¡Hola, Madrid!

Sunday, 29-03-2015. Day 221. 

Daylight Savings Time in the Schengen Zone. 

We landed in Madrid a little after Midnight and cleared immigration pretty easily. Spain is the 19th country we've entered since we started on August 20, 2014, and it's still a little thrilling entering a new country.

The airport in Madrid is huge, but aside from the people who'd arrived on our flight with us, the place was all but deserted. We got our luggage and jumped into a waiting taxi without any trouble and sped our way into the city. As deserted as the airport was, the city was hopping. By the time we arrived in the city center, it was almost 2:00 a.m., and people were walking around like it was early evening.

Our hostel was a little tricky to find and our taxi driver got a little bent our of shape that 1) we didn't know exactly where it was, and 2) my Spanish sucked. But I was trying, and thanks to hitting Duolingo and Memrise hard for the past few weeks, I was better than I'd been in Costa Rica and Panama.

After a little searching, we found the place (Hostal Zamora), which was on the fourth floor of a four-story building filled with other hostels. The elevator was small and only two of us would fit in it at one time, so after a few trips with the bags and a short check-in procedure, we were in our room. Thanks to the archaic practice of Daylight Savings Time, it was now well after 3:00 a.m.

Later that day, like the rest of Spain, we woke up late and meandered down to the square below us to have a leisurely late breakfast.

The front of Hostal Zamora in the daytime.

The front of Hostal Zamora in the daytime.

Touring Madrid

We only had a few days in Madrid, so we decided to get a crash course about the city with one of Sandeman's New Madrid free walking tours. These tours can be found in something like 14 European cities. The tour itself is free, but the guides work off of tips, so you pay for what you think the tour is worth. Most of their Barcelona tours started in Plaza Mayor, a short walk from our hostel.

Plaza Mayor.

Plaza Mayor.

Once we arrived, we had a little time before our tour started, so we looked around Plaza Mayor. There was some sort of numismatist and philatelist gathering going on, and the sides of the plaza were lined with tables of old coins and stamps. We also saw a lot of costumed characters, caricature artists, and street performers in the square (it was a bit like Hollywood & Highland in this regard). The craziest of these were the people who dressed up like bronze or gold statues and would then stand in crazy poses for hours on end. Some of these were so good that later on when we saw real bronze statues we did a double take to see if they were posed humans or cast bronze.

A bronze snowboarder in Madrid.

A bronze snowboarder in Madrid.

Once the tour started, our tour guide, Naomi, headed us out of Plaza Mayor and over toward Sabrino de Botín, the oldest restaurant in the world, dating back to 1725. Francisco Goya (yeah, the gent with some pictures in the nearby Prado Museum) once washed dishes here, so they say.

Oldest restaurant in the world.

Oldest restaurant in the world.

 We moved on from there and Naomi pointed out a few other notable places, including a narrow street that led to a (sort of) secret door where silent nuns baked and sold cookies (we'll return to this later on). We also learned about the official symbol of the city of Madrid—a bear eating from a strawberry tree (El Oso y El Madrono). It has something to do with the people owning the trees and the city owning the land. Or maybe it's the other way around. Either way, Naomi told us now that we knew about it, we'd see it everywhere—and she was right.

A bear eating from a strawberry tree.

A bear eating from a strawberry tree.

We also ventured into the history of Madrid, and you can't really learn about Spain's history without hearing about the Spanish Inquisition. 1492 was a big year for Spain. It was, of course, the year Christopher Columbus landed in America and claimed the new land (and its riches) for Spain. But it's also the year that the crown defeated the last Moorish stronghold in Granada. And it was the year the Spanish Inquisition began.

The green cross was a symbol of the Spanish Inquisition.

The green cross was a symbol of the Spanish Inquisition.

Earlier in the tour, Naomi told us about a key phrase from Madrid's past: "Built on water, walls made of fire." We learned what this meant when we went by the Almuden Cathedral, part of which rests on top of Madrid's old city walls which were built of flint by the Moors. When the Christian soldiers shot arrows at the walls, they sparked, leading the attacking soldiers to believe the walls were ensorcelled by strange Moorish magics. But no, it was just science. The nearby Manzanares river also played into the famous phrase (the "built on water" part).

Almuden Cathedral rising above old city walls.

Almuden Cathedral rising above old city walls.

After a short break (where we signed up for an evening tapas tour on the next night), we stopped at Plaza de la Villa (there are a lot of plazas in Madrid), which sits directly between one of the oldest houses in Madrid, the Casa y Torre de los Lejunes (built in Moorish style) and the Casa de la Villa (built in a more European style with slate roof).

Casa y Torre de los Lejunes—some say it's the oldest building in Madrid.

Casa y Torre de los Lejunes—some say it's the oldest building in Madrid.

Here we learned the rise and fall of the Spanish kings Felipe I (the handsome), Carlos I, Felipe II, Felipe III, Felipe IV (the loser king), and Carlos II. Then we walked on toward the Royal Palace and Naomi brought us up to speed on more Spanish history, including Queen Isabella II (the first Queen of Spain) and the Spanish Civil War (which would get greater play when we visited Barcelona in a few weeks).

Statue of Felipe IV, the loser king. Bad king, nice statue.

Statue of Felipe IV, the loser king. Bad king, nice statue.

At the Royal Palace (which really resembles the palace at Versailles—maybe we'll get the chance to compare the two), we learned about the famous statue of Felipe IV, which was created with the combined artistic genius of artist Diego Velasquez and sculptor Pietro Tacca along with the science genius of Galileo Galilei. Felipe III (Felipe IV's father) is also immortalized by a statue (you can see it on the image at the top of this post), and he also holds a rod in his right hand. Rods must be a thing with these kings.

When the tour was all over, we walked around Madrid for bit, stopping for a snack at the cool travel cafe La Cuidad Invisible and, of course, hunting down famous Chocalatería San Ginés and try one of Spain's culinary delights—chocolate and churros. These are served fresh from the fryer, piled high on a plate along with cups of thick, dark chocolate for dipping. It was a great pre-dinner snack.

Chocolate and churros!

Chocolate and churros!

We went back to the hostel for a little siesta (as they do in Spain) then headed back out in the evening for a proper dinner. It was about 8:00 p.m. by the time we got to our restaurant, but we were the only people in the place eating. The waitress hadn't even gone on shift yet (but the bartender filled in pretty well). By the time we were done about an hour later, only one couple had arrived for dinner. As we'd experienced when we'd arrived the night before, Madrid is a late night sort of town.

It had been a long day of walking through Madrid on only a few hours of sleep, so we were happy to return to the hostel and go to bed.

is a writer of things with a strong adventurous streak. He also drinks coffee.

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¡Hola, Madrid!
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