Tag Archives: Spain

Europe 2013: The Prado Museum – Madrid, Spain

 

Stained Glass Dome, Westin Palace, Madrid

Stained Glass Dome, Westin Palace, Madrid

Friday morning, I made a second pass through the breakfast buffet while Dave mapped out his must-see list for our visit to the Prado museum. Polishing off a croissant, I skimmed a short history of our hotel—The Westin Palace, Madrid. The building was commissioned by King Alfonso XIII in 1912 and has an enormous stained glass dome that tops the regal structure. However, the hotel entrance was an understatement in comparison to the grandeur of the interior with its sweeping marble floors and ornate staircases. Dave’s sudden declaration that he had completed his Prado list broke into my idle musings. He ushered me through the lobby and out the front doors for the Museo Nacional del Prado. The current collection has around 7,600 paintings, 1,000 sculptures, 4,800 prints, and 8,200 drawings. We definitely had a lot to see.

The warm, morning sun felt good as we strolled to the corner and crossed the street to the museum, a mere five-minute walk from our hotel. Tickets in hand, we queued up, ready to go through security. From behind us, someone called out, “Hey, you two.” We turned to see the British couple we had met in Toledo, the day the four of us got lost trying to reach the railway station. We cleared security, exchanged a few pleasantries, and went our separate ways.

Palacio de Cristal

Palacio de Cristal

For hours, we traipsed through what is unquestionably the largest and finest collection of European art. But in the third hour, I left Dave with El Greco, de Goya, and Titian and went in search of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656). Like many who know the painting, I had been charmed by a child I had never met, as was Velázquez, the court painter commissioned to paint Margarita Theresa, the privileged daughter of Philip IV and Mariana of Austria. Always the center of attention, Margarita was destined, one day, to be an empress. In several of Velázquez’s paintings, she appears to revel in her appearance; the rich brocade gowns and elaborate hairdos were all mandatory fashion for any grand lady. As a child of the Spanish Habsburgs, she was betrothed to her maternal uncle and paternal cousin, Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor. It was required that she maintain her succession to the Spanish throne and that her succession rights pass to her descendants. In 1665, the fifteen-year-old Margarita left Spain for Austria and was married in Vienna in 1666. Despite the couple’s eleven-year age difference, she and Leopold were supposedly very happy together, sharing a love of music and theater. Tragically, at the age of just twenty-one, Margarita Theresa died, debilitated after giving birth to four children and enduring many miscarriages. She is buried in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna. Her only surviving child, Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, gave birth to three children, all of whom died in childhood. Maria herself died at age twenty-three.

The Habsburgs were one of the most powerful dynasties of Medieval and Renaissance Europe, reigning over huge territories from the mountains in Switzerland to swaths of Austria, Hungary, Italy, France, and Spain, even controlling land from the Philippines to the Americas. But they maintained sovereignty by rarely marrying outside the dynasty. From 1516 to 1700, an estimated 80 percent of the marriages were consanguineous, or between close blood relatives. Most often, these unions were between first cousins, double first cousins, and uncles and nieces. As a direct result of this inbreeding, infant and child mortality rose 50 percent among the Spanish Habsburgs. In 1700, an entire dynasty of kings came to an end when Charles II of Spain died from a panoply of health defects. Physically disabled, mentally challenged, and disfigured, he died senile and plagued with epileptic seizures. He had two wives but no offspring. Of the thirty-four children born to the Spanish Habsburgs, half died before their tenth birthday and ten died before their first, most likely the result of generations of inbreeding. Could the same marital practices that built a powerful dynasty have also caused its demise?

Dwelling on this sad conclusion, I sought out the works of Hieronymus Bosch, who produced at least sixteen triptychs, of which eight are still fully intact. The Last Judgment, created after 1482, currently resides at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Austria. Having seen this triptych on a prior European visit, I was interested in viewing more of Bosch’s work. In the late sixteenth century, Philip II of Spain acquired many of Bosch’s paintings, so the Prado owns The Adoration of the Magi, The Garden of Earthly Delights, the tabletop painting of The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, The Haywain Triptych, and The Stone Operation. Although Bosch signed several of his pieces, he dated very few. The Haywain Triptych dates back to around 1516, the date established by means of dendrochronological research. The Garden of Earthly Delights, dated between 1490 and 1510, is his best-known and most ambitious complete work. It has been housed in the Museo Nacional del Prado since 1939.

