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.


Egyptian government converts antique building into hotel

This photo taken on July 26, 2020 shows the derelict dome of the Mamluk Sultan Abu Said al-Zahir Qansuh al-Ashrafi (AD 1498-1500) amidst ongoing roadworks at the historic City of the Dead necropolis of Egypt's capital Cairo. (AFP)
Updated 25 October 2020

Egyptian government converts antique building into hotel

  • Wakala Al-Sultan Qaytbay is one of the most beautiful examples of Islamic buildings that characterized architecture in the Mamluk era

CAIRO: The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities is converting Wakala Al-Sultan Qaytbay in Cairo into a private hotel.

This project is the first of its kind in Egypt. The Islamic archaeological site will be redesigned as a hotel, at a cost of around EGP100 million ($6.3 million).

The history of the urban caravanserai and apartment complex dates back to the Mamluk era in the late-fifteenth century. It was built by Sultan Al-Malik Al-Ashraf Abu Al-Nasr Qaytbay, one of the rulers of the state of the Circassian Mamluks, who later ruled Egypt. He loved architecture and the arts, reflected by the timeless monuments that he left.

Wakala Al-Sultan Qaytbay is one of the most beautiful examples of Islamic buildings that characterized architecture in the Mamluk era. It consists of three floors and overlooks a spacious inner courtyard. The ground floor was used for trade, with the two upper floors for housing.

Archaeologist Mahmoud Abdel-Baset, director general of the Historic Cairo Development Project, said that it was scheduled to be completed within 2021.

He said the project will create a unique hotel while preserving ancient archaeological heritage.

Abdel-Baset added that the hotel will be provided with a suitable furnish for the history and location of the building.

He said that the shops at the complex’s front will be preserved and that they will continue as commercial outlets for tourists and visitors.

The Historic Cairo Development Project told Arab News that the economic return from the hotel will contribute to the continuity of maintenance work, creating a mutually beneficial relationship between the complex and the surrounding community.

The project is being headed by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities with funding from the Ministry of Housing, Fatimid Cairo Authority. Hania Mamdouh, the supervisor of the Engineering Unit in Historic Cairo, confirmed that the Venice Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites and the requirements of the tourism ministry for heritage hotels were taken into account.

The team has used different bricks from those found in the original construction to guarantee that visitors can easily distinguish between the two eras of development.

Mamdouh said that red hollow bricks were used because they are lighter and do not affect the structural integrity of the original elements of the facility. She added that the bricks were previously used in a restoration effort from the 1940s.

Hajj Samir, the owner of one of the shops in the area, said that the project is special to the local community. Previously it was a filthy place neglected by government officials.

“In the past, the cleaners did not work...Now things are completely different, and the region will become global in the full sense of the word,” he added.