29 June 2014

Madrid and the crowning of King Felipe VI

And so the adventure begins …

It’s a long long way from Auckland to Madrid, from my apartment door in Auckland to the hotel door in Madrid about 34 hours, and I wasn’t very well for much of the trip so, suffice to say, I was very glad to collapse in my comfortable room, have a hot shower and order room service for dinner, then sleep away the jet lag.






























I chose well when I picked Hotel Europa from the many reviewed on TripAdvisor. It’s in the pedestrian-only street Calle Carmen, in the oldest part of Madrid, very close to Puerta del sol, the exact centre of the old city and the zero kilometre point for all Spanish roads. My room was modern and well equipped, with excellent double-glazed French doors leading out to a tiny balcony, overlooking the hotel’s street-side restaurant immediately below and with views along the surrounding streets. That double glazing was absolutely essential and very effective at stopping the noise of life outside, which continued into the wee hours.
















I chose the hotel for its location, about half way between the Royal Palace in one direction and the Prado in the other, and my plan was to spend a day exploring in each direction. By sheer coincidence, 19 June, the day after I arrived, was a historical day for Spain, the coronation of King Felipe VI following the abdication of his father Juan Carlos. I only discovered this watching CNN news that morning and didn’t realise what celebrations had been planned so set off in the vague direction of the palace but following a walking trail of the various historical and notable buildings on the way.

And what amazing buildings they were! Every which way I turned my head, there was impressive sculptural decoration, intricately carved doors with shiny brass door knockers, gilded details glistening in the sunlight, ancient brick patterns and fascinating old shop-fronts and signs, balconies overflowing with the ubiquitous flowering geranium and, for the coronation, adorned with patriotic banners of red and yellow.































I soon got sidetracked down intriguing alleyways and seductive side streets but I think I did manage to see all the buildings on the list, including the Church of San Gines (dating from medieval days but rebuilt in the 17th and 19th centuries following destructive fires); the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales (the 16th-century home of the barefoot Carmelites); the Royal Monastery of the Incarnation; and the Senate House, which houses the upper chamber of the Spanish Parliament.


At first, I couldn’t get near the Royal Palace, as each street leading in that direction was barricaded and swarming with police but, eventually, I followed the same direction as the increasing throngs of people to the one entrance point, where bags and bodies were being scanned. Declared safe, I was allowed in and found a great possie right in front of the palace, where the friendly locals assured me I would soon see the arrival of the king.

That word ‘soon’ was a little optimistic and we all quickly became very hot, both from the sun and the increasing volumes of people jostling for position. But, after the arrival of various local and international dignitaries in cars and buses, the parading back and forth of regiments of soldiers, both on foot and on horseback, King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia arrived in an open-topped limousine, to the huge cheers and enthusiastic applause of his patriotic subjects – and the clicking of a million cameras! Another 20 minutes or so passed, while the troops paraded off before the king and queen appeared on the palace balcony. I shouted ‘Viva Felipe!’ along with all the rest and found it quite moving to experience this special moment in Spain’s history.































I headed back to the hotel and enjoyed a delicious lunch and rehydrating drinks at a sidewalk table, then escaped the heat of early afternoon by retreating to my room for a couple of hours. When I re-emerged late afternoon, I set off for more exploration, first to the Plaza Mayor, the main square which dates from the reign of King Philip III (1598-1621). It’s huge, surrounded on all four sides by four-storey buildings with arcaded shops below and umbrella-covered cafes out front, entered by a series of nine massive gateways. I strolled around, being entertained by various types of street performer, but found it stiflingly hot in the confined space, large though it was.

So, I headed out again, past a cluster of fascinating old buildings: the site of the cloistered convent of the Hieronymite nuns, Las Jeronimas del Corpus Christi; the Lujanes Tower, the city’s oldest civil building; and Cisnero’s House and the Casa de la Villa, bridged high up by a narrow passage. And then it was on to La Almudena, the enormous Catholic cathedral, where I spent perhaps 30 minutes, enjoying the cool and the peaceful atmosphere, craning my neck to admire and photograph the impossibly high vaulted ceilings. This is a relatively new building, only consecrated in 1993 by Pop John Paul II, so its neo-Gothic interior is almost surprisingly modern, with richly coloured paintings and statues by contemporary artists.

The cathedral sits adjacent to the Royal Palace so that was my final port of call for the day. With the barricades gone, I could get closer to the fences, gates and doorways for better images. Constructed between 1738 and 1755, it is the largest palace in Europe with 135,000 square metres of floor space and 3418 rooms. Though public entry is usually allowed, it was closed for that day’s ceremonies and, anyway, I was again hot and thirsty and tired – time to find a café and a beer and reflect on this amazing first day of my holiday!