Before leaving for Madrid I had only one thing on my mind: Picasso’s “Guernica”, and no matter what else happened, I intended to see it. The first question I asked the tour guide when I managed to cut into her monologue for a minute on a balmy autumn day was: “It’s the Reina Sofia museum which has the “Guernica”, right?” She looked baffled.
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t follow.”
No amount of stressing and stretching different sounds seemed to help. I wrote her off as a philistine. The Reina Sofia did indeed host “Guernica”, Picasso’s dramatic, colourless depiction of the Spanish Civil War. It is to the Reina Sofia what the “Mona Lisa” is to the Louvre: the marquee item. I had to work my way through a series of other rooms, filled with other wonders, before reaching the climactic point and triumphantly staring at the canvas of dismembered bodies and lifeless limbs Picasso painted in 1937. Very much worth the price of entry (€10/Rs760). That is, if there had been one at all. A visit on a Monday evening allowed people to walk in for free. Likewise, there were free slots at the other big two museums too: The Prado and the Thyssen-Bornemisza.
I queued up for about 45 minutes outside the Prado, before free entry began at 6 p.m. My stomach was brimming over with gazpacho, as I sat on my haunches in line reading For Whom The Bell Tolls, waiting to go in to look at Diego Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” and congratulated myself for having maxed stereotypes. out on the.When I did enter the cavernous hall, the structure spreading out over more than 20,000 square meters, it wasn’t the “Las Meninas” that had me by the throat as much as it was Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” The works of the Dutch painter are detailed, diabolical and richly peopled—depicting pageantries of pleasure and perversity. At the Espacio Miro, another small museum, I asked the obvious: why allow free entry? “So that more people can visit and more people can have access,” said the woman manning the front desk. I entered fully prepared to be underwhelmed. But Miro’s red, yellow, blue and black shapes erupted with an unexpected force. I was sold. Paris and Vienna and New York possibly have more, and more important art, but Madrid is no slouch. And a city that throws its museums open for free on designated days of the week is definitely a city I can get on board with. Viva España.
There was, in fact, plenty of that Viva España feeling to be had when I visited. The Catalan Independence Referendum of 2017, which had threatened to slice the country into two, had been a trigger for an outpouring of nationalist sentiment everywhere else. Red and yellow flags pockmarked every building, the cloth stiffly draped across balconies, windows and panes. “This is not normal,” was the response every time I asked what it was all about. “This is specially to show solidarity for the unity of Spain.” To every stranger I assailed with the blunt force of my broken Spanish, my immediate query following pleasantries was: what do you think about the “situacion politica”. No one was pleased. Everyone was staunchly unionist. “We are one country,” said one. Another said, “It wasn’t a real referendum, what they are doing is illegal”. A third said, “There can be disagreements, but we are family, no?”
Into this fervid atmosphere of nationalism and flag-waving I entered, and left feeling like I had been recruited to the one-country-one-people party line. I must say, the olives of unionist Spain helped. It was impossible to resist the Mediterranean fruit—oval, rotund, spiced, pickled, plain, tart, and every kind for every kind of moment. At the Mercado de San Miguel, where I wandered through one morning, the stalls were busy hives laden with all manner of goods: the paella shone at one counter, at another sat the cheeses, rounded and fat, at a third artisanal pizza nestled in trays. I gravitated to the towers of olives.
At lunch at the Café de Oriente in an underground section that still held a part of the old city wall, Javier Amichis, from the Madrid tourism board, told me about the great marketing voodoo perpetrated by neighbouring Italy. “Italy has the reputation but, in fact, Spain is the largest producer of olive oil,” he said. “The world’s finest comes from here.” As the magnificent pools of pale yellow spread across my plate, it was hard to speak, let alone disagree. To paraphrase an uncle in another context: the bread was merely the vehicle to bring the oil to one’s mouth.
At dinner that same night I plunged my bread again into the translucent stuff, aided ably by three more courses. The Corral de la Morería wasn’t just any restaurant though. The walls held pictures of flamenco artistes and a little raised platform at the front was marked out.
About an hour after dinner began, the performers came out. The stage shook with the moves of the dancers, the musicians clapping and strumming in ritual frenzy alongside. Jesus Fernandez, a slim, angular man, had canals of sweat that emptied out in a large patch on his back and chest. But his feet continued to pound the wooden stage as his face alternated between passion and pain.
“It’s all provocation and dialogue between the singers and the dancers,” said Caroline Tensi, my companion for the evening. She periodically shouted out an “Ole!” in appreciation every now and again.
“It’s not a choice,” said Pedro Jiminez, one of the musicians, later, off-stage. “It’s a way of life.” For flamenco dancers and singers it’s a cultural heritage of their Romani or gypsy ancestry. “The challenge,” said Jimenez “is to perform every day and do better each day.”
How do you top three days of art, dance and good food? With churros, of course. The famous fried dough-based pastry can be had as dessert or at breakfast, or just about whenever dopamine cravings need to be tended to. At the Chocolateria San Gines the walls were studded with pictures of famous people who had eaten here, but the real hero arrived in an ordinary white cup and saucer. The four burnished golden parabolas were ribbed to perfection and served with a deep well of chocolate sauce. Churros for dinner. Churros for prez. Viva España.
Madrid’s three main museums—Prado (www.museodelprado.es/en), Thyssen-Bornemisza (www.museothyssen.org/en) and Reina Sofia (www.museoreinasofia.es/en)—throw open their doors to tourists free of charge on one or more days of the week. These museums are magnificent art palaces crammed with everything from Picasso and Degas to Monet and Raphael. Free Madrid Walking Tours, Sandeman’s Tours and Strawberry Tours are among the companies that offer free guided tours through the key sites in central Madrid, several within accessible distance of each other. Some highlights include the Almudena cathedral (with some wonderful stained glass), the Plaza Mayor, the main square that was once the site of public executions, Sobrino de Botín, the oldest restaurant in the world, and the San Miguel market. For Flamenco, head to Corral de la Morería. It has daily dinner shows. The Buen Retiro Park, a vast green space in the heart of the city, with one entrance beside the Prado museum, is pure atmosphere, teeming with buskers. A lake lies at the centre, and boats can be hired for €6/Rs450 (weekdays) and €8/Rs600 (weekends).