Sean Connery Sean Connery
Catherine Zeta-Jones Catherine Zeta-Jones
Alex Alex

When the wheels of his plane touched the runway at Madrid's Barajas International Airport, Alex officially became an international traveler. Alex and his parents passed through customs, then took a wild ride in a hotel van, and were soon downtown in Spain's capital city. Madrid is a city that contains countless images of a bear picking fruit from a tree. It's a city that, in colonial days, held dominion over Florida, Texas, California, Mexico, and much of Central and South America.

It's also a city where pedestrians don't seem to enjoy a right of way over vehicular traffic. In American cities, at least those in the northeast, those on foot tend to stride boldly into the street, confident that motorists will slow down or stop if necessary. In Madrid, that assumption is reversed. Alex's parents learned this lesson early, as they watched from the windows of the Hotel Atlantico shuttle. Pedestrians scattered like bowling pins at the sight of the onrushing van. It was almost entertaining, in a perverse sort of way.

The Palacio Real The Palacio Real, or Royal Palace. The last monarch to live here was Alfonso XIII, who fled in 1931 during the Spanish Civil War. Spain's current king, Juan Carlos I, lives elsewhere but uses the palace for official functions.

Alex enjoyed his three days in Madrid. Although an old city, (it's been the capital of Spain since 1607) Madrid has no shortage of young people. It's almost like a huge college campus. The sidewalks, whether along the Gran Via or the smaller side streets, are teeming with people under the age of 30. Alex, an American boy in a European capital, thrived on the city's youthful vitality. He truly became part of Madrid, as Madrid became a part of him.

* * *

Zeta-Jones The star arrives
On Alex's first night in Madrid, a theater across the street from his hotel was the site of a major movie premiere. The movie was La Trampa, known in the United States as Entrapment, starring Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones. As part of the festivities, the theater was repeatedly, and maddeningly, playing one song at ear-splitting volume for over two hours, until 11 p.m. (The song may have been Seal's "Prayer For The Dying" or something by Lenny Kravitz. Nobody's certain anymore.) On the sidewalk, as the music blared, a dense crowd of people milled about a red carpet that stretched from the curb to the theater's lobby.

Five stories above street level, the hotel windows were literally vibrating. Alex's parents, groggy and zombie-like from jetlag, sat in a stupor and wondered if every night in Madrid would be like this. (Alex was unfazed by the sonic bombardment from across the street. He spent the evening happily running around the hotel room with his mother's bathing suit on his head.) The music finally came to a stop when Catherine Zeta-Jones herself, draped in a white gown, pulled up in a limousine and entered the theater.

The crowd then dispersed, having happily traded a lifetime of hearing for a glimpse of a movie star.

Jet lag Movie Palace
Alex sleeps off some jet lag in a Madrid hotel. At right, a movie palace along the Gran Via. The posters are for La Trampa, naturally.
Two of Madrid's top tourist destinations are the Palacio Real and the Museo del Prado. For a boy Alex's age, a visit to a royal palace and an art museum is more to be endured
Palacio Real Botanical Garden
At left, Alex relaxes on a lightpost in the courtyard of the Palacio Real. Later, he posed in front of the gate to the Botanical Garden, just outside the Prado.
than enjoyed, and he did an admirable job at both sites.

At the palace, Alex's parents opted for the self-guided tour, which leads from one opulent room to another. The palace has 2,800 rooms, and needless to say, only a small fraction of these rooms are available for public viewing. Each room on the tour is brimming with priceless decorations and artifacts.

While many of the palace's treasures were beneath his interest, there were a few items that captured his attention. In each room, he would gaze at the ceilings, which were painted with elaborate murals that generally depicted heavenly angels. In a room that contained a large collection of antique musical instruments, Alex enjoyed looking at the many pianos, violins, and horns. He was especially excited to spot a harp, the instrument that he associates with his favorite Marx Brother. There were also tables that, instead of legs, were supported by sculpted lions, and a billiards table that was "just like Grandpa's." (Actually, the table was just a little bit fancier than the one in Alex's grandfather's basement, if you want to split hairs!)

Guardhouse window Alex peers out of a window of a guardhouse in the palace courtyard.
On the other side of town, meanwhile, the Prado is considered to be one of the world's greatest art museums, with a collection of paintings highlighted by the works of three great Spanish masters: Diego Velasquez, El Greco, and Francisco Goya. Alex had short bursts of enthusiasm for the artwork, when he'd be excited to find horses or dogs on the painted canvases. Many of the galleries had lavish tables with inlaid stone and intricate colorful patterns. Alex decided these were "ping pong tables" and he enjoyed counting all the ping pong tables in the "picture museum."

The Prado was too big, though, and the collection too vast, for Alex to be able to maintain any kind of enthusiasm. By the end of the visit, Alex was tired and cranky. As we said earlier, toddlers and art museums don't really mesh, but Alex did about as well as could be expected.

Plaza Mayor Plaza Mayor
In Madrid's Plaza Mayor. To see some samples of Alex's photography, be sure to visit Alexander's Photo Album.
There was more traditional toddler fun to be had in the Plaza Mayor (Main Square), which was built during the reign of Felipe III, and completed in 1620. Both the atmosphere and the architecture of the Plaza Mayor are reminiscent of New Orleans' French Quarter. While in the plaza, Alex ran around, ate ice cream, snapped photos, and listened to a band play. Madrid is a loud and festive city, and its Plaza Mayor is a loud and festive place.

After people watching in the Plaza Mayor, Alex did some animal watching at Zoo Madrid. The zoo, which is only three subway stops from downtown, is located in a large city park. Zoo Madrid is similar to many of the better zoos in the United States, although there are a few key differences:

  • The animals, of course, all speak Spanish.
  • It's not only a zoo, but it's also an aquarium. There are dolphin shows and big Sea World style shark tanks.
  • Visitors are not discouraged from feeding the animals. At each exhibit, people entertain themselves and their children by tossing food into the enclosures. As a result, species that are normally reclusive in other zoos become like the ducks in your neighborhood pond. They approach each new visitor, and linger long enough to determine whether or not there's food to be had.

After three days in Madrid, it was time for Alex and his parents to begin the automotive portion of their Spanish vacation. On Sunday morning they picked up their "Spain car" and headed south on the Autovia to the land of La Mancha, and the city of Toledo.

Madrid bear Madrid elephant
At Zoo Madrid, this friendly bear was happy to pose for photographs. At right, Alex and his mother pose in front of an unidentifed elephant. We have to wonder, does the elephant know he's in Spain? Does he care? Definitely something to ponder...