It was late at night when Nataliya and I arrived in Madrid. We retrieved our bags and headed for the airport bus. In some ways, the darkness of the late hour made our entrance to the capitol of Spain even more impressive. The sky was dark, but everything else was lit up.
As we drove toward the Puerta de Alcala, it looked as though the bus was going to drive right through the massive gateway. But the street curved into a roundabout and we circled the plaza. The former gateway into the city is formed of granite, and it looks spectacular when lit up at night. But if the gateway was impressive, our bus’s destination would leave us even more impressed.
We got off the bus at Plaza de Cibeles. In the center of the square is the iconic fountain crowned with a statue of the Roman goddess Cybele, seated in a chariot pulled by lions. We would meet her husband, Saturn, the next evening. For the time being, we were pleased to have the goddess welcome us to Madrid.
Beyond the statue, on the other side of the square, the Palacio de Comunicaciones and City Hall were lit up like fireflies—the illuminated clock tower told us it was nearly midnight. We lingered for some moments, taking in the lively sights as they only looked at night. Then, we extended our suitcase handles, pulled them behind like dogs on leashes, and headed down the road toward Puerta del Sol.
Sun Shines at Night
Puerta del Sol or “Gateway to the Sun” was still alive with energy even at the late hour when we arrived. The people here appeared to be more locals than tourists, with cafes and shops and the metro stop under a mirrored glass that looked like a silver moon on the cobblestone. Ten streets extend from Puerta del Sol, making it a little more confusing than expected to find our Hotel Santandar, which was off one of the ten streets. We asked the policemen who stood guard in the square (more half-moon shape than square) and they were happy to offer directions.
“Look for big lions at the Congreso de los Diputados. Same street.”
By the time we found the afore-mentioned lions at the home to Spain’s parliament, we had gone too far. But it only took minutes to turn back and find the big “Hotel Santandar” sign. We went to the unmarked door below the sign to find it locked. It was after midnight.
“What if they’re closed for the night,” Nataliya asked.
“I told them we were arriving late,” I said.
Both a little worried about spending the night leaning against a monument, we looked around for another, better marked door; turns out that the sign was only that—a sign. The actual hotel (and another well-lit sign) was just around the corner on the nearest side street. And there, we were warmly greeted in the historic building—a lobby filled with carved wood and marble and statuary—by a desk clerk who was expecting us.
Home in Madrid
Hotel Santandar is by no means a posh, luxury hotel, but it was much better than the typical cookie-cutter chain hotel. Family owned since the 1920s, it is located in a historic building of the same era. Other reviewers have mentioned that, being near the square, it can be noisy at night. But our room was located above a quiet alley and we never once heard a peep from outside—even with the windows open. Our room had a western-style bed (not two twins pushed together as we remembered from non-chain hotels in London, Paris, Prague, St. Petersburg, and Moscow). The furniture was either antique or wonderfully reproduced – heavy wood and stately in style. The large desk would have made a good place for writing, had it not been covered by our notes and guide books, tickets and maps. The ceilings were a good fifteen feet high, but not too far away to miss the details: a decorative centerpiece framed by plaster molding. The bath included an extra-long soaking tub (good after a long day of street and museum walking) with a European-style shower handle that could be plugged in up top or handheld. There was even a bidet.
During our days at the hotel, we encountered four friendly desk clerks. The one we spoke with most often happened to be from Cuba. Interestingly enough, he had gone to college in Russia and Ukraine, had worked in Mexico, and had recently moved to Madrid. Being from Cuba tied him to three diverse cross-cultures: Cuba, Russia (with the former Soviet connection) and Hispanic countries, like Mexico and Spain.
When traveling abroad on our own dollar (or Euro as the case may be), we tend to want a local, non-chain hotel that is clean. No whirlpool or king-sized bed is needed—just a place to sleep during the few hours of the night that we’re not out exploring. We were happy to find that Hotel Santandar, located at Echegaray 1, was not just a place to sleep. But when we finally got settled in and showered off well west of Midnight, sleep we did.
Gateway to the Sun
We rose with the sun for our first full day in Madrid, with breakfast in Puerta del Sol. Once, there really was a gateway here, but it was destroyed in 1570. This square is also where the massacre took place in 1808, when locals were attacked by Napoleon’s forces. These days, the Gateway to the Sun comes closer to living up to its name. The atmosphere is pleasant, the energy positive. There are peaceful demonstrations, but it is mostly a square of meeting and greeting, where locals come together.
I’ve already mentioned the modern glass train station entry. The square is also famous for the bronze statue of a bear eating from a strawberry tree—often used as a symbol for Madrid. At the center of the square is a statue of Carol III astride his horse. And the building where the helpful policemen are on guard 24 hours a day, with its iconic clock tower, is home to the regional government. In past eras, it has been everything from a post office to headquarters for Ministry of the Interior.
Although we avoid chains, we did enjoy breakfast a few times in Puerta del Sol at the “museum of ham,” where they served up juice from Valencia oranges squeezed right in front of you, delicious Spanish coffee with steamed milk, and sandwiches of meat and cheese. Like many places, you actually stand at the bar to eat and drink. Most people in the early morning enjoyed coffee and hot chocolate with churros and sandwiches and juice. But every time we went for breakfast, inevitably there would be at least one gentleman enjoying an a.m. ale with his morning meal.
Who doesn’t like to sleep in? But when we have limited time in a place like Madrid, we want to be up with the sun, at the Gateway to the Sun, each day. The best time to hit the places where lines get long is in the early morning. The Thyssen-Bornemisza, one of the three great art museums of Madrid, opened at 10. We were there by 9:45.
More than a Hotel Room
The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza had a very modern feel to it. The collection was put together by Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and his son, Hans Heinrich. The location is the Villahermosa Palace, from the 18th century. As a sort of history of western art, the paintings and sculptures (more than 1,000) range from Flemish and Italian primitives to 20th century pop art.
One could easily spend a day or two perusing the paintings of this museum. We dedicated a few hours, stopping to linger over the ones that captivated us. Some of the highlights of the Thyssen-Bornemisza include Edward Hopper’s Hotel Room, and Harlequin with a Mirror by Picasso; Women with a Parasol in Garden by Renoir and Swaying Dancer by Degas. Goya, Titian, Gauguin, Rubens, Christus, Van Gough, and Dali are all represented here, along with their contemporaries.