Madrid (March 27-29)

We took another new mode of transport to Madrid – overnight train! Greg had booked a ‘grand cabin’ on a sleeper train, which sounded very plush, though unfortunately the reality didn’t match up to our expectations. We did start quite impressed however, with a well cooked meal in the restaurant car, including tasty steak which they managed to cook rare. After that we retired to our cabin; more bijou than grand, to be honest. In addition we found that the tracks were more juddery than we’d expected, so we didn’t get the best nights sleep.

We arrived quite early in Madrid, and it felt like most of the locals apparently were’t up yet – the city seemed mostly asleep still. We were quite centrally located, and yet at 9:30am the streets were deserted and the shops still closed. In fact as we walked past we noticed the opening times on the huge ‘Corte Inglés’ department store (a bit like Debenhams) were 10am to 10pm. Definitely confirmation of Spanish climate and culture!

It was only a short walk to our hotel (Hotel Preciados) from a central tube station, down a pedestrian street lined with a few shops and restaurants. We checked in, dropped our bags, and headed out to make the most of the day. Our first stop was the Cerralbo House Museum, which was the home of a nobleman. He was quite a collector, and the various busy rooms showed off his wealth – including suits of armour, a chinese room, and a games room.

The Palace was designed from the beginning to serve a dual purpose as a home and a museum, housing the many works of art (thousands and thousands) accumulated by the Marquis and Marquess of Cerralbo and their children during the numerous trips they made all over Spain and Europe.  The Marquis of Cerralbo donated this estate to the Spanish state, creating the Cerralbo Museum so that his collections would endure “always together and be used by science and art enthusiasts for study”.  It was all very ostentatious, and although impressive it wasn’t really to my taste.

We then walked to the Temple of Debod, which was an original Egyptian temple which was relocated (and rebuilt piece by piece!) from it’s original site facing onto the Nile, not far from the Valley of the Kings. The outer walls were mostly disintegrated, leaving just the impressive archways. The inner buildings were much more intact, and reflected the evolution of the temple which grew over the centuries as it was expanded by subsequent dynasties. It was an interesting visit, and a somewhat strange sight in the middle of a Spanish city park. From here we visited a small but famous chapel – Hermitage of San Antonio de la Florida, with a wonderfully colourful and beautiful painted ceiling by Goya whose tomb is in the chapel.  As a result of the ceiling the church became a very popular site for tourists, so much so that an absolutely identical building was built across the road which is now the actual church and the original building became a museum.

Next we headed to a cable car station, as our subsequent journey was to travel over a large valley that runs through Madrid and over the large central park (Casa de Campo). We enjoyed the ride, which offers great views of some landmark Madrid sights and a different perspective to usual. At the far end cable car station we alighted and then walked for about 30mins towards our destination – Madrid Zoo. As will be clear from our previous city visits and blogs, we enjoy a good zoo. We did, however, have rather mixed feelings about Madrid Zoo. Some of the older enclosures were small and fairly primitive in terms of design, so we felt very sorry for some animals such as the bears and the wolves. On the other hand others had much more room and were clearly newer and better designed, such as the Gorillas (who had just had a baby) and the custom built home for the Giant Panda, also with a recent baby. The restaurant was decent, and we also enjoyed the birds of prey show, which showcased a variety of large birds showing off their amazing flying abilities (which rather exceeded my ability to follow them and focus with the camera in order to get any good shots!).

We finished late at the Zoo, and headed back through the park to the cable car for our return journey. On the way back we were treated to evening light bathing the city including the Royal Palace and Cathedral, which made for a very magical view. It was pretty late by now and we were exhausted, so we grabbed some quick tapas in a local bar/restaurant and headed home to our hotel. We enjoyed a soaking from the huge overhead shower-head and fell to sleep early.

