Last Saturday in Madrid

We have no more agendas on our last weekend, just wandering back to our favorite places and watching the throngs of people on the streets of Madrid. On Saturday we took the Metro to the Puerta del Sol station, just one stop from Lavapies but a long climb up the hill if you are walking.

Like all Metro stations, our Lavapies station is immaculate. Obviously, we had just missed the train, but the next one was only three minutes away.

On Saturday, Puerta del Sol is chocked full of people, tourists and residents alike, all out enjoying the beautiful fall sunshine.

Harry Potter invites tourists to ride a broom with him in Puerta del Sol. The bloodmobile behind him has been there for a week, not just Halloween weekend.

All the streets leading out of Sol are equally packed with shoppers, one of whom is Lynn. She was on the hunt and bagged a sweater and a top with a Spanish fringey decoration at the collar.

On a side street just off Puerta del Sol, a pair of costume characters take a break from entertaining tourists in the huge plaza.

We made our customary walk down Calle Major but halfway down, we cut over to a parallel street all the way down to the Opera, which stands across a small park from the Royal Palace.

Oddly on such a glorious weekend day, there was no line at the group gate of the Royal Palace. The formal ceremonial guards stood sentry down the street, two on horseback and two standing at attention. Off to the side was an army guard who was not ceremonial at all, holding his automatic weapon at the ready. He’s not the first we have seen.

Ceremonial guards on duty at the Royal Palace gate. Outside the frame to the right was a soldier in regular uniform, armed with an automatic weapon.

But if no one was in line at the group gate, there were plenty at the main gate, where the visitors wanting entrance snaked all the way back to the cathedral. We passed them by on our way back up Calle Mayor and Mercado San Miguel in search of a quick lunch and beer.

As expected, the Mercado was packed with people jostling about ordering from the food and beverage bars, then looking for space to stand and eat. We ordered more empanadillas and squeezed into the corner of a small table. Since we already had a beer, I just wanted to of the meat pies, but the menu included drinks, so the attendant gave me a third meat pie to compensate. She wanted to make sure I received my six euros worth of Mercado rations.

Since our route goes downhill back to Lavapies, we walked back to Plaza Santa Ana near our old hotel from last year. As we passed the salon where Lynn had just visited, we were surprised to see that the place was completely shut down. They must have closed up the day after doing Lynn’s hair and nails. A handwritten sheet of paper taped to the door gave the new address of the salon. Fermé. Closed.

Once back in Lavapies, we were in the mood for relaxing over a glass of wine, so we took a terrace table at one of the Indian restaurants lined up for two blocks along Calle Lavapies. The wine was a great bargain at 3.50 for two glasses, and we soaked up the sun and the sounds of the girl band playing on the sidewalk. But when we ordered another round of wine, we were told that the tables were for eating only, and if we just wanted to drink, we could go inside.

Not wanting to upset their profit structure, we got up and left.

It’s not that Lavapies is wanting for drinking establishments, so we walked down to the plaza to visit a cerveceria I had wanted to go in ever since we arrived here. There I was able to order two more glasses of wine for a grand total of 2.80. The numbers were definitely working in our favor.

So jammed with people over the weekend, you can barely squeeze in to order a glass of wine for 1.40. No wonder they do so much business.

Yet another band across the street caught our attention, this time playing brass-centric music that could have come straight from a Mardi Gras parade. Once again, our hood is rocking.

These guys wold be right at home in New Orleans.




El Escorial after all that

After a bit of research, we learned that El Escorial is accessible by intercity bus from Madrid. All we had to do was to take the Metro nearest our apartment all the way to the end of the line at Mancloa where a major transportation hub links the subway system to the intercity bus system.

Who needs a tour bus?

Instead of paying 83 euros, here is the cost per couple to go yourself on public transit:

Metro to Moncloa–4.80 round trip

Bus 664 or 661 to El Escorial–16.80 round trip

Entrance to El Escorial–20 (Interestingly, they refused to give me the senior discount because they said it was available to EU passports only. First time that has ever happened.)

Audioguide to El Escorial–8 (And their audioguide is a Samsung tablet with excellent visuals and commentary.)

Total: 49.60 euros, not much more than half the price of the paid tour that never showed up.

Believe me, El Escorial is worth the trip.

