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Sunday, 28 October 2012

Meandering About Madrid - Page 4

Written by Eric D. Goodman
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Of Bulls and Brandies

      After a day of art and palaces, we decided to begin our evening at Plaza Mayor. We’d strolled through it before, just a couple minutes from our own Puerta del Sol. But now, we decided to spend some time there. Vendors beeped and whistled with annoying toys in their mouths and shot lighted rubber band toys into the sky—not five minutes of walking in the square passed without one of them approaching us with a series of beeps and whistles, offering unwanted souvenirs that were anything but Spanish. 


      But ignore that, and you see why the square is a popular tourist attraction. The allegorical paintings on some of the buildings are beautiful. The tile work of other buildings in the square seem to catch the setting sun and rising moon. The equestrian statue of Felipe III at the center of the square is a nice place to stand and look around at all of the buildings surrounding the square. After getting our bearings, we took to the open hallways along the edges of Plaza Mayor and walked along the shops, cafes, and restaurants. 


      We found a pleasant café that offered perhaps the best tapas we ate in Spain. Instead of going to the sit-down portion of the restaurant downstairs, we enjoyed our red wine and tapas at the classy stand up bar where we could look out the window onto the square. The kind bartender, dressed spiffily in black and white, did not speak any more English than we did Spanish, but he aimed to please, and he even called down to order some special tapas for us when we ordered a second round. Hearty food at a bargain price in a place that felt more formal than fast, the place offered two large open faced sandwiches (enough for a meal) and a glass of wine or mug of beer for three Euros. Two orders and you feel like you’ve been to a buffet.


      Although Madrid is one of the cities where bullfighting is still a part of the culture, it is becoming less accepted by the general public. Indeed, one of the things on our list when we first planned our trip to Spain was to go to a bullfight. It was after we got to know the sport—saw some video and pictures and did some reading—that we decided we didn’t want to go to one. On one hand, it is part of the culture and perhaps no more cruel than how animals are treated on mass-market farms and in slaughter houses. On the other hand, when you see the bulls mercilessly attacked and outnumbered, it can be hard to see it as a sport instead of a massacre. 

Spanish Bull      

      So we compromised. Instead of going to a bullfight, we went to Torre del Oro Bar Andalú, a bar with a bullfighting theme. Located along inner-edge of Plaza Mayor, this clean, well-lighted place has on display many photographs of bullfighting and a good number of the beaten bulls have their heads mounted on the walls. We had some beer and perused the photos, one series of stills showing the horn of a bull penetrating below a matador’s jaw and going up into his head, then drawing back out. (He survived to bullfight again!) We were told that one of the bulls on display in the bar was killed during a bullfight that had both Ernest Hemingway and Franco in the audience at the same time—presumably not together. It was here that I enjoyed my first taste of Anise. I expected to enjoy it, since I like licorice as much as I tend to like herbal liquors. Anise is a sort of synthesis of the two, and it went down sweet and smooth.


      After strolling through Plaza Mayor some moments more, we took the pedestrian street, full of vendors selling everything from painted fans and sunglasses to little statues and jewelry, back to Pueta del Sol. Before returning to our hotel, we decided to try out a bar we’d passed several times during our visit.


      The bar was open to the street at one end, as many cafes and bars tend to be, but the interior was rich and lavish with heavy dark woods and decorated with gilded carvings. We started out with a beer and a wine. Then, I wanted to try a few of the drinks we’d been told were well-loved in Spain.


      Liquor 45 looked and sounded great. But it seems to have been good marketing. It tasted heavy and sweet, much like drinking peach schnapps or Kahlua with a few tablespoons of sugar or corn syrup added. Zorco was a little better. It reminded me of the anise we’d had earlier at the bullfighting bar. It was good, although I preferred the anise. 


      When a couple of expats—a husband and wife who lived in England but spent some time every year in Madrid—came to the bar, chatted with the bartender, and walked to an outside table with a specially steamed glass of brandy and a big cigar, I took notice. I’d wanted to try Spanish brandy and hadn’t yet. I struck up a conversation with the expats and asked him to recommend one.


      “You can’t go wrong with anything on the top shelf,” he said and pointed. “But my recommendation? The 1866.”

