Madrid, Day 1

We just boarded the Ave Express from Madrid to Seville and I have three hours to reflect on the two days we spent in Spain’s capital city. We had planned on taking the train from Barcelona straight to Seville but we waited too long to get our train tickets, so we ended up having to go to Seville via Madrid.

Arriving to Madrid late afternoon, we left the Atocha Estacion, walked down Atocha Boulevard for about 10 minutes and found our place on a little side street in the Lavapies barrio. I wondered about the prevalence of things called “Atocha,” so I looked it up when we got to our flat. Atocha, it turns out is a Catholic image of Christ as a Child that is associated with Spanish and Latin American cultures.

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Image of the Holy Infant of Atocha

The Lavapies neighborhood is an up and coming, soon to be gentrified section of the city that is currently a nice mix of old-timers, hipsters and recent immigrants. I suspect that if we revisit Madrid in five years (or less) it will be almost entirely turned over the hipsters, but, for now, there’s a nice heterogeneity to the place.

Our Airbnb flat was a shotgun arrangement; nice and clean enough, but it had a very small living room space, so we just dropped our bags and went back outside, looking for a place to eat dinner. The plethora of good vegetarian food across Europe remains a pleasant surprise and our first night in Madrid proved no different. We found a little tapas bar called El Sur where we had patas bravas, tortilla de patas and espinicas con garbanzos.  The waiter asked us if we wanted a Spanish or English menu. We cried out “Ambos!” and he, sensing our desire to communicate in Spanish replied, “Okay, I will speak in English and you will speak in Spanish.” Fair enough. He was a super nice guy and toward the end of dinner, he came by and dropped off two shots of Spanish ron. Five minutes later, he came by with two more shots. Whoa.

Afterwards, we went home to our flat and had an unremarkable evening except for the fact that Sujata broke my phone. We both found this funny (I also found it annoying) in that one of our cab drivers in Timisoara went on and on about how the IPhone 5 was basically indestructible. He wasn’t aware of the extent of Sujata’s torpeza.

The next day was our only full day in Madrid so we decided to spend the bulk of it at the Prado, the national art museum of Spain. When I was a sophomore in college I took an art history class from a professor named Ted Prescott. We read Robert Hughes’ great book on twentieth-century art, The Shock of the New, and we even took a field trip to the Smithsonian National Art Gallery. This was my first exposure to serious art and art criticism and, after all these years, the things I learned and learned to appreciate in Dr. Prescott’s class stay with me. It was with great joy, then, that I walked through the Prado’s galleries with my family. Our kids, happily, enjoy art museums as much as Sujata and I; they especially love listening to the audio guides and giving us their analyses and interpretations of what they are seeing.

The first section of the Prado is full of paintings by the Italian Renaissance painter, Titan. Some of his work examines the break between Greco-Roman and Renaissance cultures so there are a fair number of paintings that deal with mythological figures like Hephaestus, Venus and Adonis, to name a few. Here a few images of Titan’s work at the Prado that deal with Greek mythology:

Our kids love Greek mythology so it’s not uncommon when we are in any given museum to hear one of them shout, “Dad, look! There’s a Hephaestus over here” or for one of them to casually remark, “Oh, hey, Dad, did you see the painting of Atlanta?” When I was 11 I spent most of my time memorizing the batting averages of the Cincinnati Reds. I know I wasn’t running through the positive and negative attributes of the mortals and the gods of the Greeks.

We spent the bulk of our time at the Prado gazing at the large and impressive collection of paintings by the great Spanish artists, Velasquez and Goya. Velasquez’ style and technique is exquisite, but I can’t really get beyond his fawning over royalty.  It’s one of the reasons, too, that I didn’t love Gaudi’s architecture–it grabs you and it calls attention to itself, but ultimately, both Velasquez and Gaudi were working for The Man and from what I could see, failed to express much overt criticism of Establishment thinking and practices.

