One hears the word Atocha, and the mammoth train station immediately comes to mind. Dubbed as the “Estacion de Mediodia” and “Estacion del Sur,” the grandiose railway system is actually just one of the many wonders that this Spanish neighborhood offers.
A Madrid barrio situated within the distrito de Arganzuela, it boasts of a sprawling plaza, Emperador Carlos V, also a major roundabout where streets like Calle de Atocha, Paseo del Pradio, Infanta Isabel and Ciudad de Barcelona meet.
Carlos V is a beautiful square made grander by a stately fountain in its midst, the Fuente de la Alcachofa. It is a highly frequented plaza in Madrid, and surrounded by important landmarks such as the Reina Sofia Museum, the Ministro de Agriculturo, Pesca, and Alimentacion, and the Parque del Retiro de Madrid.
Beyond the plaza’s periphery but still within walking distance are the Museo CaixaForum and the Real Observatorio, among others. Apart from the tourist sites which are some of the barrio’s main draws, Atocha enjoys continuous growth because of the renowned Estacion de Atocha. Every day, tens of thousands traverse the railway mainly for two things – to catch their train ride and to tour the place. I haven’t seen many of these places myself that I thought it is high time that I visit this barrio.
I. The Atocha train station
A closer look at the station had me impressed by its entirety while appreciative of its fine features. The facade of the edifice, a creation of Spanish architect Alberto de Palacio Elissagne, is hardly stoic typical in that of other European stations. Its components of bricks, iron metal, and glass are put together to impress symmetry and proportion, common characteristics of classical architecture. A contrast is noticeable inside the building – obviously, modern structural changes and interior renovations are continuous processes happening in the interior to keep with the times – and booming retail businesses as well.
The sight had me asking, “Why have I not taken that trip to Malaga or Barcelona, or so many other places I’m dying to see, when I could reach them easily via train?
I now realized that train services of all kinds – those to and from the capital, within and around inner cities, and via the Cercania trains – all pass through this railway system. Known to be the oldest functioning railway system of the city, it is easily accessible since the location is strategic, being found in central Madrid.
It is often compared to other railway systems of major world cities when it comes to greatness not only in beauty but efficiency as well, like Paris Gare de Lyon and Berlin Central Station of France and Germany respectively, just two of the many European cities connected to Madrid Atocha via regular train trips. It was early Tuesday afternoon, and with the sun out and ablaze, it foreboded a fine weekend ahead. As I got off the 27 autobus at the Reina Sofia parada, the sight of the station immediately attracted my attention. Its massive structure imposes an overwhelming stance, unchallenged by other nearby edifices, except for the also-monumental Ministro de Agriculturo building.
I went inside and started to scout for some scenes worthy to be shot as I strolled along. Soon, I found myself in the middle of the lobby where situated is a garden-pond-zoo ensemble. To describe it amply: In the midst of the station is a lush tropical oasis, a small piece of land where palm trees jot out, lording over a thick clutter of unknown greenery. It is surrounded, in partial, by a small-sized, emerald-green pond. Positioned in the water are a few flat cement rocks with surfaces a little above the water level to make them appear like small islands – they are obviously meant to accommodate the numerous tortugas (Spanish for turtles).
One look at the slow-moving hordes clambering atop the rocks, and you know that these turtles are a territorial lot. You can quite sense, too, that they had already laid claim to these rocks for their own, as well as the greenish waters that surround them, and practically the whole lush oasis. The garden is host to a number of animal species, the most conspicuous of which are the “tortugas” or turtles. These shell-burdened creatures show their moves in the waters, unmindful of the fascinated onlookers. I have a hunch myself (excuse the pun) that they are showing off their swimming skills. Well, they prove to be a faster swimmer than walker The interior of the station is well-lighted – there’s no dim nook or corner. Much of the illumination is natural, lucent light that goes through the high ceiling of glass panels and steel. In the lobby area, lining a portion of the tropical garden are a number of metal chairs meant for visitors to the train station who needed to while away the time as they wait for their departure, or are on a momentary break from their Atocha adventure. I took a short respite on one of these seats, which proved to be beneficial as I felt invigorated afterwards.
I continued to loiter around the lobby, walking past the theme cafe that offers a direct view of the garden. Further down the station, I passed through the automatic sliding glass doors to reach the area where tickets booths and retail shops are situated. Here, I found myself in the middle of throngs of people rushing to different directions. I joined the flow of a few until I realized they were headed to where I’ve already been to. While I was very much impressed by the station, I thought I’ve seen enough and that it was time to go out and proceed elsewhere.
Who to do inside the station: Eat (Restaurante Samarkanda and tons of cafes, restaurants, and food kiosks), check out exhibits ( found in the lobby), shop (Body Shop, Relay, Chiefs), and purchase lottery tickets.
