From the beginning of a European adventure, Josh Price gets to the true heart of Spain.
It's not a city that tends to make the average person's bucket list, nor does it have a reputation to match the flair of Paris, the charm of Venice, the history of Rome or the energy of Barcelona. But I discovered Madrid does have all those things and it took me just two days to find them.
Madrid is where I first touched down in Europe for a 13-day guided holiday, which would take me from the Spanish capital to Rome, the capital of Italy. Thirteen days, eight cities ... and a 35-hour journey from New Zealand to kick it all off.
Experiencing my first bout of jet lag on arrival, I wasted no time hitting the hay, with an alarm set to watch the All Blacks in the morning.
Come 9am, it was notably quiet along the Paseo de la Castellana — a stretch of road that separates the city's CBD from its centre, marked by the Plaza de Castilla at one end, and Columbus Square at the other.
No amount of pleading in my mediocre Spanish resulted in the bars of the Cortes District staying open for the match — they were busy cleaning up after Spain had played Portugal in the football World Cup the night before. I walked away disappointed, but that quickly faded as I stumbled on what was probably the best investment I made in Madrid. An electric bike.
With multiple parking points and reasonable rates, it proved the perfect way to explore the landmarks and tree-lined streets. And boy do these bikes go! Two gentle pedals would easily see me travel 100m, and before I could blink twice I was at the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family.
Built in the 18th century and with more than 3400 rooms, it is an impressive building, but somehow not spectacular. Perhaps that's because it stands right next to the incredible Catedral de la Almudena, a newer building (consecrated in 1993) that really blew me away.
The Temple of Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple that was dismantled then rebuilt in Madrid, delivered an extraordinary vista of the city sprawling miles into the distance, including back to the Palace. Also visible was the disparity of wealth within the city. Until this point, all the buildings I had seen had been historic and beautiful or modern and flashy. This view showed both the old and the new, but also run-down 20th century buildings in need of care and attention.
Having missed the All Blacks I decided to get my sporting fix by heading to the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, the home of Real Madrid FC and one of the most famous football clubs in the world. After paying the $44 entry fee and patiently waiting in the 200m-long line, I climbed straight up to the top, entering the ground at the nosebleeds. Wow! What a spectacular arena. The imagination runs wild with the kind of atmosphere that must fill the stadium during games, with the steepness of the stands and the cramped seating. A sports fan of any kind would love to see a game there. My off-season visit means a return trip will be necessary.
As lunchtime approached I set about starting on a standard European diet — fresh bread, processed meat, cheese and a cold beer. I took my tasty haul to Madrid's main park, Buen Retiro, where I sat among thousands of others enjoying the afternoon sun. The place was abuzz with people playing football, kids playing hide and seek, and the odd group of friends gossiping while sipping bubbly. The lake in the middle of the park is a focal point, and it was filled with people in small row boats enjoying the sunshine and splashing about. A must-do.
Another must-do is a day trip to the nearby city of Toledo — an optional excursion on our Trafalgar itinerary, I was glad I had signed up for it. Toledo is Spain's traditional capital, set up by the Moors to make the most of the country's central plateau. (Madrid was initially built as a military fortress to protect Toledo from incoming invaders.)
The small town is everything you want to see in Europe. Tall stone buildings seven and eight storeys high create alleyways with so much character they make Wellington's Cuba St feel like a motorway. Hot tip: Be sure to go across the river and find a viewing spot to see the town's spectacular bridges and buildings from above.
Toledo is also home to many Damasquinados or Damascene showrooms and stores. This is the ancient Moorish craft of inlaying silver and gold on non-precious metals for things like jewellery and weapons. They are fired until the iron or steel oxidises, making the gold or silver stand out in contrast. Toledo is the main centre of Damascene production, and movie companies flock here for props like swords and armour.
We wandered over Toledo's medieval, five-arch bridge, Puente de San Martin; a beautiful piece of architecture that makes for a lovely view of the Rio Tajo River and valley. If you're adventurous, take the Fly Toledo zipline across the river for just $17.60 to enjoy a spectacular view of the bridge and valley below. Another hot tip: Don't wear jandals on the zipline.
The final night in Madrid was my favourite. I wandered through Plaza Mayor at sunset, an old bullfighting ring surrounded by six storey buildings with shutters in vibrant colours.
Ubiquitous buskers play the most fitting, energetic soundtrack. The fantastic music continued into the night as we dined at Los Galayos restaurant just off the square. I had delicious lamb, and our meal was accompanied by a Tuna band — a tradition that dates back to the 13th century, where a group of musicians in costume serenade their audience. It was a great end to my two days in Madrid — a place with flair, history and energy — and the perfect start to my European adventure.
's Madrid to Rome guided holiday visits eight European cities in 13 days.