My lady friend and I took a cruise that included the western part of the Mediterranean. Specifically, it comprised Portofino, Italy; Barcelona, Spain; and Casablanca, Morocco. Our trip also took in the Canary Islands, Spain; and Madeira, Portugal. Moreover, upon our return to Portofino, we spent an entire day in Gibraltar and another in Málaga, Spain.
Before leaving for our cruise, my partner, whose name is Sara, suggested that we add something to our traveling experience. She would leave her home in Bariloche, Argentina, and I, in San Mateo, California, one week before our sailing date from Portofino. The trip by jet was exhausting but well worth the trouble, as you shall see.
Sara and I rendezvoused in Madrid, the majestic capital of Spain. The month was June; the year, 2010. After visiting that metropolis, we took a sojourn in Palma de Mallorca, a town in one of the Balearic Islands of Spain.
In Madrid, we spent only three days and three nights. Nevertheless, we managed to see some of the highlights. For example, the Museo del Prado exhibits the art gathered by Spanish royalty from the Catholic king and queen, Ferdinand and Isabella. The museum’s jewels are its works by the nation’s three masters: Francisco Goya, Diego Velázquez, and El Greco. The museum also contains masterpieces by French, Dutch, German, and Italian artists when those countries were part of the Spanish Empire. One of the most impressive pieces is Velázquez’s most famous work, Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), which combines a self-portrait of the artist at work with a mirror reflection of the king and queen in a revolutionary interplay of space and perspectives.
Concerning Goya, his early masterpieces are portraits of the family of King Carlos IV. One glance at their imbecilic expressions, especially in the painting The Family of Carlos IV, reveals the loathing Goya developed for these self-indulgent reactionary rulers.
El Greco, the Greek-born artist who lived and worked in Toledo, Spain, is known for his mystical, elongated forms and faces. Two of his most famous paintings, The Resurrection and The Adorations of the Shepherds, are on view.
After spending about three hours at the foregoing museum, Sara and I got on the “hop on, hop off” bus and proceeded to tour the city.
Our next stop was the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid’s museum of modern art, which is a converted hospital. Its collection focuses on three modern masters: Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Joan Miró. The museum’s showpiece is Picasso’s Guernica. The latter depicts the horror of the Nazi Condor Legion’s bombing of the ancient Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. In tone and structure, this work is a twentieth-century version of Goya’s The Third of May 1808, which describes the nighttime execution of Spanish patriots who had rebelled against the occupying French troops.
After our visits to the two museums, my partner and I decided to take a break from observing art. Accordingly, we hopped on a bus and went to the Parque del Retiro (literally, the Retreat). Once the private playground of royalty, Madrid’s park is now a vast expanse of green encompassing formal gardens, fountains, a lake, children’s exhibition halls, outdoor cafés, and a children’s puppet theater. The park is particularly lively on weekends, when it fills with street vendors, musicians, jugglers, clowns, gypsy fortune-tellers, and sidewalk painters, together with hundreds of families out for a walk. From the entrance at Puerta de Alcalá, one can walk straight toward the center and find the Estanque (lake) where people rent boats and work up an appetite rowing around the lake.
The Parque del Retiro was so pleasant and inviting for Sara and me that the two of us whiled away the afternoon there. Afterward, we hopped on another bus and returned to our hotel, which wasn’t far from the Gran Vía, the city’s main street.
It was about six o’clock p.m. when we got to the hotel. Both of us freshened up a bit and got ready to go out for dinner. However, much to our surprise, we found out that most of the restaurants in Madrid don’t open until nine o’clock p.m. at the earliest. Consequently, we went to the nearest bar to eat tapas (snacks) and drink sangria. This carried us through until dinnertime. For supper, we ordered chuletas de cordero (lamb chops), salad, and more sangria!
The following day found us touring the Palacio Real (the Royal Palace). The latter was commissioned in the early eighteenth century by Felipe V, the first of Spain’s Bourbon rulers. Interestingly, said palace was constructed on the same strategic site where Madrid’s first Alcazar (Moorish fortress) was built in the ninth century. Before entering the palace, we discovered the Patio de Armas. Of classical French architecture, the patio reflects the foregoing king’s nostalgia for his childhood days at Versailles with his grandfather, Louis XIV. Also of interest to us were the stone statues of the Inca prince Atahualpa and Aztec king Montezuma, perhaps the only tributes in Spain to these pre-Columbian rulers.
Inside the palace, 2,800 rooms compete with one another for over-the-top opulence. Highlights include the Salón de Gasparini, King Carlos III’s private apartments, with swirling-inlaid floors and curlicue ceramic walls in addition to a ceiling decoration, all glistening in the light of a two-ton crystal chandelier. The Salón del Trono is a grand throne room with royal seats for King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía. Furthermore, there is a banquet room that is the largest of all the rooms. It is significant to note that no monarch has lived in the palace since 1931, when Alfonso III was deposed. The current king and queen live in the far simpler Zarzuela Palace on the outskirts of Madrid.
We found the Plaza de Oriente, a stately plaza in front of the Royal Palace. It is surrounded by massive stone statues of various Spanish monarchs from Ataulfo to Fernando II. The statue of Felipe IV in the plaza was the first equestrian bronze ever cast with a rearing horse. The pose comes from a painting of the king by Velázquez. For most madrileños, the Plaza de Orient is forever linked to Francisco Franco. The generealísimo liked to speak from the roof of the Royal Palace to his followers as they crammed into the plaza below. Even now, on the November of Franco’s death, the plaza fills with supporters of him.
What also caught our attention was the Puerta del Sol. Crowded with people and exhausted, Sol is the nerve center of Madrid’s traffic. The city’s main subway interchange is below, and buses fan out from there. A brass plaque in the south side of the plaza marks kilometer 0, the spot from which all distances in Spain are measured. The restored 1756 French neoclassical building near the foregoing plaque now houses the offices of the regional government, but during Franco’s reign, it was the headquarters of his secret police, and it is still known folklorically as the Casa de los Gritos (House of Screams). Across the square is a bronze statue of Madrid’s official symbol, a bear with a madroño (strawberry tree) and a statue of King Carlos III on horseback, similar to the one of him that is located in the Embarcadero Center of San Francisco, California.