It was late at night when Nataliya and I arrived in Madrid on the one hour flight from Barcelona. The former gateway to the city, Puerta de Alcala,looks spectacular when lit up at night. We got off the bus at Plaza de Cibeles. In the center of the square is the iconic fountain crowned with a statue of the Roman goddess Cybele, seated in a chariot pulled by lions, welcomed us to Madrid.
Beyond the statue, on the other side of the square, the Palacio de Comunicaciones and City Hall were lit up like fireflies—the illuminated clock tower told us it was nearly midnight. We lingered for some moments, taking in the lively sights as they only looked at night. Then, we extended our suitcase handles, pulled them behind like dogs on leash, and headed down the road toward Puerta del Sol.
Sun Shines at Night
Puerta del Sol, or “Gateway to the Sun,” was still alive with energy even at the late hour when we arrived. The people here appeared to be more locals than tourists, with cafes and shops and the metro stop
under a mirrored glass that looked like a silver moon on the cobblestone. Ten streets extend from Puerta del Sol, making it a little more confusing than expected to find our Hotel Santandar, which was off one of the ten streets. We asked the policemen who stood guard in the square (more half-moon than square, really) and they were happy to offer directions. “Look for big lions at the Congreso de los Diputados. Same street.” By the time we found the afore-mentioned lions at the home to Spain’s parliament, we had gone too far. But it only took minutes to turn back and find the big “Hotel Santandar” sign. We went to the unmarked door below the sign to find it locked. It was after midnight. “What if they’re closed for the night,” Nataliya asked. “I told them we were arriving late,” I said. Both a little worried about spending the night leaning against a monument, we looked around for another, better marked door. Turns out that the sign was only that—a sign. The actual hotel (and another well-lit sign) was just around the corner on the nearest side street.And there, we were warmly greeted in the historic building—a lobby filled with carved wood and marble and statuary—by a desk clerk who was expecting us.
Hotel Santandar is by no means a posh, luxury hotel, but it was a far cry better than the typical cookie-cutter chain hotel. Family owned since the 1920s, it is located in a historic building of the same era. Other reviewers have mentioned that, being near the square, it can be noisy at night. But our room was located above a quiet alley and we never once heard a peep from outside—even with the windows open. Our room had a western-style bed (not two twins pushed together as we remembered from non-chain hotels in London, Paris, Prague, St. Petersburg, and Moscow). The furniture was either antique or wonderfully reproduced furniture, heavy wood and stately in style. The large desk would have made a good place for writing, had it not been covered by our notes and guide books, tickets and maps. The ceilings were a good fifteen feet high, but not too far away to miss the details: a decorative middle framed by plaster molding. The bath included an extra-long soaking tub (good after a long day of street and museum walking) with a European-style shower handle that could be plugged in up top or handheld. There was even a bidet. During our days at the hotel, we encountered four friendly desk clerks. The one we spoke with most often happened to be from Cuba. Interestingly enough, he had gone to college in Russia and Ukraine, had worked in Mexico, and had only recently moved to Madrid. Being from Cuba tied him to three diverse cross-cultures: Cuba, Russia (with the former Soviet connection), and Hispanic countries, like Mexico and Spain.
When traveling abroad on our own dollar (or Euro as the case may be), we tend to want a local, non-chain hotel that is clean. No whirlpool or king-sized bed is needed—just a place to sleep during the few hours of the night that we’re not out exploring. We were happy to find that Hotel Santandar, located at Echegaray 1, was not just a place to sleep. But when we finally got settled in and showered off well west of Midnight, sleep we did.
Gateway to the Sun
We rose with the sun for our first full day in Madrid, with breakfast in Puerta del Sol. Once, there really was a gateway here, but it was destroyed in 1570. This square is also where the massacre took place in 1808, when locals were attacked by Napoleon’s forces. These days, the Gateway to the Sun comes closer to living up to its name. The atmosphere is pleasant, the energy positive. There are peaceful demonstrations, but it is mostly a square of meeting and greeting, where locals come together.
I’ve already mentioned the modern glass train station entry. The square is also famous for the bronze statue of a bear eating from a strawberry tree—often used as a symbol for Madrid. At the center of the square is a statue of Carol III astride his horse. And the building where the helpful policemen are on guard 24 hours a day, with its iconic clock tower, is home to the regional government. In past eras, it has been everything from a post office to headquarters for Ministry of the Interior.