II. Next Stop: The Reina Sofia Museum
If you want some serious helping of Spanish art while in this neighborhood, the Museo Nacional y Centro de Arte: Reina Sofia Museum should be your top choice. A few might contradict and broach Prado Museum instead, and strongly so since the latter is just a few hundred meters away. Still, Reina Sofia is no push-over as a museum and is well within the barrio, just across the station and along Calle de Santa Isabel.
Looking at the edifice, you wouldn’t think that it was a former hospital. Undergoing major renovations to become a museum, Reina Sofia boasts of its panoramic glass elevators, which give riders a view of the goings-on in the front courtyard.
Recognized as one of the major Spanish museums, it houses the finest collections of modern art. Needless to say, if you are a true-blue museum lover, you’ll be inebriated by the countless artwork found at the museum. Imagine being presented with the works of Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. If only for the superb creation of these two Spanish auteurs, the Sofía Museum is more than worth your visit.
Fortunately, taking photographs is not prohibited, but only in specific areas. Cameras are off-limits in floors that display the Guernica collection. Be amazed with the contemporary art collections of minimal, popular and abstract themes on display at Museo Reina Sofia. The edifice has floors and sections dedicated to seasonal art shows and exhibits The museum posts its permanent and seasonal exhibits on its walls. Ongoing is an exhibit by Cuban artist Wifredo Lam
III. Caixaforum Museum
There are a number of museums with the Atocha, but if you must see only a few, one should be the Caixaforum. What was once a tepid and neglected electrical station building is now one of the coolest and edgiest museums of Madrid. A creation of Herzog and de Meuron, prominent Swiss architects, it is conveniently accessible, being just a few minutes away from the railway station, at Paseo del Prado, 36.
One of the museum’s attractions is the wall in its front that acts as a vertical garden, an ingenious work of art by renowned botanist Dr. Patrick Blanc. Because of the perpendicularly-oriented vegetation, the wall virtually comes alive with all its flora of bright colors, making it a scenic delight to visitors and passersby. The wall is said to be a prelude to what you can see at the El Real Jardin on the opposite side of the paseo.
Caixa forum is regarded as a major museum that shows an excellent mix of contemporary and old art. I was impressed with the countless forms of spectacular artworks, particularly its paintings.
Schools must have chosen the museum as the best one for their students. I’ve seen quite a number of groups of schoolkids visiting Caixa the few times that I was there. The museum does cater to young visitors as it showcases regular exhibits, displays, film showings, and interactive events intended for children and teens.
The museum boasts of an area that can house a number of exhibits and displays at any given time. It has a good-sized auditorium that seats more than 300 guests, a library, audio-visual rooms, areas for workshops and lectures, and cafes and food shops. While the CaixaForum is a modern, contemporary building, it also displays the fine works of artists from earlier times. Suffice it to say that the museum is consistent in presenting only the best works on contemporary art that it is now recognized as one of the most respectable Atocha, Madrid museums. Entering the Caixaforum museum, I was greeted by its cast-iron stairs. So resplendent, I didn’t dare leave without taking its picture
IV. Feria de Libros, Cuesta de Moyano
If you’ve been on a long search for that book you’ve always wanted to read, at least land one that’s more or less about your favorite book genre or topic – a good place to go to is the Feria de Libros, Cuesta de Moyano. Located along Calle Claudio Moyano, and near Paseo del Prado, here is where books of all sorts, themes, and sizes can be found. Peruse to your heart’s content, sellers will not mind. Hardbound, softcover, Spanish, English, or any other language, romance, fiction, non-fiction, 1 to 10 euro books, every store is stocked with books of all kinds.
There are history books, recipe hardbounds, books about Kama Sutra, NBA coffee table books, children’s – all sorts. Calle Moyano is a busy little street where enthusiasts go to for its bookshops and kiosks on the sidewalk. The street is a virtual paradise for bookworms and lovers; undoubtedly, all books that you want to read must be here.
While brand-new items are available, a lot are second-hand. If you don’t mind used books, I suggest you go and take a look and you’d be convinced that this is the best place in Madrid to shop for them. Needless to say, if you can’t find it here, you won’t find it anywhere. Cuesta de Moyano has about tons of unique books at really low prices, it wouldn’t be a surprise if you end up buying many.
More Places of Interest – Other Attractions to see Atocha
1. Ministro de Agriculturo, Pesca, y Alimentacion
Also known as the Palacio de Fomento, only the Ministry of Agriculture can compete with the Atocha train Station as far as the beauty and magnificence of edifice is concerned. Its huge size covering a great expanse as well as its rows of four pairs of columns are more than enough to impose its presence in this part of Atocha. Prominently standing in the middle top of the building are marble figures of winged horses by Spanish sculpture Querol Subirats, called the La Gloria e los Pegasos.
