Archive for urban

Architects that Made Madrid


Antonio Palacios building in Cibeles


Have you ever noticed a quirky detail under a balcony, a beautiful entranceway, an unusual shape building on a corner lot, and wondered who thought it up? Someone put it all together – an architect who by inspiration and planning created a building that was structurally sound, visually pleasing, with its own personality but also fitting in with its surroundings.

That’s the ideal situation and it’s a tall order, but it can be done. Madrid really does have a sort of architectural personality – or rather, as many personalities as neighborhoods – and lots of great buildings, especially in the older part of the city. Churches, convents, palaces, banks, all somehow fit together to make Madrid distinctively Madrid.

This article is a fast introduction to architecture in Madrid, highlighting several influential or prolific architects from 17th to 20th centuries. It’s interesting to note how architects first patrons were kings and nobility, later on City Hall, cultural organizations (Bellas Artes building by Antonio Palacios), real estate developers or occasionally wealthy people looking for a statement (Longoria Palace by Grases Riera).

Like most modern cities, Madrid has lost many beautiful buildings, torn down in the name of progress, destroyed by time, fire, or so altered by remodelling that they have lost their original character. But there’s still lots to enjoy! Take a walk in the city, look around you, become an architectural sleuth to see if you can identify buildings by these architects – or discover other architects who helped create the Madrid we can see today.

Juan de Herrera 1530? – 1597. Worked mainly for: King Felipe II. Work in Madrid: Bridge over the Manzanares at bottom of Segovia street. Important work outside Madrid: San Lorenzo de El Escorial Monastery (started by Juan Bautista de Toledo, altered and completed by Herrera); also worked on Aranjuez palace and Valladolid cathedral. Characteristic style, called herrerriano in his honor: symmetrical, geometric lines, very little decoration, sloped roofs usually in dark slate, square towers at corners of buildings with four-sided pyramidal roofs topped with tallish pinnacles. Quick summary: While only the Segovia bridge remains of his actual works, Herrera’s influence is visible in later buildings: Plaza Mayor (designed by Herrera, destroyed by fire late 18th century and rebuilt in same style), Old City Hall (Plaza de la Villa, Juan Gomez de Mora project, started around 1645), Foreign Ministry (Asuntos Exteriores, Plaza de las Provincias by Plaza Mayor, built as noble’s jail, Juan Gomez de Mora project started 1629), or the Escorial-like Air Force headquarters (Princesa street at Moncloa, built 1942-1951)

Pedro de Ribera 1681-1742. Worked mostly for: King Felipe V, nobles. His work in Madrid: Conde Duque barracks (Conde Duque street), Hospital for the poor (Fuencarral 78, now City History museum), various noblemen’s palaces around the city (current Chamber of Commerce on Huertas street, current Treasury building on Alcalá street, doorway of Filmoteca Institute on Magdalena street). Also worked on Montserrat monastery on San Bernardo street, San Cayetano church on Embajadores street, Mariblanca fountain (replica of statue now in Sol at start of Arenal street), urban planning for southwest side of city, Toledo bridge over the Manzanares river. Characteristic style: brick with stone decoration, very large, ornate carving around main entranceways. Quick summary: Though some buildings are fairly plain, Ribera is usually placed under the extreme rococo style called churrigueresco for a family of architects (brothers Jose, Alberto and Joaquin Churriguera) who were less favored by Kings and nobility.

Ventura Rodríguez 1717 – 1785. Worked for: Fernando VI, Carlos III. His work in Madrid: San Marcos church (San Leonardo street), interior of Encarnación monastery, various palaces for nobles (Liria palace on Princesa street, Altamira palace just off Gran Via, Boadilla del Monte palace). Designed important ornamental fountains like the Cibeles, Neptuno, Apolo, Alcachofa and others, all created by sculptors following his designs. Worked on Aranjuez palace, Royal Palace, San Francisco el Grande church. Important work outside Madrid: Santo Domingo de Silos monastery church, Pilar basilica in Zaragoza, Pamplona catedral facade, various city halls, jails, schools, urban planning and civil engineering projects around the country. Characteristic style: Baroque – neoclassic. A prolific and imaginative architect, but when Carlos III ascended the throne royal favor passed on to Francesco Sabatini.