Although we avoid chains, we did enjoy breakfast a few times in Puerta del Sol at the “museum of ham,” where they served up juice from Valencia oranges squeezed right in front of you, delicious Spanish coffee with steamed milk, and good sandwiches of meat and cheese. Like many places, you actually stand at the bar to eat and drink. Most people in the early morning enjoyed coffee and hot chocolate with churros and sandwiches and juice. But every time we went for breakfast, inevitably there would be at least one gentleman enjoying an a.m. ale with his morning meal.
Who doesn’t like to sleep in? But when we have limited time in a place like Madrid, we want to be up with the sun, at the Gateway to the Sun, each day. The best time to hit the places where lines get long is in the early morning. The Thyssen-Bornemisza, one of the three great art museums of Madrid, opened at 10. We were there at 9:45.
The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza had a very modern feel to it. The collection was put together by Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and his son, Hans Heinrich. The location is the Villahermosa Palace, from the 18th century. As a sort of history of western art, the paintings and sculptures (more than 1,000) range from Flemish and Italian primitives to 20th century pop art.
One could easily spend a day or two perusing the paintings of this museum. We dedicated a few hours, stopping to linger over the ones that captivated us. Some of the highlights of the Thyssen-Bornemisza include Edward Hopper’s Hotel Room, and Harlequin with a Mirror by Picasso; Women with a Parasol in Garden by Renoir and Swaying Dancer by Degas. Goya, Titian, Gauguin, Rubens, Christus, Van Gough, and Dali are all represented here, along with their contemporaries.
Promenading Paseo del Prado and Proximity
After a few hours in the Thyssen-Bornemisza, we enjoyed some time in the open air. Right next to the museum is Paseo del Prado, a long park
that connects Plaza de Cibeles and Plaza de Canovas del Castillo. The latter of these features a sculpted fountain of Neptune. Just beyond Neptune, you can see Madrid’s greatest Museum, the Prado. We would
visit the museum more than once during our time in Madrid. But for now, a leisurely stroll along the tree-lined park brought us back to the goddess who had welcomed us into the city the night before. We entered the Palacio de Comunicaciones, or Palace of Communications, where we were able to take a look at the beautiful building from the inside. We climbed the top for a nice bird’s eye view of the area. Museums can be wonderful, but they can also fill your mind with
confusion, seeing so many impressive impressions in such a small amount of time. That’s why it is important to balance museum time with
outdoor time. We spent a couple hours of our time enjoying some of the
impressive architecture of the surrounding area.
After admiring the Palace of Communications and City Hall, we took a look at the Plaza de Espana, where the most recognizable feature is the huge stone obelisk. The Spanish author Cervantes is seated in front of the obelisk, looking as though he is dreaming an impossible dream. In front of Cervantes, just below him, are his most beloved characters: Don Quixote on Rocinante and Sancho Panza on his donkey.
Another impressive building (among many not mentioned here) was the
Metropolis. Glinting in the sunlight, the bronze designs on the huge dome atop the ornate building is a sight not to miss. And if you’re walking in the city for any amount of time, chances are, you won’t miss it.
For lunch, we had tapas at a Cervicera, or a bar-restaurant, where we enjoyed some jamon (ham) sliced right off the pig’s leg, on display atop the bar. This seemed to be common at a number of bars, cafes, and restaurants—ham hocks, hoof and all, decorating bars and tabletops. Along with baguettes and soft goat cheese, we drank house wine and beer.
We ended the day in the same mode that opened it: with time well-spent in a museum. Museo del Prado is one of Europe’s (and the world’s) largest art museums, with the world’s biggest collection of Spanish paintings. Dominating the museum are the works of Velazquez, Rubens, El Greco, and Goya. (We met two of them before even entering the palace, Goya and Velazques immortalized in statuary.) There are said to be more than 8,000 paintings at the Prado. Only about a fifth of them are on display. But that fifth could take days to properly take in. We didn’t have days, we had hours. But we managed to walk through most of it in the limited hours we had, and we paid special attention to the paintings that interested us most.
El Greco is well represented at the museum. One of the most notable paintings: the Adoration of the Shepherds, a dramatic work with somewhat surreal figures in vivid colors that pop within the dark framework of the picture. The painting was intended for his own funerary chapel. In this painting, and most of El Greco’s work, one can see why he is held apart as a unique artist; unlike most of his contemporaries, he uses elongated, somehow ghostly figures who make up with vibrant color contrasts what they lack in proper dimension.
