Friday today. Arrived in Madrid Wednesday afternoon but in a minor calamity managed to forget a minor electronozzle for my universal phone charger, leaving me to ration my power. Found it horribly disturbing to be without phone access: no music, no audiobooks, no camera, no moblogging, no immediate web access... it's like having a limb amputated. Fortunately I got to a cybercafe and found that "charger" translates as "cargador", and rather than lead an armoured warhorse from the back the nice lady at the phone shop produced a phone charger for me.
Wasn't really in the mood to travel at first, but didn't really want to cancel it as there's nothing I can really do at home except sit around getting in the way. Hadn't slept well so was tired and irritable as well. Seem to be getting over it a bit now, though I still find it a nuisance to eat in the evenings. Like the Italians the Spaniards make a huge performance out of evening meals: everything's shut until 8PM, and then you're supposed to spend ages nibbling away at a million courses.
Weather: quite a bit colder than London. BBC Weather listed the high as 15, but it only seems to be moderately warm for a couple of hours in the afternoon: it's sub-zero at night and only hovers above freezing in the morning and evening. Seems like the extra altitude outweighs the lower latitude. Fortunately I brought the warmer of the coats I was considering. Would have brought another jumper and some gloves if I'd known though.
Wednesday: didn't have much time so just wandered around trying to. get my bearings.
Thursday: did the open top bus tours, the Reine Sofia museum, and the royal palace.
Started by doing the open-top bus tours: usually a good way to get your bearings. Madrid seems like a pretty well-organized city. They have a high-rise "mini-Manhattan" district, but have kept the buildings low in the older parts of town. so there are lots of elegant boulevards with 19th and 20th century architecture. Plenty of fountains and plazas, and the streets are pretty wide for an old city. There are lots of underground ramps and car parks (must have been expensive to build) which helps keep the traffic under control: it's quite fun to swoop through the underpasses in a car.
Went round the royal palace: seems like an imitation of an Italian palazzo but on a much bigger scale. Went through some of the inner rooms: baroque painted ceilings, lots of gilding: not really my kind of thing.
The royal armoury was pretty impressive. There was an apologetic notice mentioning that a lot of the stuff was on loan, but there was still a load of stuff left. Lots of jousting armour, and quite a bit of horse armour; with big, thick plates and elaborate ribbing to allow movement: must have been pretty hard on the poor horse.
Noticed a lot of the people-armour was asymmetric: the jousting armour has much higher raised collars on the left. Other armour is clearly designed to allow more mobility on the right and more protection on the left.
Also had some armour with big, flared, knee-length metal skirts. I'm pretty sure that must have been some kind of 17th century wind-up, tricking some poor knight-newb into going onto the battlefield in a skirt.
Near the Royal Armoury is the Royal Pharmacy: bottles, some glassware and a couple of small stills. Pacifists might prefer it.
Also had a walk in the big park called the Retiro. Very formally laid out: probably looks a lot better in the summer but quite nice even in winter.
In the afternoon went to one of the Big Three museums: the Centro de Arte Reine Sophia. This one is devoted to 20the century art: loads and loads of Picassos, Dalis, Miros and Juan Gris, THe main collection is on two floors but they're definitely not equal: the 2nd floor has all the good stuff, the 4th floor is less interesting, more recent stuff.
Highlights. Guernica of course, even more impressive in person. For some reason my Dad had a small copy in our living room while I was growing up: not quite sure why he wanted a picture of absolute despair and destruction there in particular.
Also some early realistic Picassos and Dalis, The Picasso portrait of a woman has frenetically energetic zig-zag brushwork: you can just tell he's either got to break out of the mould or explode with the pressure.
Also has some sketches and in-progress photos of Guernica, and some fascinating photos of bombed Madrid in the Spanish civil war.
Friday: concentrated on the two remaining major museums. In retrospect might have been better to split them between different days: was pretty much arted out by the end: my feet were still moving, but I think my eyeballs had stopped registering.
Did the Prado in the morning. Has a huge and diverse selection. Started off with a few classical antiquities: nice but nothing particularly special. Has a large collection of Dutch and Flemish art: kind of a break from Spanish drama with its restraint. The exception is Bosch's Garden of Unearthly Delights. Not a disappointment in the flesh: it's big and well-preserved, and you can get close enough to get enveloped in it, Strange and disturbing.
There are also several halls full of Italianish stuff: Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Tintoretto, couple of Caravaggios: all very nice.
