The Spanish word for 'Sun' is Sol, which is also the name of the colourful and noisy area we find ourselves staying in Madrid. It really is the beating heart of this enormous city, as you climb out of the metro station you literally see crowded streets darting off in all directions from the centre like rays of the sun.
And after an emotional few weeks of ups and downs due to recent sadness, it is in Sol that I have finally felt the planets have begun to align once more. Perhaps a little differently than they were positioned in the past, but in such a way that I can start to smile again at the universe - not forcing myself because I feel I should be happy to be where I am, but because I can just be.
We have been very fortunate to have some locals to share our experiences with and point us in the right direction, especially in a city of such grand scale it would be very easy to be eaten up by the choices on offer. Marco's mate of over 20 years 'Hojo' has Castillian blood running through his mind, body and soul, and in another perfect alignment of the planets coincidently was in Madrid at the same time as us visiting his gorgeous sister Yolanda and her family.
Day one in Madrid we spent the morning visiting the Spanish Royal families' base camp - a small 'shack' that takes up a good portion of prime Madrid real estate on the western side of the , aptly named Palacio Real - The Royal Palace. For 10Euro a piece we were treated to a fairly rigorous security screening on entry, before being allowed to wander the enormous concrete square in the centre of the palace grounds and walk past a large amount of 'no entry allowed' doors only to be 'shushed' away by some very non-scary looking security guards. We were however allowed to visit the armoury which was a brilliant display of well, armour, which at the very least allowed Marco a moment to reflect how lucky he is to be a soldier in the 21st Century where full metal body armour and jousting sticks are no longer part of the deal.
There was a very beautiful cathedral next door to Palacio Real which was very much worth a look even just to see the magnificent organ and gold altar.
We walked back up Calle Major (an enormous street that runs south west to north east of the city) towards Sol to meet Hojo, Yolanda and her two year old daughter Paola for some lunch and an afternoon of blending in with the locals.
Just off Calle Major is Plaza Major - boasting beautiful yet highly priced restaurants and some questionable street theatre performers (I am still trying to work out what the 140kg guy in the heavily faded spiderman outfit actually does).
Choosing to find a more cost effective menu we visited a small side street of the Plaza where we found a lovely little restaurant that offered a three course meal (various choices on offer) and a drink for 12 Euro per person which was an absolute bargain. Paella sans snails and calamari and salad proved to be excellent choices. And despite being away from all the action of the Plaza we were lucky enough to catch the odd site of a Chinese man dressed head to toe as a Matador walking past the restaurant (perhaps off to Siesta) as he pulled a sorry looking, life sized stuffed bull behind him which he obviously used for tourist photo opportunities.
A few beers later, Oscar and Paola made it well and truly known that it was time to move on - a long and leisurely lunch was definitely not on the menu for them - and so we made our way to Parque del Buen Retiro for the afternoon.
Parque del Buen Retiro is only a few stops along the metro from Sol and is an enormous lush gardens, in the centre of which is a lovely lake where the energetic or perhaps romantic can take a row boat and view the Monument to Alfonso XII from the water. The lake is filled with carp, and on a good day some ducks - however I have it from a good source that the duck population has been in decline for some time as a few clever gypsies have taken it upon themselves to add hunting to their list of talents.
Speaking of gypsies, along the lake there are many fortune tellers promising that for a handful of Euro they can reveal all either through the cards or by palm reading. A little light headed from my two beers in the heat of the day I decided it was worth having my palm read, and met an old gypsy who spoke English and offered me a stool.
While the full contents of our discussion are between us, the carp and the "other side", I was pretty happy with the synopsis of the rest of my life she presented in the space of about 4 minutes (I had spent the rest of the money for the full 5 minutes on beer). However I was left the taste of scepticism when her parting gift to me was a small piece of orange peel. No - she didn't tell me to hide it under my pillow, put it in some hot water to drink before bed like a tonic, or keep it in my jewellery box. I am pretty sure she wanted me to put her lunch rubbish in the bin.
