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.




Promenading Towards the Prado

Despite the late night racket from the bar across the street, and the many mattress springs poking new holes into my back, I managed to sleep well into the morning.  Frank was not so lucky, and the poor fellow left the apartment in the wee hours in search of a cafe where he could procure a cup of coffee. Lavapies apparently also doesn’t get up early, and he had to wander far and wide to find an establishment that was open.

He was already back by the time I woke up.  He declared that Pierre yesterday had been absolutely wrong, that Madrid is not a city that doesn’t sleep, it just goes to bed very very late, and wakes up with a hangover.  In any case, he had done some research while I had be asleep, and had discovered two things.

  1. Lavapies can be found on maps of Madrid as far back as the 16th century.  It had been just inside the city gates, and you could clearly see our street, Calle Olivar, and the ones around us leading down to the square 2 blocks to the south.  Yesterday Pierre had confirmed to us that Lavapies indeed meant “washing feet,” and further enlightened us that there had been a fountain in that square where people had cleaned up upon entering the city from the dusty plains surrounding the city.
  2. There was a cafe/used book shop of good repute just a few blocks away where we could eat breakfast.

While the book selection was underwhelming, the place was cozy and the food delicious.  The portions were not large, but neither were the prices, and I quite enjoyed my simple Iberian ham on a bagel with tomato sauce, and Frank was over the moon with his decadent croissant with eddam, cheddar & gouda melted over turkey.  If ever looking for a good light breakfast check out Cafe Libreria, near Ronda de Atocha.  You will not be disappointed.

Thus fortified, we made our way to Cuesta de Moyano, a pedestrian street just south of the Royal Botanical Gardens.  We are used book junkies, and according to Google there were some good shops here.  What there was was several dozen book stalls lining the north side of the street, a permanent little book faire.  Piles upon piles of book in the stalls themselves and on the tables set up in front of them.  Frank & I could have spent many happy hours here, if we were able to read Spanish.  What the Google reviews failed to mention was that none of the book stalls had an English section.

It was starting to get warm and muggy, so we decided to head just north to the main objective of the day, the Museo del Prado… to which, having reflected upon my long-windedness which has been pointed out to me time and again lately, I will dedicate another post.


Madrid – The Grand Tour, Part 2

As we arrived on the square before the Palace Royal, the cathedral bells began toll the noon hour.  We patiently waited for the cacophony to end, only for the the palace bells to keep going on for quite a while longer.

I won’t say much about the palace, as Frank and I would return here later.  For now suffice to say that, by floor area it is the largest palace in Europe, and has over 3,000 rooms.  Above the main entrance there are 2 flagpoles.  The left one flew the Spanish flag, indicating that the king was in Spain.  The other was bare, indicating that he was not in residency.

Across the square stands the Almudena Cathedral.  A large, but rather underwhelming piece of architecture, it loomed over the square like a depressed wedding cake.  Perhaps it is so sad because no one really wanted it in the first place.  It’s very much an afterthought in all of Spain’s building accomplishments.  Madrid became Spain’s capital in 1561, when the royal seat was moved there from Toledo.   There was talk of building a cathedral as early as the 16th century, but no one got around to it, and the Catholic church seemed perfectly happy to keep its headquarters in Toledo.  While Spain built cities, most containing cathedrals, all over the globe, Madrid went without.  It had loads of churches anyway, so no one seemed to mind.  Finally, construction began in 1879… and then it stopped, and then it started again, and then it stopped again, and so on.  No work was done from the time of the Spanish Civil War until the 1950s, and it finally stuttered to completion in 1993.

We didn’t go inside, but skirted it to the west, then turned right to walk downhill to El Parque de Emir Mohamed I, a small park dedicated to the Moorish 9th century ruler who founded Madrid.  This is the only place in the city where you can still see evidence of the first fortifications built by the 9th century Moors, which protected the small fort that was built along the Manzanares River to protect then Moorish capital of Toledo from the bothersome Christians of the north.

