on the steps of the palace

Spain’s grandiose Palacio Real quite obviously had designs on being heralded as an Iberian Versailles. The 2,800 room Italianate baroque colossus built by Felipe V never quite managed to challenge its European counterparts, but its soaring white facade is pretty magnificent – as are the fifty rooms open to the public; the highlights of which are the Royal Pharmacy, Royal Armory, the Porcelain Room, and the Throne Room with its Tiepolo ceiling and crimson velvet walls. Perhaps embarrassed by the imperial extravagance of it all, Spain’s current ruling family lives in more republican digs, dropping by the family manse only when duty calls. And while we’re on the subject of duty: all this pomp’s got me thinking I’m forgetting something royally important today …

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an urban retreat

No ordinary park, Parque del Buen Retiro is a 350-acre expanse of green that was once the private preserve of the Spanish kings and queens.  What they left behind, aside from some stunning gardens and topiary, is a legacy of architectural showpieces in the heart of Madrid:  the boating pond is watched over by the colonnade of the Monumento de Alfonso XII on one side, while the Palacio de Cristal, an imposing glass palace modeled on London’s Crystal Palace, lies hidden among the trees on the other. In the northeastern corner of the park are the 13th Century Romanesque ruins of a hermitage, while the southwestern corner is home to the poignant Bosque de los Ausentes, an olive and cypress memorial to the victims of the March, 2004 train bombings.  Near Rosaleda, the formal expanse of rose gardens, is the reason I ventured into the park in the first place: the fountain of The Fallen Angel, El Angel Caido. Surrounded by a phalanx of water-spouting serpents it must be one of the only – if not the only statue – dedicated to Lucifer.

 

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oldie but goodie

Restaurant Botín doesn’t just claim to be the oldest restaurant in the world, it’s got the Guinness World Book of Records seal to back it up.  Ordinarily such a boast would have me charging in the opposite direction quicker than you could say toro but I have been reading Hemingway in Madrid and the final scene of The Sun Also Rises takes place over a suckling pig at Botín.  Something about the sudden confluence made dinner a much more authentic prospect than previously imagined.  And an appealing one, too, despite having to dine at the unfashionably early hour – by Madrileño standards anyway – of 8PM. Any mention of the establishment, from literary to culinary, takes pains to highlight the cochinillo, or roast suckling pig, and you’d be a fool not to try it.  Cooked in wood-fired ovens in the vaulted cellar it’s yet one more elegant Spanish ode to the tastiness of the pig.

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the lord of la mancha

It was only a few years ago that I randomly picked up a copy of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.  In Edith Grossman’s stunning translation, which was new at the time, the four hundred year old novel was brought to life in a way I couldn’t have imagined possible.  A weighty tome in both size and scope it held me enrapt for weeks. (Pick up any piece of fiction written in the last two hundred years and you’ll see the debt to Cervantes on every page) I knew the author spent a significant period of his life abroad, but didn’t realize his ties to the capital until now. Cervantes died in Madrid, coincidentally on the same day as William Shakespeare: April 23, 1616.

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la gastroteca

Lest you think Madrid has little more to offer in the way of gastronomic delights than tapas, cod balls, and the House of Ham, remember, please, that the Spanish are responsible for the whole molecular gastronomy craze.  The city has its fair share of fine – and experimental – dining; it’s just that – to a New Yorker anyway – it’s not nearly as engaging as Spanish comfort food. In the open kitchen of Córdoba-born chef Juan Carlos Ramos, however, those two concepts enjoy a felicitous liaison. La Gastroteca de Santiago deploys the freshest ingredients in homage to traditional Spanish cooking with experimental twists and international influences along the way. It’s an exemplary combination served up in an intimate and bijoux designer space on the Plaza de Santiago: pate with warm toast and olive oil, seafood paella, roast suckling pig, chocolate mousse.  Plus, you can make it a relative bargain and bypass the pricey a la carte blackboard specials in favor of the equally adventurous prix fixe.

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lounging at the plaza

For centuries the center of Madrid life, the stately Plaza Mayor combines elegant architecture with a history dominated by peculiarly Spanish dramas.  First laid out in 1618 it hosted the beatification of the city’s patron saint, San Isidro Labrador.  It also played host to the macabre rituals of the Spanish Inquisition – burnings on the north side of the square, hangings on the south – until unironically consumed by fire in the 18th century.  Later rebuilt, as many as 50,000 people would cram into the square for spectacles of another sort: bullfights.  Before you attempt to ponder these vagaries, pull up a chair at one of the outdoor cafes around the perimeter and enjoy the theater of Spanish street life coursing through the plaza, which must surely rank as one of the country’s most beautiful.

