More photos here
I've never been to Madrid before, in fact it's my first time visiting Spain, and I'm going on my own! A bit scary. The Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza are my main reasons, with my current thing for the Flemish Primitives creating a strong need to go see Rogier van der Weyden's Descent from the Cross. And since I booked my trip the Prado went and announced an exhibition devoted to Rogier, which is going to coincide. Bliss! Then for a bit of pre-trip Madrid-set reading I started on Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, which has the central character in the Prado and standing in front of The Descent from the Cross on the first page.
The walk to Balham station was in persistent muzzle, my least favourite kind, and the train journey to East Croydon not the swiftest. The changeover at East Croydon was happily free of mad dashing over footbridges - just a leisurely amble and a wait of mere seconds. The journey to Gatwick only disturbed by a nearby couple speaking one of the Nordic noir languages which for me prompts an instinctive fear of a sudden gruesome murder, or a chunky jumper. Exchanging an aisle-sharing smile with the woman of the couple as we got off I told her of my fears, which she found amusing and seemed to excuse. Unnerving also to be flying from the North Terminal for a change and unnervinger to be encountering automated bag drop, which I didn't even know existed. You let the machine scan your boarding pass, you press an onscreen button to confirm you've not packed explosives etc, it prints a luggage tag strip (self-adhesive, no peeling necessary), you attach this, collect the luggage receipt that gets printed out, and you're away. The usual shiny shops, perfume smell, and Toblerone box overload through the lounges, but not much waiting before the epic trek to gate 27 and the traditional, but now pointless, easyJet queue. An unfull plane and no nearby children contributed to my feeling that the gods were in a good mood today.
Approaching Madrid airport the ground below lacked greenness almost totally and a big wide motorway just before the runway was utterly deserted. As we were taxiing to the gate one of the ground crew was hit by a bus, was knocked down, got up, and then collapsed. We waited a while, and he was still on the ground surrounded by colleagues as we taxied towards another gate. Let's hope. We then had to wait a while for steps and a bus to take us back to the original gate. Weighing up my options for getting from the airport I'd decided on the bus that leaves my terminal rather than the train from the other terminal that I'd need to catch a shuttle bus to get to. Arriving at the Atocha station I headed off on foot, confidently, map in hand, and in no time at all found myself one metro stop in the wrong direction. So I caught the metro - I know how to read omens - and it was as clean and quick and cheap as reported.
I had taken a stroll around my hotel on Google Earth last night, and I felt happier in my navigations for it. Especially as I'd found I am staying mere seconds from a bagel shop and a huge fnac. And so the walk from Vodafone Sol station to my hotel was not unfamiliar to me. More waiting at the hotel as my original room was now part of a pair booked by a family later in the week so I had to wait for another to be made up.
A bit of an explore after a bit of a rest. First impressions are good, the fnac had a good selection of early (antigua) music, and the self-scoop sweet shop had cinnamon almonds. The bagel shop is gone, but it's been replaced by a gelateria where tonight I sampled the fior di latte and cinnamon tiramisu flavours.
Monday 15th June
My room is very quiet but the lift noise, which includes loud banging when it get to the top, I thought might keep me awake. It didn't. It looks out onto a lightwell as most of my rooms seem to do, but as this is usually the price you pay for non-street-facing peace I'm accepting. This one has big globey lights dangling so I'm assuming there's a glass roof, although a breeze comes through the open window and there are distant noises - sirens, church bells, fireworks. Breakfast passed the tests - the orange juice freshly squeezed, the fresh fruit includes pineapple and strawberries, the pastries were numerous and puzzling, the coffee good.