It was here that Pierre asked us if we would like a brief flamenco lesson.  Our whole group enthusiastically agreed, and we were instructed to stand with our feet shoulder width apart, hands to our sides, chests thrust up and out.

“First, look up at the apple tree, with intensity, with passion… then, slowly, with great intent, reach up, and grasp the fruit that is just above your face…”

15 right hands obediently reached up.

“Then, pluck the apple from the tree, and slowly, bring it to your face…”

15 invisible apples were plucked from 15 invisible trees.

“Close your eyes, and sniff the apple… deeply… and then…  smash the apple on the ground, and stomp on it… because it is rotten!”

And so concluded our first lesson of Spain’s national dance.

After a good deal of giggling, we moved on to Casa de la Villa, Madrid’s old town hall.  A rather charming 17th century building, it served this purpose from the time it was built until 2007.  It’s still used occasionally for official functions.  When we entered the square in front of it, we found a large crowd of protesters, upset by some changes the government was planning to make to pension plans.  Because of this, we did not linger but for Pierre to point out the building’s pointed roofs.  While the rest of the building had Spanish features, the roof looked like something that belonged on a chalet in the Austrian Alps.  Indeed, this was due to that when it was built.  The Austrian Hapsburgs were in power, and they had a habit of putting steeply slanted roofs on everything they built… you know, in case of a heavy snow fall.

We ducked into Calle del Codo, and here Pierre pointed to the wall of the left corner building, where about 10 feet up was a plaque that said “Calle del Codo,” and a picture of a bent arm clad in armour.  We had noticed these signs all over Madrid, each with a different picture, depicting animals, saints, etc.  We had just assumed that they were a pretty way to mark the streets, but in fact they had a much more practical purpose.  Until the 1900s literacy, like most places in the world, was not wide spread, and so the pictures were meant to help the uneducated masses find their ways about.  From Calle del Codo’s plaque almost anyone would have been able to deduce that this was Elbow Street (as it turned sharply in the middle), and that this was where the armory was.  I dunno about you, but the Spanish peasantry had much higher deduction skills than I do.

At the other end of this short street, we paused in front of a tightly shut medieval door in an imposing windowless wall.  This was El Monasterio del Corpus Christi Las Carboneras, established in 1615.  Inside lives another collection of secluded, barefoot nuns!  We will return here on a later date, with a mission.

Close by is Sobrino de Botin, which holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously running restaurant in the world, founded in 1725.  It still uses original recipes, and it’s specialty is cochinillo asado, (roast suckling pig).  Ernest Hemingway mentions it in The Sun Also Rises.  On our way to the nearby staircase leading into Plaza Major, just up the block, we passed a restaurant that proudly proclaimed “Hemingway did not eat here.”  Apparently, this is still a sore point around here.

I won’t go into the plaza’s history right now either, for the sake of brevity (haha).  We’ll be back later.  After a brief pause we crossed to another archway, and made our way to a café.  After 2 hours of walking, we were busting for a break and a bathroom.  Here Pierre recommended we buy a beer or a coffee, and to enjoy the free tapas that would come with it.  I ordered a chocolate, and it was… amazing.  Pierre told us about the origins of tapas, or at least on version of it.  After a bit of research I found there’s several theories, but the one told to us was that in Madrid during the Civil War the commanders were concerned that so many soldiers were returning to duty drunk, and came up with an ingenious solution.  The bars were to serve small free side dishes with every beer.  These dishes were placed on top of the glasses between sips to keep the flies out.  According to Pierre the law that the tapa be free is still in place.  The history of tapas may in fact be much older, but regardless, it is a fantastic tradition.

From here we wandered on through the narrow streets of La Latina, considered the most ancient area of Madrid, Frank & chatting with Pierre various things, ending in the plaza across the street from the Spanish Parliament, at the base of a statue of Miguel Cervantes, that venerable author of Don Quixote.  By now Frank and I had become fast friends with Pierre, and we were sad to say good-bye.

