Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Prado Day!


Matt and Shane in a big museum for a long, long time.

The next morning, Shane and I got to be “those guys.” We were the last ones in and, with our alarms chirping angrily, the first ones out. Grabbing a quick breakfast at the hostel (I would recommend Cats to any visitory to Madrid on a budget, and yes, I wish I was getting paid to say that.) we blearily stepped into the clear Spanish day. Of course, one of the best days of the trip was the day we decided to devote to a day at the museum, but we tried not to think about that too much.

Actually, at this point, I think Shane believed we would just be spending the morning at the Prado, while I harbored a secret desire to stay until closing time. As we wove through the older section of town towards the world’s largest picture gallery, we noticed a line of primarily older women that snaked along the opposite sidewalk, disappearing around the bend in unmoving file of perms and fur. Of course, Shane and I had to investigate.

We tracked the line for about five blocks. It was endless and apparently immobile. The line then swung right onto Calle de Jesus. Madrid’s street signs have been decorated with images illustrating the street’s name since Medieval times. Calle de Jesus featured an image of Christ in bright purple robes. I immediately suspected a connection between our mysterious line and the street’s name. Abruptly we arrived at an inconspicuous church. Inconspicuous except for the fact there was a massive line trailing from the threshold that was being controlled by police and construction barriers. We curiously watched the line slowly file through the entrance of the church, disappearing into the crowded interior. On the other side of the church was an entryway that had no line and a regular flow of traffic. Did you need tickets to get in through that door? Only one way to find out….

Shane and I ducked into the gate, and no one stopped us as we entered the church. The interior was packed with people who seemed to know what was going on. The priest was in the middle of the Eucharist, and the line snaked behind him and terminated at the feet of a life-sized wooden statue of Jesus, swathed in a royal purple robe. A priest stood at the intersection of two lines in front of the statue. At his signal, a line-member would step forward, genuflect, and kiss the feet of the statue. Thus the line slowly inched forward as each person performed this small ceremony. As the Eucharist ended, Shane and I were swept forward with the momentum of the crowd. It looked like we were headed to the statue, despite having no idea why we would kiss it. At the last minute we were swept into the wing and into a line for communion. I took the opportunity to file up, and Shane, who is not Catholic, managed to duck through the line with the wave of parishioners. He only raised a few eyebrows in the process.

Then we were back on the street. Theory: A miracle associated with the statue occurred on that date in early March, and it’s an annual feast. I tried corroborating this on the internet, but was stifled in my attempt by my weak Spanish Googling skills.

Our journey continued to the museum. It was sill bright and sky still blue, but we dove inside, past a massive statue of Velasquez. We wouldn’t emerge for another 9 hours. After spending two hours scrutinizing the Northern artists, including Bosch’s “In the Garden of Earthly Delights” and Brueghel’s “Triumph of Death” we realized we needed to get lunch and discuss our day. The map we were given by the museum had a small icon of each “masterpiece” in the museum accompanied by the artist’s name and the gallery where you could find it. We had a lot of masterpieces to go. Over a swanky museum lunch we committed to stay until they kicked us out. We bought pens at the gift shop to check off the masterpieces as we saw them. That’s not to say we didn’t linger with Goya or discuss the genius of Velasquez. The checking helped keep us on track.

Bosch's "In the Garden of Earthly Delights." If you have a few hours, find a large format copy of this and scrutinize the vignettes that cover this triptych. It's really surreal, trippy stuff.

A highlight: Seeing Goya in reverse. Francisco Goya was a court painter who did all the portraits required of him. Slowly a nationalistic edge crept into his work. By the end of his life he had gone off the deep end, creating “Dark Paintings” on the walls of his home including “Saturn Devouring His Son” and “The Witch’s Sabbath.” We saw these proto-modern works with their bleak themes before proceeding to his pastoral collection on the top floor. There we saw happy Spanish aristocrats on swings and playing with kites. We got psychological whiplash from the transition.