There are a great number of paintings by Rubens at the Prado, including The Three Graces, one of the last great masterworks by the Flemish painter—originally from his own personal collection. Another interesting depiction is The Birth of the Milky Way in which our galaxy is created with breast milk. Of special interest is the El Bosco (Bosch) painting, The Garden of Delights. The enormous painting shows people falling into their desires, illustrated on three panels. One panel seems to be heaven, the other hell—and in between, people in a Garden of Eden-esque setting having fun. What many viewers may not realize is that the work has yet another panel: the two side panels close over the middle garden to show the garden encircled in a sphere, seeming to be closed for the night.
The Velazquez collection is perhaps the most impressive of the Prado. His contemporaries, like Manet and Giordano called him the “painter of all painters” and his work “the theology of painting.” My favorite Velazquez at the Prado is Las Meninas, or The Maids of Honor. This work is an experimentation of perspective: a portrait of the king and queen of Spain in which the subjects are barely noticeable—unless you know where to look for them. They are in the mirror on the wall behind the painter (in self-portrait), as though the viewer of the painting is in the position of the king and queen. But it is not a vanity project: the painting centers on the five-year old Infanta Margarita, who looks out at her parents (or the viewer of the painting) as her ladies in waiting tend to her. It is an interesting examination of perspective.
And then there are the works of Goya. Of note is the set, The Clothed Maja and The Naked Maja, each showing the painting’s subject in the exact same pose, one clothed, the other nude. The latter Maja is regarded as one of the most famous nudes in European painting. Maja seems a content character; in fact, a number of Goya’s works are happier ones: The Parasol, and The Pottery Vendor, for example. But most of his best-known works are of a darker nature. The Third of May 1808 is one of his most well-known paintings, depicting the shootings on Principe Pio Hill. It is displayed next to The Second of May 1808, depicting the charge of the Mamelukes. These less delightful paintings are located just outside a room that houses Goya’s Black Paintings.
Goya’s “black paintings” depict the dark mood he was in during his later years of life. Totaling 14 paintings, they were originally frescoes he painted on the walls his own house, Quinta del Sordo, or Deaf Man’s Residence. The home was named after a previous resident who was deaf, but Goya himself was nearly deaf as well. Although the black paintings were not exactly intended as a series, they share some of the same unique qualities: the large paintings are somber, irreverent, and bitter, dealing with, misery, sickness, corruption, and death. At the time of their creation, from 1819 to 1823, Goya was in a dark mood himself, fearing death or lunacy. The paintings were for his own use, not intended for public display. He did not even title them himself; the titles were attributed by art historians after Goya’s death. To stand inside the room, surrounded by the dark paintings, is depressing, the weight of them on your eyes. It is hard to imagine that this is what the artist decided to surround himself with day in and day out at his home.
One of the brighter of the black paintings is Dog Drowning. Some of the darker ones include a horde of witches in the night huddled before a he-goat, and child with similar, monstrous features before them; Two Men Eating Soup shows two crazily smiling men at a table with bowls, one of them looking like nothing more than a skull in the shadows.
The painting of Men Reading seems somehow tuned into death. An old, bearded man sits with a printed page and other men gather closely around him, looking at the paper. One of them looks pleadingly to the sky, as though praying desperately. Certainly it could not have been the artist’s intention at the time, but in today’s age of the ailing printed page it almost seems to predict the demise of the printed book in an age preoccupied with screens and electronics. As a companion to Men Reading, Ladies Laughing depicts a group of old women mocking a subject. Who are they mocking? Undoubtedly the men who are reading.
It was in this pit of darkness that we met up with the husband of Cybel, the goddess who welcomed us to Madrid on her lion-drawn chariot. Saturn’s painting is probably one of Goya’s most well-known. Saturn Devouring his Son depicts just that: the beastly god devouring his own son, his hands brutally digging into the man’s back as though into crust of a blood-red cherry pie. It is a troubling painting, but Saturn, for his terrible deed, actually looks pathetic, crazed, and you almost feel as sorry for the monster as the victim. Saturn is, after all, only eating his son because he fears his own loss of power, because he is plagued by the universal fear of growing old. A person could age just examining the troubling paintings in the room. But that is what makes them fascinating, and well worth examination. It was getting dark when we left the Prado. It was time for some red wine and tapas before heading back home to Puerta del Sol.
