After a nice, leisurely buffet breakfast at our hotel (Hotel los Condes on Calle de los Libreros), we prepared to walk to the Prado Museum, one of the great art galleries of the world and our main destination in Madrid. It was a roughly half hour stroll through the city centre from our hotel. After that, we would go to the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, a 15 minutes’ walk from the Prado to see Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica.
When we left the hotel, the sky was overcast and there was a chilly wind bearing down from the Guadarrama Mountains to the north, a timely reminder that Madrid is situated about 646 metres (2,120 ft.) above sea level.
Madrid on a Sunday morning is usually quiet compared to week days, but this morning the centre was eerily so: it had been closed to vehicles for the running of the Madrid marathon. Exiting on the Gran Vía was a surreal experience.
The evening before, the sidewalks were packed with people and the road jammed with noisy traffic; this morning the street was silent, with only a few pedestrians like us wandering down the middle of the road. Some pedestrians were taking photos to record this rare phenomenon! The emptiness made me think of a zombie movie; I was half expecting to be accosted by some blood-thirsty creature stumbling out of one of the side streets!
The marathon was in full swing when we crossed the Gran Vía at the Plaza de Callao and the route was lined with spectators.
It struck us that this marathon was a much more light-hearted affair than its famous cousins in Boston, New York or London. There were, of course serious runners, but others were dressed in a variety of costumes, some even pushing children in racing buggies. We later learnt that there were in fact two races, a 10k and the normal 26 mile run.
We waited for a gap between runners to dart across the route and then continued our way to the Prado. It was clear sailing down the Gran Vía to the Calle de Alcalá and then the Plaza de Cibeles, a major traffic roundabout and one of Madrid’s best known landmarks.
In the middle, there is a low circular fountain presided over by a statue of the Roman nature goddess, Cybele, seated on a chariot drawn by lions. The late 18th-century fountain, and indeed the whole roundabout, is invaded by fans of Real Madrid soccer/football team whenever their team wins a league title or the more prestigious European title (Real Madrid has won European title more than any other team).
The Plaza de Cibeles and the surrounding area were built by Charles/ Carlos III (ruled 1759-88) as part of an ambitious plan to renovate Madrid and recover its status among European capitals. This was important to Charles since Spain had lost a lot of prestige in Europe during the 18th century (for reasons, see Spain 18th century), but it was still the world’s largest empire, and Madrid was its “face.”
Today, Cibeles was empty … no traffic, no crowds, and we were able to wander about taking photos at will. The plaza is surrounded by impressively imposing buildings, including the 18th-century Palacio de Buenavista with beautiful gardens (now housing the Ministry of Defence), the late 19th-century Palacio de Linares (now the Casa de America with paintings by Latin American artists), the Banco de España, and everyone’s favourite, the early 20th-century post office.
Officially called the Palacio de Comunicaciones, it is popularly known as “Our Lady of Communications” because of its somewhat cathedral-like appearance. However, its decorative façade with extensive use of glass, and its various layers, topped by turrets with numerous delicate mini-spires have also earned it the name of the “wedding cake” building, an image which is even more apt now that years of pollution have been cleaned up.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Our Lady of Communications. I first visited it when, as a student in Madrid many years ago, I used to go there to pick up mail at the Poste Restante where mail from other countries could be picked up. It was my contact with home. I’d line up, with my passport, keeping fingers crossed. A letter? Great! Two? Wow. None? Sigh. Tomorrow, perhaps.
John: The post office: This is a beautiful building in easy walking distance of our hotel. It looks much more like a palace than a post office and the fact that there were no cars on the roads, owing to the Madrid marathon, made it look even more impressive.
From the Plaza de Cibeles, we strolled down the wide and shaded Paseo del Prado to the Prado Museum.
The 18th-century Neo-Classic building that houses the art collection was originally intended as the National Science Museum but by the time its construction was completed in 1808, Spain was embroiled in its War of Independence (aka Peninsular War) against Napoleon’s French forces. After the war, the building fell into decay until Ferdinand VII (ruled 1814-33) decided to make it the home of the vast art collection gathered by earlier Hapsburg and Bourbon monarchs.
We arrived quite early at the Prado, and the queue was short. Prices for museums are very reasonable in Spain; for the Prado it cost 42 euros for six of us.
Image of the Paseo del Prado from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Paseo_del_Prado_%28Madrid%29_02.jpg