To the Prado where the queue for ticket holders is long but that's because it doesn't open until 10.00 Duh! My bag scanned I get nabbed by charming and helpful guide and collect an audio guide before heading straight for the Rogier van der Weyden exhibition, which was a real treat - not big, but four good sized rooms with pretty much all of the certain autograph works and one or two spine-tinglers in each. The Prado's Descent in the first, the Miraflores Triptych in the second, The Triptych of the Seven Sacraments in the third, and the recently restored El Escorial Crucifixion in the last were worth the trip in themselves. The last being more monumental than any illustration has conveyed and almost breathtaking. I then headed for the permanent collection and it's Flemish rooms, which give great Bosch, of course, but are also oddly strong on people like Patinir and David, with a fine Memling and a striking Van Eyck studio work, amongst much. I got some time in front of The Garden of Earthly Delights when a party pushed off and it is a hoot, undoubtedly. And my breakfast strawberries turned out to be an omen. Raphael and Andrea del Sarto are well represented here. The Spanish early stuff is not impressive except for the Romanesque chapel of Santa Cruz de Maderuelo, the interior of which is here recreated from it's frescoes, and some sweet and naive panels. Very little pre-Renaissance Italian, with only a Fra Angelico Annunciation from San Francisco in Fiesole proving eminently memorable and luminous. Better for later Venetians, clustered as they are around a good amount of some of the very best Titians. One superior Caravaggio is followed by rooms of those inspired by him (a not unprecedented phenomenon in my gallery-going year) amongst whom Ribera is most impressive. Also some (also precedented in my recent visits) lovely still-lifes, especially the Zurbaran row of pots. Getting a bit droopy, it being gone 1.00 and me having been appreciating since 10.00, I skipped through the El Grecos, he not being a painter who floats my boat, but had to stop in front of Las Meninas and then those Habsburg chins lead me into a central hall with more, and big, Titians (including his big and famous equestrian one with another of them chins) and an unusually undark and fine Tintoretto Washing of the Feet from San Marcuola in Venice. But exhaustion was setting in, and I'm planning on returning later in the week. Some catalogue and card buying, and then back to the hotel, picking up an onion pasty on the way, along with an indecisive pair of Portuguese cakes, both with guaranteed cinnamon.
In the evening I strolled towards the Plaza Mayor. On the way a Carrefour supermarket confirmed what an Amazon reviewer had stated. (Apologies for my repeated use of C word on (especially) the last couple of trips.) For on that site I had found cinnamon biscuits called Napolitanas being sold for 15 quid for two boxes . But a reviewer points out that they can be bought for much less, and my box was €1.82. I then found the Mercato de San Miguel, one of those cast-iron aquarium-type trendy food markets, selling farmyards full of meat products, of course, but one stall also had tempting little meatless pastries. Choosing a curried tofu pastry and cheese and carrot and cheese and mushroom tartlets I communicated my vegetarian relief at finding something to eat, and the stall owner admitted to being a veggie too. We commiserated at our plight in the land of jambon across the language barrier. I nibbled whilst strolling and finding myself in Plaza Mayor at last. Last night I'd returned to my room to find a complementary half bottle of red wine, I assumed to say sorry for my room confusion and wait. Tonight I'd been left a pair of big shiny apples.
Tuesday 16th June
My hotel's fresh fruit selection is a draw, I think. I went for the pineapple and strawberries again, and some melon. I found the yoghurt too, but yoghurt and melon doesn't really work. I also tried an icky looking folded pancake thing but, despite my hopes for the cinnamon-looking dusting, it was indeed icky, and stuffed with custard, so did not get et. But some plain orangey sponge cleaned my palate.
At the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza I find out that my timed ticket for the Zurbaran is just that, so I can go straight in, with an audio guide I didn't remember already paying for. The first three rooms (on the top floor) are devoted to Italian, German and Flemish primitives respectively. The highlight of the first is a Duccio panel from the Sienna Maesta, the second has some panels by an artist from Munich called Maelesskircher depicting the four evangelists at their desks making manuscripts, with their attendant attributes snoozing nearby. Another German artist new to me is Koerbecke who has an impressive Assumption here. The Flemish third room has a David Crucifixion some good anonymous masters, one by Daret, who I'd only recently discovered reading about Rogier, and a lovely miniscule Rogier van der Weyden (well Studio of) Madonna Enthroned. Also a Van Eyck grisaille diptych. The forth room has Italians you heard of, like Tura, Gozzoli and Uccello, but I was drawn to a dense but vivid and architectural Annunciation by Bonfiglio. Room 5 is truly memorable, full of portraits, with a Rogier and a double-sided Memling, along with the famed Ghirlandaio Giovanna Tornabuoni and one of those Antonella da Messina portraits that seem to be breathing. Almost every work in this room has an audio guide entry, that's how full of highlights it is. Which may explain why the screen on mine reversed just before it jammed up. Do return to Go. Do collect a new one.
In room 7 we get to the 16th century and Venice, with superior works by Bellini, Titian and Carpaccio (the famous and strange Young Knight) along with, more surprisingly, a highlight portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo, where portrait and background blend and impress. The next room is northern and a bit characterless and dominated by a congested Durer, very full of hands. The next room of portraits is similarly dominated by a Cranach nude. Around now I'm realising that my time for the Zurbaran exhibition is fast approaching and I'm barely half way through the floor. In a weird repeat of yesterday I find myself again skipping works by El Greco and being smitten by a Tintoretto. Out of the permanent collection and into the Zurbaran exhibition I embarrassingly lately realise it's the son, Juan, I mostly like, with his fruity still lifes, and not the father, Francisco, with his off-puttingly Catholic full length figures. Luckily there's a room with some of the son's still-lifes and the dad's strange trussed sheep with halos.
