madrid, day one

After our cheap pollo asado dinner, wine, and a shower, we had a new perspective on life. We woke up early the next day, had a little breakfast in a neighbourhood joint, and got to Museo Nacional del Prado - otherwise known as The Prado - before it opened. Our hotel in the Cuatros Caminos barrio is right near a big metro station where four different lines converge, and it was very easy to zip downtown.

The Prado is a big museum, not quite as huge and sprawling as the Metropolitan or the Louvre, but too big to see all of it. We had already decided to do a "greatest hits" tour, using the museum's own highlight guide - a floor plan plus thumbnail pictures of each painting with its room number. For an additional 9 euros at admission, we bought a beautiful 400-page guide. The book gives background and context to every painting and artist represented in the museum, plus a history of the museum itself, and is available in eight different languages. The English-language version is very well written. A steal at 9 euros, or free as an iPad app.

For all the museums and other sights of Madrid, admission is discounted for a variety of people: seniors, students, the "officially unemployed," large families, anyone on public assistance, and other categories I can't remember. I thought the "large families" category was interesting, especially since it's not defined.

The Prado covers European painting, with an emphasis on Spanish artists, up to the end of the 18th century. We looked at highlights from Fra Angelico, Raphael, Bosch and Durer, up through Rembrandt, Rubens, and Titian. There's an emphasis on big three Spanish painters - Velasquez, Goya, and El Greco - with Picasso and other great modern Spanish painters represented in another museum. (They were originally in the Prado, too, but the modern collection now has its own home.)

The biggest name at the Prado is Velasquez, and most famous and most recognizable work of Velasquez is "Las Meninas". The painting is almost synonymous with The Prado. Another highlight was Goya's duet, "The Second of May, 1808", and "The Third of May, 1808", which speak to the horror of war and the futility and injustice of retribution. The Third of May has been quoted in many other paintings, most notably by Picasso.

We had a good time looking up the paintings in our guide and reading a few paragraphs about each one. We had lunch in The Prado's lovely cafe, saw another 20 or so paintings after lunch, and called it a day.

We took the metro back up to the Cuatros Camino neighbourhood and did our laundry at a local lavanderia. It is all automated - you don't even put in soap - and there is no attendant present. And for a working-class neighbourhood, it's not cheap. No wonder everyone hangs their laundry on their balconies and fire escapes.

In our room, we finished booking the final portion of the trip - tours of two caves with cave paintings and a room in a nearby rural town. The night before we left for Madrid, we had already booked one night in Bilbao and our last night in an airport hotel. So now we are all set for the remainder of the trip. We're super excited about the final week, and also looking forward to going home. We miss the dogs so much!

For dinner, I decided I was in danger of leaving Spain without having eaten one authentic, non-fast-food paella. Madrid is not a paella town, but we're not going to Valencia, home of paella, and there are supposed to be a few good places in Madrid. We chose one based on online reviews, and went back downtown. The food was good, and different than what I expected, but it turned out to be a very skippable experience. The restaurant was quite expensive and obviously caters to tourists. We did see a bit of central Madrid, with its crazily excessive architecture. Some of these buildings make the Victorians look like minimalists.

For those interested in the food itself, the rice used in the paella was not yellow saffron rice; it was wetter and chewier. Most of the paellas come with various combinations of seafood, there is one "traditional Valencia" with rabbit, chicken, and vegetables, one with chorizo, and one vegetarian. We asked if we could have a seafood paella with chorizo, and the waiter told us we didn't want to do that, it was disgusting. He made all kinds of faces and a thumbs-down! While we were enjoying our seafood paella, he brought us a small plate of chorizos, and suggested we try the paella with and without the chorizos. When he came back for the report, I told him the chorizo was delicious, but on its own. But I lied! Chorizo was great with the seafood.

The best paella and other Spanish rice-and-seafood dishes I have ever had were in a place in New York called The Spain, a restaurant I went to with my family as a child, and later re-discovered as an adult, and have turned many people onto. If the paella we had last night was typical (and it is said to be), then the food I've eaten in New York has a Latin American influence. And I have to say I prefer it.

As we staggered home on the metro, Madrid was just picking up. The nightlife here is infamous for starting at 10:00 and going til the wee hours. Unlike us!

No comments: