Hit Counter

Spain~December, 1996

Gail South

Saturday, November 30 to Sunday, December 1, 1996

Left Beach Haven at 12:30 after a quick post-Thanksgiving house cleaning. Two hours to JFK and 45 minutes to Halbert where I sat till 5:15. For some reason there were two couriers to Madrid. Irene left at 4:30 and was waiting for me when I arrived at 5:30 with about two dozen big bags of cargo. Our representative took our passports and left. He returned and said we were on “standby”. At the departure hour of 6:30 he said we had been bumped to the 11:30 flight. Luck was with us, however, and we got on the earlier plane, landing at 8 AM, Madrid time, into a glorious pink and purple sunrise. I had nothing to be responsible for so I left straightaway. Changed $80 and got the bus to the Plaza de Colon (360 ptas). 

Following my plan, I walked down to the Prado and found my hotel (Hotel-Residencia Sud America, Paseo del Prado 12, 6th floor). My room was tiny, but clean, with a sink, six flights up and directly across from the museo. Pedro runs the hotel as his parents did. My room is 2300 ptas ($18) per day plus 300 every time I take a shower. 

I went immediately to the Prado (free on Sunday) where I spent several hours enjoying Goya and Velasquez and El Greco as well as Italian and Flemish masters and a Rembrandt I had never seen. 

Next, I walked around the Rastro, Madrid’s famous Sunday street market. It wasn’t as exciting as I had anticipated, but it was fun to watch the crowds. The vendors, their wares displayed on pedestrian-only streets, looked just like the ones in New York, even the goods seemed the same. I walked and walked, finally stopping for the menu de dia at the Restaurante Café Concierto, Felipe V, 4. I was only the third diner at about 1:30, but the room was soon filled with bargain seekers. A huge plate of paella, one half a roasted chicken with fries, bread, coffee caramel flan and a half carafe of wine was 1000 ptas ($8). 

Thoroughly exhausted, I walked back to the hotel for a short siesta then back to Plaza del Sol. Well, it was paseo time in the old town. I believe every single Madrileno was out strutting his or her stuff. The Christmas lights were blazing. The main department store, El Corte Ingles, had a huge, animated reenactment of the Trojan horse. In the Plaza Mayor hundreds of vendors were selling Christmas decorations and tiny nativity figures. Stopped for a vino tinto with acietunas and went to bed about 9:15.

Monday, Dec. 2

Slept till 9:30, although my room is right next to the doorbell, which buzzed several times. Another beautiful day, high 50’s with bright blue skies and no humidity or wind. There is, however, a terrible problem with exhaust fumes and tobacco smoke, especially around the plazas and in the bus station to which I took the metro (Opera to Pio Principio) and found the Autobus Station for a connection to Segovia at Orice Paseo de la Florida. The round trip ticket was 1230 ptas ($9.50) and the bus left at 11. I enjoyed the hour and forty-five minute ride. The land is very arid, but evergreens add color. There was snow on the mountains and a few clouds were draped about them like white mufflers. 

I walked first to the amazing 3000 feet long and 115 feet high aqueduct, passing the 12th century church of San Millan, a Romanesque beauty with massive columns and very highly placed stained glass. Nevertheless, it was the winding streets of Segovia that had really made me want to return, so I spent the rest of the day just walking and loved it.  The Alcazar is magnificent; Disney would have loved it. Then I walked into the Cathedral, alone. There was a sign that said “Entrance 260 ptas” and the door was open, but no one was about. So I went through the impressive Gothic structure almost in the dark, actually a bit spooky. The town was wonderful when we were her in April, and it was crowded. It must be unbearable in the summer, but now it was empty. Gargoyles and Storks adorned lots of rooftops. At the Restaurante Meson Alejandro, Calle Carbiteria, I had wonderful garlic soup with eggs, a quarter of a roasted suckling pig (the best ever), flan, bread and wine for 1800 ptas ($14). Back to Madrid and early to bed. 