After purchasing a few ice creams and in the boy's cases beers from the canteen in the park, we made ourselves comfortable on the grass so the toddlers could toddle, we could watch them toddle, and soak in the atmosphere of a lovely Madrid afternoon. I was disappointed we didn't happen to be in Madrid on the weekend as I am told the park is the place to be on a Sunday in particular, full of street performers or even puppet shows! Alas we only bore witness to a senior citizen 'wired for sound' on his roller skates hooning around one of the fountains, and a creepy looking Scandinavian sunning himself far too close to the walking path for my liking dressed in spearmint green lycra shorts.
Back to food. As I said our lunch was really very reasonable, and in fact all the eating in Madrid has been extremely cheap - much better value than anywhere else we have visited in Spain which has caught me by surprise. Our gold medal find so far has been a chain of establishments named Museao de Jamon which translates literally as 'Museum of Ham.' They seem to be everywhere in Madrid - cross between a butcher, deli and cafeteria, it has been our breakfast bar each morning where for about 10Euro for the three of us stand at the counter with the locals and enjoy freshly baked baguettes stuffed with jamon and cheese, strong espresso coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice.
Across the road from our hotel is also a wonderful market's which is beautifully set up for those wanting to upgrade from ham and cheese rolls. There are numerous wine bars that serve vinto tinto and even Bollinger by the glass. You can just taste your way up and down the aisles enjoying tapas ranging from freshly shucked oysters, croquettes, sushi and cakes. Between the markets and Museao de Jamon I may never sit down to eat again.
Marco had been desperate to take in a traditional Flamenco show which was going always to prove challenging with Oscar's usual 8pm bedtime routine. In a previous trip to Spain about 12 years ago I had been lucky enough to see one live, so I insisted that he and Hojo have a boys night out and after thinking about it for about 0.000015 seconds he agreed and the guys booked to visit Casa Patas, or 'House of Feet' the next evening.
I wish I could write a detailed explanation of the show however I was too busy reading my book in the hotel room (!), however both guys came back gloating about what a wonderful night it had been.
Perhaps the only downside was that they had been packed into a room full of couples and so they perhaps did look a little suspicious as they sat together sipping on their complimentary Sangrias..
Our last day in Madrid we woke to weather resembling that of Northern England, so it was a perfect day to visit the more cultural aspects of Madrid.
First stop was Museo Nacional del Prado which is an enormous museum that holds over 7000 pieces of art from Spain and beyond including works by Goya, another famous Spanish artist of old. Travelling through time from Medieval through to Renaissance Spain is hard work and by late morning the three of us were already weary and thinking of our stomachs.
We had one more gallery to visit, Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, and walked briskly through the rain towards this home of many Salvador Dali and Picasso works. It was belting down so we decided to call in at the McDonalds on the corner for a quick drink and some emergency chicken nuggets for Oscar who by this stage was past the point of rational. The boy needed food fast!
Now Madrid is unfortunately also home to a great deal of poverty and its common to see beggar's on almost every corner. My heart did sink when as we were sitting in McDonalds a very skinny and tired looking beggar came inside and was clearly asking one of the cleaning ladies as she was emptying the bins if she could have any of the scraps inside, to which she was refused. On our way out 'Marco the Samaritan' took out some change and bought a cheese burger which he offered her, which she took graciously, before asking if she could also have some additional cash...give an inch...
Finally at Sofia Museum - we then switched our thinking to modern art and before we could even reach the Dali and Picasso exhibitions we were subjected to some pretty extreme examples of futuristic art and light shows. Try as I might I will never be able to understand why a transparent envelope with a paperclip inside in a frame is worthy to be hung in such a gallery. I almost wished I had brought my gypsy lady orange peel to add to the collection for I have no doubt if I had laid it on one of the sculpture pillars it would have created a stir...
Finally at the Dali and Picasso pieces we were not disappointed; in particular Picasso's Guernica was excellent. Guernica was Picasso's artistic protest against the German's bombing of Guenica (the Basque town) during the Spanish civil war in 1937. Its easily one of the largest paintings I have ever seen and even if not a fan of his style it does leave quite an impression.
So we have officially exhausted ourselves of all things art and jamon, and head by train to the Moorish influenced city of Granada in the morning which is also famous for being one of the last cities in Spain to offer free Tapas when you order a drink. Ole!