We allowed ourselves a small sleep in the next day, and headed down to breakfast. It had a good range overall, including a huge amount of pastries and sweet things, but not always best quality compared to many places we have stayed. Our first stop was the Teatro Real (Royal Opera House), where we wanted to join an interesting sounding tour. Rather than opt for the standard tour or the costume tour, Greg had selected the behind-the-scenes technical tour, which turned out to be fascinating. There were only 6 of us on the tour, including the two guides, another opera house employee and her friend who worked in another theatre! Of the two guides one was a member of the opera house technical staff and he was clearly delighted to be able to share his world with guests, and he obviously had a genuine love of his job and environment. The technical capabilities of the opera house were truly astounding, with vast behind-the-scenes areas (the lift had 22 floors!) and our tour ranged from the cavernous basement staging areas (with hydraulic platforms that could lift trucks) right up to the lighting and lifting rigs in the rafters, where we had to be careful to secure loose objects as anything dropping from that height would be life threatening to anyone below!

Astoundingly they can build 3 complete stage sets for different productions and stash them in the cavernous basements ready to be rolled out in just minutes.  This means that unlike many theatres they do not have to have a run of one production for several weeks, they can stage several different productions in the same week, or even on the same day.  So for example there was a huge, complex set when we were there (a closed set, meaning it had a visible ceiling, depicting a cave), but they were going to roll it out of the way intact to make space for a complete orchestra for one night.  It also means that there is pretty much no need for dark nights when they are changing productions. The gigantic fly tower also allowed for lighting rigs for multiple productions to be in place at once, with the stage depth giving space to set up a brand new lighting scheme for a new production while an existing show was playing and they could simply be moved forward (and the existing ones moved back) as necessary.  The rigs were very versatile with the ability to be used to fly in scenery, or with the simple addition of an electric cable could be transformed into a lighting rig.  On the first floor of the fly tower the stage is lined by heavy duty motors to raise and lower the the more-than-30 rigs and right up in the top of the tower are an array of tensioned cable drums to reel in (and out) cables as the rigs go up and down.

Under the main stage is slung a sub stage about 6ft below it that the dozens of trap doors open onto (and they put cushioning for people falling through them, or in the case of the current production an under-lit lift to raise the devil in clouds of smoke and red light onto the stage).  The last thing they showed us was the loading bay which rather curiously was 1 floor below the main stage.  The big scenery trucks come in and reverse fully into the building onto a giant lift, then the rear door of the truck is lifted to be level with the stage so that scenery can just be rolled out without needing to try and offload down to floor level and then move it to the stage.

So enthusiastic was our guide that the tour ran somewhat over it’s allotted time, and we enjoyed every minute of it.

Our next stop was at the Royal Palace, though a security stop which reminded us that the palace was still in use by the Spanish King Juan Carlos. The tour took us through an interesting range of rooms, all of which were very opulent (probably only beaten by the Vatican in that respect). The days of the Spanish Empire had allowed the decoration of the palace with much gold, presumably substantially of South American origin. We also noted that the royal chapel was huge, and obviously a very significant element of the palace architecture.  Also on display in the only intact Stradivarius string quartet in the world. There has been a palace of sorts here since the 9th century with the current one being built between 1938 and 1755.  Although only a very small portion is open to the public it is huge with 135,000 square metres of floorspace and 3,418 rooms making it the largest palace in Europe by floor area.

We had lunch in a market (Mercado San Miguel) which offered a range of places to grab little tapas style dishes.  We selected several, including some croquets, some small open sandwiches, some bur rata and some seafood. After that we went on to visit the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Real de la Almudena. Exploring this we were struck by the very modern design with neo-Gothic influence, and we discovered that the building was only recently finished and had been consecrated by Pope Jean Paul in 1993. It turns out that the cathedral had been started in 1879, but took a very long time to finish (!) partly due to complete cessation of works during the Spanish Civil War. We very much admired the interesting modern stained glass and colourful ceiling. We also felt that the underground car park was eminently practical! From the main cathedral we then went down the hill slightly to enter the neo-Romanesque crypt of the cathedral. The crypto is older than the cathedral, and a church in it’s own right. I found the walkways lined by arches very photogenic.

