The Inquisition, What a Show!

After returning from El Escorial, we made plans with Little Nicky for our last evening in Madrid, and enjoyed a much needed rest.  One of the wonderful things about Europe in June is that the days are long.  Having lived in Brisbane, Australia for 4 years, I’d gotten used to the depressing fact that even in the height of summer it will be full dark by 7:30.  In Madrid full dark only came after 10pm.  It was glorious.

We decided to seek sustenance in Plaza Mayor, center of Old Madrid.  Originally a farmers market, Phillip II commissioned a city square be built there when he decided to move the capital from Toledo to Madrid, though it actually wasn’t completed until 1619, which was already during Phillip III’s reign.  The plaza has been rebuilt thrice due to fires, with the current look coming into being in 1854, when the 5 story buildings were reduced to 4, and all of the buildings were connected to make a complete rectangle, with the streets now going through archways.

A lot of people see Plaza Mayor as a tourist trap, which I guess it is, since the Madrid Tourism Center is currently housed in the former Casa de la Panaderia (House of Bread, which served as the town’s main bakery), built in 1674, and the only building to survive the 1790 fire.  It is the only building in the plaza not painted red, but covered in elaborate frescoes depicting mythical figures. These frescoes date from 1992, as the previous ones needed to be replaced due to deterioration, which is apparently something they’ve had to do several times over the centuries.

The plaza is a cozy place on a summer evening, with twilight just starting to thicken, and a warm soft breeze blowing through the archways.  We entered from the northeast corner and started perusing the various cafe menus posted next to the outdoor seating areas.  One after another we discarded for various reasons… way too expensive, way to “niche,” way too boring…  We finally settled on Eboli, a cafe whose name evoked images of a not too appetizing nature, but whose prices, while not cheap, fit well within our tourist budget.  This was probably the worst meal we had in our entire time in Spain.  Not because it was disgusting in any way, or tasteless… but because the food was not memorable.  I vaguely recall some seafood pasta that was quite edible, but I’m not sure if Frank had it, or I, and Nicky’s steak and fries were “acceptable.”  In other words, while not bad in the least, it didn’t measure up to the rest.

The atmosphere, the company, and the beer however, made up for the food, and we spent a very relaxed couple of hours enjoying everything.  Eboli, by the way, is named for a town in Italy, not the pestilence, so that explains the vaguely Italian theme of the menu.  Did I have a pizza?  I really cannot recall, it was that just okay.

Sitting back, watching the buskers and the African knock-off sellers mix with locals and tourists, it’s time to think of the amount of history that has happened in this very spot.  Besides celebrations for royal births, weddings, coronations, festivals, etc., etc., the plaza also could jam in 50,000 people to watch a bullfight, with people renting out the over 200 balconies that line the square for better views.  The most interesting, and morbid, of course though, was that Plaza Mayor was where the Spanish Inquisition carried out auto-de-fés, (acts of faith) the trials and punishments of suspected heretics.

Despite the Black Legend spread by the English & other northern European nations who at the time were Spain’s enemies, the Spanish Inquisition did not burn 100s of thousands of Jews and witches.  Some blowhards even claim millions were killed just by the Spanish branch, however, considering the population of Europe at the time, that would have been rather impossible, as there would have been no one left on much of the continent, much less Spain.

One of the most fascinating things about the Spanish Inquisition was that it had power only over Christians.  Anyone openly practicing Judaism, Islam, etc were not touchable, and could only be tried by the King and his courts.  Jews who had converted to Christianity to avoid taxes or expulsion and were suspected of still practicing their old beliefs could proclaim that they were once again practicing Jews, and the Inquisition would have to hand them over to civil authorities.  Of course the authorities would often try them for lying about being Christian, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Another fascinating tidbit about the Spanish Inquisition is that they had very very specific rules about torture, and at least initially practiced it much less than most European courts, and followed a certain code of rules. Per Wikipedia:

  1. Confessions obtained through torture could not be used to convict or sentence anyone.  The accusation had to have been already proven, and the accused has refused to admit culpability by any other means.
  2. Only specific forms of torture were to be used, and torturers could not “maim, mutilate, draw blood or cause any sort of permanent damage.”
  3. Sick, old, young, injured and pregnant people could not be tortured.  Women were only tortured for the most extreme crimes, and had to be tortured by women.
  4. Different crimes called for different amount of times a person could be tortured, depending on how heinous it was.  Counterfeiting currency would get you 2 sessions, while the most serious crimes could get you up to 8.
  5. Torture could only be for 15 minutes at a time.
  6. A doctor had to be present at all times to prevent serious harm, and a doctor had to certify that the prisoner was healthy enough to get through the torture without lasting injury.

The Spanish Inquisition apparently was so lily-white and fluffy that it was the preferred way of hungry people to get through a cold winter.  Inquisitors complained during the reign of Philip IV that people “Blasphemated, mostly in winter, just to be detained and fed inside the prison.”  During Philip III’s reign, he got pissed off that people would accuse themselves of heresy “just to be sent under the Inquisitorial jurisdiction instead of the King’s.”

So, while a lot of people were tortured and killed by various courts, and by various Inquisitions (Spain wasn’t the only one to have one), modern scholars estimate that of the approximately 150,000 people tried for various offenses by the Spanish Inquisition,  3,000-5,000 of them were executed between its inception in 1478 by Ferdinand & Isabella (yeah, those same dudes who funded Columbus), to its end in 1834 by the plump and feisty Isabella II.  At the same time, it is estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people were burnt for witchcraft in the American colonies and other parts of Europe, not to mention lots of other nasty things done between various Christian groups in the name of the God, king and country.