"The Prasol" by Goya. Everyone's enjoying a sunny day...

"The Third of May 1808" by Goya. Napoleon rolls into town and Goya starts to lose it (so does Europe).
"Saturn Devouring His Son" by Goya. Yeah, same guy that did the umbrella picture. He wasn't very optimistic about humanity and he died in 1828. As Shane said, "What would his guy have thought about World War I?"

Velasquez was also a knockout. His most famous work, “Las Meninas” a piece which some claim is the greatest painting in the world, was housed in a large gallery surrounded by the artist’s insightful, naturalistic portraits and vignettes.

Then there’s El Greco, his sinewy figures reaching for heaven through grey and gold…
"The Adoration of the Shepherds" by El Greco. Gotta love The Greek.

There were also a lot of new names in the Prado. Spanish artists who produced work targeted at the religiously devoted patrons. I had never really considered how an art museum might reflect the idiosyncrasies of the collector or, in the case of a huge national gallery like the Prado, a country. In the U.S., museums started their serious collecting after the arch of art history had been described. The Renaissance lead to Mannerism lead to the Baroque and so on. The masters of each movement were known and lionized. Each museum should be equipped with a Carravagio, Rembrandt, Tintoretto, and Monet.

An older collection like the Prado reflects real-time trends. The canvases the Spanish royal family chose to exalt dictated what Americans would want hanging in their galleries five hundred years later. The canvases play off of each other. You can watch faces become more naturalistic and poses echoed by artists experimenting with the same themes…I was excited anyway.

As the guards herded us towards the exits we glanced at the remaining masterpieces, but discovered we would need even more time if we ever wanted to see the whole thing. Maybe next time. Now we were hungry.

We were given a tip to check out a tapas bar called…a number…can’t remember what it was called. It was in the older, quainter part of town. The recommendation had only been the name of the place and the address. We didn’t know what made them so special, but we would soon find out.

Famished from a day spent entirely on our feet on marble floors, we dove into the place. A line had already formed for seating. We milled around looking for a table, and finally saw someone catch a waiter and ask for a spot. This was new. There are few restaurants in Germany where you are seated by a host. Here, you needed to get someone’s attention. We put in our request and awkwardly stood in the basement of the cramped establishment, wedging ourselves against the walls to avoid the waiters. While we waited we contemplated the menu which featured no prices and two columns of food items. We could pick out words for cheese and egg, but that was about it.

Finally our table came up and our waiter, in halting English, told us it was a self-serve kind of place, indicating the bar on the other side of the basement. We also asked for a food recommendation. He pointed at one of the mysterious items. We said gracias. I went to the bar to get drinks, then as we sipped our beverages we realized we had to order our food, too. We tried to wait for one of our neighbors to get up to demonstrate where and how you went about getting food. Everyone was in the middle of things, so finally I just stood up and went to investigate the first floor.

There I found an open window to the kitchen. I stood in front of it and a cook appeared with a pencil in hand. In halting recitation of our order I indicated the thing our waiter suggested and another thing that involved cheese and peppers. They were out. Flustered, I pointed at one that just featured cheese. I paid, and he stepped back to the grill. Now what? Do I wait by the window, does he call names? Yet again, there was no one to imitate, so I spent the next seven minutes dancing around the window, trying to get out of waiters’ and customers’ ways. The cook probably thought I was slightly OCD about watching my food.

Finally he came back to the widow and presented me with two mounds of freshly-made chips topped with egg and ham. One featured cheese. Both featured grease. He shoved them my way. I skeptically took hold of the tray and started weaving through traffic to show Shane what we had blindly ordered.

