Not Hemingway's Spain: Exploring Madrid's city centre, part 1

Not Hemingway's Spain: Exploring Madrid's city centre, part 1

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Ever seen Madrid's Egyptian temple? Zach Frohlich delves into Madrid's best sites, as well as the less-touristic activities the city has to offer.

Madrid was really one of Hemingway's favorite cities. He called it "the most Spanish of all cities." And, indeed, for disciples of Hemingway there is no better place to catch a bullfight, follow heated Spanish politics, sip sherry, or sample "cochinillo" (roast pork). That's Hemingway's Madrid. If you wish to relive it, this website provides an excellent guide for doing so. But here I'm going to focus on the Madrid that Hemingway didn't know or write about, and which I believe is closer to what Spaniards envision today when they talk about the nation's capital.

Getting oriented: It is helpful to follow most guide books in dividing the central tourist area of Madrid into two zones: "El Madrid de los Austrias" and "El Madrid de los Borbones". "El Madrid de los Austrias" is the old center of the city (comprising the east side of most tourist maps) and is home to the Plaza Mayor, the Royal Palace, and other landmarks associated with the Hapsburg ruling family in Spain during the 16th and 17th centuries. "El Madrid de los Borbones" is the "newer" Madrid, i.e. dating to the more recent House of Bourbon rule in the 18th and 19th centuries. It comprises the right half of your tourist map where most of the must-see museums can be found along the Paseo del Prado.

Not Hemingway's Spain: Not Hemingway's Madrid, part 1

 

Not Hemingway's Spain: Not Hemingway's Madrid, part 1
The Templo de Debod at dusk, located in the Parque del Oeste on a hill not far from the Royal Palace.

I'm going to skip past all the usual travel guide stops… the museum trinity of El Prado, Thyssen, and Reina Sofia (the last home to Picasso's Guernica)… the Royal Palace, Retiro Park, or the Plaza Mayor. These are all certainly worth a visit. But instead I want to offer some of my off-the-beaten-path discoveries.

Nearby the standard museum route, in "El Madrid de los Borbones," is the CaixaForum Madrid Museum. It has an impressive grass garden wall outside, the museum visit is free, and its gift shop is one of the better of those I've perused. On the other side of town, in "El Madrid de los Austrias," I recommend a stroll around the Plaza de Oriente and Plaza de Ópera, especially around early evening to people watch, or walk over to Plaza de España with its impressive monument to Cervantes and which is regularly the site of special expositions and markets. Not too far away you can find the "Templo de Debod," an Egyptian temple gifted to Spain and sitting right in the heart of the city, but in a quiet park with a splendid hillside view of the park areas and fields to the east of the city.

Not Hemingway's Spain: Not Hemingway's Madrid, part 1
Bronze statues of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza below the stone sculpture of Cervantes. Behind is the Edificio España, built in 1953 and at the time the tallest building in Madrid.

Not Hemingway's Spain: Not Hemingway's Madrid, part 1
Apparently, getting a picture with "Fat Spiderman" is fast becoming a tradition at the Plaza Mayor. An example of how touristy (and zany) the square has become.

If you are looking for some more people watching, of real locals, skip the Plaza Mayor, whose name has misled many foreigners into thinking this is the city's most important square, and which has become a kind of guiri festival of the strange. (Okay, don't skip it, since it is impressive to see and has historical significance, but don't mistake its only moderate cultural importance to locals today.)

Not Hemingway's Spain: Not Hemingway's Madrid, part 1
The "kilómetro cero" marker you can find on the ground at Puerta del Sol.

Puerta del Sol, marked as the "kilómetro cero" of Spain's roads, is the symbolic center of Spain. It is most commonly known by Spaniards for being the country's equivalent of Time Square for New Years, where the ball drops at midnight, and also for being _the_ place to converge a political protest. (Indeed, this year Puerta del Sol was highjacked by protestors, "los indignados," for almost an entire month, generating much news commentary and social and political soul-searching. (It's a subject that I'll write about later, but on which you can read here.)

Not Hemingway's Spain: Not Hemingway's Madrid, part 1
The statute of the oso (bear) and the madroño (strawberry tree) at Puerta del Sol.


At Puerta del Sol you will find the "el Oso y el Madroño" statue, the image of the city's "escudo" or official seal, and one of several iconic images for the Madrid Community. Two other important plazas are the Plaza de Cibeles and the Puerta de Alcalá. Cibeles is where Madrid soccer fans converge after a Real Madrid or Spanish national team victory, though it is also common for images of the Banco de España to be used in reports on economic news much the way Wall Street is used in the U.S. to report on the stocks or financial events. The Puerta de Alcalá often appears in news reports on cultural events in the capital, and especially during Christmas because of its impressive light display.

Not Hemingway's Spain: Not Hemingway's Madrid, part 1
The fountain of Cybele, Roman goddess of nature, which gives Plaza de Cibeles its name. In the background is Madrid's Ayuntamiento or town hall.
Not Hemingway's Spain: Not Hemingway's Madrid, part 1
The Puerta de Alcalá lit up with Christmas lights.


These are the common images of Madrid that circulate in Spain today. In the next entry I go into more discussion about the city's changing cultural significance.


Reprinted with permission of Not Hemingway's Spain.

Zach FrohlichOriginally from Austin, Texas, Zach Frohlich has been traveling between Spain and the U.S. for over a decade, and has been living in Valencia for the last few years. He is a historian by training and is married to a Spaniard. He shares cultural insights on Spain at Not Hemingway's Spain

 

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