It was our first evening in Madrid and as is the custom in Spain we headed out for an evening stroll after the siesta break. (The traditional evening stroll ends with one or more stops in local bars for a drink and tapas or a light dinner. Keep in mind that the bars and restaurants do not show any action before 9 p.m.) As we were heading along Calle del Arenal in the direction of Puerta del Sol, I noted an elderly couple walking arm in arm. They could easily have been in their late seventies; nicely dressed, walking at a leisurely pace and sporadically exchanging a few words or tender gestures. What was most evident, was an intimacy of two people having grown old together and enjoying each other’s company during an evening ritual. Initially, I thought that this was a unique observation, but as we continued with our evening stroll (and subsequent evening strolls) this was not unique in the least. Seeing young couples arm and arm is a common occurrence in western countries especially during the evening hours. To my surprise, in Madrid we found a large percentage of couples from age fifty and up who were out and about. They were unhurried and clearly enjoying each others company. What was most charming was their not being afraid to show small gestures of intimacy and affection in public. This was my first observation of Madrid. What wonderful old world charm to greet my busy Parisian lifestyle and make me take pause.
The next thing that struck me was the cleanliness of the city. I have gotten used to the French hosing down the streets regularly and the same ritual was found in Madrid. We walked street after street, boulevard after boulevard on clean sidewalks aside elegant rows of homes or commercial buildings with ornate windows and balconies. Trees lined most streets and at regular intervals you can find rest areas and plazas with numerous cafés.
We, like so many tourists before us, made the Museo del Prado our first stop. To facilitate the visit and eliminate waiting we bought our tickets online and printed them out before even leaving Paris. (Very easy for any country and any museum.) If you know that you will be going to the top three you can buy a pass for 17,60 euros. This is a great buy but it does not include special exhibits so check the websites to be sure that you do not overlook the opportunity to include a special exhibit. It would be a shame to miss an extraordinary show while trying to save a few euros. In general, it is always good advise to plan ahead since a little planning goes a long way!
During our stay, there were several special exhibits that we were looking forward to seeing. The most interesting was titled “Heroínas”. This exhibition featured strong women who are independent, creative, triumphant and sometimes defiant. Each painting was about woman and/or painted by woman. The exhibition was a jewel that we will remember and I am hopeful that it will travel to other cities so that a vast number of people can enjoy the power, inspiration and historical background that is provided with this show. There were works by woman from as early as the 16th century. One such woman was Artemisia Gentilesch (1593-1652). She is considered one of the most important woman painters of Early Modern Europe and was, of course, excluded from an apprenticeship in the studio of successful artists of her time. She was born in Rome and is well known for her masterpiece “Susanna and the Elders”. She was trained by her father.
The Museo del Prado is enormous. That being said, we took a leisurely morning to roam its corridors. Then we headed across the street and wandered the back streets for the first interesting bar/restaurant that seemed to be attracting locals. We ordered my favorite, baccala, which is served in a variety of ways and in Spain they really know how to prepare it. I did not live on baccala while in Madrid but came close to it. We ate slowly, indulged in dessert and finished lunch off with a strong coffee. At that point, we were ready to head back to the del Prado, refreshed with rested feet, happy stomachs and ready for a mini-marathon of a couple more hours of museum going. (Since I just mentioned coffee and if you are a coffee lover as I am, it is good to know that the Spanish have excellent coffee; strong and flavorful.)
We opted for the Museo Reina Sofia on the second day. We decided not to rush out after our marathon at the del Prada, arriving at the museum around 11:00 am. As before, we bought tickets online and we were able to pass quickly and easily into the museum. This museum is not overwhelming and has a lovely center courtyard perfect for taking a respite and enjoying the lovely garden and sculptures. The main draw for Reina Sofia is to finally see Picasso’s Guernico, but there are many extraordinary pieces to view and enjoy. Therefore, don’t short change this museum and plan the time to enjoy its collection. The Reina Sofia offers an exciting collection of 20th and 21st century Spanish art as well as art of European and American origin.
Guernico was created by Pablo Picasso in response to the bombing of Guernica in the Basque Country by the German and Italian warplanes during the Spanish Civil War on the 26th of April 1937. At that time, Guernica was a quiet village with most of its male citizens at the front lines fighting on behalf of the Republicans. That left mostly woman and children in the village as victims. Historians have agreed that the bombing had one purpose and that was intimidation, but the toll was great on needless human suffering.
Picasso was commissioned by the Spanish government to create a mural for the Paris International Exposition at the World’s Fair in 1937. This commission gave birth to Guernico. It has become synonymous with war and its tragedies, and has been used as an anti-war symbol. The painting masterfully unfolds the horrors of war. The images and the size of the mural becomes the dominant force in the room of the museum in which it is displayed. The scene captures human and animal suffering by violence, chaos and with individual figures as the mother grieving over a dead child and the horse falling in agony. There are many hidden images and it is worth reading about the painting and viewing copies before immersing oneself in the power of the original. The painting was done in oil using only black, white and grey. These stark colors add enormously to the impact of the impressive 11 feet (3.5 metres) tall by 25.6 feet (7.8 metres) wide canvas.(As a special note, it was exhibited free at the San Francisco Museum of Art followed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in l939.)
The third day was devoted to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Despite the size and magnificence of the del Prado and the force of seeing Guernico, along with the many other priceless works at the Reinia Sophia, it was the Thyssen-Bornemisza that stole our hearts. Much to our surprise there is a vast collection of American art featuring many Hudson River era painters. There is also a superb collection of French artists to include the impressionist era.
I read that these three museums are called the “Golden Triangle of Art”. After just these few days of museum hoping, I am ready to concur.
During this trip, we saved plenty of time for shopping. The Spanish have style and they are beautiful artisans. There are numerous districts throughout the city and it is easy via guides or Google to help direct you to areas that specialize in whatever your heart desires. I often find that my best finds are by wandering and seeking out boutiques that do not have your homogenous brands found in all major cities. I also make an effort to look at where products are made. I like to buy local no matter where I am. Finally, every Sunday there is the colorful and fun street market of El Rastro. For over 100 years, this has been one of the city’s oldest working-class neighborhoods. Its origins are similar to rue Mouffetard in Paris. The word rastro means “trail” and it goes back to the days when this was the area of the slaughterhouses (abattoir) and the animal innards that were dragged through the street. It would have been here that the artist Francisco Goya immortalized the everyday man of his era. Now, El Rastro relates to the flea market with hundreds of stalls. Go early before the crowds come and I can promise that there will be plenty of bargains to include antiques and artisan goods. For example, I found a beautiful wallet at a very fair price being sold by the artisan. Truly there is something for everyone and I’ll be surprised if you go and come away empty handed.
The Spanish custom is to eat a large lunch and to go out for a late, late light super or tapas and drinks. Certainly, you can stick to your own habits and customs, but falling into sync with the local customs will put you in sync with the hours when shops and restaurants are open and just makes sense. Start out early, have a big lunch, take that siesta and then head out at 9 or 10 and do tapas and drinks, maybe even hit one of the many clubs throughout Madrid. I have only one precaution. It is easy to order too much when it comes to tapas. I did fine with one or two choices, but that was after having had a large lunch.
Madrid is an easy trip from Paris. Our flight was only one and a half hours. What more could one want than nice people, good fresh food, excellent libations, the Golden Triangle and superior shopping!
website for Museo del Prado: http://www.museodelprado.es/en
website for Reina Sofia Museum: http://www.museoreinasofia.es/index_en.html
website for Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum: http://www.museothyssen.org/en/thyssen/home