Of those 3 to 5 thousand people executed though, I couldn’t find an exact number of how many of them died at Plaza Mayor.  The auto-da-fe that took over a month to plan was an elaborate ceremony that was part mass, part trial, part sentencing, and was a popular draw for the city population, culminating by the always exciting burning, hanging, and or garrotting, at various times either in the plaza itself, or outside the city walls, depending on the event planner who organized the whole thing.  That must have been a hell of a job.


1683 painting by Francisco Rizi depicting the auto-da-fé held in Plaza Mayor in 1680.

Admittedly, living in Spain during this period, particularly for Jews and Muslims, and even conversos and moriscos (converts to Christianity from Judaism and Islam respectively), during the time of the Inquisition rather sucked, however, it wasn’t nearly as bad apparently as we English speakers are taught in schools… the influence of Phillip II’s old enemies such as Queen Elizabeth I and other protestant monarchs is still upon us today, crazy, right?  Can’t be too mad about it though, since it resulted in on of my favorite musical numbers, featuring Mel Brookes spoofing Tomas de Torquemada, the biggest baddest Grand Inquisitor to have ever been…  The Inquisition, let’s begin! The Inquisition, look out sin!  We’re on a mission… to convert… THE JEWS!  Dang, now I’m gonna have the stuck in my head all day.  Here, have an ear-worm:

After dinner we said good night to Little Nicky, and made our way back to Lavapies.  On our last night we planned to visit Bodegas Lo Maximo.  This is the bar kitty-corner from our apartment.  Every evening since our arrival on Sunday, upon our return to the apartment we had been entertained by the antics of the patrons outside the bar, while marveling that none seemed obnoxiously drunk.  Every evening we could hear patrons inside and out singing along with live bands well past midnight.  I really wanted to see what it was all about, and figured our last night there would be a perfect night to check it out… However, on this particular Thursday night, for the first time since we were there, the bar was dark, the street silent.

20180613_233155Bodegas Lo Maximo on a Tuesday night.

So off we went to bed, our last night on our spiky, saggy mattress in Madrid.  Tomorrow we venture south.


El Escorial

Porque somos viejos y petridos, ( Because we are old and moldy), dinner was rather early 9pm at a cafe in Lavapies, along the busy Calle Argumosa, and then to bed, (at least for us, what young Nicky did after he disappeared on foot into the night is known only to him), with plans to meet the next day at Moncloa Station to catch the bus 28 miles northwest of Madrid, to one of the greatest monuments to the Spanish Crown and Catholic Church, El Escorial.

We managed to find our way to the station via metro with minimum fuss, and onto the bus.  We were starving by the time the bus disgorged us at a small station about a 5 minute walk away from our final destination, so delayed the final leg to consume some more delicious ham and cheese sandwiches.  Newly fortified, we were ready.

After the frivolity of Madrid’s Royal Palace, El Escorial can only be described as austere.  Every detail of the complex as we approached screamed solemnity.  El Escorial is huge, a palace, monastery and college all in one.  The main complex stands across a wide parade ground from another row of 4 story buildings in the same style.  From the windows of these long stone buildings we could hear laughing children and the musical stylings of a rather young and enthusiastic orchestra.

We found the side door that served as the tourist entrance, paid for our tickets, stored our bags, and we were ready to explore.  This left us a little discombobulated, as we had grown used to crowds and standing in line.  There wasn’t a single sign anywhere in English that stated “Tour Starts Here.”  Unlike the Royal Palace, tourists are free to roam through much of the complex.  With the basilica of San Lorenzo el Real placed center stage, the palaces of the Hapsburgs and Bourbons flank either side, connected to the school and monastery with passageways run in a gridiron pattern.

The popular theory is that the the gridiron pattern was inspired by the martyrdom of St. Lawrence, who was roasted to death on a grill in the third century.  His feast day, August 10th, was the same date as Phillip II’s victory at the Battle of St. Quentin against Henry II of France.  El Escorial was built by Phillip’s order to commemorate the event.   However, there is evidence that in fact the general floor plan was actually based on descriptions of the Temple of Solomon by Jedeo-Roman historian Flavius Josephus, who upon further investigation is a rather fascinating fellow who is worth reading up on.

We wandered a bit randomly around the galleries of the main cloister until we found a wide stone stairwell leading upward to the second level.  As we ascended the rather dour and plain stairs, above us in the vault loomed an elaborate and gorgeous mural by Luca Giordano, The Glorification of the Spanish Monarchy.  These stairs led to the chapter houses of the monastery.  The first, the vicarial, where all the monks came to meetings, and the prioral, which was reserved for those of higher priestly ranks, were both long rooms lined with hard wooden benches that didn’t look particularly comfortable.  During those meetings the monks could alleviate the tedium by studying the world class paintings that hung above them.  Works of Titan, El Greco, El Bosco, among others, depicted various biblical scenes, as well as trials of the early saints.  I suppose when one closely studies the emaciated form of the penitent Saint Jerome, or Saint Francis receiving his stigmatas, a boring meeting and a sore bum doesn’t seem so bad a deal in comparison.

Exiting through the Prior’s Chapel at the back of the chapter houses, onwards & downwards we went, to the Pantheon of the Infantes.  One of the main purposes of El Escorial was to serve as the burial place for Phillip II’s parents, and subsequently other kings and members of the royal family.  The vaulted rooms we found ourselves in now were lined with the marble sarcophagi of the lesser members of the clan.  A royal crest and label above each tomb named the inhabitants.  Philipvs, Philipi V Filivs, kept company with his brothers Francicvs and Gabriel.  Other labels told of daughters, queens who did not produce kings, and the wives and children of morganic marriages.  The children who did not reach adolescence were laid to rest together in a communal 3 tiered wedding cake-esque tomb in the 6th of the 9 rooms.

