Even though Barcelona and Madrid are usually the first stops in Spain for travelers, we did it backwards. Travel during our first few months in Spain has focused on smaller cities with mostly historical significance and many historic sites, such as Sevilla, Toledo, and Granada. So, when we headed to Madrid last week over the Feast of the Immaculate Conception holiday, I was overwhelmed by the energy and crowds. First, we learned that the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is a big deal in Spain. It is the day the Roman Catholics (meaning almost all Spaniards) celebrate the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary. In non-religious terms, it is also the day that kicks off the Christmas season, so people are ready to get out and look at lights, go out to dinner and clubs, and start their shopping. I became aware of how popular this holiday is when I tried to extend our Madrid stay and every single hotel in Madrid was booked. That's a lot of hotel rooms.
Even though I have traveled to many cities in my life, I have never seen so many people in one place. Angelique, a woman in my Spanish class from Hong Kong, said that every day is like this in Hong Kong. I don't know if I would be able to exist with this much claustrophobia. The energy hubs for Madrid are the central squares, Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol. The squares are full of street performers, people dressed as American cartoon characters, Christmas stalls selling food and crafts, people selling lottery tickets, and protesters. There was a large protest going on the first day and when we asked about it at our hotel, they just shrugged and said that there was some protest going on every day and, "that's just the way it is in Madrid." On the squares, one has to be careful to avoid the rosemary and picture scams. Women try to hand you rosemary sprigs. When you take them, they grab your hand to read your fortune and demand money. We also found ourselves running from some of the cartoon characters. They grab kids and try to get you to take a picture and also expect a payment.
Madrid has beautiful architecture, but not as many places to go into as some of the other cities. The main attractions are the Royal Palace and the Prada Museum. We decided to take a walking tour in order to learn some of Madrid's history and have historic buildings pointed out. The old town is a vibrant and bustling place, so historic buildings are not necessarily preserved in their original capacity just for tourists, but used for something new as well, which is why a tour was hepful. The tour guides offered one tour in English and three in Spanish. In other towns we have visited there were also tours in German, French, Italian, and more. The guides told us that for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception holiday, they didn't do many tours in any language but Spanish. since Madrid filled mostly with Spanish tourists. It's such a destination over this holiday for people from Spain to see Christmas lights.
The tour allowed us to see some of Hemingway's old haunts, learn how to spot businesses that have been open since the 1800s, as well as grab a calamari bocadilla from a small shop that is a local favorite for Madridians. This was obvious because of the line that wrapped around the Plaza Mayor at 2:00. We also learned some interesting tidbits, such as the sign of a good bar being that people throw lots of napkins on the floor. Tourists think these bars are dirty, but locals look for floor detritus.
This brings me to my own observation about Madrid during busy times. Especially if you have kids, you almost have to decide if you want to go to Madrid to see museums and buildings or to shop and eat in good places. It's hard to do both, the reason being that each shop and restaurant has lines of people outside their doors. Waiting to get in a shop or good restaurant has to be the goal of the day. You can't really see the sites and then expect to grab a table somewhere when you get hungry. You have to be diligent to arrive at the right time, be willing to wait, and then stake your claim for at least three hours.
The Grand Via, Calle Mayor. and Calle del Arenal are the main walking drags, the latter two being blocked to traffic. Walking them literally requires a snail's pace, as you are shoulder to shoulder with your neighbor. Everyone moves as one organism and younger children are literally buried by the crowds. I ended our walk at night earlier than my husband and son because our 8 year old was uncomfortable not being able to see beyond the people. Other than the experience of doing it, you may ask why anyone would even try to join in with the throngs. Other than the chance to say you've done it, I would say it's because of the lights. The spectacle of towering metallic lighted trees in the squares, giant moving polar bear panoramas, different light themes hanging from every block, and lighted images shining on all of the buildings really is magical, especially when you are gazing at palaces and ancient architecture in the background. So much so that it's hard not to just stand with your mouth open looking up. Now that I think about it, you don't even need to walk, but just stand still for a while in awe of the sheer energy and lights that make Madrid such a destination for tourists and Spaniards alike.
Sally and her family have moved to Spain for a year starting July 2017. They are living in a little town called Puzol, which is about 12km north of Valencia. Her kids, Carson and Celia, are attending the American School of Valencia, an International School located in Puzol. The goal for the whole family is to experience another way of life, and learn Spanish. This blog tracks their travels and experiences.