Finally, a day to wander

Now that we had seen the major museums, the Royal Palace, the cathedral and Toledo, and now that the rain seemed to have finally moved on, it was time to just wander the city of Madrid with no particular agenda.

But first things first. Lynn had to have her hair and nails done. Which left me with an hour and a half to kill. The hair salon was one street from the Reina Victoria Hotel and right near a major intersection where a huge renovation project is taking place. A most handsome old building is being converted to shops, apartments and Spain’s first Four Seasons hotel. Sounds like the Trade Mart in New Orleans without the controversy.

Four Seasons, luxury apartments and stores. Who could object?

My wanderings took me to Puerta del Sol, the Times Square of Madrid where costumed cartoon characters approach tourists for photos and directions. Puerta del Sol is also the location of Madrid’s Apple store, which always invites a visit. The Madrid store is quite spacious on two floors, most unlike the three-ring circus of a store in Lakeside Mall that is a tenth the space of Madrid’s.

The Apple Store/Shrine flanks one end of Madrid’s busy Puerta del Sol.

Once Lynn was coiffed and nailed, we started off on our agenda-free meandering through Madrid’s downtown area. I was on the lookout for a jacket to replace the Musto windbreaker I had brought, which no longer has any water resistant quality whatsoever. Although we saw some beautiful jackets at splendid bargain prices, we just could not find what I need. Luckily, the weather forecast for the rest of our stay in Madrid is warm and sunny.

We walked the length of Calle Major, one of Madrid’s major avenues, where Madrid’s City Hall and government buildings are located. We were on a path down to the crypt behind the Santa Maria cathedral, curious to see it, as we had skipped it on our rainy visit the Saturday before.

Turns out the crypt is quite impressive, with large stained glass windows glowing into the dimly lit chapels lining the perimeter of the space. Completed in 1911, the Romanesque building attached to the rear of the cathedral features 558 columns and some 400 tombs, most of which are in the floor. (Watch your step!)

A small but quite handsome crypt behind the Madrid Cathedral. Minutes after this photo was taken, someone’s funeral service began.

The altar is quite striking, centered at the end of a long row of columns. As we completed our walk around the perimeter of the crypt, we were surprised to see an actual funeral service being held, so made our departure without a good look up close at the altar. For a one euro donation, the crypt should be on the must-see list of attractions in Madrid.

Across the street from the crypt is what looks like a weed-filled park but actually is an archeological dig of Moorish ruins. There is no explanation or signage there, but I suspect the site will be more developed in the future as the ruins are unearthed.

We walked back up Calle Mayor past the row of restaurants catering to tourists with their photo menus displayed on the street hawking us in for lunch. We had other ideas though, and headed for Mercado San Miguel up the street.

Inside Mercado San Miguel is a very bustling food court and market.

Mercado San Miguel is a much smaller version of Mercado Centrale in Florence. The food stalls inside sell an assortment of tapas, cheeses, seafood, olives, meats, sweets, wines and beers. Tables and chairs for diners are placed in the middle of the building, and it’s hard to find an empty spot, even on a Tuesday. Overall, the place is fun when not too crowded, and we enjoyed a glass of wine and a couple of piquante Spanish meat pies. Most tasty.

A variety of food and drink beckons the visitor in Mercado San Miguel.
The oyster bar in Mercado San Miguel. Not as expensive as Grand Central’s Oyster Bar in New York or the Embarcadero in San Francisco, but not as cheap as New Orleans, by any means.

Then it was on to Plaza Mayor,  a large open square bounded on all four sides by handsome buildings that look for all the world like the Pontalba Apartments in the French Quarter. It reminds us that New Orleans was Spanish longer than it was French.

The buildings facing the interior of Plaza Mayor resemble the Pontalba Apartments in the French Quarter, just bigger. The character dressed in white on the right plays a headless sailor hustling tourists for photos. New Orleans and New York do not have a monopoly on these character actors. They are everywhere we have visited in Europe.

Plaza Mayor is a major tourist center, with restaurants setting up tables outside displaying large menus on easels showing photos of their dishes and waiters hustling patrons walking by. Do not be lured in. Find a restaurant without a photo-menu.

The headless mannequins dressed in stereotypical Spanish outfits seem more spooky than inviting.

A number of headless mannequins dressed in cartoonish costumes stand by for tourists to take photos of themselves as matadors, contessas and other historical Spanish stereotypes. In the center of the courtyard is a statue of King Phillip III created in 1616 when the plaza was first proposed.

We walked through and moved on. After five hours of walking around Madrid, it was time for a nap and cocktails before another dinner at Taberna Antonio Sanchez.

The small back dining room of Taberna Antonio Sanchez where they seat Americans who insist on eating at the uncivilized hour of 8 p.m. The decor suggests that this is a bullfighting restaurant. It is.

