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How to enjoy a perfect weekend in Madrid with the kids

Madrid is an old favourite of travel writer Antonia Windsor who spent a weekend visiting friends when she was young, free and single. But is the city still fun with three young children in tow?

How to enjoy a perfect weekend in Madrid with the kids
The kids enjoying Retiro Park in the autumn sunshine. Photos: Antonia Windsor

It’s 9.30pm and I’m sat outside a lively little bar in the Plaza del Dos de Mayo with a glass of red wine. My two-year-old is conked out in her pram while across from me in the playground my five-year-old and six-year-old are shrieking with laughter from either side of a substantial seesaw. I needn’t have worried about how I would manage Madrid with three children in tow. They have slipped into the rhythm of the city with little fuss. Waking later and revelling in the post-dinner trips to the playgrounds in the squares while I soak up that intoxicating mix of vino tinto and bonhomie that’s to be found in every corner of this dynamic capital.

I’ve been visiting a friend in Madrid regularly for over decade and until now all of my trips have been done alone giving me the freedom to roam at leisure by day and socialise late into the night. Having children with me made me, for the first time, sit down and see what Madrid offered by way of attractions and distractions. Of course I knew about the green oasis of the Retiro Park, but I didn’t know it boasted at least three playgrounds, each with different equipment and atmosphere. I knew of the world famous Prado gallery, but I didn’t know Madrid had a zoo with pandas. I was also aware that the city had a palace, but it had never occurred to me to visit it.

With children I abandoned the flaneur approach to my city visit and instead engaged with Madrid in a more orderly and equally rewarding way. From discovering bright-coloured 1970s children’s clothes in the secondhand Humana stores, to scoffing chocolate and churros, my three children delighted in Madrid as much as me.

If you are planning a family visit to Madrid here are a few suggestions to get you started:

Madrid Zoo


Enjoying the penguins. Photo: Antonia Windsor

 

Situated in the Casa di Campo, about a €10 taxi ride from the centre of town, this is a full day out and made the perfect “treat day” in our one-week stay. The shows, which include dancing dolphins, each run once in the morning and once in the afternoon so you have time to space them out with time spent watching the pandas munching bamboo, or the rhinos rolling in mud. At 20-hectares it’s a large site, but you can hire a cart to push the children in if that makes it easier and there are also lockers to store heavy bags. The kids delighted in watching the chimpanzees and also exploring the petting zoo where they fed the goats and sheep. The shows are in Spanish but there is lots to look at and the language barrier didn’t seem to bother the kids.

Retiro Park


Kids love playgrounds and the Retiro Park has quite a few. Photo: Antonia Windsor

 

This wonderful oasis in the middle of the city is a great spot for the kids to let off steam and find shade on a hot day. You can take four people out in a little wooden rowing boat on the lake for just €6 in the week and €8 at weekends. The largest playground is right by the metro at Retiro and has a sandy section for toddlers and a large adventure playground for older children. There is also a smaller playground by Ibiza metro near a grassy wooded area and toilets, making it a perfect spot for picnics. Another playground can be found near the Gate of Spain on the West side, which is easily reachable from the Prado, so good option for a post-gallery play.

El Palacio Real


A traditional Carousel adds extra fun at the Royal Palace in Madrid. Photo: Fiona Govan 

 

The queues can get long to visit the official residence of the Spanish royal family, particularly if you are trying to visit at weekend. If you are two adults then one can take the children off to the playground opposite the entrance while the other waits in line, otherwise aim to get there when it opens at 10am. Children will delight in the sheer grandeur of the rooms; particularly the throne room with its chandeliers and ornate thrones guarded by lion statues. For kids with their heads in Disney it is a revelation to them that kings and queens really do exist and really do live in palaces.

Chocolaté con Churros


Photo: joannawnuk/Depositphotos

What child (and parent) wouldn’t love Chocolate con Churros, Spain’s ultimate sweet indulgence?

The chocolate is rich, thick and more like a chocolate sauce that the hot milky drink my children are used to and they love dipping the long sticks of dough into the cup before messily smearing it over their faces on the way to their mouths.

The calorific treat is best eaten in the morning – Spaniards consider it a breakfast option – and you may struggle to find it being served after midday.

The famous place to go is the classic Madrid establishment, Café San Gines off Calle Mayor, where you will be likely met with queues out the door.  The atmosphere in the  charming establishment which opened in 1890 is something special, but the kids won’t really care.

