Sunday, August 25, 2013

Visiting Madrid With Kids

Puerta del Sol in Madrid

When I think of Madrid I think of hot.  Hot, dry, summer temperatures.  This capital of a country with over 5,000 miles of coastlines is probably farther from a cool ocean breeze than any other city in Spain. Just come prepared for the heat, plan a daily siesta, and see all there is to see in Madrid.

Puerta del Sol
Madrid is a walking city - everything is best explored on foot.  The Plaza Mayor and Puerte del Sol are very near each other - both off the Calle Mayor - and a good place to start your tour of the town.  Puerte del Sol is, in fact, the symbolic center of Spain, as so marked by the kilómetro cero, a plaque on the ground in front of the post office from which distances in the country can be measured.  (I've seen these in Paris and Budapest, too.)  The Puerte del Sol is a busy, bustling square with a couple of landmarks such as the old post office and the statue of the bear and madrone tree.

Kilómetro cero

Bear and madrone tree - symbol of Madrid.

Plaza Mayor
A short distance away is Plaza Mayor, an enormous rectangular central plaza enclosed by residences with lovely balconies and an equestrian statue of Philip III in the center.  The most notably beautiful section of the buildings is the Casa de la Panadería with hand-painted frescoes on its façade.  Plaza Mayor used to be the site of bullfights and public executions, but now there are restaurants and shops and just general strolling.

Mercado de San Miguel
If you're hungry, you can troll for some tapas in nearby Mercado de San Miguel, a covered market where you can sample just about any little Spanish delicacy you desire, or rehydrate with some fresh-squeezed juice (or maybe sangria?)

Tapas at Mercado de San Miguel.

Royal Palace
Madrid's Royal Palace is a stunning site to visit.  Built in the 1700s, it was home to several royal families, but is now only used for award ceremonies, royal audiences, banquets, and other special events.  The Changing of the Guard is an interesting ceremony for younger children especially, and it's held every Wednesday at 11:00 a.m. except in the summer months.  Our family took an audioguide tour that covered the interior and exterior grounds.  I love the grand Almudena Cathedral right across the plaza from the palace.

In the courtyard of the Royal Palace, Madrid.

Almudena Cathedral, as seen from the palace courtyard.

Chandelier in the Royal Palace.

Retiro Park
When temperatures soar in Madrid, a nice place to cool off is Retiro Park at the edge of the city center.  Shady and wooded, this park offers relaxation as well as activities.  There are play structures for children, free summer concerts on Sundays, street performers and puppet shows.  Rowboats can be rented and paddled around in the large artificial pond next to the spectacular King Alfonso XII monument.

Large semicircular collonnade monument to King Alfonso XII.

Prado Museum
On the same side of town as Retiro Park is the famous Prado Museum.  Goyas and El Grecos as well as Dutch masters fill the beautiful building and are worth a look, especially after 6:00 p.m. on Mondays through Saturdays when admission is free!  (Also free on Sundays after 5:00 p.m.)

Prado Museum in Madrid.

For a late afternoon snack while walking around town, pick up some convent cookies from Convento de Corpus Christi or take a coffee break at Chocolatería San Ginés, the most famous churro bakery in Madrid.

My husband and I attended a bullfight at Madrid's Plaza de Toros many, many years ago, and although we appreciated the cultural beauty of the art, we were mortified when the dead bull was dragged out of the arena.  Still, my kids insisted they wanted to see a bullfight.  Fortunately or unfortunately, there weren't any scheduled when we were in Madrid.  You can check performance dates and buy tickets here.

Plaza de Toros de las Ventas in Madrid

Evening Strolls
We liked taking evening walks around Madrid's Parque de la Montaña, where you will find - of all things - a 2nd century B.C. Egyptian temple that was gifted to Spain in the 1960s.  At this park you can also enjoy brilliant views of the Royal Palace at night.

Related posts:
Convent Cookies
Local Artists
Chocolatería San Ginés
Madrid Atocha Railway Station
Egyptian Temple in Madrid

Monday, August 19, 2013

Sleeping Cabin on the Train from Lisbon to Madrid

Oddly enough, the only direct train from Lisbon to Madrid, and vice versa, is a night train.  So, since we had no other way to get from the capital of Portugal to the Madrid airport for our flight home, we booked a 4-person sleeping cabin for $110 per person.  Expensive, I know.  When you compare our crowded, bumpy, noisy, 11 hour night on the train with a stay in an equally expensive luxury hotel, it's a little depressing.  But the experience was valuable for my kids, and I'd do it again.

I slept fine (with just a little help from a good pair of earplugs and a double dose of Advil PM), and my son and daughter said they slept alright.  But my husband had trouble.  He's about 6'1", and the bed was too short for him.  The beds are also somewhat narrow.  He said he hardly slept at all.

As you can see from my photos, the cabins are narrow with little room for luggage.  The bed linens are okay and the blankets aren't needed because the room gets stuffy and warm in the summer.  In the corner is a small sink with running water and each passenger is provided a little gift pack which includes earplugs, a bar of soap, a travel toothbrush and toothpaste.  Nice touch, I think.  We felt very safe because the door had a lock as well as a security chain.  I did tell the kids to wake one of us up if they had to go to the bathroom at night, though, just to be cautious.

My husband and daughter, who are early risers, strolled up to the dining car before dawn and had breakfast.  They both agreed it was a good meal, with fresh rolls and orange juice.  My daughter particularly enjoyed watching the sunrise from the train as the Spanish countryside swished by outside the window.

Friday, August 9, 2013

I Spy the London Eye

As if a city with dungeons, pageantry, drawbridges, double-decker buses, and very large ravens wasn't enough fun for families with children, in 1999 London erected what was at that time the largest Ferris wheel in the world, right on the banks of the River Thames.  The London Eye, as it's known, is a must-do activity whether you're visiting the city with or without kids.

The passenger pods can each carry 25 people, and - believe it or not - they are air-conditioned.  (The Europeans are catching on!)  Passengers are free to walk around inside the oval-shaped, all-glass capsules, but there are benches to sit if you like.

View of a capsule from a capsule.

Seating inside the London Eye's passenger pods.

The most fabulous reason to take a ride on the London Eye is, of course, the 360° panorama of the city.  Views of the House of Parliament and its grand and noble Big Ben tower are a particular highlight from the top of the wheel.

The best way to see Big Ben.

Did you know that you can book your own private capsule package?  You can create your own theme party with food, dessert, or wine on board.  The London Eye also offers a chocolate and truffle tasting private experience, a wine tasting party, and a champagne tasting experience.  Of course, if you're just interested in a standard 30-minute ride, prices are £19.20 for those over 16, £12.30 from 4-15 years old, and free for children under 4.  A family of four ticket is £63.00.  Online ticket purchases offer a savings of up to 20%.

On a clear day, the views are endless.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Lisbon Oriente Train Station

Did you know that Lisbon's Oriente train station is as busy as Grand Central Terminal in New York?

Lisbon Oriente Station

On the train platform.

Books for sale inside the station.

My daughter looks like an alien standing in the inner gallery of the Lisbon Orient Station.

This is my Photo Friday link-up post at
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