Tuesday, Dec. 3

Wonderful day!! No one should miss Avila. This walled city looks as if it stepped right out of the Middle Ages. You can almost see the knights and hear the sounds of jousting. It is the highest city in Spain (1127 meters), and I got there on a bus from Madrid (1290 ptas) in an hour and a half. The busses are very convenient and comfortable. Both trips have been on locals, so I’ve experienced first had what it’s like to be in a huge vehicle going through streets that seem about six feet side. Not a job for the faint-hearted. The pollution was worse today. Next, I spent 10 ptas to climb the walls at the Puerto de Alcazar, and it was well worth it. The walls in this wonderful city are all intact. Begun in 1090, shortly after the town had been reclaimed fro the Moors, they were completed in only nine years, with the help of 1900-3000 men, many of them conquered Arabs. There are nine gates and 88 cylindrical towers.  Avila was an important city in the Middle Ages and was known as “Avila of the Knights”, but its later fame is due to Ste. Teresa, patron saint of Spain, who was born and lived most of her life here. In the streets were porcos, statues of bulls or pigs the Romans left all over.

Advice had been to see the Cathedral first; so I did, although I had no map and spent a while being very lost. As soon as I found Tourismo and got oriented, I was fine. Lots and lots of churches and monasteries, cloisters and chapels: mostly Romanesque, moving to Gothic, with Moorish influences in the stone work. Great vaulted ceilings with massive columns and much ornate gold and silver. They are open at odd times, or infrequently, so I just kept trying. My favorite was not, after all, the Cathedral, which was being readied for a celebration and had all sorts of barriers erected inside, but eh Monastery de San Tomas. This is outside the walls, about fifteen minutes down a hill lined with ugly apartments, like the outskirts of New Orleans. I arrived at the entrance at 12:55 and was told (after I had paid my 100 ptas) that everything closed at 1 o’clock, but that I could walkthrough the three cloisters. Well, cloisters have always beem one of my favorite things (maybe I was a nun in an earlier incarnation), so off I went and promptly was invisible to the bureaucrats. 

There were three interconnected cloisters, each one larger than the one before. The Museo opened off the largest and had an interesting collection of gold and silver crosses and icon painting. There were other people there, but when I moved along, I was alone. There was a sign pointing up to “Coro”, so I climbed and climbed and climbed, all the time hearing organ music getting closer and closer. Then I was in a tiny, dusty room with two huge wooden doors. The organ music was coming from the one on the right, so I tried the other and it opened. I stepped in and closed it behind me. I was in the upper choir, where Ferdinand and Isabella had attended Mass before the death of their only son, Prince Juan. They had built the monastery, assisted financially by the notorious Inquisitor General Torquemada (who is buried here) and by funds from the confiscated property of Jews.  Mass was being said by five white-clad priests, and I viewed it just as royalty had, well not entirely, as I stayed out of sight behind an exquisitely carved balustrade surrounded by choir stalls. The High Altar was beautiful, shining and gold, and it overlooked a delicate and serene marble tomb made for Juan. I sneaked out and down the narrow stairs, only to find I had been locked in the cloister. I found a man who had been a student at Berkeley in 1957, and he led me through the private residence section to an exit.  All this before lunch!!

Then I walked far, far outside the walls to Cuatro Postes where I sat and rested for a while pretending I was Guinivere. Then I walked back outside the walls, entering through the Puerta del Carmen, beside the Parador. More meandering and more churches. One worth mentioning was the Romanesque Basilica de San Vincento, interesting mainly because it is built on the site where he and his two sister, Stes. Sabina and Cristela, were martyred in 303. The church is named for him, of course. There is a three-layer sarcophagus where they may be buried. 

I had opted for the 7 PM bus back and so was able to dine. Found a nice restaurant, Las Cancelas on Cruz Vieja 6. Yesterday, someone I saw had an appetizer that was a huge bowl of broad green beans. When I read that Judias de Barco was a specialty, I ordered it. Good, but not what I had expected. More like navy bean soup. I had jamon asado for the main dish. I feel badly in need of fresh fruit and vegetables. 

Wednesday, Dec. 4

Today was gray and drizzly, but warm. I was lucky to have planed Segovia and Avila for such beautiful days. I ate the tangerines remaining from yesterday and headed for El Escorial. The directions were a bit confusing, but in the end all I had to do was take the Metro to the last yellow stop (Moncloa) and follow the signs inside the station for the busses. One was just leaving and I bought my ticket (380 ptas) on board. The trip was about 45 minutes. I got a map from the tourist office and went straight to the monastery. I was the only person around. Very creepy. 