This time, Lynn, having learned her lesson about ordering fish in Madrid, chose the ox tail stew that I had so much enjoyed on our first visit there. I ordered the flank steak, which came out chewy but rich in flavor. Lynn indulged me when I ordered an appetizer of white anchovies in olive oil. They were delicious and tart. She would have nothing to do with little fishy tasting fish.

Oh, the Prado

We saved the Prado Museum for last among the Big Three of Madrid. It was worth the wait, and it was overwhelming in scale.

Monday continued to be chilly and gray with very light rain as we walked in a not-so-direct route to the museum. By now we are starting to understand our routes around Madrid, but for some reason the walk all the way up our street did not have the desired effect of taking us to Paseo Del Prado. Instead, we pretty much did the Great Circle Route up to now-familiar Reina Victoria Hotel, then back down to Paseo del Prado. In retrospect, I chose the wrong street to walk up the hill.

I had pre-ordered my ticket online and Lynn still had her Art Pass, so we we able go to a different window with virtually no line while everyone else stood for blocks in the rain on the other side of the massive building buying tickets.

This was our ticket line. Windows 1 or 2 in the left portal.

Hint–go online to buy your ticket. It’s worth the .35 extra fee. We walked right into the museum out of the rain, paid for our audioguides (4 each), and started our marathon of art.

And this was our entrance. See any lines?

For a building that was opened in 1819, the Prado is exceptionally well laid out and thoughtfully designed for the visitor to move chronologically through if that is your intent. Or you can just concentrate on one country, one era or even one artist.

The Prado is huge–more than 100 interconnected rooms on two floors displaying at least 1,300 works of art from their permanent collection of 7,600 paintings, 1,000 sculptures, 4,800 prints and 8,200 drawings. In addition to the largest collection of Spanish art in the world, the Prado also owns the largest collection of Italian art outside Italy.

There are several rooms for Goya because the Prado owns the largest collection of his works in the world. But there is also a room for Velasquez, a room for El Greco and a room for Murillo.

The  mammoth Italian Renaissance gallery showcases a few Titians, a few Raphaels, a few Fra Angelicos, a few Tintorettos and literally hundreds of other masterpieces from the era.

And, believe it or not, the Prado has a Mona Lisa, believed to be the very first copy of the original and painted at the same time in the same studio by one of Leonard’s apprentices. In just the last few years, experts discovered that the black background of the Prado Mona Lisa was added to the painting many years later,  and when they removed it, the discovered the same landscape that is depicted in the Louvre’s Mona Lisa. The Prado’s Mona Lisa has now been  restored and today displays the full coloration Leonardo likely used, as the Louvre’s original is covered by layers of ancient varnish that obscure the work and will likely never be removed.

Just walking through the Spanish section took us more than two hours, and the Italian Renaissance galleries took more than an hour themselves. It’s a wonder the batteries in the audio guides don’t run dead during a full visit. With a quick stop for lunch, we spent more than four and a half hours in the Prado, and covered perhaps two thirds of the museum. The legs and feet can only stand for so much. We may need to go back for seconds.


The Hunt for a Red Drink in October

After bidding adios to Candy over an 11 a.m. breakfast at Reina Victoria down the street from Max Madrid, your intrepid travelers went in search of the elusive Sunday Bloody Mary in Madrid.

To little avail. The waiter at Reina Victoria explained that their bar would not open until 5 p.m. “People here don’t drink in the morning,” he explained.

Well, we do on Sunday. Religiously. In fact, Sunday breakfast at 11 is pretty late for us. We usually have our Sunday breakfast by 9 a.m. starting with our ritual Bloody Mary.

The Reina Victoria faces a plaza where a number of restaurants and cervecerias had set up tables outside, rain or not. And it was raining, though lightly. Every establishment we walked into–including the one that showed a Bloody Mary on their exterior sign–either gave us a blank stare or just said “no.”

It was 12:30 and Max Madrid would not open for another half-hour, so instead of doing the sensible thing and waiting 30 minutes, we decided to walk all the way back to Lavapies to see the the famous El Rastro flea market. Rastro is quite the scene, two rows of vendors under tents flanking both sides of the narrow street stretching on for blocks. The vendors offer the usual selections of leather goods, trinkets, clothing, toys, CDs and all sorts of miscellaneous merchandise collected from who knows where.

The street crowd at El Rastro.

The brick and mortar stores on both sides of the street sell a variety of antiques and furniture that can only be described as “eclectic.” Furniture to pocket knives, 35mm cameras to full size statuary are all here for the bargaining.

Some of the more colorful wares at El Rastro. Skirts? Table cloths? Really big scarves?

After a half hour working our way through the crowds in the light rain, we decided that El Rastro is not competition for Florence’s mercado. So back up the hill we trudged to Max Madrid for the holy grail of Sunday alcohol.

A walk that should have taken 12 minutes turned into 20 as Apple Maps changed directions on us midway toward the hotel plaza. Nevertheless, we were virtually the only patrons in the restaurant when we walked in. The cute young bartendress on duty eagerly agreed that they serve a Bloody Mary, but when faced with the prospect of actually making one herself, she was forced to call in reinforcement from management. How hard can this be?