The Magrama (acronym for the (Ministerio de Agricultura, Alimentación y Medio Ambiente) is responsible for food, and its production in Spain, and a lot of other things like climate change, ecology, and natural heritage.
Location: Paseo de la Infanta Isabel 1, Madrid
2. Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Atocha
You might get some recharging – physically and spiritually – after a tiresome tour of the barrio by making a stop at the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Atocha. It’s the church closest to the railway station, which is the reason why the latter is named as such. It is well within the vicinity, proudly standing along Avenida Ciudad de Barcelona. The basilica is famous for its fine sculptures, classic architecture, well-manicured garden, and the beloved Virgin of Atocha.
Location: Avenue de la Ciudad de Barcelona, Madrid
Opens: 7:30AM to 1:00PM; 5:30PM to 9:00PM
3. Hotel Mediodia
Prominent in Mediodia’s main webpage is its logo “En el Corazon de Medrid,” which means “In the heart of Madrid.” And indeed, the hotel boasts of a strategic location, right in the center of the city. Many tourists do opt to book an accommodation at Hotel Mediodia to enjoy panoramic views of the Atocha Metro Station and Plaza Carlos V. The edifice is just medium-rise; yet, it boasts of amenities and services typical of a luxury hotel. Just a few meters away are the museums Reina Sofia and Caixa forum. Simple, classic, and comfortable are the common feedback and comments clients give about Mediodia hotel.
Location: Plaza Emperador Carlos V Madrid
4. Teatro Circo Price
There’s no doubt that Teatro Circo Price is a premier theater, after having experienced watching a concert here last year by an artist from the Philippines, Gary Valenciano. I seldom go to a concert, and so the experience was a rare and riveting one, not only because of Valenciano’s exceptional performance, but also because of the state-of-the-art theater facilities. The lighting and sound effects, for instance, were breathtaking that they made for an exceptional concert overall. I embedded here one of the clips I shot at the concert, the part where the singer rendered his version of Mocedades’ Eres Tu.
As he sang Eres Tu, it was obvious that Gary Valenciano guessed parts of the lyrics. Notwithstanding, his ridiculously melodious voice more than made up for a rather unseemly faux pas. The predominantly Filipino crowd didn’t mind, and was enthusiastic of his performance.
Location: Ronda de Atocha No. 35
June offering: Carlos Rivera Concert – Yo Creo Tour.
Ticket prices: 22 – 60 euros
5. Museo National de Antropologia
Built in 1875, the Museo National de Anthropologia offers a closer look at the diversity of races and cultures. The museum holds regular exhibits that promote a better understanding among countries and cultures from continents like Asia, Europe, the Americas and Africa. Ongoing is a temporary exhibit of the works of a top Filipino designer, Patis Tesoro. It includes her masterpiece collection of Pina-made clothes that boast of both traditional and modern details. Entitled Ang Pagbabalik, the show will last up to June 12, 2016.
Location: Calle Alfonso 12th Madrid
Opening hours: Tuesday to Saturday, from 9:30AM to 8:00PM; Sundays and Holidays: 10:00AM to 3:00PM
6. Real Observatorio de Madrid
Another popular site that’s worth visiting when in Atocha is the Real Observatorio de Madrid, or the Royal Observatory of Madrid. It stands on top of an elevated portion of land adjacent to Buen Retiro Park. Its main building, called the Villanueva, contains most of the observatory’s astronomical instruments and books. Some of its famous instruments are the Foucalt’s pendulum, precision clocks, and meridian circle. Also included in the observatory’s collection is the bronze mirror of Herschel. Private tours must be booked beforehand.
Hours open: Friday: 4:30PM to 6:00PM; Saturday: 12Noon to 2:00PM, 4:00PM to 6:00PM; Sunday: 12:00Noon to 2:00PM. (The observatory is closed from Monday to Thursday)
Entrance ticket prices: 5 euro; children below three is free
Location: Calle de Alfonso XII Madrid
7. Parque del Retiro
I’ve always known Retiro park’s entrance to be at Plaza de la Independencia, at Puerta de Alcala, and so I was surprised to find out that Atocha is also a boundary of the park, with the main gate, the Puerta del Angel Caido, located along Calle de Alfonso XII. This entrance leads to Paseo de Fernan Nunez and into the park.
El Retiro is not always accessible to the public like how it is nowadays. It was meant as a haven of recreation for the Spanish Royals during its early times, up until the 19th century.
