When circumstances pointed towards a random trip to Madrid, my first thoughts turned to finally seeing the Prado. Outside of that, I had no idea what to see or expect. Spain was full of surprises at every corner. Quickly, the history, people, art and culture became endlessly fascinating to me. Here’s what happened when I went to Madrid. Collected from quick emails sent from the road, here’s some of my experiences on this incredible trip:
Traveling through Covid
I made it across the Atlantic all right! It was pretty dramatic watching the flat coastline of Portugal appear on the horizon. The first thing I did when I arrived in Spain was to take an afternoon siesta. Flying halfway across the country and then over an ocean was a lot to take in on one day. Customs and all were as easy as could be. I showed my negative covid test in New York, filled out all the online paperwork with vax info, etc. My passport was stamped in Lisbon and finally getting into Spain was as easy as scanning a QR code from my phone.
Everybody wore a mask without incidence onboard all my planes. Mask usage probably hovers around at least 70% on the streets, 100% inside at all times. Yet, amazingly, nobody seems bothered by this in the least. Spain also sports a vax rate well over 80%, so there’s no sense of impending doom walking the streets or eating in a restaurant.
Also in stark contrast to the US, every single cop on the streets wears a mask. The sour note energy of American cops acting like petulant, angry fat high school gym coaches upset at having to teach an afternoon civics class three days a week is palpably missing. There are also no bullheaded separatists waving flags or guns, no shitheads cursing and constantly glaring with angry eyes, just an entire city of folks who are just going about their lives like adults and not throwing some two bit demonstrative hissy fit. In a way, its wonderful to be back in a working society again.
Christmas in Madrid
The first night I wandered out from my centrally located apartment and kept running into crowds of people in front of giant, unit municipal Christmas decorations. There was an air of anticipation at each, with people holding their phones out set to video mode ready to capture that elusive, magical moment. Nobody seemed bothered by just standing around waiting, and spirits were high. It was well past sundown and the most rudimentary google search I could do in public suggested they were running late or just making things up as they go along.
I was outside the Puerto de Alcala arch when a great cheer burst out behind me and the lights overhanging the length of the street were flipped on. Soon, everything was lit up in a big nativity scene. As I wandered around and half retraced my steps, giant Christmas ornaments were bright and animated, streets were bursting with color and the giant aluminum trees were beaming against the dark sky. It was pretty wild, with big masked crowds everywhere. A chorus led a sing along to ‘Feliz Navidad’ then followed up with the always popular? Christmas tune? ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’.
Already having changed the leg of my trip that would have taken me to Vienna, I decided to not risk anything and head to the Prado, just in case. It was a Saturday, my first full day in Madrid, which made me nervous of huge crowds, but I forgot about reduced capacities during the Covid era.
I ran upstairs to see all the Velasquez paintings first. They were amazing, and getting the chance to stare at them without a huge crowd was awesome. A couple times during my visit, I was the only person standing in front of his epic Las Meninas. I thought they would only have a giant rotunda room dedicated to Velasquez, but instead they had room after room of his paintings. It even went so far as to have a ‘Buffoons and Dwarves’ room , comprised of his portraits of the king’s court. I stared at his paintings for hours, and I concluded Velasquez never sweated once when he painted.
The Prado was directly in my wheelhouse – it housed a giant hall half filled with Rubens and the other half with Titian. There were so many Rubens the signage started dropping the ‘Pedro Pablo’ and just shrugged, waved its hand, dropped all formalities and listed them as ‘Rubens’. Tons of El Grecos, Goyas, and Tintorettos kept me on the second floor alone for just under four hours.
Goya at the Prado
I made my way to the half gallery on the third floor and saw some brightly colored Goyas that I never would have considered from him. Goya’s Cats Fighting painting made me giggle like a child under my mask, and then I headed back down to the first floor.
I steeled myself when I saw a sign pointing towards the ‘3rd of May’, one of my favorites. Before I could get there, I found myself in the darkened gallery of Goya’s Black Paintings. A shiver shot down my spine. These dark, horrifying, thickly painted paintings probably qualified as a religious experience of sorts. Saturn was in the room, as well as Dog Drowning. The heaviness was astounding.
The fact the Hieronymous Bosch room acts as a footnote goes a way to explain just how much I loved the Prado. I’ve been to almost all of the biggest art museums in Europe and America, and it may actually be my favorite.
Guernica, and the Reina Sofia in Madrid
I’m rambling on now and I actually do have things to do today. I’m off to check out Guernica today to officially close the book on having to look at another Picasso. I totally dig that the city is completely empty before 10 in the morning. I’ve always thought life should never have to start any earlier. Late lunches and dinners are just the cherry on top. The food has been great so far – I just randomly stop off at someplace and order a couple of tapas and then just keep wandering around.
Madrid’s Reina Sofia recently underwent a radical rethinking, and the museum is wildly interesting because of it. It was stunning seeing its entire collection repurposed to look at today’s events. Tons of protest art from across the world from the past filled gallery after gallery. It was a wild experience that eventually wound around to Picasso’s Guernica. I was soaking up a room of WW1 Propaganda posters when I saw the goliath hanging in the next room. I finally finished up with the posters and took it all in.
Guernica was huge, and the size alone was impressive, but my first impression wanted something more. I wandered the museum, returned a couple hours later, and the greatness of the painting started to soak in.
Trails of Blood at the Rastro…
On Sunday I caught up with the Rastro, a giant antique/flea market that apparently starts right outside the door of the place I’m staying. It’s named after the trails of blood that washed down from the butcher shops at the top of the hill. I bought some ridiculous bootleg t-shirts and will be back to pick up some presents for the family for Christmas. There was also some decorative paintings from the same Chinese studio I touched up oil paintings during my college years.
I also ended up seeing the shockingly vibrant and pretty comprehensive Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum as well. The collection was absolutely top notch, containing gems from the middle ages all the way to the 1980s. It was unexpected and wild, but not as wild as the portraits of the Baron and Baroness, the ultimate benefactors of this collection.
…and the Baron
These gigantic, larger than life and comically dated paintings dominated the lobby’s huge, three story wall. Just seeing these paintings brought me absolute joy. I now hope every art collection is required to hang outlandish portraits of their collectors in the lobby.
Speaking of trails of blood, one family just does not collect a collection of art like this without some. The Baron’s father may have helped personally finance Germany’s involvement in World War 1. This castle dwelling family of Hungarian royalty/industrialists/bankers bought entire estates, married, divorced and remarried with aplomb, and have way more interesting story of tax dodging, double crossing and every other bit of gossip you can imagine for a family of this standing. I haven’t even mentioned the fifth wife Baroness (who was Miss Spain in 1961), who used a paternity suit concerning her own son to take possession of a portion of the 2 billion dollar collection of art.
That’s All of Madrid for now…
I’ve got plenty of time left in Madrid and don’t think I’ll have any trouble filling up the dance card each day. The people with whom I’ve rumbled through some poor Spanish with have all been fun and cool. Madrid was just the first, central stop on my three week trip. I took some side trips to Toledo and Segovia, and spent more time wandering through all the corners of Madrid. I also spent time in Lisbon and Bilbao, stories and highlights from all of those places can be seen below: