“Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night.”
Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
Travel-weary from an intercontinental ferry across the Straight of Gibraltar and a night of half-sleep on a redeye bus from the Andalusian coast, it is 6:00am when we pull into the Estación Sur de Autobus in Madrid, the night already killed. Our goal in Spain this trip is to experience the North: Galicia, Asturias, Basque country. (Almost) all busses and trains in Spain, however, lead to Madrid, and I have been in love with this capital city since my first visit exactly thirteen years ago in April of 2001. A pair of ticket stubs from the Plaza de Toros tumbles out of my phrasebook, reminds me of my first encounter and gets my heart pumping. We shake off our sleepiness, strap on our bags and channel the passión of our inner madreleños. Here are highlights from our one glorious (hotel-free, ultra-low budget) day in Madrid:
7:00am: Check our bags. All of Madrid’s major bus and train stations provide secure luggage storage services. With our backpacks off our shoulders (we tell ourselves), we don’t feel tired at all. No, really, we don’t.
8:00am: Plan our onward travel. The cheap seats on our first choice night train are already full so, instead, we book night bus tickets to Santiago de Compostela. Boarding time? 12:30am tomorrow morning. We have sixteen hours to kill.
9:30am: Eat churros con chocolate. Stroll from the grand Puerta de Atocha (which makes me want to move here every time I see it), past the Museo de Jamón, a.k.a. Musuem of Ham (which also makes me want to move here every time I see it) to the Plaza Mayor where the daily parade of street performers and tourists is just lining up, and the terrazas are just setting up their chairs for the day. On a side alley just off the Plaza you find the Chocolatería de San Ginés, which has been serving churros con chocolate, deep fried strips of fluted, doughnutty goodness with dipping chocolate, from day until dawn since 1894, closing just a few hours in the early morning to regroup.
11:00am: See contemporary art. With churros and a café con leche under belt, we head for the edge of the Malasaño barrio and take in a series of thought-provoking, contemporary art exhibits edgy enough to keep us conscious at the Antiguo Cuartel del Conde Duque (not counting the catnap I take on a large ottoman in a dark corner of the collection’s smartly renovated 18th century space). An exhibit entitled Abendland (Twilight Lands) by Finnish artists Patrik Söderlund and Visa Suonpää, suggesting post-human life landscapes through detailed line drawings and digital animation, is hypnotic. (Free.)
1:00pm: See more contemporary art. Madrid is one of the best cities in the world for exploring public art. We take a break from high fashion window shopping and bookstore browsing to check out the open air collection of sculptures by Miró, Chillida and other Spanish masters in the Museo al Aire Libre, as well as the skate board moves of the teens who have claimed this urban plaza as their own. (Free.)
2:00pm: Lounge in the park. We make our way to the lush oasis that is the Parque del Buen Retiro. It’s my favorite park. There simply can’t be anywhere in the world more elegant yet welcoming, more serene yet alive, or more civil yet wild. Go to bed early if needed, skip the bullfight if your values insist, but don’t come to Madrid without making time to luxuriate in El Retiro. (Free.)
3:00pm: See even more art! We get up from the grass, brush the flowering tree petals from our clothes, find our second wind and spring for tickets at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (we saw the Prado on another visit), home to major contemporary works by Dalí, Miró and Picasso, including Guernica, his mural-sized, anti-war masterpiece. ¡Olé! (Open late.)
8:00pm: Feast. It’s still 80°F and sunny. We self cater a picnic and head back to the park, which comes alive at night: musicians rehearse, lovers grope each other under trees, runners exert themselves, and us? We drink a liter of box wine like it’s water.
10:30pm: Pick up your bags. We float to the station in a very good mood.
11:30pm: Wait for your bus. We make yourselves comfortable in the terminal, put our feet up, read up on northern Spain and try to keep our eyes open. Hey! They just announced our departure dock number! We made it!
Eight hours to Santiago de Compostela. Twelve to our next access to a shower.
Giving Hemingway an endurance run for his money,