Commissioned by Phillip II in 1557, it was completed in 1584, a remarkable achievement, considering the times and the scale of the complex. El Escorial includes two palaces (one for the Hapsburgs and one for the Bourbons when they became rulers of Spain); a monastery; a basilica; the pantheon where most of the Spanish kings are interred with a separate pantheon for princes and princesses; a library of more than 40,000 volumes; the formal gardens or alcuzar and an enormous showcase of art.

Entrance to the El Escorial basilica. Unfortunately, photographs are not allowed inside. They probably fear damage from selfie sticks.

Inside the rooms of El Escorial hang paintings by El Greco, Titian, Tintoretto, Velazques, Veronese, Ribero and dozens of other rock stars of European Renaissance and Baroque painting. As an art museum alone, El Escorial would rank with the best in Europe.

Statues in the Courtyard of the Kings depict the kings in the Bible not of Spain.

It took us three full hours to follow the detailed audioguide. You can choose a shorter, two-hour visit in the audioguide, but as long as you have traveled the 20 miles or so out of Madrid, you might as well go for the entire experience. We did, and we were happy with our choice.

After a quick lunch in the bus terminal, we jumped aboard the 664 line for a pleasant ride back through the choked traffic of Madrid’s freeways. By the way, the intercity buses are exactly the same as the tour buses, with very comfortable seats and large windows to view the scenery.

Back in town and after a bit of rest and cocktails, we celebrated our triumph over tour companies with an excellent dinner at the Taste Gallery across from Mercado San Miguel, where we had dined previously. Uncharacteristically, Lynn ordered the Argentine steak, which came out perfectly done and delicious. My lamb chops were equally tasty though quite thin. The restaurant offers a three-glass tasting of wine, which we chose to our pleasure. The waiters were friendly, accommodating, despite the crowds that showed up right after we walked in.

Taste Gallery’s wine list is pasted into a real book and starts with some encouraging words.
Taste Gallery accommodates all forms of life in their WC.

By the time we returned to Lavapies, the neighborhood was rocking. It’s Friday night, after all.



Well, just one more museum–and a no-show

We had not yet visited Plaza Espana and its monument to Cervantes, except to transfer tour buses there on our way to Toledo, so armed with a fresh ten-ride Metro card, we descended the Lavapies stairs to the Lineas Tres. Adjacent to the Plaza Espana is an Egyptian temple that was rescued from the flooding to build the Aswan dam in Egypt a half century ago. We had also discovered a house museum just a block away, so this morning’s excursion would be well worth the Metro ride.

Plaza Espana is not as large as the parks on the Prado side where we are located, but the Cervantes monument is interesting in its composition. Cervantes himself sits on a perch of stone overlooking bronze statues of Don Quixote and sidekick Sancho Panza, the two of them flanked by statues depicting the knight’s love, on one side her reality as a simple farm girl and on the other as the heavenly beauty Dulcinea.

Cervantes looks down overseeing his creations.

Tourists flock to the statues of the knight errant and his devoted dark companion, all but climbing on the horse or donkey to get their photos and selfies. I would venture to guess that not a one of them has ever actually read the book.

Do they even know who is behind them in their selfie?

Right behind the plaza is the Templo de Debod donated to Spain in 1968 by the Egyptian government to save it from the flooding caused by the Aswan dam. I remembered learning about this in high school and college, when it actually happened. I never thought I would see one of the rescued temples in the middle of Spain.

The Temple of Debod with the inevitable selfie. Would Amon and Isis have cast them into the moat?

Before it was sent off for a new life in Madrid, the temple was built about 2,200 years ago to honor the god Amon and Isis. Inside the temple are displays that explain the carvings in the stone, including one section that depicts Augustus of Rome offering gifts. The interior of the temple is small, so the guards only allow about 15 people in at a time. We were lucky enough to walk right in, but as we departed, a line of visitors was waiting.

The temple takes no more than a half hour to visit, including photo time among the pillars outside surrounded by a moat-like pool. Then it was off to see our third attraction in the area, Museo Cerralbo, the only house museum we have detected in Madrid (well, short of the Royal Palace).


Museo Cerralbo was the home of the 17th Marquis of Cerralbo, who lived there until his death in 1922. He donated the house and all its furnishings and art to the state upon his death. Today it serves as a fine house museum, showcasing the way of life of the very rich aristocracy of Spain at the turn of the 20th century.

The entrance foyer gives the visitor a taste of what to expect in the rest of the house. The Marquis and his family lived well.