After a bit of coaching on the proper amount (and translation) of Lea & Perrins, our Sunday Bloody Marys finally appeared before us. And they were just fine. As late as we were, I did take come solace in the fact that it was only about 7:30 a.m. New Orleans time.

Sunday is now complete, thanks to Max Madrid.

Now that all was right with the civilized world, we walked back down to Lavapies and encountered the Sunday afternoon crowds, complete with bands in two different places, one along the row of Indian restaurants on Calle Lavapies and another at the head of the plaza. One drum band sounded like they walked away from a Mardi Gras parade. This is one happening little neighborhood.

The rain doesn’t keep the residents away from Lavapies tables on a Sunday afternoon.


Madrid’s Royal Palace and Cathedral in the rain

More rain, this time pretty steady on Saturday for our visit to the Royal Palace and the Cathedral. Lynn had ordered single-admission Madrid cards, which placed us in the group line on the side street and in fact admitted us in front of some larger groups. Meanwhile, the line of people to buy tickets on the other side of the palace stretched all the way across the courtyard to the cathedral.

This is the group line. The entrance is only at the second arch ahead.

Lesson learned: buy the ticket in advance online, even though we had to go to the office on Calle Mayor to pick up the cards. The office is just a few blocks from the palace-cathedral complex.

That’s the line to buy tickets. And it was a rainy day.

The Royal Palace of Madrid is relatively new by European palace standards. It was completed in 1764 to replace its predecessor that burned down in 1734. Although it is the official residence of the current King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia, the palace is only used for state occasions. The royal couple live in a different palace of presumably more human scale.

That is the one thing you can say about the Royal Palace of Madrid–it is huge.

The crowds enter the Royal Palace. No photos inside.

Visitors follow a route through the main rooms, many of which are indeed splendid, with sumptuous wall coverings and portraits of the Spanish royalty, some of whom never lived here.

The arched ceiling in the palace entrance.

The Banqueting Hall is actually three rooms combined into one in the late 19th century to create a state dining room of immense proportions. The Crown Room displays the major symbols of the Spanish monarchy, including the crown itself, which is remarkably plain, just gold, no jewels. Compare that to the British crown in the Tower of London. And of course, the last room on the tour is the Throne Room, lavishly furnished with silk drapery, tapestries and the throne. All the rooms throughout the palace feature vaulted ceilings adorned with magnificent frescoes.

Perhaps the most interesting room is the Porcelain Room, whose ceilings and walls are just that–porcelain panels crafted by the royal porcelain factory during the reign of Charles III, the first monarch to occupy the palace.

Charles III is regarded as one of Spain’s most enlightened rulers, but his physical appearance was nothing short of goofy. All his portraits in the palace show him with a huge nose and a weak chin, while wearing a powdered wig that clearly does not cover all his hair. You would think that as king, he could instruct his portraitists (including Goya) to depict him a bit more regal and handsome. And render his queen more attractive while they were at it. Come on, man–Charles was king, and if the painters didn’t comply, then off with their heads, or something to that effect.

While on the subject, his son, Charles IV, looked remarkably like George Washington.

The entire palace tour only takes about an hour, upon which visitors are ushered out the door into the vast courtyard. There is a scenic overlook on the side that supposedly gives a view of the Casa de Campo for miles out, but in the rain, it gave a view only of low clouds.

Spacious courtyard, yes?

Your ticket includes admission to the Royal Armory on the far corner of the palace grounds, closest to the cathedral. The armory is full of–guess what?–armor. Mostly from Charles III but some from Charles IV. Lots of horse armor is on display in the center of the room, with the personal armor and weaponry along the perimeter. Mildly interesting, but we have seen many other larger and more interesting armories, some in various maritime museums.

Facing the palace is the Cathedral of Madrid. They are quite ingenious about admission to this place. The signs direct the visitor to the cathedral museum, which charges an admission fee and takes the visitor through the liturgical history of the place and a long climb up the stairs to the dome outlook. What the tour does not include, however, is the cathedral itself.

That entrance is on the other side, and like all churches is free to enter. But we were happy to support the cause, and the charge is only six euros for adults and four for us oldsters 65+.

The Cathedral of Madrid is unusual in Europe. Most importantly, it is new, and so is the Archdiocese of Madrid.

Madrid was not named a diocese (and therefore could not have a cathedral) until 1885. Madrid remained part of the Archdiocese of Toledo and was not elevated to Archdiocese level until 1964. The cathedral itself was not consecrated until 1993, although construction had begun more than 100 years earlier.

The front of the cathedral faces the Royal Palace.

