The full saying is “de Madrid al cielo y un agujerito para verlo” – “from Madrid to heaven, with a little hole to see it”, meaning that after seeing Madrid, heaven is the next step up. I can’t say I agree, although Madrid was nice, and beauty can be found in many different forms.
Like the majority of cities in Spain, Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, once the main square, is the heart of the city – all else is built outward from it, and if you need directions, locals will likely refer to a location in terms of its proximity to the Plaza. At all times of the day (really, all times of the day) the Plaza is bustling with locals, street vendors, performers, and gawking tourists.
While in Madrid, we took a side trip to El Escorial, a palace in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, northwest of Madrid. The building is enormous – it contains more than 100 miles of passageways, and took over 20 years to construct. It was built in the 16th century under the direction of King Philip II, who intended to use it as a summer palace, a monastery, and a school; it also served as headquarters for the Spanish Inquisition. El Escorial contains royal living quarters, painting and tapestries, an impressive library, and the Royal Pantheon, an underground tomb containing the remains of monarchs from throughout Spanish history. Its walls exude an uncanny aura – about what you might expect from a medieval castle. Decorations are minimal, but the sheer volume of the building is enough to take your breath away. From the courtyard, the Valley of the Fallen, a memorial to victims of the Spanish Civil War, could be seen in the Guadarrama Mountains.
Back in Madrid, we paid a visit to the Prado Museum, which was full of impressive artwork dating up until the late 19th Century (pre-Picasso). If you think looking at art is dull, you’re looking at the wrong art. The Prado contains paintings from Francisco de Goya (Third of May, 1808), Velázquez (Las Meninas), Murillo, El Greco, Titian, and a host of other highly talented old guys who really knew how to paint – some bizarre, others illusionistic – all managing to convey human sentiment in a compelling way. In more contemporary work, as the impressionist movement began to take hold, art became more outspoken – painters were working less for commissions and wages, and more for the sake of personal expression, leading to some powerful social commentary for the time.
The Royal Palace in Madrid (Palacio Real) is on par with the Palace of Versailles, in terms of extravagance (Philip V didn’t want to be outdone by the French). It’s full of rooms with wall-to-ceiling paintings, enormous clocks, and proud statues. Spain has a constitutional monarchy, and although no one lives in the Palace today, it’s still used by the king from time to time to welcome foreign dignitaries.
Madrid is an international hub, offering a window to larger events occurring throughout Europe. “Brexit” has certainly been on people’s minds (“Spexit”, anyone?). National (repeat) elections were held in Spain last week, although the outcome was unclear for several days following the election. Our resident director told me that generally, interest in politics is low, but that every man, woman, and child would be following the soccer match between Spain and Italy the next day. She was only half-joking. In fact, it wasn’t at all difficult to find a t.v. with the game on that day.