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Velasquez’ masterpiece “La Meninas”

That’s precisely why I was most interested and taken by Goya’s work, especially the pinturas negras that he did toward the end of his life. The pinturas negras are especially interesting in that he painted them as murals on the walls of his home. Can you imagine coming home and finding this on the dining room wall?

The pinturas negras hang in a dimly-lit, long and narrow room and as you walk through the room the paintings themselves seem to stare at you from many different angles. Eleanor, whose favorite painting in the Prado was Reuben’s’ “The Three Graces,” was, you can imagine, horrified by all this and walked around with her eyes covered most of the time. After Goya’s death, they transferred the murals to canvas and now they hang in their own room as a permanent exhibit at the Prado.

The Prado also has a nice collection of Flemish painters with an entire room turned over to a few pieces by the fantastical late-medieval artist, Hieronymus Bosch or, El Bosco, as they call him at the Prado. We all stood in wonder in front of “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” a triptych that illustrates the wages of sin in an unvarnished and startling manner.

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At lunch later that day we talked at great length about the parts of the painting that amused and startled us: Lu loved the representation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Atticus loved the little Totoro figure to the right of Eve (it’s a rabbit), Sujata liked the blue monster that was eating humans and popping them into a pit (yup) and I loved the images of the oversized birds gazing of the shoulders of the diminutive humans.

I am not attracted to excessive moralizing in art and as I regarded “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” I found myself wondering why, given Bosch’s unfiltered recriminations against the pursuit of human pleasure, I was so delighted by his work. Part of it, I think, is that Bosch’s world is just so damn weird and surprising and that in and of itself makes it interesting to see and to talk about.

After we left the Prado we found a little restaurant where I continued my European habit of taking an espresso and a sparkling water in the middle of the day. Emil introduced me to this practice at Viniloteca early on in our stay in Romania so now, besides the fact that I enjoy the combination, it also reminds me of Emil.

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After lunch we walked across Madrid, through the central tourist district and over to the Palacio Real. The line to get into the Palace was ridiculously long and we were all a bit cashed out from the morning in the Prado, so we decided to walk back across town to a churros and chocolate shop.

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The line outside the Palacio Real

This walk was about my least favorite thing about Madrid, maybe about our entire time in Spain. The streets were clogged with people, mostly tourists.

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The dreaded walk across the Plaza Major

Moreover, kids were running around throwing those caps that making a loud popping noise when they hit the ground. I hate those things and I hate those kinds of intense crowds and, happily, Sujata sensed my discomfort and quickly led us to the churros y chocolate place. I always thought that churros were Mexican and I never thought I’d have churros that were better than the ones we get at Pinche Tacos in our neighborhood back in Denver. I was wrong on both counts: churros are from Europe, probably Spain, and the churros we had at Chocolateria San Gines were the best I’ve ever had.

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We made our way back to our flat and continued our tradition of propping the exhausted children in front of their screens where they get lost in Minecraft for an hour as we traipse to the nearest drinking establishment, sample the local beer, wine or cocktail, take in the local culture, reflect on our day and plan for the next.

We’ve spent quite a lot of time on trains this autumn and early winter and the Spanish train system–it’s called Renfe–has been, by far, the most pleasant rail experience. The Renfe trains run on time, the bathrooms are clean, the staff is exceedingly nice and helpful, the stations are efficient and interesting and the seats are comfortable. I’ve spent many pleasant hours on these trains reading, writing, playing chess with the kids and just staring out the window. One of my favorite things to do on these long trips is to order an espresso and agua con gas and stand in the cocina coche looking out across the beautiful Spanish countryside.

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Sujata and Lu chilling on the Ave Express to Seville

This trip from Madrid to Seville is our last trip on Renfe, at least until we return to Spain.

Barcelona es Bonita!

It’s Christmas Day, and I’m sitting at the top of Park Güell, a public park in the Gracia district of Barcelona that was designed by the famous Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudi.

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We walked up here after opening our presents and now we are relaxing and enjoying the view and taking a break from the long walk. Eleanor is on the swing at the playground, making friends with Spanish girls. Atticus and Sujata are reading and I’m thinking about the five days we’ve enjoyed here in Barcelona.

