Madrid’s Puerta del Sol the heart of the city

  • By Rick Steves
  • Friday, July 13, 2012 5:44pm
  • Life

I’m standing on a tiny balcony overlooking the Times Square of all of Spain, Madrid’s Puerta del Sol.

Within a 10-minute walk I can visit Madrid’s Royal Palace, one of the greatest palaces in Europe; Plaza Mayor, the ultimate town square; or the Prado Museum, which has my favorite collection of paintings under any one roof in Europe.

Just like in New York’s Times Square, crowds in Madrid fill this square on New Year’s Eve while the rest of Spain watches the action on TV.

But unlike New York’s famous gathering space, this square — like so many in Europe — has gone from a traffic nightmare to a more parklike people zone. It’s what makes Madrid livable.

Car traffic has been limited, letting the fine old buildings show off their original elegance in an inviting, wide-open setting.

From Puerta del Sol, I stroll toward the Royal Palace (www.patrimonionacional.es), which I consider Europe’s third greatest palace (after Versailles, near Paris, and Schonbrunn in Vienna).

It’s big with more than 2,000 rooms, with tons of luxurious tapestries, a king’s ransom of chandeliers, priceless porcelain and bronze decor covered in gold leaf.

While these days the royal family lives in a mansion a few miles away, this place still functions as a royal palace, and is used for formal state receptions, and royal weddings.

One highlight is the throne room, where red velvet walls, lions and frescoes of Spanish scenes symbolize the monarchy in a Rococo riot.

Another eye-stopper is the dining hall, where the king can entertain as many as 144 guests at a table the size of a bowling lane.

The ceiling fresco depicts Christopher Columbus kneeling before Ferdinand and Isabel, presenting exotic souvenirs and his New World “friends” to the royal couple.

My next stop is Plaza Mayor, a stately, traffic-free chunk of 17th-century Spain. Each side of the square is uniform, as if a grand palace were turned inside out.

Bronze reliefs under the lampposts show how upon this stage, much of Spanish history was played out. The square once hosted bullfights. It was the scene of generations of pre-Lenten carnival gaiety.

And during the Inquisition, many suspected heretics were tried here and punished by being strangled or burned at the stake. Thankfully, the brutality of the Inquisition is long gone.

My last stop is the Prado Museum, which holds my favorite collection of paintings anywhere (www.museodelprado.es).

The Prado is the place to enjoy the great Spanish painter Francisco de Goya. You can follow this complex man through the stages of his life, from dutiful court painter, to political rebel and scandal-maker, to the disillusioned genius of his “black paintings.”

It’s also the home of Diego Velazquez’s “Las Meninas,” considered by some to be the world’s finest painting, period.

You’ll also find Flemish masters, including Hieronymus Bosch’s fantastical “Garden of Earthly Delights” altarpiece.

A $215 million expansion, completed in 2007, made this museum more visitor-friendly. A new wing holds a modern cafe, auditorium, and gift shop, freeing up exhibition space in the original building for more art.

But it still gets crowded. To avoid the hordes, keep in mind that lunchtime and weekdays are generally less packed. It’s always crowded in the evenings, when it’s free after 6 p.m., and on weekends; it’s worth paying the entry price on other days to have your space.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

&Copy; 2012 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.

If you visit

Sleeping: Madrid has plenty of centrally located budget hotels and pensiones. Near Plaza Mayor, the Petit Palace Posada del Peine is a modern business-class hotel behind an Old World facade (splurge, www.hthoteles.com). Hotel Europa — with its sleek marble walls, red carpet, and attentive staff — is a tremendous value (moderate, www.hoteleuropa.net).

Eating: Restaurante Casa Paco is a Madrid tradition; try its signature dish: ox grilled over a coal fire (tel. 913-663-166). For tapas, try Pintxoteca Madrilena, which serves Basque-style “pinchos,” bite-sized treats (tel. 913-664-877).

Getting around: The historic core around Puerta del Sol is easily covered on foot. But if you’re hot or tired, Madrid’s Metro is simple, speedy and cheap (www.metromadrid.es).

Tourist information: www.esmadrid.com.

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