Palacio de Cristal

Palacio de Cristal

From the triptychs, I moved to the piece I had come to see—The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, completed around 1500 or later. The oil-on-wood panels are a series of circular images—four small circles surround one large circle in which the seven deadly sins are depicted. In the center of the large circle is a pupil, possibly the eye of God. Below the image of Christ emerging from his tomb is the inscription Cave Cave Deus Videt (Beware, Beware, God Sees). The painting was intended as a deterrent to those who were tempted to engage in sinful acts. “Greed” depicts people being boiled in gold pots. In “Pride,” a demon holds a mirror for a vain woman. In “Wrath,” a man is about to murder a woman. “Gluttony” shows everyone eating or drinking more than their share. “Avarice” depicts taxpayers trying to squeeze more out of a hardworking man (or that’s my interpretation). “Envy” shows a man dressed in expensive white garments who appears to be the object of jealousy. “Sloth” depicts a nun standing and a woman sitting. Though greedy people were shown being boiled in gold pots, I wasn’t quite sure what the punishment was for the remaining six sins, and really had no idea what “Lust” depicted, until I did some research on Bosch’s work. In an article written by Sally A. Struthers, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Hieronymous Bosch,” she states, “Next Luxuria (Lust). Two pairs of lovers dawdle inside a tent. Outside a jester is beaten with a big spoon, in those times an emblem of illicit love. Musical instruments litter the foreground, illustrating the Flemish proverb that “music-making leads to love-making.”

But the four last things appeared to be pretty straightforward. “Death of a Sinner” shows a dying man receiving the last rites from a priest. In “Glory,” the saved enter heaven. In “Judgment,” angels are waking the dead, while Christ is shown in glory. Finally, in “Hell,” demons torment the sinners. What bothered me most about this work was not its subject but knowing that recent dendrochronological dating had revived the controversy that the painting was done by a student of Bosch, not Bosch himself.

Boating Lake at El Retiro

Boating Lake at El Retiro

I checked the time. I had agreed to meet Dave near another of my favorite artists, Albrecht Dürer. I fell in love with his work the first time I laid eyes on his self-portrait in the Louvre, Paris. Nearing the end of the fourth hour, my mind began to wander to things other than art, such as whether the Prado would be a good setting for a scene in a future Darcy McClain thriller. My imagination was running wild when Dave tapped me on the shoulder. I said goodbye to Dürer and accepted Dave’s suggestion of some shopping. I had just the place in mind—Lola Fonseca.

Lola’s small retail shop/workshop offers a variety of hand-painted silk scarves, foulards, shawls, and beautiful fans. We entered the store to find Lola at work hand-painting a turquoise silk scarf, her dog Lana sprawled on the floor. With Lola being friendly and not pressuring me to buy, I perused the scarves for a good twenty minutes before making my purchases. It was a tough decision with so many wonderful colors and designs to choose from.

Paella

Paella

After this brief shopping spree, we took a leisurely walk to Parque del Buen Retiro (Park of the Pleasant Retreat)—or simply El Retiro, as the locals refer to it. The park is one of the largest in Madrid and belonged to the Spanish monarchy until it opened to the public. We paused at the boating lake to snap photos of a few rowers enjoying the warm day and carried on to what I really wanted to see—Palacio de Cristal. The palace, modeled on London’s Crystal Palace, was designed by architect Ricardo Velásquez Bosco and made almost entirely of glass set in an iron framework on a stone base. It was built in 1887 to house exotic flora and fauna as part of an exhibition on the Philippines, which was still a Spanish colony. Today it is used for contemporary art exhibitions. Not far from the park, we spotted people sitting at tables under a grove of trees. As we drew closer, we noticed they were eating paella. We ordered one to share, as well as one icy cold beer. We didn’t want to spoil our appetites for dinner by eating too much that late in the day.

