Thursday, June 14, 2007

Visit to Madrid

Retiro Park with Alfonso XII mausoleum in background

Madrid is one of those places I had always intended to visit one day, but I kept putting it off. There always seemed to be other, more enticing places that had to be seen first.

Last week we did finally get round to checking it out, taking the TGV to Marseilles, and then a Ryanair flight to the Spanish capital. Having spent 5 nights there, I would concur wholeheartedly with an article in the Sunday Telegraph travel section that appeared while we were there: Barcelona had better watch out. Madrid has quietly been getting its act together. It offers as good, if not better an intoxicating mix of things to do, places to visit as its Catalan rival. Indeed, I had a greater, more immediate sense of "being there" in Madrid than in Barcelona
which we visited some four years ago.

The first thing that hits you is the colour and variety of the architecture, and the way that modern additions blend easily with the old – enhancing rather than detracting. Then there is the sheer abundance of bars, cafes , shops and restaurants. But it's the people that create an impression too: there are fewer foreign tourists than Barcelona, most of the voices one hears are Spanish, and indeed the amount of English spoken is minimal – even in hotels and restaurants. So the overwhelming sensation is one of cultural and linguistic harmony.

There's something else about Madrid that appeals, especially after a recent visit to London. It's the near seamless spread of prosperity one sees, not just in the centre, but extending way out into the suburban residential areas. But it's not look-at-me yuppified prosperity: I think I saw just two Porsches in Madrid. In parts of London, every other car now seems to be a Porsche, Aston Martin or Ferrari, making one feel the poor relation. And Metro tickets are priced for ordinary folk, in contrast to Mayor Livingstone's cynical policy of ripping off locals and visitors alike.
Apartment-land is not something I would normally enthuse about, but that is where we found ourselves in Madrid, thanks to a misleading entry on the website. But at street level there was an abundance of friendly restaurants and cafés and little shops, with a great sense of community spirit. I found myself wishing I had taken a job in Madrid, and been privy to that easy-going unaffected al fresco scene.
But beware of rose-tinted holiday perspectives: the guide books warns of the Madrid climate: it is Continental, rather than Mediterranean. So expect nippy winters and a short furnace like summer. Well, that's the theory, anyway. For some reason I had imagined central Spain to have dust-laden skies, with a photochemical smog over the towns and cities. While we were there it was almost perfect weather, reminiscent of Provence, with clear blue skies, seemingly pollution free, and an amazing quality of light.
The Metro was a joy to use: modern, sparkling, clean, colourful, with frequent trains. My one complaint: illuminated displays on some lines, that helpfully tell you the number of minutes since the last train departed ! The locals presumably know the frequency of trains on that line !

I didn't take many pictures in Madrid. It's one of those places where there are few things that are hugely photogenic – at least in a small camera viewfinder – so that any attempts to photograph fail to do justice to the enveloping Surroundoscope feel of the place.

One notable exception was the Retiro park – a vast rectangle of green on the eastern side. The many-pillared monument to a past king, Alfonso XII, up there on his high horse, is striking in a purely monumental sense, if you care for that sort of thing. But again, the camera fails to do justice, given that the feature forms a backdrop to a huge boating lake. Another consideration is that the entire eye-catching ensemble can be viewed at leisure through a slight alcoholic haze, if one is so inclined, by sitting oneself down at the open-air cafeteria , with its comfortable seats, sunshades and tasty nibbles – even if the crab in the salad was fake.
We made a side trip to see the famous Palace and Monastery at San Lorenzo de Escorial, about an hour by road to the north west of Madrid. To be honest, I was more interested in the scenery en route , with curious outcrops of rounded boulders in the orchards and pastures. The countryside was a lot more verdant than I had imagined for central Spain. But there's the expected sense of vast emptiness, starting just a few miles from the city centre. The impression of an underpopulated country is reinforced on the flight back, it being more than 300 miles of rolling plain from Madrid to Barcelona, punctuated by some curious eroded rock formations and the occasional meandering river with O-level geography textbook oxbow lakes.
We had planned a trip to Toledo, but there were multiple long queues at the windows, in the ticket office with little or no air-conditioning, and Toledo trains were shown on the boards as "completo". A momentary whiff of the Third World, I thought, one of the few blemishes on an otherwise modern, well-ordered capital.
Biggest disappointment ? Picasso's "Guernica" (Centro de Arte Reina Sofia). It is shown in our Lonely Planet guide book as multicoloured, a blend of golds, ochres, chestnut. In fact it's almost monochrome. Great imagery and draughtsmanship certainly, but I don't think I would have described it as the 20th century's greatest painting if I had chanced upon it without fanfare.
We called in at Aix-en-Provence on the way back - a most impressive if overcrowded historical centre. Fortunately there was a "petit train" that allowed us to take in the main sights quickly. I'll look through the pix and decide if there's enough for a second blog post.
Ryanair may get a mention too. Great prices, but why do they treat their passengers like cattle ?
Ornamental gardens in Retiro Park, looking west

1 comment:

Jackie said...

Ah ha, that's where you have been then eh! Glad you enjoyed the trip and look forward to having the time to pop in more often!