It’s a searingly hot afternoon when I arrive in Madrid, so I decide to spend my first afternoon in the Retiro Park. The Retiro is one of the most beautiful parks I’ve seen, filled with sculptures and monuments; stone Sphinxes look on as metal Iguanas spout water into pools where terrapins swim. I walk down a boulevard to the Alfonso Monument, with its colonnades surrounding a central sculpture; giant fish spout water into a boating lake. I walk on to the monument to Lucifer and the Crystal Palace. The Palace has a small art exhibition; at the centre a pendulum gradually creates sand patterns on the floor as it swings to and fro. I walk onward to a rose garden and a set of Japanese gardens; a raft of ducks become competitive as bread is offered.
The next day I take the Metro to the Teatro Real and walk to the Plaze de Oriente. In contrast to the fantastical Retiro, the Plaze is a geometrically precise formal garden, lined on either side with statues of Spanish Kings and Queens and with an equestrian statue of Philip the Second at its centre. Facing it is the Palacio Real; I walk past it and visit the Catedral de la Almudena. It’s an odd building; the exterior is defined by austere neo-classicism while the interior is a form of cold gothic, but the ceilings are decorated with garish primary colours as are the stained glass in the windows. The crypt is perhaps more striking, with its illuminated arcades silhouetted against the darkness. After that, I walk down past the old Moorish city walls to the Campo Del Moro. With the Palacio Real towering above its fountains and trees, the Campo is a rather more conventional park than the Retiro, with the exception of the odd inclusion of a Swiss cottage. In one of the rose gardens, I encounter a peacock family with two chicks.
In one of the other parks nearby, I visit the Temple of Debod. This Egyptian temple rests at summit of a hill in the middle of an ornamental pond. After this, I walk back into central Madrid and the Plaza de España; the monument to Cervantes here is only rivalled by the Scott Monument in Edinburgh for a country creating a grand memorial to its writers. The presence of the nearby wedding cake style skyscraper, the Edificio España, makes for an odd counterpoint. I then travel onto the Plaza Mayor, a grand square surrounded by uniform buildings in a bright scarlet on all sides with an equestrian statue of Philip the Third by Giambologna in the centre, the Plaza del Sol with its Bear and Strawberry Tree statue and down the Gran Via. The Gran Via is probably best described as a more ornate version of Oxford Street; I’m especially impressed by the Edificio Telefonica, a skyscraper that would not have looked out of place in Manhattan. Lastly, I find myself at the Plaza de Cibeles, where Madrid’s City Hall is located.
The following day, I visit the Palacio Real. I initially walk through the armoury with its collection of Moorish and Medieval weaponry. In the palace itself, a lot of the rooms have ceilings with frescoes drawn by Tiepolo and Bourbon era paintings by Goya; I especially like the porcelain and chinoiserie rooms. The golden lions in the throne room rather remind me of the Rosenborg slot in Copenhagen. As this is the centenary of the death of Cervantes, a number of tapestries showing scenes from Don Quixote are on display. At the end there’s an exhibition which includes a Bernini sculpture of the crucifixion, paintings by Caravaggio, Guido Reni and Ribera. That afternoon, I visit the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. Some of the things I’m most struck by; Bernini’s sculpture of Saint Sebastian, The Virgin of the Dry Tree by Christus, Weyden’s Virgin and Child, Carpaccio’s Knight in a Landscape, Angelico’s Virgin, Titian’s Doge, Brueghel’s Garden of Eden, Saenredam’s Mariakerk, Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, Ter Borch’s Portrait of a Man, Holbein’s Portrait of Henry the Eighth, Ruebens’ Portrait of a Young Woman with a Rosary, Friedrich’s Easter Morning, Cole’s Expulsion, Manet’s Horsewoman, Monet’s Charing Cross Bridge, Renoir’s Wheatfield, Van Gogh’s Les Vessenots, Grosz’s Metropolis, Ernst’s Solitary and Conjugal Trees, Macke’s Circus, Dali’s Dream Caused by The Flight of a Bee and O’Keeffe’s New York Street. There’s also a small exhibition of photographs taken in Wyeth’s native city of Chadd’s Ford. For the rest of the afternoon, I take a stroll to Plaza Santa Ana and the Mercado de San Miguel.
