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Trip Report Spain Trip Report: Madrid, Toledo, Andulusia

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Trip report for Spain, June 2-11 . . . Had 2 1/2 days on our own in Madrid, then joined a Globus tour for Toledo and southern Spain. Wonderful time, highly recommend Spain and I hope to return!

Felt like unbelievable luck to leave Atlanta on time with Delta & arrive in Madrid early morning, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. After last year’s delay of almost 8 hours in leaving for Ireland trip, this was wonderful.
Madrid’s airport was light, with translucent colored panels, very modern and upbeat. Out to a taxi and to our hotel, the Melia Galgos. Room was not ready but daughter and I checked our luggage and started out to explore, much earlier than we had expected.
First hours in a different part of world are always disconcerting to me. It was a beautiful morning, still cool and fresh with vivid blue sky. We headed up the street, past the well-guarded American embassy, and on to shops/restaurants, and then the Plaza de Colon.
First stop was a place that only got a line in a few of the guidebooks but that I really wanted to visit, the Biblotecha Nacional de Espana National (Spain’s equivalent of the Library of Congress). Beautiful building from the 19th century. We went in the basement to their free “book museum” & wandered around – it was a conglomeration, part library history (there were date due stamps, a microfilm reader, book repair material, etc.) and part book history (some very nice illuminated manuscripts, almost all Christian).
At the imposing main entrance of the Library, we struggled to understand that we could visit a reading room exhibit so dug out our passports, got ID tags, and checked our purses. One exhibit was tracing the history of the University of Salamanca; another was on the author Gloria Fuertes. I could peer into the actual reading room and down the corridors where scholars were going but wasn’t wearing the proper ID for more exploration. (There were occasional tours of library but none in English.)
After the library, we paid our admission to the nearby National Archaeological Museum, which displays artifacts from the Iberian Peninsula. Museum interior was beautiful & light, had been renovated in 2014. The collection was interesting, particular the older Celtic (pre-Roman) relics, including the large stone figures such as the Lady of Elche. It reminded me a bit of the artifacts in Ireland’s museums last year.
We had a late lunch out in the shady courtyard of the museum, a 3 course meal (salad, fish with vegetables, and green tea) from the museum’s café, very low key and uncrowned. Then we walked the mile or so back to the hotel, to check in and rest for a while. When we got back out around 4:30, it had grown hot but still okay with the breeze. Our goal this time was to get further down the street, to Madrid’s huge Retiro Park. Walking again by the Plaza Colon, we saw the huge Spanish flag over the park snapping in the wind. Spain’s flag is yellow and red, very colorful.
It was a busy Friday afternoon & the park was overwhelmingly large & crowded but still great fun, giving off the vibe of a busy, lively city. We walked past the big lake (El Estanque), saw the many rowboats out on it, the people crawling over the huge statutes on the opposite side. It was like a street carnival with entertainers and small stands selling drinks, icre cream and pizza slices along the wide sidewalk bordering the lake. We walked on and on, finally coming to their Crystal Palace, which was a lovely (empty) but hot space. We wandered more, finding a private club member W.C. but nothing for us. We came to rose gardens, a week or two past their prime, but still lovely. Finally, tired and hot, we retraced our steps & then began a search for dinner. We wanted something to take back to our hotel room so that we wash faces, pull off shoes and just relax as we ate.
Our hotel clerk had warned us that the Corte de Ingles department store that we would pass was a “small one” but still, on the 7th floor, they had a “gourmet food department” and we bought a tub of the best baba ganoush I’ve ever had to take back with us. (And we found a bathroom!) Back in our comfortable room, we ate the baba ganoush with pretzels and leftover rolls from the airplane meal & went to bed at 9:30, just as it was starting to get to get dusty outside.