Europe’s Largest Palace
Our tour the next morning was a little cheerier. Our breakfast consisted of hot chocolate and churros. Curros are much like the
binges of New Orleans only without the messy powdered sugar—deep fried dough, crispy on the outside and still a little wet and gooey on the inside. The hot chocolate was hardly a drink, being so thick it was like pudding. We actually ate it with a spoon, and followed this sweet treat with a cup of coffee. Palacio Real, Madrid’s marvelous Royal Palace, was designed and built with the purpose to outdo the Louvre in Paris. It stands as one of Europe’s most impressive works of architecture.
About half of the state apartments are open for public viewing, which makes it a popular place to visit. That’s why we got there early, about half an hour before the palace opened. Waiting in the short but growing line was actually fun. We were graced with the impressive views of both the palace and, across the courtyard, with the Almudena Cathedral, which we would visit after the palace. A group of Spanish nuns collected at the top of the cathedral’s stairs, admiring the decorated doors. They broke into song, singing Spanish hymns for us. Their voices carried across the courtyard and provided a nice, ten minute concert.
Then, a few minutes after they ceased, another entertainment began. Street musicians and entertainers are clever to set up next to long lines, and today’s act made me wonder why they don’t do so more often, given the captive audience. Our street entertainment for the next fifteen minutes of our wait consisted of a master accordion player and a flamenco dancer. They broke into song and dance, perhaps their best number being the bullfighting song, the accordion player even marching in step with the dancing “bull.” Many of us tossed Euro coins into the open container before them. It was one of the only times we were actually a little disappointed to see the line begin to move.
But we were leaving a peasant’s realm for a nobleperson’s. The impressive location has been the site of a royal fortress for centuries, but in 1734, after the previous fortress burned, Felipe V ordered the extravagant palace that stands now. It is still used today by the present king and queen for state functions, although Juan Carlos I prefers to live in a slightly less showy residence outside Madrid. Upon entering the palace through a visitors’ center and gift shop, we exited back into the inner courtyard before stepping into the royal pharmacy. The first few rooms of the pharmacy alone were impressive, each lined with gilded shelves of Talavera pottery and ornate drawers, filled with every imaginable ingredient for a home remedy. But room after room continued, making this what must be the most complete royal pharmacy on the face of the earth. The idea was to have everything and anything that might be needed for any ailment on hand. It seems they succeeded, and the results are still showcased today.
After a tour of the royal pharmacy, we entered the front door of the main palace. In the entrance hall, it’s easy to trip on the marble staircase because you can’t help but stare up at the Giaquinto frescos and decorations all around. In fact, even Napoleon, after setting up his brother in the palace, said, “your lodgings will be better than mine.” Circular windows brighten the large entry with natural sunlight. The throne room is another marvel, and one can imagine the king and queen seated on their scarlet and gold thrones, guarded by the Roman lions of bronze next to each. Just as stately is the enormous dining room, decorated with ceiling frescos, wall tapestries, Chinese vases,
and a vast table for large parties. The hall of columns is another beautiful room, not to mention the billiard room and smoking room. The walls and ceiling of one room are covered entirely with royal porcelain, wreaths and cherubs decorating the walls. One of the most impressive rooms to behold was the Gasparini Room, named after its designer. Used as Charles III’s robing room, the elaborately decorated salon bursts with lavish rococo chinoiserie. Fruit, flowers, and vines encrust the ceiling. The Royal Chapel in the palace is absolutely stunning with its blue and gold hues giving it a cool, reverend look and feel.
After some time in the residence, we exited back to the inner courtyard and then took a tour of the royal armory—showcasing the actual armor worn by Spanish royalty of days gone by, along with weapons and a display of armor that had been damaged in battle. The armory features more than 2,000 pieces and has been open to the public for more than 400 years. Impressive as the armory was, it seemed less so than the palace itself. So, while we were still within the walls, we decided to end our visit to the royal residence with one last stroll through the palace. By this time, a couple hours had passed, so the crowds were thickening. In some rooms, we had to swim through a crowd of people or dodge the loud lecturing of a tour guide. Our first walk through the
palace was the better, but it was nice to catch a glimpse of some of the impressive rooms once more before leaving.
