royal residence: The Royal Palace of Madrid is the biggest palace in Europe based on floor space. PHOTOS: CHAIYOT YONGCHAROENCHAI
Walking through the crowd after arriving at Gran Via metro station in Madrid, my hands turn cold, my lips dry and my heart rate rises to match the rhythm of the drum being beat by a street performer nearby. Here I am again, standing in the same country that I first visited only one year ago.
Same month, same country, but different city. After a year of practising my Spanish speaking skills at home, I came back to Spain with a fresh confidence and cultural perspective.
“Hola. ¿Cómoestás? Soy de Tailandia. Mucho gusto.” I finally did it — I spoke my first full sentence in Spanish to a tour bus driver parked in front of the world-famous Prado Museum. We continued to exchange a few basic questions and answers afterwards.
I took a seat upstairs on the open-top bus with a big grin on my face. Taking in the views of this vibrant city, I knew that this trip would be different from my last one. Being able to talk to locals meant that I could learn even more about their culture.
Last year when I was in Spain, I was moved to learn about the legendary artist Antoni Gaudí whose works I viewed in his hometown of Barcelona. This year would be no different in terms of art discovery. I had read up on several local artists and wanted to see how Madrid fuelled their inspiration. With this in mind, I packed my bags and embarked on my second adventure to Spain.
CENTRE OF ATTRACTION
down to a fine art: Above and below, the Prado Museum in Madrid.
It almost seems wrong to visit a country without stopping by its capital city. Since I didn’t get to do it last time I was in Spain, I decided to start my two-week journey this time in the capital of Madrid, home to 3.2 million people and the world famous football club Real Madrid.
Arriving early on Friday morning, the city looked as busy as any other metropolis found around the globe, bustling with traffic and people rushing to get to work on time. The chaos would have made getting lost a strong possibility if it weren’t for the family of my good friend Saiz Rivera who took me in and made sure my Spanish expedition got off to a smooth start.
They picked me up from the airport and took me straight to downtown Madrid. Since I arrived quite early, they wanted to make me feel at home as I waited for check-in time at my hotel.
One good thing about arriving early was being able to start my day with breakfast. Unlike American or continental-style breakfasts, the first meal of the day in Spain can be as simple as a toast with olive oil spread on it and sprinkled with salt, alongside a cup of cafe con leche (coffee with milk).
But I ended up ordering something different — fresh churros served with thick hot chocolate — a pairing rather similar to the breakfast dish of pla tong koh (deep-fried doughnuts) with coffee in Thailand.
After a slow morning, I walked over to the hotel and checked in before heading out on a tour. Since it was my first day, I decided to take it slow and take a train to the city centre where I could casually visit many main attractions.
I started by walking toward Puerta de Alcalá, a neoclassical monument in the Plaza de la Independencia. It was the first modern post-Roman triumphal arch built in Europe, older than similar monuments on the continent like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
I continued my journey by walking toward Plaza Mayor through Gran Via, known as the Broadway of Spain as many theatres are located here. On the way, I stopped at the Puerta del Sol, which once served as a gateway to the fort encircling Madrid in the 15th century. Outside the walls, medieval suburbs were built in the 12th century. The name of the gate refers to the rising sun on the entrance as the gate faces the East.
In Spanish, puerta means gate. However, there’s no gate to be seen at Puerta del Sol. The site serves more as a bustling public square. The area is known for the iconic plaque on the street indicating that it sits at the centre of a radial network of Spanish roads starting at kilometre zero.
Nearby stands the Statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree, a sculpture from the second half of the 20th century, representing the coat of arms of Madrid.
After snapping photos of the famous bear, I walked towards Plaza Mayor, only a few blocks away from the statue. The Plaza Mayor was built at the centre of Madrid during Philip III’s reign from 1580 to1619. It is surrounded by three-storey residential buildings, with a total of 237 balconies facing the plaza, and nine entrance ways.
While taking in the architectural wonders of the square, I also ate a classic calamari sandwich and sipped on a lemon beer while watching the world go by — the best way to end my first day.
STATE OF THE ART
One of the best things about travelling Europe are the museums, something that Thailand seems to lack. Seeing local art makes for a great way to explore a foreign culture.
