Throwing it back to mid-February, it’s time to talk about Madrid! This trip was during the winter holidays of the university. Due to my timetable this semester, I managed to stretch the week off into an 11 day trip as I don’t work on Thursday or Friday. And when I say first thing, I mean first thing! My flight wasn’t until about 10am but it just so happened to be on a strike day. You may or may not have seen but France has been afflicted by repeated and worsening strikes since the start of the year (this isn’t the time or place to get into it). Not only have they been affecting trains, so I was worried about getting to the airport, but also air traffic controllers so my actual flight was at risk. In the end, everything was fine – I got up really early, factoring in extra time for cancelled trains but didn’t need it so just got to the airport with plenty of time.

When I landed in Madrid, it was easy to get from the airport into the centre of town. I got out of the metro at Puerta del Sol, one of the main squares, and had a five minute walk to my hostel which was just off Plaza Mayor. I was staying at The Hat hostel and while I didn’t spend much time in it other than to sleep, I would recommend it! My dorm room was clean and spacious with its own bathroom, there was a rooftop bar that also served some food and a cafe downstairs. You can have breakfast there in the mornings and take part in free sangria making workshops every evening to meet other travellers. The reason I didn’t spend much time there was because part of my reason for coming to Madrid was to visit a friend from university that lives there, as well as finally see the Spanish capital. There was a brief period back in October or November when I was actually thinking about moving to Spain after finishing my time in France and visiting Madrid was going to be a test run to see if it would be somewhere I could live. Having now decided that I’m heading back to Scotland when I finish in Mulhouse, any pressure was off this trip other than just to have a good time!

Plaza Mayor

My friend Marta, who I know from our water polo team at Edinburgh University, and her friend Elisa met me at the hostel and we headed out for the day. First stop was food! My breakfast was a long time ago at that point but thankfully Marta had somewhere in mind to try a Madrid classic. Bocadillo de calamare is crusty bread filled with crispy rings of calamari. Sometimes they can have a little olive oil, lemon juice or alioli but ours were just plain and simple. La Campaña is quite a small restaurant just around the corner from my hostel that could easily be missed if it weren’t for the lines out the door! At least when I was there the line for takeaway was much shorter and moved very quickly so I would recommend that, especially when you can enjoy it in Plaza Mayor just a few steps away. Saying that, we took ours a little further and ate them opposite Palacio Real. This is the official residence of the Spanish royal family in Madrid but is mostly used for ceremonial purposes.

With the extra energy from the bocadillo we walked up into Parque de la Montaña where you’ll find the Templo de Debod, a displaced ancient Egyptian temple. You might be wondering how an Egyptian temple landed in the middle of a park in Madrid Spain. A fair enough question! In 1960, construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt was threatening a number of highly valuable archaeological sites including the Temple of Debod and the famous Abu Simbel temples. Spain was instrumental in moving the Abu Simbel temples 65m higher than their original location on the banks of the river Nile and 200m further back to avoid the rise in water level from the dam’s reservoir. Out of gratitude for their help, Egypt gifted the Temple of Debod to Spain. It is unique in being one of the few examples of ancient Egyptian architecture that can be found outside Egypt and the only one in Spain.

Back down out of the park is Plaza de España with a monument to Miguel Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. In front of Cervantes there is a statue of Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza. While here, Marta told me an interesting fact that Cervantes and Shakespeare died only a day apart in 1616! From Plaza de España we walked along Gran Vía, sometimes known as the Spanish Broadway, where you’ll find most of the big shops in Madrid. My excellent local tour guide pointed out some interesting statues on the roofs along Gran Vía around the big Primark (it’s so big that this is honestly a tourist sight in and of itself). On the roof on one side of the street is a statue of Diana, the Roman goddess of hunting, shooting arrows across to the other side. On the opposite side of the road, you can see a statue of a man and a phoenix. The story goes that this man represents Endymion, the mortal shepherd that Diana fell in love with and would visit every night. When her father Zeus found out, he was enraged and sent a phoenix to capture Endymion and hide him away from Diana. She discovered the plan and that’s why she’s shooting across the street. You can see the arrows that have fallen short engraved in the paving stones outside Primark. In fact, the statue is not Endymion but Ganymede, Zeus’ lover, and the phoenix is more likely to be an eagle to fit with that but never let the truth get in the way of a good story!

Monument to Cervantes in Plaza de España

We wandered around a little more with an ice cream pit stop and ended up down at Plaza de Cibeles. The square is traditionally where Real Madrid fans celebrate their wins and it also has the impressive Palacio de Cibeles, a grand building that used to be the main post office and is now the city council building. There is also a flame that burns in memory of Madrid’s covid victims. At this point it was time to enjoy some beers in the last of the sun so we headed to a nearby 100 Montaditos, a chain specialising in mini sandwiches for a couple of euros and beers for the same price.

Eventually it was getting late and we needed a little something to eat so we headed back towards Puerta del Sol. Marta chose a place for hornazo de Salamanca, a specialty from Salamanca, where Marta’s mum is from. It’s a meat pie cut into sandwich-like pieces. It has pork loin, chorizo and ham inside as well as boiled eggs (although the ones we got didn’t). It was a bit heavy but very tasty! And thus concluded a very packed first day in Madrid!

The first day felt like it was all about getting the lay of the land and seeing all the main tourist spots. I already felt like I knew the basic layout of things and had a good feel for the city. I genuinely felt like I had seen most of the tourist spots on our 13.5km tour yesterday. Little did I know that my second day would have six more kilometres on top of that. Day two was about digging in more. I had the morning to myself today until Marta, who lives just outside Madrid, came in to meet me. I anticipated another big day ahead of me so started out with the breakfast of champions – churros, chocolate and coffee – at Chocolatería Valor, enjoying it in the sunshine with my book. I started by heading back into one of the neighbourhoods that we had walked through a little yesterday. Chueca is known as Madrid’s gay neighbourhood, home to many shops, bars and restaurants and is one of the liveliest parts of the city. A friend had recommended a bookshop to me so I stopped by and of course ended up buying a book because that’s my weakness in life.