Next day (Saturday). . . no alarm, woke up at 7:15, after an excellent night of sleep. This hotel was large, dark and impersonal feeling but the room, especially the bed, was very comfortable and quiet. It also had the best hotel breakfast of the trip in a room that did have plenty of windows.
I had glasses of fresh carrot juice, hot tea, potato tortilla, scrambled eggs, olives, toasted brown bread with olive oil and a crushed tomato juicy sauce, quince preserves, soft cheese, yogurt and fruit (honeydew and cantaloupe melons would be good everywhere we went) and a fruit that seemed similar to an apricot (perhaps a quince, although not like my own backyard quinces). I even added a slice of fruit cake for dessert.
Our main goal for the day was the visit the Royal Palace and we had considered signing up for a tour that would get us in at 9 a.m., an hour before the regular opening time. But knowing that we were joining our tour the next day and would be living by a schedule, we decided to take this one day as it came. So . . . running later than we meant to be, we decided to splurge on a taxi (easy to do since taxi stand right outside our hotel).
We arrived then at the Plaza del Sol, wandered around a bit in the bright, hot sun before joining the queue for the 10:00 opening time. Opposite the Royal Palace is Madrid’s new Almudena Cathedral, opened in 1993, after 100 years of construction. The Royal Palace is the largest European palace, 2200 rooms, still in use & was built on the model of Versailles, by Louis XIV’s grandson (who was born at Versailles). It is at the top of Madrid’s tallest hill, originally the site of a Moorish alcazar and then a wooden Christian palace that burned down c. 1700.

We didn’t wait for an English tour, went on through with Rick Steve’s guidebook and the English brochure that the Palace ticket bought us. Rick Steve’s did well, we were able to marvel at the paintings, chandeliers, furniture, clocks, tapestries and porcelain, with his background info to guide us. I honestly enjoyed this Palace more than Versailles since it is still fully furnished and also because it is full of amazing tapestries, many of them 17th century Flemish originals from Rafael designs and others 18th century Spanish copies. Later Spanish tapestries were from Goya designs.
The Palace was crowded but not overwhelmingly so; there were few tour groups there. I even enjoyed the Armory, the oldest armor in it had belonged to Ferdinand and Boabdil, there were even tapestries hanging in the Armory and the occasional small one serving as a saddle blanket for the horse statutes, also wearing armor. No wonder the early Americans thought the conquistadors aliens.
There were nice views from the edges of the courtyard of sprawling Madrid below. We ate lunch (cold gazpacho soup for me) in the upstairs museum cafeteria and then set out, through the Royal Gardens for the Temple of Debod, a garden/park that also houses the only authentic Egyptian temple in Europe, a gift from Egypt to Spain for its help rescuing monuments during the Aswan Dam construction. We admired the temple from the outside but unfortunately it was closed for siesta (2 p.m-6 p.m.) although a military guard, with gun, was on duty pacing around it.

Then back down to the street, to the Plaza de Espana, busy with Saturday tourists and city folks, with its statues of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and Dulcemia. We headed to the main street of Madrid, the shopping/theatre area, and enjoyed the old stylish buildings from late 19th/early 20th century. We spotted the huge El Corte Ingles so visited it for bathroom and also bought daughter a fan. This fan was meant to be a souvenir but in the coming days we found the fans were really useful to stir up a breeze and cool one down.
We made it to the Plaza Mayor, a cobbled traffic free plaza, but it was hot and hectic . . . we didn’t linger. We struggled to find Descalzas Royal Monastery (a nunnery famous for its art and architecture) but it was closed for siesta when we finally came to it. Decided it was time to make our way back to the hotel for the 6:00 tour group meeting & dinner. So long as we stayed in the shade of the buildings it was still a pleasant walk. We saw the huge white Town Hall, with its banner “Refugees Welcome”, that was once Madrid’s central post office, and then walked back through an open air market and into our Columbus plaza again.
I was pleasantly surprised when we met our Globus group, only 16 of us, with varied nationalities and ages. We had 5 Australians, a mother/son from the Philippines and the rest of us American – 3 people traveling alone. Even the Americans were varied, we had a young couple with Cuban grandparents, a teacher originally from Columbia & they were proficient in Spanish and more knowledgeable than the rest of us about Spanish history and culture, too.
The hotel dinner was surprisingly good – salad, veal &potatoes, wine, and fruit.

