This year we embarked on a big family vacation to Spain. Unfortunately, we were missing one special part of the family, BILB (brother in law britches). He was unable to join us this year and we all missed his presence.
I had been planning this trip for over a year and half and I could barely sleep the night before I was to leave. Mom and Marion had left one day earlier and were already on their way. All I had to do was get myself to LAX at the crack of dawn and catch the flight that would take me to Atlanta and Sissy.
Delta had just made a big move to terminal 2 at LAX and I was excited to check out their new SkyClub Lounge.
The new lounge is bigger than their old one but there is still a lot of updating that needs to be done, which they are in the process of doing. I did like being able to watch the planes take off and land.
It was finally time for the first leg of my trip, LAX to ATL. It was a pretty uncomfortable flight to Atlanta, my seat didn’t recline and my legs were pretty smushed up on the seat in front of me (whose seat reclined just fine.)
Once we landed I had to take the tram to the other side of the airport to finally meet up with Sissy.
After several movies and watching Sissy sleep, Spain finally came into view!
You never know what to expect when landing in another country, will the airport be easy to deal with or a pain. Madrid turned out to be very simple, except for the 5 mile walk we seemed to have had to get to passport check.
I had booked a car service to pick us up and the gentleman that was our driver was super sweet and was really eager to give us tips and places to go and eat. The drive from the airport to our hotel in the city center was only about 20 minutes. I will later reflect on the fact that he was the least scariest driver we had the whole trip.
We stayed at the NH Collection Paseo del Pardo and it was an adorable hotel. The staff was absolutely amazing. Our room was a bit on the smaller side, but was still very nice.
An interesting side note about our hotel is that it is one of the few hotels in the world that can boast of floor and corridors coated with hand-knotted rugs by the Royal Tapestry Factory.
Even though it felt like it was time to go to bed for me, it was only 10:30 in the morning and Mom and Marion were on the way back to the hotel to meet up with us to start our excursions for the day.
We grabbed some coffee and we were on our way to Puerta del Sol. Puerta del Sol is Madrid’s public square and reminds me a lot of Hollywood Blvd. There were people dressed up as well known characters hoping to get you take a photo with them and give them a few euros for it.
Puerta del Sol is also the center of the radial network to all Spanish Roads and they do have a plaque in the pavement that shows you “kilometer zero.” Unfortunately, I totally forgot to look for it when we were there. I was a bit overwhelmed by to many Bart Simpsons trying to get me to take a picture with them.
This is also where they broadcast live their New Year’s Eve celebration. They have been celebrating New Year’s live in this square since 1962.
One of the squares famous statues is The Bear and the Strawberry Tree. The statue was inaugurated in 1967 and it represents the main heraldic symbols of the city.
As we were leaving Puerta del Sol I caught a very cute moment on camera.
We continued on our quest of walking around Madrid and passed the very popular Chocolateria San Gines and I am just realizing I never actually got back to going in and trying some of their famous hot chocolate and churros.
We made a quick pit stop for a photo moment in front of the San Gines Church that was right around the corner from the famous chocolateria.
A little more walking and we found ourselves in front of another famous chocolateria, Valor and decided we couldn’t pass up not stopping.
Valor has been in the chocolate making business since 1881 and because of their superstar status you will pay a little more than you would somewhere else.
You can either pick out some chocolate goodies to go or grab a menu and sit down for a bit and enjoy one of their delicious concoctions.
Sissy and I got their hot chocolate and churros. The hot chocolate is actually a very, very, thick chocolate that makes it easy to dip your churros in.
Mom and Marion got a chocolate granita. It’s kinda like a chocolate slushi.
Filled with chocolate and sugar we continued walking and came across Spain’s big department store, El Corte Inglés. This huge department store first opened in the 1940’s and sells virtually everything under the sun. You can buy a lap top, underwear, mattress, and even your plane ticket. It is the biggest department store group in Europe and ranks fourth worldwide.
In this particular location the top floor has been converted into the Gourmet Experience, a gourmet food hall with stunning views of Madrid’s Gran Via, Almudena Cathedral, the Royal Palace, and the city’s scattered rooftops from either inside or out on their small terrace.
Here are some pictures of the amazing views we had out on their terrace (plus a must have girl selfie.)
Just down the street from the department store was our next stop, Real Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales.
Real Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales literally translates to “Monastery of the Royal Barefooted” and is located in the former palace of King Charles I of Spain and Isabel of Portugal. Their daughter, Joanna of Austria, founded this convent of nuns of the Poor Clare order in 1559. Throughout the remainder of the 16th century and into the 17th century, the convent attracted young widowed or spinster noblewomen. Each woman brought with her a dowry. The riches quickly piled up, and the convent became one of the richest convents in all of Europe.
