The Day I Ditched The Map – A Walking Adventure in Madrid

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As soon as I saw the view outside my bedroom window, I knew I had to visit them. Looming over the suburbs of Madrid, the four tallest buildings in Spain: the Cuatro Torres. Four towers. Each one with its own unique design, dotted like dominoes in a row in the distance. Housing banks and big businesses, to me they represented a challenge, a destination.

It was my first summer holiday from university, and I had decided to become an au pair. It seemed like a win/win situation: easy work, living in a glamorous location free of charge and earn a bit of money. Turned out tutoring and cleaning up after twin girls (plus a very yappy dog) was the opposite of easy work, but the location was ideal: the beautiful cultural capital of Madrid.

Madrid. Spain

I lived in the more affluent suburbs, where every apartment complex had a pool, residents had a choice of three golf courses and the closest shop was a fine wine emporium. It was a world a million miles from my tiny terrace house back in England, and I was desperate to explore it all.

It was a rare day off for me, the family I worked for had gone on a last minute holiday and the other au pair in my block, the only person I knew in Madrid, was tied up with her own wards. I wanted to go and see the towers, but there didn’t seem to be any way for me to get there. I had no smartphone, and the only technology I owned was an ancient Nokia I owned for emergency calls. The internet was disconnected, a week away from being upgraded. I didn’t know what buses to take, whether I could use the Metro, or even what streets to walk. After a wave of disappointment, I decided nothing was stopping me from just… working it out as I went along. So with no maps and a pretty limited grasp of local knowledge, I decided to set off on an adventure, my destination being the four towers I saw every morning when I opened my blind.

I decided I needed some company so I grabbed Lucas, the family pup who resembled a living, breathing ball of fluff. I packed my rucksack with a large bottle of water, a little bowl for Lucas, some sun cream and a 20 euro note just in case I got horribly lost and needed a taxi.

Madrid, Spain

Me and Lucas before embarking on our journey.

A quick look on Google Maps today reveals that my walk should have taken just over three hours there and back, but my map free amble took me and Lucas nearly a whole day – three hours there, a leisurely lunch (and a few treats for Lucas), a read in the park and just over two hours back home in a completely different direction. Once I made it back into my apartment, the sun was just beginning to set and a fat yellow moon was rising from behind the towers.

Madrid, Spain

Photo credit: Gonzalo Andres

I knew I had made the right choice as soon as I left my house. After walking ten minutes in a direction I had not explored before, I suddenly found myself in one of the richest areas of Spain. Groups of maids busied down the streets, no doubt swapping gossip about their millionaire employers. A Ferrari raced down the empty road in the direction of the city, and most bizarrely of all a middle aged lady in a pant suit sped past me on a segway.
I lost sight of the towers nearly straight away, so I simply just had to memorise what direction they lay and try and take roads in that direction. My sense of direction has never been that sharp, but I took a series of left turns knowing that’s where the towers lay.

The walk was mostly empty roads (most residents of Madrid escape to the seaside through August to avoid the heat: shops close and streets empty) and landscaped parks. As I wandered Madrid’s outskirts, I had many views of the city, including the famous leaning ‘Gate of Europe’ skyscrapers, and the massive Estadio Bernabeu, home of Real Madrid. At one point the city layout transformed from gated complexes to little shacks with corrugated iron roofs. I saw families sitting outside their makeshift homes, cooking seafood on an open barbeque in the intense sunshine.

The most exciting parts of my walk involved turning a corner and suddenly being confronted by the towers once more, a little bit closer every time, indicating that my walk was slowly but surely reaching its destination. The uniquely dry heat and gentle breeze made for ideal walking weather, as long as I made the odd stop on a patch of grass or bench to take some water.

I eventually reached the four towers, my final stretch a long, straight walk through a park filled with men in suits taking a siesta with their morning papers. Standing in the shadows of the behemoths, I felt a huge sense of achievement. I set myself a goal, and with no help from modern technology, I had made it. Sometimes all you need is an idea and a keenness to explore.

There is something highly therapeutic about just picking a destination and walking there. I had nowhere to be and nothing to do, no distractions, no aims. Just time and my own two feet. It’s something we rarely have the opportunity to do now – explore. We’ve memorized our routes to work, what trains to take, what buses to catch. But I found out in Madrid that being lost doesn’t have to be a scary feeling, in fact it’s empowering. Being lost means covering new ground, and finding new places. The next time you visit somewhere new, don’t look at the directions, just go, meander, and see what you’ll find. What’s the worst that can happen?

Alex lived in Madrid for four months working as an au pair before returning to her studies. She enjoys visiting European cities, writing and 2 for 1 cinema tickets. She currently works as a writer alongside http://www.worldwalks.com.

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