Penman No. 97: Museum-Hopping in Madrid

Penman for Monday, May 17, 2014


I’M WRITING this at the airport in Barcelona, awaiting the departure of our much-delayed flight to Venice. Beng and I are at the midpoint of a two-week jaunt through Europe, and we’ve just said goodbye to our unica hija Demi and her husband Jerry, who are going on to Rome and to Sardinia. We spent a blissful week together in Spain—meeting up in Madrid (Demi and Jerry live in California, in San Diego), then spending a couple of days each in San Sebastian and Barcelona.

I’m taking Beng to Venice and Florence in fulfillment of a promise I made three years ago, when I first visited those cities, to share the wonders of those cities with her, the artist and conservator who will surely gain more from the experience than I can; and then we’ll pass by Paris before flying back to Madrid, then home. For us, as footloose as we already are, it’s the trip of a lifetime—largely a treat from Demi and Jerry for our 40th anniversary, and partly realized by my recent poker windfall; I figured the stash was better spent popping our heads into a few museums and cathedrals rather than vanishing chip by chip back across the green felt table.

For reasons I just made obvious, we’re calling this our “Amazing Race,” a breathless dash across three countries in Europe, with layovers in London and Hong Kong, in 14 days. I know, I know—the seasoned travelers among us will say that this is no way to see Europe, and that one’s time is better spent savoring one or two places and their features to the last morsel than hopping like mad rabbits across borders and barely seeing or tasting anything. But while it’s our first time in Spain, Beng and I have been to Europe before, and are used to and prefer this kind of cherry-picking: a little of this and that, much the tapas and pintxos on offer in the restaurants of Madrid and San Sebastian. We’ll happily admit to being shameless tourists than National Geographic correspondents, although, of course, I can’t help taking the notes I’m now sharing with you.

Having gone around the planet quite a bit, we came to Spain quite late. I’d always wanted to see what Jose Rizal saw. Today’s Spain may be a vastly different place in many respects from Rizal’s time, but so much of Europe, and thus Spain, is immutably set in hard rock, and remains impervious to rain, wind, and time.


We flew into Madrid on a bright spring morning, and quickly discovered, to our great delight, that it was a city of parks, plazas, museums, monuments—and restaurants and bars. The first thing that hits you about Madrid is its architecture, steeped in neoclassical grandeur, the streets all at sharp angles converging in roundabouts capped by marble statues erected to the memory of heroes, not all of them warlike figures but rather also icons of art and literature. You’re never too far from reminders of Spain’s imperial legacy in Madrid. The first museum we visited was the Naval Museum, rich with exhibits from Spain’s colonial exploits, including the Philippines, represented by a roomful of precious artifacts from the San Diego wreck of 1600 and by yet another gallery of native weaponry from Filipino tribes.


Just a few blocks away was the Prado, Madrid’s temple devoted to its most sublime masters of centuries past—Velasquez, Goya, El Greco, and Sorolla, among others. Since visiting the Louvre more than a decade ago, I’ve always been amazed by the freshness and luminosity of paintings 500 years old; some of it, of course, is due to the skill of restorers like my wife (who was incidentally trained by Spanish teachers), but in a world lit by only candles and torches, the masters knew best how work with light and to use it to best effect.


But as enthralled as I was by this encounter with the finest art of the past, it was at the Reina Sofia museum—again within walking distance of most other places of interest in central Madrid—that I nearly fell on my knees as I approached and beheld Picasso’s massive Guernica, his enduring indictment of war. The Reina Sofia is Madrid’s modernist counterpart of the classical Prado, and its stunning façade alone and the plaza before it are well worth the visit. Here, Picasso, Miro, and Dali rule, along with many other less known but no less fascinating champions of new ways of looking at and representing reality and irreality. Here, as I did years ago at London’s Tate Modern, I remembered and understood again why classical art held me in awe, but modernism spoke more directly and more deeply to me—making me laugh, making me think, and making me angry or sad, sometimes all at once.


One more thing I noticed about Madrid’s museums and other attractions like the Botanical Garden and the Royal Palace: you may have to pay a modest fee to get in—it was 3 euros at the Naval Museum—but if you wait until the last couple of hours (6:00-8:00 pm at the Prado) or for special days, you could get in for free. Also, for the first time in my life (and I should add the first place, because nowhere in the Philippines did I get this favor), my university faculty ID gave me free entry. That’s a society that values its teachers.

For all our museum-hopping, my favorite “museo” turned out to be the Museo de Jamon, a chain of restaurants you’ll find on every other city block offering all manner of meat, and a scrumptiously wet seafood paella. I quickly grew addicted to bocadillo de jamon—thin slices of jamon serrano in crusty bread—which was on special at the Museo de Jamon for one euro apiece.


14143188584_c2e4c38bc2_z14153114804_184eeb2d66_z13966312100_835fd44243_zWe did as tourists do: hang out at the Plaza Mayor and Plaza del Sol, watching an anti-fascist demonstration here (like Marcos, Generalissimo Francisco Franco died decades ago but his victims have yet to receive full justice) and a busker there (playing what else but Tarrega—whose Gran Vals many will inadvertently if cavalierly know as the source of the Nokia ringtone). We dipped churros in our chocolate at the Chocolateria San Gines, which has been in the business since 1894; but even this venerable chocolateria seemed a newcomer compared to the Restaurante de Botin, reputed to be the oldest running restaurant in the world, having opened in the same place in 1725. More contemporary-minded diners will prefer a quick bite at the trendy Mercado de San Miguel, an old market converted into a covered food court just off the Plaza Mayor, and neatly organized: all the meats here, all the sweets there, and so on.


The culinary and perhaps even cultural highlight of our Madrid sojourn took place in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant close to the Reina Sofia. Unlike me and even the far more adventurous Beng, Demi and Jerry are gourmets who seek out and relish fine food, but—perhaps out of respect for the philistine papa—we had resolved to eat like the locals on this trip, and so we spent our last night in Madrid feasting on paella, mushrooms, patatas bravas, and chicharrones, washed down with what apparently was Madrid’s if not Spain’s most popular beer—San Miguel. This is our beer, we tried to tell the genial restaurant owner in our best pidgin Spanish, but I don’t think the Empire heard us.