Exhausted from jet lag and our 3 hour walk, it was time to return to Lavapies, and collapse.  We read a bit, then I passed out hard, and once I woke up in early evening, Frank took my place under the covers and slept well into dinner time.  Still sleepy we wandered into the streets of Madrid, in search of sustenance.  Our decision-making capabilities were at an all time low, and we couldn’t settle on a place.  We wandered from Tirso de Molina, to Plaza del Sol, to La Latina, and back again without eating.  By now cafes were closing, and our options were shrinking.  Briefly we considered entering Steak n Shake, a Midwestern US chain that we had a particular fondness for, and were thrilled to find in the middle of Madrid… however we felt it would be a cop-out, especially after yesterday’s dinner at Burger King, so we wandered on.

As we wound our way back to Lavapies, the illuminated narrow allies echoed with laughter & music, but we barely saw a soul.  It was eerie and cozy at the same time.  We decided at this point that the cookies and candies  we had at the apartment will have to do for dinner,  and went home.  It’d been a long, long day.


Madrid – The Grand Tour, Part 1

After the very satisfying breaking to our fast, it was time to move on and start getting to know Madrid.  I decided that rather than be a slave to Lonely Planet (useless rag), we would instead put ourselves into the hands of some local tour guides.  I had reserved us a spot on Free Walking Tours Madrid, for 11AM, and we headed north from Lavapies to the designated meeting spot on Plaza del Callao.

We were quite early (Frank has had a good influence on me in that regard), and had plenty of time to duck into a video game store, and then into the El Corte Ingles department store to look for a bathroom.  I must say, if you every want to be mildly disoriented in a foreign country, visit a department store. Everything is just slightly… off. The organization, most of the brands, the shelving, the labels, the escalators, everything is familiar, and yet, somehow because of the familiarity the tiny differences are all the more glaring.  To double underline it, go into the department store’s book section. Stroll through the shelves and piles of books, and let it sink in that unless you’re a polyglot, you will never be able to read a single one of these books. Perhaps some have been translated into English, but on a whole, realize that there is a whole vast world of books that you will never have access to.

Anyway, having successfully found the bathrooms, we returned to the plaza, and looked for The Purple Umbrella, as the tour website had instructed me.  They were by the Metro exit at the top of the plaza, and already there were quite a few people gathering around 3 guides in purple t-shirts. To my great surprise, by the time the guides were finished checking the registration confirmations, there was perhaps 45-50 people in the group.  One of the guides, an enthusiastic Spanish young lady capably divided the group first into Spanish and non-Spanish speakers, and then divided the non Spanish speakers in half once more. Each group ended up being about 15-20 people. She took the Spanish group, the tall hippy-looking fellow took charge of the other English speaking group, and we turned our attention to our guide, who began our introductory lesson on Madrid.

He introduced himself as Pierre, in the most “non-Pierre” voice imaginable, and did not look like a typical (at least to my mind) Pierre at all.  Tall, lanky, blond, endowed with the pot belly that seems to be a staple for young English men who enjoy a trip to the pub over a trip to the gym, Pierre informed us that Madrid had been a second home to him since he was a child, and he was currently working in the city he loves, and will keep working there until Brexit makes it impossible for him to do so.  I really did mean to ask him why he was named Pierre, but never got around to it…

Anyway, our first stop was at the front of Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, a convent run by Discalced Carmelites, an eremite order of barefoot nuns.  These nuns live in seclusion, though the church itself is open along with some of the cloister. There are, if my memory does not fail me, over 30 such shut-in communities in and around Madrid.  I asked if they were really barefoot, and Pierre admitted that he had no idea. He then told us about how the convent used to house the hand of Saint Teresa of Avila, one of the founders of the order.  During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, the hand came into the possession of Francisco Franco. He was a devout Catholic, despite his violent tendencies, and kept the hand at his bedside until his death.  It is now kept at the Church of Nuestra Senora de la Merced in Ronda, a town in Andalusia. Pierre highly recommended a visit inside, (something on the list for next time we’re in Madrid), and on we proceeded to Puerta del Sol.

