I have mentioned in this blog various times that our prior expactations towards some places we are about to visit can be very different in the reality. Just as with the cinematic adaptations of our favourite books, it usually happens like that we create an image in our mind based on some movies, city maps, guides, documentaries and traveling volumes, and then, when we are right there in the middle of our long-planned trip, it is hard to believe that we are really in the same city that we once saw in our fantasies.
Well, this is not quite exactly what happened to me this time, because I had this experience for example with Rome and Athens. However, my latest destination, Madrid was somewhat of a similar feeling; maybe because the capital of Spain was a dream for me since my teenage years, even though I did not know a lot about it in the past.
I guess it was all related to my passion towards Romance cultures and the Mediterranean Sea, which started many years before I developed my interest towards Slavic countries and languages - a relatively new phenomenon in my life.
The map of Madrid in my imagination looked like a huge European metropolis, which is pretty much like Vienna, Milan or Budapest, but in a much bigger edition and with some obligatory Spanish vibes.
However, I realized that this imaginary city must have been a place inspired by things I had seen about Marsaille, Paris, Caracas, Lima, Bogotá, Medellín, and a bunch of other great cities in Europe or Latin America, and Madrid is actually not really like them.
Of course, there are some overlaps and associations, but now I rather think that if I need to categorize Spain’s capital somehow, the best solution is to say that it is surely among the crown jewels of the most important historical royal centres in Europe.
There is also a slight difference that just makes it outstanding compared to the rest: namely, that it is literally a royal capital up to these days due to the fact that Spain is a monarchy.
However, no matter that I arrived in one of the main stations in Atocha, my first impression was the fact that maybe there was more space there in Madrid than in my home city in Spain, but Valencia is still bigger in terms of the buildings and sometimes also the street structure.
A quick historical fact: although it is very tempting to think that the name of Madrid is connected to the Spanish word madre (mother), since it is the heart, the capital of the country, it is possible that this is only a later, medieval association based on the Arabic term Majrit, and the original root of the name meant ‘water stream’ or 'ford', and it might go back even to the Celtic times. If not the Latin word matrix is the source of the name, which is another theory, although the medieval Latin name of the city was Matritum.
So regarding my arrival and first impressions, I could already see some monumental buildings like the magnificent Edificio Metropolis (Metropolis Building) in one of the crossroads or the majestic curves of Palacio de Cibeles, which, as it turned out afterwards, serves as the city hall (Ayuntamiento de Madrid) as well, or the Cybele Fountain, which represents a Phrygian fertility goddess of the same name, riding on a chariot.
By the way, this statue was so influential that the fountain also has a replica in Mexico City nowadays. Another building of this genre that I immediately noticed was the Ministry of Agriculture, that seemed to be a huge university building or opera house. I had the feeling, that if the headqarters of a single state office can provide this atmopshere, there should be something much more under the surface. I was already up for that, just did not know where to begin the journey...
In spite of all of that, I still did not see the sign of any huge metropolises, only a lot of palm trees, parks, nice coffee shop corners, and besides, I had to get used to the fact that I was walking again in a city which was not flat, but I had to cope with some slopes or hills from time to time.
So far I could see a lovely city full of green areas, shops, services and opportunities for entertainment, but the whole place looked like some sort of giant suburbs which could be maybe a regional capital but nothing more. As it turend out, I was quite simply not looking for the right direction yet, due to finding my accomodation.
As soon as I began my real discoveries, it turned out very quickly that I had my impressions exactly because Madrid is so huge, that the vast majority of it consists of parks, living zones, outskirts and modern business centres, and that is why I needed to wait and walk for such a long time to find everything.
At the same time, the historical centre (centro histórico) and the old town (ciudad vieja) are relatively small, which also has the adventage that most of the sights can be found close to each other at the same place.
The map also showed me some interesting facts, for instance the one that Madrid has a quarter called Salamanca (which is the name of another great Spanish city) and there is also a barrio called Ibiza. I thought that the easiest way in order to get to Ibiza is to take a ferry from Valencia, and apparently I was looking to the wrong direction for the whole time... confusing, is it not?
