Sunday, June 24, 2007

Spain Part Seven: Madrid and The End

Ah, Madrid. Home of overpriced touristy crap, subway stations that were used as shelters as little as fifty years ago during the Spanish civil war, good food, great art museums, and the airplane that would convey us home.

Having four days in Madrid rather than the planned two was absolutely the right thing to do. We took it slow and basked in Madrid's cosmopolitanism, enjoying the fine weather the first day and spending the second out of the rain in one of the greatest art museums I've ever had the pleasure of touring.

Madrid is very similar to the image in my mind of a "European capital" (which, I must add, London isn't.) Buildings, traffic, tourists, museums - and a sense of the modern and chic. You may wonder why I don't put London in that category: it is because, I've come to believe, London is in a category all its own. Philadelphia and Boston are American cities; New York is the ultimate American city. So to is London to the European capitals. Of course, I haven't been to Paris, so I'm sure some of my readers are composing angry emails right now.

But Madrid is also very much a large city, and doesn't take care of itself quite the way Barcelona does. It's definitely a little rougher around the edges - we saw more homeless people in the area around our hotel than we did in the rest of Spain combined - but it's also got a spirit and a life like no other place. The Spanish stereotype of breakfast at 10, lunch at 3, dinner at 10 and party until dawn is very much alive in Madrid. And the food - there are millions of ways to cook ham, and Madridians know every one. Hell, the "Museum of Ham" isn't a museum at all - it's a chain restaurant.

Madrid does have art museums, however. It's got all the other typical European city capital things too: a cathedral (the first one we skipped), the Royal Palace, an open-air market (where Liz's bag was almost swiped), and killer food. But the art museums became the centerpiece of our stay, especially since we skipped Malaga and Picasso country.

The first stop was the Centre de Arte Reina Sofia, which has an impressive collection of paintings by Salvador Dali and, of course, Pablo Picasso. The museum starts at impressionism and works its way into abstract art and cubism, and does an excellent job at demonstrating the progression from the eras and how artists studied and learned from other artists at the time. The museum's centerpiece is Picasso's Guernica, considered by many to be his masterpiece. The painting captures the agony of the aftermath of the bombing of the town of the same name by the Luftwaffe (working in concert with Franco) during the Spanish Civil War. Astute geeky readers may also recognize it from its guest appearance in the recent film Children of Men. The rooms leading to it are lined with studies for the painting and other things Picasso was working on around the same time; all told, I would guess I saw no less than 100 separate Picasso works in one day.

The interesting thing about art to me - especially modern paintings in the abstract and cubist style - is that I do not often understand them. I feel, when I walk into those rooms in the art galleries, that around me someone's speaking a language I don't understand. Obviously the art is trying to communicate something to me - but what? It's not unlike the feeling of spending two weeks in another country where you don't speak the language.

But the other side of that is when you're in a country where you don't speak the language, you begin to pick things up damn quickly. If you keep half of an open mind, you begin to recognize patterns in language and eventually you can start to string words together to communicate with people, even if on a rudimentary level. You're not going to be writing any best-sellers, but you can certainly find the bathroom, order your dinner, get a room, and so forth. That's how I felt after coming through those hundred Picassos and arriving at the Guernica - I wasn't exactly sure how to speak the language, but coming from something I could somewhat understand (impressionism) and being immersed into cubism gradually, it clicked in a way it never had before, and the end result was that looking at the painting was a powerful experience. The only time I've felt anything like it was in London, the first time I turned around and came face-to-face with Waterhouses' Lady of Shallot.

The other major Museum in Madrid we hit (there was a third where we did the "gift shop run" and decided to skip) was the Prado. The Prado is a collection on par with the Louvre. It begins with Medieval art (something in another language that I do understand, because I had an excellent guide once), and launches you through the Renaissance into Spanish art. At one point, I was in a room surrounded on all sides by paintings by Raphael. It was masterpiece sensory overload. Unlike the Reine Sofia, the Prado doesn't have one showcase painting (although I saw several very famous paintings there) - it's a journey through art that can be as tiring as climbing a mountain, but just as rewarding. Every nook and cranny has a painting in it (or a statue - I'd never seen so many classical statues in one place.) Not a shred of space is wasted, and everything has a story to tell.

Wandering the city and taking in the museums was two full days, and on the third we daytripped to Toledo. Toledo is still as much a medieval town as it ever was, with extremely narrow streets, awesome old bars and restaurants, and buildings pushed together by time and intuition. You can't go to Europe without riding the train, so we took the train from Madrid south for a half-hour (a bullet train, whee!) and explored the entire city on foot.

Before I talk about Toledo, I want to make a special mention of Madrid's train station. In the summer, Madrid is not a cool place. It's far from the ocean and the sun really bakes it - it gets quite warm. The train station is enclosed and even hotter, because some genius thought the train station should also be a greenhouse for tropical plants (I'm not making this up.) The line to buy tickets is in a tiny enclosure in said station, where you have to stand for a half-hour with other people who are just as warm as you - and there's no air conditioning. Truly a marvel of modern architecture.

Before we even left, we had a couple of hours to kill so we wandered through the Parque de Retiro. I mention this because the park has one of the only (if not the only) public sculptures devoted to Satan - El Diablo. Lucifer. The evil one. Called "El Angel Caido" (The Fallen Angel), there is, in the middle of the part, a statue of the devil. You wouldn't see something like that in the US, I'd reckon.

After the train ride, we toured Toledo - including their awesome Cathedral, a Synagogue built by Moors and later converted into a church and back into a synagogue - and then attempted to tour a Mosque, but it was closed. We could have hit the three Abrahamatic religions in one day, but it wasn't to be. Which kind of pissed me off, since that was my last chance to tour a Mosque in Spain.

Toledo turned out to be exactly a day trip to get through the entire town, including an awesome museum display devoted to Visigothic Spain - the part of history between the Roman Empire and the Medieval period most classes kind of skip over. The museum laid out the artifacts logically, showing the breakdown from the late Roman empire to the early Medieval age - how something as simple as inscriptions on buildings demonstrated the knowledge gained, lost, and regained in that time.

Toledo was our last full day in Spain. The next morning, we finished packing, headed to the airport, and a few in-flight movies and a novel later we were back in Seattle. And that was almost a little more than a month ago today. I waited too long to write these last chapters; even now, I can feel the memories slipping away from something concrete to the more abstract memories that record things in "the past." You'll note that I've been a little lax on the details in these last two posts; it's because the details are starting to become unimportant compared to the impressions and the feelings and the memories I'll treasure. But damn if it wasn't a great trip and a great vacation; when we landed, we were both tan and relaxed and happy and in love. If that isn't what a vacation is all about - if that isn't what travel is all about - I don't know what is.

Until next trip.

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