Onwards to Madrid through a range of mountains called the Sierra de Guardarrama. We reached nearly 1900 metres past the treeline to see ski-lifts looking quite forlorn on the bare snowless ground. Every available piece of ground by the sides of roads, every small clearing that could be parked on was filled with cars. It was Saturday and it seemed that half the population of Madrid was out in walking boots and hitting the hundreds of walking trails dotted throughout this National Park.
And so on to our campsite on the outskirts of Madrid, the information for which had been passed on to us by a fellow traveller in Tordesillas.
Madrid was easily reached by metro on Sunday. In the La Latina district are Sunday markets that are visited by tourist and local alike. Many antique shops, bric-a-brac shops and just plain junk shops are also in this area and open with the markets. The place was packed! But the markets were only just interesting and much the same as markets everywhere with the same universal range of rubbish. Of interest were some typically (touristy) Spanish fans for sale... Panda brand made in China...
There are three BIG art galleries to see in Madrid and we managed to spend time in two of them. Because it was a Sunday, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia was free. It was a hospital in the 1800s and is now married to a startling modern extension whose the roof soars to the top of the old classic building. The star attraction is definitely Picasso's Guernica which surprised me in its muted monochrome tones - I had expected bolder and brighter. But it is huge and takes up a room all to itself. Other works of Picasso were a bit of a disappointment in the flesh, so to speak. So many seemed to be slapdash, looking unfinished in many cases. I wanted to see the Dali collection but it proved elusive and time ran out. Some early pictures of his though showed a masterful control of paint and a true touch with his drawing technique that impressed me hugely. I like them better than his later more surreal stuff.
On to the Prado. Again it was free on Sunday afternoons but we had to wait a while for it to open after the midday break. We found a small cafe and dined on the Menu del Dia of good, tasty food - three courses plus a full bottle of red wine for only €11.50 each. These menus are everywhere and are fantastic value. Dinner back at the van becomes simply a snack after that sized lunch!
We headed for the Prado to find the queue stretched around the corner and down the whole block - which where the Prado is located is very long indeed. However it moved quickly and we were soon in ... along with the half the population of Madrid it seemed and every tourist in town. The gallery itself is superb: marble floors and staircases; the paintings discretely roped off but you can still get close to the paintings; good signage in English as well as Spanish; terrific lighting and so on. The brochure handed out at the entrance was helpful and locating the 'biggies' was easy. I particularly wanted to see the Spanish artists of note - El Greco, Velasquez and Goya - and was rewarded by wonderful examples of their masterpieces. As well, the paintings of Heironymous Bosch and Pieter Breugel, which I have always been fascinated by, were simply marvellous. Much bigger than I had expected (having of course only seen them in books), they are amazing, over-the-top visions of heaven and, more especially, hell, superb in every tiny detail. The longer you gaze at them, the more you see - and the more you ask, what substances had they ingested recently...
On the way back to the metro and home, we encountered lots of streets blocked by police. With not a clue in the world, we wandered into the middle of a big demonstration with crowds of people wielding banners and chanting. It seemed that the Big Financial Crisis which has hit Spain particularly hard was the object of the vocal gathering. Austerity measures by the government are not being well received by the people it seems and the placards were asking why they had to suffer for the actions of the financiers. Good question...
The demo had a good audience too as the main square, the Peurto del Sol, was jam packed with Madrilenos out for the day. Side streets were a mass of people and there were buskers by the dozen: a mariachi band, acrobats, musicians, Houdini-type escape artists in chains, magicians and the like. The place was buzzing.
The next day the plaza was busy though not to the extent it was on the weekend. Madrid is served by the hop-on/hop-off Big Red Buses with open tops which tour the city. Earphones are supplied along with commentaries in a dozen languages. The two routes showed us everything that was too far to walk to and gave us a good overview of the city. But walking took us around back streets, to big plazas, to food markets and eventually to the Palacio Real or Royal Palace. We asked, as usual, for 'senior' tickets. It's only for EU citizens, the man said ... then, oh well you can European for today. Very welcome too - it was half price. The palace was, well sumptuous would be too mild a word for it and I can't think of the right word to use. Ornaments, gold, paintings, fabrics, furniture, carpets were exquisite but incredibly ornate. Everything was on a huge scale and the whole effect was quite OTT.
Madrid is a lovely city: beautiful buildings with curly wrought iron balconies abound, fountains spray over elaborate statuary in the middle of roundabouts, parks with huge shady trees offer respite from the heat, enormous plazas are lined with cafes with their tables and chairs and umbrellas outside. A good city for people.