I had been to the park a few times in the past, entering via Alcala. And like before, I was excited to roam around because I’d get reacquainted with the numerous monuments and sculptures scattered around, all of which must have great histories behind – and interesting stories to tell. After a few minutes of loitering at the Atocha side of the park, I can tell that much of the greens, trees, and rest areas concentrate here. People pick a nice spot and just lie on the ground or sit around with families and friends for some chat. Many bikers and skaters use the Angel Caido gate as a point of entry to the park. I then decided to go and see the lake, even if it was quite far from the Atocha gate. I walked through Fernan Nunez until I reached the Estatua del Angel Caido. I turned left at Paseo de la Republica de Cuba, then continued to Paseo Nicaragua until I reached the famous man-made lake (Spanish: estanque). The lake is such a beautiful sight, with a number of boats plying it. There were many the middle, with passengers rowing while obviously ecstatic because of the experience. One boat was in a complete stop, floating for awhile at the edge of the lake near where I was. While many were graceful rowers, a few seemed to be in a futile attempt to stop their boats from going aimlessly around. By the lake is the magnificent monument of Alfonso XII, looking over it. Tall marble columns and lion statues accompany the monument, making for a grand sight overall.
Location: Plaza de la Independencia 7 Madrid
The park is open everyday of the year; entrance is free
8. Botanical Jardin de Madrid
Gate of Botanical Jardin de Madrid along Paseo del Prado. Purchase of tickets and entry, however, is at the gate near the Museo del Prado The Royal botanical Garden boasts of thousands of live plant species that can be viewed by the public via private and guided tours. Included in its prized collections is a herbarium, with over a million preserved plant entries. The garden maintains a plant and natural science library, and archive of almost 10,000 drawings This is the gate nearest to the Prado Museum, and serves as the main entrance to the garden
Location: 2 PlazaMurillo Madrid 28014
Tickets: Adults-3 euros; students-1.50 euros (you need to present in ID)
V. Great eats to end my Atocha tour
I deemed the best way to cap my tour of Atocha is by having some ice-cold cola and a special bocadillo de calamares. The neighborhood does boast of a good number of squid sandwich cafes, but where exactly do I order the best? There is a consensus on the Internet that the finest in the neighborhood is El Brillante, which is just across the railway station and right in front of the Fuente de la Alcachofa. The restaurant takes pride in serving what according to it are the most delicious calamare sandwiches. It is not shy to post a sign saying theirs is the best in the whole of Madrid. After finishing mine, I’d say its bocadillo de calamares scores big in taste. Es muy bueno y rico is how I would express it in Spanish. It’s comparable if not superior to those sold at Plaza Mayor. The only downside is the price of the drinks. A small 200 ml Cola, the same thing Museo del Jamon serves and sells at a mere 1 euro, is 4.25 euro (if you dine on the terrace). Staff is courteous and graciously answered my questions when I asked about the prices of other tapas.
El Brillante Restaurante
Where located: Glorieta Emperador Carlos V
Business hours: 6:30AM to 12:30AM
Upon checking the menu of nearby establishments, it’s clear that food is generally expensive in the area. Restaurants found nearest the Plaza Emperador Carlos V charge have prices that are higher than usual. If you want fast food, KFC and MacDonald’s are right within the area. Shoestring tourists are advised to walk further down the side and interior streets to find restaurants with more budget-friendly prices.
Few tips and suggestions on your trip to Atocha
1. I took the photograph above of the station at around 2.30 to 3PM. You can see that the sun is in front of the subject at this time. Perhaps, this will be true through the rest of the summer months. While some photo professionals say the golden hours of after sunrise or before sunset is best for outdoor photography, I can work with this shot with the sun up high, blazing hot and delivering glaring light, resulting in the picture showing all details and having minimal shadows.
2. Speaking of summer, touring the barrio’s many sites and attractions means hours of possibly being under the sun (especially if you decide to check out El Retiro Park). Bring at least two bottles of water to help you stay hydrated.
3. Streets at Atocha are wide. Before you even crossed them, you’re already sapped of your energy because the searing sun. Go from one Atocha metro entry point to another instead, which means some time away from the debilitating heat. (Like if you need to cross Paseo de la Infanta Isabel or Paseo de Santa Maria de la Cabeza, passing through the Metro keeps you away, albeit temporarily, from the frenzied crossing crowd of pedestrians, red lights taking forever to turn green, and the summer heat.
4. Sticking to your budget no matter what? You can have the cheapest eats here. Along Paseo del Prado, at 44, is Museo del Jamon, where you can take advantage of their 1-euro bocadillo, 1-euro bebida offer.
5. Museo Reina Sofia is one of the most popular Atocha attractions. If you don’t want to shell out 8 euros for a general ticket, plan your trip around any of the museum’s free entrance days, which are Mondays and Wednesdays to Saturdays, from 7 to 9PM; and Sundays, from 1:30 to 7PM