21 May, 2011

Cheapskate Chronicles Madrid - A Free Walking Tour

There is an adage in life,  "There is no such thing as a free lunch". Tell that to Sandeman's New Madrid Tours, which promises an exciting 3.5 hour walking tour in Madrid led by enthusiastic guides for the grand price of zero. However, the guides do work for tips, so patrons should feel free to give them a gratuity, depending on how happy or annoyed they are at the end of the tour. 

Since it seemed like a no-lose proposition, and eager to get some exercise, I found myself at Madrid's largest square, Plaza Mayor, and was given the choice between the English and Spanish tours - with no hesitation, I opted for the latter. Truth to tell, it wasn't a hard decision to make at all.

So...let me lead you on an orientation of Madrid, with some interesting and strange facts to be dished out. But first, a caveat: accuracy of translation is not guaranteed.

Plaza Mayor used to be called Plaza Real, then Plaza Constitution, and switched back and forth among these names. Currently, Madrilenos simply refer to it as the Plaza, to hedge their bets on any future name change. 

In the middle of the square is a statue of King Felipe II mounted on a horse (above). Originally, the horse's mouth was wide open, but pigeons kept getting stuck inside. Thus in one of the remodeling efforts they decided to keep it shut. 
Next, we moved on to Botin, the world's oldest restaurant, as attested to by the Guinness World Records certificate inside the glass window. I'm sure the food is pricey here due the novelty, so most tourists are content to just snap a pic. The renowned Spanish painter Goya allegedly worked as a dishwasher at Botin before he moved on to better things.

Madrid was transformed from a sleepy town into Spain's capital by the Moors, and for a long time they did not have a proper city hall. The present one at Plaza de la Villa (left) looks nice, but took all of a hundred fifty years to build - in the meantime, I imagine they simply held their meetings in each official's living room, rotating every week or so.

Why the delay? Who knows, perhaps the usual suspects - infighting and bureaucracy, plus it is simply too tempting to sit back and enjoy the nice weather and knock back another glass of sangria in this land of mañana. If you think this is scandalous (perhaps you're an American who's used to getting things done quickly), consider the Cathedral de la Almudena (middle) which took almost four hundred years, went through ten architects before completion. Now it is a mish-mash of styles of three architectural styles: Baroque, Gothic and "pop-art", based on each architect's whims. 

The photo on the far right is the Palacio Real, used for official functions held for visiting foreign heads of state. The royals no longer live here, but have downsized to a smaller palace across town by the Parque del Retiro. Tough economic times in Spain, including almost twenty percent unemployment, means cutting back for everyone. The walking tour obviously didn't allow for time to go inside the palace, but I was happy to snap a photo and move on, feeling a bit sorry for the   sun-drenched tourists queuing up at the ticket office.  

Finally, our motley crew of thirteen Spanish speaking tourists, led by the guide Mirelur, reached the spiritual but not geographical heart of Madrid, the Puerta del Sol. Despite it's name, there is no door to Sol, but it's simply a huge plaza where metro lines intersect, possibly the closest thing they have to Times Square (minus the electronic billboards, stock market ticker symbols and steaming Cup Noodles). 

Nowadays Puerta del Sol is used primarily for gatherings like strikes (I actually witnessed one the following day) and the New Year's Eve countdown. (A piece of trivia: Spaniards are supposed to down twelve grapes before the clock strikes for good luck).

Puerta del Sol is also home to probably the most photographed curiosity in Madrid - the city's proud symbol, a twenty ton bear kissing what looks like a giant stem of broccoli but is actually a madroño (madrone tree), whatever that is.  Not sure why a bear and non-native plant are considered Madrid's symbol, nor how long it took to build this statue - after over three hours of being intensely focused on listening, understanding and internally translating Mirelur's words, my mind went on a much-needed tapas and vino break. 

Overall, it was a fun introduction to Madrid - I got not only my daily dose of physical exercise, but about a month's worth of intellectual exercise to boot. Now for that afternoon siesta.

Yes, I could rationalize and mention the smaller group size for the Spanish tour (the Anglo speakers outnumbered us two-to-one), the opportunity to practice listening to the lisping accent in España, but in the end the deciding factor in choosing the Spanish tour can be seen on the left of this text. 

Mirelur is originally from Bilbao but has lived in Madrid for  a few years. Our group was only her second tour ever, but she was enthusiastic, knowledgeable, loads of fun, and most importantly, spoke clearly and not too rapidly for me. 

Granted, I could have had an easier time with the English tour, but why would I choose some guy from Philly over this winsome lass?  

Sandeman's New Madrid walking tour might be free, but this cheapskate was quite pleased, and forked out a generous tip. So there is really no such thing as a free lunch. 

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had the chance to eat lunch at El Botin last November. It was not cheap but the food was very good, especially the roasted pig. The person preparing/cooking it in the restaurant is from the Philippines.