      I ordered a snifter of 1866 Solera Gran Reserva, a brandy produced in La Mancha. The bartender had been polite the entire evening as we tried different drinks. When I placed this order, he seemed to light up as though he liked having a foreigner ask for the best of the best his country had to offer. He took the bottle from the top shelf and uncorked it. He then used what appeared to be an espresso maker to steam the oversized snifter. He poured in a generous serving. Maybe it was the mood we were in. Perhaps the surroundings on a Saturday night in the heart and soul of Spain, in Puerta del Sol. Maybe it was the rich décor or the drinks we’d already enjoyed beginning to alter our perception. But at that moment, I was convinced that 1866 was the best brandy or cognac I'd ever tasted.


      Half an hour later, knowing we needed to head back to the hotel and get some sleep for the following day, we put down our empty glasses and asked for the check. But the bartender refused—instead, he steamed fresh glasses and offered another (gratis) hearty helping of 1866. It was a perfect ending to a great day. We almost forgot it had rained on us outside the monastery.

Sunday in the Park

      We decided to begin our Sunday morning with a leisurely stroll through the park, so we walked to Parque del Retiro. Once the private gardens of the royal family, it was often used for pageants, mock naval drills, and bullfights. In the 18th century, parts of the park were open to the public, but only for people who were properly dressed in formal attire. In 1869, the park was fully opened; these days you can enter the park in tank tops and flip flops.


      The people may have dressed down, but the grounds still appear to be dressed up with gardens, trees, and flowers. The Rosaleda for example, contains more than 100 varieties of roses with a total of more than 4,000 individual roses. 


      Some of the 18 entries into the park are worth seeing, such as the Independence Gate, which is the grandest among them. The Estanque, or boating lake, was one of the first features of the park, finished in 1631. The Palacio de Velazques and Palicia de Cristal are both worth a visit and the Paseo de las Estatuas, a line of Baroque statues representing the royalty of Spain, makes for a nice stroll. But the park’s most memorable feature is the colonnade: a half-moon of columns at the edge of the lake in front of which towers an equestrian statue of Alfonso XII. 

Would You Like that to Go?

      On the way back from the park we stopped in at Plaza Mayor once again to check out the coin and stamp market—one of the biggest in Europe. The halls that the night before had been full of tourists were now filled with locals trading, buying, and selling collectable coins and stamps.


      While at the Plaza, we entered the San Miguel Market for a bite to eat. The glass and iron market building has been around since 1916 and only recently got a facelift. The historic place actually looks like a new market, selling everything from tapas and wine, coffee and churros, to vegetables and deli meats. We settled for a cup of coffee and some churros (sans chocolate) and headed on our way. It was just a little too crowded to relax. Besides we had places to go. We walked along the pedestrian street linking Plaza Mayor to Puerta del Sol. The vendors seemed to be out in droves on this Sunday, late morning, with their wares all laid out on blankets before them. 


      We weren’t expecting what came next. A distinct whistle shot through the air, as though from a lookout. In an instant, the vendors and their spread-out blankets of goods for sale were no longer there; in their place, people walked around with four-stringed bags on their backs. In an inventive tactic, these not-quite legal vendors had small ropes tied to each corner of the blankets that held their merchandise. Some of them held the ropes discretely in their hands, others had them positioned for quick pick up. At the first sign of the police, it took only a second to whip up the display and go from vendor to backpacker. 


Mixed in the crowd, once the police arrived, were people with packs slung on their backs. A few minutes later, once the police had walked on, the vendors were back, their wares displayed on blankets as though they’d never left.

One More Museum

      We’re told that a trip to Madrid isn’t complete without a trip to Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Sure, there is a good dozen or so places one can say the same about. But as one of the three most important museums in Spain’s capitol, we knew the Reina Sofia was not to be missed.


      Set in an old hospital, the Reina Sofia has an impressive collection of Spanish art from the 20th and 21st centuries. Picasso’s Woman in Blue, Miro’s Portrait II, and Dali’s The Great Masturbator are among the highlights of the collection. Arguably the most important work in the Reina Sofia is also considered by many art critics to be the most important painting of the 20th century. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.  


      Originally commissioned as a propaganda piece, the painting became more than it was intended to be. It became the artist’s masterpiece. This is the artist’s view of war: pain, confusion, distortion, bleakness, outstretched arms and broken bodies. In response to the attack on the Basque town of Guernica by German bombers, this painting is Picasso’s way of showing the results of the attack without actually showing the attack itself. Within the work, you can find a wounded horse, dead soldier, lifeless child, mourning mother, broken dagger and a confused bull. A visit to the Reina Sofia is well worth the trip to view this painting (and the preliminary sketches also on exhibit) alone.

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