The Majesty of Madrid
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi. I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're in Madrid — palaces, paseo.and perhaps Europe's best ham.jamon. Thanks for joining us.
Madrid was once the capital of the most powerful empire on earth. It's studded with riches from its glory days. We'll experience the majesty of its palaces and museums — and we'll also experience today's Madrid at it's fun-loving best.
We'll wander in the park, do a little high stakes gambling at the market, ogle lavish palaces, ponder perplexing art, check out some fascist Art Deco, stare down a flamenco dancer, look deep into Picasso's greatest work.and munch on pigs ears.
In the south of Europe, Spain dominates the Iberian Peninsula. Its capital, Madrid, sits high in the center. Madrid's core is bounded by the Royal Palace on the west and the magnificent Prado Museum in the east. The Plaza Mayor and Puerto del Sol mark the center. From here we side-trip to El Escorial and the Valley of the Fallen.
Madrid is the hub of Spain. This vibrant capital — Europe's highest, at 2,000 feet — has a population of over four million. Most of the city is modern sprawl surrounding an intact, easy-to-navigate old center. We'll limit our visit mostly to this historic core.
Madrid is livable and fun to visit. Former parking lots are once again grand and people-friendly squares. Short posts keep cars off the sidewalks. And the fine old buildings show off their original elegance. The historic center is enjoyably covered on foot. No major sight is more than a 20-minute walk or a five-minute cab ride from Madrid's central square.
The busy Puerta del Sol is a hub for the Metro, buses, city celebrations, and a busy pedestrian shopping zone. And in the old center, it seems there's a surprise around every corner.
My Spanish friend and fellow tour guide Carlos Galvin is joining us to be sure we find the treasures which lie behind the city's doors.
And in Madrid, the fun continues well after dark. Carlos is introducing me to a quirky local snack.
Madrid comes with countless colorful little eateries. This one's named for what it sells — sautéed pig's ears. Pig's ears are a favorite here, and Jaime [hchai-me] is a frantic one-man show who somehow gets everything just right. It's the cartilage.
Plaza Mayor is a stately, traffic-free chunk of 17th-century Spain. Whether hanging out with old friends, enjoying a cup of coffee, or finding a treasure at the morning coin market, it's an inviting place where people gather.
Bronze reliefs under the lampposts show how upon this stage, much of Spanish history was played out. The square hosted bullfights. It was the scene of generations of Carnavale gaiety. And during the Inquisition, many suspected heretics were tried here and punished.in this case, publicly strangled.
Thankfully, the brutality of the Inquisition is long gone. But one brutal spectacle that survives today — anchored deep in the psyche of Spain — is the bullfight. Whether you actually go to a bullfight is entirely up to you. But, for a quick sense of the action, anyone can drop by one of Madrid's many bull bars.
Aficionados gather at a bar like this after fights — or to watch one on TV. This bar is a temple to bullfighting. [bar tender explaining to Rick and Carlos: "This is the bull El Cordobes killed. Hemingway and Franco watched. His name is Segundo."
Continuing on, we stumble upon a delightful contrast — the Madrid Orchestra entertaining on city hall square.
And these intimate streets all seem to lead to one of Europe's most stunning palaces.
Madrid's Royal Palace was built by King Phillip V in the 1700s. He was born in Versailles, and while he ruled Spain for 40 years, he stayed very French.
The palace was designed to be Phillip's Versailles — to help establish a new dynasty.the Bourbons. And it's big — over 2,000 rooms with tons of lavish tapestries, a king's ransom of chandeliers, priceless porcelain, and bronze decor covered in gold leaf. There's over 150 fancy clocks in the palace — all in working order. Portraits of past royal residents — these are by the great Spanish painter Francisco de Goya — decorate the walls.
In the lavish throne room red velvet, golden lions, and stirring scenes symbolize the might of the monarchy — whose coat of arms incorporated many realms and whose empire spanned both hemispheres.
Above the throne, the ceiling fresco by Tiepolo celebrates that vast Spanish empire — upon which the sun never set. A rainbow leads to a macho red-caped conquistador and American Indians — just some more distant Spanish subjects.
Phillip V, the grandson of France's King Louis XIV, began the Bourbon dynasty, which survives today with Spain's popular King Juan Carlos.
