When Mel and Suan got married, we wondered where to go for our honeymoon as customary after the wedding dinner. Given that our wedding reception was in December, where are we to go? We had been down under twice already in that year while it seems awfully cold to make the journey to northern Europe or the US. Latin America hadn’t entered our minds yet…
So one day as we browsed through several travel brochures for inspiration, this country came to mind – Spain. Now you probably might want to read about what we thought of the country here, but there we were staring at an itinerary that included not just Spain, but also Morocco and Portugal. For Suan one of the deciding factors was the fact she could buy some brand of shoes made in Spain, in the country itself. So without adieu the tour was booked and flights bought. Ok, we exaggerated. Shopping for shoes wasn’t the main consideration… or was it?
And soon it was soon to jet off to the,
Madrid is the capital city of Spain. Long ago, Spain was not one but a number of small Kingdoms. Spain was also occupied by the Moors from North Africa for a few hundred years. The southern half of Spain is still filled with monuments from that era which we will also touch when we embark on the road trip (here). Today, Madrid is a vibrant city after having opened up to joining the EU in the late 1980s.
To be fair with ourselves, we came into the city a few days ahead of the tour. It was partly also due to flight availability (since it was year-end) but also because it was the end of a millennium – ie we were moving over to the 21st century… wow. Do you recall the fuss about crossing over the new year with computers crashing because it cannot distinguish between the years 1900 and 2000? We’ve come a long way since.
We started out from the Puerta Alcala (aka the “Gate”) – a kind of monumental arch in the city center. Built in 1778, this was actually part of a wall that run around the city at that time. While today one will not see the walls anymore, this gate remains to remind all that Madrid of the times was still very much medieval unlike today’s metropolis.
Continuing on through the main thoroughfare of Calle de Alcala we came to the city hall at Plaza Cibeles. Named after a Phrygian goddess, it started out as a postal service center in 1919. Now if you keep on this road you’d come to Puerta del Sol, but we made a turn at Gran Via towards Plaza Espana instead. This street is wide and today some refer to it as Spain’s version of Broadway. For us though, the point of coming here was building spotting. There are more than 20 eye catching ones along the way which were built in the course of the last 100 years, such as the Metropolis building with its unique dark grey dome and statue of Ganymede sitting on a phoenix.
At the end of the walk along the Gran Via is Plaza Espana. It is a large square with a Cervantes monument, around which the square turns into a sort of vendor’s playground. Perhaps it was winter, but when we were there no peddlers were to be found! Sigh, that was disappointing. So it was with heavy heart that we determined to move on with real sightseeing, and where else than the Palazzo Real.
The city’s real start was from the 1600s when the Habsburg King Philip IV installed his court in the city’s fortress. That site was continuously the seat of power until it was burned down in the 1730s (what’s with all these fires?). A new royal palace now sits on the site, which is officially the residence of the royal family though they only use if for ceremonial purposes these days. Thus don’t expect royal sightings here since those folks live in a more modest palace in the suburbs… but do come here, for it is the largest palace in Europe by virtue of its 135,000m² of rooms. Some real estate… remember ‘real’ in Spanish means ‘royal’ and Rex is not the dinosaur but the King. So if your girlfriend’s name is Regina, well you’re with a Queen… been warned.
The center of Madrid is rather compact and many sights easily covered by foot within a half a day if you start early enough. So this ends our first day of explorations. But it was also a day spent getting around the city (orientation) looking for shopping streets and malls. Why you ask? Because Suan wanted to take advantage of the year-end sales… that we do not write about here.
The end of the millennium
As it was the year end, most shops were closed early… (can you hear the crying?). Hence we could not do much browsing. Oh well, might as well continue with exploration of the city. Who knows what we could find.
When one leaves the royal palace from the south side and proceed onto Calle Mayor, one would come up to the rectangular shaped Plaza Mayor in barely 10 minutes’ walk. This square was built in the late 1610s and consists of three storied buildings surrounding it on all sides. Some say there are 237 balconies, so if you have the time try verifying it… Today the ground floor (porticoes) of the buildings are retail shops of all kinds where one can have a meal while watching the world go by. And because the Catholic celebration of the three Kings was just around the corner (6th January), the night lights of the city was still up when we were there.
And speaking of having dinner on millennium eve, it was not easy to find a place to eat with many establishments being closed. Luckily we had brought some instant noodles and Mel had to go to the hotel kitchen a few times to get hot water to supplement the dinner we had. Can you believe that we spent Millennium night at our hotel watching the sunset? Though it was a simple thing to do, it was so beautiful to see the sun disappear behind the Madrid skyline from our high floor room. Plus we got to see the fireworks too… in the comfort of the hotel and not in the cold winter night outside…
The next day we returned to the Alcala looking for Retiro park. It was quite tempting to simply guess – translate it as retirement park… but of course that’s not what it originally meant.
You see, the royal folks who owned this garden had constructed a retreat here. Being close to the then fortress (now Royal palace), it was a place where royalty would spend time recuperating from the rigors of European politics. So to retire wasn’t perhaps in the same context as we consider today. And in the late 19th century it came into public ownership, thus we could enjoy a beautiful walk today. Some folks have written about rowing in the pond, but for us it was winter when we were there, thus enjoying the features such as the crystal palace and monuments were sufficient.
Joining our tour mates from this point, we were ready to embark for a drive through Spain (read here).
A monument to the fallen
Coming back at the end of our coach journey, we stopped at the El Escorial, built as royal monastery and also the crypt of the Spanish Royal family by Philip II. The palatial grounds do not overtly reveal that it is in fact a “burial” site… if one visits the pantheon of the Kings, you will find 26 of them arranged in order of reign (both King and Queen). We did not count them.
Other intriguing sections include the beautiful high altar at the basilica. The altar screen is made of red granite and jasper. It is 28m tall and adorned with gilded bronze statuary that glisten like gold from a distant. And don’t miss the library too for it contains 40,000 manuscripts (hear Mel salivating?) that will mesmerize you with the ornate frescoes on the vaulted ceiling. Not a place we would have come on our own (since we did not know about it) but definitely an option for those in the know now.
That ended the tour part of our adventures to these three countries.
And so, we are off on our way to Barcelona for a week (here). It was surely an interesting time spent at the start and the end of the coach tour journey that took us through Morocco (here) and Portugal (here). This honeymoon was for just over three weeks and we had spent the start of our married lives in the new millennia from this city. Remarkable how time flew past. Perhaps what goes around have to come around when we eventually set foot here again someday to reminisce the steps we took at the beginning our of marital bliss.
We were in Madrid in December of 1999 just before the millennium!