Child-friendly Madrid

A native of Madrid, art historian Almudena Cros founded Across Madrid in July 2014. Across Madrid offers eleven different walking tours covering more than five centuries of Madrid’s history, each unique in content while ensuring a flexible and fun experience, enriched by the latest insiders tips and practical information. She also offers tours specifically aimed at families and children. Here Almudena talks to MumAbroad about her work, opening up art for children, the birth of her son who was born in March 2015 and the public healthcare system in Spain.

Originally I left Spain to study and in all I spent 16 years away studying and working in England, Germany and Italy. My cosmopolitan background and academic formation made me an ideal tour guide for an American company who recruited me in 2006 to run tours for families in Venice. When the time came to move back to Madrid in 2008, I continued creating itineraries and designing and running tours for this large company in Spain, but I soon grew tired of working in a multinational. At the same time I was concerned about making tours more accessible, to ensure that families who were not able to pay for luxury private tours could afford a great educational experience. So in 2014 I decided to branch out and set up my own company, Across Madrid. I cater to single travellers, and there is no minimum number of guests for a tour to run, which means that single parents, or those travelling alone with a child, can enjoy a private tour for a very reasonable price.

I really enjoy working with children.  Previously I worked as a classroom assistant at an American school in Germany, as well as an instructor at CaixaForum in Madrid, where I had the opportunity to discuss contemporary art with children and their families visiting the exhibitions there. I find that opening art to children is incredibly rewarding and fulfilling as they are exposed to new images and compositions that they decode in very original ways. Sometimes the questions children ask are more interesting than those posed by adults!

I offer 2 museum tours, the Prado and the Archaeological Museum, as well as a walking tour through the historic centre of Madrid. I have designed my own teaching materials, and have come up with original treasure hunts that articulate the itineraries as children look for the clues while they walk. Engaging children in this way is a winning formula because they are not being lectured at, they are following an activity they thoroughly enjoy. The accompanying adults are also involved in the scavenger hunt so it is a great family activity for all. I’m very flexible and understand that sometimes children get tired, or they are shy, or are having a meltdown. That is par of the course when you work with children, and I can work around those situations. As a new mum myself I understand this even more now.

It sounds like such a cliche, but the birth of my son earlier this year changed my life tremendously. It was a rather traumatic experience and not what I was expecting – it ended up being an emergency C-section. I’m a firm advocate for the public health system in Spain. Even though I had private medical insurance cover I decided it would be safest to deliver my baby at a public hospital. The facilities, the equipment and the quality control at public hospitals is unmatched by private ones. I realised this when discussing with other mums-to-be at the prenatal classes organised by the public health system. In fact, I was rather shocked that some mums expected to deliver their babies at expensive private hospitals were told to bring absolutely everything for themselves and their newborns. Whereas the public Santa Cristina hospital in Madrid (also known as Gregorio Marañón) told me to bring only the bare essentials because they would provide for everything. And sure enough, they put me in a private room and everything was there for the baby and myself, from nappies to baby clothes to toiletries. I was delighted with the care I received at the hospital.

The birth turned out to be a C-section  so I had to stay at the hospital for 3 nights. The nurses, doctors, clerical staff and ancillary services staff were incredibly helpful and caring. It is true that Spaniards approach new mums in a way that it might be quite shocking to British or American patients. They will prod you and squeeze you without much previous warning, but they are doing their rounds in a gigantic hospital and do not have the time to explain to you what they are about to do to your body. You might feel a bit exposed and embarrassed, but they are great professionals and they really know what they are doing. I felt very safe and knew we were in the most capable hands. It might just be a bit of a cultural shock, particularly to American patients who are accustomed to a softer approach to explorations and any doctor visits.

I have just enrolled my 8-month old baby in gym classes organised by my local health service, and these 2-hour sessions every week only cost 25 euros a month. This is a great opportunity for my son to interact with other babies and to learn how to crawl and develop, guided by a trained child psychologist. It also gives me the opportunity to meet other mums and discuss baby issues with them.

As the mother of a teething baby I find myself tired after countless sleepless nights, and returning to work has been a little difficult but – somehow – I have found myself bouncing back from those first weeks of exhaustion and slight confusion and am now perfectly able to function efficiently in the classroom and on my tours. In a way I feel secretly guilty at working so many hours away from my adorable baby, but that is what most mums have to do in this day and age, and that is why I cherish every second spent with my son.

Madrid is a good city for a baby depending on your neighbourhood. Sure, Spaniards love babies and children, and even grown men are keen to show their softer side when they encounter a cute baby on public transportation. And virtually everyone will help you get around the bus or metro, without having to ask for their help. The bus system is really good for babies on strollers, although sometimes it gets a bit cramped if there is more than 1 baby chair in there. This is very much a tactile culture and you just have to accommodate your fear of germs to the way Spaniards cannot resist seeing a baby without touching it. It is very intrusive from an American or even British perspective, but you just get used to it and it is seen as a compliment to the cuteness of your baby. I have seen middle-aged ladies forgetting their tedious administrative jobs and leaving their desks at numerous offices to rufle my baby’s hair or hold his hand. They just cannot resist the temptation to interact with a child!

I have had to adjust my way of getting around the city since I had my son. You take for granted that you can get from point A to B in 15 minutes but not anymore when you are pushing a heavy stroller with a baby and all that comes with it. In general, the Metro has been a huge disappointment. Only a few stations have elevators and even when they do, they rarely are accessible all the way from the train platform to the surface and at one point or another you find yourself facing a set of stairs and looking around for help. I wish the metro were truly accessible, since it is way faster than the buses, but there you go. I would certainly like to see a more stroller-friendly metro system. This really should be a priority, also to help those in wheelchairs. Here’s a list of accessible metro stations for pushchairs and wheelchair users: www.metromadrid.es/en/accesibilidad/estaciones_accesibles/index.html

Regarding public places like museums, most of the big ones are 100% accessible and staff are willing to help you, so I have been taking my baby to museums since he was very little. In terms of parks, there are plenty to enjoy, and that is not only the Retiro Park – there are lots of other public parks and green areas throughout the city such as Madrid Rio, Parque del Oeste, Juan Carlos I, or the beautiful Botanic Garden next to the Prado. I get to enjoy Madrid in a different manner now. It has altered my perspective on the city, and I have seen the way Spanish interact with children. This is being so far a very enriching, learning experience.

To find out more about Almudena’s tours visit  www.acrossmadrid.com


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