Puerta del Sol is, I believe, the throbbing heart of Madrid.  We visited it at all hours of the day and night, and it was always swarming with people.  Formally the location of an old city gate, on the south side there is a road that runs in an east-west straight line, in front of stately and elaborate 5 story 18th century buildings.  On the north side buildings of the same style arc in a semi-circle.  Side streets radiate off the plaza in all directions, and from above gives the impression of a setting or rising sun.

On the east side is the bronze statue of El Oso y el Madrono, translating to The Bear and the Strawberry Tree.  This pays tribute to the ancient Madrid coat of arms, parts of it dating back to the early 13th century at least.  The bear is poised on his hind legs, front paws leaning against the trunk as he seeks out low hanging fruit.  Pierre gave us a brief rundown on the crest… Now, some unenlightened folk might say “There is no such thing as a strawberry tree.”  I was one such before this tour. Pierre himself said that “Strawberry” was the closest translation, but it was actually a completely different fruit.  In fact, the translation is correct, it’s just that the ground strawberry and the tree strawberry are completely unrelated. The scientific name is Arbutus Unedo, and it is native to western Europe, particularly France, Ireland and the Mediterranean region.  The only similarity is the size, color and shape of the fruit they bear. They do not taste the same. Why this tree was chosen as a symbol of Madrid, no one truly knows, as the trees were not common to the area. Anywhos, also mentioned were that all over the city we’ll see stickers, plaques, flags, etc with the coat of arms surrounded by 7 stars, or those 7 stars on their own.  These are the stars of the Ursa Major.

Wow, this is turning into a really long post, and I’m not even half way through the first hour of the tour… so be warned, this may take a while…

Next we trotted off west in the direction of the Teatro Real, the royal opera house.    A grand old place, it was commissioned by King Ferdinand VII in 1818… after which much lollygagging ensued.  Considering it was under this king that Spain lost most of its American holdings and there was huge civil unrest culminating in a civil war upon his death, perhaps it’s no surprise that he couldn’t manage to build himself an opera house.  An interesting side note; his venerable mother, Maria Luisa of Parma, wife of Charles IV of Spain, on her deathbed, admitted that “none, none of her sons and daughters, none was of the legitimate marriage.” This seems to run in the family, as we will soon find out.  He was married 4 times, 1 was his cousin, 1 was not related (I don’t think) and TWO were his nieces. From the 2nd niece (his 4th marriage) was born Isabella II.

It was Isabella II who got over all the construction delays and ordered the opera house be completed.  She apparently inspired enough fear that the place was completed within 5 months, and it was opened for business on the 19th of November, 1850.  This earned her a place on a pedestal situated in the middle of the square in front of that very edifice.

Isabella II herself had a rather tumultuous reign.  ascending the throne at the age of three, she grew into a rather stocky, hot-blooded monarch.  Due to her various escapades, the court decided to marry her off to her double first cousin Francisco de Asis de Borbon, Duke of Cadiz.  Rumor has it that the groom wore more lace to the wedding than the bride.  It wasn’t a particularly happy union, and it’s commonly accepted that few, if any, of her 9 children (5 of whom made it to adulthood) were actually conceived with her husband.  I suppose with all the inbreeding, the court didn’t mind too much, as it would have expanded the very shallow gene-pool, and no one wanted another Charles II (more on him in a later post).

Her 35 year rule was full of turmoil, and ended when she abdicated and moved to France.  She was replaced by Amadeo I, the second son of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy.   He ruled for a measly 3 years before declaring the Spaniards ungovernable (they tried to assassinate him multiple times), packed his bags and went home.  He went back to being the Duke of Aosta, married his niece, and died 2 years later in Turin.

After Amadeo I departed their shores, Spain tried their hand at being a Republic, at which apparently they were very bad.  Two short years later they crowned Isabella II’s son Alfonso XII king.  They did however at this point establish a constitutional monarchy, which took away quite a few of the royal powers.  Isabella, though officially still residing in Paris, would occasionally visit her son in Madrid, and whenever she did intrigues would run rampant through the court.  The Spanish government finally requested that she stay abroad permanently, effectively baring her from the country that she used to rule.  After that, she would only return to Spain after her death to be buried in the royal crypt at El Escorial.

