Some 3 weeks back, I have returned from my first real solo adventure. Yes, I have been on my own in the US before, but knowing people there, despite not staying with them and spending most of the time exploring on my own, the fact that I knew someone there if anything was to happen, was quite a comforting thought.
I knew absolutely no one in Spain. There even was a moment, when I was getting on the plane to take me to Madrid, and thought ‘OMG, whose idea was this? I’m so gonna get lost!’ Well, I’m happy to say, despite not knowing a single person there, not speaking the language, and my airbnb accommodation turning out to be a little trickier than I thought, I have survived without any harm. In fact, I did pretty well on my own. As, after all, I always do. And if I can do it, the-ever-so-scared-useless-person-who-has-no-sense-of-direction (or so I thought of myself until not so long ago), trust me, you can do it, too.
Spain has been one of my oldest dreams, and inspired by watching The Limits of Control where the Lone Man wanders through Madrid and later on through Seville, I thought ‘hey! I want to do that, too!’ Sadly, Seville didn’t fit into the plans this time, but there’s always the next time, right? Or so I thought. In fact, I didn’t fall in love with Spain as much as I thought I will. I was pretty sure it’s gonna be similar to the love story I’ve been living with France, but the truth is, it seems there’s only one country like France – and that’s France. That being the very 1st lesson learnt.
But there were many more to come.. So let’s take them one by one.
2. If you are a non-Spanish speaker like me you’re gonna have a hard time
Yes. It’s true. Spanish don’t speak much English. At least not in Madrid. (Please, tell me it’s different in Barcelona…!) Although, to be fair – every time I stopped somebody on the streets asking for directions, they were very nice and helpful and did speak the language, but I always targeted young people who looked likely to. To my great surprise, it was the shops and the tourist places where the staff would not speak any or very little English – and they would often be VERY unpleasant to you for not speaking Spanish. I often got the feeling like I was the first person they ever encountered that did not speak their language. I felt like an alien, and was really surprised. I just didn’t expect that. Not even in France did I ever feel this way and the French are famous for being unwilling to speak any other language than theirs.
The biggest paradox was that it was the places where you would least expect it, where you’d bump into someone who actually did speak English. Like that old man in El Retiro park selling his beautiful paintings – of which I bought one and treasure it not just for the painting itself but for the beautiful memory of the unexpected meeting with this very nice man. First person I could talk to in 4 days. I really enjoyed chatting to this kind-hearted, funny man and a wonderful artist. I really hope he’s doing fine and has many more years to come, he sure seemed full of life!
3. The weather is much cooler than you think and can get nasty
Madrid gave me a not so nice welcome upon my arrival – half way to my airbnb place I got caught in a storm and had to hide for some 15 minutes before I could continue on my journey. I was hoping this was just a taste of what could be, but won’t be. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I was to get a taste of every kind of weather Madrid has in store. Or so it seemed. The following day, was very cold and miserable. The morning was just windy and unpleasant, but in the afternoon it started to rain and the rain was getting heavier and heavier. Honestly, there were moments I felt I was gonna cry thinking why the hell do I have to be this lucky to have such a horrible, cold, rainy & windy weather while being incredibly grateful for my intuition to take an extra jacket with me despite the weather forecast promising sunny and hot weather peaking at 30°C. I was furious.
Luckily, Friday was the only day like that and maybe it was luck after all. With the warmer weather that followed I might not be able to walk as much as I did that first cold day. With that being said, the climate in Madrid is much colder in general than I was expecting – even at 23°C which in Prague is very warm, it could get chilly at times and even as the temperature got higher, once the wind blew, it was cooler than what I’m used to and could give you shakes even at 26°C. However, once it gets even higher, you’re really gonna appreciate it and love the Madrid climate. Even at 30°C on my very last day, it did not feel as hot as it normally does in my country. I was able to walk all day, while when at home in this kind of weather, I’m literally dying. I’m starting to think Czech Republic won big time when the climate was given out. Or maybe it’s just because we are in the middle of the continent, with no sea around. You might not find such a dry climate that’s trying to turn you into nothing but a greasy stain right at the pavement you’re walking on anywhere else in the world. We’re just lucky.
