The Majesty of Madrid
Rick Steves' Europe: Episode # 301
Madrid is studded with riches from its glory days. We tour the lavish Royal Palace, enjoy art-packed museums, and look deep into Picasso's greatest masterpiece. Experiencing Madrid at its fun-loving best, we're mesmerized by flamenco dancers and munch on pigs' ears. Then, for a dose of Spain's dramatic history, we side-trip to El Escorial and the Valley of the Fallen.
- Read the script from the show.
Carlos Galvin, a Spaniard who speaks flawless English (and leads Rick Steves tours), and his wife from Seattle, Jennifer, offer private tours in Madrid (and can also arrange longer tours of Madrid and the region, tel. 913-694-752, mobile 661-752-458, www.letango.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Europe's third-greatest palace (after Versailles and Vienna's Schönbrunn) has arguably the most sumptuous original interior. It's big — over 2,000 rooms with tons of luxurious tapestries, a king's ransom of chandeliers, priceless porcelain and bronze decor covered in gold leaf (can be closed if needed for a royal function — call to check, tel. 914-548-800).
Tapas: The Madrid Pub-Crawl Dinner
Prowl the area between Puerta del Sol and Plaza Santa Ana — the little streets between Puerta del Sol, San Jerónimo and Plaza Santa Ana hold tasty surprises, as well as the nearby street Jesús de Medinaceli.
From Puerta del Sol, walk east a block down Carrera de San Jerónimo to the corner of Calle Victoria. Across from the Museo del Jamón, Kick off your pub crawl with a drink at La Taurina Cervecería, with bullfighters' trophies and historic photographs. Across the street at San Jerónimo 5 is the Museo del Jamón (Museum of Ham), a frenetic, cheap, stand-up bar with fast and simple bocadillos and raciones (photos show dishes and their prices; sit-down restaurant upstairs).
Next, forage halfway up Calle Victoria to the tiny La Casa del Abuelo at #12, for seafood-lovers who savor sizzling plates of tasty little gambas (shrimp) and langostinos (prawns). Try gambas a la plancha (grilled shrimp) or gambas al ajillo (shrimp version of escargot). Across the street is Oreja de Oro ("Golden Ear"), is named for what it sells — sautéed pigs' ears (oreja). People also come here for pulpo (octopus), pimientos de padrón (green peppers) and ribeiro wine, served Galician-style. For a perfect finale, continue uphill and around the corner to Casa Toni at Calle Cruz 14, and try a refreshing bowls of gazpacho — cold tomato-and-garlic soup (available all year but only popular when temperatures soar), berenjena (deep-fried slices of eggplant) and champiñones (sautéed mushrooms).
The Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial is a 16th-century palace, 30 miles northwest of Madrid, that gives a good feel for the Counter-Reformation and the Inquisition. There's scanty captions in English, so you may want to get the Guide: Monastery of San Lorenzo El Real de El Escorial (tel. 918-905-904).
Taberna Casa Patas attracts big-name flamenco artists, with contemporary flamenco that may be jazzier than your notion — it depends on who's performing (reservations smart, no flash cameras, Cañizares 10, tel. 913-690-496, www.casapatas.com). Las Carboneras is more downscale — an easygoing, folksy little place three blocks south of Plaza Santa Ana (reservations smart, Cañizares 10, tel. 913-690-496).
Europe's biggest flea market is held on Sundays and holidays. Start at the Plaza Mayor, with its gentle coin-collectors market and Europe's biggest stamp market, and head south or take the subway to Tirso de Molina.
Valley of the Fallen
Six miles from El Escorial, high in the Guadarrama Mountains, a 500-foot-tall granite cross marks an immense and powerful underground monument to the victims of Spain's 20th-century nightmare — its civil war (1936–1939). Consider taking a funicular trip — with a short commentary in English — to the base of the cross (restaurant and public WC, tel. 918-905-611). Basic overnight lodging is available at the monastery behind the cross (tel. 918-905-494, no English spoken).
The museum is most famous for Pablo Picasso's Guernica (second floor, room 7), an epic painting showing the horror of modern war. The museum also houses an easy-to-enjoy collection by other modern artists, including more of Picasso (pre–Civil War, Guernica and post–Civil War) and a mind-bending room of signature Dalís (room 12). Enjoy a break in the shady courtyard before leaving (tel. 917-675-062).
With more than 3,000 canvases, including entire rooms of masterpieces by Velázquez, Goya, El Greco and Bosch, the Prado can be overwhelming. Take a tour or buy a guidebook (or bring along the Prado tour from here). Focus on the Flemish and northern (Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, Peter Paul Rubens), the Italian (Fra Angelico, Raphael, Titian) and the Spanish art (El Greco, Velázquez, Goya; tel. 913-302-800).
Related Article: Madrid's Prado Museum.
For up-to-date specifics, see the latest edition of the Rick Steves' Snapshot: Madrid & Toledo travel guide or the Rick Steves' Spain travel guide — or join us on one of our free-spirited Spain tours.