Buenos dias, senores y senoras! Welcome to the next blog post of my trip, for the third country I have thus far visited – the great and diverse state of Spain! In the next week or so, I’ll take you through my visits to four cities in three provinces, and my experiences, likes and dislikes for all of them. Get excited! Part one: Madrid!
Madrid – Trenta y uno de Mayo
The first thing to note is that it’s a LONG WAY from Paris to Madrid – leaving at 7:15, it still took us the whole day to arrive (and that was with the train going at a top speed of 300km/h, with some stops along the way!). That was okay – it was good to have some time to unwind and catch up on my blogging, and marathon some of the new TV shows I’ve been getting into (right now it’s Suits). With that being the case, however, my time in Madrid didn’t really kick off until the 31st, so this entry will begin there.
Top tip – if you’re anywhere near the old town/centre of Madrid, there is almost no need to use public transport, and certainly no need to buy a ten-trip for a three-day stay. I did, and it meant that sometimes I would take the train and it would take longer than walking. Could have used it in Paris, but wouldn’t in Madrid – though trying to use it up did lead to a visit to the excellent Museo de America – but more on that later.
We began our first day in Madrid with, as I will tend to do wherever possible, a Sandeman’s free tour, of the part of the city that developed under the Hapsburg dynasty from 1500 to 1713. This followed the unification of Spain with the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, when their daughter Juana married Holy Roman Emperor and King of Italy Charles V, and then went mad and surrendered the throne to him. Having conquered enormous swathes of land in the New World, Charles V was perhaps the most powerful ruler in the world in his time. However, through the following centuries, with generations of inbreeding, the final Hapsburg king was hunchbacked, unable to chew food due to an enormous underbite, and completely impotent, and died without an heir, leading to the War of Spanish Succession and the beginning of the Bourbon dynasty – but that was another tour so we didn’t hear about them so much. As usual, the tour was a good rundown of the history of a certain part of the city, and a way to orient ourselves within it. The guide also recommended several places to get great Spanish food, which is always a plus. Some highlights are presented below.
After the tour, we were pretty hungry, so first we got a kebab – Spanish tomato sauce is excellently flavoursome, especially after five months of being relegated to brown sauce – and then hit up a chocolate and churros café that had been in operation since 1895 (Chocolateria San Gínes, very tasty and also cultural).
Next up was a trip to the great Museo del Prado, the museum housing the art collection of the historic Spanish Monarchy. Unfortunately photos weren’t allowed, but I do have some highlights of mine should you happen to go there.There’s the unmatched collection of Velazquéz, Goya and Hieronymus Bosch paintings, as anyone will tell you – I had a look at them all, and was even more appreciative of HB’s creepiness and Velasquéz’ fascination with dwarves (actually, that was a pattern that seemed to be replicated across many of the paintings – it seems that the royals of Spain loved bringing in dwarves, jesters, 70-kilo 8-year-olds and bearded women to be amusing and apparently painted). In more obscure terms, I also enjoyed Juan Batista Maíno’s work from the altarpiece of San Pedro Mártir in Toledo, because it was totally unlike any of the many altarpieces exhibited in all the museums of Europe; Jose Moreno Carbonero’s El principe don Carlos de Viena because it so accurately depicted the mood of a man who devoted his life to study after being unilaterally disinherited; the landscapes in room 63a, particularly those of Carlos de Haes; and the work of Victor Manzano, particularly Un chiquillo sentado. Check them out! It’s an good museum, probably still too big to cover all at once without a break but smaller than many others, and well worthwhile. I’m not a huge one for art really but it had a good mix of smaller size, big names, randomly beautiful pictures and hilarious dwarves to keep my interest going the whole time.
Having done the earlier tour, we were intrigued by the proposal of a tapas tour – a visit to three key destinations with explanations of the history of Spanish food and chances to eat large amounts of it, for just 14 euros. Considering that we were trying to fit in a cultural meal in each location, and that you can very easily spend that much without going to places you know will be good or learning about the food you’re eating, it sounded like a done deal. Turned out it was great! First up was a visit to a classic restaurant, where we ate in the traditional fashion by getting several plates of different things in succession and sharing them around; next was a Museo del Jamon, an apparently uniquely Spanish institution which essentially comprised an enormous amount of dried hams hanging from every surface, with a sit-down area and a bar for drinks and little tapas – our helping was a little bun and chorizo accompanied by sangria; and lastly to a pub where we got to try some traditional cheeses and cured meats as well as taking a swig of the very dry Spanish cider (not to my taste but it wasn’t awful). Going on tours like this, apart from the whole being well fed and trying new things thing, also provides opportunities to meet fellow travellers and have a conversation with new people. I chatted with an older English couple on holiday, a guy from Chicago who was on his way to start at a job in finance, and an Australian girl a little older than me who was going through to visit family in the UK. So all in all, it was definitely worth the money and I would do it again. In comparison to the Montmartre tour in Paris, this was better – more bang for your buck!