4. You CAN do Madrid in just one day
That is – if you really wanted to. But you would not get much of the Madrid’s unique atmosphere which would be a shame. If you’re short on time, I do recommend 2 days, and you will definitely not need more than 3. Originally, I divided my Madrid adventures into 3 days of exploring. However, I found myself walking around ALL of the Madrid’s main attractions unexpectedly in just one day. I just kept walking.. and that’s what happened. Everything is much closer than the maps make it look. But I need to point out that on that first day, I did not go to see any of the interiors or museums, I was only walking by, admiring beauty of the sights from the outside. The Cerralbo Museum (which is not to be missed!!) was the only exception (I took a break there when I was caught by rain). You would also not fit El Retiro park into one day’s visit, nor any of the famous museums. What you could fit in though, is the Royal Palace, but would probably need 3 days in total to have enough time to fully appreciate El Retiro park.
5. Madrid’s Royal Palace might possibly the most ‘Royal’ palace you will ever see
Oh, the grandeur of the Spanish empire! When I dreamt of palaces as a kid, this is what I imagined. This is the true Royal Palace. The beauty of the first few rooms you’ll get to see is absolutely breath taking. All the gold, the crystals, the porcelain on the walls… all the luxury. God. So so amazing. There is not much to see as to the number of the rooms opened to public (as the Palace is still being used nowadays for official ceremonies) but what you will get to see, will definitely be worth it. And for a 10 Euros entry a total bargain!! Walking through the huge courtyard is equally astonishing.
6. If Paradise exists it is to be found in El Retiro park
The green heart of the city, the Central park of Madrid. It might not be as breath-taking as New York’s Central Park (which is my forever love) – however, it can take your breath away quite easily simply because you first need to climb a very long steep hill to get there. But once achieving that, you’ll get a great reward in form of the Rose Garden which is to be found there and is for free. Beautiful. Just beautiful. I had no idea what am I gonna run into. All I could see everywhere when reading about El Retiro park was the Crystal Palace (not that it’s bad!), but this is so much better. Better than anything I’ve ever seen. If I should pick the one thing I loved in Madrid, it would be this.
7. You can do Prado in 45 minutes (and for free)
If you’re not much into art, but want to give it a go with the famous Prado museum so you could get it of your bucket list, go there in the evening after wandering through the wonderful El Retiro park, when the admission is free. You will get a glimpse of the classic art and if you’re not a true fan, will be done in about 40 minutes.. If you are into art though, or this particular period, you’ll probably need couple of hours, or an extra day just for the museums in Madrid.
8. Train Stations can be impressive
Does it sound strange to you, if I say, that one of the Madrid’s highlights for me was the Train Station? Well.. that’s only because you haven’t seen it. It’s epic! Not only from the outside, but especially from the inside. It’s like hanging out in a botanical garden right before you go board your train. Literally. Totally unique and worth seeing even if you don’t travel anywhere.
9. Do not come to Madrid over the weekend
I mean it. Madrid is crazy even throughout the week, but over the weekend, it turns into pure MADNESS. There are SO MANY people there! Just so many!! And the later it gets, the busier the streets get and the city center should rather be avoided or you’ll get stuck and carried away by the crowds. Unless, you enjoy the feeling of the Rockefeller Center right before Christmas – then by all means go ahead.
10. Churros with the real Spanish chocolate which is not a chocolate
I was so excited to try the real Spanish churros with the real Spanish chocolate!! As a chocolatier and complete chocolate addict, this was supposed to be a real treat. However, I was VERY disappointed to find out that the ‘real’ Spanish chocolate has nothing to do with chocolate at all. It’s more like a thin pudding with a chocolate flavor and very artificially tasting. This was the case of the famous San Ginés Chocolaterie as well as Los Artesanos Churreria, which became my favorite. At San Ginés I was even disappointed by the churros – they seemed a bit too greasy and heavy for my taste, contrary to the Los Artesanos ones which were light, not greasy at all, and super crispy! Yum! Can I get a batch right now? 😀 I’m drooling over here. The chocolate there was also tiny bit better. So, if you go to Madrid, skip the San Ginés and go to Los Artesanos instead. It’s in the neighboring street and usually less busy. Also, the staff is nicer despite not speaking much English either, but at least they don’t look at you as if you came from another planet. Yes, the San Ginés was my first encounter with very unfriendly staff.