Today marks one month since I arrived in Madrid.
And yet it was only this weekend that I fell in love with the city.
I am actually au pairing 33km north of Madrid, in a small village called Torrelodones.
It takes about an hour to get into Madrid, which isn’t too far, but far enough that I’m not going into Madrid every day.
More like twice a week – once for Madrid and the other to connect to somewhere else in Spain.
But, this weekend, I decided that I was going to dedicate my whole Sunday to getting to know Madrid.
And, Holy Jose did the city impress!
I started my day with a free walking tour. I normally shy away from these because they are filled with facts but not much fun. But, I decided to give it a go anyway because, well, it was free.
Sandemans was the name of the tour company – they run free tours throughout Europe, the US and some parts of Asia.
They are also my new favourite tour company.
As they say, their business is based on infotainment (my favourite kind), and is about giving the tourist the power to choose the price of their tour once it is over (another favourite for a shoestring budget traveller).
Meandering through Madrid’s streets, I learned about the Hapsburgs – a line of Kings that weren’t even born in Spain, but rather Belgium, and were in fact Austrians.
Our tour guide likened it to Game of Thrones, which I had to agree with as he told us about King Ferdinand II whose only son died.
With four daughters, Ferdinand did what any politically savvy man would have done at the time – he married his daughters off to rich kingdoms to strengthen alliances.
One of those daughters ended up being sent to England where she married none other than King Henry VIII.
I was hooked.
We were told about how the Hapsburgs’ lineage ceased to exist because of their own inbreeding.
It kind of went something like Felipe married niece, then married cousin, had a son Carlos who married a cousin, and had a son Felipe and so the cycle continued until nature said, “No more!” and the kingdom was left with no heir.
The reason I remember all of this is because the guide made it interactive and fun, using the group to play the characters in his stories.
At one stage, there were five men needed to represent the Felipe and Carlos chain and only four on the group. Of course out of all the women on the tour, I was chosen to play a man.
Good times for me.
We were told about the Spanish Inquisition and how it ripped apart the harmony that had existed between Christians, Muslims and Jews.
The religious powers at the time required Muslims and Jews to convert to Christianity or die.
To prove their allegiance, the Inquisition required them not to attend Sunday mass or any other religious tradition, but simply to eat pork.
We were told how this tumultuous time in history is now the basis of jokes in popular culture.
Similarly, a popular Spanish girls’ name is actually the Arabic word for city. It was actually the Muslims who built the walls of Madrid to protect Toledo, the former capital of Spain.
Their word for city soon became the name of a Virgin Saint and hundreds of years later, a popular name to call your kid.
We were told how Madrid was actually a very small village and poor. How instead of paying taxes to leave and enter the city’s gates, Madrid’s inhabitants would scale the walls and were subsequently known as ‘gatos’ – cats – by other wealthier people.
But now, being a ‘gato gato’ – a third generation resident of Madrid – is a badge of honour.
All of these stories were told to us not in front of huge monuments but a tiled street sign that illustrated or symbolised the stories.
It was incredible. I actually forgot that I was walking because I felt like I was watching a documentary. And then the documentary ended.
My stomach signalled it was time to find tapas and then head to Retiro Park for a wander and some reading.
This park is magical. In the centre is a Crystal Palace that throws rainbows onto the pond in front of it.
There are beautiful water fountains and, because it is autumn, burnt orange dotting the greenery.
By accident, I found a rose garden. Time felt suspended and even reversed.
What was this city that seemed to have so many personalities in such a small space?
I eventually made it past famous museums and to the council headquarters that are a former palace.
Walking through the city’s council chambers and entertainment space is the moment I think I felt most in love with the city.
I came out the other side to a busy intersection with a sign saying “Refugees Welcome Here” on the council building I had just walked through.
It was like I had walked through a portal from the arts to politics. Wow.
For most of the day after the tour I had walked with my headphones in, adding to the feeling of discovery – I felt so separate from Madrid, as if I was exploring some virtual reality.
But as I made it back to the busy square where I had started, I took my headphones out and let myself just soak up all the people, the bustling activity, the performances and just crazy city rush.
And then I slipped unnoticed back onto a train that would take me back north, dreaming of my next visit to Madrid.