Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Never a reson to be mad in Madrid (just confused)

A link to the Barcelona/Madrid album. By now, just about all of the pictures should make sense.

Bright and early and up before the roommates. After our complementary breakfast, we were on the street under a clear sky once again. As we walked along the street we spotted a “churros y chocolate” café. This is a traditional breakfast, so we had to partake. It really seems like an American invention. You get your hot chocolate dipping sauce, which has the consistency of melted chololate rather than coffee or tea. You then dip your churro, a fried dough, into the chocolate and enjoy. You drink down the leftover chocolate. I really need to find a traditional hot chocolate place Stateside.

With our cups of liquid chocolate in hand we headed for the Puerta del Sol, the “Times Square” of Madrid. It also serves as the hub of New Years festivities (making the Times Square comparison inevitable). Puerto del Sol isn’t necessarily the center of the city, but it gets pretty busy and is packed with important landmarks.

Outside the former Post Office lies “O km.” All distances in Spain are measured from this plaque. I had no idea such a thing existed until Rick Steves told me about it in the guide book we borrowed from the hostel, but I felt it was a photo op anyway:

Rick Steve’s kindly filled us in on the significance of King Charles III whose statue stands front and center in the square (he is called “Madrid’s greatest mayor” thanks to all the civic improvements he brought the city, including botanical gardens and the university).

Mr. Steves also pointed out the “Bear and the Madroño Tree,” a statue of Madrid’s heraldic device, and the Tio Pepe sign over the Puerto (the oldest billboard in Spain advertises for a kind of sherry).

The Puerto has been the site of hundreds of protests, including the Spanish revolt against Napoleon that Goya immortalized in “The Third of May 1808,” and protests against Franco. Plaques commemorate these events and the victims of the March 11, 2004 terrorist bombings.

Having acquainted ourselves with the icons of the city and more of its history, we moved on to the Plaza Mayor, a Habsburg Era (18th century) construction project that features another equestrian statue. It was also home to significant events in Spanish history, including the execution of heretics during the Inquisition.

Today, the Plaza features a couple dozen street performers, musicians, artists, and pick-pockets. Cafés set tables on the plaza and you can watch other tourists gawk at the “Robotic” cowboys and Indians. Shane and I did not choose this path. Instead we headed for Torre del Oro Bar Andalú. Mr. Steves informed us we would learn a thing or two about bullfighting if we visited this narrow bar on the Plaza.

Inside Torre del Oro are the heads of a half-dozen champion bulls, gigantic creatures who look terrifying even when they’re missing the extra bulk of their bodies. Under the heads hang the knives used to kill the monsters in the ring. The rest of the walls are covered with action photos of matadors, picadors, and bulls flying through the air dodging, leaping past, and goring each other. I have a passing knowledge of bullfighting, primarily based on Looney Toons and the book Ferdinand. I’ve seen footage of fights on the Travel Channel, but I’d never seen such graphic moments from the ring. I’ve always thought of the bull as a relatively helpless combatant, but there were pictures of the beasts holding their own. A particularly terrifying image showed a 2,500 pound animal in mid air, diving into the bleachers as spectators scattered in terror. Wow. There are plenty of people who find this entertainment repulsive. I don't think I am one of them. The lover of old stuff in me really appreciates a ceremony - really what a bullfight is - that traces its roots back to the Minoans 3,000 years ago. And the spectacle of it all...

Inside the bullfighting "Hall of Fame." It's authentic (as far as I know). If you come during a fight, you can get running commentary on the whole event. I think I've already established that I need to come back...

A detail of some of the photos on the walls. There was also a series of a matador on the operating table after getting mauled by a bull's horn. He survived. Crazy.

Shane and I were in Madrid a week too early to see the fighting season, so we contented ourselves examining the memorabilia and the watching clips on the ancient TV in the corner of the bar. While we were in the bar we ordered a beer each. An older, very authentic looking Spaniard bellied up next to us, offered a toast and said something that made him laugh. We did, too. Then small plates of paella and a salty broth arrived. We weren’t sure if the bartender was taking advantage of the stupid tourists (Rick warned they would push the expensive tapas on us), but our companion received the same sides. The paella was delicious. Really a great mid-morning snack. As we took one more glance at the walls, we got the bill, realized we only owed 1.10 Euro each, and happily headed towards the royal palace, our ultimate destination.