In a small alcove is the curious tomb topped with a recumbent statue of a handsome bearded man holding a sword in his bejeweled hands, labelled Ioannes Avstrlacvs, Carloi V Fil Natvralis.  Here lay, dead at the age of 31, the illegitimate but acknowledged half brother of Phillip II, son of Charles V, John of Austria.  He had served Phillip faithfully, and upon his untimely death joined his father’s family for eternity.  It was John who was in charge of putting down the revolt of the Moriscos of Granada, and he did so ruthlessly.  With him at the head of the army, they destroyed Moorish villages who hadn’t complied with orders to forget their customs, religion and language, and deported or killed thousands of Muslim citizens who had made Spain their home for centuries. John’s letters described the forced exile of entire families, women and children, as the greatest “human misery” that can be portrayed.

Leaving behind the tombs of the semi important, our path now lead down a narrow staircase of dark green and red marble, lined with gold.  It emptied out into a room unlike any I had ever seen before.  Arranged in a circle, with a Catholic alter across from the door, the walls were lined with shelves, each one holding a green marble and gold casket.  Here rest the emperors, kings and queens of Spain, going as far back as Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.  The set is not quite complete, with a few having chosen to be buried elsewhere, and the last 2 kings being still very much alive, but the effect was still quite something.

Nicky, by this time, was sick of the endless maze of stairs, but could do nothing but sigh and follow us as we climbed back up to another level and entered the Hapsburg palace.  Simple but cozy, these rooms were rather hard to reach, as they had been designed for function rather than impression.  The inner sanctum was built more as a pious retreat than for royal fanfare, and had an almost monastic quality.  In fact, both the king’s and queen’s apartments connected directly to the basilica through private chapels, and there was grill in each of their bedrooms overlooking the high alter.  Phillip suffered gout toward the end of his life, which would often prevent him from going to the church.  This way he could be present at the services, but still be comfortable.

Phillip II died in his bed at El Escorial, at the grand age of 71, having ushered in the Spanish Golden Age, married 4 times (twice to cousins, once to a niece), and been for a short time the King of England and Ireland.  I still find it rather odd that he was married to Bloody Mary.  After she died, according to the marriage contract, he lost control of those realms and went back to persecuting Protestants and Muslims in continental Europe.  Still hoping to turn England Catholic again, he did send his Armada in 1588, but we all know how that ended.  Further attempts to invade England (there were 3) were all cancelled due to bad weather.

I was intrigued to learn that Phillip II is the big baddie in one of my father’s favorite operas, Don Carlo by Giuseppe Verdi.  In the opera Don Carlos, Phillip II’s son and heir falls in love with Elisabeth of Valois, who is doomed to have to marry his father.  All sorts of tragic shenanigans ensue and in the end the young couple is separated forever, him to the cloister, she to remain the wife of King Phillip.   The reality was quite different.

Elisabeth of Valois was 14 (Carlos also would have been about 14) when she married the 32 year old, already twice married Phillip II.  She was quite happy about it according to her letters, as she found her husband rather cute and fun.  He seemed pretty happy about her too, having just been widowed from his union with Bloody Mary, 10 years his senior, and about whom he wrote: “I felt a reasonable regret for her death.”  Elizabeth unfortunately died in childbirth at the age of 23, producing only 2 girls who survived til adulthood.  If judging by the letters exchanged between Phillip and his daughters after they married and became Queen of France and Duchess of Savoy respectively, they had a surprisingly loving relationship.  This might be due to the fact that Don Carlos, a product of Phillip’s first marriage to his first cousin, was a little inbred git who liked to roast animals alive, chase after servant girls and set houses on fire.  After having a son like that that, when you have 2 normal kids of any gender, wouldn’t you be thrilled too?

Carlos apparently got so bad that he openly threatened to kill his father, tried to conspire with John of Austria (REALLY stupid move) to flee to the Netherlands, and finally drove Phillip to lock him up.  Carlos died in seclusion not too long after at the age of 23.  The English and Dutch used Carlos’ death to further the Black Legend, the anti-Spanish propaganda machine they spread in order to temper Phillip’s influence.

The amount of inbreeding, at this point, was kind of astounding.  According to Wikipedia:

Carlos had only four great-grandparents instead of the maximum of eight, and his parents had the same coefficient of co-ancestry (1/4) as if they were half siblings. He had only six great-great-grandparents, instead of the maximum 16; his maternal grandmother and his paternal grandfather were siblings, his maternal grandfather and his paternal grandmother were also siblings, and his two great-grandmothers were sisters.

Phillip II didn’t learn his lesson though, as he went on to marry his niece, Anna of Austria, with whom he happily produced Phillip III, who was his own great uncle.

Passing through these airy rooms, we ended up in the Hall of Battles.  55 meters long, 6 meters wide, with an 8 meter high arched ceiling, almost every inch of the walls covered in murals depicting Spanish war victories against the French, Moors, and Turks.  It was absolutely fascinating.  Even Nicky woke up from zombie mode, and explained how you could see the evolution of warfare not just by the armor and weaponry, but also by the formations of the foot soldiers and cavalry.   The amount of detail was stunning, battlefields with thousands of figures, sieges, sea battles, executions of captives, it just went on and on.  I tried, I really tried, to get a photo, but the octogenarian security guard was ever vigilant, and “No photo, no photo!” echoed in my ears for quite a while after we left the chamber.  Now, the curious thing about this hall is that there is no evidence it was ever used for any ceremony.  It’s rather out of the way, it’s only real purpose is connecting one end of the queens apartments to the king’s.  As far as historians can tell it was a basically a place to take a stroll.

Due to the proximity of the basilica to the palace of the uber-pious Hapsburgs, it was only natural that it was our next stop.  It was, like the rest of the place, impressive with a capital I.  To quote Frank, “this is breaking my brain.”  The church to me epitomizes Spain’s historical reputation of almost fanatical Catholicism.  Imagine you are in a deep, dark cold vast well, the only light streaming in is from far above , illuminating images of saints and angels in all of heaven’s glory.  This is the basilica of San Lorenzo el Real.