So, back to present day.  From the Teatro Real we strolled towards the Royal Palace.  In a park to the east of the Palace, Pierre (remember Pierre?) regaled us with Spanish history, from the times of the Phoenicians, when it was known as the Land of Rabbits, to the Romans, to the Visigoths, to the Moors, to modern times.

The day was heading towards noon, and we headed towards the front gates of the Royal Palace.  I will end this post here, ’cause really, it’s already long enough, and there are 2 more hours of the tour left to go.


Ode to a Spanish Breakfast

I woke up feeling rather trepidatious about our first day in Madrid.  More accurately, I was scared about breakfast.  You see, for months before the trip I had waxed lyrical about Spanish food.  Scratch that, I’d been going on for years about it, saying I would fly to Spain just for the pleasure of eating a Bocadillo de Jamon Serrano (ham sandwich).  Frank always greeting these proclamations with a sceptical shrug.  And here we were, finally in Spain, and it was time to get some breakfast.

We decided to walk towards the center of the city, as we had a walking tour at 11, and we wanted to get a bit of a lay of the land before hand.  Madrid is a fairly flat city.  If there’s a slope, usually it’s gentle and short… Except in Lavapies.  I had managed to book us accommodation in the middle of one of the steepest streets of Madrid, and it was about 5 or 6 blocks long.  The previous day, as we’d waited for the keys to arrive, I’d observed an elderly lady slowly making her way towards us up the slope.   As she came level with me she rolled her eyes, smiled ruefully, and sighed “Cuesta mucho!” (Literally, “This costs a lot!”).  Once she passed me, I watched her painful progress up the hill for another good 5 minutes.

We made our way up to Calle Magdalena, and then back to Triso de Molina.  At 9am the plaza was mostly empty now, except for the street cleaners.  It occurred to me that yesterday had been Sunday, and those people had had every right to loaf around in their public spaces, and wander about with no purpose whatsoever.  The cafes were open, but the morning was rather grey and the plaza looked depressed again, and we decided to press on.  I am not one of those people who research cafes beforehand, scour TripAdvisor for “the best” or “the most authentic,” (though it’s not a bad idea to do so).  Usually I rely on luck of the draw, and as luck would have it, we stumbled into the charming Taberna El Papelon on Calle Atocha.  I found out later that this is a small Spanish chain, and highly recommend it.

This was my first chance to try out my high school Spanish, which I had been trying to refresh and supplement with the Duolingo app over the past few months.  I failed miserably to form a coherent sentance, but we successfully ordered a “deseyuno grande”(big breakfast) for Frank, and a jamon iberico sandwich on buttered focaccia bread with a tomato dip for me, along with coffees and orange juices.  Now the fresh squeezed orange juice served in Spain is a whole ‘nother level of heaven as well…

As I type this many moons later, my tastebuds sing with longing… I have to stop writing for now, before I weep and start to drool… Oh, to be in Madrid, eating a ham sandwich…

Buenos Tardes, Madrid

Our arrival in Madrid wasn’t particularly eventful or interesting.  The only thing worthy of note perhaps for that, having done the customs rigmarole in Amsterdam, we were spared it at our final destination.  We did a reasonably good job of following the signs to the Metro, and after buying sim cards from a gregarious Latin American young lady who spoke very good English, there was just a short train ride, short walk, and a short wait until we can access our studio apartment in Lavapies.

