Madrid, a set on Flickr.
Having thoroughly enjoyed Barcelona, I was pleasantly surprised with how much more I loved Madrid from first sight! We met our tour guide Jaime who explained the history of Madrid as we passed monument after monument on the way to the hotel.
Before becoming the official capitol of Spain in 1561, Madrid was a Muslim stronghold that protected Toldeo, the capitol of the time, against a possible Christian invasion from the North. Phillip the 2nd moved the capitol to Madrid after it outgrew the well-protected confines of Toledo. While Barcelona reveled in her Modernisme and Gothic architecture, Madrid’s styles actually turned out to be even more eclectic and far more grandiose with styles ranging from Medieval to Neo-Classical to Bourbon to Neo-Arabic. Jaime also briefly mentioned some facts about the Spanish wine industry, most notably that over the past few years, European wine consumption has gone down while new world consumption has increased exponentially making the future of the industry dependent upon exports to new and developing markets.
We soon arrived at our hotel right off of Gran Via a major artery of the city not unlike Gracia in that it was built later in the city’s life to accommodate growth and newer demands, most notably, movie theaters. Jaime rushed us to put away our things and embark on our tapas tour. I overheard many grumblings from folks complaining that they preferred Sandra over our current guide, but I thought he was awesome and full of useful information and tips, if not overflowing with charisma or kindness. We hurriedly walked from Gran Via to Sol, the literal center of the city and Spain herself. The large, open square bustled with activity until the wee hours in the morning as people congregated and made connections on the Metro.
From there we meandered down narrow streets and alleys as Jaime explained to us the Spanish concept of tapas. In America, we think of tapas as a style of eating where many appetizer-like dishes are ordered and shared which is actually much closer to what they call raciones in Madrid. True tapas in the Madrilleno style is much closer to bite-size morsels, usually atop a piece of bread and accompanying a drink. The name itself means cover or lid and possibly comes from the practice of covering drinks to protect them from bugs, although several alternative explanations have popular support as well. As opposed to the sit-down style we think of in America, true tapas are usually eaten standing up as one moves from bar to bar fighting to get an elbow on the counter to order. Our fist stop was Casa del Abuelo where we sampled traditional Vermouth which unlike the spirit that we have come to associate with martinis is actually enjoyed as an aperitif before lunch to prepare the digestive system for the big meal of the day. The vermouth we had was served from a tap and is made from boiling wine with herbs, primarily wormwood, which is where the name comes from. While we were there we sampled some roasted peppers and garlic shrimp before quickly moving to the next destination.
Jaime informed us that typically each tapas spot specialized in something specific but offered the usual fare. In the 16th century bohemian quarter of Huertas, we stopped at La Trucha where we imbibed on a white wine called Rueda and sampled a traditional Spanish Omellete, croquettas con jamon Iberico and some fried eggplant. After that we moved to el Lacon where we had a tint (red wine) called Mencia, ate some delicious fried shark marinated in lemon, a dish consisting of scrambled egg and fish, a bisque-like soup made of pumpkin cream. I also bravely tried tripe, something I wouldn’t ordinarily put in my mouth but was surprised to find that I enjoyed it thoroughly! Our last stop on the taps tour ended at Gonzalez and included my favorite dish of all, jamon Iberico (cured ham from black hogs only found in Spain) and a selection of cheeses although I was dismayed that we had to forego the wine at this stop.
Most of the group was clearly not as seasoned at the art of drinking, eating and moving around the city the way I am and were already nearing exhaustion by the time we arrived at the Museo del Prado, a world class classical art museum that houses some of the most famous masterpieces of the Dutch and Spanish artists from the 12th to the 19th century.
The first painting we saw was the one that stuck with me the most. It was The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, one of the Dutch masters, whose thematic content nearly blew my mind. The triptych consisted of three bizarre paintings that depicted the Garden of Eden, a sinful orgy of debauchery in the middle and the torments of hell. Staring at the painting you couldn’t help but wonder what sort of chap Bosch was to imagine such strange images. The middle panel in particular looks like something out of a science-fiction movie and most of the acts being committed in it are beyond anything I could ever even conceive of!
