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Madrid Part 1: Parques, Palacios, Plazas, Paseos, Prado and More

The second city I visited on my tour of España was the 2,000 plus year old, capital city of Madrid. The city was full of many surprises, the first of which was its name. "Madrid" is not the city's original name, nor is the name Madrid, Spanish in origin. Rather, it is Arabic.

Parque Emir Mohamed I

The city was named by Emir Mohamed, who founded it at the end of the 9th century. The River Manzanares, which flows through Madrid, was originally called "al-Magrit," meaning "water source" in Arabic. The area surrounding the river was called "Mayrit," which means "water or giver of life." That name was later changed to "Magerit," which means "place of water" in Arabic. Subsequently, the name evolved to Matrit and then to Madrid, which is how we all know the city today.

Parque Emir Mohamed I

The wall in this video dates back to the 9th century, when Madrid was Mayrit, a Muslim city.

Puerto Del Sol

Another surprising thing I found, was that the city of Madrid is where all Spanish roads begin. No, literally. All roads in the country of Spain begin in Puerto del Sol, a public square in Madrid, and one of the busiest places in the city.

Here, you will find this sign, embedded in the sidewalk, in front of the clocktower. (Look carefully, or you will miss it.) It marks Spain’s Kilometre 0, marking the center of the country and the Spanish road network.

Oso y Madroño

Walk just a few minutes to Calle de Alcalá, also in Puerto del Sol, and you will find yourself on Madrid’s longest street, where the bear pictured above will greet you. This is the famous Oso y Madroño statue, of a bear nuzzling a strawberry tree, and it is the official symbol of Madrid.

Teatro Real

On the other side of the square, on Calle del Arenal, is the Teatro Real Opera House, inaugurated in 1850.

El Madrid de los Austrias

El Madrid de los Austrias, or Habsburg Madrid, is the name referring to the oldest part of Madrid, built during the Habsburg Dynasty (1516-1700). Here, I found the central core of the city including plazas, cathedrals, palaces and courthouses, as you will see below.

King Philip III Statue in Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor is Madrid's grand central square. It was inaugurated during the reign of Philip III in 1620, although it was planned by his father years before. King Philip's statue sits in the center of this square that has been the site of everything from public executions to bullfights and fiestas.

Catedral de Almudena

The Almudena Cathedral is Madrid's most splendid church. From beginning to end, the church took over 100 years to complete. Plans for the church began in 1879, the first stone was laid four years later, and the façade was finally completed in 1960. It was not until 1993, when Pope John Paul II consecrated it however, that the cathedral was considered truly finished.

Below the Almudena Cathedral is a crypt, that is the resting place of some of Spain's most noble families. Though generally open to the public, it was closed when I was visiting. I am told it is beautiful, with more than 400 columns, crowned with different biblical figures.

Palacio Real Madrid

The Royal Palace of Madrid dates back to the 18th century and is built on the site of an old, Moorish Alcatraz fortress. This sprawling palace is the official residence of the Spanish royal family. It has 3,418 rooms, but none of them are currently lived in. Instead, the Royal Palace is used today by the King and Queen of Spain for official events.

Jardines de Sabatini

The Sabatini Gardens can be found on the northern façade of the Royal Palace.

The gardens are quiet and secluded, as well as ordered and symmetrical.

The tranquil, relatively unfrequented grounds of the Sabatini Gardens made for a perfect escape from the crowds I encountered elsewhere in Madrid.

Statue of Felipe IV

The Plaza de Oriente leads you into the Sabatini Gardens. In the Plaza de Oriente you will find a massive statue of Felipe IV, the king of Spain from 1621-1625. The statue is a marvel of both art and mathematics. As such, it required the collaboration of artist, Diego Velázquez, the Spanish artist whose painting the sculpture is based on, and Galileo, the father of modern science.

The construction issue that arose when recreating Velázquez' image, was that the horse was rearing up, so the entire 9 ton weight of the statue would have to rest on only two legs. (This should feel like déjà vu if you read my post on New Orleans.) Following the calculations and hand-drawn designs of Galileo, sculptor, Pietro Tacco, created the back portion of the statue out of solid bronze, while the front is hollow to balance the weight.

Casa de la Villa

Elsewhere in the city, I found the former City Hall. Work began on the Casa de la Villa in 1645 and was not completed until 1696. During a time between the 17th and the 21st century, this building served the City of Madrid as both prison and Town Hall. In fact, it was the home of local government as recently as 2008.


Cibeles Fountain, Plaza de Cibeles

The Cibeles Fountain has been a fixture in this square since 1782. The fountain was designed by architect Ventura Rodriguez and depicts Cybele, the Roman goddess of nature, riding a chariot.

Have you seen the show Money Heist? Well, aspect of it are not too far from reality. Next to the Cibeles Fountain is the Bank of Spain which has an underground vault that stores most of the Spanish gold reserves. In addition to various other security measures, if the bank's alarm were to be triggered, the corridors would be sealed, the Cibeles Fountain would drain, and its waters would be directed to flood the area and protect the gold. How gangster is that?

Fuento de Neptuno, Paseo del Prado

The Neptune Fountain, like the Cibeles Fountain, is also designed by Ventura Rodriguez. The fountain depicts Neptune, the sea god riding a seashell chariot, pulled by sea horses and surrounded by dolphins and seals.

Parque del Buen Retiro

Parque del Buen Retiro

Retiro Park may not be Madrid's largest park, but it is certainly its most famous. The park was first opened to the public in 1868 and has been drawing locals and tourists since.

The park is extensive, stretching over 300 acres, with no dearth of romantic sites. And if the landscape didn't provide enough enchantment, a musician just happened to be playing the famous, Italian song, "Con Te Partirò," or "Por Ti Volaré" (the Spanish version) while I was standing near one of the fountains, as you can hear in the background of this video. If you aren't familiar with the song, made famous by Andrea Bocelli, you may recognize it from the Bellagio fountain show in Las Vegas, or the movie, Step Brothers.

I was only able to cover a small portion of the park, but what I saw was beautiful. There were manicured gardens, ...

... fountains ...

Jacinto Benavente Statue

... statues ...

... and beautiful walking paths.

I could have spent many, many more hours here, but the clouds were rolling in and I also had tickets to one of the top museums in the world, and I was not about to be late.

Prado Museum

Madrid has some of the top museums worldwide, including the Thyssen Bornemisza, the Prado Museum and the Museo Reina Sofia, collectively referred to as the Golden Triangle. I did not have time to visit all three, but I was able to make a trip to the Prado, and it was one of the highlights of my time in Madrid.

Monument to Francisco de Goya by Benlilure

You will find art both inside and outside the Prado Museum. This statue of the illustrious painter, Goya stands at the building´s north façade, or the “Puerta de Goya” entrance.

Transfiguration by Raphael (1483-1520)

Inside the Prado museum, is one of the most impressive art collections in the world. The museum dates back more than 200 years, and has survived three wars. The pieces I viewed took my breath away, including this piece called the Transfiguration which is a reference to two Bible passages -- the Transfiguration of Christ (top of the painting) and the Miracle of the Possessed Boy (bottom, right of painting). I wish I could show you more, but I learned, immediately after taking this picture, that photography was not allowed in the museum.

San Jerónimo el Real

Just adjacent to the museum is the San Jeronimo el Real church, the remains of a monastery that dates back to the 16th century. Today the church serves as an extension of the Prado Museum and holds works of art by Titian, Rubens and Veronese.

That concludes my tour of the sites of Madrid. My next post will be about the tastes of Madrid. I hope you will join me as I tour the restaurants across this beautiful city, including a visit to the oldest restaurant in the world.

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