I couldn’t help but play a game, that upon reflection, is probably incredibly politically incorrect on the train to Tirso de Molina.  I am a big fan of history, or rather, the how and why we all came to be in this particular spot at this particular point in time.  What grand events in history, or not so grand, for that matter, has driven us together at any given spot, which, at that moment, was a dingy overcrowded subway train hurtling through the tunnels under Madrid.  And so my exhausted eyes wandered over the other denizens of the train car, and I wondered how many of these people’s ancestors had taken to the high seas to conquer the New World, and how many had made the voyage east across the Atlantic in chains, as prizes and slaves to the land of their new white masters.  There were people on the train who, with their dark large soulful eyes, thin faces and limbs could have just stepped out of a Velazquez painting.  Standing with them cheek-by-jowl was a healthy peppering of strong features straight from Mesoamerican art.  Mixed in was the rarer but still present hint of the Moors, who had ruled most of Spain for many centuries.  Of course, this is all rather fanciful.  Who knows why any of my fellow passengers were there at that moment, and if I was actually correctly identifying the ethnicities of these people.  However, it was an interesting way to pass 20 minutes.

We immerged from Tirso de Molina Metro at around 12:30pm, into the weak sunlight of a mostly cloudy afternoon.  Our first impression, I have to say, wasn’t particularly favourable.  Right by the entrance, several tables laden with pro-communist propaganda (North Korean, mostly, from the looks of it) virtually attacked any commuter exiting the station.  Empty beer bottles lay strewn at the feet of a rather disreputable and raucous group of middle aged men sitting under a large tree in the middle of the small plaza.  Sheets painted with aggressive slogans hung from various balconies of the 5 story medieval row houses.  On the other side of the plaza, near the cafes, a knot of about 15 people stood back to back, all wearing the “Anonymous” masks, silently staring out in all directions.  They held signs saying “Verdad,” (“Truth”).  Various shady looking people weaved in and out of the plaza, in a seemingly endless, pointless stream.

My brain refused to register any positive aspects of the place, of which there were many.   Frank and I took a rest, sitting on the concrete wall next to the drunken men under the tree, and smoked several cigarettes.  When in doubt, smoke (or pretend to).  It gives the impression that you aren’t actually lost, confused, or out of sorts, but have just paused briefly along the way the place you absolutely know the location of.

Now, a brief aside, regarding Tirso de Molina.  I noticed that in this plaza was a statue of a monk, a very serious, even surly looking man, holding what looked to be a scroll.  I assumed he was some saintly scholar, which I suppose he was…   He was also a prolific writer of short stories, novellas and plays, most notably El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidad de Piedra,” (The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest).   This production, which debuted on stage somewhere between 1616 and 1630, was the first appearance of Don Juan, and the general plot that de Molina set down has stayed consistent through most other iterations of the lothario (all the way to his fiery doom).

Frank and I decided that the first order of business should be finding our accommodation, and then finding something to eat.  It was 12:30 in the afternoon, and the keys to the studio apartment would be dropped off at 2, so we had plenty of time to kill.  We could have easily found a spot to eat at the plaza, but as the whole environment seemed unfriendly to us at the time, we decided to make tracks.

We found our building with no problem on Calle Olivar, and turned our attention to our second goal.  We were rather startled to find ourselves suddenly in Little India.  We walked into a shaded little square lined with restaurant after restaurant advertising various curries, kormas, etc, etc.  Spruikers at the doors and at the tables set in the middle of the street called to us, offering us their menus and cold beers.  We headed for the only empty doorway, next to which a sign advertised pizza and beer for 5 euros.  The pizza was less than ordinary, but the cold beer was wonderful, and the courteous young Indian man who ran the joint more than made up for it.  Apparently he loves Madrid, and is working hard to convince his wife, who is studying in London, to make the move down.

We made our way back to our door at 2 o’clock… and then we waited, and waited, and waited some more.  I called the office of our landlords multiple times, and each time I was promised that the “runner” was on their way.  There is a train strike, so there are delays.  He is nearby, but dealing with unhappy tenant.   Just 5 more minutes por favor, 5 more minutes.  And so we lounged against the building wall for over an hour, doing our best imitation of bag ladies… well, I did, anyway.  Already feeling sweaty and dumpy and grumpy, it really wasn’t all that far a stretch.  Frank as always, looked cool and collected.  When the runner finally arrived, it was no he, but a she, and she immediately said “I came at 2, and you no here.”  I pointed out that we had been occupying the same doorway for the past hour and a half, and there was no way she could possibly have missed us… and so the subject was dropped, and she checked us in to our 3rd story walk up, and departed, looking rather grateful that we didn’t press the matter.