The Santa Maria la Real de la Almudana is the cathedral that stands directly across from the Palacio Real. It is an interesting mix of styles. Unlike most cathedrals in Spain, this Cathedral of Madrid is a relatively modern structure. Dating back to the late 1800s (practically brand new for Spain), the cathedral was still being worked on until 1993, when it was consecrated by Pope John Paul II. When construction began, a Gothic revival style dominated. But when work resumed after the Spanish Civil War, the plans were adopted to reflect a more baroque style, to match the palace it faces. The mosaics and designs inside the church have a modern, almost “pop art” feel to them—and they really do pop!
While tourists may be used to walking into a cathedral and doing a once-around the place, this one is quite different. The tour seemed almost a maze as we went through one section after another, starting in the chapterhouse and main sacristy, then climbing to the balcony for a bird’s eye view of the Royal Palace and a glimpse of the roof-top statues from behind. Then, it was all the way back down into the neo-gothic center, passing through mini museums artifacts of the church and priests as we descend while grand and beautiful, does not exemplify what one will find inside. The unique mosaics alone made our time visiting Cathedral de la Almudana a pleasure.
The Basilica San Miguel, or St. Michael’s Basilica, is just a few minutes’ walk from the Royal Palace. When we arrived, we came to find the guard closing the great iron gate as the basilica was closing. Another group of four older people arrived at the same time as we did, from another direction. The guard, a man in his late fifties, smiled at us all, said something we could not quite understand, and extended an open-armed welcome to enter the gate, which he reclosed behind us. Carrying an enormous key ring with equally large keys, he opened the great door to the basilica and allowed us to enter. The cool room was dark when we entered. The guard was kind enough to let us in to enjoy a quick viewing of the shadowed frescos and statues, the painted dome and the circular altar. But after just a few minutes, he ushered us out. We understood that the basilica was closing when we arrived; he was kind enough not to turn away visitors who had traveled far to see the beautiful basilica.
Next, we made our way to another site we were told was not to be missed: the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales. The working convent is also an award-winning museum. From what I’d read, it sounded a bit like the Sloan Museum in London: not one of the larger museums, but a smaller collection that is in some ways even more a pleasure to discover; just enough of a good thing without becoming overwhelming. When we arrived to find a long line outside, we decided to wait. To our chagrin, the line was not moving.
As we often do in such cases, one of us remained in line as a placeholder while the other shot to the front to get details on what was to come. We knew ahead of time that they maintained selective hours, only opened a few hours at a time and closing for siesta during the early afternoon. We learned now that they also had timed entries. We had about half an hour until the next group would be allowed inside. We decided to wait. Then the rain came down. The rain in Spain fell mostly on us. We didn’t have our umbrella with us—it had been sunny most of the day—so after a few moments we fled the line and made our way to a nearby restaurant. It was past lunch time anyway; we enjoyed some house wine and tapas as we watched the rain pour.
When the rain stopped pouring, along with the wine, we returned to the monastery only to find that they were “full.” We took this to mean they were full for the moment, that at the next timed entry they would allow us in. So we did some shopping along the nearby pedestrian street where kiosks and vendors sold jewelry, art, and souvenirs. About an hour later, we returned to the monastery for the next timed entry. To our surprise, there was no line. We waited at the front door, closed to us, and stared at the sign that seemed to say the next timed entry was right then. After knocking, a worker told us they were full for the day.
Carefully following the printed schedule we’d found in a tourist publication, we would return the next day when they opened after siesta … only to be told, once again, “we are full.” “Full for the 4:00 timed entry? So we can come back at 5?” “Full for the day. We are full for the day.” So, although we made three visits to Monasterio de las Descalzas, we never actually got in. Yet another reason to return to Madrid … perhaps with a local who can help us navigate the complicated schedule.
After the rain stopped, after our Spanish omelets, cheese, salmon, and red wine, after we were turned away from the convent, we found something right across the street we weren’t expecting: a special Chagall exhibit sponsored by the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in the Fundacion Caja Madrid. The two main floors and several additional rooms were filled with the works of Marc Chagall, the works ranging from the early 1900s to the 1980s. In the collection were large oil paintings, sculptures, and series of engravings. Some of the most memorable pieces included War, Vava, The Red Circus, The Blue Circus, and Dance. Just when the rain and inability to get into the art collection at the monastery were beginning to get us down, Chagall unexpectedly came to the rescue.