As a result, the Cathedral of Madrid has no magnificent altar, since it is a post-Vatican II church. Much of the art is contemporary, even though the architecture of the building is late 19th century Gothic. I hate to be a cathedral snob, but after you have seen Toledo, Madrid pales by comparison.We toured through fairly quickly, since there are no tombs to read, mammoth organs to stare at or ornate altars to marvel at. (To be fair, there is one interesting altar on the side chapel, devoted to the patron saint of Madrid, Santa Maria a la Real de la Almuneda, whose ornate gilded altarpiece was created in the 16th century.)

After that short visit, we stepped out into the steady rain on the hunt for lunch. We had to walk several blocks down Calle Mayor to move past the restaurants displaying photos of their food. We found an excellent choice, Taste Gallery on the Plaza Miguel, where the Mercato is located.

Taste Gallery is noisy, bustling and delicious. We ordered their tapas tasting for three, which included grilled prawns, Iberian ham slices over  mashed sweet potatoes, a jigger of spicy tomato soup, cheese croquets and boneless chicken wings. We all declared the lunch excellent, and Lynn and I plan to return next week when it may be less crowded.

Back out in the now heavier rain, we parted ways with Candy, then slogged home through the streets now filled with water to dry out at home. Incredibly, by the time we alighted from the Lavapies Metro station, the rain had stopped for the most part, the clouds parted and the sun actually came out for our hike up the hill to our apartment on Amparo.

Then it started to rain again, and we chose to eat our delicious Max Madrid leftovers at home. They were no less delicious the second time around.



A day in Toledo, nexus of three cultures

Our traveling band of three set off from Fuente de Neptuno at the corner of the Prado in the pre-dawn darkness Friday morning at 8:15, bound for Toledo, the city of three cultures. The sun does not rise at this latitude until after 8:30, so we boarded the bus in barely the first light of day.

The Fountain of Neptune in early dawn.

The tour bus stopped a few times around town to pick up passengers, then pulled up at Plaza Espana, where we were herded off our first bus and on to another one for the trip to Toledo, 70 kilometers away.

As soon as our bus left the city center, the fog settled over the hills and started to thicken. My visions of expansive, blue-skied vistas of this city was vanishing in the leaden skies. Our only hope would be that rain would stay away. (It did.)

Halfway through the trip, the bus made a potty stop that just happened to be conveniently located at a souvenir store, sort of the Stuckey’s of Spain. While the girls waited patiently in line for the WC, I sought out a bottle of water, carefully wading past the refrigerator magnets, ceramic trivets, replica swords and assorted authentic treasures of Spain generously offered here.

Who needs to see Toledo when you can have all the souvenirs just a few miles outside of Madrid?

Finally we arrived in Toledo itself but not before we stopped at a photo op vantage point conveniently located at a souvenir stand. The route from the road below to the main town of Toledo requires a few steps–six flights of escalator, unless you prefer to use the stairs. Having just spent the previous week in Alfama climbing up and down hundreds of steps, we chose the mechanical advantage.

One of six escalator flights up to the main city of Toledo. Yo are welcome to climb the stairs if you prefer.

Our excellent tour guide Anna took us throughout the old city of Toledo. The city is famous as the meeting point of three cultures. Actually, well before our current Western history, the Romans called it Toletum in the third century B.C., and it had been a working settlement long before then. Toledo later became the capital of the Visigoths, before being conquered by the Muslims in early 8th century A.D. The Christians took it back in 1085, and Toledo become the capital of Spain for the next five centuries.

Toledo from across the Tagus River, the same stream that ends at Lisbon.

Thus its cathedral.

One of the side entrances to the Toledo Cathedral. Notice the Muslim woman taking a selfie at the site.

What a splendor. Toledo’s cathedral ranks with the greats of Europe. Construction began in 1226 and was officially completed in 1493. (It takes almost that long to fix streets in New Orleans, so who is counting?) Toledo’s is one of three high Gothic cathedrals in Spain and widely considered the most distinguished. It sports two mammoth organs facing each other in the choir, which is oddly located right in the middle of the nave. The peeps sitting in the back rows behind the choir can’t see the altar.

Don’t get too excited–this is merely a side altar. That’s our energetic and informative guide Anna explaining this modest element of Toledo’s cathedral.

Which is spectacular, though sadly behind a large gilded fence, so it is impossible to get any sort of photo.

But beyond the architecture, which rivals St. Denis in Paris; beyond the spectacular rose window, which rivals Notre Dame; beyond the massive scale, which rivals the largest churches in Europe, the Toledo cathedral holds a stunning treasury of paintings and religious objects. The cloister’s collection includes perhaps a score of El Greco paintings, plus a few Titians and a Raphael for good measure.

Just another El Greco in the front. Another dozen or so by El Greco are on display all over the side walls. The Raphael and the Titians hang in the side rooms. The ceiling is not the Sistine Chapel, because Michaelangelo was not available at the time.

The primary monstrance is at least ten feet tall, and actually consist of two parts. The entire massive work of gold and precious stones is paraded on the streets of Toledo each year on the Feast of Corpus Christi.

No altar boy will carry this monstrance.