El Barrill de las Letras, a recommendation from our hotel concierge, was a good dinner choice. We started with clams on the half shell, followed by grilled octopus, grilled asparagus, and an order of sole “roasted in its skin.” To wash down our delicious seafood, we chose a good Spanish white wine. Full, we walked off the meal with a short stroll, then retired to our room to pack, for the next day we were flying back to the US.

Next week, I am taking a short break from blogging before I begin a new series of posts on October 22nd. These will focus on book and writing-related topics, as well as comment on and answer questions from my readers and blog subscribers.

Next week: “Boucheron 2015: Murder Under the Oaks – Raleigh, North Carolina.”

Europe 2013: Toledo, Spain

Alcázar, Toledo, SpainOur last morning in Suances broke sunny and clear. After breakfast, we drove into town and walked along the beach until ten o’clock, when we returned to the Albatros to check out. We dumped our bags in the hatch of our Volvo SUV and motored to Santander Airport to catch a flight to Madrid. The AVIS agent who had rented the car to us three days prior, a somewhat surly gentleman, asked, “Well, did you find Suances?” He deliberately mispronounced the town’s name exactly the way we had when we picked up the car and asked for directions. Before we left the agency, he once again mispronounced it. We thanked him again for the correction and walked away, leaving him to mumble something under his breath.

Madrid-Barajas Airport, Terminal 4

Madrid-Barajas Airport, Terminal 4

The nonstop Iberia flight flew down the center of Spain. With no ocean views and nothing much to see, we napped away the short, one-hour trip. At MAD, Madrid-Barajas Airport, I persuaded Dave to wander through Terminal 4 so I could take pictures. The Madrid airport is number two of ten on a list of the most beautiful and amazing airports in the world, second only to Beijing International Airport. Designed by Richard Rogers, the airport features colorful pylons supporting an undulating bamboo-lined roof, the rainbow of colors eye-catching and a work of art unto itself. After my photo shoot, we caught a cab to the Westin Palace Hotel and retired to our room to freshen up for dinner and a flamenco show at the El Corral de la Morería. We’d heard it was the best show in Madrid, so we were looking forward to the experience.

The venue was small, with the stage set off to the right of the dining area, rather than in the center of the room. In some sections of the restaurant, pillars block your view, so book well in advance for the best seating. Also take into consideration that your back might be to the stage, forcing you to crane your neck for the hour-long show. Dave had booked eight months in advance, so we had a table close to the stage and we both faced the performers. When our dinners arrived, every seat had been taken, proof of the show’s popularity.

El Corral de la Morería

El Corral de la Morería

The performance was fast and furious, passionate and tender, and the tension palpable. The male dancer, Jesús Fernández, was excellent, but his female partner, Belén López, outshone him—quite an accomplishment. The steady thump, thump, thump of their steps became hypnotic, and we felt as though they were drumming the music into our souls—an incredible and contagious performance. “Bravo!” the audience shouted, and they clapped as the dance wound down to an end. As we left the restaurant, I stopped to peruse the celebrity photos hanging on the walls: Sandra Bullock, Marlon Brando, Richard Gere, and Burt Lancaster to name a few.


I was barely awake the next morning when Dave offered to go around the corner to Starbucks and buy lattes. He returned with an interesting story to tell. The night before, we had taken a cab from the hotel to the flamenco show. The taxi driver said the trip cost twenty euros. Dave handed him the twenty, and he gave Dave a ten-euro note. When he questioned the cab driver, the man said, “Ten euros.” We asked if he was sure, and he repeated, “Ten euros.” At Starbucks, Dave dug out the ten to pay for the drinks. The man behind the counter returned the note. Surely, two lattes couldn’t cost more than ten euros? thought Dave. The cashier reached over the counter, took the note, held it up with both hands, and repeated, “No good.” Counterfeit? The cashier smiled, nodded, and said, “. Counterfeit.” He took a real ten-euro note from the cash register and showed Dave the difference. Back at the hotel, Dave stopped at the concierge desk in our hotel to report the incident. He certainly didn’t expect the hotel to do anything, as there wasn’t much they could do, but he gave the note to hotel security to be sure we didn’t accidentally pass it to anyone else. The last thing we wanted was to spend time in a Spanish jail for paying with counterfeit money.