A church is a church is a church, though, for the most part, so other than noticing some rather spectacular paintings of saints, and a rather grand alter piece, it’s time to move our tour along.

Nicky by now was starting to protest fatigue, but as his elder in age and in wisdom, I told him “Stuff it, cultural enrichment is an important, etc, etc.”  Nicky: “But the stairs…”  I must say the stairs up to the library were rather daunting, but… oh, what a library.

Lining the 54 meter long main hall were shelves containing precious manuscripts, some dating back to the fourth century, books on science, art, religion and history printed on old vellum, decorated in gold and precious gems, inscribed with paintings so precise and detailed they could hold your attention for hours.  This library, since it belonged to the king, contained profane and heretical texts that had survived the purges of the Inquisition.  Besides the main hall there are several rooms off to the sides, but sadly they are not open to the public.  The arched ceiling was a frenzy of brightly painted murals, depicting Seneca, Plato and other ancient philosophers, along with such doctors of the Latin church as Sts. Augustine, Jerome and many others.  Embodiments of the arts and science intermingled with depictions of historical church events like the Council of Nicea…   I really could go on and on… I suppose I already have.

Aside from the manuscripts, the library also contained several old globes, and a geo-centric armillary sphere of extraordinary detail and craftsmanship.  The sphere depicted the path of the sun and other heavenly bodies around the earth, and we spent some time after discussing how back then no one thought the earth was flat, just the center of the universe, and what the heck are schools teaching kids these days… this is how we get flat earthers, by teaching bad history… sigh.

So we had one more thing to see before we could make Nicky happy and head back to Madrid, the Bourbon palace.

While the Hapsburgs used El Escorial as a religious retreat, the rather more flightly Bourbons used it as an autumn hunting lodge, in fact, rather than redecorating the humble rooms of their predecessors, they very logically decided to just redesign and redo a rather large portion of the entire complex.  The Bourbons installed a grand staircase (though not TOO grand), hung tapestries everywhere and generally kitted the place out to the nines.  It was pretty cool to see the tapestries based on Goya’s cartoons which we had already seen at the Prado a few days before, and Frank and I enjoyed a game of “find the difference,” as many of the tapestries were reverse images of the paintings, and some had changed between the original concept and the execution.

And so ended our tour of El Escorial.  There are extensive gardens too, but we were entirely exhausted, and so instead made our way back to the bus station, and enjoyed a 45 minute nap back to Madrid.

One added note:  El Escorial is named for the abandoned mines that were in the area when Phillip II started it’s construction, more specifically it refers to the piles of leftover rejected materials.  This colossal example of Spanish Golden Age, this World Heritage Site, considered a wonder of it’s time, this resting place of kings, is literally named Slag Heap.




Invisible Nun Cookies!

Having left the palace, Frank and I insisted on one last stop before we released Nicky to go seek sweet oblivion in sleep.  We told him we must get some cookies from some nuns, and not just nuns, invisible nuns!  We tried to make it sound as sneaky and underhanded as possible, but he wasn’t having any of it.  He heaved a giant sigh and said “lets get on with it.”


We made our way back to the narrow shadowed length Calle de Codo, and to the low medieval, metal studded door that we had briefly paused at on our tour.  This was the entrance to the cloister of Monasterio del Corpus Christi las Carboneras.  Behind the door lived nuns who had forsworn the world.

Founded in 1605 by Countess Beatriz Ramiriz de Mendoza, who apparently was considered an influential female mystic in the court of Phillip III.  They follow the rule of St. Augustine, which holds at its core “The whole group of believers was of one mind and one heart. No one claimed any of his possessions as his own, but everything was held in common,” Acts of the Apostles 4:32.  I spent a bit of time trying to find out more about the convent, and its founder, but unfortunately information available in English is scant at best.

We arrived at 16:20, 10 minutes before the convent opened after their siesta.  From the shadows of the narrow street we watched an old fat gypsy woman rouse herself from the nap she’d been enjoying in the sunny square, propped against the wall.  She picked up a squat little stool and started to waddle her way towards the door we were standing across from.  I rather dreaded the encounter I foresaw, the outstretched hand, the discomfort as we patted our pockets and shook our heads… but she ignored us and went about what was probably a daily ritual of setting up her stool next to the door, and then arranging and rearranging her wide girth and many skirts into a comfortable configuration upon it.

When the appointed time came, and we had started to move towards the door to ring the bottom of the 2 doorbells we knew we would find there (the top for “Sacerdotes,” priests available for confession, the bottom for “Monjas,” nuns), she rose up and rang it for us.  A voice too faint for us to hear must have answered, as she rattled off a few rapid bursts of Spanish in response.  The door buzzed, and she swung it open for us.  As we approached she saw the uncertainty in our faces, and before we even had to ask explained where we were to go, and what we were to do, and then warned us to watch our heads, pointing to the lintel, where evidence of centuries of sore heads was very clearly visible.20180613_163021

Nodding our thanks, we followed her directions straight down the corridor, turned left, and entered a tiny room that contained what looked like a door for a dumbwaiter, inside which was an ancient wooden lazy susan with high dividers, so there was no chance of glimpsing the other side.  Posted on the right was a list of cookies for sale, 10 euros for half a kilo, 20 for a kilo.  In very bad Spanish, I hesitantly called out, “Por favor, quieremos comprar naranjinas.” (Please, we would like to buy orange cookies).  “No tenemos naranjinas.”  (We don’t have any) a faint disembodied voice answered. “Tienen pastas de almendra?” (Do you have almond?) “Si.”  And so I placed 10 euros on the lazy susan, spun it around, and we had our cookies. “Gracias!” and we retraced our steps to the main door.  20180613_163222

Upon exiting, I passed the gypsy what euro coins I’d had in my pocket, and she in return gave us each a little prayer card for the Virgin of El Escorial.  We nodded our thanks, pointed Nicky in the vague direction of his hotel, and headed home.