Francesco Sabatini 1722-1797. Worked mainly for: King Carlos III, some for Carlos IV. His work in Madrid: Puerta de Alcalá city gate, Royal Customs house on Alcalá street, original layout of Botanical Garden, Marqués de Grimaldi Palace (Plaza Marina Española, also called Godoy Palace), rebuilt Comendadoras monastery. Participated in building of Royal Palace, San Francisco el Grande church (Bailén street), Hospital General (now Reina Sofia art museum), rebuilding Plaza Mayor after fire. Various projects for paving streets, creating and decorating promenades in south of city. Remodelled Cuesta de San Vicente (along one side of the Royal Palace), created waste water system. Characteristic style: Neoclassic, based mainly on Italian Renaissance instead of ancient Greece and Rome.



Jose Grases Riera 1850 – 1919 Best known for grand monuments and for modernist style (he knew Antoni Gaudi). In Madrid: Longoria Palace (Fernando VI street, now Spanish Society of Authors and Editors), monument to Alfonso XII by the lake in the Retiro, triangular building at Alcala 14, originally for the Equitativa insurance company and now under scaffolding as part of gigantic rehab project – but if you can peer around fence you can see the elephants under the balconies (shown at left) .

Antonio Palacios 1874-1945: His work in Madrid: Communications Palace (Plaza Cibeles, now City Hall, photo above), Day-Workers hospital (Maudes 17, now a Madrid government building), Rio de la Plata bank building (Alcalá 49, now Instituto Cervantes), Círculo de Bellas Artes (Alcalá 42), design of first Metro stations (all changed except Chamberi stop on line 1, now a Metro museum), remodelled Hotel Avenida on the Gran Vía, various other buildings and urban planning. Important works outside Madrid: quite a few in his native Galicia. Characteristic style: Lots of big spaces, public buildings, style varies from very classic (Rio de la Plata bank building) to very ornate (Communications Palace).

National Bird Returns

Flock of Cranes

Flock of Cranes

What is Spain’s national bird?    The crane.

That clever bit of wordplay is not my own, but from a participant in a college alumni trip (it sounds like Duane but for some reason I think it was someone else).   The alumni trip was some years ago, in the middle of the construction boom. When that boom went bust, the cranes disappeared, much to the dismay of many.

But now….. the cranes are returning. The flock shown above is in north Madrid, an area laid out for housing at least eight years ago, but only now being built.

Whether or not this is really and truly a sign of economic recovery is still a very large question mark in the minds of many.   But for now at least we can view flocks and flocks of the national bird.

Oh joy.

Red Flag

Scene seen in my own neighborhood, fabulous La Latina

So there I am at the pedestrian crosswalk on Carrera de San Francisco, kitty-corner from La Cebada market, next to an older man. He’s a bit unsteady, not tottering but definitely not sprightly, and he’s pulling a shopping cart with one hand.

As he steps into the crosswalk he raises the other hand and holds out a stick with a red flag, waving it horizontally at waist level as he starts across the street.

Admiring, I complimented him on his pro-active technique. He answered that without the flag, the cars don’t stop.

He’s right, as locals know. We all have techniques for crossing at crosswalks, from cowering at the curb until a good driver stops, to stepping confidently into the space that technically belongs to pedestrians but really doesn’t.

As a long-time local and militant pedestrian, I have two techniques. One is to step into the crosswalk, glaring at oncoming drivers who do not seem inclined to stop, sometimes pointing at the crosswalk painted on the asphalt and waving a no-no-no finger at them. The other is to start crossing, apparently unaware of oncoming traffic, all the while keeping a close watch out of the corner of my eye lest I need to leap out of the way.

