Tour of Duty: An art pilgrimage in southern Europe #4: Tapas on Heaven\’s Door – Madrid and Toledo, Spain

4: Tapas on Heaven’s Door

May 2003
Madrid was once the centre of a great Spanish empire that controlled almost half the globe for 200 years across the 16th and 17th centuries. That power and control of the riches that flowed from the Americas, and the military control of Europe from Amsterdam to Naples, can be seen in the rich acres of art treasures in the galleries of Madrid, especially The Prado and La Thyssen.

Madrid is also a city of, what it seems to a foreigner, a million little bars and cafes where the locals hang out from about 4pm in the afternoon to after midnight every day of the week. I have only done this once, as the cost to the new initiate is prohibitive, especially for the plates or raciones of the small “toppers” or hors oeuvres called tapas. Some are just spicy sausage with tomato paste on crusty bread, while other more exotic concoctions are small pickled eel tartlets, or little fish staring at you with little collars of green weed (forget it!). Just be content to stick to the simple tapas and drink the very good beer or the chilled light-red wine (sangria).

We are holed up in the Hostal Barajas booked through BootsnAll in an area just north of the centre of the city in an interesting area of gay bars, sex shops and hostels (near Cheuca metro station). We like the area, as it feels very safe. Tthere are also many cheap shoe shop outlets, which my wife disappears into as she has a long-standing fetish about shoes (her parents once had a shoe shop). Hostal Barajas is run by a Chinese family who are extremely anal retentive and clean the room every day, but they run a very tight outfit and ultra-clean hostel which for �37 a night for a double with private facilities is a steal for us. We recommend it highly. We gave them our golden roo award (a small golden kangaroo pin).

We have ridden the Madrid metro around quite a lot while here, and it is well organised and efficient, but more crowded than in Barcelona. We did try to arrive in peak hour and carry our packs onto what was like a sardine-can carriage. Like France you can buy a carnet of 10 rides for �5, which we find the cheapest and most flexible way to travel on the 12-line metro.

We came here on an art pilgrimage, so it was out into the streets to head east across town for only a 20-minute walk to the gallery district. First stop was the modern Art gallery: The Renia Sofia. Here the monumental Guernica of Picasso is housed, and it is as impressive as my wife said it would be. I studied the history of the Spanish Civil War and I had some ideas about its content, but what made it more enriching to see was the studies that Picasso had done before the final huge painting (28 feet by 12 feet), to reveal fully the care and attention to detail he practised before completing the painting. In one study he drew eight different types of eye and finally placed his faith in the most simple of these. In fact the final painting is more simple in form and has more impact as a result with its black and white and grey tones..

To add some more insight to the metamorphosis of Guernica, the gallery exhibits the black and white photos of Picasso’s partner, Dora Maar, that show the many stages that it took to reach a finality. What a finality it is! and remains truly one of the most significant modern paintings of the 20th century. I feel privileged to have seen it with all its developmental entrails of production revealed.

A quick blur through the work of Dali (an artist I like) and we were out of there and on to the “Tour de Force”: The Prado, for the serious early paintings acquired by the mega-loaded kings of Spain, who just happened to rule over most of Italy and the Netherlands and sucked up art like a huge vacuum cleaner to decorate the walls of huge palaces.

I am no art historian so I will not try to be so here, but give my own visceral impressions of a few painters who to me sum up Spanish life. The first is Velazquez (1599-1660), a good-looking man, vain and fawned on by the Spanish court of King Felipe IV. His delicate and detailed painting of the infant family of King Felipe, Las Meninas was my favourite, as was his imposing surrender of the Dutch to the Spaniards in the The Lances-Surrender of Breda, painted in 1634, emblematic of the power of Spain and revealing a sort of “gentlemanly” posturing of the rules of war – the complete opposite of the horror and dissection of life in Picasso’s Guernica of 1937.

Next was the Spanish painter Goya, who to my mind is the best social commentator of his times. He was also a star of the later Court of King Carlos V of Spain. His numerous paintings in the Prado of farmers, workmen, upper class hunters and nobility rubbing shoulders on the walls, bespeak their own collective sincerity about the times of late 18th- and early 19th-century Spain. Goya painted people of low and high class as they were – warts and all – especially the nobility with many warts and bemused faces. To me the two great Goya paintings are the Charge of the Marmadukes: May 2 1808 and May 3 1808: The Executions at Principe Pio. These two paintings show the uprising of the Spanish people against the French invaders under the command of Napoleon in 1808, and the summary execution of resisters by the military machine of Bonaparte.

The Prado has many other delights for the art lover, but after a close viewing of Bosch’s (1450-1516) seriously weird and wonderful triptych of strange creatures devouring naked bodies, painted in 1505, The Garden of Earthly Delights, it was time for some fresh air in a near-normal world outside.

The next day it was off to the La Thyssen, the best organised gallery in Madrid. One starts on the third floor and spirals down through 700 years of European painting to the present day. My wife headed for the Kandinski special exhibit of “visual music” after a tour of the Impressionists. I will sum up my feelings of the La Thyssen with three paintings: first, a view of the grande canal in Venice around the mid 1700s by Cannoletto, which amazingly still looks the same today in all its rich detail; second, a beautiful interior of a studio by Dutch painter Van Heyden that revealed the growth of ideas from exploration. The Chinese fabric on the table was topped by globes of the old world and new maps – a painting of great promise. Third, an evening, back-lit painting of stevedores on the docks at Arles, painted by Van Gogh.

Why these three paintings? One of Venice visited and to all intents, just the same, one of travel and its new frontiers and one of a place to be visited on this pilgrimage in the future.

As if not worn out by the gallery-hopping in Madrid we did a day trip to Toledo, the ancient walled-town that was the centre of the Spanish Renaissance. It is only a hour away by train to the south.

Here El Greco and his paintings were the focus of our attention, in-between enjoying sauntering around 14th-century cobbled lanes and admiring the craftwork of metal workers who inlay brass, gold and silver wire into steel weaponry and tourist items. This process, called Damasque, can look a bit kitchy, but I bought a small box to add to my collection.

Back to El Greco (“the Greek”), he was born in Greece, trained in Venice and lived 36 years in Toledo. His paintings are very expressive and mystical in the main, but his best to my eye was the realistic altar painting in the church of St Thomas called The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586), painted at the same time as Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. The luminescence of the garments of the saints and the faces of the noble Castillian onlookers in this work is first-class.

Madrid has a ground zero in its main square at Peurta del Sol. A bronze bear on its hindquarters reaches for the fruit on a tree. All destinations in Spain and beyond are measured from here. Madrid was the centre of the known world and the gateway to heaven’s door, with its Kings the protectors of the Catholic Church and Christiandom. In modern day Madrid there is a more secular reality emerging, with much time spent admiring the past through the doors of cafes and bars while consuming volumes of ale and plates of weird tapas almost to rival the delights of Bosch. Madrid truly was tapas at Heaven’s door, a vast vital city of consuming delights at all hours of the day and to all appearances able to remain active, sober and productive!

On to Seville and the southern coast of Portugal for a change of pace and my next report. Adios.