A Park, a Puerto, a Plaza and a Palace: A photowalk through the heart of Madrid
I often don’t have an itinerary, and when I reach a place I just tend to start walking and figure out interesting things to see. And more often than not, my time gets eaten up by the people I meet there, leaving very little for the places. Especially so in Europe, because there are usually a thousand things to see in each city in Europe, but also a thousand interesting people to meet. So, I tend to go with no checklist, and just go about walking and experiencing the city and meeting locals.
The same was true with Madrid too. I had already sorted out my stay in Madrid, thanks to a couchsurfing connection who put me in touch with another couchsurfing connection. It’s a very networked world out there, and it’s getting smaller. I had only 3 days in Madrid, and I spent the first 2 days getting drunk with my host and his friends. Whatever I had to see of Madrid, had to be seen in the last 1 remaining day.
Further reading: A photowalk through Valencia, the land of Paella.
I spent the morning of my last day doing some reading and jotting down places on google maps that I wanted to see. And when I finished my planning just before lunch, I realised that they were all within a 3 KM radius.
I skipped lunch.
A walk through a park
I was staying somewhere near the Goya station of Madrid. A train ride of just 1 station (I could have actuallywalked, if I hadn’t wasted so much time in the morning) took me to my first point. Retiro Park.
The Buen Retiro Park – commonly called El Retiro – was a central park in Madrid. Once upon a time it was the property of the Spanish monarchy, but now it was accessible and free for everyone. From the Retiro metro station, the north entrance of El Retiro was easily accessible. I walked through rows of neatly trimmed bushes, paved walkways and even a couple of peacocks (how the hell did they get there?). There are plenty of Spanish historic monuments strewn all around the place, including one of Arsenio Martinez Campos, whose actions led to the abolition of slavery in Cuba.
The walk further led me to a lake, right in the middle of Madrid! The Retiro Park lake (Estanque del Retiro) had a monument to King Alfonso XII at the beginning, surrounded by a colonnade. The entire colonnade was dotted with plenty of statues, apart from the central statue of Alfonso XII seated gallantly on his horse. There were a couple of lions at the central portion of the colonnade along with some female statues near the water. I am fascinated by European legends and mythology, but there were no inscriptions anywhere around for me to read and understand the relevance of the statues.
So, I just clicked. Not always knowing what I was clicking.
Towards the ‘Sol’ of the City
From Retiro park, I walked a little lazily. Somewhere at Calle de Alcala, I grabbed myself a sandwich, and continued walking while eating it. Before I knew it, I had walked more than 2 km! But that walk did lead me to where I was heading.
The Puerta del sol. In Spanish, that would mean ‘gate of the sun’, and the sun did make it’s presence felt everywhere around this central public square. Puerta del sol is the zero point from where all Spanish road distances are calculated. Like Retiro Park, another Spanish king’s equestrian statue took up the centre of this pedestrianized square. The statue of Charles III.
Sol square is also a mass melting pot of people. For years, this has not only been the main gathering point for the general people of Madrid, but also the venue for countless demonstrations and protests, since the office of the president of Madrid was located on the south side of the square. Even when I visited, a huge number of people – tourists, locals, amusement artists –dotted the entire place. But no, there were no demonstrations today.
Further Reading: A part of Philippines that looks so Spanish. Visit Mestizo District in Vigan!
From Puerto to the Plaza
I continued my walk towards the Royal Palace through the colourful and uber-picturesque Calle Del Arenal. Ok, maybe it was extra picturesque because of those colourful drapes that roofed the street. But still, it was pleasant to walk through the street, and avoid the little pedestrian traffic that was present on the street.
The Calle Del Arenal ended in the Plaza de Oriente. elegantly sandwiched between the Royal Palace and the Royal theatre on it’s West and East. Given the reference to ‘orient’ in the name, I had expected some Asian connection. Turns out, the ‘orient’ refers to the fact that the Plaza is at the eastern end of the Royal grounds.
The garden next to the plaza did have some lovely gardens and petite cafes surrounding it, but what I felt was more spectacular was the fountain in the middle of the plaza. A monument to king Philip IV stood atop a column that was surrounded by lions. In comparison to the statues of King Alfonso XII and Charles III that I saw earlier at Retiro Park and Sol, I noticed something different about the equestrian statue of Philip IV. The horse had both its front legs in the air. There is an urban legend about how the placement of the horse’s legs in an equestrian statue was a clue to how the rider of the horse had died. According to the legend, if a warrior dies during battle, his statue will have the horse lifting both its front legs in the air.
Well, that legend was clearly proved wrong here, as King Philip IV died of natural causes. In fact, he died of dysentery.
But what was more unique about this statue was its creation. The sculptor Tacca knew that it was going to be difficult to build an equestrian statue that would be supported only on the two behind legs. So, he approached the mathematician Galileo, who did the exact calculations of weight and measure required for the statue to stay in the given position.
And it still stands today, upright as ever.
The royal sights at the end.
From Plaza De Oreinte, I could already see the Royal Palace of Madrid – I just had to walk a few steps towards it.
The royal palace was not just a palace: it was a massive complex, with everything being named Royal – there was a royal armoury, royal library and even a royal pharmacy. The only ironic thing was, the king does not live there anymore. The current king of Spain, King Philipe IV lives in the palace of Zarzuela just outside Madrid. And the royal palace of Madrid is nowadays used mostly for state processions only.
But that didn’t prevent me from walking around the palace grounds, exploring the various building here. One of my favourites would be the Almudena Cathedral, the seat of the archdiocese of Madrid. Both the cathedral and the Royal palace were built on top of Islamic sites, which were destroyed when Alfonso VI took back Mayrit from the Berbers and named it Madrid.
The Cathedral de la Almudena were indeed scenic inside, but I preferred the open area outside. Many gathered at its steps, sat down to eat their lunch sandwiches. It was such a relaxed atmosphere, that I did not even know it was a cathedral at first!
And that was my walk. It should have just taken 30 minutes for me to walk from Retiro park to the Royal Palace, but it ended up taking nearly 4 hours. But then, that is my fault too.