Which to use when? It depends on the day I’m having, the specific crosswalk, make of the approaching cars (yes, that’s important) and sometimes looks of the driver, if they’re close enough to see.

In this personal campaign to educate local drivers I have stalled more than one car, well, I have not stalled the car, but the driver who didn’t plan to stop and had to downshift too quickly stalled the car (heh heh). I have also had some pleasant surprises, when drivers have stopped in plenty of time, even before I stepped off the curb.

Maybe the day will come when crosswalks do belong to pedestrians?

Getting High in Madrid

Spain. Madrid

North Madrid skyline with partial view of Cuatro Torres at left center and Kio Towers (leaning) at right center

Want to get high in Madrid? If you want to get as high as possible you must go to Peñalara peak, at 2,428 meters (7,966 feet). That’s Madrid’s ceiling, even though it’s partly in Segovia province. (Sound fun? it’s an accessible hike for experienced walkers).

In the city, remember that high is relative. Plaza de Castilla is one of the highest parts of the city in altitude, as well as having the highest buildings. But getting high in downtown Madrid has its own charm – red tile roofs, pretty squares, rooftop cafés and much more. Read on to learn tips and tricks for getting high in Madrid.

Urban highs

Centro Centro / Palacio de Cibeles. Madrid’s old post office, designed by Antonio Palacios, inaugurated 1919, now City Hall and cultural center. Mirador observation deck on 8th floor, get tickets to the right of main door. Visits are timed due to limited space, first elevator does not go all the way up, you take a second elevator when your time is called. If your knees can take it walk all the way down to admire this fabulous building. Restaurant-café and cocktail bar on 6th floor. Where: Plaza de Cibeles, southeast side of square. More info on observation deck and ticket fees: scroll down to Mirador – but check out other things in this cool building.

Círculo Bellas Artes. Private cultural center, offers lots of things to general. Also designed by Antonio Palacios, inaugurated 1926. The CBA Azotea (rooftop) observation deck and bar has one of the best views in the city center. Where: calle Alcalá 42, entrance from side street Marqués de Casa Riera. Metro Banco de España. More info for observation deck and ticket fees:

The Roof – Hotel Melia ME. Rooftop bar, fabulous views of Santa Ana square and surrounding area. One of Madrid’s see-and-be-seen scenes, complete with dress code and 25 euro entrance fee (at least last time I checked, that’s not on the website). Where: Plaza Santa Ana 14. Metro Sevilla or Sol. More info:

La Terraza del Urban – Hotel Urban. Rooftop bar on a five-star hotel, near Santa Ana square. Only open spring to fall. Where: Carrera de San Jerónimo 34. Metro Sevilla or Sol. More info about the rooftop bar:!en/restaurants/la-terraza-del-urban-1-info/

Casa de Granada: A rooftop bar with a sliver of terrace, now partly glassed in. Good view of Tirso de Molina square, south part of the city and if you go at night and get the right table, a nice sunset. Not elegant, but a great location near Yelmo-Ideal movies in English. Where: Dr. Cortezo 17, 6th floor. Metro Tirso de Molina. Approximate hours: noon to midnight, creaky elevator NOT working all that time. Cannot find website with any decent info.

El Viajero: Good view of San Francisco del Grande church, great sunsets. Very crowded on Sunday afternoons with post-Rastro scene. Address: Plaza Cebada 11, metro La Latina. More info on location and hours:

Gaudeamus: This used to be a well-kept secret but the word is out on a great rooftop café. Find it on top of the UNED (Distance Learning University), a modern building tacked on to a ruined church, converted into a gorgeous library. Views of the surrounding neighborhood, with  La Corrala and red tile roofs. There’s an elevator but be sure to walk up or down to see how the new and old buildings integrate – and peek into that library from the stairs. Where: Tribulete 14, 4th floor (UNED building), Metro Lavapies and Embajadores. More info:   UPDATE: alas, this place has closed, apparently they were in a gray area license-wise and also made too much noise for nearby apartment dwellers.