If Barcelona has Gaudi as its icon, Madrid has Goya as its own. Considered one of the key Spanish artists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Francisco Goya was a Spanish romantic painter and printmaker who started his career as a court painter, and went on to become a great commentator and chronicler of his era
A subway station named after Goya features his etchings on the walls. Since he received his training in Madrid, many of his works are portraits of the Spanish royal family and people from the capital.
The best way to appreciate his work is to visit the Prado Museum, where art lovers can easily get lost among the heavenly masterpieces by Velazquez, Rubens, Goya, El Bosco, El Greco, and many other greats.
After spending half of my day exploring the Prado Museum, I hopped on and off the city tour bus, checking out many interesting sites including the Royal Palace of Madrid, the largest palace in Europe in terms of floor area; the National Archaeological Museum, the neoclassical mansion housing ancient and more modern artifacts including cave art and Islamic pottery; and the Temple of Debod, an Ancient Egyptian temple and museum that was moved from Aswan in upper Egypt and rebuilt in the lush parkland overlooking the city with sunset views.
ON THE ROAD
Since I couldn’t fully experience Spain by only staying in Madrid, I decided to drive to a few other important cities that could be visited within a week. I started driving south towards Malaga, while setting my sights on making a few stops along the way.
I left early in the morning with the heavy rain beating down, then made my first stop in Merida for Teatro Romanao de Merida, an ancient Roman theatre. Merida is the capital of western Spain’s Extremadura region. It was founded by the Romans in the 1st century BC.
The remains of the ancient city include the still-used Teatro Romano, which has a double tier of columns onstage; the ancient Puente Romano, a 792-metre bridge spanning the Rio Guadiana, and adjoining the Alcazaba, a 9th-century Islamic fortress built over Roman walls. The Archaeological Ensemble of Merida was named a Unesco World Heritage site in 1993.
Despite the poor weather, exploring the Roman theatre left me awed. Imagining how this grand structure from an ancient time over thousands of years ago left me speechless. Back then, gladiator fighting, slave killing and animal slaughtering were the main types of entertainment — a time long before Netflix — and I was standing in the middle of it all.
THE RAIN IN SPAIN
source of inspiration:Toledo, the first capital city of Spain before Madrid. This city inspired El Greco to create some of his most iconic works.
Those familiar with the musical My Fair Lady will know that the rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain. The famous scene features Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering attempting to teach Eliza Doolittle a speech exercise. For Spanish speakers who watched the same movie in their own language, the sentences read differently.
The sentence reads “La lluviaen Sevillaesunamaravilla”, which translates to “the rain in Seville is a miracle”. The song was adjusted to rhyme with the remaining lyrics when dubbed in Spanish. With my favourite musical in mind, I made my next stop Sevilla.
The sun was already down when I arrived, leaving my only option for the evening to enjoy tapas with wine before settling in for the night.
I woke up early the next day to perfect cool air and warm sun, and set out to see the main attractions of Sevilla.
Thirty minutes into my excursion, a storm came from out of nowhere, then thankfully dissipated into a light rain. I forged on towards my first destination — the Sevilla Cathedral. The Gothic cathedral is the third largest of its kind in the world, featuring an iconic Moorish bell tower with city views and Columbus’ tomb.
As the rain kept persisting, I decided to walk to a cafe until it passed.
Unfortunately, it never did. But with my time running out, I walked towards my next destination of Plaza de España. The site built in 1928 is found in Parque de Maria Luisa, which sprung up for the Ibero-American Exposition World Fair of 1929. It is a landmark example of regionalism architecture, mixing elements of the Renaissance Revival and Moorish Revival styles of Spanish architecture.
Fans of Star Wars may recognise the place from ‘Episode II — Attack of the Clones.’ The huge half-circle surrounded by a moat and several bridges represents the four ancient kingdoms of Spain. In the centre is the Vicente Traver Fountain. The walls of the plaza are decorated with tiled alcoves, each representing a different province of Spain.
With the weather worsening, I hopped onto a city bus to see the city from a drier place, but the rain and mist covered up the windows, making it difficult to see anything at all.
I only planned to stay one night in Sevilla. By the time I left, the sun finally came out. At least now I had proof the lyrics from My Fair Lady was no lie.
After three days of being on the road, I arrived at Malaga. The city is the hometown of Antonio Banderas, the famous Hollywood actor, and Pablo Picasso, the painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, stage designer, poet and playwright.
