Madrid is not only Spain’s capital city, it is also its highest one and hauling up through the mountains the rest of the way from Granada involved lots of slow climbs and incredible vistas. The roads here are so quiet though: away from the cities, you often feel as though you have the whole autopista to yourselves.
Our campsite was on the western fringes of Madrid in a neighbourhood called Villaviciosa and we planned to make a trip into the city from there. Our intention was to drive to the metro station and then use public transport. This has worked well in other cities where there has been a park and ride system in place, but here on the outskirts of Madrid, the car park was no more a patch of waste land and it was already overflowing with cars. So, we had to go for Plan B and ended up driving straight into the city. We parked in an underground car park right in the centre, next to the Royal Palace. You would assume that this would cost an arm and a leg, but in actual fact it was about €13 for the day, which compares pretty favourably with 4 return journeys on the bus or metro. And the car park had decent toilets and was so convenient that we were able to drop our bags back off there before we went into the royal palace itself. Result!
Chocolate and churros
We have had some really warm days recently, but unfortunately today there was a really cold wind blowing that cut right through to your bones, so we wrapped up warm and headed out to explore. Our first stop this cold March morning was to warm ourselves and fill our bellies with one of Spain’s most delicious sweet treats – chocolate and churros. San Gines Chocolateria at number 5 Pasadizo de San Gines has been serving chocolate and churros to Madrileños and tourists since 1894. Churros are deep fried strips of doughnut and you dip them in a cup of the thickest, richest hot chocolate imaginable. Delicious! But very rich and very filling – we didn’t even finish our batch!
We sat outside under the heaters because inside was packed and watched the dexterous waiters carrying huge trays with layers of cups balanced on top of each other, topped off with huge oval plates piled high with churros.
There is really only one thing to order at San Gines, all you have to decide is whether you want the thin churros or the thick ones. You pay for your order, are given a ticket and you then take a seat. Once you are seated, a waiter checks your ticket and minutes later your hot steaming churros arrive at your table. A wonderful Madrid experience.
You can see more and read about its history on the San Gines’ website.
Plaza de la Puerta del Sol
Suitably stuffed and refuelled, we set off towards Plaza de la Puerta del Sol. This busy square is officially the centre of Spain. Its name – Gate of the Sun – comes from the early days of the city when its eastern gate was located here. This is the space where people congregate on New Year’s Eve to eat their 12 grapes as the clock chimes midnight. It is also the point from which all of Spain’s roads are measured and there is a plaque on the ground marking ‘kilometre zero’. At the eastern end of the square is a statue of a bear with a madroño (an evergreen tree related to the strawberry tree) that is the official symbol of Madrid and which can be seen on the city’s coat of arms.
From here we crossed the short distance to the city’s Plaza Mayor, admiring more of Madrid’s stately architecture as we passed. Plaza Mayor is a completely enclosed square of dark, red ochre coloured buildings with colonnades all around the outside. It was built in 1619 and since then its history has been a fairly gruesome one: bullfights were often held here in the early days and then, during the Spanish Inquisition, executions were carried out – hangings in the south side of the square and burnings at the stake and deaths by garrotte in the north side. What stands today is a reproduction of the original, which was all but destroyed by fire in 1790, but apparently it remains as important a public space in the city today as it has ever been. One of the most striking buildings around the square is the 17th century Royal Bakery, whose dramatic frescoes of gods and zodiac signs were painted in 1992 by artist Carlos Franco.
Plaza de la Villa
This very pretty square used to be the centre of Madrid’s city government. The former town hall is a beautiful baroque building with a slate-tiled roof and spires.
I have very few photographs of Madrid’s Royal Palace to share with you as photography was not allowed inside, except in the entrance hall and grand stairway. This is a great shame as it was a sumptuous, gilded and lavishly decorated place. The royal family no longer live here, but reside instead at the Palacio de la Zarzuela on the outskirts of Madrid and today it is only used occasionally for royal ceremonies.
It stands on the site of the former Alcazar palace, which was destroyed by a fire on Christmas Eve in 1734. Inside, the palace is all painted baroque ceilings with cherubs and religious scenes, silk drapes, sumptuous furnishings and enormous chandeliers. It is the epitome of royal excess and amongst its treasures are paintings by Goya, a large collection of exquisitely detailed clocks and a collection of 5 beautiful Stradivarius violins that are apparently still used for concerts and balls. It reminded me a bit of Buckingham Palace.
You can find more information on the Royal Palace website, where you can also book tickets online. We discovered though that at this time of year there were no queues, that is except in the late afternoon when we saw a long queue waiting for the free entry from 4-6pm.
If you are interested in seeing more of the Royal Palace, you can download a fantastic app called ‘Palacio Real de Madrid’ by GVAM which takes you on a guided tour of the whole building. It cost £1.99 but was worth every penny.
We watched the videos and looked at the photographs before our visit so that we knew more about what we were looking at, but you could also use it as an audio guide during your visit. And if you want to know what the Royal Palace is like but can’t get to Madrid to see it, this is the perfect solution as it takes you through each room in turn with videos, photographs, maps and archive images of the palace alongside the commentary.