Sunday morning was another good breakfast and then onto the tour bus. Our city guide was not as organized or as articulate as usual Globus guides or perhaps the city itself didn’t lend itself well to tours. We stopped again at the Plaza de Espana, which had only tourists early in the morning, went by the Plaza del Sol and the Plaza Mayor, before stopping at the Prado. It took a little while for the guide to buy our tickets but the morning was pleasant & we walked around the huge building, before having an hour’s guided tour of the highlights. The rest of the tour group had signed up for Globus’s optional trip to El Escorial and the Valley of the Fallen but I thought this was my chance to spend time in “the world’s greatest painting museum” so I should take it.

I’m afraid the Prado was my only slight disappointment on the Spain trip, it just didn’t live up the reputation for me. (And that’s probably because my favorite time periods for painting is 1850-1920 & the Prado has very few works from even the last half of the 19th century). But Prado still amazing and, of course, exhausting.
Best paintings to me: Raphael’s Portrait of a Cardinal, Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation, Albert Durer’s Self Portrait, Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delight, Rubens’s The Three Graces, Goya’s The Family of Charles IV, Second of May, 1808 and Third of May, 1808, Rembrandt’s Judith, and a Zurillo still life. The room full of Goya’s black paintings was interesting; I’m still thinking about them. The Prado has one Caravaggio but it didn’t make the usual Caravaggio impact. I’m not a big Rubens fan although The Three Graces were wonderful. Not an El Greco fan at all and the paintings in the museum did not change my mind.
There were also wonderful 8th and 9th century wall frescoes rescued from a very old church that was endangered decades ago . . . they were a definite highlight of the visit.
The Prado’s paintings are not arranged chronologically but with Rick Steve’s guidebook and the brochure/map from the Prado, we saw what we wanted, I think.
Madrid’s Royal Palace can rival Versailles as a tourist experience for me but Prado cannot match the Louvre.

We ate lunch at the Prado’s restaurant, surprisingly good paella, and took breaks but even so, by 4:00, it was time to leave. My daughter was not willing to visit Madrid’s other two art museums, with their more modern art, and it was such a surprisingly pretty, pleasant day outside that the best use of time seemed to be to cross the street to the Royal Botanical Garden, a museum of plants.
We enjoyed the “exotic” trees such as the ones from the United States, made all the more fun that we were translating the signs as best we could, no English brochure to help us. In many Spanish museums, English translations would be in smaller print at the bottom of the placards.
Enjoyed the olive grove, went through the green houses, and walked back through a different section of park to get back, once again, on our familiar long street trek back to hotel.

Tomorrow we leave on Globus tour for Toledo and then should be in Granada for the night. If ever I return to Madrid, I’d like to take day trips to El Escorial, Avila and Segovia . Our fellow tour group members said their Sunday trip was marred by a heavy thunderstorm with cold winds so I was glad we had enjoyed the pretty afternoon in Madrid. Also would plan better for siesta closings and would visit the modern art museums, as well as revisit the Prado. I’d like to visit the tapestry factory museum as well, just my own personal interest. I enjoyed the people watching in the park and just being outside. I think the sun and fresh air we got the first day helped reset our internal clocks; after then, we were adjusted to Spanish time. (To be continued)

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    Enjoying your trip report. Also, I felt the same about the Prado. It is one of my least favorite world class museums. Madrid was also my least favorite city in Spain. Maybe just too much "big city"?

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    Madrid my least favorite as well -- maybe has the "shortest" history of any of the Spanish cities while also having more traffic and big buildings.
    Glad I am not alone in being a disappointed with the Prado.