Tajo River

Tajo River

An hour later, we left the Westin and caught the Renfe AVE high-speed train to Toledo, approximately a thirty-minute ride. My first visit to the city was in 1969 with my parents, and I recalled that good walking shoes were a must, as we would definitely put them to the test. I was looking forward to seeing the former capital of Spain again, which was the seat of the Spanish Empire until the mid 1500s, when the royal court moved to Madrid. The train ride passed quickly, and we were soon disembarking at the Toledo railway station. It opened in 1919 and was designed by architect Narciso Clavería y de Palacios in the Neo-Mudéjar style, a form of Moorish Revival architecture characterized by a series of motifs, repeat patterns of arches, calligraphy, vegetative designs, and decorative tiles.

Toledo has one of the most confusing street plans in all of Spain, so we made sure we took a map before leaving the station. Even then, we would get lost toward the end of the day and narrowly escape having to spend the night in the city—not that this would have been a bad outcome, as I had never spent an evening here. There are several easier ways to reach the city atop a steep hill, but we chose the hardest—on foot. Frankly, we needed the exercise after all the gourmet meals we had eaten, not to mention the excellent Spanish wines we’d enjoyed.

Alcántara Bridge

Alcántara Bridge

Perched high on a rocky bluff and protected on three sides by a gorge and the fast-flowing Tajo River, which forms a natural moat, Toledo is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe and a cultural wonder, a museum unto itself. You can simply walk along any street to soak up its history, for you are surrounded by it. For centuries, Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived here in harmony, or so I’ve read. The synagogues, mosques, and churches standing together reflect a complex mix of three great religions in this historic city and are a testament to Toledo’s diverse history—and tolerance. But in reality, the three religious groups did not always get along, despite what some would lead you to believe.

Zocodover Square

Zocodover Square

We entered Toledo via the Alcántara Bridge. As we approached Zocodover Square, I was astonished by the growing crowd of people who streamed from the narrow cobbledstoned lanes and flooded the main square. Then I noticed the awnings, garlands, and hanging lanterns that decorated the facades of the buildings, and the strong, almost overpowering herbal scent I couldn’t identify that permeated the warm air. A festival of some kind, but what? Just as Dave said, “I wonder what’s going on,” it dawned on me: the feast of Corpus Christi, one of Toledo’s most important festivals. We made our way through the crush of the masses and wandered up a quiet side street to check our map, take a water break, and slather on sunscreen. Because of its hilltop location, the city is exposed to a lot of direct sunshine and can be quite warm during the day. As we hiked the incline, I finally had my answer to what was impregnating the air. Herb branches—lavender, rosemary, and thyme—blanketed the cobblestones.

Our self-guided tour began with Alcázar, a fortification set on the highest point in Toledo. Built in 1085, the stone fortification dominates the skyline and has commanding views of the surrounding countryside. It functioned as a military stronghold for the Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, and Christians, and King Alfonso VI built his royal palace there. It was destroyed in the eighteenth century during the War of Succession and reconstructed, only to be damaged a few years later by fire, rebuilt, then destroyed again during the Spanish Civil War. At the end of the war, Alcázar was repaired and is now a military museum.

Next week: “Europe 2013: Toledo, Spain – Part Two.”

Europe 2013: The Guggenheim – Bilbao, Spain

The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, SpainAnother cloudy morning greeted us as we went downstairs for breakfast at the Albatros. We wanted to eat, then get a head start on the drive to Bilbao to visit the Guggenheim Museum, which I had wanted to visit since I’d seen Dancing House, also known as the Fred and Ginger house, in Prague, Czech Republic. I wasn’t as interested in the exhibits as much as the architecture of the building itself. I hoped the weather would hold so I could take some decent pictures. We filed into the dining room along with the French tour group, also up early but for an outing into the Spanish countryside. A pleasant and exuberant group, they asked if we would join them for breakfast. We politely declined and pointed out that their tables were reserved for their gathering only.