The Cathedral by the palace drawing us on.

Along the way we dipped into the history of Spain by briefly following a group tour. Shane observed, “Man, Franco really was a bastard.” I agreed.

Across from the Royal Palace of Madrid is the new (by European standards) Almudena Cathedral. Plans were drafted in the 16th century, but they didn’t break ground until 1879. Construction wasn’t completed until 1993 (things were slowed down a bit by the Civil War) when it was consecrated by Pope John Paul II. Because it was so recently completed, the interior is strikingly modern with artistic styles ranging Neo-Romanesque to Impressionist, to Cubist, to Pop.
The newly finished alter space at the Madrid cathedral.

The Neo-Classical cathedral from the outside. It's kind of hard to figure out how it all link up from the outside.

After exploring the chapels and nave of the cathedral -including a provocative side-chapel to St. Josemaría Escrivá – while managing to avoid any confusing hoards of worshipers, we headed to the Royal Palace or “Palacio Real.” Equipped with audioguides, the new symbol of the European tourist, and Rick Steves we dove into the most opulent building I have ever entered.

The plaza in front of the Royal Palae. It's still used by the royal family for official functions, though I don't think they live here very often.

The current palace was constructed in the mid 18th century, and King Charles III was the first to move in. Every spot that can be ornamented, is. The walls, floors, ceilings, and furniture are all festooned with filigree. It really was sensory overload walking from room to room. Some had themes such as the Japanese tea room, or the dining hall that celebrates Spain’s massive, global empire. Paintings by Velasquez, Goya, and Carravaggio hang where their royal owners originally hung them. In the music room they showcased four Stradivarius instruments…It’s good to be the king.

The coolest space to explore, for me, was the armory. Dozens of suits of armor for men and horses were on display. Helmets with heraldic dragons and unicorn horns for knights and horses lined the walls. It was like all the drawings I made when I was little of arms and armor had suddenly come to life.

After a couple hours trying to sort out the royal family and Spanish history, it was time for a late lunch and another museum. Lunch was at a little sandwich place that had open tables on the street and an attractive price-list. We walked up to the register and started listing our orders from the menu hanging on the wall. The cashier rolled her eyes and handed us a copy of the menu with space to check off what you wanted. Even better. We could puzzle through the translation without annoying anyone. A lofty goal, I know. We noticed a “Six for a low price” deal. Apparently the sandwiches were small, so we would need a couple. Six sounded good, so we went through the list of maybe 40 sandwiches, checking off the six we wanted (three each). We then ordered beer, and turned in our menu. We also ordered a side of fries.

When our food was ready, I returned to the window to find a dozen little sandwiches in a wheel and a platter of fries. Apparently Shane and I are completely illiterate and had misunderstood the system. The Six-for-whatever deal included a set selection of sandwiches and we ordered six in addition. Oh well, we were hungry, and acted like we had planned to have a mound of mini-subs from the beginning. Very full, we were ready to walk some more.

It was time to visit Picasso. We had seen his early stuff in Barcelona, but Madrid is home to a chunk of his famous, cubist work, and its housed in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid’s Modern Art Museum. Completed in 1992, it houses all art completed after 1881 (the year of Picasso’s birth. You might say he’s a favorite son). After getting the map pointed in the right direction, we entered the museum for free (after 2PM on Saturdays). Our main goals were Dali and Picasso. We knew we didn’t have time to see everything, but we were going to try.

The most famous work housed at the Reinia Sofia is Picasso’s “Guernica.” Picasso started the painting it 17 days after the fire-bombing of the Basque town of Guernica in 1937. The town was a stronghold of the Nationalist Army, so Franco wanted to get it out of the way. Franco’s fellow Facist Hitler wanted to test out his new Luftwaffe. The results established the tactics for modern warfare, and Guernica depicts the devastating effects of such total war.

