Madrid, in less than 2 days

27 May

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While I feel a bit remiss not writing about Bratislava, where we stayed for a very pleasant week before travelling south, these short hops now happening at the end of our travels mean I’m running out of time (and energy) to write very much. These kind of frequent-flying jaunts are also very wearing on our poor old bodies–I don’t know how people stand those “If This is Tuesday, It Must be Belgium” kind of tours. My thinking when planning these layovers was that this might be our last trip for a very long time, and so the only chance to see the one last museum on my bucket list, The Prado.  (Well, I would also like to see The Hermitage, but have no desire to go to Russia). While we had early on planned two weeks in Porto, Portugal, at the last minute I added a 2-day stopover in Madrid, just long enough to allow us to visit that famous site.

And as luck and serendipity would have it, we actually managed to be in Madrid when one of my Lawrence students who now lives in Spain could arrange to visit us. Tammy Teschner, who I hadn’t seen since her graduation day in 1987, journeyed with a Taiwanese friend from Torrevieja, where she lives with her husband and two boys, the oldest of whom is now a freshman at Lawrence! Talk about feeling old: my Lawrence students are now all hitting 50.  But never mind: it was just lovely to see her again, and to meet her friend as well.  I was sincerely touched that Tammy would make such an effort to come see me. Teachers are always happy to learn that they are remembered!

And how nice it was to have someone with us who knew where things were in Madrid! Tammy had recommended the hotel where we were staying, Hostal Madrid, right in the heart of the city, and at bargain prices for either a room or an apartment room. We met at the iconic restaurant across the street from the hotel–Museo del Jamon, the Museum of Ham! You can see the product in the background of that photo of us. Since we were all quite tired from our travels, we decided to go that afternoon to a smaller museum that Tammy  remembered fondly.  The Museo Sorolla, the studio/home of the society painter of the late 19th century, Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923), is located right in the heart of Madrid. Beautiful grounds and lovely displays, not only of Sorolla’s paintings, but of his own collections of ceramics and furniture. My favorite part was the photographic display, including an extraordinary image of Sorolla done by the American Gertrude Kaesebier when the Spanish artist visited New York for his exhibition at the Hispanic Society in 1909. The image is as modern as an Irving Penn. And check out his painting of a woman with a camera! We’re always excited to find such images.

Since it is at this time of year in Madrid not getting dark until about 9 p.m., and given the Spaniards’ penchant for doing everything late, the streets around our hotel were packed with Madrileños doing the evening stroll and drinking at bars. Tammy persuaded us to visit the Plaza Mayor and surrounds, but that was about it for me that evening.  The plaza included for some reason a gigantic head of Goya, which I took as a good omen for the next day of Prado viewing.

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And in the morning, andamos! To my complete surprise, the Prado was within walking distance of our hotel. I had always envisioned it as being miles outside of town, for some reason. (This isn’t the only surprise in my misconceptions of Madrid: it’s a much more open, bright, and elegant city than I had imagined. ) After a lazy stroll through the streets and a mandatory coffee stop, we made it to the museum.

And in one of my only direct bits of advice to other travellers:  it is completely worth it to buy Skip the Line tickets online before visiting the Prado!  The queue to get in when we arrived was already at least an hour’s wait long; we instead went around to the side entrance and got in immediately, no waiting at all. Definitely worth the 18 Euros.

I must say that the building was not at all what I envisioned; I was expecting it to be more along the lines of Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, a gigantic historicist structure with labyrinthine rooms. I had already told Tammy and Dee that I would head directly to the only works I wanted to see: Bosch, Velazquez, and Goya, with a few bodegones (Spanish still lifes) thrown in. And that’s what we did: we found on the guide the quickest way to The Garden of Earthly Delights.

At this point, I really didn’t know that in the Prado you are not supposed to take photos, even with out a flash. So I just started snapping away, until I was told sternly that photos were not allowed. Why, I do not understand: when other museums which I would assume are more uptight than the Prado about proprietary rights on paintings, such as the Kunsthistorisches, allow photos everywhere, I don’t see why this museum would continue to prohibit picture taking. Well, never mind, I continued to take them whenever I could get away with it. Unfortunately, the Bosch paintings are really meant to be studied for their phantasmagorical details, which are hard to photograph on the sly. I did get the cat and birds from the right panel of the Garden, at least. And Tammy was able to capture me in my natural element:  looking at paintings in a museum.

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800px-El_Tres_de_Mayo,_by_Francisco_de_Goya,_from_Prado_thin_black_marginAlas, the Goyas were the most eagerly guarded, which is too bad, because by far the most moving, most arresting, most prickles-up-the-spine painting for me was Goya’s “Third of May.”  It was bigger than I thought, and in person, so much more affecting than in reproduction.  The first truly modern depiction of the insanity of war, with that almost assembly-line machine of death squads, and one anonymous illuminated figure before the instant he is shot to join the other dead on the ground beside him. How many lectures have I given on this work? It makes all the difference to see it in person.

But again, I wonder why the Prado won’t allow photos? This image, as with most others in the collection,  is in the public domain, so I can copy a photo of it off the web. I then thought perhaps it was because they want everyone to buy reproductions in the gift shop, in which case they should improve their game in that area. I was very disappointed at the quality and selection of post cards available there.

What I so love about Goya, and what the Prado demonstrates so effectively, is that he transforms so dramatically from an 18th-century painter of royalty and aristocrats at play to one of the most searing depictors of the darker sides of humanity. The museum’s second floor had a wonderful display of those earlier works, so Spanish and so realistic, of people at leisure, having picnics and dancing. But even here, in my favorite piece of maidens blanket tossing a doll (or is it a man?), one begins to see Goya’s transformation at the end of the 18th century to a commentator on the human condition.

And then, downstairs, an entire room is filled with his shocking “pinturas negras”, those exceedingly dark images that covered the walls of his house, the Quinta del Sordo (House of the Deaf Man). The most modern painter imaginable, having no illusions about man’s capacity for superstition, irrationality and violence.

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Velazquez was almost impossible to capture, Las Meninas surrounded by school children and the magnificent giant portraits that so inspired Manet vigilantly watched over by a particularly grouchy guard.  But what a brilliant painting about the act of painting Las Meninas is! I would have liked to get closer and stay longer in that room, but we had masses to contend with by that time.

Finally, what would a trip to a collection of Spanish art be without a look at those spectacular examples of still life done by the bodegonistas Sanchez Cotan and Luis Melendez? I have no idea why I find these works so soothing, so contemplative, and so masterful in execution. The museum’s wall labels are good in pointing out that there is a difference in interpretive meaning between these painters:  some such as Sanchez Cotan and Zurburan, are often creating metaphorical representations in their depictions of fruit and ceramics, while others such as Melendez are presenting purely factual depictions of the objects in front of them. Guess which one is which.

After two and a half hours of non-stop masterpieces, we were sated with art.  We went to a nice restaurant where we had the menu of the day–Tammy informed us that by law, all Spanish restaurants must offer a reasonably priced daily meal, which makes it possible to eat in an nicer place for a decent price, which seems a great idea for a people who so love food.

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Finally, our brief sojourn in the Spanish capital on a surprisingly hot day ended with a walk to the Mercado San Miguel, whence comes the photo of us at the top of this blog. Having friends around to take pictures which include both of us is a real treat!  The mercado was so crowded and so hot and so overpriced that we ended up sitting out on the plaza instead. But it was a great way to end our stay in this buzzing city. I completely underestimated its charms, and wish that we had had more time to see more of it.  On to Porto!

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