The entirety of the following day is occupied with a rather more extensive visit to the Prado. There’s an exhibition on for the Bosch centenary; in addition to the gallery’s own collection it’s also brought together Bosh works from across Europe, many of which I’ve seen before, but the highlights are The Garden of Earthly Delights, the Haywain Triptych and the Temptations of Saint Anthony. Items like The Table of the Seven Deadly Sins are also entirely new to me. The Prado collections proper begin with Romanesque painting, often from preserved church interiors, rather reminding me of similar frescoes I’d seen in Barcelona. The linkages between Hispanic and Flemish art of the medieval period are new to me, if unsurprising, in paintings of still lives and Boscheque scenes of the fall. Extensive collections of renaissance art follow; El Greco, Ribera, Zurbaran, Velasquez and Murillo representing Spain. The Goya collections are especially extensive, divided between the black paintings, court portraiture and interior frescoes. I’m also new to a Spanish school of neo-classical painting similar to David and Ingres and to the 19th Spanish history paintings; Queen Isabella dictating her will and Joanna the Mad at her husband’s funeral. I’m struck by a painting of Nary Tudor I had never realised was by a Spanish artist. The international collections commence with Angelico’s Annunciation and Boticelli’s Story of Nastagio. Other things that catch my eye; a copy of the Mona Lisa, Parmigianino portraits, a series of Hapsburg portraits by Titian, a Bassano painting of God Reprimanding Adam, Weyden’s Virgin and Child, Durer’s self-portrait, a Massys portrait of Christ, Brueghel’s Triumph of Death, Durer’s Adam and Eve, a Rembrandt painting of Judith, Poussin, Robert and Lorrain paintings and a David Roberts paintings of Rome and Seville. There’s also a small set of classical sculptures, of Antinous, Orestes and Pylades and the Apotheosis of Claudius. Lastly there’s a small exhibition of Talbotype illustrations, made of them made around Reading.
The following day and I take the train out to Segovia. It arrives at a very modern station in the middle of nowhere and I have to take a bus out to the centre of the town. Much of that area consists of wasteland and empty office developments; it looks like an aborted project begun before the financial crisis. As the bus arrives, the first thing I see is the aqueduct; almost entirely intact, easily the equal of anything in Rome. I walk up through the town to the cathedral. It has a beautiful gothic interior with a pleasant set of cloisters. I then walk onto the Alcazar. Heavily restored and recreated after a fire in the 19th century, it rather reminds me of Neuschwanstein with its elegant spires balanced at the edge of a cliff face. I enter through the armoury, which then gives way to a series of gothic and mudejar rooms and climb to the top of the tower, from where I can see Storks nesting on top of the nearby pine trees. A series of formal gardens cling onto the cliff face nearby. I walk back through the town, loooking at a series of churches with Romanesque capitals and arches.
The next day and I instead travel out to Toledo. The 19th century train station I arrive at is an exotic 19th century confection, designed in a faux-Moorish style. I walk into the town pass over a bridge and walk through a horseshoe arch into the town. The first thing I visit is the Hospital of Santa Cruz. The museum here has a display of Roman mosaics and medieval Spanish ceramics. The gardens and cloisters are beautiful. Walking further into town I visit the cathedral; not unlike Segovia, but the interior is even darker and more cavernous; a treasury contains a large gold monstrance, the cloister walls are painted with frescoes, the transparente which illuminates parts of the nave at different points of the day through two windows, chapels with sets of medieval tombs, a giant fresco of St Christopher covering an entire wall and a Sacristy lined with El Greco and Caravaggio paintings. I then go onto visit the El Greco museum, a pleasant house filled with Moorish ceramics and a beautiful garden. The museum itself contains El Greco paintings of the apostles. I also visit some of the town’s former synagogues and look at a set of Roman baths jutting out the hillside on the edge of the city. Journeying back to Madrid, I arrive at Atocha station and walk around the old nineteenth century station whose interior is now filled with Palms and Ferns growing above ponds where Terrapins lazily swim.