Corte Inglés Gourmet Experience. Umm. On principal I rarely mention this department store, but the cafetería /gourmet shopping area on the top floor of Callao store has a truly fabulous view. Where: Plaza de Callao, 9th floor.

Moncloa’s Lighthouse (Faro), that strange spaceship next to Museo de las Americas. Inaugurated in 1992, closed for a long time after 2005 for rehab to bring it up to fire code. Now open, though they reserve the right to close down in adverse weather.  Fabulous observation deck over this edge of the city, the Complutense University and out towards the mountains. Visit length limited to 30 minutes.  How high: 110 meters (361 feet).  Website for info about hours, prices, etc:


Higher and higher: Madrid’s Ten Tallest Torres (towers)

Metropolitan building from Bellas Artes rooftop terrace

Cuatro Torres / Four Towers Business Area. Four skyscrapers, mostly office space, built 2004-2009. Where: just north of Plaza de Castilla. How high: Torre Bankia 250 meters (820 feet) / Torre Cristal 249 meters (817 feet) / Torre Price Waterhouse Cooper 236 meters (774 feet) / Torre Espacio 230 meters (755 feet). The Cristal Tower has a garden on top, and the PwC Tower has a hotel and restaurant.

Torre Picasso. Madrid’s tallest for 30 years, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, same architect as the World Trade Center. Construction finished in 1989. Where: Azca business center, just west of Paseo Castellana near the soccer stadium. How high: 156m meters / 512 feet.

Torre Madrid. Classic white skyscraper, built for offices, apartments and leisure activities. Construction finished in 1957. Where: Plaza de España, corner Princesa. How high: 142 meters / 466 feet.

Torre Europa. Oval building with vertical metal columns and glass, clock near the top. Construction finished in 1985. Where: Paseo Castellana, across from soccer stadium. How high: 120 meters / 394 feet.

Edificio España. Massive red and white pyramid shape building, used to be office space, now empty. Construction finished in 1953, recently rehabbed. At last news, owned by a bank and for sale. Where: Plaza de España. How high: 117 meters / 384 feet

Torre Colon. Tallish twin buildings with a green thing on top that looks like an electric plug. Buildings hang from central columns (built from the top down), construction finished in 1976. Where: Plaza de Colon, corner of Genova street. How high: 116 meters / 381 feet.

Kio Towers. Two tallish buildings that lean towards each other on on both sides of the Castellana, sort of scary standing underneath looking up. Buildings hang from central columns (built from the top down), construction finished 1996. Now dwarfed by the nearby Cuatro Torres. Where: Plaza de Castilla. How high: 114 meters / 374 feet.


Spain. Madrid. Bimbo

Bimbo in Madrid


Scene seen in the street….

Bimbo in Spain is not a decorative but ditzy female. It’s bread. 

Nothing fancy, mind you. Originally this brand only did unhealthy white loaf bread, but they have expanded into sort-of whole wheat and some basic crackers.

But like famous brands for other products (Band-Aid on my finger, Kleenex in my purse) Bimbo is almost synonymous for loaf bread, to the point that when you ask for your morning toast it’s correct to specify that you want  pan-pan (bread-bread, baguette style) not Bimbo.

This brand causes eye-rolls, raised eyebrows and sometimes even snorts or snickers among recently-arrived English speakers.

*The sign above is from a square in the lower Rastro, quite near my house. I’ve been trying for a photo of their trucks but that’s too hard to plan. The half-circle at the top is the paw of the cute dough-boy bear holding the sign, large silly smile on its face.


Toledo, Offtrack


San Juan de los Reyes



Toledo. (yawn). Too many Toledo visits have you burned out on that destination? Does the idea of another day in that city make you roll your eyes or start wondering if your guests can manage on their own?