Unfortunately, by the 20th century, all the sisters were in poverty and were forbidden to sell any of it’s riches from the past or spend any of the money it received from the dowries. Luckily the state intervened after seeing how poor the sisters were and they were allowed to open the convent up as a museum in 1960.
The convent has an impressive collection of art and relics and among its attractions are an array of marble sculptures and works by Tiziano, Sánchez Coello, and Luini. Also a very valuable part of the collection is Caesar’s Money.
Among the reliquaries found inside is one which is said to contain pieces of the True Cross and another one with some of the bones of St. Sebastian.
A handful of barefoot nuns still live here and are still growing vegetables in the garden.
My review of the Monastery is probably not the best because of a few things, I was beyond exhausted at this point, it was extremely warm inside, and oh yeah, the whole hour long tour was in Spanish.
There were a few times, that if I stopped moving around, I actually almost blacked out, so I had to keep my feet moving. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside and I’m very foggy on what we actually saw inside. Here’s a picture I borrowed from the web to kinda show you what the inside looked like.
Once we were back outside I felt much better and we walked back up to El Corte Ingles to meet back up with Sissy who had opted to do a little shopping while we were on our tour.
All back together we made our way to the Royal Palace where we had timed tickets, but first we made a quick run through Almudena Cathedral. Both the Palace and the Cathedral are right across from each other.
Almudena Cathedral was built between the 19th and 20th centuries and is very new by European standards.
When the capital of Spain was transferred from Toledo to Madrid in 1561, King Felipe II wanted a cathedral for his new capital. Plans were discussed as early as the 16th century to build a cathedral in Madrid dedicated to the Virgin of Alumudena, but construction did not begin until 1879.
The site on which Almudena Cathedral now stands was originally occupied by Madrid’s first mosque, then by a church dedicated to one of Madrid’s patron saints, Santa Maria de la Almudena. Almudena was finally consecrated in 1993 by Pope John Paul II and remains the only Spanish cathedral to have been consecrated by a Pope.
Sissy opted to sit down and relax while we went into the Cathedral. Somehow, we ended up walking into the museum entrance instead of the regular entrance and we made a quick walk through their museum that explains the history of the Cathedral as well as the history of the archdiocese in Madrid. The museum portion of the Cathedral was closing soon, so we didn’t look to closely but the surprising part of entering through the museum is that we ended up outside of the dome and had spectacular views of Madrid from there.
We made our way back inside and went down several flights of stairs, Marion and I were all for the elevator but it was only one level we had to go down and Mom said “let’s take the stairs”, but that one level consisted of about six flights of stairs.
The inside was beautiful, this is where you could really see traditional meets modern design. The colors and geometric designs on the windows gave the more contemporary feel, where as the Gothic pillars gave the traditional feel.
The Cathedral has a wooden statue of the Virgin of Almudena that was reportedly discovered after the Christian Reconquest of Madrid. The statue dates back to at least 712AD.
After we exited, we found Sissy and headed across the way to the Royal Palace. We had gotten time tickets so we could avoid the huge lines. It worked out great, we just walked by the lines of people and walked right into the entrance.
The Royal Palace is the largest and one of the most impressive palaces in Europe. It has more than two thousand luxuriously decorated rooms, fifty of which can be visited.
The origin of the Palace dates back to the ninth century when the Muslim kingdom of Toledo built a defense that was later used by the kings of Castile, who, during the 16th century, built the former Alcázar castle.
The current Royal Palace, was built on the site of the old Alcázar which was destroyed by fire on Christmas Eve 1734. King Felipe V decided to build a palace for his Borbon dynasty. The Italian Filippo Juvara was selected to design the new palace and his plans were to create a grand palace along the lines of France’s Versailles. All construction was vaulted in stone and brick, not wood, so that any fire could not destroy it.
Pictures weren’t allowed once we got past the entrance area, but what we saw was gorgeous. They have it set up very well, it was easy to walk through and read the information they had posted in each room. Unlike Versailles that is a fire hazard in my opinion. Just thinking about our tour there a few years ago gives me hives and horrible memories of wall to wall people trying to squeeze through each room.
There were some really cool things on display that we saw, like the world’s only complete Stradivarious string quintet.
They do offer guided tours, but we found it easier to go at our own pace.