In one of the earlier rooms, there is a lovely, almost life-sized painting of the family of King Juan Carlos, painted by Antonio López. He started work on it in 1993 and it took 20 years to complete. One interesting piece of modern history is that in the Crown Room you can see documents from the succession of the Spanish throne in June 2014: the state law validating the abdication of Juan Carlos I and the proclamation speech of his son, the present king, Felipe VI.
Outside, the palace is adjacent to the city’s huge cathedral – the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Almundena – which incredibly was only finished in 1992! The two buildings are surrounded by various different formal gardens on three sides and by the vast Casa de Campo park which stretches away for miles to the west. King Philip II bought all of this land so that he would always have a green area next to his residence and this is still true today, where the park provides an important recreation space in the city.
El Retiro Park
After the palace, we crossed Madrid to take a look at one of its other grand parks, El Retiro. It was apparently laid out in the 17th century as a playground for kings, queens and their entourage, but it was opened to the public in 1868 and is very popular with madrileños at the weekends. It was not so busy on a cold, windy Monday in March, but we could imagine its attraction on a hot summers day. In the centre is a huge artificial lake where you can hire rowing boats and there are cafés, monuments and paths aplenty.
South of the lake is the magnificent Palacio de Cristal, a beautiful glass house, originally built in 1887 to grow and showcase exotic flowers. It is now used as a temporary exhibition space and the current exhibition was a sound installation by Lothar Baumgarten, a German conceptual artist, called “The ship is going under, the ice is breaking through.” It consisted of a series of audio recordings of ice thawing on the banks of the Hudson River in upstate New York and was supposed to give the illusion of the cracking of the glass structure above, highlighting its fragility and overwhelming the senses of the spectators. The whole thing lasted 2 hours, although I’m pretty certain no-one was in there for the long haul. I’m not sure it added anything to my enjoyment of the space, but it didn’t ruin it either.
One final note about sightseeing in Madrid…we have never felt nervous about our belongings in any of Spain’s cities to date, even in Barcelona where people say pick pockets are rife, but in Madrid we had a very different experience. First of all whilst eating our churros at San Gines, the waiter warned me (and several other people around us) not to leave phones out on table: he said it just wasn’t safe here. Then in Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, two people dressed up as Minnie Mouse made a beeline straight for us and grabbed the girls’ arms, motioning for me to take a photograph. Usually you make a conscious choice with these things – like going and standing next to one of the ‘living statues’ to have your photo taken. But this was different because they came and approached us and of course then demanded payment for the photograph. We should’ve just walked away, but the girls said that they had such tight hold of their arms that it seemed quicker to take the photo, give them something and move away. Nonetheless, it wasn’t a pleasant encounter. We have also seen people begging in Spain, often outside churches or cathedrals, but we have never experienced people walking up to us and shoving a paper cup under our noses like we did in Madrid. It didn’t spoil our enjoyment of the city, but it is nevertheless a memory we shall have of our time there.
Fun, Laughter and Friendships
On a lighter note, lovely as the palaces and the culture of Madrid were, for all of us the most enjoyable part of being here was the social interactions we had during our stay. Being on the road means that we are away from family and friends and we obviously miss them enormously, so finding people our own age to hang out with was really special.
When we were in Barcelona back in November, we met another British travelling and road schooling family with three girls, two of whom are a similar age to Emma and Megan. The girls all became firm friends and when we left we exchanged email addresses and said that we would keep in touch. We did, and that is how we came to find ourselves, 5 months later, pitched opposite them on this campsite near Madrid. The girls instantly picked up where they had left off and we brought our tables together that evening to enjoy a meal and each other’s company. Then, to our astonishment, the following day ANOTHER travelling family arrived at the campsite with TWO MORE girls of similar ages!
What a wonderful time the girls all had, playing, singing, skipping and making creative things out of the leaves, twigs and other items they found all around them. They quickly formed such a tight knit little group and it was wonderful to see them having so much fun together.
We parents had fun socialising and getting to know one another too. On our last night all together we organised a joint BBQ, finished off with toasted marshmallows and sparklers. It was great chatting to other people who doing something similar to us, comparing notes about homeschooling, blogging and how we cope with living full time in a caravan or motorhome. We discussed different places we have visited, swapped recommendations of good campsites and discussed our different plans for the future. It really was a very special few days. And we’ve all swapped addresses again, so who knows where we might next meet up…
Apart from our day in the city when it was cold and windy, we have had almost perfect weather here in Madrid. The days have been lovely and warm, with temperatures dropping a little overnight. We are very aware though, from talking to people who live here, that in the summer temperatures can reach the high 40s Celsius, which would be WAY out of my comfort range! I read somewhere that during the winter fierce gales sweep down from the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains to the north, blasting the city with icy winds. Then in the summer the cool Atlantic winds blowing across Spain, meet the mountains and dissipate before they reach the city, leaving it sweltering in the heat just beyond. The 19th century British travel writer, Richard Ford, apparently described the city as having “three months of winter and nine of hell.” I can imagine what he means, but clearly he wasn’t here in the spring!