Bedazzled by the glories of the cathedral, our tour then moved on the more modest synagogue in Toledo’s Jewish quarter. The synagogue represents all of European conflicted religious history–designed by Muslims hired by the Jewish community, then seized by the Christians years later and converted to a Catholic church. So now you have a former synagogue that looks like a mosque with images of the Virgin Mary and angels frescoed on the ceilings of the front domes.

How ecumenical–designed by Muslims as a synagogue for the Jews, then seized by the Catholics to serve as a church. The quintessential reason Toledo is renowned as the city of three cultures.

Our tour then marched on to the much more modest mosque that remained from pre-Christian conquerors, built on top of a Roman well. That was all of a ten-minute visit. The Toledo Alcazar is not exactly the equivalent of Granada or Sevilla on the scale of Islamic gardens.

The Toledo mosque is much more modest, as is its garden.

Our lunch in Toledo deserves some mention. While the majority of the full-day tourists went off to an “authentic” Toledo lunch with the tour guide, we opted out to search for our own cuisine. We found it at a restaurant named Coleccion Catedral (guess where?) that is part of a group in the city owned by a restaurant entrepreneur named Adolfo. (Relative of the Brennans, perhaps?)

We scored.

Lynn and Candy enjoyed the house pork and vegetable stew, filled with tender morsels of meat in a savory sauce. I ordered the deer stew after some translation exchange with the eager young waiter working on his English. The English menu clearly stated “deer stew,” but when I pointed it out as my choice, the waiter thought I was asking what that meant. He did not know the English word “deer,” so wiggled his fingers over his head, antler-style, to explain. We finally communicated. The deer stew was fabulous: rich and slightly gamey with just the perfect flavor of venison.

The hour-long ride back was quiet and sleepy. We disembarked our tour bus at Plaza Callao, which was absolutely rocking with people celebrating Friday night and the end of the work week. The scene resembled Times Square, except without weird painted people walking around naked and asking for money.

We alighted at Gramabar just off Plaza Callao for a couple of drinks before finding El Asador de Aranda, an old-fashioned Spanish restaurant where we ordered a mix of tapas, some excellent, some regrettable and some not finished. It’s easy to over-order when you are picking from a lot of items on the menu.

By now, we were exhausted from touring, walking, eating, drinking and just being awake since 6:00 a.m., so we parted ways and found our way back to our respective lodgings.

When we arrived at Plaza Lavapies, we stepped into a huge street celebration of young people enjoying Friday night, more densely packed than Plaza Callao and Plaza Mayor earlier in the evening. Obviously, Plaza Lavapies is a happening place on Friday nights.

A block away, up our Calle del Amparo, it was a different world. All quiet on a Friday night. As tired as we were, it was tempting to head back down the hill to the party. Lynn and prudence dictated otherwise.



Lynn’s oldest friend visits from Barcelona

Candace Burns, Lynn’s oldest friend in New Orleans, is finishing up three months in Barcelona, inspired by our magical trip last winter. Since Madrid is only a three-hour train ride away, Candy declared this was the perfect time to visit and catch up with Lynn before she heads back home to that center of Western culture, Houston.

Lynn made dinner reservations at Max Madrid, a very, very hip restaurant where we had dined last year on our one night in Madrid. The location is just down the street from the hotel where we stayed in that night, the Reina Victoria. Unfortunately, the hotel name somehow got garbled in the instructions, and Candy checked into the Regina Madrid, not far away but certainly not the five-star establishment that is the Reina Victoria.

Candy and Lynn on the overlook to Toledo.

Nonetheless, we had no problem meeting up at the restaurant for drinks at Max Madrid’s stylish bar followed by dinner in the their stylish back dining room. And dinner was spectacular. We all ordered the same dish–beef cheeks in a rich gravy, accompanied by their version of patatas bravas. Incredibly, after nearly three months in Barcelona, Candy had never had this quintessential Spanish appetizer.

Max Madrid’s version of patatas bravas ladles over the potato chunks a rich sauce the consistency of barbeque but with a distinctly savory Spanish flavor. The Barcelona style we know uses a more aioli style sauce, but Max’s was equally delicious in its own way.

At the end of dinner, we encountered a bit of language barrier. The waiter did not understand our request to take away (para llevar) what was left of the beef cheeks (a fair amount), but the manager made it good by simply bringing us an entire new portion. That is service that will be rewarded with a good review and a repeat visit. And they know how to make a Bloody Mary, as I witnessed personally.



Another day, another museum

For Thursday’s dose of culture, we visited the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, the second of the Big Three along Paseo del Prado. The Thyssen is really two museums in one. The original was donated by a really, really rich family who donated their palace and art collection to Spain in the early 1990s. The second and somewhat separate section, which is housed in an extension of the original building, was donated by the last Baron Thyssen’s widow, who did not start collecting art in her own right until 1987. Six years later, she donated her own collection to Spain.

Entrance to the Thyssen is through a very handsome courtyard. The cafeteria in the back can be accessed directly without entering the museum itself.