The palace is still used for formal state ceremonies and receptions. Juan Carlos throws dinner parties for up to 150 guests at this bowling lane-sized table.
The king's front yard? It's enjoyed by all the people of Madrid. And this plaza is another example of how throughout Europe, energetic governments are turning formerly car-congested wastelands into charming public spaces. Madrid's mayor is nicknamed "the mole" for all the digging he's doing. Where's all the traffic? Under your feet.
And so is the subway. Madrid's subway is simple, speedy, and cheap. Ticket ten-packs save money and can be shared by several travelers. The city's broad streets can be hot and exhausting. A subway trip of even a stop or two saves time and energy. To transfer, check a map and simply follow the signs. Green Salida signs point to the exit.
For dinner in Madrid it's a movable feast. For maximum fun, people and atmosphere, do the "tapa tango." It's a time-honored tradition of going from one bar to the next, munching, drinking, and socializing. When it comes to variety, Madrid is Spain's tapa capital. Grab a toothpick and stab something strange. While Spaniards don't eat dinner until 9 or 10 o'clock, with a meal like this, I can eat early and still go local.
For starters, it's the Museo del Jamón. The eatery — appropriately called the Museum of Ham — is tastefully decorated.unless you're a pig (or vegetarian). This cheap and cheery stand-up bar is an assembly line of meaty treats. Options are clearly displayed.
Just up the street, Casa Toni is run by.Toni. He's popular for his refreshing gazpacho — the cold tomato-and-garlic soup. [soundbites as we eat deep-fried slices of eggplant, huevos chorizo, potatoes bravas and the house vermouth.] Don't worry about paying until you're ready to go. Then ask for " la cuenta " (the bill).
Next, it's La Casa del Abuelo [ah-bway-lo] — packed with seafood-lovers savoring sizzling little plates of tasty shrimp and prawns. I like g ambas a la plancha (grilled shrimp) and gambas al ajillo [ahh-hheee-yoh]. A glass of the house red wine — right out of the keg — is incredibly cheap. The litter on the floor is normal; that's where people traditionally toss their trash and shells.
For a gentile late-night finale, savor pudding-like hot chocolate and churros. Churros are the favorite local donut. Dunk and chat, recalling highlights of the day, and looking forward to tomorrow.
We're side tripping — a short drive or bus ride into the hills from Madrid — to [San Lorenzo de] El Escorial.
The town has charm.but everyone visits for this: its sprawling palace.
In the 1550s, King Phillip II needed a suitably grand palace to establish his family dynasty — the Spanish branch of the Hapsburgs. He also needed a headquarters from which to rule a strong centralized Spanish state.
Phillip ruled his vast empire — which stretched from Mexico to Manila — from here. El Escorial was built during the Protestant Reformation, a time when Catholic Spain was defending the Church against Protestant "heretics." The enigmatic, introverted, and extremely Catholic King Philip II directed the Counter-Reformation from this spot. Today, it's packed with art and history — offering an evocative trip back to Spain's most fascinating age.
El Escorial was more than just an impressive palace for a divine monarch. It was a grand mausoleum for Spain's royal family, a monastery to provide continuous prayer for the king's soul, and a religious school to teach and embrace humanism in a way that fit the Catholic faith.
Phillip built in austerity: plain white walls and bare-bones chandeliers. His simple bed — with a mattress that's not even queen-sized — came with a view. of the high altar in the basilica next door.
Downstairs, the Royal Pantheon is the gilded resting place of four centuries of Spanish kings and queens. There is strict filing system: The first and greatest, Charles V and his Queen Isabella, flank the altar on the top shelf. Their son, Philip II, rests below Charles and opposite his wife.and so on. Because kings generally had several wives, to make it here, a woman needed to be both queen and mother of a king.
The basilica — the architectural and spiritual heart of the building — is dedicated to St. Laurence. The altar features the flame-engulfed grill with St. Laurence meeting his famous death..
The immense Library shows that knowledge was a priority for the Spanish royalty . The ceiling celebrates the seven classical disciplines with a burst of color. The elaborate model — constructed after the age of Copernicus — insists on proving that the solar system revolves unmistakably around the earth.
