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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To end the day and our week in Lisbon, we repaired to our favorite lookout to have a real whiskey and a last look at the sunset as the cruise ship Costa Favolora departed the dock.
Luckily, we had had the foresight to purchase some vegetables and a last bottle of wine (I splurged for the 3.95 bottle) from the Mini Mercado across the street earlier in the day, because it was closed on a Sunday afternoon. Our last dinner in Lisbon would be at home so we could follow the Saints game via iPad.
A few parting thoughts about Lisbon:
The people here are uniformly friendly and seem happy. There is a good vibe all over town.
In five or ten years, Lisbon will be a different place once all the construction is completed.
Food here is simple and generally good, using fresh ingredients, as long as you don’t eat where they show photos of the food on huge menus mounted outside.
The 28 tram is fun to watch, but the St. Charles streetcar is a better deal and a more comfortable ride.
There seem to be lots of museums, most of which tend to be small and narrow, such as the Decorative Arts Museum around the corner from our apartment, the Coach Museum, the Tile Museum and the like. You get the picture
The major museums/churches are not to be missed. The Maritime Museum is on one end of St. Jerome Monastery, and the church is on the other end in Belem. The other must-sees are the Pantheon, the Basilica of Sao Vicente (especially the cloister), St. George’s Castle and the Cathedral of Lisbon.
The Quest continues in a new city. Figuring our chances of finding a Bloody Mary were better in the more touristy Commercial Plaza area downtown, we rode a packed 28 tram down the hill for exploration.
It was late morning, and the tourist restaurants in the pedestrian promenades behind the Commercial Plaza were all setting out their al fresco tables and their oversized menus depicting photos of their dishes. We inquired at several establishments, most of which advertised cocktails. But when the response to the request for a Bloody Mary was met with a blank stare, we moved on. And on some more.
Finally we walked back to the square itself, the nexus of tourists where scores of hopefuls wait to hop aboard the 15 tram to Belem. There we hit pay dirt at the first place we stopped, the Aura right on the corner of the plaza. The bartender there, an animated sort who spent a good deal of his time railing at the young waiters, prepared our drinks expertly, although missing some key ingredients like Worchester sauce and horseradish. Nonetheless, our drinks were tart with lots of citrus and quite tasty for a Sunday morning in Lisbon, even if a bit pricey at nine euros each.
Now fortified, we walked back through the pedestrian promenades for lunch. Lynn had a hankering for Italian food, so we found a restaurant that featured the world’s ubiquitous dish, pizza.
Lunch was dreadful. What were we thinking?
We ordered fried calamari to go with the pizza. The calamari came out with more breading that squid, obviously food service product, and the pizza was not much better. We had violated every one of our own rules of tourist dining:
Don’t eat where they show photos of the food.
Don’t eat where a waiter stands outside the restaurant and hustles you to the sidewalk tables.
Don’t eat where the menu is larger than the Manhattan telephone book.
We did and we paid the price. At least the beer was cold.
Lisbon is famous for its trams/trolleys, ancient little streetcars that rumble up and down the hills of the city. The most notable of all and a huge tourist draw is the 28 tram that lurches through Alfama as it wanders along a route that takes it through several neighborhoods all over town. At 2.85 euros, fare is one of the few items in Lisbon that are not inexpensive, but we had to try.
If the car is too full, it just keeps going right past the stop. We waited in front of our apartment as three cars went right by, then decided to take the tram going the other way and caught the next one, which was just as packed.
Lisbon also runs a modern tram along the riverfront. After our ride on the old 28, we walked down the hill following the tram tracks and stopped for lunch in another neighborhood charcutaria. Later in the day, transit passes in hand, we caught the modern 15 tram to take us to Belem and a Starbucks so Lynn could buy a Starbucks Lisbon souvenir coffee mug for a friend of her friend who we will meet in Madrid.
The 15 tram returning from Belem was no less jammed with bodies than the old, much smaller 28 had been earlier in the day. The trams in Lisbon are either packed or empty; there is no way to predict which. We alighted at the Commercial Plaza, then walked up the hill for an evening cocktail at our favorite lookout, which has become our delightful daily routine.
Having already walked past the Pantheon and the Church of Sao Vicente earlier in the week while wandering aimlessly looking for our apartment, we decided to make a formal visit to these two imposing buildings. From our favorite vantage overlook refreshment stand, both buildings are so close you feel you can almost touch them. Close in Alfama as the crow flies perhaps, but not as these tourists walk.
Although we thought we had faithfully followed the directions in the phone to Sao Vicente, we wound up at the Pantheon. The Lisbon Pantheon is not quite as imposing as the one in Paris, but the two share a similar history of originally being built as a church, then taken by the state to become the repository of the remains of great historical figures.
The present structure was begun in 1681 as the Church of Santa Engracia but not completed until just 50 years ago in 1966. The lengthy construction period spawned a local expression, something to the effect of ” as long as it takes to finish Santa Gracia,” which is the equivalent of the time it takes to rebuild a street in New Orleans.