We hadn’t picked up a map of the museum, so we were still trying to get oriented when we stumbled into a massive room and there it was. The canvas 26 feet by 11 feet. That’s the size of a small house. It’s huge. The figures and their twisted features dominate the room. It can’t be ignored. You can’t look away. I have probably read more about this painting than any other piece of art I’ve seen in the last year, and it was still a revelation to actually see it. Also in the exhibit were photos of the mural in progress as Picasso rearranged the figures as he painted. Originally the fallen rider had his right hand high in the air with a fist-full of flowers surrounded by a halo of bright light. Then the Master decided to drop the hand, leave one wilting flower in the figure’s fist and turn the halo into a bare bulb, or maybe bomb flash.

Other cubist, expressionist, and surrealist works were on display, with new names to digest. In a room featuring early photography was a Buster Keaton film. The silent slap-stick transcended language barriers and the room of Americans, Germans, Spaniards, and French were all laughing together at the hapless hero….really cool museum. Just not enough time to take it all in.

After getting kicked out of yet-another museum, we headed across the traffic circle to the Parque del Buen Retiro. The largest park in Madrid, it could be equated with Central Park with wide avenues and lots of statuary. As the sun set we continued to explore, finding the massive monument to Alfonso XII over a large lake with docked paddle-boats waiting for the sun. There were giant lion statues. I had to strike an iconic pose.
As we investigated the Palacio de Cristal, two figures suddenly leap up from behind a tree sending my heart into overdrive. They scampered into the darkness. Shane and I decided it was time to find a new direction.
A griffin at night.

Satisfied we had seen enough of the park at night, we started angling towards an exit. Strangely it was locked. Maybe they only keep the main gates open after a certain time? We continued to walk. A car crunched over the gravel, pulling up next to us with a driver and passenger. The driver leaned over to us and asked a question. There was a number written on the side of the car, so I said, “No, no taxi.” He looked confused, and said something more urgently. Then I took another look at the number and saw the Madrid Parks Logo. Oh. These were authority figures.

Somehow we managed to establish that it was past closing time. I think it was clear we had no idea, and they probably didn’t want to deal with us any longer than they needed to, so we gestured towards the next gate and started walking. The car rolled up again, and the guy riding shotgun stepped out and jerked the lock open. We slid through with a "Gracias." Next time I visit this country, I should know some Spanish, or at least have a Spanish speaker handy. I know enough of them.
Madrid's City Hall, near the recently closed park.

It was time to get food. Unfortunately it was late (10:30PM) on a Saturday in Madrid. That’s peak eating time. The procedure (I’m told) is you go out around 10 or 11 for Tapas. Then you drink at a bar until 2. Then you hit the clubs and stay there until 7 AM. The next morning you go out for churros y chocolate and presumably sleep through the day.

Shane and I just wanted the food. After trolling the packed restaurants and clubs, we finally discovered a small traditional café with a lone table tucked in the back of the building, behind a temporary wall. Good enough. We ordered Sangria and squinted at the menu. The owner brought us another. This was in German. Shane and I were weirdly flattered. Did they think we were German? We don’t emit that American vibe everyone always talks about (“I can spot an American a block away,” claims the European. “Well I can spot a jerk from two,” I reply.). But there were still mysteries. We knew there were egg options with…something. We recognized “jamon” (ham), but the rest was a mystery. The German menu just listed it all as “Fleisch” (meat). Not helpful. So we asked. Our waitress looked flustered, and in her panic turned to a table of college-aged kids nearby. They had a pow-wow and announced, “It is, how is it, pig meat…pork?” Okay, but what kind of pork? We knew that was asking a lot, so we stopped asking and ordered blind.

Shane’s eggs and potatoes came with bacon. Mine came with sausage. Mysteries solved. We were leaving the next day, so we wanted to have another glass of Spanish wine before skipping town. Things had died down a little and we found a small bar that had space at the bar itself. When I say small, I mean it was the size of my dorm room. Fifteen people, maximum, could enjoy a beverage in the establishment, but it looked so achingly hip that Shane and I slid in, thinking we might even speak to some real Spaniards. No dice, but we did enjoy our wine and then another beer. I really think I need the Spanish under my belt to pull off this conversation thing. So it goes.

We did continue hearing American-accented English as we returned to Cats for our final sleep in Madrid. Spring break is my going theory. I guess that’s why I was there (even though the German spring break is a six-week chunk of time). Exhausted, I collapsed into my bunk, scheming how to make the most of our final morning. Chances were, it was going to involve art…


The link again, to the Barcelona/Madrid album.

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