After the tombs we traveled further down the hill to a park (Madrid Rio) which runs for 10 km alongside the river. It apparently used to be the primary motorway through Madrid, however some years ago a decision was taken to sink the road down into a tunnel, and on the top a park has been created in the center of the city. This provided us with a pleasant walk along the river for about an hour, enjoying the view and passing by some very well known local landmarks, such as the Real Madrid football stadium.

As our last visit of the day we headed for a large museum currently showing an exhibition of the terracotta army of the first Chinese Qin Emperor (first God Emperor). These figures were believed to be a form of funerary art, buried with the Emperor in 210BC with the purpose of protecting the Emperor in his afterlife.  Lost for many years they were discovered by local farming peasants in 1974. Current estimates size the total army at over 8,000 soldiers, including infantry, archers, cavalry with their horses and commanders and generals (plus some officials, musicians and other non-military figures). What was particularly notable was the huge variety of clothing, faces and expressions on show – these weren’t factory-produced clones but 8000 individuals!  The original pit in China is now formed into a museum and World Heritage site, and this tour provided a glimpse into this strange and fascinating world.

For dinner we visited an excellent tapas bar, and even though we went early (by local standards) we were lucky to grab the last table available. We enjoyed a range of fantastic dishes, including oxtail balls with prunes and olive oil and wild mushroom risotto with poached egg and fois gras. I enjoyed an excellent glass of local red wine, with Cava for Greg. For dessert we headed to the frozen yohurt seller near our hotel and enjoyed a couple of flavours of yoghurt each.

Our first stop the next day was at the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales (Convent of Barefoot Nuns). The convent has room for 33 residents, although there are currently only 20.  It was founded by a Spanish Princess, Joanna of Austria, daughter of King Carlos I of Spain and Isabel or Portugal, and retained strong links to the royal family though it’s illustrious history. It was an interesting building, originally the palace of Carlos and Isabel, with an amazing collection of (priceless) art, which was gifted to them by various benefactors. The collection includes the priceless Titian’s Caesars Money and fantastic tapestries woven to designs from Rubens, which hang floor to ceiling in a large chamber.

The covent nuns were of the Poor Clare order founded in 1559 and throughout the second half of the 16th century and 17th century attracted young widowed or spinster noblewomen bringing their own dowries.  Often substantial the convent became one of the richest in all Europe. Due to changing demographics the nuns, who had lived on the large dowries of incoming initiates, gradually became poorer. However they were forbidden from selling any of the art they had been gifted. So in 1960 the Pope granted them special dispensation to allow them to open the Convent as a museum and thus generate some income to live on.

After the convent we considered visiting the royal park, but the weather wasn’t being helpful so we opted for our backup activity of visiting a local exhibition centre (Caixa Forum) which was currently showing a collection of work from Pixar in celebration of their 25th anniversary. This proved very popular, and it was hard for us to grasp the size of the queue at first sight – it wound around the main central section of the building more than once! In the end we had to wait for about an hour to enter, but once inside decided it was well worth it. On display was a good variety of material – original artwork, maquettes, colour boards, character animation explorations and more from the various Pixar movies. We particularly enjoyed a video about Up showing more detail and some development ideas on the very sad intro sequence, as well as the victorian style rotoscope with Toy Story characters!

As our last stop in Madrid we enjoyed a splendid final lunch at La Sanabresa. We could tell we were in Spain, as lunch hours were from 1pm to 4:30pm, so arriving at 3pm we were by no means the last having lunch. We opted for the superb value 12 euro set lunch and I had roasted peppers with tuna, rabbit with garlic, and crema Catalana; all delicious, as was the complementary drink – a 1/2 bottle of house wine!

After lunch it was on to our next city of.. Seville!


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