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    Actually, Madrid is one of our favorite cities in Spain – been there twice - and each time we try to see more of it. If you do get a chance to return, try again to get into the Convent of Descalzas Reales. It is so well worth it. It was an unexpected treasure! Go early and get in line to get an entry for a tour! We happen to be staying in a nearby hotel and for two mornings when we’d leave the hotel we wondered why all these people were lined up so early, with the line continuing around the corner and on to the next street. The line is long for good reason! We loved the Prado and had long visits there, but this place is special. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it before. I am looking forward to reading the rest of your report!

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    NEXT INSTALLMENT . . . Monday morning

    We were quickly out of Madrid, approached Toledo in an hour or so. The views of the river, with the city on the hill, were charming but none of my pictures from the bus window turned out well. We stopped briefly at a Damascus steel workshop for bathroom and shopping. I didn’t mind the short stop although I didn’t buy anything (daughter did); the merchandise was beautiful and even the workshops were decorated with paintings and pretty things. We also stopped to take pictures overlooking the city: the river and its bridges, plus the cathedral easy to see.

    Such a clever idea, Toledo, to have us park below and ride the long series of escalators up to the old town! Wasn’t quite sure what to make of our brief walk through the “Jewish quarter”,we didn’t go into the Synagogue and there seemed to be nothing else left of it to see, although I appreciated hearing the history from our city guide. Not sure how much of the Synagogue itself has survived.

    Immediately upon entering Toledo’s cathedral, I realized that this was Spain . . . it was a Gothic cathedral but was white on the inside, very light, with a different feel than the Northern European cathedrals I had visited in the past. The huge altar seemed encrusted with gold. I have a vague memory of a room with lots of paintings (my guidebook tells me that they were Titians, Velazquezs, Goyas, El Grecos, etc.)

    We saw the amazing altar piece, covered with gold, the Treasury with its gold tower that was made to hold the host while being that is hauled through the streets once a year for the Corpus Christi parade. I am from a very plain Protestant background and Corpus Christi to me means a city in Texas so this was all very interesting. Didn’t have enough time at all in the cathedral.
    We then stood in line for our time with the famous El Greco painting, , at the Church of Santo Tome. I’ve seen this painting in art books many times but here, its huge size dominating the space, I could feel the magic and realized why El Greco was considered such an amazing artist. I liked his paintings hanging in the cathedral, too.

    Back out in the street again, the street was already being decorated for this celebration, coming up in just a few days. We also went through a marzipan shop but no time to look around.
    We had approximately an hour of free time before boarding the bus, with bathroom and lunch to find, as well as any sight seeing and shopping. Daughter and I walked back down the street to better view the cathedral and Bishop’s palace again, then located a simple sandwich shop that had bathrooms – we got ham & cheese sandwiches to go, stuck them in my bag, and did a little window shopping on our way back to the bus. Obviously, not nearly enough time in Toledo.

    It was a long bus ride then to Granada . . . stopped once at a shopping/restaurant place where daughter and I had tea outside, in an attempt to wake up, and I bought some saffron as a gift. Our Globus guide said this was the area where saffron was grown.

    After another hour, we had to make an unexpected stop as the bus had a leak – luckily we had shade,a good breeze, and just stood around chatting for 30 minutes while the driver managed to use duct tape around the hose to get it shape to continue. But, thanks to the stop, we arrived in Granada almost an hour late, leaving even less time for this magical city.

    Our hotel was charming, my favorite of the trip, the Hotel Saray. We even had a view of the snow touched mountains from our room. The lobby had some beautiful ceramic pieces but also, amazingly, a 17th century Belgium huge tapestry. After a brief rest, we all walked to dinner together at a restaurant about 4 blocks away. We crossed the small river on a charming bridge, stopped at the fountains, admired the views of the mountains.

    Dinner started with sangria, then excellent appetizers and main course of fish (not as good) with wine. By the time we left, it was growing dark outside. We went out to the pool area of our hotel for a while, just to enjoy the evening and the plants, but pool itself was closed for repairs . . . tomorrow free time in Granada and then the Alhambra!

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