We wondered outside into their courtyard where on one side there is a stunning view away from the city. All you can see, for what seems like miles, is the green of trees. It actually reminded me of being at the top of the temple in Coba, Mexico and all you saw was the top of trees that never seemed to end.
While we were out there Mom wanted a nice picture of her and Marion.
This was a start to a very funny Sissy bomb the Mom and Marion trend.
You would think this would have been the end of our day, but oh no we still have more to go.
With the help of Marion and his phone (he did an excellent job of navigating us around, which I later learned that this was not an easy task when I tried to use google maps to give me directions) he got us to our next stop, which was the Church of San Nicolás de los Servitas.
The Church of San Nicolás de los Servitas is the oldest church in the city and was first mentioned in a publication in 1202, the “Fuero de Madrid,” which determined local laws and regulations. The oldest part of the structure is the bell tower, which, although it has undergone a degree of renovation, still retains its distinctive Moorish Mudéjar style. The bell tower was built in the 12th century.
The inside of the church is said to have impressive coffered ceilings that some claim to be the best in Madrid, but unfortunately, they were not open once we arrived. This ended up happening quite a bit to us.
Not far from here are the remains of the original arab city walls of Madrid.
The wall dates from the 9th century and was built to protect the Moorish settlement of Magerit or Mayrit that moved to the left bank of the Manzanares River. They stand today as reminders of the first city limits.
We only had a limited view from where we stood. The best view is inside the park, Park of Emir Mohamed I, but the access to the park was closed when we were there.
If you walk just a little down the street from the wall, there is a nice view of Madrid’s aqueduct and the Cathedral.
We continued on our way till we made it to the Royal Basillica of St. Francis the Great.
The Basilica was built in 1760 by King Carlos III. It stands on the site of a Franciscan convent, which is claimed to have been founded by St. Francis himself in 1217. It is one of the five Royal Basilicas in Madrid.
The Basilica is topped by a massive dome measuring 108 feet in diameter which, surprisingly, is bigger than that of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London and is in fact the 3rd largest in Europe after those of Saint Peter’s and Hagia Sophia, and is of course the largest in Spain.
The seven main doors were carved of American walnut by Casa Juan Guas and the 16th century Gothic choir stalls are from La Cartuja del Paular, in Segovia. There is also a beautiful painting of the saint by Goya.
We saw none of this, the church was closed once we got there.
We were pretty far out at this point. I didn’t realize how far from our hotel we had gotten and we weren’t quite done yet.
We did start making our way towards the hotel, but we still had a few more places to look at.
First was the oldest restaurant in the world, Sobrino de Botin.
This restaurant was founded in 1725 and has been certified by the Guinness Book of Records as being the oldest restaurant in the world. The Botin has been mentioned in various novels over the decades including Hemmingway’s – Death in the Afternoon and The Sun Also Rises, where he refers to it as “the best restaurant in the world”.
They don’t start serving dinner till 8:00pm and I knew that I would never make it till then, so we kept moving on.
Next we found ourselves at the Mercado de San Miguel, which is one of the oldest and most beautiful markets in Madrid.
This was our first taste of a Spanish market and I loved it. I expected something like the LA Market and thought it would smell and be dirty, but not here. You can pretty much order anything here. There are yummy tapas for 1.50 euro each, fresh juices, cocktails, desserts, all freshly made. Tanya and Marion grabbed a few things to try, but I was so overwhelmed on what to choose I never ended up getting anything 🙁
You can understand why locals like to come here and hang out.
At this point it would be an understatement to say we were all pretty worn out (except for Mom, she doesn’t have a worn out button).
It was time to sit down and get something to eat, so we found the closest place to us, which also happened to be the last stop on our list, Plaza Mayor.
Plaza Mayor is a grand arcaded square in the center of Madrid and is a very popular tourist area. The square was originally planned by Felipe II but was inaugurated in 1620 during Felipe III’s reign. There is a statue of Felipe III sitting on a horse in the center of the square.
They use to have public executions, crowing ceremonies, bullfights, Inquisition trials and fiestas here.
I would normally not recommend eating at such a high tourist area because the food will be overpriced and is generally just okay food but we couldn’t go another step. We had to sit down and eat something.
The food was decent, nothing over the top to write home about but it was nice sitting at one of the many tables surrounding the square and people watching.
Once we were finished and tried to stand up again, we started our long walk back to the hotel were we proceeded to pass out. I don’t even think Tanya made it past 10 minutes of walking into our hotel room before she was out. We were definitely tuckered out.
Stay tuned for day two of our big trip to Spain …….