For those wondering, the cookies were absolutely fantastically delicious.20180613_172143

Palacio Real, Madrid

To our great disappoint, upon our arrival at the Palacio Real, there was no royal fanfare, no honor guard to greet us.  Did they not know what auspicious visitors were gracing them with our presence?  Apparently not.  Just like all the other shlubs who had not prepaid for their tickets, we stood in line in Plaza de Armeria under the hot sun for maybe 20 minutes, but it wasn’t too bad.  We had water, so didn’t get hassled by the vendors, and didn’t make eye contact with the old gypsy lady who alternately begged, prayed, and cursed at the tourists.

Built between 1738 and 1755 by order of Philip V, who died in 1746, the first king to occupy it was Carlos III, whom I mentioned before came from Naples and was probably the best king Spain had seen in generations.  The last king who resided here on a regular basis was Alfonso XIII, who was booted from his throne and his country in 1931.

Now, the history of the building I do not think is particularly interesting, but the history of the location is.  A Moorish fortress was built near the current location in the late 800s.  Perched high atop the banks of Manzanares River it had commanding views of the river path, and was considered an important defense for Toledo against those pesky Christians to the north.  The citadel of Mayrit not only boasted a fort, but city walls, a mosque and the home of the local emir.  Practically nothing remains of the original buildings, as after Alfonso VI took the city from the Moors much of the stones were repurposed by the new Christian inhabitants.  The city’s cathedral now sits pretty much on top of where it was, though as mentioned before, it was built much much later.

Alfonso decided to build his new alcazar just north of there, and it was the occasional seat of the royal house of Castile for around 400 years.  Lots of infighting and inbreeding later, Charles I, the Holy Roman Emperor and Emperor of Spain started to think that Toledo with its very medieval look was a getting a bit passé, and it was time to start thinking about a new capital.  He started to expand the alcazar with the intention of transforming it into a royal palace, which his son & successor Phillip II took up when Charles abdicated in the 1550s. 

After Phillip II, the alcazar underwent 2 centuries of countless renovations, restorations, extensions, additions and remodeling… to the point where it had morphed into such an unsightly mess that noone was particularly sad when it burnt down Christmas Day, 1734.

The first alarm was raised just as the bells for Christmas matins were ringing, so no one paid any attention to it until the fire was well out of control.  The court, luckily, was at the time residing at the El Prado palace, and so the only thing really in danger were the servants, the royal treasures, and the art work.  Much was lost, but I want to relay the story of one of the treasures that was saved, and then I’ll get on with our tour.  The Pilgrim Pearl.

Found by an African slave in the Golf of Panama in the 1500s, it was the largest pearl that had ever been found up to that point, and it won the slave who found it his freedom. The governor of Panama brought the perfectly symmetrical pearl to Philip II, who in turn gave it to his future bride Mary I (Bloody Mary) of England.  After she died it passed back to the Spanish crown, and it became a popular bauble of a whole successions of queens.  It adorn many a royal busoms in numerous portraits, (starting actually, with a rather frightfully dour portrait of Mary I herself).

Joseph Bonaparte, having been installed as king in 1808, when took to his heals at the end of the Peninsular Wars, took the time to snatch a decent chunk of the royal jewels, among which was La Peregrina, translated to The Wanderer or The Pilgrim, and so it passed to his nephew, the future Napolean III of France.  He himself ended up in England in 1871, short of funds and out of influence, and at some point after that sold it to James Hamilton, the future Duke of Abercorn.  In 1969 the Hamilton family sold the pearl at a Sotheby’s action to Richard Burton, who gifted it to Elizabeth Taylor as a Valentine’s Day gift. He had it reset for her, and apparently not well, because it fell out at one point at their suite at Ceaser’s Palace, and one of her puppies ended up chewing on it. Taylor’s estate sold it for 11 million dollars after her death, but I couldn’t find out to whom.

Anywho’s… back to us…

We made our way up the Grand Staircase, and were absolutely wowed.  It was, in every sense, grand, from the first marble step, to the frescoes of Religion Protected by Spain above us on the distant ceiling. Charles IV in a toga glowered down at us from his pedestal as we reached the landing, and turning to look back down we see Charles III in similar dress glowering up at us from the ground floor.  The staircase itself is carved from a single slab of San Agustin marble.  I tried to find out the significance of San Agustin, but google in this case failed me.

I won’t say much about the interior, other than it is… well, rather royal.  Opulent, gilded, in very good taste for the most part, the 20 or so rooms that are accessible to tourists are for the most part what you would expect from a 18th century palace.  However, there was something different about them compared to other palaces I had seen in other parts of Europe.  The rooms, comparatively, were small.  Even the throne room wasn’t massive in any sense of the word.  This I find odd now, considering it is the largest royal palace in Europe by floor space, at 1,450,000 sq ft, but then the palace also boasts 3,418 rooms, and even with almost 1.5 million square feet of floor space that only averages out to 424.22 ft available per room.  We can only imagine how small some of them are.

Anyway, we had a look around.  I snuck some photos, but the guards were vigilant, and even carrying a phone by your side was enough to get you harangued by security.  It was interesting, and of course easy on the eyes, but sooner than I expected we found ourselves back outside.

I noticed people going in an out of a door on the far end of the courtyard, and I dragged my exhausted brother and ever patient spouse over.  Thank goodness, it is the armory.   Nicky, up until now dragging his feet and half asleep in his beard, suddenly perked up.  Now this was interesting!  On the top floor were the obligatory suits of armor of kings and knights long past, sitting on dusty large horses, eternally propped up into threatening war-like poses.  These in themselves were rather impressive, however it was downstairs that truly got the boys excited.  Swords, axes, and other sidearms galore, and that’s even before we got to the guns.