It turns out there are really only two types of food offered at the bar. Chips with egg, ham, and other stuff on top, or sandwich wheels (usually with chorizo). Huh. Well, it wasn’t the healthiest dinner I’ve ever eaten, but it was dinner. We downed our wine and were back on the street. Next stop, seafood. The bar was decked out with fishing tackle and the menu included octopus. We had to try it. Apparently the traditional Spanish way to prepare octopus is to grill a tentacle then slice it into disks. Top with olive oil, paprika, and a bucket of sea salt. Ultimately, you really just get the salt.By this point we were exhausted and it was only 10:30. One of the “must do”s in Madrid is a late night of clubbing. This was to be our night out on the town, but first, we needed a nap. We went back to the hostel. No one was in our room. We set our alarms to go off an hour later. About thirty minutes into our nap, one of our roommates busted through the door and flipped on the light. “Oh, crap!” She flipped them off. “Where ya from?” Apparently Shane had made eye-contact.

She proceeded to interview each of us in the most stereotypical Canadian accent this side of “Canadian Bacon.” We tried to echo her chipper attitude that seems to come with the accent while also indicating we had other things to do, like sleep. For the next half-hour we stayed under the covers, but finally gave up the pretense of napping. This was probably for the best since she had given up the pretense of trying to let us sleep.

Her travel partner came in shortly thereafter and we began exchanging travel stories. The new girl had a proper British accent. We just needed a Kiwi and an Aussie and we would have made a complete dialect set. The girls had been Euro tripping for a couple of weeks, though they didn’t seem to be traveling the way Shane and I might. They were discussing maybe going to the city park the next day. Maybe. Budapest was not a favorite city because the hostel wasn’t so nice…I think there are some people who travel the Continent for the hostel culture more than the actual culture. Different strokes, I guess, though they almost gave me one after this exchange:

Girl: So, why were you guys nappin’?
Shane: We had a long day, really a full work day, at the Prado.
Girl: What’s a Prado?
Shane: It’s the art museum…
Me: It’s really big? Has famous stuff.
Girl: Oh, huh, didn’t know they had one of those.

Then they mentioned clubbing the night before. We perked up. Shane and I are pretty standard geeks/nerds/dorks (pick your poison). This means we don’t know jack about finding clubs in new cities. Here was some experience. They might know where we should go to check off a “must-do.”

So, around 2 AM (when Madrid’s clubs, I am told, are just getting started) the four of us took to the cobble stones in search of a club. We wandered through the Placa del Sol and Placa Mayor with no luck. The bars were closing shop. We were told this was when the clubs opened. We tracked a man with a glowing necklace and devil horns. He probably knew where the party was. Unfortunately, we lost him. Now we had nothing, and it was becoming increasingly apparent the two girls we were with had little interest in finding a place to dance. They were just as geeky and awkward as us.

Wide eyed at the city at night, but not sure where to go but home, we made our way along Calle Gran Via, the main drag through the newer, ritzier part of town. There were clubs on this stretch, but it looked like you needed gobs of hair gel and a black leather jacket to get past the bouncer. I was rocking my I-just-napped-for-a-half-hour-and-need-another rumpled ‘do with my maroon sweater. I wasn’t going to get in. After a bum smashed a bottle on the street, we all decided to get back to Cats. A late night in Madrid, but it would be another early morning. No sleep in Spain!
Placa Mayor. We'll see it a little busier tomorrow morning. We'll also see a couple dead bulls. Stay tuned.



Michael said...

I found it!

If I've read it right, the church does a special veneration of the Passion every Friday. But being Spain, it was probably one of the dozens of Saint days.

Matt said...

I knew if I threw this question out there that one of the Spanish scholars I know would be able to lend a hand. It was certainly a Friday and...yeah, you got it. A saint was probably being honored to boot, but I think the Passion was on everyone's mind (and lips).

Mama B said...

I thought I had taught my son to always travel with a pen (and a book)!

Matt said...

I can't tell you how distressed I was to discover I was pen-less. I had my notebook as well, but no pen! Since this trip I've almost become paranoid about having a pen in my pocket at all times.