With Madrid being Barcelona's rival in all things, it's difficult not to make constant comparisons. Right away the architecture tells you that you're not in Barcelona any more. Whereas Barcelona's Modernisme delights are full of color and whimsy, the edifices of the capital are imposing, wanting you to cower before their might and money. The city's bigger and sprawling, with an extensive subway system and an enviable amount of greenspace, like the Parque del Buen Retiro (300 acres), near the center. Even with the size, we still opted to walk to the tourist haunts. Puerta del Sol, famous all over Spain for its televised New Year's Eve celebration à la Time Square, was dominated by a giant Christmas tree light structure. Plaza Mayor was packed with a Christmas market selling mostly tat and overrun with Bob Esponja (that's Spongebob Squarepants) and other odd characters available for photo opps - at a price, of course.
You can also visit the Palacio Reial, the official residence of King Juan Carlos... although the royal family actually live in another "more modest" palace? (Somehow, those words don't really jive.) It is oppulent with a grand staircase, a mile-long table in the state dining room, countless gold clocks, and five Stradivarius instruments!
The real jewel in Madrid's crown, though, is the Museo del Prado. In visiting one of the world's best art museums, we knew we had to pace ourselves... so we spent nearly an entire day there. It is impressive. In an average museum, you might be lucky to see a few paintings from each master. In the Prado you can wander through gallery after gallery devoted to the different periods of Goya, El Greco, Velazquez, and others. [It was really cool seeing Velazquez's Las Meninas in person, especially after seeing Picasso's labored deconstruction of it in our Barcelona museum]. The Prado's permanent collection is so extensive that it allows for interesting arrangements. One room might contain a formal family portrait alongside complementary ones of each member at their own hobbies, all by the same artist. Another room had portraits of dwarves that had been associated with the royal court. Of course, this being Spain, one would expect to see many religious-themed pieces. What I didn't expect to see was so many representations of breast-feeding, at least 2 dozen. Amongst the most disturbing variations on this theme were a heavily bearded lady nursing... and the Virgin Mary dribbling her "bounty" onto the fires of souls in purgatory! And while we're talking disturbing, Heironymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights also figures prominently among the Prado's collection. If it wasn't so strong an assertion against temptation and sin, it would have been Exhibit A in the case for burning at the stake back in its day (the late 1400's). The wild and trippy masterpiece has more in common with surrealists like Dalí - heck, it could even grace a Pink Floyd album - than anything else you've seen in a church.
Lastly, the food... While Barcelona has some fantastic eats, everyone agrees Madrid has superior tapas. Consequently, we went out for a tapas pub crawl in the La Latina neighborhood. There were a couple of false starts, including some croquettes that we later saw featured randomly in a Spanish foodie magazine (disappointing). But we had some fine beers and cheap beers (not the same ones though): and hit the motherlode in a bar where each tapa was so big, it was a challenge to put in your mouth. Bacalao (salt cod) and other seafood was piled 2.5 inches high, and other tasty treats needed the old knife and fork. Other typical Madrid treats we got to try were cocido madrileño (lovely chickpeas and different meats stewed until tender) and gulas (baby eels)! All in all, we had a nice taste of Madrid, but we definitely would like to go back.