I entered the King’s courtyard where 65 meter statues of the kings of Judea adorn the façade. They are made, except fro the head, hands and feet, from a single slab of granite. Soon, hoards of school kids appeared; I let them pass. The Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de el Escorial is both a palace and a monastery and was built by Philip II in 21 years beginning in 1557. Several guidebooks call it the “Eighth Wonder of the World’, and while that may be stretching it a bit, it is certainly impressive. 

Huge and angular, made of gray granite and slate, it is noteworthy for its austerity, symmetry and simplicity. In Felipe’s own words: “Majesty without ostentation.” Four massive towers pin the corners and the towers of the basilica that rise from the center, surmounted by a great dome, giving the compound the shape of a pyramid. You enter the building and follow “Visita” signs in a very well-ordered path. You begin with a superb collection of Flemish tapestries, many from the cartoons of Goya on view at the Prado, and paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and El Greco, also Flemish masters. In between the paintings was an exhibit I only vaguely remember from before, the Museo de Arquitecture. I kept thinking how much Richie would enjoy the detailed drawings, displays and explanations of how this construction was done, although it might have taken him more than 21 years. 

The next part of the tour was through the Palacio Real. The Bourbon section (more elegant and worldly) was closed, but the more Spartan apartments of Philip were interesting. After this, the Royal Pantheon, burial place of Spanish royalty, and six other mausoleums including the “wedding cake” tomb of royal children. 

The Basilica itself was a disappointment. All of the light and heat was off, so it was difficult to see the altar and impossible to see the chapels. But the adjectives “calm” and “magnificent” certainly describe this Renaissance church. I couldn’t quite figure out a very long L-shaped hall leading to the Chapter Room. The walls were covered with frescos of Bible stories. They began about four feet off the floor, and apparently the bottom two feet have been badly defaced over the years. Most have been restored and are now covered with Plexiglass. A few are still being done, and there were young female artists painting as I watched. Nice job! The Chapter Hall was the best. Canvasses by El Greco (wonderful), Titian and others. Finally the Library. I was the only visitor, and again it felt eerie. I kept thinking of Eco’s “Name of the Rose” and waiting for some monk to appear to sit at tone of the desks and begin illuminating.  All in all, a memorable visit. 

I made a good choice for lunch, passing the Meson La Cueva, where Jerry and I had eaten last time, when I found a place with Judias Verdes. I had Castellano soup (again) and it was the best, finished under the broiler, or with a hot iron like the kind my landlord uses for his meals, and finally, a huge plate of delicious broad green beans with ham (everything is with ham), plus bread and wine. 

To get back to Madrid, I had to go into a bar around the corner and buy a ticket then onto a bus filled with students. I had never been in the part of Madrid where Moncloa is, so I decided to walk home. Calle de Princeste is a broad commercial street leading to the Plaza Espana, and from there Gran Via goes all the way to the Plaza de Cibeles. I kept looking for a Limited to get a Spanish something for Paige but couldn’t fine one.  Got a limon gelato to keep me going (odd to be eating ice cream in the rain in December). Then I stopped at the 19th c outbuilding of the Prada, Casa de Brien Petiro, but my free ticket from Sunday wasn’t good, and I was tired, so I walked a bit past the Retro Park and Botanical Garden, where bookstalls lined the Plaudio Moyano on the Jardin’s south side, turned up Paseo del Prado, found a grocery store, and came home. 