Malaga is located in the autonomous community of Andalusia. It is the second-most populous city of the region and the sixth-largest in Spain. Sitting at the southernmost tip at Europe, it lies on the Costa del Sol of the Mediterranean, about 100 kilometres east of the Strait of Gibraltar and about 130km north of Africa. Malaga’s history spans about 2,800 years, making it one of the oldest cities in the world.
My first stop was the Museo Picasso Malaga, dedicated to the works of Pablo Picasso. The most famous works of the artist are not found at this museum, but there is still a collection of 285 works donated by members of his family.
The next stop for this city is at the Alcazaba of Málaga, which is a palatial fortification. It was built by the Hammudid dynasty in the early 11th century. This is the best-preserved alcazaba in Spain. Adjacent to the entrance of the alcazaba are remnants of a Roman theatre dating back to the 1st century BC, which are currently undergoing restoration. Some of the Roman-era materials were reused in the Moorish construction of the alcazaba.
The rain seemed to have stalked me all the way from Sevilla. As I left Alcazaba for the Malaga Cathedral, I noticed people walking slowly instead of running away from the rain.
The sound of a saxophone playing hung in the air, creating an air of romance. Now I understand how a place like this may inspire more artistic minds.
I looked for where the saxophone player was situated and realised he was in front of the cathedral I was looking for. I entered the Cathedral of Malaga, a Roman Catholic church, which was built in the Renaissance tradition. The church is located within limits defined by a now-missing portion of the medieval Moorish walls, the remains of which surround the nearby Alcazaba and the Castle of Gibralfaro. It was constructed between 1528 and 1782, following plans drawn by Diego de Siloe. Its interior is also in Renaissance style.
It was only by closing time that I realised my neck was sore from looking upwards, marvelling at the incredible interior from floor to ceiling.
After three relaxing days spent in Malaga, I began making my way back towards Madrid, with a few more stops planning along the way. First up was Granada, a place that came highly recommended.
I learned quickly that I had underestimated the popularity of the city. I was there on a weekday, but I still couldn’t get access to many important attractions. It seemed that several sites were fully booked until next month.
Granada is the capital city of the province of Granada in the autonomous community of Andalusia. It is located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, covered by snow all year around.
I made a short stop to gaze at the incredible site of the Alhambra, which is a Nasrid “palace city”. It was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1984. It is Granada’s most emblematic monument and one of the most visited in Spain.
I left the city feeling slightly disappointed for having missed some key sites.
I crossed my fingers for better luck in Toledo, the old capital city of Spain and the place that El Greco called home.
Toledo is the capital of the province of Toledo and the autonomous community of Castile–La Mancha. The city was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1986 for its extensive cultural heritage. It is known as the “Imperial City” for having been the main venue of the court of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. It is also known as the “City of the Three Cultures” for the cultural influences of Christians, Muslims and Jews reflected in its history.
It was also the capital from 542 to 725 of the ancient Visigothic kingdom, which followed the fall of the Roman Empire, as well as the location of historic events such as the Visigothic Councils of Toledo. Toledo has a long history in the production of bladed weapons, which now make for popular souvenirs.
Strolling through the hilly city is like entering a fairy tale. The city exudes so much charm, and serves as a great example of how a modern city can keep its historical parts intact.
I realised then that where you live can truly shape the way you see the world. It suddenly makes sense why so many great artists have come out of places like this. They were in the right place at the right time.
This was my second trip to Spain, but I’m certain it won’t be my last. The flavourful food, vibrant culture and hospitable people there remind me of those in my own country, and left me inspired in more ways than I can count.
time to shrine: The Temple of Debod is an ancient Egyptian temple that was relocated from Aswan in Egypt to Madrid.
all the world’s a stage: The Roman theatre of Merida is a reminder of ancient times.
right at home: Pablo Picasso’s place.
out of this world: Plaza De España became one of the most famous attractions in Sevilla after it appeared in ‘Star Wars’.
looking up: Left, inside the Malaga Cathedral.
panorama: A view of Granada.
panorama: A view of Granada.
selling points: Mercado de San Miguel situated near Plaza Mayor in Madrid attracts thousands of tourists to come to eat and buy souvenirs.