BY BRIGITTE TREUMANN
This year began gloriously with a week in one of my favorite cities. My daughter Julie and I had greatly looked forward to this New Year’s jaunt and had arranged to meet at dawn, she from New York and I from Chicago, on the first of January 2019 at Barajas airport. I thought it was quite romantic to spend New Year’s Eve flying east through the night, expecting passengers to break into Auld Lang Syne and the charming Iberia flight attendants break out bottles of Cava. No song, no cava, but the pilot and flight attendants donned glittery hats and wished us “Un Prospero Año Nuevo.” The starry heaven, as I caught a glimpse from my window seat, provided an amazingly auspicious moment with a brilliant comet zooming by. A Happy New Year to us all!
As we sped through a slowly awakening Madrid the rising sun illuminated stately 19th century facades, and a heroic statue, silhouetted against a cloudless blue sky, seemed to wave a cheerful bienvenido a Madrid.
On one of my previous sojourns in this fabulous city I discovered a pleasant, well-appointed (and by now very popular) small hotel, the Hostal Santo Domingo. We decided to stay there in the decidedly small, but cleverly designed rooms and became quite fond of the narrow elevator with just enough space for 2 people and their light-traveling luggage. But the location in a quaint old neighborhood in walking distance to most of Madrid’s famous attractions, the Gran Via, the Prado, and other points of cultural or popular interest, couldn’t be more perfect.
We spent many hours walking, discovering, getting lost (despite a fine map) among the narrow, curving lanes, and thoroughly enjoyed “our” neighborhood, called Malasana, and adjoining Chueca. Once upon a time this part of town had a somewhat iffy reputation, but is now considered neo-bohemian, trendy, and chic. Alluring coffee bars, bodegas that specialize in jerez and manzanilla wines, taparias, lively restaurants and adorable boutiques selling anything from colorful lamps, beautiful old painted or embroidered fans, to gorgeous handbags and shoes, attract a diverse and dynamic hipster public. Though I believe the real magic of these barrios (neighborhoods) has to do with the genial generational mix and the renewal, however dynamic, that conserves the older, traditional barrio origins.
Beautiful fans on display.
Century embroidered abanico (fan).
Just couldn’t resist.
Suffice it to say that we happily partook of the many gastronomical delights, be it at the eye-boggling mercado (market), or in one of the many appealing eateries along the lanes.
Mercado San Anton.
Simply shrimp and lemon.
A flight of cheese, mercado-style.
And, of course, how could we not share a sumptuous and scrumptious paella at La Reina de Paella, one of several go-to restaurants known for their abundance of outstanding rice-dishes.
Our stay in Madrid coincided happily with the festivities, hustle and bustle, markets and extravagant outdoor/public decorations preceding the Dia de los Reyes Magos (Three Kings/Epiphany) on January 6th. While Navidad (Christmas) is certainly observed as a religious holiday, Los Reyes is the day of gift-giving and merry-making as well as elaborate multi-course dinners. The Gran Via, one of Madrid’s major broad and stately avenues, and its popular side streets seemed the epicenter of holiday activities. It was great fun, if occasionally a bit tiring, to join the jolly throng, lining up for hot chocolate and churros and just meandering about on the Plaza del Sol till late into the evenings.
Nuns, too, enjoy churros. Photo courtesy Julie Treumann.
Needless to say there were other opportunities to bolster one’s energies. One most refreshing watering hole on the Gran Via, and a favorite of ours. is the Gran Clavel Vermuteria. An ingenious combination of wine/vermouth bar (I ordered a Zecchini vermouth on tap) breakfast joint (our preference) and elegant restaurant.
Traditional vermouth barrel.