After a day of art and palaces, we decided to begin our evening at Plaza Mayor. We’d strolled through it before, just a couple minutes from our own Puerta del Sol. But now, we decided to spend some time there. Vendors beeped and whistled with annoying toys in their mouths and shot lighted rubber band toys into the sky—not five minutes of walking in the square passed without one of them approaching us with a series of beeps and whistles, offering unwanted souvenirs that were anything but Spanish. But ignore that, and you see why the square is a popular tourist attraction. The allegorical paintings on some of the buildings are beautiful. The tile work of other buildings in the square seem to catch the setting sun and rising moon. The equestrian statue of Felipe III at the center of the square is a nice place to stand and look around at all of the buildings surrounding the square.
After getting our bearings, we took to the open hallways along the edges of Plaza Mayor and walked along the shops, cafes, and restaurants. We found a pleasant café that offered perhaps the best tapas we ate in Spain. Instead of going to the sit-down portion of the restaurant downstairs, we enjoyed our red wine and tapas at the classy stand up bar where we could look out the window onto the square. The kind bartender, dressed spiffily in black and white, did not speak any more English than we did Spanish, but he aimed to please, and he even called down to order some special tapas for us when we ordered a second round. Hearty food at a bargain price in a place that felt more formal than fast, the place offered two large open faced sandwiches (enough for a meal) and a glass of wine or mug of beer for three Euros. Two orders, and you feel like you’ve been to a buffet.
Although Madrid is one of the cities where bullfighting is still a part of the culture, it is becoming less accepted by the general public. Indeed, one of the things on our list when we first planned our trip to Spain was to go to a bullfight. It was after we got to know the sport—saw some video and pictures and did some reading—that we decided we didn’t want to go to one. On one hand, it is part of the culture and perhaps no more cruel than how animals are treated on mass-market farms and in slaughter houses. On the other hand, when you see the bulls mercilessly attacked and outnumbered, it can be hard to see it as sport instead of massacre.
So we compromised. Instead of going to a bullfight, we went to Torre del Oro Bar Andalú, a bar with a bullfighting theme. Located along inner-edge of Plaza Mayor, this clean, well-lighted place has on display many photographs of bullfighting and a good number of the beaten bulls have their heads mounted on the walls. We had some beer
and perused the photos, one series of stills showing the horn of a bull penetrating below a matador’s jaw and going up into his head, then drawing back out. (He survived to bullfight again!) We were told that one of the bulls on display in the bar was killed during a bullfight that had both Ernest Hemingway and Franco in the audience at the same time—presumably not together. It was here that I enjoyed my first taste of Anise. I expected to enjoy it, since I like licorice as much as I tend to like herbal liquors. Anise is a sort of synthesis of the two, and it went down sweet and smooth. After strolling through Plaza Mayor some moments more, we took the pedestrian street, full of vendors selling everything from painted fans and sunglasses to little statues and jewelry, back to Pueta del Sol.
Before returning to our hotel, we decided to try out a bar we’d passed several times during our visit. The bar was open to the street at one end, as many cafes and bars tend to be, but the interior was rich and lavish with heavy dark woods and decorated with gilded carvings. We started out with a beer and a wine. I wanted to try a few of the drinks we’d been told were well-loved in Spain.
Liquor 45 looked and sounded great. But it seems to have been good marketing. It tasted heavy and sweet, much like drinking a peach schnapps or Kahlua with a few tablespoons of sugar or corn syrup added. Zorco was a little better. It reminded me of the anise we’d had earlier at the bullfighting bar. It was good, although I preferred the anise. When an a couple of expats—a husband and wife who lived in England but spent some time out of every year in Madrid—came to the bar, chatted with the bartender, and walked to an outside table with a specially steamed glass of brandy and a big cigar, I took notice. I’d wanted to try Spanish brandy and hadn’t yet. I struck up a conversation with the expats and asked him to recommend one. “You can’t go wrong with anything on the top shelf,” he said and pointed. “But my recommendation? The 1866.” I ordered a snifter of 1866 Solera Gran Reserva, a brandy produced in La Mancha.
We decided to begin our Sunday morning with a leisurely stroll through the park, so we walked to Parque del Retiro. Once the private gardens of the royal family, it was often used for pageants, mock naval drills, and bullfights. In the 18th century, parts of the park were open to the public, but only for people who were properly dressed in formal attire. In 1869, the park was fully opened; these days you can enter the park in tank tops and flip flops. The people may have dressed down, but the grounds still appear to be dressed up with gardens, trees, and flowers. The Rosaleda, for example, contains more than 100 varieties of roses with a total of more than 4,000 individual roses. Some of the 18 entries into the park are worth seeing, such as the Independence Gate, which is the grandest among them. The Estanque, or boating lake, was one of the first features of the park, finished in 1631. The Palacio de Velazques and Palicia de Cristal are both worth a visit. And the Paseo de las Estatuas, a line of Baroque statues representing the royalty of Spain, makes for a nice stroll. But the park’s most memorable feature is the colonnade: a half-moon of columns at the edge of the lake in front of which towers an equestrian statue of Alfonso XII.