Madrid – uno de Junio
Hello again! Time for day number two in Madrid. Due to the aforementioned superfluous metro ticket, we decided that today was the day to try and go somewhere a little farther away. A whole seven stations away to be exact, to the American Museum. Coming out of the station, it was a short walk (though a slightly confusing one) past what appeared to be the Spanish Arc de Triomphe, in an equally awful position, to the museum, housed in a grand old brick building in the classic Spanish square building-surrounding-a-courtyard style. We were expecting to get in for free as EU residents anyway, but it turned out to be free on Sundays for everyone, so didn’t even need to try to explain our visas in Spanish. Having already seen displays on pre-European and colonial history in the British Museum (mostly focused on North America, because that’s where the British were) and the Louvre (mostly focused on art, and all in French), and having studied it last year at uni, I was pretty keen to get into the Spanish view of things. In terms of the displays, they were really well thought-out. It wasn’t like the British Museum, where things are all scattered around and you have to zigzag between them to see everything – they’d clearly selected the items they wanted to display from a larger suppository, which allowed them to plan the museum in a logical order and guide you through its twists and turns without being overwhelming or cluttered. Despite all being in Spanish, there was a great number of different artefacts and some intriguing maps. I particularly enjoyed the life-size models of Native American houses; the whole room set up like a 19th-century collector’s cabinet of curiosities – all wood-panelled with hand-written labels – that was a really refreshing way to look at things; and the film on Spanish ships crossing the Atlantic bringing great wealth, fighting pirates and storms, and where that wealth is now, which of all the things there had English subtitles. Don’t be put off by things not being in English; it has enough comprehensibility once you work out ‘siecle,’ ‘a.C’ and ‘d.C’ to make it a really enjoyable experience. For a real look at South and Central American culture and history, this is certainly the place.
The next stop – another train ride – was the Debod Temple, situated atop a hill, in a small but handsome park. The story is that the building of the Aswan dam was set to flood a whole section of the Upper Nile where many ancient towns and temples were situated. The famous statues of Rameses and Nefertiti were moved, but all the others had to be hastily surveyed and excavated before bing abandoned. Spain was highly supportive of the project, and in recognition of this the Egyptian government broke up the remains of this temple complex, and sent it to Spain for them to re-erect as a monument to ancient Egypt and international co-operation (unlike the great obelisk in Paris, which was just stolen – see my earlier post). There was a bit of a wait to get inside, but once in, it was pretty breathtaking. There were original relief carvings all over the walls, with little lights you could turn on to see them with the best angle, and upstairs a display on the history of the monument and the area it came from. It was wholly satisfying for a free museum, and worth the trip over.
Next up was the Royal Palace of Madrid – famed for being the largest palace proper in the world in its time, with some 3000 rooms. (Un?)fortunately, we didn’t get to troop through all of them, just a selection of the rooms, along with the usual grand staircases and royal chapels. As you might expect, in a palace of 3000 rooms, there was significant innovation and specialisation in the decor and purpose of the rooms. For instance, there was a room completely covered in porcelain from floor to ceiling, a room decorated with bamboo and with cartoony Chinese people watching and giggling all over the roof, and a room just dedicated to the royal collection of Stradivarius violins. Comparing it to Versailles, the tour was smaller but so was the price (or it would have been if I was paying full price for Versailles). It’s moderately good but I could probably have skipped it. The park out the front was once part of the palace, and you can see some of the statues that proved too heavy to stand on the peak of the facade (you can see the vases that replaced them atop the palace below). Once again, only got one photo inside before being told off.
The final stop of the day was a walk through Parque del Buen Retiro, the site of a former palace and a wonderful park. It contained an enormous boating lake, some large lawns, some forested sections, some hedgy sections, a crystal palace and some very classy buskers. Here’s a few photos to give you an idea.
Next stop: Cordoba, Andalusia!