My name can now be added to the hordes that came to this experience that is called Barcelona and fell in love with it. But, heavy as the feet may be, it's time for them to move on. Adios Barcelona, hola Madrid.
I am prepared for the worst, weather-wise. Or at least that is what I think. Located in the centre of the country, Madrid is one of the coldest cities in Spain, and to top that the weatherman has predicted a further drop in temperature. As the train enters Madrid, the sun is shining in all its glory and I give a mental "Hah!" to the weatherman. I get off the train and the cold air hits me wham in the face. "Hah! Hah!" I hear the weatherman.
I have opted for a home-stay in Madrid and Margarita my hostess has very kindly offered to pick me up at the station. I like her instantly. Probably in her late 50s, Margarita is a lot of energy packed in a petite frame. She speaks only Spanish and keeps pointing out the locations of various buildings to me. Fortunately I understand most of what she says, and what I don't, I pretend to with a nod and a smile.
After settling my things, I head off to explore the old town. First stop is Plaza Mayor. It is a huge rectangle bordered by old buildings and dotted with statues. Huge crowds would gather here to witness bullfights, executions and other state events. Today it bears a carnival-like atmosphere and is crowded with tourists every day of the year. Next, I walk down Calle Mayor, the erstwhile main street that links the Puerta del Sol and the Royal Palace. Puerta del Sol marks the original east entrance of the city. The gatehouse and castle at this spot have long been taken down and what now exists is semi-circular plaza flanked by cafes and shops.
As I head towards the Royal Palace, there is a marked difference in the make-up of the streets and the ambience. The noise levels drop off, the streets are wider and buildings stately...almost as if the distinction in status between the masses and the royals, established hundreds of years ago, still exists. The first sight that greets me at the end of the Calle Mayor is the Cathedral de la Almudena, the royal Cathedral. Its construction started in 1879, was stalled for many years and was completed only in 1993 when it was inaugurated by the Pope. The sheer size of the structure gives it a majestic appearance as it towers over the equally impressive Royal Palace behind it. The palace and the cathedral are open to visitors but as I am short on time today I save the visit for another day.
This area has many immaculately landscaped parks dotted with marble statues and fountains to retain the old world feel. After catching the last few rays of the winter sun on the park bench, I start making my way back to Margarita's.
In all honesty, as far as first impressions go, Madrid fails in comparison to Barcelona. While the latter achieves in enamouring the visitor quite effortlessly, Madrid appears to be trying too hard. But, tomorrow is another day and first impressions are open to change. And if God is rooting for Madrid, may I suggest that better weather will definitely help!