Magical Madrid: The unique charms of the Spanish capital

Madrid the capital of Spain. (Shutterstock)
Updated 13 November 2018

Magical Madrid: The unique charms of the Spanish capital

  • Madrid is a European capital like no other
  • Madrid’s blockbuster sights regally lived up to their generations-old hype

LONDON: It was bad luck that brought me to Madrid — or perhaps fate. Midway through a two-month road trip around Southern Europe, diligently skirting the coasts of Portugal and Spain, but with no intention of venturing inland, my 20-year-old campervan broke down in the scorching Andalusian planes, some 30 km outside Seville, officially the warmest city in Europe.
My fate was sealed by the calendar as much as the location: It wasn’t just that I blamed the searing summer sun for overheating my ancient engine, but also for thwarting any chance of its repair. For the month of “Agosto,” I soon learned, the south of Spain simply shuts down. There wasn’t a garage in town with the faintest bit of interest in fixing my motor. And so, after a fortnight of shade-seeking 40-degree days and flamenco-filled nights in Seville, I impulsively rented a car and made a spontaneous six-hour road trip to Madrid. And whatever the repair bill ended up being, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Arriving exhausted at dusk, I emerged from my air-conditioned car to find the climate completely transformed, temperatures hovering in the pleasant mid-twenties, surrounded by commuters ambling amiably to street-side tavernas rather than racing to the metro — or hiding indoors like their southern compatriots.

Hurried logic (and a whiff of luck) had brought me to the south-western edge of the central Sol barrio, a maze of winding streets with colorful cafés and tapas joints that seem to be as busy for breakfast as in the early hours, entertaining a constant flow of customers and an insistent throb of lively chat. It was the perfect tonic for the breakdown blues.
Arriving without preconception or preparation had its benefits. I was free to follow whims, enjoying the kind of aimlessness which can only be bred through enforced limbo. Evenings drifted by nibbling gambas al ajillo (garlic prawns) and pimientos de padrón (padrón peppers), while practicing my newly acquired Spanish with friendly locals at Bodegas Melibea, an audaciously decorated café with wide open windows offering cooling vistas of the ever-changing street scene.

Madrid’s blockbuster sights regally lived up to their generations-old hype. The Plaza Major really could not be better named — a bright rectangular space built around the turn of the 16th century, lined with interconnected regal rows of identical three-story buildings, sporting a total of 237 tiny balconies.
Grander still is the Royal Palace of Madrid, a magnificent maze of 3,418 rooms which make it Europe’s largest royal residence. Be sure to stop at the nearby Temple of Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple donated to Spain and incongruously rebuilt in the early 1970s.
I had heard of the Prado Museum, of course, and held some inkling of its famed depth and breadth, but little could prepare me for the boggling floorplan and epic catalogue of art, which stretches from the 12th to 20th centuries. At any one time, only about 1,300 of the institution’s collection of more than 20,000 works is on display — but that still means that if you entered at 10 a.m., stayed until closing time at 8 p.m., and took zero breaks, you would have the equivalent of 27 seconds to view each work. Time is likely to be considerably tighter when an extension is unveiled next year, coinciding with the Prado’s 200th anniversary.

Temple of Debod. (Shutterstock)

More manageable and equally essential is the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, one of Europe’s greatest exhibitors of 20th-century artists which pays homage to the country’s headline exports Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí — including staging the former’s epic “Guernica,” a stark, monochrome Spanish Civil War epic which rightfully ranks among the century’s greatest cultural achievements. At 7.7 meters wide, it’s a work that no postcard or textbook reproduction can do justice to — a statement which needs to be experienced in the flesh, and studied up close, to appreciate even a jot of its power, scope or intent.
Madrid is simply magical. Not in that quaint, stately, Western European way of Vienna or Prague, nor with the pretentious powerhouse vibe of Paris or London. And nothing like the crumbling grandeur of Mediterranean neighbors Rome and Athens. It’s a European capital like no other — and it’s the one I’d move to in a heartbeat.


Exploring Saudi Arabia: A journey through the lens

In 2015, Abdulaziz Aldakheel formed the Earth Aerial Documentary Team for his projects. (Photos/Supplied)
Updated 16 February 2020

Exploring Saudi Arabia: A journey through the lens

  • Abdulaziz Aldakheel flies a two-seater aircraft to take aerial shots of heritage sites of Saudi Arabia

RIYADH: Abdulaziz Aldakheel, a businessman and adventurer from Madinah, flies a two-seater aircraft and takes aerial photographs of Saudi Arabia that have been creating waves on social media.
“I like to explore and document sites and everything I see from the top. As a pilot, I know how to get the best spots (to) capture a good photo from the right angle. I also know the right altitude,” he told Arab News.
“Aerial photography is unique and unlike regular photography on the ground, which everyone can do.” He said he has licenses to fly over some banned areas and zones in Madinah.
It all started in 2014, when Aldakheel set off to explore a volcano crater in Madinah. “I also took photographs, which won the admiration of many of my friends and followers on social media,” he said.
“My friends and I started to search for exotic places to explore and learn more about, and also to document them, as we all shared the belief that the Kingdom boasts exotic and great archeological sites, including Islamic and historical ones,” he added.
“We decided to form a team of professional members who are capable of making such explorations and documenting what we see. In 2015, we formed the Earth Aerial Documentary Team, the first and largest volunteer team that uses light-sport aircraft for photography.”
Some of the most aspiring photography experiences for him and his team are rare natural phenomena in desert areas across the Kingdom, such as snowfall.
“Flying is our hobby. We fly twice a week ... The Saudi deserts are the most mesmerizing during the winter. Besides, flying during cold weather is better,” Aldakheel said.
His favorite photography tools are two Nikon D850 cameras. “This type of camera is the most professional and helps you capture photos with very high precision, and zoom in and out easily while flying an aircraft,” he said.
“We fly aircraft as volunteers to serve our country and with the full support of Madinah Gov. Prince Faisal bin Salman and his deputy Prince Saud bin Khalid Al-Faisal. We’re grateful for their continuously encouraging the whole team. We’re proud that they put up the photos of the team in the emirate building in Madinah. We view this as a major achievement and an inspiration that will spur us on to do more,” Aldakheel added.
“Our ambition is to get approval for other sites in the Kingdom so we can document them.” He will be documenting remote areas in the Eastern Province, the Southern Region and the Empty Quarter.
“We’re getting ready for our exhibition in Madinah, where we’ll showcase our works as well as our aircraft, vehicles, photography and camping equipment,” he said.