Please re-think. Everyone goes to Toledo, often many, many times. But the majority of visitors see only the big-name sights like the Cathedral, Tránsito synagogue, Greco masterpiece in Santo Tomé church, maybe Santa Maria la Blanca synagogue or San Juan de los Reyes monastery.

Does that sound like your own experience? It certainly was mine, until I decided to visit Toledo and not see a single Important Monument. And wow, what a revelation!

This post shares some of the things I found that day and on later “offtrack” visits – this is not an art guide, history book or even an all-inclusive list of off-track sights, it’s just an attempt to get you past that yawn and into some exciting discoveries.

A good strategy for visiting off-track Toledo (or any other well known city): do some reading before the visit, have a sort-of plan but be ready to ditch your ideas if something more interesting comes up. That’s especially true in Toledo, where part of the fun is just wandering – the discoveries made on those wanders are even more special because of the surprise factor.

Here are some off-track ideas, purposely excluding all the big sights.

Jewish Toledo:  The old Jewish quarter merits some serious wandering, down along the river and partway up to the center city.  Two synagogues remain, both converted to churches or other uses after the Jews were expelled in 1492.  The Tránsito (now an excellent museum but as a “major” site not included here).  Don’t miss the “old” synagogue Santa Maria la Blanca, especially if you also visit one of the old mosques:  that gives you an excellent opportunity to compare / contrast and ponder the implications of a synagogue that looks like a mosque or a mosque that looks like a synagogue.

Muslim Toledo: The main tourist track in Toledo completly ignores the few remaining Muslim monuments, check them out to balance your visit to Toledo, City of the Three Cultures.

Mudejar architecture (walk-by noticing). Many of Toledo’s older churches are mudejar style, built by Muslim craftsmen who stayed in Toledo after it was conquered by the Christians. They continued to build in the style they knew well: decorative brickwork, interlocking arches and “onion” or lobulated arches and windows. Sign of the cultural plurality of medieval Spain: no one found it odd to have some Muslim-looking style in a church or synagogue (both synagogues have some Muslim-style decorations).

Cristo de la Luz: When I found this little jewel I was shocked I’d never seen it before. It was built as a mosque in 999 (less than 100 years before Toledo was conquered by the Christians) and later converted to a church, an unusual bit of Muslim culture in the “City of Three Cultures”. Stand to one side to see the scant difference between the original Muslim building and the mudejar-style apse added in the 13th c after it was converted to a church; be sure to look up at the nine cupolas in the original building (now the entrance). Recent excavations uncovered a Roman road in front of this old mosque. Ask someone to tell you the legend about Alfonso VI’s horse (hint: if you’ve done the Wall Walk in Madrid that legend may sound familiar). Location: North side of city, not far from Bisagra gate.

El Salvador church:  Another old mosque converted to church. This one is bigger than Cristo de la Luz. Probably built arount 1041 (shortly before Toledo became Christian again), has some archaeological remains from Visigothic and even Roman periods. The tower is original from the mosque, with belltower added after it was converted to a church.  Go up the tower for a view of neighborhood, and down to left and along side of nave to back for more remains.

Belltower of Santiago del Arrabal church (next to Puerta Nueva de Bisagra): This brick belltower may have been part of a mosque.

Mezquita Tornerias: Remains of a mosque on Tornerias street. Closed for rehab, but ask at tourism office just in case

Upper city: When the bustle of the busy tourist streets starts getting on your nerves, head for this area, with lots of cloistered convents and monasteries. You’ll find yourself walking between high walls with few windows and doors, routed this way and that by cul-de-sacs and tiny squares, sometimes along tunnel-like alleys with buildings over the streets (the “cobertizos”). Some of these convents have art collections, but schedules tend to be quite short so they may be hard to visit. But even without those visits a long walk in this part of town gives an entirely new vision of Toledo – and it’s usually almost empty.