The following day I visit the Museum of the Americas. Exiting a Metro station opposite Franco’s Air Ministry (designed effectively as a replica for a medieval Spanish castle) the museum is housed inside Madrid university, near a rather bizarre viewing platform (not unlike the Space Needle in Seattle). The museum is extraordinary; enconchando panels showing the Conquest of Mexico, an Incan mummy, Mayan urns, Tlingit helmets, feather hats and Quimbaya gold figurines. The afternoon is spent in the Archaeological Museum. Starting with Stone Age Idols before proceeding to the Iberian period, with extraordinary sculptures like the Lady of Elche. The collection of Roman mosaics is especially extensive along with Roman tombs and sculptures; I’m also struck by a working Roman pump. Later exhibits include the Reccesvinth’s crown from the Guarrazar tomb, Visigothic jewellery, wooden carvings and ceilings from Al-Andalus, medieval capitals and tomb monuments. There’s also an extensive Greek and Egyptian section, filled with statues of Apollo, Canopic Jars, sarcophagi and a statue of Nectanebo. Finally on that day, I take advantage of late opening to see Guernicaat the Reina Sofia Gallery, along with various works by Dali, Miro, Man Ray, Brassai, Cocteau, mobiles by Calder and a portrait of Tristan Tzara by Delaunay.
The next day and I travel away from Madrid once more out to the Escorial. It’s a rather convoluted route to get there by train, bus and walking but I do finally arrive. The first thing I visit there is the Basilica, which seems most notable for its dark and austere nature; the gold tomb monuments of the Hampsburgs in prayer are probably the most striking. The I walk through a set of frescoed cloisters into the palace, including Philip’s study, the Hall of Battles and the Kaisergruft style crypts. There’s a small art exhibition, including tapestry versions of Bosch paintings, the custmary El Grecos and a striking Weyden painting of the Crucifixion. The Bourbon apartments are considerably more lively, filled with bright and colourful tapestries showing scenes of Spanish life, many of them designed by Goya. Finally, I walk around the gardens and look out across the Castilian plain to the four Madrid skyscrapers near the train station that can still be seen in the distance, before getting into yet another bus to visit the Valley of the Fallen. The bus heads off deep into the mountains and leaves me at the Valley for two hours. The grandiloquent scale of the architecture contrasts markedly with the quiet and peace of the location; a Hummingbird Moth is fluttering around some flowers while bees drone near a set of bushes. The concrete plateau in front of the Basilica is filled with weeds and inevitably reminds me of Speer’s theory of ruin value. The interior of the Basilica is in many ways nothing more than a drearily conventional Catholic church filled with ceiling mosaics and a somewhat outre choice of tapestries depicting scenes from the Book of Revelations, but the scale and darkness equally give it the atmosphere of a warehouse or tube station.
The last day in Madrid begins with a visit to the Botanical Gardens. There’s a lovely set of displays, from sunflowers and palms to Bonsai trees and Dahlias. At one point I’m distracted by a noise and initially assume it to be the customarily noisy Parrots before I realise that it’s a set of frog mating calls coming from a pond. A series of (presumably employed) cats prowl around, stalking pigeons. Lastly, I visit the Sorolla museum. Not a name I’d previously heard of, the museum reminds me of the Leighton House in Kensington or Moreau’s studio in Montmartre, with rooms filled with his own paintings, Majolica ceramics and medieval sculptures. The paintings themselves I’m less impressed by; an exhibition shows impressionist views of Spanish cities, including a beautiful Burgos snow scene.