Back to the permanent collection then, and a room of linger-worthy Canaletto and Guardi, with a large Tiepolo mythological work with an unexplained tennis racket and balls in the foreground. Then it's into separate rooms devoted to the wife's collecting days and Dutch genre and landscapes give way to a typically murky and symbolic Caspar David Friedrich and a Corot I liked. But then things get all Impressionist as we continue downstairs. Returning to the Baron's stuff we're back to the Dutch golden age and French and...well my concentration was waning, but there was another Friedrich, a pair of Chardins depicting cats about to steal fish, two by Sargent and then, momentarily deflected by three good Hoppers I had soon bought postcards and a catalogue and was out. Into warmth and sunshine! Decided to head into Retiro Park in search of lunch, gave up and headed for the Metro, near where I found a small food shop which had sandwiches, where I picked up a cream cheese and nut one and ate it back in the park with some very polite sparrows and several pushy and noisy magpies.
Have you ever had one of those days where you come back to your hotel knackered from a long day of art and walking and find your room is not made up, despite your hanging the thing on the door, so you turn the thing around to say Do Not Disturb, you make the bed and a cup of herb tea and, having drunk it, settle down for your siesta, which is soon rudely disturbed as the phone rings and it's a man on the front desk telling me the room-making staff staff only work until 5.00 and asking when they can make up the room, to which your only reply is "some time during the last seven hours!?" Well I have. When I'd got my heart-rate down I had a walk around the Royal Palace, and its gardens and cathedral, got some more nibbles from that market, and returned to my room to find it had been done. So I settled down to the final episode of the Game of Thrones season, where human life is so often as brief as the actors' contracts.
Wednesday 17th June
I decided that today I'd dedicate to churches and the Museo Lázaro Galdiano. The latter is a metro ride away so I reasoned that the time spent before the 10.00 opening of either the nearby convent or more distant museo was best spent travelling. And today I learned that knowing you have to get off at a stop named after a Spanish bloke you've never heard of is not enough. The station helpfully tells you which exit to leave by for the museo, but once out you're on your own. You need to head to the stairs up around the flyover and turn left at the lights up Serrano. Passing the US embassy I saw a trio of black-uniformed soldiers guarding, and laughing. One was young and female with long dark hair and carried a large automatic weapon. Was this scary or was it sexy? I'm not sure.
The Museo Lázaro Galdiano is the collection of the man named and boy is it not small. Or unimpressive in its display and range. The concentration is on understanding the scope and history of Spanish art, and it's suggested that this became necessary around the time of the collection's conception as a counter to Spain's loss of its empire and consequent questioning of its identity, This (smaller) collection did a better job for me of making me feel warmth for the Spanish gothic/primitive stuff, and educating me about it, than the Prado did. (Although reading the excellent Prado catalogue after did do a good job in this regard, and encourage a revisit.) The faces in the early religious works tend to remain stylised longer then elsewhere, whilst the fabrics and backgrounds get natural. This varied amount of influence depended on whether the artist was Castilian or Aragonese, we are told - Queen Isabella's taste for the Flemish contrasting with the traditional International Gothic influence, respectively. Interesting stuff. The ground floor is an introduction, the first floor traces the history, ending with a 19th Century painter called Velazquez. The second floor is devoted to non-Spanish art and begins with Italy. Quality is not high, with a (not now thought to be by) Leonardo. The highlights for me here were a few nice Attrib. to Tiepolo portraits. Passing through a small room of miniatures you come to the Flemish room, which is a bit more breathtaking - a small but characteristic Bosch, an attributed Memling and a Metsys provide the names, but it's all good here. There's a small Crucifixion triptych by Coffermans here, where the right-hand Descent is a straight steal from the famous Rogier. And did you know that the Virgin had a granny, St Emerence, according to the the Carmelites? The Dutch room has a couple by Cranach and gives good still-life, whilst the French/English room is very 18th century.
I Metroed back to my vicinity with the intention of a visit to the nearby convent but discovered that it closes its doors an hour before closing. Looking for lunch I tried Carrefour and found they do a version of the cheese and nut sandwich I had yesterday, so it must be a thing. And for 1 euro it's also a very cheap thing. I took it, with a pineapple, mango and yoghurt smoothy, into the park by the palace and found a bench under a pine tree and fed myself and several sparrows. You know how sometimes when you've spent a few days in a new city you get a warm feeling that you're getting the hang of it, possibly brought about by your having visited a less known, but most excellent, museum and maybe discovered an interesting local sandwich? Me too!
Having a good hour and a half leeway after my afternoon rest I made for the convent again, only to find a sign in the doorway saying the place was full. I therefore took to wandering in directions I hadn't, not very fruitfully, it turned out, but at one point I encountered a long queue, mostly women, which turned out to be for... a church service.