If you want to avoid the queues just head to any decent Chocolatería, such as Valor, which can be found dotted across the city. 

Antonia Windsor is a London-based travel writer. Follow her travels on Instagram and at her website.

READ ALSO: Ten magical ways to give your kids the best Spanish Christmas ever

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IN IMAGES: Spain’s ‘scrap cathedral’ lives on after creator’s death

For over 60 years, former monk Justo Gallego almost single-handedly built a cathedral out of scrap materials on the outskirts of Madrid. Here is a picture-based ode to his remarkable labour of love.

IN IMAGES: Spain's 'scrap cathedral' lives on after creator's death
File photo taken on August 3, 1999 shows Justo Gallego Martinez, then 73, posing in front of his cathedral. Photo: ERIC CABANIS / AFP

The 96-year-old died over the weekend, but left the unfinished complex in Mejorada del Campo to a charity run by a priest that has vowed to complete his labour of love.

Gallego began the project in 1961 when he was in his mid-30s on land inherited from his family after a bout of tuberculosis forced him to leave an order of Trappist monks.

Today, the “Cathedral of Justo” features a crypt, two cloisters and 12 towers spread over 4,700 square metres (50,600 square feet), although the central dome still does not have a cover.

He used bricks, wood and other material scavenged from old building sites, as well as through donations that began to arrive once the project became better known.

A woman prays at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
A woman prays at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
 

The building’s pillars are made from stacked oil drums while windows have been cobbled and glued together from shards of coloured glass.

“Recycling is fashionable now, but he used it 60 years ago when nobody talked about it,” said Juan Carlos Arroyo, an engineer and architect with engineering firm Calter.

Men work at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021 in Mejorada del Campo, 20km east of Madrid.
Men work at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021 in Mejorada del Campo, 20km east of Madrid. Photo: (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

The charity that is taking over the project, “Messengers of Peace”, hired the firm to assess the structural soundness of the building, which lacks a permit.

No blueprint

“The structure has withstood significant weather events throughout its construction,” Arroyo told AFP, predicting it will only need some “small surgical interventions”.

Renowned British architect Norman Foster visited the site in 2009 — when he came to Spain to collect a prize — telling Gallego that he should be the one getting the award, Arroyo added.

Religious murals on a walls of Justo's cathedral. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
Religious murals on a walls of Justo’s cathedral. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
 

The sturdiness of the project is surprising given that Gallego had no formal training as a builder, and he worked without a blueprint.

In interviews, he repeatedly said that the details for the cathedral were “in his head” and “it all comes from above”.

Builders work on the dome of the Cathedral of Justo on November 26th. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
Builders work on the dome of the Cathedral of Justo on November 26th. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
 

The complex stands in a street called Avenida Antoni Gaudi, named after the architect behind Barcelona’s iconic Sagrada Familia basilica which has been under construction since 1883.

But unlike the Sagrada Familia, the Cathedral of Justo Gallego as it is known is not recognised by the Roman Catholic Church as a place of worship.

Visit gaze at the stained glass and busts in of the cathedral's completed sections. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
Visit gaze at the stained glass and busts in of the cathedral’s completed sections. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
 

‘Worth visiting’

Father Angel Garcia Rodriguez, the maverick priest who heads Messengers of Peace, wants to turn Gallego’s building into an inclusive space for all faiths and one that is used to help the poor.

“There are already too many cathedrals and too many churches, that sometimes lack people,” he said.

“It will not be a typical cathedral, but a social centre where people can come to pray or if they are facing difficulties,” he added.

A photo of Justo Gallego Martinez on display at his cathedral following his passing. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
A photo of Justo Gallego Martinez on display at his cathedral following his passing. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
 

Father Angel is famous in Spain for running a restaurant offering meals to the homeless and for running a church in central Madrid where pets are welcome and the faithful can confess via iPad.

Inside the Cathedral of Justo, volunteers continued working on the structure while a steady stream of visitors walked around the grounds admiring the building in the nondescript suburb.

“If the means are put in, especially materials and money, to finish it, then it will be a very beautiful place of worship,” said Ramon Calvo, 74, who was visiting the grounds with friends.

FIND OUT MORE: How to get to Justo’s Cathedral and more amazing images

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