On the way back from the park, we stopped in at Plaza Mayor once again to check out the coin and stamp market—one of the biggest in Europe. The halls that the night before had been full of tourists were now filled with locals trading, buying, and selling collectible coins and stamps. While at the Plaza, we entered the San Miguel Market for a bite to eat. The historic place actually looks like a new market, selling everything from tapas and wine, coffee and churros, to vegetables and deli meats. We settled for a cup of coffee and some churros (sans chocolate) and headed on our way. We weren’t expecting what came next. A distinct whistle shot through the air, as though from a lookout. In an instant, the vendors and their spread-out blankets of goods for sale were no longer there; in their place, people walked around with four-stringed bags on their backs. In an inventive tactic, these not-quite legal vendors had small ropes tied to each corner of the blankets that held their merchandise. Some of them held the ropes discretely in their hands, others had them positioned for quick pick up. At the first sign of the police, it took only a second to whip up the display and go from vendor to backpacker. Mixed in the crowd, once the police arrived, were people with packs
slung on their backs. A few minutes later, once the police had walked on, the vendors were back, their wares displayed on blankets as though they’d never left. We left.
We’re told that a trip to Madrid isn’t complete without a trip to Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. As one of the three most important museums in Spain’s capitol, we knew the Reina Sofia was not to be missed. Set in an old hospital, the Reina Sofia has an impressive collection of Spanish art from the 20th and 21st centuries. Picasso’s Woman in Blue, Miro’s Portrait II, and Dali’s The Great Masturbator are among the highlights of the collection. The most important work in the Reina Sofia is also considered by many art critics to be the most important painting of the 20th century. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.
It was our last full day in Spain, so it was time to fit in a little bit of shopping for everyone back home. It was Sunday, and we knew what that meant: the busiest and liveliest day of the week at El Rastro. El Rastro is Madrid’s most famous street market, and it has been filling the streets for more than 400 years. Located in one of the city’s oldest working-class neighborhoods, this “trail” is full of kiosks, booths, and street vendors selling everything from homemade puppets and toys to designer sunglasses and purses.
Sunday evening, I had a gig. As part of my book tour for Tracks: A Novel in Stories, I had a reading and social lined up at a bookstore in Madrid that specialized in English-language books. So after we had a nice meal between Plaza Mayor and Peurta del Sol (steak and paella), we headed for Calle del Espiritu Santo for J & J Coffee and Books. Perhaps “J & J Beer and Books” would be a more fitting name. The establishment, with a highly literary crowd, seemed as much bar as bookstore. Patrons sat around partaking in lively discussions about everything from football to literature. That was a good thing.
IF YOU GO
A bit of wisdom picked up during the conversation: “What’s for you won’t go by you.” A bit of insight on Spanish literature: “Don Quixote was a jerk!” I discovered, after my invitation to read, that J and J was written up in a several guide books on Madrid and Spain. They were even written up in the New York Times.
Visit J & J Books and Coffee at their website, www.jandjbooksandcoffee.com. You can catch a podcast of what I read to them. A few weeks later, I read the story again on Baltimore’s NPR station, WYPR. Find the audio reading of “Idle Chatter” at www.tracksnovel.com/radio.html. I sold out of all the books I brought with me, and signed a good number of them. It was a fine way to cap our visit.
Late Night Tapas
It was dark out by the time we left J & J Books. Almost as dark as it had been when we arrived in Madrid. We headed back to Plaza Mayor for one last serving of tapas and wine. Then we stopped in at our favorite pub for one last Spanish wine. There wouldn’t be time to stop for coffee at one of our favorite breakfast spots. Our flight was leaving early in the morning and we needed to be there a couple hours early. We needed to catch the bus a good hour before that. This meant getting up around three in the morning. And we still had to pack. So, full of tapas and topped off with red wine, we returned to our room at Hotel Santandar, spoke a few moments with our newfound friend, the front desk clerk from Cuba, and went to our room to pack and
prepare for our return to the United States.