Monday, April 03, 2006

Madrid Free and Easy

A T-shirt on display in a shop window in the center of Madrid proclaimed, “Life is Good”. Thinking about my recent visit to this city after nine long years of absence, I agree de todo corazon.

I arrived on Saturday morning and wasted no time in reacquainting myself with Madrid. It felt good to walk around town and find my way by getting lost along its many narrow streets. From Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s main draws such as Plaza Mayor, Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales and the Royal Palace are within walking distance.

To see Madrid’s many attractions involves little or no expense on the part of the visitor. Here are some free and easy ways to savor Madrid:

1. The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is one of my favorite museums in Madrid. This is the home of Guernica, a powerful and evocative masterpiece by Pablo Picasso. It is immense. Painted in black and white, it is an abstract representation of the destruction wrought by the bombing of Guernica, a small town in the Basque region during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso portrays the death and suffering of civilians, 1600 of whom were killed and wounded. This painting was not displayed in Spain until 1981 long after the death General Francisco Franco. Elsewhere in the museum are works by Spain’s own modern masters, Salvador Dali, Joan Miro and Juan Gris as well as international modern artists. The museum is free on Saturdays after 2:30 p.m. and all day Sundays.

2. The drawing room of Madrid is Plaza Mayor. Though this used to be where heretics were burned, today it is full of life. An equestrian statue of Philip III rides in the center of the square surrounded by inviting outdoor cafés. This is one of the best places to relax, people watch and admire the frescoes that decorate some of the 17th century buildings that surround the plaza. The Museo de Jamon on the square sells bocadillos (sandwiches) for less than 1 euro.

3. The Prado is unquestionably one of the best art museums in the world. As court painter, Diego Velasquez distinguished himself with his portraits of the royal family and ordinary people such as those he portrayed in Los Borachos. His Las Meninas is an absorbing study of the young princess and her entourage. It also hints the presence of the King and Queen whose images are reflected on the mirror in the background. And finally, it is a suggestive self portrait of the artist who has obviously “arrived”. Another Spanish master, Francisco Goya, renders a moving scene of an execution in “2nd of May 1808”. The victim raises his hands in surrender and faces his executioners with eyes full of fear. This is a far cry from the “Naked Maja” who reclines in nude glory for all the world to see. The Prado is free all day Sundays.

4. Madrid, unlike Paris or London, has no famous cathedral. It does have the Real Basilica of St. Francis which has an enormous dome that is larger than the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. For 2.40 euros, a guide takes visitors to the sacristy with its carved, wooden choir stalls (some are faux) and the pinacoteca with an original by Francisco Zurbaran. The side altars are dramatically decorated, some in rare tiles, another in the Mudejar style and each one is crowned with its own dome. In one of the chapels, Goya stares back at the onlooker from a mural.

5. The squares of Madrid are alive with fountains, equestrian statues of kings long gone, and outdoor cafés. At Plaza España, Don Quixote of La Mancha and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza look ready to “run where the brave dare not go”. The cafés at Plaza Oriente have unbeatable views of the formal French garden and the Royal Palace. It’s always delightful to see the Cibeles Fountains on Plaza del Cibeles. The drone of traffic is muffled by the sound of water as Cibeles, the Greek goddess of fertility, rides her chariot with the help of two mythical lions.

6. While there are many interesting things to see in the Royal Palace, it cost 9 euros to get in. If this is an obstacle, head over to the Cathedral of the Almudena which is across from the palace and check out the golden retablo before which Spain’s royalty prayed for divine intervention. Entrance is free.

7. The Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando is in the former 17th century Baroque palace of Juan de Goyenche. This museum showcases Spanish painters. The collection includes two self portraits by Goya, his life size canvas of La Tirana, Maria Rosario Fernandez and small paintings depicting the Inquisition, the Casa de Locos and a bullfight. There are also works by El Greco, Zurbaran and Murillo. It is free to the public on Wednesdays.

8. Join the crowds for coffee and pastry break at La Mallorquina on Puerta del Sol. For one euro, you can order from an array of tempting pastries like hojaldre or neapolitana. There are neither tables nor chairs here. This is a stand up joint. You can pile your plates of sweets on counters that take half the space of this popular pastelería.

9. For views of the red rooftops of Madrid to the suburbs beyond, head over to the 8th floor of El Corte Ingles on Plaza Callao. Arrive before 1 p.m. and beat the lunch crowd. The restaurant serves three course fixed priced menus starting at 10.95 euros but you can always order a simple coffee or beverage and sit for as long as you wish.

10. More time on your hands? Retiro Park is just behind the Prado museum. Or if it’s Sunday, check out El Rastro market for the incredible selection of “stuff” on sale. Also on Sunday, head over to the church of the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales and listen to the nuns in residence sing during mass at noon. They can only be heard, not seen. This church is part of the convent established by a member of the royal family in the mid 16th century. Notice the balconies from whence royal guests used to observe mass.

When in Madrid, do as the Madrileños do. Rest during siesta hours from 2 to 4 p.m. and stay out all night. The whole town comes to life when night descends upon the city. This is when the paseo begins. Vamos a Madrid!

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How to get there: Delta Airlines flies non stop to Madrid from Atlanta with connecting flights to major U.S. cities.

Where to stay: The Premier Hotel Santo Domingo is centrally located. It is about a five- minute walk to Puerta del Sol and the Gran Via. Plaza Santo Domingo, 13.
Phone: 34 91 547 98 00, Fax: 34 91 547 59 95, http://www.hotelsantodomingo.com/

Where to eat: Tres Encinas on Calle Preciados serves seafood ($$$). Museo de Jamon offers three course meals from 7 euros as well as ham soup, ham sandwiches, ham tortillas (omelettes) etc. They have branches all over the city including Plaza Mayor, near the Prado museum and off of Puerta del Sol ( $ ). The restaurant at El Corte Ingles (a department store) on Plaza Callao has a good selection of fish, pasta or steak dishes ($). I especially enjoyed the fish entrée, Emperador a la plancha, served with potatoes and crusty bread. La Mallorquina for coffee and pastry is on Puerta del Sol.

Images by Rosario Charie Albar