Actually it was kind of pleasent and interesting to walk in the middle of some calm neighborhoods and green zones in my host quarter called Opañel in one moment, and finding myself in the heart of the Kingdom of Spain in the other one, which is exactly what happened.
Not that the public transportations had some problems, because it was even more organized and practical sometimes than the one of Valencia. Apart from one railway adventure in the end I do not have the space to describe here.
It was rather about the fact the during that simple short weekend I had in the city, I tried to experience how it could feel like living in Madrid, that many immigrants and expats preferred to Barcelona and Valencia in spite of the lack of the sea.
As a matter of fact, many people do not know that Madrid actually does have a river, but if I tell you the name you would say that you would have never figured it out: it is called Manzanares, and it is quite a modest and tiny river, but its banks are surrounded by plenty of enermous parks and thousands of flowers at some parts of it.
I also have to mention at this point, that if you visit the continental parts of Spain for the summer, be prepared, because unlike the coastal territories like Valencia and Barcelona, there is no sea in Madrid to counterbalance the hot temperature, meaning that there is an extremely dry, warm and sunny wheather, which is not easy for everyone to deal with.
Fortunately, the city’s infrastructure is ready for this situation and it is full of street stores selling drinks, although it is better to buy everything in a cheap shop in advance if you ask me.
When I saw the flowing water for the fist time, it was hard to notice it due to all the gigantic buildings and architectural works that are located at the riverside, like the Toledo Bridge (Puente de Toledo) or the Pirámides: two huge obelisks standing on one end of this enchanting stone bridge, which could even be put in Prague, Florance or Valencia itself, and one would not find it alien.
The other important bridge of Madrid, Puente de Segovia is not just named after another Spanish city as well, but it also has a similar, medieval-sytle, honorable appearance, with the difference that the foams of Manzanares are more visible from there.
Here is the point where the hill begins, and when the traveller reaches the gate-like monument of Puerta de Toledo (which could easily be a sister of Porta de la Mar from my city), there is a door symbolically and literally as well to enter the wonders of Madrid.
To enter a sort of Madrid, which is still not the same having existed in my imagination, but it was much closer to the picture that many of us may create about it. Finaly I could experience the richness and amazement of this city not just in terms of wealth and different possibilities, but also the cultural capital it accumulated and generated throughout the centuries.
The first barrio that greeted me with many shops, restaurants and cozy streets was La Latina, which also had a nice theatre and a market hall with the same name.
I felt that I could see something really Spanish, while I was checking some mesmerizing churches like the Basilica of San Miguel or the Royal Basilica of San Francisco while I was on the way. I did not have a rest until I reached the pulsating centre of the very old town, Plaza Mayor (main square), which was surely a touching and uplifting moment full of inspirations.
The sqaure is closed from every direction, because the town houses and buildings of the place create some kind of natural wall in the edges of the sqaure, which thus has a regular rectangular shape.
People can arrive in the square through one of the wonderful arches that looked like some kind of castle gates to reach the courtyard of a noble family, while the central character of Plaza Mayor is definitely the horseman statue of Philip III of Spain, gazing the distance proudly from the top.
The most inspriing for me was to see the dozens of windows like hundreds of eyes of Argos all around in 360 degrees, and the vivid red shades and wonderful brownish and goldish ornaments of the walls, which oddly reminded me to the Rynek (market place/main square) of many Polish cities I had visited before - particularly Legnica, Cieszyn and Wrocław.
If we do not take some iconic Venetian buildings and the sea harbor into account, I also had the association with Piazza San Marco in Venice. You can find Mercado de San Miguel, another great and famous market hall on one side of the square, while maybe it is unnecessary to mention how many restaurants, bars and souvegnir shops are inviting their potential customers everywhere.
Another great square of the city is Puerta del Sol, which - as it seems to be a tradition in Madrid - hosts the horseman statue of another Spanish king, Charles III.
The Real Casa of Correos, a simple but elegant post office building can also draw our attention and it is popular on many post cards and fridge magnets of the city, although it rather looks like a town hall of a small city in Germany or in Eastern-Europe for me. However, we have not got to the best-known miracles of Madrid yet, therefore I would like to invite you for the second half of my Castilian adventures next time!
(to be continued)