Monday the 11th
Today we explore Madrid! The first official excursion, discrediting the trip into Sol the night prior, was a tour of the city on the fresh Mercedes-Benz Contiki Coach narrated in fast facts by our trip manager Mikael. The size of our group allowed us to run from window to window to photograph the sights, but with so much to see, I struggled to keep up with my photos and facts of the landmarks. The coach wound its way onto the main street and into the financial district wherein elements of modern Madrid originated centuries earlier. Around us, sky scrapers skewed the few clouds floating in the sky above; it would have looked a sore sight were it surrounding our hotel, but this part of Madrid was urbanised and becoming increasingly commercialised. The National Bank of Spain is at home in this section of the city, marked by a gold encrusted obelisk that was awarded to the city to celebrate its anniversary. Two skyscrapers angled at fifteen degrees form a figurative gate used to mark the ‘Entrance to the City’. The Spanish capital is underwritten by a dense history which, although modernised in the likeness of a true world city, is still evident in its architecture and organisation. Its past is laden with internal conflict fuelled by civil tensions between Christians, Muslims and Jews. In the 1500s, the Iberian Peninsula was swept with religious prosecution instigated by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand II of Argon and Isabella of Castile. This cleansing, posthumously revered as the Spanish Inquisition, was intended to maintain Catholic Orthodoxy in the kingdom and shaped the structure of Spain as it exists today.
The Real Madrid Stadium was to our right: the local field of Cristiano Renaldo who was sold to the team for 94 million. The resident team is involved in a stark rivalry with its civil opponent, Athletic Madrid, in a competition which divides the nation of soccer supporters. The manifestation of soccer in the city is unequivocal, no individual is exempt from some form of involvement in the sport! Just take the recently concluded Euro Cup which was a celebrated social event for the people of Madrid, and Spain, and all of Europe! Even we were still buzzing from viewing the final game only yesterday. Then, the Nuevos Ministerios to our left. The building was home to the offices of the ministry and represented a time in which military dictator Francisco Franco attempted to unite the provinces of Spain into one nation. His occupation collecting fifty regions into one was prioritised over Spanish involvement in World War II and was the reason his good friend Hitler (and troops) was refused passage through the nation en route to France. Imaginably, the inconvenience caused by this attempt at federation diverted a much larger conflict and potentially different outcome for the Great War. Today, this civil conflict remains unresolved as Barcelona is currently in the process of advocating its departure from Spain! Therefore, Spain is home to a multiplicity of foods, heritages, dialects and practices.
We exited the bus at the Plaza de Colón whereon a statue and water feature stands in honour of the exploits of Christopher Columbus. This area also hosts the Biblioteca Nacional which I had visited during my free time yesterday, and its famed collection of Don Quixote. Written by Miguel de Cervantes, this novel allegorises the romanticisation of knighthood through a fictional character who is the namesake of the book. It highlights the disparities between idealist and realist Spain. The novel was authored in prison and became so popular a copycat sequel was written, part of which made it to publishing in the second novel by the same author which foreshadowed the first. Don Quixote ushered in a new style of literature through original writing techniques which ensures its lasting impression today. The novel is idolised to the extent that images of Don Quixote are iconised across Spain and some even believe this fictional character was a man in reality.
We returned to the bus and continued our sightseeing tour around the city. Our trip manager and guide pointed to the triad of museums which surrounded the Plaza de la Cibeles: the Museo Naval, the Museo del Prado and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. These three museums and the artists which they feature transformed the prominent artistic style in Spain into the era of expressionism. Finally, we passed the Fountain of Neptune and arrived at the Plaza Puerte del Sol. The clearing resembled the centre of a maze: a series of arms circled the open space leading into side-streets which would be hard to navigate without a map and street signs. Not one avenue was distinguishable from the other and I already knew it was bound to get confusing! We followed Mikael up a street opposite the David Beckham billboard, past the Museo de Jamon and down the second fork where we reached an open square which was the Plaza de Mayor. The Austrian architectural influence was evident from the arches to the painted portraiture featured on the walls. The variety of borrowed culture adopted into Spain was breathtaking! Never had I expected to see such a diversified landscape featuring an assortment of nationalities in its own. We were duly impressed.
The sightseeing had expended the best of our energy. Sporadic pangs of hunger sounded with menacing growls from the depths of our stomachs as it grovelled for our attention and caused distraction from the illustrious beauty of Spain. To our relief, we were nearing the Mercado de San Miguel, a gourmet food market retailing an extensive variety of freshly made Spanish delicacies. There were cones of mini chorizo sausages, legs of jamón ibérico ready to be sliced upon request, tapas of toasts topped with fishes or cheeses or pastes of all sorts, olives on skewers, chocolates and pastries, and enormous dishes of paella! We were spoilt for choice! We had been warned to leave some room for dessert as we could not leave Madrid without some of the nation’s best churros. Served in portions of six straight sticks with a coffee cup full of decadent chocolate sauce, these deep-fried dough delicacies were worth the stomach-ache from over-eating that morning.
My roommates, Caro and Lauren, and I stopped in at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza before organising our own lunch. Rather than return to the markets or a restaurant which were two options we contemplated, we ducked into an express supermarket for a few essentials. A pack of Doritos Chips, a bottle of supermarket-brand sangria, the cheapest spirit available which happened to be rum and a nectarine. I ate my piece of fruit as we wandered over to the Buen Retiro Park where we made ourselves comfortable on a bed of grass surrounding our snacks for a makeshift picnic. The shade was our Saving Grace in the stark heat of the tranquil garden, and here we relaxed for some time as we got to know each other better. That evening, Mikael organised an optional dinner at a modern but specialised restaurant for those interested. A series of tapas was followed by a burrata: a hollow mozzarella ball, which was theatrically injected with arugula and pesto sauce and surrounded with balsamic glaze and juicy cherry tomatoes. Our evening did not end early, for our guide and trip manager treated us to the pubs and clubs of Plaza Puerte del Sol. At each bar, we were given a free tequila shot which quickly got us dancing to saucy songs by Enrico Iglesias and Pit Bull! My excitement had grown with the reassuring realisation that I had here a great group of friends to share with the upcoming adventures.