Madrid, Capitale Extraordinaire
Madrid is a grand bustling city where a café or restaurant seems to appear every other block. Each eatery is filled with customers regardless of the hour. This capitol city is designed for grazers like me. Madrid dates back to the 16th century but today’s 3.5 million residents move about (and drive) with a Manhattan style urgency. The old, preserved architecture blends well with modern buildings and cobblestone streets. Gardens punctuate the cityscape and major traffic circles strut their stunning fountains.
In Spain each town has a “Plaza Mejor” aka best and biggest square. In Madrid, this great plaza is enclosed by antique, multi-story apartments with grill work balconies and the requisite statuary. Cafes abound and street performers bustle about selling wares. Nearby is an incredible marketplace where locals meet, greet, drink, and eat. Of course you can buy produce, meats, fish and all grocery items but shopping is unrelated to evening frivolity. We move through and have a delicious hors d’oeuvre supper like real hip “Madriders.”
The Madrid Royal Palace has the requisite array of portraits, tapestries, and valuable furnishings. Yet we are most impressed with the four (4) Stradivarius instruments encased in one room. Major string quartets are invited to the palace to perform on these Strads. We wonder if Craig’s EOS ensemble can land an invitation.
Madrid is renowned for three museums. The world-famous Prado contains an extensive collection of old masters. We pick and choose carefully concentrating on Goya and Velasquez to avoid being overwhelmed. Many groups of pre-schoolers are paraded through these collections. They sit quietly on the floor while a teacher explains a painting. We’ve never seen young children view art with such rapt attention.
On another day we view Picasso’s overwhelming “Guernica.” This is such an artistic anti-war indictment. In rooms that lead to the giant masterpiece, there are early sketches and drawings that were later incorporated into the painting. Guernica was once housed in the New York Metropolitan Museum but Picasso always wanted it returned to Spain.
An artistic highpoint is the lesser-known Thyssen- Bornemisa museum with an incredible collection that stretches from the Dutch Masters through the great painters of the 20th century. There’s an exciting temporary exhibit called, “Heroines” which contrasts women portrayed in older paintings with modern work from female artists and photographers.
However the back story of this museum reads like a People Magazine exposé. Mr. Bornemisa, captain of industry and art collector incrediblé, marries a trophy wife, Carmen Thyssen (a former Miss Spain). Ms. Thyseen is also the ex-spouse of Les Barker, an ex-Tarzan actor. Over the years, Carmen Thyssen turns Bornemisa’s petite art collection into a world-class museum.
One evening we join other tourists for a rousing flamenco dance and music show. We are surprised that the dinner here is quite good. Spain needs some serious cuisine instruction from Italy. First of all the Spanish need to learn the art of salad and eliminate iceberg lettuce, canned white asparagus, and dry mashed tuna fish. When the Iberia airlines salad is one of the best around, you know the country is in trouble.
A high speed Madrid train whisked us to nearby Toledo ─ a must for all Madrid tourists. From the station we walk up, up, and UP to the medieval walled town. Toledo was once a Moorish citadel but few traces of that culture remain. We stroll through narrow arches and winding cobblestone streets.
Toledo was home for the great Domeniks Theotokopoulos aka “El Greco.” He painted in the 16th Century and spent most of his years in Spain. His works created a problem for the church and his royal patrons due to the elongated figures and deep emotion on display. As a result sales were not always brisk. Three hundred years later, a wealthy Spanish matron bought 3 adjoining houses and created the El Greco Museum to house the dramatic paintings. There’s also an enormous El Greco painting in a nearby church which honors the death of a local nobleman and his ascension to heaven. In the surrounding male crowd the painter included himself, his son, and Cervantes.
The Sephardic synagogue/museum is mammoth and the enormous main room is now used for concerts. Diminutive Corinthian columns set off a small area that once housed the Torah scrolls. The high ceilings were delicately carved by Mujedar craftsmen centuries ago. The ornate arches above the women’s balcony also speak to an earlier Muslim influence. The museum section contains Judaica through the centuries including a very old Megillah.
Unfortunately a serious rain storm comes in the afternoon hastening our return back to the train. We are told that the train is full but on the platform we persist and the “manager agrees to let us stand. Actually there are many seats.
Madrid has a fine vibe. There’s even an opera house but we are off season. So Adios to the city as we again take off for the countryside.
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