Frank had never seen such a display before, and Nicky and he spent quite a while engrossed in various aspects of the craftsmanship and usability of many of the pieces.  Of most interest to me were several long, heavy (in weight and menace) looking guns mounted on wheels.  Nicky identified them as arquebuses, the type of gun that very likely fired the first shot from Columbus’s ship upon their arrival to Hispaniola.

Having explored what felt like every nook and cranny of the armory, it was time to go.  Tired, hungry, and just plain overheated, it was time for a much deserved nap.


An Addition to our Party…

The next morning we decided to sleep in.  The blackout blinds did a wonderful job keeping the blazing sun out, and even despite our mattress’s attempts to perform on us some kind of unholy acupuncture throughout the night, we managed to at least doze through to 8am.

We lazed about through the sunny morning, munching on apple cake we’d picked up at the local supermarket, and sipping on stove top coffee.  Curiosity finally drove us to turn on the TV, and we discovered that most Spanish channels broadcast tarot card readings or home shopping in the mornings.  We spent probably much too much time watching Crayon Shin-chan, a Japanese manga show which is wildly popular in Spain, and is broadcast throughout the country not only in Spanish but Basque, Catalan, Valencian & Galician.  We found it amusing enough to be startled when we noticed it was almost 10:30.  I suppose we should shower and dress.

This accomplished, it was time to wait.  Frank played his Switch, I read The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu, which I had really been looking forward to sinking my teeth into.  Sad to say while the premise was wildly interesting, and it gives a taste of the push into Africa by the Europeans during early colonialism, and of African history before the whites arrived, the book failed to deliver on its promise of a well written story… but I digress…  Finally, the phone dinged, and I couldn’t contain myself any longer… I paced first to the balcony over Calle de Olivar, scanning north & south, then the 4 or 5 meters to the balcony over Calle de San Carlos, scanning east to west, and back again.  Luckily I didn’t have to wait for long.

A taxi made its way down the cobbles of Calle de San Carlos and rolled to a stop at the intersection.  the back door opened, and the sun glinted off the shaved head that emerged.  The long anticipated guest looked around, searching for the house number, and I finally couldn’t resist the temptation to yell “Hey Nicky, up here!”

Little Nicky, my absolutely favorite little brother, had arrived from Chicago to fulfill a promise we had made to Madrid 5 years ago, when he and I had spent 1 measly night here before heading north to walk the last 100kms of the Camino de Santiago.  That promise: to return, and give the city the attention it deserves.

Not having seen each other in the flesh in over 2 years, the requisite hugs and sibling taunts were exchanged, (we had both gotten fatter, older, etc), and it was time for a proper breakfast.  We decided rather than further exploring the cafes around Lavapies to retire once more to Taberna El Papelon, the restaurant from the first morning.  There, all 3 of us ordered deseyunos grandes, along with cafe con leche, freshly squeezed orange juice, and beer.  It was just as delicious, if not better than the first day, as our company had improved from 2 to 3.

Finally it was time to check Nicky into the Hotel Regina, a fine establishment a block or 2 from Plaza del Sol.  Much fancier digs than ours, Frank and I sat at the window enjoying the posh view from his 10th story window while Nicky made himself human again.  It was time to present ourselves at the Royal Palace.

Post-El-Prado Promenade through Parque de el Retiro.

We left the Prado foot-sore and starving.  We decided in favor of expediency over further cultural experience, and headed a few blocks south the McDonald’s we had passed earlier that morning.

After much needed rest & replenishment, it was time for some further exploration.  We headed across Paseo del Prado, back up the Cuesto de Moyano, past the book stalls, and into the southern part of Parque del Buen Retiro.  Because the sun was starting to overheat our brains, we ducked into the shadows of one of the many lane-ways that crisscross the park.  The sounds of the city faded away, and birdsong and the buzzing of bees took its place.  We encountered our first Eurasian magpie, a much more elegant and slightly more colorful non-relative of it’s Australian counterpart.  While I enjoyed the peaceful leafy interlude, Frank complained about the lack of lizards and parrots, which to him are staples to any parkland.

We emerged from the gravel path onto Paseo de Cuba, just north of El Fuente de Angel Caido, the Fountain of the Fallen Angel.  Since 1885, a bronze Lucifer has been frozen here at the moment of his fall, screaming in fury and rebellion at the heavens, his face contorted and just starting to hint at the beginning of his transformation from the most beautiful angel to his new and horrible form.  Sculptor Ricardo Bellver apparently drew upon Milton’s Paradise Lost for inspiration in creating this rather disquieting piece for an art competition where it won first place. After that, it was passed around for a while, until someone decided that it was a good idea to place it on a fountain in the middle of a roundabout in the park.  A fun fact is that the statue stands at exactly 666 meters above sea level.

We continued east along Paseo de Uruguay, intending to strike north on the central path that cuts directly up the middle of the park, however, a most heavenly smell hit us like a ton of bricks, and had us head south and through a gate in a hedge.  We were suddenly surrounded by what seemed like at least a million roses.  A few tourists and locals wandered the path, all seemingly in a state of bliss, enraptured by their surroundings.  I don’t usually go for rose gardens, I find them rather dull, but this was quite something.  This was the Rosaleda (rose garden) of Parque de El Retiro, and in mid-June it was glorious.

After entirely too short a while, we finally found our way north up the path, to the Chrystal Palace.  A major attraction of the park, built in 1887 for the Philippines Exposition, it reminded me of an iron and glass birdcage.   Loads of people wandered around, their expressions telling us that they were thinking the same thing we were… “Meh.”  I mean, it was pretty, but that’s about all.  At one time, it had been used as a green house, full of exotic plants, which may have been cool, but now it was empty but for an exhibit of what passes for modern art now-a-days.  The current offering was a rather confusing large scale glass model of tattered remnants of an exploded condom… modern art is open to interpretation, and that was ours.  We ended up being more interested in watching people feed cheese puffs to the ducks and geese in the ornamental pond out front.