With a map and a good sense of direction, you can find the Virgen de Gracia lookout, right over San Juan de Reyes monastery (see photo above). At the top of one of Toledo’s many hills is San Román church, now the Visigothic museum. Toledo was one of the most important cities under the Visigoths (aprox 450 – 711 AD), but these remnants and a few architectural bits and pieces are almost all that is left from that time. Location of the cobertizos : northwest of the Cathedral: find San Vicente church (go inside for a surprise) then along narrow alley to the left of church to Santa Clara square, around lower part of Santa Clara with retaining wall on your left, under the cobertizo and turn left at cross street under next cobertizo, then wander with map in hand.

Toledo City gates: Seeing a few of the gates will help you appreciate the importance of Toledo’s walls and the different periods of this ancient city. Most people only see the New Bisagra gate and the Arco de Sangre – get beyond that with the Cambrón gate, near San Juan de Reyes and the Valmardon gate near Cristo de la Luz mosque. The first has a good view over the plains and a space between the inner and outer doors with a fun sign; the second gate was from the original walls and ended up inside the city when new walls were built farther out. My two favorite gates are the old Bisagra gate (to the right of the New Bisagra gate when outside the city) and the Alcántara gate and bridge. Alcantara bridge was originally Roman, rebuilt several times, the gate Muslim as shown by the double-dogleg entrance. The gate is one of prettiest in the city, and you or your kids can climb up to part of the walls (note: this gate is close to the train station).

What else? In addition to all this, there are other sights not always on the “biggie” list: Museo de Santa Cruz (off the Zocodover), with a good permanent art collection and good temporary exhibits. Roman ruins, in-city the baths in Amador de los Rios square (signage and lighting could be improved but interesting as contrast with other periods), other ruins a bit farther out. San Ildefonso (Jesuitas) church in Plaza Juan de Mariana – go up the tower (no elevator) for an amazing view of Toledo. If you can’t face the climb, view from front door is pretty good. And last but definitely not least, El Greco house and newish museum (near the Tránsito synagogue, never really Greco’s house but a representative house of that period.

Important tips for your Toledo visit: The only way to really see Toledo is walking, so be sure to wear the right shoes – it’s no fun to stop exploring just because your feet hurt, while the rest of your body and brain are raring to go. Seriously: no flipflops or heels! Best is something with thick soles between you and the knobbly pavement. If you are at all unsteady on your feet or have knee problems, think about taking something to keep you upright – I’ve seen travelers in Toledo using hiking poles in the city, which is probably a good idea, given the cobblestones and the constant ups and downs. Get a good map, and take a small compass. Toledo’s streets are winding, and there aren’t a lot of streetsigns.





Dog blading

Scene seen in Madrid’s Retiro Park
A man roller-blading pulled by two boxer dogs, a leash in each hand.

He must have been a really good skater to keep the leashes untangled. I did see some fancy footwork when one of the dogs ran in front of him, but he didn’t hit the pavement.

Is this a takeoff on the dogs pulling cross country skiers? I have always wanted to try that! Sort of like dog sledding, but with skis instead of the sled. I googled with the word “pulka” and pulled up the new term and sport Skijoring (see Wikipedia ). That page also shows skiers pulled by horses and alas, even motorcycles. Suppose snowmobiles are in there somewhere, too.

OK, it’s the middle of August and not that hot, but I am already thinking of snow. We haven’t had great snow the past years but we can still hope!

Urban Grail

Scene seen in the street….

Walking through the edge of Madrid’s Dos de Mayo area I noticed a man walking towards me, holding something vertical in his right hand.

My immediate reaction was that he was carrying the newish-to-Madrid  Urban Grail: a takeaway coffee.

Second thought was, where’s the nearest Starbucks.  Hmm, some distance from here, I mused.

Third (as he came closer) was, and he doesn’t look like a Starbucks type, he’s definitely from another category of the Madrid Menagerie (more on that another day).

Fourth was my wrinkled brow and overall bafflement, which may have been apparent because he smiled at me as we passed each other and I saw he was carrying…. a can of paint.