As you leave, a plaque warns you'll be excommunicated if you take a book without checking it out. Who needs late fees when you hold the keys to eternal damnation?
The emotional intensity of Spanish culture can be experienced in the palaces of its kings. But it's most riveting in the music and dance of its people. It's time for flamenco.
While Seville is the home of flamenco, Madrid draws Spain's top artists. The singing and dancing gives you an exotic whiff of Arabic and Gypsy influences on Spanish culture. Some shows are sultry and serious. Other's are light and designed mostly for tour groups. And some bars are more contemporary catering to young locals who come out for their favorite artists.
I prefer a hotel right in the town center like Hotel Europa. This place is popular among those with my guidebooks for its warm and helpful welcome. Upstairs there's a red-carpet charm with plush halls, a velvety lounge, and basic rooms with views overlooking Madrid's shopping street action. Its convenient cafeteria is just right for breakfast or a relaxing coffee break.
Each Sunday morning tens of thousands of bargain hunters converge on one of Europe's biggest flea markets. Called El Rastro, it's a field day for shoppers, people watchers, con-artists and pick-pockets. This is a classic high alert place where tourists are targeted by very clever thieves. Countless stalls titillate browsers with mostly new stuff.but if you look hard, you can find some intriguing treasures.
And you may even work a little gambling in while satisfying your sweet tooth.
For another thought-provoking excursion, we're side-tripping from Madrid up into the Guadarrama [gwa-duh-RAH-ma] Mountains. A 150-meter-tall granite cross marks the Valley of the Fallen — an immense and powerful underground monument to the victims of Spain's devastating Civil War.
In the late 1930s, a million Spaniards died as conservative Catholics and the military slugged it out with secular democrats. Unlike America's Civil War which pitted north against south, this war was between classes and ideologies. It divided every village. The right-wing fascists ultimately won, and Franco ruled as Spain's dictator until 1975.
The sorrowful pietà draped over the entrance must have had a powerful impact on mothers who came here to remember their fallen sons.
A solemn silence fills the cavernous basilica. As if measuring sorrow in distance, this 870-foot-long chamber is far longer than any church in Europe. The line of torch-like lamps adds to the somber ambience. Franco's prisoners, the enemies of the right, were put to work digging this memorial out of solid rock. Franco's grave takes center stage. Some Spaniards come here to honor him.others come to be sure he's still dead.
But interred here — in chapels flanking the high altar — are the remains of tens of thousands — victims from both sides — who lost their lives in Spain's Civil War.
With every visit, I stare into the eyes of those angels with swords, and think about all the "heroes" who keep dying "for God and country," at the request of the latter.
Another place to remember the victims of Spain's Civil War is back in Madrid at the Centro Reina Sofía [then-troh ray-nah so-FEE-a]. This modern-art museum has a fine collection of paintings, but we're heading directly to the epic work showing the harsh realities of modern war.
In 1937, Guernica, a village in northern Spain, was the target of the world's first aerial saturation-bombing. It was a kind of dress rehearsal for the horrors of World War II — approved by Franco and carried out by Hitler.
The Spanish artist Pablo Picasso heard the shocking news and immediately set to work sketching the destruction as he imagined it. In a matter of weeks he wove these bomb-shattered shards into a large mural called Guernica [gehr-nee-kah].
For the first time, the world could see the destructive force of the rising fascist movement — a prelude to World War II.
The bombs are dropping, shattering the quiet village. A woman looks up at the sky, horses scream, a soldier falls — body shattered.sword broken, while a wounded woman flees a burning house. A bull — symbol of Spain — ponders it all, watching over a mother and her dead baby — a modern pietà. Picasso's painting threw a light on the brutality of Hitler and Franco.
Guernica caused an immediate sensation, and with each passing year.and war, it seems more prophetic. Picasso put a human face on "collateral damage."
Today, Spain enjoys its peace and prosperity. That's particularly clear at the Retiro Park [ray-teer-oh]. It's made to order for a green and breezy escape from the city. During weekends it becomes a carnival of fun bursting with local color. Madrid's much-loved "central park" offers splendid picnicking, row boating, and people-watching.