The Pantheon requires–what else?–climbing a lot of stairs to get to the top, but climb we did. As we peered down from the dome’s viewing gallery to the floor below, Lynn could only hug the wall rather than walk up to the rail.
From the outside gallery of the Pantheon, we could see the back of Sao Vicente and trace the route there. It is only a block or so away. We actually found it without getting lost once in the 200 yards separating the two buildings.
The Church of Sao Vicente is a late Renaissance Mannerist monument, the seat of the Lisbon Cardinal Patriarch and therefore the Catholic Church in Portugal. Started in 1582, it was consecrated in 1629, only 47 years later, light speed by medieval and Renaissance standards. The interior highlight is the Baroque altar appropriate to a historic church. But the real attraction is the cloister next door. Tickets (4 euros for Lynn and 2 for senior me) are beyond a bargain.
Inside the cloister is a warren of displays, including a cistern that dates back to Roman times; scores of tile panels on the walls depicting various scenes, including 38 renderings of La Fontaine’s Fables; the tombs of the Lisbon Cardinal Patriarchs (up nearly to the most recent, as there is no more room in the burial chapel); more tombs of most of the kings of Portugal, including the unfortunate Carlos, who commissioned the yachts Amelia; Amelia herself in a tomb separate from Carlos, whose tomb is next to his brother; and–most incongruously–a room full of sea shells.
The cloister also includes several rooms of liturgical vestments on display dating back to the origins of Sao Vicente. Included in these are a few religious statues, some of which wear wigs. This is a particular quirk of religious statuary in Lisbon. We have seen several statues of all sizes with hair, which gives them the somewhat creepy appearance of figures from a wax museum.
By now, hungry and more than a bit thirsty, we walked out in search of the Military Museum on the riverfront. On the way, we stopped for lunch at a true neighborhood restaurant. There, we had today’s special of baked chicken, which was quite good, if plain. Lynn ordered the daily quiche, but it would not bake to the owner’s satisfaction, so he substituted a bowl of creamy vegetable soup, sans potatoes, he proudly pointed out. Three Sagre beers and lunch later, we ventured down the hills to search in vain for the Military Museum.
We never found it. Despite appearing on all the maps, the museum is not apparent when you get on the street where it is supposed to be. Finally, we gave up, preferring to walk back up to our apartment for a nap and the obligatory sojourn at our neighborhood overlook for evening cocktails. This evening a band played rhythmic African music, led by a most personable dancer and seller of their CDs. The Miradouro Santa Luzia has become our most pleasant routine for watching the sun set over the Tagus and the walking tourist groups pass in and out of the area.
Later that evening, as we walked down the steps from our apartment, the inevitable happened. Lynn, who will never be confused with a mountain goat, stumbled down a step in a heap. Incredibly lucky, she fell in a small corner portion of the hundred steps we navigate each day and rolled up to the fence of a very kind resident who came out to see if she was all right. A bit bruised and shaken, Lynn dusted herself off and intrepidly marched down the steps to what was our worst meal of the trip.
We were recommended by a friend to this restaurant and should have never walked in when we saw it completely empty on a Friday night. The waiter was most attentive; there was no one else to wait on. He served us a tray of bread, cheese and olives for starters, for which they charged 4.25 euros (without asking). But the overall atmosphere was deadly, with no music, no buzz and no customers. It was the feeling of a dying restaurant in a dead part of town, except that all the other establishments behind the huge Commercial Plaza were hopping on a Friday night, as were the many in our Alfama neighborhood.
Our main dishes were ordinary at best. My grilled lamb was fatty, and my wife’s grouper filet was definitely not fresh. As we worked on our dishes, a local couple walked in smoking, despite the signs over the bar. They were obviously regular patrons, because no one asked them to put out their cigarettes. We ate, we paid and we left, walking back up to Alfama past dozens of lively restaurants playing fado music. We should have stayed in our neighborhood.
We made reservations here for Wednesday after we were politely refused a table the night before without them. Overall, our experience was somewhat disappointing and the least enjoyable of the three restaurants we patronized during our first days in Lisbon.
The decor of this restaurant is an odd combination of Spanish furniture featuring dark, heavy wooden chairs upholstered in bright red velour cushions, with old movie stills filling the walls. American oldie music plays in the background, which is a bit incongruous for Lisbon’s Alfama neighborhood but not at all unpleasant.
The food and service were ordinary. Our waiter was visibly annoyed that we did not order a bottle of water, asking only for the tap. From that point forward, our service was polite but perfunctory.
But the main dishes were not to the level of the other restaurants we had enjoyed in the neighborhood. My grilled whole sea bass was well prepared but lacking in flavor, as the heavy salt on the skin pretty much masked the taste of the fish. My wife’s duck leg had little meat around the large bones.
Prices are quote reasonable, as they all are among restaurants in Alfama. In fairness, the restaurant did not charge us the customary coperta for the bread and olives, nor for their potato skins that they serve in advance.
This is not a bad restaurant but there are better ones just yards away.