Istanbul’s Cumhuriyet Caddesi, except that the trees and buildings are more magnificent and the boulevard itself is much wider.
THE MUSEUM DISTRICT
About a kilometer ahead we are going to see the Prado, perhaps the primary focus of our Madrid tour. A tour of the Prado, one of the largest museums not only in Spain but in the whole world, cannot be squeezed into an hour or two. Seeing the Velasquez and Goya galleries alone takes at least half a day. And believe me, it’s worth it. The Caravaggios, the Raphaels, the Dürers, the Zurbarans, and the Bruegels all await us here. But still it is Velasquez and Goya that make up the Prado’s most prized collections.
For those who like museums, there are two more nearby. One is the Thyssen -Bornemisza Museum, the other the Centre de Arta Reina Sofia, housed in a giant, restored hospital building opposite the Madrid Train Station. Picasso’s most important painting hands down, ‘Guernica’ is on display here in this museum, which will also delight admirers of Miro and Dali.
Why are Madrid nights so famous? The answer is simple: because day and night here are clearly separated by the institution of the ‘Siesta’ or afternoon nap. If you’re dining out, don’t arrive at the restaurant at an hour like seven, which is normal for us but regarded as very early in Madrid, where customers only begin to wander in after ten and restaurants to fill up around eleven.
FLAMENCO, SOUL OF THE CITY
If you go to Madrid and return without seeing a Flamenco exhibition you will have missed something. There is no shortage of Flamenco cafes in the city where you can take in such a show.
Our next stop is the Plaza de España. One of Madrid’s first skyscrapers, the 33-story Torre Madrid, rises here. But it’s the bust of Cervantes in the park, pleasantly reflected in the pool, and immediately below it the equestrian statues of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza that are the main center of attraction on this sprawling square. While we’re at the Plaza España, we should also see the Cerralbo Museum. The building that houses it is virtually a small palace. And while we’re on the subject of palaces, the Palazio Real or Royal Palace on the Plaza de la Armeria is engrossing for its documents and artifacts that hold up a mirror to Spanish history as well as for its sheer splendor.
Like many people, you may not like bull fighting and regard it as a manifestation of wanton cruelty, but for the curious the Plaza de Torros on the Plaza de las Ventas is the scene of bull fights every Sunday. When your taxi takes you to Las Ventas, don’t object to the surcharge for the bullfight. Taxi drivers are legally entitled to demand the extra fare on bull fight days.
If you have time to venture outside Madrid, there are two important day tours you can take. I recommend that you get away from the tour groups and rent a car. The most popular tours are to the city of Toledo (Escorial Palace - Valle de los Caidos and Sevogia). On my last trip I opted for the Segovia tour. You should set aside at least two hours to tour the Escorial Palace, built in the period of Felipe II (16th century) and located 50 km northwest of Madrid. An extension of the same itinerary, the Valle de los Caidos is shunned by some as a symbol of the Franco dictatorship.
Cutting short the tour of the Valle de los Caidos, we arrive at Segovia, which I dub a museum of the Middle Ages. A virtual film set, the old city is like a museum. We are fortunate too that the weather is lovely. The old streets, the Plaza Mayor, the ancient Roman aqueduct, the cathedral and the old castle, ‘Alcazar’, ensure that we have a day of indescribable beauty redolent of history and tradition.
Finally we conclude our week-long Madrid tour, again with the same feeling it always conjures up inside us: There are many more places to be toured and flavors to be tasted in Madrid. Next time, we console ourselves. And we are left with the wonderful memories, the palate of unusual tastes, and the photographs I’m sharing with you here.
Turkish Airlines flies from Istanbul to Madrid 10 times a week, twice on Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays.