On the way to a summer camp, Tom Dobin found himself in the capital of Spain. With only a day to see the city, this is what he managed to do….
‘How long will you be in Madrid?’
The tourist information assistant paused, probably thinking the same as me – what could I see in Spain’s capital in just a few hours? I was only stopping briefly in the city before heading to a summer camp further south, and was eager to see as much as possible. After a moment’s hesitation, she gave me a map, and drew a triangle-shaped path in its centre – if I followed this path, I would see most of Madrid. I was initially sceptical, but seven hours later, I’d managed to complete a whistle-stop tour of one of Europe’s most famous locations. Whilst Madrid isn’t usually described by tourists with the same enthusiasm reserved for other European cities, there is beauty and history contained in every corner and street of this bustling metropolis. After leaving Barajas airport, I made my way to the first point of the triangle via the metro. Waiting on the train, I heard an explosion of Latin music. A man approached, brandishing CDs in the air, telling passengers of the incredible offers and discounts he was giving us by purchasing his music. No one bought a CD, but the music broke the monotony that comes with travelling on a Metro.
In spite of the positives, there is a clear issue with the Metro system – there are lots and lots of stairs! Each station I visited was filled with staircases, where the satisfaction of climbing one was instantly replaced by the disappointment of seeing another looming in the distance. Great exercise, but taxing. However, once I emerged from the metro into the glorious sunshine, I was struck by the city’s sheer beauty. Cars and motorcycles zoomed by. A series of elegant buildings reached towards the sky and stretched onto the horizon. The leafy open avenues invited people to walk and explore the hidden wonders of the city. Madrid gave an instant impression of being a pleasant city to live in, and I had only just reached the first tip of the triangle.
Following this makeshift path led me through roads and underpasses and smiling citizens until, eventually, I reached a stunning park. Nestled amongst the skyscrapers, the trees provided protection from the sunlight. Teenagers with rollerblades zoomed past me; couples and families walked calmly along. A makeshift market filled with souvenirs, scarves and sunglasses was being scoured by the public. The gentle breeze shook the trees – it was idyllic, and very different to what one would expect to find in a capital city. A large statue and water feature stood at the park’s centre – with skyscrapers in the background, adorned by trees, it exemplified the mix of natural and man-made beauty which defined Madrid.
Leaving the park, I followed the triangle – despite the time constraints, Madrid’s scale and beauty made it impossible to rush. Fortunately, the close proximity of the city’s highlights allows tourists to strike the perfect balance between enjoying the scenery and still being able to visit the most impressive locations. Eventually, I made it to a large square; to my left was another park, its paths lined with statues honouring the royal and literary figures who have coloured Spain over the centuries – filled with trees and water features, it was interesting in itself. I looked to the right, and saw a colossal white fortress, pristine in condition and fit for a king -which was convenient, as this was the Royal Palace. A maze of gardens lay below the palace, each path leading to the stunning view of the landmark in its entirety. The scale of this square was breathtaking, and in the distance, I could see the Madrid skyline, buildings soaring into the sky, illuminated by the glittering sunlight. But I couldn’t stay for long – I was already three hours into my time.
Increasing my pace, I raced along the leafy open avenues, moving away from the Palace and into the city centre. I squeezed in between two large buildings and reached the commercial zone, a concrete jungle with a sparkling atmosphere, a change from the peaceful open area which I had left. Tourists and consumers packed the narrower streets, browsing the shops, going about their business hurriedly. Oranges and greens and reds were in abundance, their colour and vibrancy reflecting the area’s atmosphere. Hurrying along, I bumped into an elephant. Well, an individual with an elephant’s head, exotically dressed, hovering above the ground. Impressive. Although the mystery of the hovering elephant was unresolved, it was an example of the quirky and colourful characters and mime artists who filled the streets. Making my way through, I eventually made it out into a large, modern looking square, filled with people and fountains. Sol – the place where every Metro line intersects, the centre of this vibrant city. Whilst uneventful in itself, Sol contained the nefarious trio of Mickey Mouse, Chucky, and the notorious Spongebob Squarepants. Or, more realistically, buskers attempting to extort tourists into paying for photos with them.
Leaving the centre, and running out of time, I blitzed my way past the roads, filled with traffic and shops and restaurants, to reach an impressive palatial building, seemingly whiter than snow, which lay beyond the road. This was the City Hall, filled with Spanish flags, and similar in structure to the Houses of Parliament. It was magnificent, and I would love to return to visit it in the future, but I was running out of time. Whizzing past the impressive Royal Theatre, and the Prado Museum, which again were beautiful structures, I reached a place which remains my favourite in Madrid – the Parque Retiro. A man-made park, colossal in size, lying in the middle of this most modern city. Filled with trees, leafy walkways and ponds, walking through this magnificent, peaceful park is wonderful. I passed a greenhouse, surrounded by a lake, sculptures lining the path towards it. It was very easy to be lost in this place, but the beauty of the park made it difficult to resist exploring further. I made my way through the park and reached the centre – it was a lake, with small boats sailing upon it, people walking peacefully by, artists painting what they saw, the skyscrapers peeking over. In essence, it was spectacular, and if I lived in Madrid, I would happily walk across the centre of the park every day.
After making my way out of the Parque Retiro, I made it to the final location – the Plaza Mayor, or Main Square, which was very similar to London’s Covent Garden. Lined with artists and mimes and buskers, it was a microcosm of Madrid – full of colourful characters, and a wonderful mix of man-made and natural beauty. Once I had finished, I made my way back to the beginning of the triangle. Sitting in the park to rest, I realised that I’d successfully seen Madrid in seven hours. My conclusion is that Spain’s capital is an underrated gem – far more than just a functional capital, every street and park is filled with beauty and wonder, and I could imagine myself living here in the future. It would definitely be nice to have more than seven hours, anyway.
Image Credits: Tom Dobin
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