The highlights though are the Spanish painters of course., Hugely impressed by Goya. Had never really got that into him before, but there so much here that it really showcases his versatility, from formal portraits, spontaneous-looking pictures of children playing, right through the dark and sinister witches and monsters of his final years. The most famous one is the El Tris de Mayo, a painting of Napoleonic soldiers massacring prisoners, with a wild-eyed prisoner in a bright yellow shirt with arms outspread. Awesome.
Not that impressed by La Maja Vestida and La Maja Desnuda though. Twin paintings showing the same woman in the same position, one clothed and one naked. Maybe it's just me, but her breasts don't look quite realistic in the nude one: too gravity-defyingly spherical, lifted and separated. Personal theory: either she had pioneering India-rubber implants, or he painted her clothed with some padding in place, then had to distort the nude version to keep things the same.
Also has a large selection of Velasquez' paintings. Some very famous portraits there, some of which were pointed out in the Carlos Fuentes book I read. Also has a little touch of home: the Venus-looking-in-the-mirror from the National Gallery.
Liked Velasquez, but couldn't really get into Murillo and Ribera. Might like them more in solo exhibitions, but in this context they just look a bit like second-rate Goya and Velasquez rip-offs.
Had a break, then in the afternoon went to the Thyssen-Bornenisza Museum. It's a former private collection: smaller than the Prado but consistently high quality. Very diverse: Lowlands, Italian, some Spanish classical paintings, but moving on to modern Dalis, Picassos and Miros in the basement. Also has quite a few French paintings: Monet, Cezanne and Matisse.
Lots of great stuff there, but it's hard to generalize about it as there's no particular focus apart from "a bunch of great stuff in one building".
So, overall all are worth a look, but spread them out if you can or suffer Art Fatigue.
15 Dec 2007
Saturday: last day in Madrid, leaving for Barcelona tomorrow (trains permitting: still haven't booked in advance: machines didn't seem to have an English button (dammit, even my local Acton Central station has multi-language machines now) and my meagre Spanish isn't really up to advance reservations.)
First thing in the morning went to the Temple of Debod: an entire Egyptian temple shipped to the top of a Madrid hill. Good views over the city from the top. Took some photos with shadows that look pretty promising: might FC one.
You can actually go inside and wander around, though it's a bit sparse and what inscriptions remain are very heavily weathered. Still impressive for its age though: ties in neatly with some of my reading on the Hellenistic period.
Then had a longish walk past the palace and saw a few old churches.
Then metroed to the Sculpture Garden (Jardines de Descubrimiento). Pretty disappointing: some of it was tented off, but what remained were just big boring slabs. A bit up the road there are some better sculptures in public under an underpass (the Museo de Escultura Abstracta):
The Archeological Museum is next door though, which is pretty good. Just breezed through the Greek, Roman and prehistoric stuff since that's all familiar, but spent more time on their Visigothic Spain section. Some interesting culturally-fused jewellery and artifacts. They also had some asymmetric battleaxes which looked interesting. Suggests to me that maybe the Visigoths were as barbaric as advertised though. IIRC a battleaxe is an inferior weapon to a sword; but has the crucial advantage that any crummy village blacksmith can forge an axe-head, but making a sword that won't break is a specialized skill.
Upstairs they have some 18th and 19th century stuff: not that interesting apart from some jewel-encrusted pistols looking like something an 18th century P Diddy would order.
Ran out of time before I could visit the Museum of the Americas: it closes early on Saturdays. That and the cathedral interior are the only things I've missed. (There's some big Christian Festivad coming up on the 25 apparently: bit stupid of them to hold it on the same day as Xmas if you ask me).
Afternoon went for a big walk in the Retiro park. It was warm enough to sit outside in one of the cafes and have a boccadillo and a cafe solo: from about 1PM to 4PM a Madrid winter is pretty comfortable if you're in sunlight. Took some more pics.
Then a quick trip to a cybercafe and back to the hotel.
Crossing the street: unlike Italy seems reasonably straightforward: you can obey the lights, and local pedestrians only disobey them when the way is actually clear.
One disconcerting habit though: the locals seem to dawdle for about half a second even after the pedestrian light has changed (and several seconds after the traffic light has reddened). So, I tend to walk out into the street, realise with panic that no-one else has moved and then half-stop while scanning frantically around for the high-speed truck that must be bearing down on me. I'm sure I'll get used to it in the end though.
16 Dec 2007. Sunday. Managed to get the train to Barcelona: writing this en route. Was pretty simple to buy the ticket: the only complicated bit was at Atocha train station. They have a separate Departures and Arrivals area: the Departures is on the first floor where you go through a metal detector airport-style, then down through ramps onto the platform. Train about 2/3 full in second (turista) class: first (preferente) might be emptier.