There really isn’t much more to say, I guess, about our first day in Madrid.  The apartment was nice, though the mattress had seen much better days.  We explored a little bit after we showered, bought provisions (coffee, milk, some cookies), and decided it was time for dinner.  Now, 6:30 is a reasonable hour in the US or Australia for dinner, but in Spain that’s barely past afternoon tea.  We wandered  rather haplessly about, and made the executive decision to dine that evening in Burger King.  Back to the apartment, time to rest.  It’s been a long couple days.


My Single Serving Friend

And so, there we were, finally, on the plane to Madrid.  Only 2.5 hours to go.  After all that had come before, Frank and I were looking forward to a nice little nap, maybe a snack, and then, Buenos Tardes Madrid!

The first 2 legs had been on China Southern Boeing 330s, but in Amsterdam we boarded a KLM 787.  The beauty of the 330 was that the rows go 2 4 2, and if you are traveling in a pair, and book early enough, you can secure an aisle seat and a window seat and be seated next to each other.  No pesky odors, awkward smiles and conversations with strangers.  No, as Tyler Durden put it, “Single Serving Friends.” We were lucky enough to have this situation from Australia to Amsterdam.  However, there our luck ran out.

Frank took the window, I took the middle, and next to me sat a tiny old bird of a woman, reading a Dutch newspaper.  After take-off, I don’t know what made me start a conversation.  She obviously wasn’t looking to chat, and I would have more wisely spent my time catching some zzz’s so that I could be more or less fresh to tackle finding our accommodation in Madrid.  I suspect I just wanted to talk, as Frank grows more taciturn the more tired he is, and already being quite taciturn by nature, by now it was a miracle he was responding to any of my attempts at conversations with more than grunts.

So I said something along the lines of something completely forgettable, and she turned her faded blue eyes my way in bafflement that I would try to speak to her at all, and replied something equally forgettable in turn.  From this humble beginning we somehow struck up a conversation the grew rather fascinating to me rather quickly.   The standard questions were of course asked, and answered.  “You live in Australia?  The first time I flew to Australia it took 48 hours.  That was in 1978.”  She was from Amsterdam, heading to Madrid with her husband for a few days for a conference and then a nice rest somewhere in the country.

A conference? “Yes, on gynecology, you see, I am an expert in the field.”  No kidding. “Yes, I have recently written a book called “Gardening in the Vagina,” it is quite fascinating.”  Tell me more…

And so she did, telling me all about her most fascinating career, (she has spent many years doing research in the field, particularly the pap smear, and working to promote women’s health world-wide), and about the very diverse hygienic habits of cultures around the world, particularly Saudi Arabia, which I will not be repeating here, out of embarrassment.  She had none though, and also possessed a wicked sense of humor.  Our giggles often annoyed a tall and distinguished looking older gentleman sitting across the aisle and one row up from us.  He kept looking over at us with a look of resigned disapproval.  “Don’t worry about him, he’s my husband.  You know, he’s a physicist, one of the best in his field.  Let me tell you about the time he decided that we must drive from Amsterdam to Arkhangelsk.”  Wow, seriously? “Yes, absolutely, this was in 1995, we were invited to a conference, and he insisted that we drive.  Can you imagine?  We found the people in Russia to be quite lovely, there was one particular spot where we were being followed by gangsters, but the locals escorted us to a safe place.”

This was where I mentioned my own connection to that particular country, and the conversation naturally progressed to all the fascinating things she had seen there, and then Eastern Europe in general.  It is her opinion that I must visit Serbia at the next possible opportunity.

As the plane started it’s descent, our conversation once again turned to the more mundane, and she gave me some tips about what to see and what to do.  “You will go to the Prado, yes?  You must see Bosch.”  Who?  “Bosch, he was Dutch, amazing, go see him.”  Sure, ok.

And so I said good-bye to my single serving friend, Dr. Mathilde E. Boon, and wished her happy and safe travels.