Not wanting to linger, we wandered further north, bypassing the Palacio de Velazquez, which contained more modern art exhibits, avoiding making eye contact with the band of old buskers who endlessly played a loop of Sway With Me and smiled maniacally at all passers by, and came to rest on the south side of Estanque Grande del Retiro, a large man-made pond lorded over by a statue of Alfonso XII.  Though it had become overcast, and the clouds were spitting occasional drops of rain, the pond was still full of rented rowboats.   People rowed around with various degrees of skill.  One man in particular somehow could only propel his boat backwards or in circles no matter what he tried, much to the howling amusement of his teenage children and wife.  There were also 2 pontoon boats for rent, one full of preteen schoolboys, obviously out on a end-of-school-year excursion.  To their delight, the pilot of the boat skillfully maneuvered the craft towards couples on dates, and the boys would hoot and shout until the couples would obligingly kiss, and then burst into wild applause.

A little bit about the park.  Originally the location of a small monastery, built in 1505, the royal family had had a small retreat built there well before the capital was moved to Madrid from Toledo.  The only thing left of that monastery is now the church of San Jeromino el Real, which served as the defacto cathedral of Madrid until Almudena Cathedral was completed in 1993.  When King Phillip II moved the court to Madrid in 1561, he enlarged the retreat to become the Palacio del Buen Retiro, and built his royal bed chamber against the presbytery, so he could listen to mass from bed.  This palace, along with much of the monastery was first damaged by fire in 1734, and then pretty much destroyed by Napoleon’s troops during the Peninsular War around 1808.

The park has undergone many changes over the centuries, due to fires, wars, and whims of the royal family.  For over 200 years it belonged to the royals, who used it for their relaxation and pleasure.  Orchards, gardens, and buildings came and went, but the park kept its reputation for being the venue of grand entertainments.   Estanque Grande was used to stage mock sea battles, while other parts of the park were the sets of grand operas.  The park was handed over to the city in 1886, and has since continued to evolve (the rose garden was an early 20th century addition).

Recognizing that we were pushing ourselves a bit past the point of endurance, and that our feet were unlikely to take us much further, we turned down Paseo de la Argentina, a wide lane flanked by statues of past leaders of Spain & various regions there-of, and limped our way out back into the city.   There was one place still that I wanted to see, and it wasn’t that far away, the Royal Botanical Gardens.  Luckily they were just south of the Prado, so very much on our way back home.  Frank very wisely searched out more information just as we arrived, and discovered that the Gardens were free after 6pm on Tuesdays.  Conveniently, it was that very day of the week, and our wanderings had expended enough of the day that it was now 10 minutes until that auspicious hour.  We found some shade and smoked cigarettes while watching rather silly tourists buy 6 euro tickets to the gardens and proceed inside, and kept an eye on the equestrian police that were keeping busy with some official business in the square in front of us.  They intrigued us.  Somehow their easy handling of their short barrel shotguns & automatic rifles was made all the more menacing by the absolute elegance of their highly polished knee high riding boots.

Finally it was 6pm, and we made our way inside… and then 10 minutes later, back outside.  It was rather underwhelming.  Perhaps if we had been botanists of avid gardeners it may have been more interesting, but we found it rather dull.  It apparently has an extremely diverse collection of plants, but it wasn’t our bag.  Honestly, I wanted to see a pretty garden with fountains, and well, this wasn’t it.

So home to Lavapies we went, to rest our weary feet.  That night we did succeed in finding dinner at a local cafe, delicious burgers and fries and some Alhambra 1925 beer to wash it all down.  We happily lounged at our sidewalk table taking in the lively parade streaming by us.  Families with small children, elderly couples, hipsters to hippies, all were present.  Satisfied with a day well spent we made our way back to our 4th floor walk-up and called it a night.


Museo del Prado

We arrived at the museum a little after 10am.  A long line stretched from the ticket office into the plaza, which was by now beginning to steam.  Frank & I had come from Queensland winter (really the very refreshing, only livable time of year in Brisbane), and weren’t looking forward to broiling while we waited for our tickets.  The last 2 days had been mercifully cool, but now summer was gearing up.  Suddenly we remembered that we live in the 21st century and, for a small fee could purchase our tickets on line.  This we did in less than 2 minutes, after which we left our place in the Stupid Shlubs Line, and proceeded to the entrance.

I can’t say really anything about the exterior of the museum, as most of its (or so photos tell me) neo-classical though not particularly noteworthy exterior was covered in scaffolding.  Planned in 1785 during the Enlightenment by Charles III to house the Natural History Cabinet, (aka Natural History Museum), its construction was interrupted by the Napoleonic Wars, and only completed during the reign of Ferdinand VII (Charles III’s grandson) in 1819.

Rather than typing up this post for the last hour I have been perusing the history of Charles III on Wikipedia.  Apparently he was actually a pretty decent monarch for his time, in Spain, and before that in Naples.  It was he who convinced the citizens of Madrid (much to their collective dismay) to stop tossing the contents of their chamber pots from their windows into the streets.  Real progress, for sure.

So having checked our bags, we were ready for some art appreciation.  First we perused the works of Caravaggio, who’s tortured and violent paintings reflected his own tortured and violent life.  He had a particular penchant of painting himself into his works, most notably as the beheaded John the Baptist & Goliath.  We discussed the changing norms of the standard for beauty of the female form while enjoying the works of Ruben.