Getting to see a bit of the scenery. Pretty brown, lots of scrub and hill land. Many wind farms. Saw a couple of small forests, Also a few picturesque ruins but it's pretty sparsely populated.
Train comfortable, quite small at only four carriages, tilts Pendolino style, cheap buffet car.
17 Dec 2007
Second day in Barcelona: arrived late-ish yesterday. The museums are all closed on Mondays, so haven't been able to tick much off the list yet.
Did the open-top bus tours, which are a bit crap here: operator didn't stop when he should, then refused to let me off half-way.
Did the Las Sagrada Familia, the still-in-progress Gaudi cathedral. Hugely impressive: after all the cathedrals I've seen it's fascinating to see one being built: seems to be a hive of activity with cement-dust in the air, braziers blazing and workers hammering. Also a good view from the top but found it irrationally-nerve-wracking. It's certainly been up long enough that it's unlikely to collapse while I'm up there, but still found it unnerving given that it's half-built with great big gaping holes in it. Also seems unnaturally tall for a structure built on compression: usually at least you know you've got solid steel holding it together, but the Sagrada relies on just gravity and stickiness. There's a model at the bottom showing how he worked out all the stresses upside-down; hanging everything down on weights and then just reversing it.
Also saw the outsides of a few other Gaudi buildings, but didn't do the rooftop thing. Gaudi's all very well, definitely the guy to go to for ornate curvy organic redbrick, but a bit of a one-trick pony in the end.
Also did the old cathedral, scaffolded into invisibility from the outside, quite nice inside but no really great art. Wandered round the medieval (gothic) quarter. Fascinating to see part of the old wall, partly made of those neat skinny red Roman bricks, partly shored up with higgeldy-piggeldy mortared stones of all shapes and sizes, partly built up with neat stone blocks. This place is old.
Also strolled along the harbour, and tried to do a bit of shopping: got some odds and ends for the folks. Tried to buy swimming trunks but can't find any. I'm staying in the Jazz Hotel which has a roof-top pool, but will be quite glad to give that a miss given the cold and biting winds. It's only big enough for a few strokes anyway.
Overall, Barcelona feels bigger and livelier than Madrid: there's no dawdling at the traffic lights here. Don't really like it as much: you'd need to be more sociable than me to get the benefit of slow walks on Las Ramblas and the nightlife and such.
Random observations. Does anyone actually speak Castilian Spanish? I thought Madrid was supposed to be the heartland for it, but even there I think I heard Gracias more than GraTHias, and nobody here lithps at all.
English people suck. Was on the fifth floor of a department store buying a Dali elephant, and this Englishwoman twice marched up to the counter and just started barking orders in English to the bemused cashier. It's not like it's a tourist shop: at least start with an "'abla Ingles?" or something.
18 Dec 2007
Back in business: the museums are open again today.
Started with the biggest, the Museu National d'Art de Catalunya. Exhaustive and exhausting collection of Catalan art. Starts with a few Roman odds and ends, then a bit of Visigoth, then hall after hall after hall of medieval stuff. Some strange googly eyes and lots of suspiciously bright colours with some of them: wondering if they've been a bit heavy-handedly retouched.
There definitely seems to be an influence on Dali and Picasso of these medieval things: there are some odd non-perspectives with different dimensions appearing in the same plane, and some weird distorted animals like a dog with too many eyes.
Upstairs there's a lot of 19th century stuff: some big, realistic, melodramatic history paintings rather like our own, and a lot of somewhat derivative looking Impressionist stuff. Some good stuff among them though, like a stylised metal ballerina, and some brightly coloured impressionist paintings by [someone beginning with B].
Impressive hill-top building, too; the Palau Nacional which is a kind of fake palace built in the Twenties.
After that took a quick stroll round the corner to the Fundacio Joan Miro. Always interesting to see these guys develop from realism to abstraction. Prefer the middle period stuff to the later sub-Pollock dribblings though. Also I have the same problem as with early Kandinsky: all these blocky primary colours are supposed to indicate anguish, pain, despair and passion; but in a post-Fisher Price age they just look cute.
After lunch went to the Maritime Museum. It's in the preserved medieval shipyard, a big stone building with huge arched bays to build ships in, one of which contains an actual ship, heavily gilded and decorated.
The rest of the content's what you'd expect: lots of models, a few small boats, some navigational instruments and so on. Liked the trick of having one cannon between two mirrors so you get a kind of virtual gun-deck.
