Visit Madrid: World-class art, lavish palaces and gardens

Spain is one of the leading tourist destinations in Europe. Its capital, Madrid, lies almost in the center of the Iberian peninsula, the highest capital in Europe. 

 The renowned Prado Museum in Madrid (photo credit: Turespana)
The renowned Prado Museum in Madrid
(photo credit: Turespana)

I will never forget my first visit to Madrid in the mid-1960s when dictator Francisco Franco ruled the country. Upon arrival, I hastened to the Gran Via, then named the Avenida de Jose Antonio, after the founder of the fascist Falange party.

I eyed the madrileño staking their evening paseo on the wide boulevard. Many small groups of youngsters, arms linked, sauntering with their families down the avenue. What a sight! Even then, living under a dictatorship, the Spanish lust for life, could be seen on the faces of these citizens of Madrid,

Spain has come a long way since Franco’s days. Spain is democratic and one of the leading tourist destinations in Europe, including its capital, Madrid, which became the seat of government in 1561. The city lies almost in the center of the Iberian peninsula, the highest capital in Europe. 

Situated in the Meseta, this somewhat isolated metropolis rests on an undulating plateau of sand and clay. Because it suffered severe damage in the Spanish Civil War, which ended just over 80 years ago, many of the buildings and homes were rebuilt.

Today, the name Avenida Jose Antonio is back to its proper name, the lively Gran Via, indicative of a great European capital where the traveler can ponder the paintings of Goya; embark on a gastronomical adventure with tapas and enjoy feisty flamenco. It’s all here in Madrid.

Madrid is busy and active and the energy is addictive. Greater Madrid boasts nearly seven million madrileños, who traverse wide boulevards and bask in the sun at dramatic fountains and statues of heroes. Here, Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, Lope de Vega wrote plays and El Greco painted. The old adage that Spain is in Europe but not of it, a sort of island capital, aloof behind the rampart of the Pyrenees and the surrounding moat of the sea, is no longer true. In the 21st century, Spain combines its action in NATO with active involvement in the security and defense policy within the European Union. It is often called Europe’s “moveable feast,” with its famous dress designers, rock stars, and chic café people.

But make no mistake about it, Madrid is different than its tourist rival, Barcelona. Madrid, unlike Barcelona, does not feel Mediterranean, alive with colors and flamboyances. As James Morris, travel writer, observed in his book Cities, Madrid “flaunts none of the excitements of the castanets, none of the flounce of the gipsy skirts, none of the flash or fire of the textbook Latins.”

View from the rooftop of the Circulo de Bellas Artes cultural center during a heavy snowfall in Madrid (credit: REUTERS/SUSANA VERA)View from the rooftop of the Circulo de Bellas Artes cultural center during a heavy snowfall in Madrid (credit: REUTERS/SUSANA VERA)

But the capital boasts one of the world’s outstanding art museums, the Prado, also called the National Museum of Painting and Sculpture. In 2024, it will celebrate its 205th anniversary. Several million visitors a year tour the masterpieces. Author Ernest Hemingway, who spent much time in Spain and wrote his masterpiece For Whom the Bell Tolls there, noted that if the city “had nothing else than the Prado, it would be worth spending a month every spring here if you have money to spend in any European capital.” There are about 2,000 paintings by Spanish and foreign masters in the Prado, including more than 80 works by El Greco, 100 by Francisco Goya and 50 by Diego Velázquez.

Also, The Palacio Real, the National Palace, a magnificent, granite building planned by Philip V and containing many costly paintings, statues and decorations; is surrounded by vast gardens.

One more museum of note is the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Gaze at Picasso’s Guernica, the subject of which is the German saturation bombing of a civilian population during the Spanish Civil War.

After touring the museums, saunter around the Plaza Mayor, a magnificent square lined with shops. “Watch the world go by,” as the saying goes. Stop off at one of the many tapas bars for those delicious Spanish savory dishes, with a drink of course. Good late afternoon, early evening snack, as Spaniards eat late at night. No early bird specials here.

FOR JEWISH TRAVELERS, visiting Madrid or any city in Spain, is a reminder that over 400 years of exile occurred until the return. That exile has not dimmed the memory of Spain’s Jewish past. The Jewish people still recall their “Golden Age” in Spain. To this day, Jewish history does not record a similar success story anywhere in Europe that Jews lived as “harmoniously or creatively” as in that age in Spain. The Spanish-Jewish community produced doctors, mathematicians, philosophers, court advisers, diplomats and military leaders. But as often happens in Jewish history, events took a turn for the worse. Soon, one of the most horrible words in the lexicon of the Jewish people was created, the Inquisition – as well as words such as conversos, marranos, anusim. And yes, the expulsion of several hundred thousand Jews in 1492; the burning of Jews at the stake and the Sephardim, who scattered and settled throughout the Mediterranean.

Only at the end of the 19th century did Jews begin to trickle back into Spain.

On my first trip to Spain, I searched and searched for the synagogue, I had difficulty finding it. In those days, a Jewish house of workshop could not display exterior designs. I remember I walked up a long flight of steps in an apartment building to reach the nearly hidden synagogue.

In recent years, the Jewish population in Madrid has increased. Today, estimates range from six to seven thousand. Many came after World War II. And in 2015, Spain announced it would grant citizenship to people of Sephardi descent, a program publicized as reparations for the expulsion of Jews in 1492. In recent months, however, more than 3,000 applications of Sephardim have been rejected “raising questions of how serious, the government is about its promise,” wrote The New York Times. About 34,000 applications have been accepted.

After Franco’s death in 1975, a free life began for all Spaniards, including Jews.

No longer do you have to search for a synagogue and kosher food. One of the several house of worships frequently visited by tourists is Beth Yaakov Synagogue and Jewish Community Center, 3 Calle Balmas, Madrid. Tel: +34-91591-31-31, [email protected] The community center has a Jewish museum. Tel: +34 658 14 09 69. This building on Calle Balmas serves as religious and cultural center and contains a library, a kosher catering facility, a youth lounge and another small synagogue. Arrangements for kosher meals can be made here, but write and order in advance. The synagogue is Orthodox.

The cornerstone of the synagogue building reads: “This house of prayer is the first ever to be built in Madrid. May it be a symbol and a memorial for the Jewish communities that existed in this land until 1492 and a portent for the revival of Judaism in Spain.” It’s clear, therefore, that Sephardim all over the world, continue to celebrate their Spanish roots and heritage.

So, if you are planning a trip to Europe, make sure you include Madrid, a city of art, palaces, gardens and big city bustle. You’ll be imbued with its spirit, its romance, color, history and grandeur.

Ben G. Frank, travel writer and travel-lecturer, is the author of the just-published Klara’s War, A Novel and other travel books. Follow him at Twitter:@bengfrank