We spent quite a lot of time in front of the paintings of Diego Velazquez.  The premier painter and great favorite of the court of Philip IV, and a leading force of the Spanish Golden Age, the massive scope of his works, and style in general blew me away.  Most famous of all was his Las Meninas, a portrait of the daughters of Philip IV, but he did so much more.  He faithfully (and sometimes unflatteringly) painted members of the royal family, and painted dwarves and court baffoons realistically, and respectfully.  The painting of one dwarf, Sebastian de Morra, struck us with his uncanny likeness to the actor Peter Dinklidge.  He is by far one of my favorite painters, for many reasons, not the least of which is that he is portrayed in a recurring role in El Ministerio del Tiempo, a Spanish time traveling drama in which they draw on his talents as a composite sketch artist.  It’s a cool show, check it out if you have the time, and the patience for subtitles.

Frank, who’s not particularly into this kind of thing, manfully put his all into appreciating the time, effort, and talent it took to create all these masterpieces, but was honest enough to not pretend to be particularly enthralled with much of the display.  However, both he and I were absolutely wowed when we encountered the Adoration of the Shepherds by El Greco.

I’ve never truly appreciated El Greco, finding his work often messy, but I can now put that down to the fact that no photograph in a book or on a computer screen can capture the absolute passion that flows through his paintings.  I know when you shrink paintings/drawings down to fit a page it almost always looses something, but I think in El Greco’s case it loses most everything. We stood and ogled this painting for a good 5 minutes, if not more, and both confessed to chills & goosebumps.

The Prado is huge, and wandering it can be exhausting, and so our minds were starting to turn towards lunch, but we were loath to go to the museum cafe which we knew would be expensive, and didn’t want to leave the building in search of sustenance either, so we pressed on.

I’m not going to go on and on about what we saw there, because really, people should just go.  Besides books have already been written about the place. But I will mention a couple of other little things.

I spotted a painting of a large bearded man wearing what looked like boyar court dress, and to my delight upon reading the tag discovered that it was a painting by Juan Carreno de Miranda of Pyotr Ivanovich Potemkin, who lead the Russian embassy to Spain in 1667-68, and apparently made the Spanish king take off his hat every time he mentioned “the Tsar of All Russias.”

Frank, and then I, were particularly struck by The Execution of Torrijos and his Companions on the Beach at Malaga, by Antonio Gisbert Perez.  The piece was highly political, as it was painted in 1888 to protest the monarchy’s authoritarianism, and remind the country’s liberals of past sacrifices made.  Torrijos had lived in exile after Ferdinand VII (Isabella II’s son) was restored to the monarchy in 1823.  Having been fooled by Spanish monarchist agents in 1831 to return to Spain via Malaga, he did so with 60-70 of his most loyal men.  They were summarily ambushed and then shortly afterward executed without trial on San Andreas Beach for the crime of high treason and conspiracy against the divine rights of His Majesty’s sovereignty.  Now, while the history itself is interesting, if you’re into that sort of thing, what caught us was the scope of emotion that the painting exuded.  A dozen or so men standing on the beach, all with different expressions as they wait for death.  Defiance, resignation, fear, prayer, all almost palpable.  In front of them lie the bodies of their comrades who have already been executed, while 3 benedictine friars read them their last rights and blindfold them.  Behind them stand the  firing squad, and behind them still loom the severe Sierra Nevada mountains.  It left an impression.

We encountered room after room dedicated to the Spanish royal family, and couldn’t help but feel mildly uncomfortable about how all the portraits of the royal children became more and more alien-like as time went on.  The tall wide foreheads, the bulging eyes, the mishappen jaw… guh, stuff of nightmares, all culminating with Charles II, who was so inbred he couldn’t speak until the age of 7.  Thankfully, after the Hapsburgs came the Bourbans, who just had giant noses.

At the end of these galleries we wandered into a green room, containing 20 odd paintings of constipated bulldogs in fancy dress.  Upon closer examination, we quickly realized that these were portraits of English nobility, probably curated to not show Spain’s old enemy in too nice a light.

At this point we were a bit done in, foot sore and hungry, but we had yet to see the one artist that was the pride and joy of the Prado, Francisco Goya.  The Primer Pintor de Cámara, the highest rank a painter can reach in 18th century Spain, Goya was extremely prolific, and the Prado displayed his work with pride.  While I liked some of his work, particularly La Mija Desnuda (the first Western female nude painted without mythological or allegorical meaning, considered profane at the time) and her companion piece La Mija Vestida, most of his work provoked a “meh” response from Frank and me.  We dutifully toured his galleries, admiring some of his tapestry cartoons (fully completed paintings of idyllic Spanish scenes that were used to later make tapestries for the royal palaces), and viewed his famous brutal paintings The Second of May, 1808 & The Third of May, 1808, depicting a battle with the Mamelukes of the French Imperial Guard,  and the execution of Spanish patriots respectively.   Overall though we couldn’t see quite what the fuss was about, and made towards the exit.

Weaving our way through the crowds that had gathered in the museum through the early afternoon, we unexpectedly found an artist who was able to hold our fascination enough for us to forget about our empty bellies and sore feet for a while… Hieronymus Bosch, or El Bosco, as he is known in Spain.  A Dutch 15th century painter about who never actually lived in (or to anyone’s knowledge ever visited) Spain, I’m not quite sure how so much of his work ended up in Madrid.  I’m not sure how to describe his style other than… well… weird.  Frank put it best when he said something along the lines of “all those people who think hallucinogenics were perfected in the 20th century need to take a look at this guy.”  Salvador Dali had nothing on this guy, seriously, compared to him, Dali’s work is a 2nd grader’s art project.  We are now big fans.  Methilda Boon was absolutely right, he’s well worth checking out…

Much to Frank’s relief I was willing to forego finding the Prado’s small collection of Rembrants, (also one of my favorite artists), and we finally made it out the door.   It was time to rehydrate and find sustenance, but first, of course, a smoke.