There are actually fewer and less impressive models than at Greenwich, but they're a lot better presented, some of them mounted in a glass mock-sea. The UKian models are tucked out of sight upstairs in dull grids of wooden cases.
Last museum was the Museu d'Historia de la Ciutat. Much better than it sounds, since they've excavated a big chunk of the old Roman city in the basement, so you can walk on gantries above it. Watchtowers, a bit of wall, a lot of church buildings; but the really interesting stuff to me were the Roman wine and fish-paste factories. You can still see the big pottery vats and the wide sluices where the wine ran: they were really doing things on an industrial scale.
Upstairs there are some odds and ends, and a medieval chapel, but it's a bit anticlimactic.
Annoyance: couple of noisy school parties. Hard to say for sure how much of an advantage coming in the off-season was. There do seem to be quite a lot of big queue-barriers that aren't being used at the moment, and I haven't had to queue more than a couple of minutes for anything. With the lifts to the top of the Sagrada, there were menacing looking barriers with signs warning "30 minutes from this point" halfway along, but I didn't have to queue at all. Did get there quite soon after they opened though.
Anyway, feels like I've had a more productive day today. Tomorrow's the last day. The Picasso museum and the pre-Colombian are the definites: have a couple of maybes too.
19 Dec 2007
Last day in Barcelona: flying back to the parents' place tomorrow.
Did the Picasso museum first thing. Bit smaller than I expected: apparently they usually have a big temporary exhibition but was closed when I visited. Still interesting though. Covers his whole career including some realistic early pictures, and a remarkably cheesy portrait of someone receiving their first community. Also has some grotesque/erotic sketches of various sexual positions and bodily functions: would have been interesting to see the reaction of the family letting their small girl skip merrily ahead of them through the galleries, but couldn't really hang around.
Also has a whole room full of massively diverse renditions of Velasquez' Las Meninas (from the Prado) which was the high point.
Just next door is the pre-Colombian museum, but that's pretty small, just three rooms, and without much context if you don't speak Catalan or Spanish. Was thinking vaguely of maybe visiting Mexico in order to take full advantage of my "Quiero un boccadillo" Spanish, but there wasn't much here to particularly enthuse me.
I'm trying to think of a counter-example, but so far it seems to me that every time I've tried speaking Spanish to a Barcelonan they've answered in English, but whenever I've tried English first (at big tourist destinations) they've answered in Spanish.
Barcelona Metro tips. It's all very straightforward, You can buy tickets, carnets and daypasses at easy machines with English options. The lines don't have multiple branches and all the trains seem to go to the very ends. You don't have to scan your ticket on exit, just walk through.
Only confusing point: at many of the entry points the ticket-muncher is on the left of the walkway, not the right. Maybe a lot of Barcelonans are left-handed. Have seen it confuse other people: I'm not the only one who keeps trying to walk through the closed gate to the left.
In the Continental style they indicate the direction of the train by it's terminus rather than North/South/East/Westbound. I suppose given that lines can wiggle it makes a bit of sense.
Afternoon made it to Park Guell where the tourist bus failed to stop. Glad I made it. The Gaudi museum is pretty small: it's just his old house, but he has got some nice self-designed furniture.
The Park was originally going to be a kind of Gaudi-designed version of a UKian Garden Suburb. He got as far as building a couple of houses and some cool viaducts like giant coral reefs carrying roads on top. Then the finances fell through and they turned it into a nice park instead. Good view from the top. Also they've got another of those massive chains of outdoor escalators taking you from the Vallcarca Metro station to the park. Glad I went there: well worth a look.
Afternoon went down to the seashore and had a long walk by the yacht-port and the beach. Tried strolling around the apparently picturesque Barceloneta district, but it just looks seedy and closed up at this time of day and year.
Also went to the Museum of Catalonia. A few interesting things there, especially from the stone and bronze ages. Some good replicas like a Roman ballista and a bronze age hut. The industrial revolution stuff isn't so interesting, at least if you've been heavily beaten around the head with it as a UKian schoolboy.
The later stuff also gets a bit too nationalist for my taste. Examples: it mentions a population drop in Catalonia with the Black Death without mentioning that this was ravaging the whole of Europe; it talks about a financial crisis between 1929 and 1931 which it attributes to badly-judged currency speculation by Catalan banks. Funny how we had one of those around the same time... Come on guys, it's not anti-patriotic to just admit that a world outside Catalonia does exist.
So, pretty useful day. Only thing missing, I haven't bought any additional pre-Xmas presents for my nephews. Was going to take them into the village and let them choose something from Woolworths, but not sure the parents will approve.
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