Thus fortified we ventured forth to join the multitude of more serious-minded culture mavens in the Prado and to further investigate some of Madrid’s many and diverse art and archaeological embarrassment of riches. The Prado needs no further comments; it is simply one of the most brilliant, if somewhat confusing in its museal and exhibitory organization, museums of the western world. To keep from aesthetic overload, I tend to focus on my personal select favorites which, needless to say, are shared by many others. Regardless of what you see or do in the Prado, for me there is no visit to the Prado without spending a long while in front of Velazquez’ Rendición de Breda (The Surrender of Breda), also called Las Lanzas, and deeply admiring the so-called “Black Goyas.” My daughter was far more capable in absorbing the extraordinary gamut of styles, periods, artists and their significance in time and space in this sublime palatial “mother of all galleries.”
But she, too, after a few hours of treading marble floors, suggested a walk in a park. What better choice than to head for the nearby Parque de Buen Retiro (Retiro Park). We were most lucky with the weather; sunny and midday temperatures in the 50s were ideal for our forays. Indeed, perfect for a leisurely promenade in this delightful oasis among “dense clumps of trees, formal flowerbeds, fountains, colonnades and temples.”
In stark contrast to the 18th century ambiente of Buen Retiro and the glorious past that is the Prado, was a well-worth visit to a small sculpture garden, also called Museo de Arte Publico (Museum of Public Art). Essentially it is an art project to recover urban space, located under a bridge and exhibiting abstract sculptures by Joan Miro, Alberto Sanchez and Gustavo Torres.
From there it was a short walk to an entirely surprising viewing adventure, the 19th century vast mansion and extensive formerly private collection of a successful editor, financier and art lover, Lazaro Galdiano. In a sense, it is a very well organized and beautifully maintained “universal” museum spread over four floors encompassing a spectrum from earliest Spanish art and archaeology to Flemish and Italian paintings, ivories, enamels, arms and numismatics. It reminded me in its scope and intent of the Isabella Stewart Gardner mansion/museum in Boston. Besides all the many impressive objects and paintings, I was particularly charmed by the painted ceilings, each with a different motif suited to the use and function of the room below.
Tartessian bronze juglet mid first millennium BC.
Talking about viewing adventures I must mention our jaunt to the Sala Canal Isabel II. It is a formidable example of a re-purposed space in a former water tower that was built to ensure the water pressure in the neighborhood of Rios Rosas. It is now an amazing venue for contemporary photography and audio-visual exhibitions. We were lucky enough to be able to admire not only the impressive architectural interior but an inspiring and supremely beautiful exhibition of the history of Spanish fashion.
Water Tower Sala Canal II.
Spectacular architectural ceiling element.
Andalusian-inspired haute couture creation.
To quote a Huffpost moniker “Before you leave” concerning our cultural ambitions, how can I not briefly mention the magnificently restored Museo Arqueologico Nacional (Archaeological Museum). For years, during my graduate work at the University of Chicago and pursuing Phoenician civilization and presence on the Iberian Peninsula, I would visit this museum with my colleagues. It was always of great interest to me, but now it truly shines. A description in this essay’s context wouldn’t do it justice, and so I shall just show one of the museum’s Iberian icons, La Dama de Elche (the Lady of Elche).
La Dama de Elche – between 5th and 4th centuries BC.
Oh, yes, before we once more indulged in Spain’s fabulous cuisine and holiday cakes we spent a day in Toledo. Romantically situated above the Rio Tajo, it was the former spiritual center to Christianity, Islam and Judaism. It’s grand cathedral and many churches, and El Greco’s intensely moving masterwork, El entierro del Conde Orgaz (The burial of the Count of Orgaz) deserve more than a day’s visit. What I found most touching, though, is the elegant, sparse, whitewashed, former synagogue, Sinagoga de Santa Maria La Blanca. Built in the 12 century in Almohad style that miraculously survived centuries of Christian “re-purposing”.
And so, back to fun-loving Madrid and it’s happy holiday of the Three Kings. Julie and I found a fabulous pastry shop where we tasted the typical cake, roscon de reyes, and ogled other sweet temptations. At night we toasted each other, so grateful for having had this amazing time together, at our favorite convivial neighborhood restaurant, Maricastana, on the romantic little street called corredera baja de San Pablo.
Roscon de Reyes. The traditional holiday dessert served on the Dia de los Reyes.