Thursday, Dec. 5

I listened to the rain all night and decided I really had done a good job of planning, making my last day “Museo Dia”, and what a day it was. I saw a wonderful archeology museum, the BEST museum of painting I’ve ever seen, and the WORST art museum. The first was founded by royal decree in 1867. It houses very interesting exhibits from Prehistory (I skipped the dinosaurs) and from Egypt, including sarcophagi and mummified animals (I also think I saw the Maltese Falcon, but don’t tell anyone). There were Greek and Roman artifacts, including a large statue of Livia, second wife of Augustus, which was recovered from Paestum. There was a neat reverse-type sundial carved from stone, and also some beautiful relics of the Moorish conquest. I sort of swept through the Middle Ages, Romanesque, Gothic and Mudejar periods, I’ve seen quite a bit of that recently. The best was a fairly new exhibit outside and down a path in the garden into a reproduction of the Altimira cave paintings. These caves are in the Basque regions, but admission is very limited (you must request it years in advance), so obviously we didn’t see them before. These Cantabrian cave painting show bison, deer, horses and mysterious symbols. They were great, and, once again, I was alone. 

From there, I walked, in a cold rain, to the all time best: the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. Everyone should visit here. The entrance says average visit is one and a half hours. I was there three, and would love to visit again and again. I can’t believe one family over only two generations, collected such a wonderful Western treasure. I don’t understand entirely how Spain got it in 1993, but it has something to do with its willingness to donate the Villahermosa Palace. Everything is in both Spanish and English, and I have a feeling America was in the running and somehow screwed it up.  

The Palace is a beautiful neoclassic building from the turn of the 18th-19th century. It has been remodeled and the collection hung according to both historical and chronological criteria. The upper floors have lower ceilings and the older, generally smaller, paintings are hung there. You should start, therefore, from the top and work you way down. The rooms are numbered and the flow is very natural. As the book (Buy this in the gift shop before you start) says, “Care has been taken to give the rooms the greatest possible stylistic unity; each one responding, so to speak, to a chapter in the history of art.”  The second floor begins with the 13th century Italians and winds through Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque. Every artist you can imagine is represented from Italy and many, many Dutch, Flemish and German. Jerry asked me one time why some artists are great. I don’t know the answer, but when you stand at the door of a room and see a painting on the other side and say, “a Caravaggio” or “an El Greco”, the answer is somewhere there. 

Descending to the first floor, I was even more overwhelmed. The collection here was from the 17th century Dutch paintings through Rococo and Neoclassicism to two wonderful rooms of 19th century American (Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington, the whole Hudson River School, Winslow Homer, Remington and the West, Whistler and several John Singer Sargents). I had never heard of a painter named John Frederick Peto, who did a particular kind of still life at the end of the 19th century and early 20th characterized by detailed trompe d’oeil. One was called Toms River, 1905! 

Then came the Romantics and the Impressionists. There was even a Cézanne I really liked. Some Fauvists and Expressionists including a remarkably realistic landscape with portrait by Munsch. I though I would be disappointed with the ground floor with its “Experimental Avant-gardes” but then cam Surrealism ( with some really funny Dales) and the moderns that I love: Wyeth, O’Keefe, a fantastically moving Hopper, Magritte and Ben Shahn. The last room was fun: Pop by Lichenstein, a neat one called Telephone Booths by Richard Estes, and a funny Armchair by Dominico Girole. I loved this place. The whole catalog is two volumes and cost 13000 ptas, but the 1800 one is a treasure. 

By now it was 2:45, and I was hungry. I found a tiny Meson at 2 Calle de Moratin with a menu de dia for 950. You walk through the bar to the comida. The waiter comes out and puts a loaf of bread on the table (no plate, no basket). I ordered soup (a big bowl of homemade chicken noodle)and Pescadillos (which I thought were tiny silver hake) but were actually a one-dish combo of cabbage, garbanzos, sausage, bacon, and a chicken leg, plus a lump of some delicious black sausage. Everyone else was eating the same thing. I had an orange for dessert and it was worth every peseta. 

Now it’s 4 PM and I’m headed for the Museo National Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Don’t go. Picasso’s Guernica is wonderful, somehow making the horror of war more real than any of the warrior paintings of kings. Even more than Goya’s Cinco de Mayo. There was not one other thing I liked. The entire collection is 20th century Spanish. There was on 2’x 3’ painting of Holgate blue, another of ball park mustard. I saw it all but was glad to leave. The building is old, but they’ve added two ugly modern Plexiglas elevator on the outside. 

Friday, Dec. 6

Left first thing in the morning for a quick bus ride to the airport. The courier rep met me about 11 and my uneventful flight had me back in NY by 3:30.