Opposite the park, the Prado Museum holds my favorite collection of paintings anywhere. The paintings give an eye-pleasing overview of Spain's rich history, from the Golden Age through its slow fade.
In the 1500s, Spain was Europe's superpower, flush with gold from newly-discovered America, and ruled by this man, Emperor Charles V. Here the great Venetian artist Titian portrays Charles as the most powerful man in the world.
Charles' pale, introverted son, Philip II, inherited Spain's world-wide empire.
He depleted Spain's resources building palaces, fighting wars, and collecting a bevy of sensual Venetian paintings. Spanish kings may have been devout, but they had a hearty appetite for sultry art.
Danaë, also by Titian, is a virtual Renaissance "Miss August." Money falling from the sky made royals and aristocrats — the people who commissioned this kind of art — feel their wealth was blessed by God.
And in Titian's Venus and the Organ Player, we see the conflicts these people struggled with — torn between high cultural pursuits — as symbolized here by music — and more worldly pleasures.
Hieronymous Bosch — who painted 500 years ago and seems radical even today — gives all this hedonism a different spin. His Garden of Earthly Delights — a three-paneled altarpiece which actually hung in the king's bedroom — shows where all this worldly temptation ultimately leads. First, man and woman are born innocent into the Garden of Eden, blessed by a kind God. Then, foolish people chase after earthly delights — a pursuit that is ultimately a vicious circle. They're lured by the world's pleasures: eating . drinking . heavy petting . or the simple delight that comes from arranging flowers. Two lovers are suspended in a bubble and in the third panel, the bubble pops. These party animals are heading straight to hell.a burning, post-apocalyptic wasteland where sinners are led off to eternal torment. Every sinner gets his just dessert. Gluttons are themselves consumed, good time musicians are tortured by their own instruments, gamblers have their party forever crashed, and a lecher gets sexually harassed by a pig-faced nun. In the center of it all a face peers out of this bizarre nightmare — a self-portrait of the artist: Bosch.
Starting in the 1600s, Spain entered a long slow period of decline. But its wealthy court continued to finance great art. Perhaps the most loved painting in the Prado is Las Meninas by Diego Velasquez.
Velasquez takes us behind the scenes as he paints a portrait of the king and queen. The artist paints himself at work, along with a princess, who's watching her mom and dad pose. She's joined by her servants.the meninas [meh-nee-nas].
In this wonderfully 3-D painting, our perspective is that of the king and queen as they pose. In fact, they can be seen in the mirror at the back of the room.
By 1800, Spain was no longer a superpower. But it continued to produce great artists.
Francisco de Goya was Spain's official court painter. He dutifully portrayed the king and queen in all their royal finery. But many see Goya becoming a political liberal and showing in these portraits a thinly disguised comment on the ineptitude of the royal family.
Goya's painting called The Second of May recalls how Spain hoped the ideals of Revolutionary France would spread, bringing democracy to Spain. But when Napoleon invaded, their hopes were dashed.
On May 2nd, 1808, Madrid's working people staged a protest. French soldiers, with their Egyptian mercenaries, slashed through the crowds and arrested the ringleaders.
The next day — this painting's called The Third of May — the French began reprisals. Ignoring the rebels' passionate pleas, a faceless firing squad mows them down — with all the compassion of a lawn mower. Goya, disillusioned by all the senseless violence, portrayed common people as the victims of war.
Later, Goya — deaf, widowed and bitter — retreated from public life. He painted a series of works showing his increasingly tormented view of life.
This painting of Saturn Eating His Son — a reminder of how Time eventually devours us all — decorated Goya's dining room.
And in his painting Battle to the Death, Goya — having lived through Spain's struggles — shows men mired in the mud of war slogging mindlessly away at each other.
Thankfully, stepping out of the Prado, it's a bright and happy day in Madrid, which seems determined to celebrate its freedom and enjoy life to its fullest. While Spain remembers its rich and poignant history — and shares it well with visitors — the focus of today seems to be living well. After every trip to this exciting city, the impression I take home is that of a thriving people with an enduring culture.which really knows how to dance.
Madrid — permeated with passion — from its grand history to its love of life today. Let's explore more of Europe together again soon. Until then, I'm Rick Steves. Keep on travelin'. Hasta luego.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.