The Palace and Illustrious Men in Madrid

When we arrived in Madrid, the city was decorated for Christmas. The Plaza de Cibeles was red and green against the black sky, and the Paseo del Prado sparkled with white lights. It made for a lovely and wintery welcome to the city of art and royalty.

We stayed in the Cortes neighborhood near the “Triangle of Museums,” but for more on the Museums of Madrid, check out my previous entry on the gorgeous museums and artists that are cherished in Spain.

After we recovered from the artistic saturation, we ventured out to see the city. Something Spain has in spades is plazas. Most of the intersections can be determined by which plaza they are surrounding. The biggest one is Plaza del Sol. In this plaza, it’s very much like Piccadilly Circus in London or Time Square in New York City. There are billboards the size of houses and people dressed as various Disney characters begging for a photo (and a buck).

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But what stands proudly in this square is a famous statue of a bear eating from a strawberry tree. This is the official symbol of Madrid. There are many theories as to why this is the symbol for the city. One theory is the city was surrounded by bears and fruit trees, so it was a natural choice. Another theory goes back to the 13th century in a hunting dispute between the church and the citizens.

…an agreement was reached that the church owned the soil, but the people of Madrid owned everything above the ground, namely game. Then, the symbol of Madrid was born — a Bear (the church’s emblem) sniffing a tree.

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After we left the chaos of hundreds of tourists and last-minute Christmas shoppers, we were on a mission to find the Oriente Plaza near the Royal Palace. The garden or park has several marble statues of famous monarchs dotted along the main path. In the winter, the trees were brown and empty, but the backdrop of the Royal Palace was so majestic reminding me of our day in Versailles. That day, the Royal Palace was closed (so make sure you check ahead of time or have a contingency plan), so we walked just over the hill and down the way to the Temple of Debod.

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Now, this place was really fascinating. There was a small line to wait to go in because the inside space is so small, but once you’re in, you can try to imagine what life in Ancient Egypt could have been like. These rocks and monuments were brought over to Spain in the 1960s in a desperate attempt to save them from a bursting reservoir in Egypt.

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These arches and hieroglyphics were preserved near the Nile River since the 2nd century BC when construction began by  Adikhalamani, the Kushite king of Meroë. Hands changed to the Romans where the decorations were completed by Augustus and Tiberius. Many elements of the ruin have obviously been lost to time, but it is quite a marvel that something that started construction in the 2nd century BC still stands proudly in the center of Madrid, Spain.

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We wandered up and down the narrow stair cases and touched ancient rocks flashing back to our memories of Greece and seeing the former palace of Knossos. It was a lovely tribute to a rich history and famous city we will never have a chance to see in our lifetime.

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The next landmark we walked toward by way of the Prado Museum and Botanical Gardens was the Pantheon of Illustrious Men. This royal site on the far south east end of the city is a large tomb or mausoleum dedicated to eight famous Spanish men. The names were not ones we recognized, but their tombs were miraculous. Aside from one dramatist, Leandro Fernandez de Moratin, the men were all prime ministers and politicians. We did not stay long here because there wasn’t much to see besides these marble statues. It’s a rather small and sparse place for a famous landmark.

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I do remember a very kind older gentleman held open the door for me, and I said, “Thank you,” rather than “Gracias.” He stood tall and looked at me, and in his best formal voice, he said haltingly, “You’re welcome.” I smiled and appreciated his answering me in English since I saw in his face that he took great pride in it.

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On our last day in the city, we finally made it to the Royal Palace near the Oriente Plaza and Cathedral de la Almudena (which is also a must see if you have a love for old churches).

The palace had a small line already formed by the time we got there in the morning. We should have booked our tickets online, but we didn’t think about it soon enough, so word to the wise, and always pre-buy.

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We had an accordion player keep us company while standing on the other side of the metal gates, but once we were in, we marveled at the massive plaza in front of the doors. I likened the Oriente Plaza to Versailles, and I have to say, the rest of the palace was a lovely homage as well.

They recommend stepping foot into the armory first off to the far left. We were completely engulfed in one massive room with dozens of full sets of military armor standing proudly at attention or mounted on wooden horses. We have seen similar exhibits in the Tower of London and in the Barone Ricasoli castle in Tuscany, but this place finally had to the space to fully see and marvel at the volume. It wasn’t hidden in hallways or in tiny rooms. It was definitely something to take in.

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After walking through military history, you follow the path through the courtyard to the main palace. Photos are only allowed in the foyer, but it certainly was a lovely area before walking into the plethora of royal rooms. And unsurprisingly so, the palace was very similar to any other palace with the jewel tone fabric walls, thick carpet, and gorgeous antiques.

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The Royal Palace is the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family, but similar to Buckingham Palace, it’s only used for state ceremonies. The Royal Family currently resides in the outskirts of Madrid in the more modest Palacio de la Zarzuela.

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The castle itself was built in the 16th century even though the land was acquired as early as the 9th. The first one burned, as most early castles do, and King Phillip V ordered a new one in the same place in 1734. However, it was so massive and took so long until it was finished that King Phillip V never resided in it. It went to King Charles III in 1764.

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There are 3,418 rooms in the palace, and of course, we were only shown a small fraction of them. One of the most notable rooms contains an entire Stradivarius string quintet under glass. It was actually quite extraordinary to see that as a former violin player.

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Tucked in another wing of the palace is a lovely contemporary art exhibit. Jeff wasn’t too thrilled to be subjected to more modern art, but he soldiered through as I gawked and admired the revered chaos these artists deliver. So, if you’re into modern art, this is exhibit is not to be missed.

The next stop on our trip over the Christmas holiday was Seville, so stay tuned next week for our adventure further south.

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