Thursday 18th June
This morning's confusing queue was of sailors, who turned out to have been waiting for the naval museum to open. Of course. This on the way to Prado visit number two. This time it would be the right-hand side, as you look at the map. I started on the ground floor, where the earlier non-Spanish works were on the left-hand side, but confusingly I was plunged into the Spanish 19th century, with some very famous Goyas. Upstairs I continued my progress from where I left off Monday - back at Velazquez, followed by (too many) Rubens, as usual. Tiepolo's unusually focused Ascension was one highlight. They sure got a lot of Goya here, and this gallery's oppressively overcrowded room, to match the spaces in front of the Mona Lisa and The Night Watch, is the room of the Naked and Clothed Majas. So I returned to the relative peace of Italy, via the large-scale Venetians, which include, along with the Titians and Tintoretto mentioned on Monday, four by Veronese that rank with his best. Two of Titian's Ferrara panels are here too, looking much better than the photos put up in their place in the palace they were painted for. Returning to the Flemish Primitives I had a moment in front of a Campin (St Barbara) and got some lingering in front of the Garden of Earthly Delights. A quick look back in the Rogier exhibition, before heading back to my hotel via El Corte Ingles for a sandwich of atun and lechuga, and a caracola.
For my evening walk I headed for some streets recommended by the guide book and they were indeed pretty, and most fruitful of photo opportunities. Which just goes to prove that the description 'medieval' is always going to trump 'shopping' with regard to streets. And they were so near the covered market with the veggie nibbles - I'm going to miss the curried tofu pasty.
Friday 19th June
No time for dawdling or shopping. I decided to go to the airport by Metro - two changes if you're coming from Calleo or Gran Via, but only one fixed flight of stairs up which to lug a case (full of gallery catalogues). And don't expect a seat, especially on the final train to the airport, as the carriages on this one prioritise space for cases and people standing. A 50 minute journey time is suggested, which was looking pessimistic, but turned out about right due to the pre-T1/T2/T3 station gap being a bit long. But not longer than the interminable walk to the terminal from the station, or at least so it felt. About an average easyJet wait to drop bags, using human beings, well one female human at the desk by the time I got to the head of the queue. A long queue after security scanning for the pre-gate passport check too, but it moved swiftly.
Some conclusions. Although it doesn't have one signature trademark building Madrid's buildings are almost all fascinating and photogenic. The people were friendly, and patient of me speaking mangled English/Italian/Spanish at them. Not vastly more beggars here than in other European cities, but they are maybe pushier, more prone to be providing entertainment (juggling, making huge soap bubbles, playing the cello) and more likely to have suffered distressing limb-loss. There was one man with no arms attracting attention by furiously shaking a plastic cup of coins in his mouth. The galleries were all well run and free of annoying photo-takers - I saw only one (girl with ipad) being told not to. The lack of veggie options was tedious but nothing new. And when I mentioned this as I was checking out my mate on the desk said there was a place they recommended but it was a bit far away, and there was a small but good local Italian she could have told me about, if I'd asked. But for all that, and my attitude-freshening exposure to Spanish art, it's the Flemish primitives that I'll remember.
The Prado Guide follows current fashion in being handily paperback sized rather than a big coffee-table number. It did a fine and well-written job of introducing me to the names, strands and shape of early Spanish art, though, and made me want to go back and have a concentrate on some good things I missed. The choice to make the guide this size means that the photos need a bit more squinting at and don't offer much detail. So, despite being easier to read, even with a full-sized cat on your lap, I think I prefer them larger. The Spanish stuff takes up the first half, then there's the Italian, which gets divided up into more sections and gets more written about it.
There are two Apps too. Both are free but The Prado Guide has no content beyond the ability to pay for a guide book in your language. It promises high resolution images, though, so may add something to the actual guide book. Second Canvas, the other one, has more to read and look at, but charges you extra for all but one of the 14 paintings which it explores in 'ultra-high resolution'.
The Thyssen-Bornemisza guide is also a chunky paperback, rather than large-format, and is also written with the clued-up, rather than just-beginning, reader in mind. The text is a bit small and without serifs for my taste (and eyesight) but can be coped with. It's also not immune from infestation by words like paradigm, but they are relatively few. The T-B is not a small collection, but this is comprehensive - nothing I remember seeing is not in it. The illustrations vary in size from - mostly - quarter-page to full-page for some - mostly portrait format - paintings.
There are Apps too.
The key word here is brief. This is a small paperback of just over 100 pages which introduces you to the collecting couple and then devotes a few pages and a few photos to each room. The most any work gets is one sentence. More a souvenir than an education.
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