This is our fifth and final day in this city, and I’ll be sorry to leave. As we prepare to leave every major European city that we have visited this autumn, I always comment, “[The city we are in] is my favorite city so far.” Sujata teases me–you can’t have that many favorite cities, she says. I am happy, though, to accumulate a long list of favorite European cities.

The Barcelona I’ve seen is a city of parks, small neighborhood public squares, wide boulevards that transect the city, long winding beaches and tree-covered mountains. The people we have met have been overwhelmingly friendly, often complimenting us on our Spanish, which I find funny because our Spanish, while not terrible, probably isn’t much more advanced than the speech of a five-year old. Still, I’ll take the compliment and chalk it up to the graciousness of the people in this city.

Barcelona hosts a curious and refreshing diversity of tight, dark medieval streets and neighborhoods with wide, open boulevards and public spaces that we associate more with late nineteenth-century city planning. In the space of a few minutes, you could find yourself navigating a darkened, cobble-stoned street which tumbles you out onto a sunlit boulevard that provides panoramic views across the city.

Among other things, Barcelona is remarkable for its architecture and the way the city has been laid out. After the medieval city walls were demolished in the mid nineteenth century, the city began expanding west, toward the mountains. The modern city planners clearly imagined a city of wide open public, private and commercial spaces and they achieved this vision through the implementation of a number of planning techniques that have had a lasting and positive effect on the city.

Here’s an image I took from Pinterest to illustrate my point:

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One of the first things you notice when you visit Barcelona is the way the buildings of many of the major squares and intersections are chamfered, or cut at a diagonal. You can see an example of this in the middle of the image above. Most commercial buildings in any given major city end in a 90-degree angle. From a commercial aspect this makes a lot of sense in that continuing the building to the right angle provides more square footage. So in that regard, Barcelona’s chamfered commercial spaces are economically inefficient. But what is taken away in commercial space is made up in civic space because when you cut the building on a diagonal, you open up the intersection to a wider range of public space. As you can see in the image above, the octagonal plaza is full of trees and green space.At the same time, the diagonals, open up more of the built environment, letting more light into the city streets.

Barcelona is also unique for its lack of alleyways across city blocks. The alley is a staple of nearly every American city, large and small, and in many ways, the back alley is a part of the American mythology–it’s where undercover and untoward deals are made, it’s where car chases end and it’s where dead bodies are found, unceremoniously stuffed in trash bins. Plus, how many Springsteen songs take place in alleys and backstreets?

I don’t know where Catalan artists go to for those dark metaphors because there aren’t any alleys, at least that I saw, in Barcelona. It’s true that Barcelona has its fair share of narrow streets that could be mistaken for alleys, but the kind of alleys that bisect entire city blocks don’t exist in the heart of Barcelona. Instead, the nineteenth-century city planners designed city blocks with inner courtyards where people could gather and relax away from the hustle and bustle of the city streets.

Look back at the above image and notice how the blocks are organized: there are buildings around the perimeter of the blocks and then, in many cases, green spaces in the middle. This, I have to say, is genius city planning. Real estate developers, I suspect, chafe at the ‘wasted’ space, but, again, I think the tenor and the tone of this great city is set in these quiet spaces. The flat where we are staying hosts an inner courtyard and the effect that has on the living space is really quite amazing. This is a view out our window on Christmas morning:

When we sit in the living room that overlooks the inner courtyard, we are flooded in light. Moreover, it’s quiet back there. You don’t hear cars, delivery trucks or people creeping by at all hours of the day or night. It’s worth noting, too, that many of the inner courtyards in Barcelona were ‘filled in’ during the Franco years and many of them have since been recovered.

More recently, Barcelona city planners have been expanding on the vision of the early city planners by creating “super blocks”–long swaths of city streets and plazas with limited or zero car access and that will be largely turned over to pedestrians. The venerable (or ‘failing’ if you are #45) New York Times did an interesting piece on Barcelona’s ‘super blocks’ in September of 2016.

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A spirited discussion on the streets of Barcelona