Mural Under Puente de la Salve

Mural Under Puente de la Salve

Rain pelted us during the hour-and-a-half drive from Suances to Bilbao, but despite the inclement weather we enjoyed the trip, especially when the road hugged the coastline along the Bay of Biscay. The rain and the terrain reminded me of the Florence, Oregon coastline. During my college days at the University of Oregon, I used to spend hours strolling the uninterrupted miles of beaches that stretched along the dazzling Pacific Ocean.

I knew from research that a thriving cultural sector is an essential part of any great city, just as expanses of greenbelts, which limit sprawl, are important to the health of urban dwellers and help them feel more connected to nature. But for me, the star-quality draw in Bilbao had nothing to do with green spaces. My sights were set on finally seeing Frank Gehry’s shimmering titanium, limestone, and glass attraction—the Guggenheim.

Puppy, by Jeff Koons

Puppy, by Jeff Koons

Prior to my visit to Bilbao, I had read an article about the “Bilbao Effect,” or “the Guggenheim Effect,” as the locals refer to it. By 1980, Bilbao, the fourth largest city in Spain, was decimated by the collapse of its steel and shipbuilding industries, its factories shuttered and its port in disrepair. After Spain joined the EU, the Basque authorities embarked on an ambitious revitalization program. They hired expensive architects to design a new airport, a metro system, and a footbridge, Zubizuri, designed by the neofuturistic architect Santiago Calatrava Valls. But the city’s biggest achievement was convincing Solomon R. Guggenheim to build a branch of the legendary Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. For the project, they hired Frank Gehry. Critics referred to Gehry’s design as “mercurial brilliance.” The museum is the centerpiece of the Bilbao Art District.

Five years after construction, Bilbao estimated that the museum’s impact on the economy at around $168 million, more than the cost of construction of the building, which came in on budget at $89 million. In 2012, more than one million people visited the world-class museum, half of them from abroad. Bilbao has become the model for attracting investment, brands, tourism, and cultural energy through a historic cultural institution, which has transformed a struggling post-industrial city into a worldwide cultural power.

Tulips, by Jeff Koons

Tulips, by Jeff Koons

As we exited the motorway and threaded our way through Bilbao’s traffic-congested streets, the skies began to clear. We found a parking spot close to the Guggenheim and hopped out. Since it was still too overcast for picture taking, we decided to tour the museum first and snap photos later. I was in awe from the moment I laid eyes on Gehry’s building as we approached it from the massive steel Puente de la Salve, which crosses over the Nervión River.

At first, I had difficulty keeping my mind on the exhibits, eager for the sun to appear so I could shoot the exterior of the museum, but the significance of the exhibition, L’art en guerre, France 1938–1947: From Picasso to Dubuffet, soon grabbed and held my attention as I toured it. The exhibit had just closed in Paris and opened at the Guggenheim. We spent two somber hours working our way through the war and persecution exhibits, a solemn reminder of the horrors of the war and the genocide carried out because of hatred and fear of certain peoples and religions.

Jed Perl’s article in the New Republic is an accurate critique of the exhibition. Following is an excerpt from his article; a link to it appears at the end of this blog post.

Reflectorama, by Anish Kapoor

Reflectorama, by Anish Kapoor

The German occupation of Paris precipitated an extraordinary confrontation between the city where modern art was born and the regime that was determined to shatter modernity. The juxtapositions in this exhibition are harrowing. We are asked to take in both the luxuriantly sensuous visions of Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard, living in relative safety in Vichy France, and the stark, hardscrabble images done in detention camps by Charlotte Salomon, Otto Freundlich, and Felix Nussbaum, who would soon perish in the German death machine. If it is a story in which the moral giants are outnumbered by the moral pygmies, it is also a story that raises the gravest questions about the morality of art and the artist’s obligation to society.