I was also quite impressed with the dark subject matter and aesthetic of the works of Jusepe de Ribera whose paintings depicted martyrdom and used pain as a study of the human anatomy. Another notable artist, Diego Velasquez was also well-represented at the museum. It was incredibly cool to see Las Meninas up close and personal after seeing it many times in books. It is such a creative and enigmatic approach to the subject matter.
The works I was most excited to see were those of Francisco Goya. His work is filled with veiled commentary and more often than not, contains a subversive take on the subject matter. You can see the powerful influence he had on Francis Bacon, possibly one of my favorite artists of all time especially when you see his Black Paintings and The Disasters of War, which is what I was really after. The Black Paintings come from the later years of his life when he holed up in his home, the Quinta del Sordo (Deaf Man’s House) and painted evil, witchy, violent frescos on his walls and canvases. Witches’ Sabbath, Saturn Devouring His Son and the Two Old Men paintings are some the creepiest, darkest stuff you will ever find in a museum like this one and it was a great pleasure for me to behold them first hand and one that I will never forget!
Nearing exhaustion we headed back to the hotel. Unfortunately we were unable to secure tickets to the Real Madrid match against Moscow and joined the group for dinner and a flamenco show instead. I was actually incredibly impressed with the performance we saw. Three men sat in chairs along the back and belted out operatic vocals as two more men along the side fingered their nylon stringed guitars. A man and a woman both danced the flamenco, an intense, passionate, at times, violent display of emotion. I had no idea what the words were but from the expression and passion, it was as if the singer were competing against the male dancer for the affection of the woman. It was very much like an opera and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
The next day we traveled across town via the Metro which is such an amazingly efficient way to travel but terribly frustrating when you are doing it with people who have never used public transportation in their life. We arrived at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos where we were given a lecture from Alberto Romero Ania, PhD on e-Marketing, albeit a very elementary one. The professor was very nice and excited about his field. He seemed to be quite knowledgable as well but ended up spending the bulk of the time we were there instructing us on how to build a basic website rather than the nuts and bolts of marketing. We were introduced to two students of the professor who had arranged for us to visit a large night club that evening.
I spent the afternoon taking advantage of the Spanish custom of siesta before assembling a crew to venture out on our own tapas tour I had mapped out using my travel guide and the recommendations of a few friends. It was very cool to explore the city and find my way around with nothing but a map. One of the stops was unbeknownst to me at the time, a restaurant belonging to a pupil of Ferran Adria, the most sought-after and respected chefs of our times. There I had a 21st Century Spanish Omelette. The waiter warned me that it was not a traditional one in the slightest but I was on an adventure and cared not for convention. It was nothing if not unexpected as it arrived in a frothy liquified form in a shot glass. You had to eat it with a spoon but it was delicious and well worth the trepidation. Most of the group jumped ship but Gary and I tarried onward and ran into some paparazzi stalking a celebrity of some sort that neither of us recognized before making a few more stops. After a Metro ride to the La Latina neighborhood and getting a little lost, we finally arrived at Delic where I partook of the most amazing mojito of my life. They used raw sugar and dark rum to make it which may have been the secret. If I have the opportunity, I would definitely explore this hip little neighborhood a lot more. It was getting late and were scheduled to meet the group outside of the club soon, so we sucked down our drinks and managed to arrive just in time. Clubs are not my thing and this place was no exception but I played nice until the group started dropping like flies and I took the opportunity to wander just up the street to the one thing I had been anticipating more than anything, chocolate con churros! While everyone else was being drunk and not making any progress I snuck off up the alley to the San Gines Chocolateria where everyone who knows what’s up goes to indulge in fried donuts dipped in hot chocolate after a night of partying. It was magical and I was satisfied, truly satisfied.