The True Movable Feast – Madrid

It was not long ago when Spain was ruled by the iron fist of Francisco Franco. Some 39 years after his death, there are still traces left behind from his uncompromising time at the helm. Despite the removal of all Franco monuments in Spain, the painful memory of his suppressive regime remains in the minds of Spaniards. When put into context with the current economic issues that the country faces, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Yet, when I landed in Madrid, I saw some of the warmest and happiest people on the planet.

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When in Spain, you HAVE to be on a Spanish schedule. It goes something like this: wake up late (or sacrifice sleep), eat, venture out until noon, eat, resume what you were doing until mid afternoon, eat, relax until dusk, eat (am I getting my point across?), socialize until 10 p.m., eat, THEN start your night- which ends around 5 or 6 a.m. Unproductive? Maybe. Indulgent? Oh yeah. Nuts? Yes. A good time? Absolutely.

On my first day, I gave it a real go. I woke up and subsequently downed a bocadillo (sandwich on a baguette) before I ventured to Parque del Oeste in the Arguelles neighborhood. The first thing I noticed was this foreign fireball beaming down from the sky – the sun. It pained my eyes and I was forced to putz around town with a sharp squint, testament to the lack of sun that I had seen in the past 4 months in both Copenhagen and Seattle (my skin is a pasty white at this point). But it felt so damn good. In the center of the park, I spotted what I came for: Temple de Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple built in the second century that was donated to Spain in 1968. It was a bizarre addition to the park, but it somehow fit with the clay, red and tan color schemes of the city. Just at that moment, I realized I was looking at the oldest monument that I had ever seen.

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I wanted to bask in the sun all day to regain the necessary amount of vitamin D that my body so badly needed (and still needs), but I had to move on to Plaza de España to stick to the plan. When you arrive to Plaza de España and see the magisterial Don Quixote monument with the Palacio Real backdrop, you think to yourself, “OK, here is the central Plaza in Madrid”. Wrong. This is just one of the 5, 6, maybe even 10 grand plazas throughout Madrid, which boasts the likes of the iconic Plaza de Cibeles, renown Plaza Mayor and Plaza Sol. Yet, the Don Quixote monument, the pride of Madrid, makes this one of my favorite plazas. Situated in the center of the park, the monolith is lined with pools, trees and fountains as novelist Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (author of Don Quixote) sits on his perch overlooking a statue of Don Quixote and the Royal Palace. After absorbing the grandeur of the monument, it’s best to prepare yourself for the grandest building of them all – the Royal Palace of course, which is only a block away. Pictures simply don’t do it justice. Since the early 18th century, the palace, with it’s own church, unnecessarily large gardens and own plaza, has housed the Spanish royal family. The golden days for Spain were, without a doubt, golden.

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When in Madrid, one must not miss the opportunity to visit the surrounding area that is saturated in history. Three medieval towns are within 45 minutes of Madrid – Segovia, with it’s iconic Roman aqueduct that towers over the city; Avila, with it’s medieval city walls; and Toledo, the “Imperial City” and capital of Spain until the 14th century – the option I chose to visit. You can’t go wrong; all three cities are UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the thought of which made me drool in disbelief. The drooling didn’t stop once I arrived in Toledo and saw that the city was enclosed with a medieval stone wall that stood on a towering hill that overlooked the countryside. As I approached the wall, I glanced up in disbelief and came to the realization that I would basically scale a mountain that day – the steep streets and staircases put San Francisco & Seattle to shame (Fear not lazy travelers/slackers – there are escalators up the hill). Toledo is perhaps most known for the historical coexistence of Muslims, Jews and Christians, which is apparent in the architecture such as the multiple synagogues, churches and Moorish structures. It is a small town, one where you can see everything within five hours, but the sites are genuine gold. The city dates back to the bronze age and many of the ancient structures still stand today – such as the Roman road and ruins. Yet, the stand out site is the Catedral de Toledo, which was at one point a mosque before a church was built over it in the 15th century. Once inside, you can see the 1200 year-old Moorish architecture that is still preserved. It was stunning, but I couldn’t help but reflect on the Catholics’ thinking of the time: “Hey, what a wonderful mosque! NOW LET’S BUILD A GRAND CHURCH ON TOP OF IT!”. You really have to love the imperial mindset of the Spaniards throughout history – yes, it was in no way ethical but it left us with some incredibly regal places to visit and sites to see.

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Spain. Que bonita.