My first impression of Madrid was of a mariachi band. We surfaced from the metro near Plaza Mayor and there they were in their wide brimmed hats serenading tourists and locals alike with cheesy yet upbeat tunes. Madrid was not what we had expected. This was the second city on the itinerary of my high school Europe trip and it had big shoes to fill since our first stop had been Paris, and our expectations for Spain were high.
From the start, though we were pleasantly surprised — Madrid greeted us with sun! We were coming from rainy Paris (and before that snowed-in Canada) so the warmth of Spain was a welcome respite. After having dropped off our things at the hotel we set off to explore the city. We earned more than a few strange looks since most of us were wearing light sweaters and some people had stripped down to t-shirts, while most locals were still in heavy coats.
We arrived at Plaza Mayor and were let loose to wander around in the crowds of other tourists flooding the streets around the main square. In hindsight, I now appreciate the unbelievable amount of trust our teachers placed in us to return to the meeting spot without getting lost. There are a number of small streets leading up to the grandiose square, which is surrounded on all sides by a symmetrical four-storey building. It’s easy to lose track of time when looking around at all the little shops nestled under the arched walkways of this beautiful building.
Plaza Mayor’s history goes back to the middle ages when it served as a market place and over the centuries it has seen everything from bullfights to coronations. The building that surrounds the square today was built in 1790. During the time of the Spanish Inquisition the square served as the sombre setting for the auto-de-fé trials of heretics, which often ended in public executions. Today the square is much more festive and colourful — the facade of the building is decorated in frescoes commemorating Madrid’s time as the European Capital of Culture in 1992.
From Plaza Mayor we walked towards Madrid’s Royal Palace, otherwise known as The Palacio Royal. Although we did not go inside this majestic building we were able to enjoy the view from the park Plaza de Oriente that runs alongside its eastern side. The park serves as a sculpture gallery of Spain’s former rulers and among the real stone figures you might find a street performer or two standing very still. It certainly took us by surprise when one of the statues waved at us! We followed the road until it eventually curved upwards onto a hill where we stumbled on a very peculiar sight. Overlooking the Royal Palace was an Egyptian temple.
Located in Parque de l’Oeste is the Templo de Debod, an authentic Egyptian temple dating back to the 2nd century BC. It was dedicated to the god Amun, considered the King of Gods, and the goddess Isis, who was the patroness of motherhood, nature and magic. The temple had originally been constructed in Southern Egypt, not far from the Nile, but when it was threatened by flood waters from the construction of the Aswan Dam UNESCO stepped in. Spain helped save this temple from destruction, along with numerous other archeological treasures, and in gratitude Egypt gifted them the temple in 1968.
In front of the temple there is a large fountain and look-out where people congregate for a good view of the Royal Palace and surrounding landscape. We spent some time just sitting around the water and soaking in the last rays of sun as dusk drew closer.
On our way back to the hotel we stopped at the beautiful Plaza de Espana. At the center of the park stands a tall imposing monument to one of Spain’s most famous writers, Miguel de Cervantes. The sculpture of the author sits on an elevated stone seat and before him, astride a horse and a mule, sit his beloved characters — Don Quixote and his servant Sancho Panza. Don Quixote has a hand raised high over his head, as through waving goodbye or signalling the start of an adventure.