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good wood

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one big basilica

You could almost be forgiven for strolling past the Basilica of San Francisco el Grande without giving it a second glance.  Though it’s the largest dome in Spain – larger than St. Paul’s in London even – its main facade faces the intersection of the Gran Vía de San Francisco and the Carrera de San Francisco in what is essentially a traffic circle.  Add to that a high steel fence and the incumbent swirl of motorist garbage that it collects, I wouldn’t call it the most inviting of entrances. But passing it by would be a shame as inside there is a magnificent chapel painted by Goya and a secret stash of  art that can be seen at unbelievably close range.  This is one of those rare times where not speaking the local language actually helps.  Claim total ignorance of Spanish and the tour guide will show you how to operate the lights on your own.  Let the Spanish-language tour get started then bolt straight for the altar and nick in through the doors on the left.  Turn the lights on and off like you’ve been instructed and self-guide your way through the Basilica’s private rooms, which are literally crammed with art.  Eventually you’ll make your way to an opulent room where the church superiors once met – the Renaissance-era sculpted-walnut seats are one of those marvels of craftsmanship that define the enlightened times.  As you find yourself looping back to the opposite side of the altar however, you’ll find the star attraction:  Zurburán’s painting of St. Thomas Aquinas. No protective glass, no barriers, the painting is so close you could reach out and touch it. It’s so still – and quiet – that even a confirmed non-believer can’t help but grow contemplative looking at the great scholar as seen by the great artist.

 

 

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goya’s last palette

The Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando is one of the more discrete and under appreciated museums in Madrid.  And that’s a huge plus to anyone exhausted from the unending crowds jostling for viewing space at the Prado or Rena Sofia museums.  The permanent collection includes a good number of masterworks, too, with particular attention paid to Zurburán, Ribera, and the drawings of Picasso, who was once a student at the Academy. Goya was a member from 1780 onwards and the Neoclassical building boasts thirteen of his paintings, including two self-portraits and the famous carnival scene known as the Burial of the Sardine. A series of six paintings grouped together as Children’s Games are perfect examples of the artist’s vivid and spontaneous style but what I found most intriguing – aside from the quiet – was a display of Goya’s last palette.

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zurburán’s answer to “when life hands you lemons…”

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live blog: dogs barking

(We’ve had a few tech traumas this week.  Hopefully the bug’s been cleared up and daily posts are continuing to go live as they should.  Apologies to all of my daily readers for any withdrawal symptoms!)

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meet me at the mercado

The Mercado de San Miguel food market is housed in a fantastic glass and cast iron structure that dates from 1916. It strikes me as the type of building that might have once been abandoned and earmarked for demolition due to its prime location in the heart of the city – until a few savvy foodies with a vision for what it could be came along, that is.  Renovated and opened as a boutique delicatessen in 2009, the Mercado is a locavore’s heaven, with individual market stalls selling everything from fruit and veg to meat, fish, bread and baked goods.  This being Spain there’s a good wine bar, too, so you can feel free to enjoy a glass of Rioja with your shopping. Or even better, make it a lunch date and tapas hop your way from stall to stall to stall.

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no mas pulpo, por favor

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a sort-of tapas crawl

One of Madrid’s culinary highlights is tapas. In fact, you can’t properly say you’ve done right by this city until you’ve gone out on a tapas crawl, eschewing a proper dinner for a series of small plates (and glasses of beer) at a handful of tapas bars. In the Barrio de las Letras I discovered a string of respectable looking joints lined up as if for just such an exercise, starting with Los Gatos, where the beer came accompanied by a plate of camaron and the salmon and goat cheese canapes were served with potato chips freshly fried in olive oil. I quickly – if just a little too late – learned an important lesson of the tapas experience:  pace yourself, these are nibbles. If four sandwiches and a plate of ham is your starting off point, you probably won’t last very long.  And I didn’t. Moving next door to La Dolores that salient fact hit me when the man behind the counter asked why I stopped digging into a plate of Galician-style octopus. Was there something wrong with the food?  No, I tried to explain more through gesture than words, it’s me. I’m full, I said patting an imagined Santa belly. He looked at me like the amateur I was. Filling up on tapas, I later found out, is tantamount to eating all the wasabi peas.

 

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la vida es sueno

Plaza de Santa Ana is the dream of Madrileño street life I expected to find in this city: smoky cafes, modern hotels, and chattering post-theater crowds all intersecting at the center of Huertas in a square dedicated to two of the country’s most famous poet-playwrights:  Federico Garcia Lorca and Calderon de la Barca.

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