Between 1939 and 1942, Camp des Milles, housed in a former brick factory, was an internment camp for political dissidents, artists, and intellectuals. After the summer of 1942, and the Nazi plan for the “final solution,” it became the holding site for almost ten thousand Jews awaiting deportation for extermination at Auschwitz. Having been stripped of their freedom and dignity, the detainees quickly organized themselves in order to survive the miserable living conditions. The painters, sculptors, writers, actors, and musicians interned at Camp des Milles had to be endlessly inventive in devising ways to ward off boredom and lift their spirits. Aside from writing and live theatrical and musical shows, over three hundred paintings and drawings are thought to have originated there. Among the “undesirables” held at the camp were Nobel Prize-winning physician Otto Fritz Meyerhof, Max Ernst, Golo Mann, Robert Liebknecht, and German author Lion Feuchtwanger, who escaped to the United States and described his experiences in the camp in his 1941 memoir, The Devil In France – My Encounter With Him In The Summer Of 1940.

Maman, by Louise Bourgeois

Maman, by Louise Bourgeois

Still discussing the war exhibit, Dave and I gravitated toward the Guggenheim café for a sweet and an espresso. Afterwards, we wandered the museum shop, made a few purchases, and returned to the soaring atrium with its pine, glass, and steel curves uncurling high above us. Lured outside by artist Jeff Koons’s work Tulips from his Celebration series, I snapped off several shots of his bouquet of mirror-polished stainless steel balloon flowers. I wished I had an arrangement of such beauty for my own yard. Also impressive is Louise Bourgeois’s tribute to her mother, the mammoth Maman, a nine-meter-tall bronze spider that suggests both protector and predator and embodies both strength and fragility. From the spider, I gravitated back to the tulips and on to a sculpture of cascading balls, Reflectorama, designed by the artist Anish Kapoor. And definitely original are Fire Fountain by deceased French artist Yves Klein, best seen at night as the photo insert shows, and Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog Bridge, in which steam floats out from under the Salve Bridge every hour. We circled back to the front of the museum and took several pictures of Jeff Koons’s giant, canine-topiary Puppy, one of the first works acquired by the curators. You can’t miss the forty-foot tall, flower-covered West Highland white terrier that isn’t white as you approach the Guggenheim from the Puente de la Salve. Under the bridge is a stunning mural (see photo). Everywhere you look in the Bilbao Art District, you are greeted with visual beauty.

A short walk from the Guggenheim is Calatrava’s Zubizuri, Basque for “white bridge.” The design consists of a curved walkway, which is supported by steel suspension cables from an overhead arch; the deck consists of translucent glass bricks. Access ramps and stairways are located on both banks. I could easily have spent hours taking more photographs, but bad weather started to close in. Thankful for the photos snapped, we walked back across the Salve Bridge to our rental car. We tossed our drizzle-soaked Windbreakers into the backseat and motored out of Bilbao, bound for Suances.

That night, we ate at El Fanal. The establishment is owned by an Australian who is married to a Spaniard. He tends the restaurant, and she cooks. When we entered we were immediately greeted by the owner, who was friendly and outgoing. We sat at the bar and sipped a glass of wine while he talked about Australia, what we must see if we visited, and what had brought him to Suances. He showed us to our table and for starters recommended the grilled octopus. Perfection. The special of the day was a whole grilled turbot with smoky, spiced potatoes. Excellent. We also gave the nod to his wine suggestion, a Don Olegario Albariño 2012 that paired well with our seafood. For dessert, a homemade flan, something I will never turn down. Our flan arrived along with two glasses of a Spanish sherry “on the house,” a pleasant way to end a great meal in a relaxing atmosphere. Again, we had eaten too early for most Spanish diners and were alone in El Fanal until we finished our sherry. On our way out, we noticed most of the restaurant’s seats had filled.

“When the Surrealists Met the Nazis: Picasso, Paris, and modern art in Vichy France” by Jed Perl. The article can be read in its entirety.

Next week: “Europe 2013: Toledo, Spain.”