The result is something like a museum within a museum or two connected museums that really could (and probably should) be combined into a more unified presentation. Each of the two collections is well organized chronologically and in some cases thematically. But each more or less repeats the same chronology, ranging from early Renaissance through to the present day, with each displaying an impressive collection of Impressionist paintings.

The line forms for the Renoir exhibit at the Thyssen. In the upper left is a diagram of the floor plan of the major museum. The widow Carmen’s extension is the orange section that was added to the main building to house her collection.

Before entering the main attraction, we paid extra to see the just opened temporary exhibit of 70 Renoir paintings, deftly organized thematically, with rooms devoted to portraits, children, family, landscapes, and other of Renoir’s favorite subjects. Notably, one of the paintings on display is from our very own NOMA.

Unfortunately, the exhibition ends with a long line of visitors waiting to enter a very small room where your are supposed to use all your senses to experience one of Renoir’s paintings that is in Thyssen’s permanent collection. The room is too small, the experience to ephemeral to bother with, and the process just clogs up the exit from the exhibition. The curators should have placed the experience room at the beginning of the exhibit to control the flow of visitors entering rather than at the end, which restricts the flow of people exiting. I will be sure to tell them that next time they ask me about exhibition design.

Overall, the combined Thyssen is a fine museum, even though it suffers somewhat from its bifurcation. Must have been something in her will. Regardless, we spent nearly three hours there.

By now famished for lunch, we started down a side street looking for local restaurants and decided to pop in to what looked pretty promising. But we quickly learned that it was a vegetarian restaurant with only a very limited daily menu. We ate there anyway, not wanting to continue our quest for food past the middle of the afternoon. My salad and vegetable fritatta were fine, if undistinguished, but Lynn’s vegetable soup was bitter, and her stir fried peppers were just ordinary. Don’t go to Madrid looking for seafood or free-range, fair-trade healthy vegetarian cuisine. But the beer was cold.


The mundane and the surreal in one day

We had tackled the mundane chore of laundry our first night in Madrid, trying to decipher the enigma that is a European washing machine. We hung out the damp clothes to dry for a full day and night, but with no sun and cool temperatures, the majority of the load was as damp in the morning as it had been before. And then it started to rain right on our semi-dry laundry.

So off to the lavanderia I went to throw the pile into a proper dryer. The first establishment was closed, gutted on the inside, so I trudged back through the drizzle to look up a second choice. Wouldn’t you know it–the second choice was right past the Carrefour, closer than the first option. An hour later, after chatting with a young couple from Montreal who were traveling around Spain, I marched home with a bag full of warm dry clothes, and we were ready to head out to explore.

The mundane accomplished, we walked down to the Paseo del Prado park to view the surrealistic art at the Museum Sofia Reina, one of the triumvirate of museums in Madrid.

Our route took us toward the Botanical Gardens and the Atocha train station, whence we will eventually depart for Barcelona. It was a reasonably short walk to the station, but we agreed that we will take a cab when it’s time to leave. The Atocha is a typical big city European train station, a major transportation hub with the usual African trinket sellers lining the outside perimeter.

The usual local African entrepreneurs gather in front of Madrid’s Atocha rail station. Think those are real Nikes?

Madrid offers a pass for all three of the city’s major museums that gives you a year to visit for only 28.50 euros. When we inquired at the Sofia Reina, the clerk explained that I get in free there anyway, so we bought the pass only for Lynn. My tickets to the other two museums, the Thyssen and the Prado, will be at reduced prices. Europeans discount heavily to 65+ residents and visitors. I like it.

The Sofia Reina is actually two buildings, the second of which surrounds a large garden featuring statuary by Calder and Miro. The first floor of the main building showcased a most forgettable temporary exhibition of narcissistic self-indulgence by a European artist of the 20th century we had never heard of.

The major attraction at Sofia Reina is Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, depicting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Guernica is to the Sofia Reina what the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre. The large room where Picasso’s signature work is displayed is packed full of visitors, mostly in guided groups with a leader explaining the features of the huge painting.

Along the facing wall is a fascinating set of photographs taken by Picasso’s lover at the time documenting the progress of the work from its basic outlines to the finished piece. Overall, this section of the museum is divided into at least ten different small galleries that include graphic films of the Spanish Civil War, many documents and posters from the time, as well as dozens of works by Picasso and his contemporaries.

The Civil War collection is impressive for its historic value as well as its artistic qualities. The Spanish Civil War comes alive here as the precursor to WW II that followed just a year later. Spain’s was the first war to utilize aircraft as a weapon of mass destruction, to coin a term. And I could sense that the subsequent dictatorship that ruled Spain for nearly half a century after and well into our own lifetime is still very much remembered by many of the older patrons there.

The rest of the museum displays a large collection of surrealist works, including dozens by Miro and Dali, both native sons of Spain. After another hour of surrealistic immersion, we were ready to emerge ourselves and head to lunch.