The Marquis and his family lived quite well, surrounded by plush furnishings, early electrical appliances and fine art. One of the rooms displays a number of paintings by El Greco, and the entire house is filled with art from Italian and Spanish masters, rooms of Chinoiserie popular in that era, swords and assorted arms and numerous medals, awards and honors bestowed on the Marquis for his service to the Crown. The Marquis also enjoyed his billiards in a spacious room lined with a divan for the ladies to sit and watch.

As house museums go, this one is excellent. We are always entertained to see how the true one percenters lived in another century.

After our visit to the home of the Marquis, it was back to the Prado area for lunch and to meet our bus that would take us to El Escorial.

We arrived at the meeting point near Fuente Neptuno a few minutes early to wait on the bus from Bus Vision and the tour of El Escorial. And waited.

The bus was supposed to pick us up at 2:30, but by 3 p.m. we and another couple were still waiting. The guide on one of Bus Vision’s yellow city tour buses said the El Escorial bus was late in traffic. We kept waiting.

Several minutes later, the attendant in the booth where we had paid 83 euros for the tour came out to say that he called the company, and the bus had stopped at the pickup point early and left.

He was very accommodating and gave us a refund without question. I later filed a complaint on the Bus Vision web site but never heard back from them. Now, having wasted most of an afternoon, we trudged up the hill back home for cocktails and a pizza from one of the Indian restaurants on Calle Lavapies.

It was five euros.

El Escorial would wait for another day.

A walk in the parks

We have reached that blissful point here in Madrid where we have visited all the major museums and seen just about all the major sights. Now it’s time for relaxing and enjoying the ambience of a very large city.

Madrid is blessed with a very large park right behind the Prado. Buen Retiro Park (literally translated “Park of the Pleasant Retreat) began as the playground of royalty in the 16th century before it was declared a public park in the 19th century. Il Retiro covers some 350 acres and includes interesting scultpures, fountains, buildings, a lake and exercise trails. I guarantee the last of those does not date back to the 19th century.  By way of comparison, City Park in New Orleans is 1,200 acres and Central Park in New York is about 800, but Il Retiro’s size feels just right.

Major design of the park dates back to the early 17th century when the great pond was built to stage mock naval battles for the amusement of the court. Today the pond is a pleasant focus of activity, with row boats available for rent and a party barge that ventures out over the still waters a few times a day.

A heroic statue of Alphonso XII looks down over the lake in El Retiro where mock naval battles used to be staged for the enjoyment of royalty and their guests. Now more sedate maritime pursuits take place like rowing and party barge cruises.

Among the notable buildings on the grounds is the Crystal Palace, a glass and iron structure built in 1887 as the Philippine Islands Exhibition. Once a greenhouse on the scale of Kew Gardens outside London and later an art gallery, the Crystal Palace was closed for renovations when we walked up.

What a party venue.

Another interesting feature is the Velazquez Palace built in 1884 and designed by the same architect who drew up the Crystal Palace. Today the Velazquez is used for temporary art exhibitions sponsored by the Prado.

Part of the temporary art exhibition on display in the Velazquez building in El Retiro. The art is part of the Prado’s collection.

But perhaps the most fascinating feature of El Retiro is the Fountain of the Fallen Angel from 1877. Based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, the statue in the center of the fountain depicts the damnation of Lucifer and is likely the only statue in the world dedicated to Satan. Interestingly, the statue stands exactly 666 meters above sea level.

In all his fallen glory stands Lucifer in El Retiro. Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven for him.
Satan’s statue in his fountain is supported by a base of spitting gargoyles. Nasty little creatures, wouldn’t you say?

After our walk through the park, we poked our heads into the church of San Jeronimo right behind the Prado to marvel at its Spanish Baroque altar and art. And this is not considered a really significant church around these parts.

Actually, this is a side altar in San Jeronimo.

Next we visited the adjacent Botanical Garden, which is operated by a private foundation that charges a modest four euros (50 cents for seniors!) for admission. The Botanical Garden is pretty extensive and showcases hundreds of plants, flowers and trees from all over the world. As we are late in in autumn, there is not much flower color anymore. And by now, we were parked out.

After buying tickets for a guided tour of El Escorial for Thursday, we enjoyed an al fresco lunch at La Plateria, a popular restaurant just off Paseo del Prado, then walked back to the apartment. By now it was already cocktail hour, and we were planning to eat at home anyway.

Not all days on our Excellent Adventure are filled with excitement. But that’s the point.

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.