After that I headed over to Retiro Park where I was meeting Marta. Parque Retiro is 1.4km² with plenty to do and see inside. We walked past the monument to Alfonso XII, a Spanish king in the 19th century, which is alongside an artificial lake where you can hire row boats. As you walk further in you’ll find the Palacio de Cristal which reminded me a lot of the big greenhouse in Edinburgh’s Botanic Garden! We came out the other side of Retiro and then walked back along Paseo del Prado, a boulevard that runs along the long side of the park and is home to the so-called ‘Golden Triangle of Art’ with the Prado Museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and the Reina Sofia Museum. It also has another fountain where fans of the football team Atlético Madrid celebrate their wins!

We had lunch (at 4.30pm) in a kind of fancy tapas restaurant called Vinitus. There were patatas bravas of course, huevos cabreados (chips with a fried egg and patatas bravas sauces mixed through), pulpo a la gallega (octopus with mashed potato and paprika), a montadito (a little sandwich) with beef tenderloin and foie gras and the squid, octopus and artichoke special. It was a lot of food! But very delicious and a cold beer and a sit down was very welcome.

There was one final stop for the day. Marta suggested that we visit one of the museums in the Golden Triangle. She was giving me a little synopsis of each one when suddenly I knew which one I wanted to go to. It wasn’t something I had on my radar but the Reina Sofia Museum is home to Guernica by Picasso. I remember learning about it and recreating it in art class in primary school and I’ve always wanted to see it. There’s a museum in Colmar that has a tapestry version of it but when I visited, it was on loan elsewhere! We headed to the museum and with various student and young people’s cards we both managed to get in for free. We wandered around a little before and after but Guernica was the main thing that we were there to see.

No photos of Guernica allowed but the view from the lift isn’t bad!

After this, Marta headed home and I went to meet up with another friend for a drink. I met Mabel when I was volunteering in the hostel in Tenerife and she was staying in the hostel. She suggested getting a drink in the rooftop bar of Hotel Riu on Plaza España but it had a 40 minute wait. We went just next door instead to another rooftop bar and had a drink while catching up. Afterwards we walked into Malasaña, the neighbourhood next to Chueca. It is known as being the ‘hipster’ area, with lots of bars, clubs and young people. We were actually looking for somewhere to have another drink but it was a Friday and there were too many young people and not enough bars in this case. After a while, I was getting tired (I had walked close to 20km that day by this point) so we called it and I headed back to my hostel.

On my final day, I had the morning in Madrid and then I was actually heading out of the city for my final night, to stay with my friend Marta in her hometown for carnival! But before I get ahead of myself, I still had a morning to kill in the city and I had a few things lined up. On the recommendation of a friend, I wanted to visit the Museo de América, apparently the only museum in the world dedicated to the entire American continent, north and south. It was free using my university card which was great although it’s only €3 otherwise. There was so much to see but all the information was in Spanish so it took me a while to go round and I don’t think I saw everything. If you don’t speak Spanish, they also have audio guides in English and French. I had my eyes peeled throughout for anything from Honduras, it being my area of special interest but the closest I got was El Salvador or general mesoamérica. It was really interesting seeing things from areas that I’ve visited, having actually been to various Mayan ruins in Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, and particularly learning about the Mayan script. I would say that the majority of the exhibitions I saw were from Mexico, Colombia and Peru so if you are interested in those areas I would definitely recommend it!

Right next door to the museum was the faro de moncloa, a tower with a viewpoint at the top (faro means lighthouse). There is a saying ‘de Madrid al cielo’ which means ‘from Madrid to heaven’ because Madrid is so good that to top it, you’ll have to go up into the skies. Well, with the faro you can be 110m closer! (But don’t worry, it’s a lift that will take you up to the top!) It cost €4 and didn’t take long so if you’re in the area it’s definitely worth it. I love getting aerial views over cities so I was all for it, especially seeing as I had already seen a lot of places so now I was able to pick out the places I knew. If I wasn’t short on time, there are a series of parks below the faro that lead down to the temple of Debod which I think would be lovely to walk through.

After this I headed out to Marta’s where we got ready for carnival (a power nap was involved). Everybody dresses up in costumes for carnival so I was joining in with some of her friends and their pirate costumes. Mine was very makeshift as I was only travelling with a rucksack for ten days so the base was black jeans and a white t-shirt. I used an off-cut of pirate themed material from Marta’s costume as a belt and we had lots of gold pieces to put in our hair.

We joined the massive parade as it slowly made its way through town and it was so fun to see all the costumes! My favourite was a guy dressed in a kilt, a group dressed as creative interpretations of Madrid subway stations and a huge group lined up with foam noodles fashioned into seats around them, fake legs hanging down, pretending they were on a rollercoaster! After a quick dinner from Lidl (jamón sandwiches) we made our way down to the main area where we would spend the rest of the night. It was basically a big concert with a few DJs playing until 5am! We found a few more of Marta’s friends and found a spot amongst the masses. This was actually the day before my birthday so when it hit midnight we celebrated me turning 25! An hour later, at midnight in the UK, I phoned my twin sister who was at home in bed and made everyone say happy birthday to her! It was very unlike me but we actually stayed out until the end of the concert at 5am. By the time we got back to Marta’s and into bed it was 6am. I managed to get an hour and a half of sleep before calling an Uber to get to the airport and head off to my next destination!

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