The museum’s cafeteria is quite stylish in a 50s mode. Lynn enjoyed the turkey sandwich, similar to a club, and I really, really enjoyed two duck tacos.

Refreshed and reinvigorated, we walked up to the Prado end of the park to inquire about tours to Toledo and sprung for a full-day. Then it was back to the apartment for decisions about dinner. But not before one more stop at Carrefour for more wine. This time I chose some Catalonian varietals, both priced at a stunning 3.45 euros. So far we have not had a bad choice.

For dinner, we found a restaurant actually older than anything in North America, including Antoine’s. Taberna Antonio Sanchez has was founded by a picador in 1830, a decade before Mr. Alciatore started serving pommes souflee to New Orleanians.  It is not only among the oldest in Europe, it is one of the best preserved matador restaurants, of which, we were told there are but a few left in operation.

The decor was modernized in 1884 and has not been changed much since then, except for updating the portraits of famous bullfighters on the walls. Inside the first room are two bulls heads mounted on the wall, one of which convinced the bullfighter Antonio Sanchez to retire from the ring and work with his father in the restaurant business. Today they serve many of the traditional dishes of Spain, including bull (ox) tail, Madrid stew, Gypsy pot (use your imagination there) and snails.

The snails are unlike anything we Americans and the French are accustomed to. Instead of six in a little dish, at least three dozen were piled into a pot of savory sauce. We scooped up snails by the dozen and picked the meat out of the shells with toothpicks. They had a flavor quite different from what we are accustomed to but delicious in their own right.

OI could not resist the stewed ox, and I was rewarded with tender, tasty chunks swimming in their own gravy accompanied by smooth creamed potatoes that must have been cooked with mountains of butter. Lynn was not so fortunate in her choice. She ordered the cod, which tasted truly fishy, likely because we are located in the middle of a country that loves meat.

The waiter insisted we try some of their digestif, which was much less sweet than limoncello (thank God) but really does help the meal go down. Overall, a good meal for me, not so much for Lynn. Next time, perhaps she will pass on the seafood that can only originate hundreds of miles away. When in Kansas City, don’t order the sea bass.





Our first full day in Madrid for two HoHo rides

First day mandatory–the HoHo. We had not done that last year, because we were in Madrid less than 24 hours. So on our first full day, we managed to emerge from our apartment by 10 a.m. or so and walked over to Plaza Netuno, where the tour buses gather in front of the entrance of the Prado.

Unlike Lisbon, where there are at least four different tour bus operators, Madrid seems to have only two, a yellow bus and the Gray Line red bus, which runs two routes. The Ruta 1 goes through the historic center of Madrid, while the Ruta 2 moves out to the more modern parts of the city. We took Ruta 1 in the morning, stopped for lunch nearby at a local restaurant for tapas (pretty good), then rode Ruta 2 in the afternoon to see the rest of the town.

Frankly, Ruta 2 was perhaps more interesting, certainly less congested and overall a more enjoyable trip than the more traditional Ruta 1. We rode past the huge stadium where the storied Real Madrid plays, the “new” part of what amounts to Madrid’s CBD and some equally historic sites in Madrid that don’t happen to be located in the center. (Columbus Circle, for instance.)

The corner of Madrid’s Yankee Stadium, home of Real Madrid. it can hold more than 100,000, but the government made them reduce capacity to 80,000 for the sake of safety.

You will not believe this, but as the bus turned through the circle past Real Madrid’s stadium, we clearly heard a horn play “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I swear. We both heard the notes distinctly, and Lynn pointed out the solo horn player across the street. It’s Spanish karma. Go Saints!

After the HoHo marathon, still full of energy on our first day in Madrid, we went to–where else?–Spain’s Naval Museum, a block up the street from the Prado.

Spain’s maritime history ranks among the most important in the Western world. After all, Spain funded Columbus’s voyage to the New World, although it did suffer a few annoying military defeats against the British over the next couple of centuries (see Armada and Trafalgar). Spain’s Naval Museum just down the street from the Prado is a must-see for even the most casual fan of maritime history.
The Naval Museum entrance is modest–that’s one of Columbus’s ships that discovered the Caribbean and founded the first Club Med.

The space is huge, with 26 different rooms displaying hundreds of ship models, paintings of historic Spanish naval heroes and events, artifacts of a half millennium of naval history, two recreations of tall ship captains’ quarters, and an interactive tour through Spain’s history of Pacific trade via the Americas. All the rooms display an introductory panel with English translation explaining the theme of the space, which helps organize the visitor’s tour.

This is one of 26 rooms in the museum. It goes on and on.

It would be nice if there were more English translation, but even mono-ligual Americans can get the sense of the display descriptions.  By the way, did you know that Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, served nobly in the Spanish navy and is honored in the museum? We only wish his exploits would have been translated into English.

And the price? All of three euros a person. This is even a better bargain than the Portuguese Maritime Museum in Lisbon.

