Madrid, May 2003

My trip to Madrid in the first week of May 2003 was, by any measure, a disaster. Except for the first day I was there, the weather was less than what I expected, including rain in 4 of the 5 days. The Embassy people I was to visit were able to see me one night, but the rest of the time were busy with an unexpected visit from Colin Powell on his way to Israel. And the whole point of going was to witness the Transit of Mercury, which wasn't visible from the US - but the morning of the transit, the Madrid sky was overcast.

Nonetheless, I got in a lot of photography, and discovered that Madrid really is a beautiful city. As a child I had been here in 1985 with my family, but now it was much cleaner and modernized than I remembered, which was good. I visited all three of the major art museums and came to the conclusion that my favorite was the Thyssen, though the most impressive individual painting was Picasso's Guernica at the Reina Sofia.

My visit happened to coincide with a visit from Pope John Paul II, which didn't affect my travels at all, with a lot of signs thoughout the city commemorating the visit. The sunday I was there was the Spanish Grand Prix, in which native Spaniard Fernando Alonso - 22 years old - came in second behind Michael Schumacher. And on the Tuesday I was there, Real Madrid faced Juventus in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals. So there was a lot going on, but the weather put a pretty heavy damper on it all.

The Plaza Colon was the Pope's destination on the Sunday I was there. I was not there for the ceremony, but took this picture several days later when it was back to normal. Given that the officials expected a crowd of over half a million people, I figured it was safe to avoid the gathering.

Madrid is full of fountains and circles and plazas throughout its streets. This arch, located at the northwestern corner of Parque del Buen Retiro, is called the Puerto de Alcala, while the circle is the Plaza de la Independencia. It's a pretty arch, built in 1778 during the reign of King Carlos III. Other than that I don't know anything else.

This is the path that leads to the entrance of the Musee de Arte Renia Sofia, which is the most modern of the big three art museums in Spain. This is the museum that houses Guernica by Picasso, along with a fair amount of important works by Salvador Dali. The large structure in the center of the picture is the main elevator shaft, which is largely glass and thus affords quite impressive views while going up and down.

Gran Via splits off the Calle del Alcala and continues west from this intersection, where we see two buildings - Edificio Metropolis and Edificio Grassy - exhibiting very interesting Spanish architecture. Gran Via is one of the busiest of Madrid's streets, especially in the evening, when parts of it take on a Times-Square-like apperance, with bright lights and massive foot traffic.

My favorite buildings, though, would have to be the Torres Puerta Europa in the Plaza de Castilla. Although they are well north of the main city center, they are in a clean and spacious part of town, and as you can see from this picture, quite unique in their aspect. Leaning at 15 degrees, surrounded by a large circle of traffic (with a major bus station on the north side), this was my favorite piece of architecture in the city.

As you might know, I love bridges; unfortunately, Madrid does not have many. But there is this one, the Viaducto de Segovia in the western part of the city just south of the Royal Palace. The Viaduct crosses over Calle de Segovia, rather than any body of water; but it is nevertheless an impressive bridge.

The Plaza de Toros is a massive bullring, which one might expect to find in this country. Located at the eastern end of the city, it is the largest bullring in the world. I did not arrive in time to see a bullfight, so I was relegated to simply looking at the outside of the ring on an off day.

Another large building in Madrid is, not surprisingly, the Palacio Real. This view is from outside the south side of the Palace, looking into the Plaza de la Armeria. I was unable to get into a tour to see the Palace due to the number of tourists there that day, but I did get a chance to explore the palace grounds, from whence I took the following pictures.

This is a view of the gardens on the north side of the Palace, filled with finely-trimmed hedges, trees, and a large reflecting pool. Unfortunately, it is also rife with litter as the garbage has not been collected recently enough, spoiling what would otherwise be a beautiful public space.

View of the northern edifice of the Palacio Real, and the reflecting pool.

This is one of the lawns extending west from the Palace, in the Jardines del Palacio Real, a part of the large park called Campo de Moro. Behind me, as I shot this view, would be the Palace, up on a hill from this point. Past the fountain is the entrance to the Jardines, off the Virgen del Puerto.

There are several peacocks on the Jardines grounds, and this one was eating out of some tourists' hands as they sat on a bench. I didn't get a great shot of that, but I did manage to get this close up of one of the world's most beautiful birds. Also scattered throghout the grounds were magpies (big ones!) and a few pheasants.

Long serene walks are to be found all over the park. In both this park and the Parque del Buen Retiro in the middle of the city I found a lot of horsechestnut trees, which were just finishing their spring bloom when I was there. Horsechestnuts are one of my favorite trees, so I was quite happy to find so many of them in Madrid's parks.

I didn't know it before I arrived, but Madrid does in fact have a river, even though it is not navigable. Rio Manzaneres isn't deep nor wide, but as you can see in this picture, it does provide Madrilenos with some nice outdoor space, and in this case, a place to go fishing - although I have no idea if this guy actually caught anything.

One of the really neat features of Madrid is the amount of maps available in public - not an unusual feature for a European city, but at the time I didn't know that. The large street maps are a great guide to the city, and are found all over the place, mostly at bus stops but in other random locations as well. This one was in the Plaza de Castilla, outside the Metro station.

Speaking of the Metro, I have to say: the Madrid Metro is one of the most amazing subway systems I've ever encountered. With few exceptions, the stations are clean, the trains modern, the announcements clear, and the trains run frequently. I was very impressed by the system, by which I was able to spend the entire time in Madrid without once getting into a taxi - even getting to and from the airport, which is also accessible by the Metro. Very impressive.

Speaking of cars, here's something neat I saw. The colorful kiosk in the right of the picture is a gas station. Just a few pumps and a place to pull off the street - in this case, Virgen del Puerta - so you can make a quick splash-n-dash right on the street! What a great concept!

The main post office, located on the Plaza de la Cibeles, is another great architectural work. The Plaza de Cibeles is also one of the city's busiest circles, full of traffic at all hours as it circles a large fountain in the middle of the rotary, of which I was unable to get a very good shot. Though I must say, after 5 days in Madrid, it's easy to get tired of seeing fountains - they're nice, but they're everywhere.

This statue is called El Oso y el Madrono, which translates to The Bear and the Strawberry Tree. It is a symbol on the city's coat of arms, as evidently bears used to be common just north of the city. The location of this statue is in the north side of Plaza del Sol, the heart of the city and the home of my hotel, Hotel Europa (the entrance to which can be seen here). Unfortunately, my room's window opened into the street in the background, which caused me to sleep very little at night, and contributed to the sufferings of the trip.

But much as I was disappointed with the circumstances around my visit, I have to say that it is a beautiful city with a lot to see. Would I go back? Maybe, if I knew people who lived there. But next time in Spain, I think I'll go to Barcelona and Valencia instead.

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