I have an audio walking tour of Madrid loaded into my phone thanks to the izi.Travel app. It makes my decision about what to do simple … I just follow the blue line and listen to stories about this city. Perfect.
The walking tour starts at the palace. It’s a short walk from my hostel. Along the way I pass what will become a familiar sight here in Spain: a plaza with a fountain. This one is quite grand because it’s close to the palace precinct. I love the reflections on the water. It only serves to emphasise the summery feel in the air after my month in the cold north (no reference to Game of Thrones intended but it does feel a bit like that without the blood and gore).
The palace gardens feel so Mediterranean. That overwhelming sense of voluptuous beauty continues here. The statues are like ones you see in postcards and history books. It’s almost as though every place I come in Europe has a focus on a different historic period. In Turkey (yes, I know – technically partly Asia) it was the Ancient Greeks, in Hungary it was the period of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Holland it was the Renaissance, in Poland it was largely WWII and the High Middle Ages, and here in Spain it’s the Middle Ages.
I walk up the steps back to the street and recognise immediately the definition of Spain. It’s in the girl sitting with her legs over the wall working on her laptop. It’s a sort of sense of anything goes. In Australia we’d have big fences and barriers to stop people from injuring themselves if they fell. Oh how I have struggled with seeing that the rest of the world can live quite easily without the over-emphasis on safety and fear. It is something that bemuses me a bit.
Next to the palace there’s a glorious cathedral. It was built in two stages: one Gothic and then one more Renaissance. I will become familiar with this mix of styles being present in the one building because there was a period of warring in between that slowed development.
Inside, the Cathedral is stunning. It’s airy and calm. It doesn’t smack of the piousness of those in Poland and Holland. Rather, it feels welcoming and warm. I can feel a presence of God here. Something I didn’t feel in the Polish and Dutch churches we visited.
I find myself at the market of St Miguel. It’s a fashionable glass-walled building that is filled with local gourmet food outlets. There’s everything from sweets and bakery items to savoury tapas. Wine and beer flow into large glasses. I stay away from the alcohol and sweets, preferring some of the more natural options. It’s not cheap but it’s worth it for the experience of being here.
With my taste buds satisfied I continue my wanderings. In a plaza I let a costumed character take a selfie with me. You need to pay a small tip but that’s okay because I enjoy the experience and it’s all part of travel.
A group of African men are standing in the plaza selling their wares on sheets. They hold ropes over their shoulders and pull everything closed as soon as the police enter the plaza.
Later I see them again in another lane. It looks like a game the police and sellers play often. I guess the men are doing whatever is necessary to earn a few Euros and the police are monitoring the peace.
I’ve been walking around for about 4 hours when my walking tour ends near the big art gallery. I don’t go in because I have plans to walk to a free bouldering area south of the city. First there’s some parks to walk through and enjoy.
The bouldering wall is a long way south and away from the tourist strip. Like everywhere else in Madrid it is covered in graffiti and looks rough. Two local guys are training here. They make it abundantly clear that I am not welcome and become quite threatening. I decide that if the Spanish are willing to kiss passionately in public they are probably just as willing to demonstrate their displeasure in public so I hit the road.
Not far from the bouldering wall I come across a slum. It’s a sad sight and it affects me deeply to realise that this poverty exists here in Madrid. I don’t feel safe in this area. It’s not the poverty itself but the disparity between what the people living here have and what the rest of the people around have. The experience of the men at the bouldering wall and the slums leaves me unsettled.
Fortunately, I come across a fantastic inner city plaza where children are playing soccer and laughing. Some fathers join in the fun as siblings compete against each other. These kids have some serious skills.
The day ends with sunset over the Plaza Sol. It’s been an interesting day where I’ve seen the best and worst of Madrid.