After nearly two hours of immersing ourselves in this pantheon of Spanish naval history, we were now officially exhausted from our efforts. Since we had to walk past the Carrefour to get to our apartment, Lynn committed to preparing our dinner at home. We found some nice, meaty chicken thighs in the  meat section, which offered just about any part of any animal you could possible consider consuming. And this is Carrefour the contemporary supermarket, not the neighborhood charcuteria, which are everywhere.  Madrid eats meat. And lots of it.
Prices for food, even in Carrefour, are astonishingly low by American standards. A package of four small lettuce heads is all of one euro, same as the small bag of garlic. And I won’t even address the wine again until perhaps tomorrow. You could fill your swimming pool with fine Spanish wine for less than the price of water in New Orleans.

Off to Madrid and a new hood–oh boy!

We awoke before dawn in Lisbon to make sure we could be on the way to the airport by 9:30 or so. Up here in the higher latitudes (Lisbon is almost 39 degrees North), dawn comes late, and we have a hard time getting moving in the morning. Our normal speed is about 10 a.m. out of the house for adventuring.

Our Uber driver Pedro showed up right within the time slot, even though he apologized for running late in the traffic. He is a most well spoken, intelligent guy, works for Nokia doing remote programming for their South and Central American installations and would love nothing more than to be able to get a transfer to the U.S., his wonderland. Like so many others we have met, he asks who we are voting for. We demur.

The Lisbon airport is clear this time of striking taxi drivers, so Pedro can drop us off right in front. Heavy traffic or not, we are so early that our check-in desks have not been assigned yet, so we wound up hanging in line with a U.S.-Portuguese dual citizen checking in a bicycle as baggage back to his home in Boca Raton. He is engaging, and we enjoyed a conversation about the Portugal countryside, the hassles of living in the U.S. versus Europe and his plans for his mother’s four-bedroom home in the wine country of Portugal. We offered to be the first to host a group at the villa when he develops it into a guest house and plants grapes.

Our flight to Madrid was uneventful, a blessing these days. We were never even offered cabin service in the hour and a half of the flight. I noticed that Iberia charges for everything, including water, so maybe they just decided to sit on their hands rather than go through the hassle of service, charging, picking up and disposing of trash. But the English translations from airline Spanish were clear enough for us to understand when it was time to return our seats to the upright position, lock our trays, power down electronic devices, etc. before landing.

Upon arriving at the baggage claim, a major miracle occurred–both our bags arrived early and together, one right after another. We slipped through the Customs gate and into the 50-meter cab line while our fellow passengers were still watching the baggage roundabout.

The cab ride to 36 Calle del Amparo was uneventful, once we and our driver compared map programs between his GPS and my phone. I didn’t totally trust his comprehension of his GPS, so I kept my mapping program running the entire way.

Less than 30 minutes and 30 euros later, we arrived at our apartment, where Alejandra was waiting to welcome us and introduce us to our living quarters for the next two weeks. And pay. I peeled off 700+ euros in twenties to pay for the next two weeks and came up short of change for eight euros. Our rental agency does not accept credit cards or PayPal, which is a true pain. I had to hit up ATMs in Lisbon for two days at a maximum of 200 euros per visit to gather the funds, all in twenties, tens and even fives.

36 Calle de Amparo, an imposing entrance. And a nice apartment.

So here we are in the Lavapies. This is not exactly Alfama or the Latin Quarter in Paris or Vieux Nice. Lavapies is a very “eclectic,” “diverse” neighborhood indeed. There are at least five different Indian restaurants up our street. This is not Tourist Central. The residents are a mix of Spaniards (something of a minority), Indians/Pakistanis/Bangladeshis (lots of them), Africans (not as many, but a number), vaguely Middle Easterners and a large contingent of students from everywhere.

Some of the local flavor of Lavapies.

But there is a fine Carrefours supermarché right at Plaza Lavapies, so we stocked up on staples, including the liquid essentials. The store carries a fine stock of wine, so we picked up a bottle of Rioja for–I am not making this up–1.95 euros. We also grabbed a Chardonnay-Vionger and another high-priced Rioja for about five each. Back at the apartment, the less-than-two-buck-Chuck tasted just fine. Can’t wait to get to the good stuff.

By the time we returned from shopping, we realized we were famished, since our only meal the entire day had been a split croque monsieur at the Lisbon airport. So we ventured out to calle de Amaparo to scope out a few Indian restaurants.

We chose the one that had the most diners even at the obscenely early dining hour of 7 p.m., Shapla Indian Restaurant.  The dining room was patronized by a British-American foursome of couples and an American with his Indian girlfriend who was celebrating her birthday. Looked promising, and it turned out to be excellent.

Lynn and I ordered two different lamb dishes, plus rice and flat bread and two beers in case the lamb came out too fiery. It was quite tasty and extremely tender. After two glasses of wine, the bill came to all of 26 euros. All in all, a good gastronomic start to Madrid. Maybe we will even find some Spanish food.