Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Another day of museums

The Paseo del Arte pass is a pretty good deal if you are planning to take in Madrid’s three most famous museums. For a mere 20 € you save about 30%, and the tickets are good for as long as you hold them. We started at the Thyssen-Bornemisza and having been wasted by all that cultural exposure decided to put off the Prado and Reina Sofia for another day. The pass gives you that flexibility.

Every day here seems to involve a stroll down Calle Arenal towards the center of town. We followed yesterday’s path and turned right at Plaza Neptuno to head towards the Prado. It was just before opening time, but there was a long, long line of ticket seekers well ahead of us. Ah, the second good thing about the Paseo – you don’t have to stand in the ticket line. Based on the recommendation of our Madrid guide, we walked around to the rear side of the museum to find the Jeronimos entry only to discover that it has now been converted to an exit. This was a becoming a bit confusing – there was no obvious entrance for pass holders; our ticket to ease was now making things more confusing. I stopped to ask one of the guards and just as she was getting to an answer, another woman cut in between us and waving an email started going on about her group or friends or something. The guard took her to another guard and came back to us, pointing in the direction of an empty line that ran parallel to the ticket buyers. We were admitted by another guard and went up to a special ticket office, just for those with passes and changes. Well, the word “changes” should have been a dead giveaway, because every single person in front of us had some sort of problem that required some sort of special attention and it was quickly becoming maddening. It took what seemed like hours but was probably about 20 minutes for all various difficulties to become resolved. Our problem was simple - she tore off the stub for the museum and gave us two official tickets. The entry was on the front side of the building and held yet another line. This one moved moderately fast and following a bag check, we were inside.

The Prado is an odd museum for one of its stature. The paintings are not arranged by time which would give you a good sense of the development of technique and expression. Rather they are loosely grouped by artist and school, which means you have a lot of eras represented all over the place. I’ve heard the stories from people who claimed you couldn’t do the place justice without spending days in there contemplating, but to my mind you can only spend so much mental energy appreciating crucifixions, martyrdoms, Hapsburgs and plump English Baronesses before it all becomes a blur. There were specific things I wanted to see, works by Caravaggio, El Greco, Goya, Breughel and Bosch, and those were easily found and enjoyed. Of course the huge body of work by Velazquez was a must visit, but in fact Velazquez’ Las Meninas is the one piece worth really spending time with. The endless rooms of Rubens, Rafael, Titian and a host of Brits, French, Flems and every other nationality are impressive mainly in the sheer volume of their contents. Even if I lived here full time, I doubt I’d feel the need or desire to visit many times with the express goal of beating some specific genre to death.

The other thing I thought about was the sheer volume of money being wasted by parents on sending their kids on a spring break trip in groups to a place like this. The girls spent their time flirting with the boys, while the boys wrestled with each other to display themselves as superior breeding stock. The few nerdy kids who were actually looking at the paintings were largely ignored and those who were interested in neither art nor breeding spent their time playing with their phones. Nearly as absurd as the school tours were the American parents with little kids standing in front of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights trying to explain why the giant parakeet was eating someone. Two hours was about our limit so we checked out and headed to Starbucks for precisely the same lunch as yesterday. Of note was the fact that by 12:30, the ticket lines had disappeared completely.

Our plan for tomorrow is a trip to Segovia, so tickets were next on our agenda. The Prado is just up the street from the Puerta de Atocha station so off we went to make buy them. The purchasing process was a bit confusing so a chat with one of the information girls was in order. The first girl told us that the Segovia train left from a different station and so we’d need to take the subway there. That didn’t sound entirely correct so we asked another who confirmed the different station, but confirmed that they could be purchased here. We went off to the ticket office, found someone to ask who told us to take a ticket and wait our turn. This part was only mildly confusing given that there were two options for tickets and no clear display of who was being waiting on or how long we might have to wait. I finally figured out that the number of the current customer was displayed on a board above the particular agent who happened to be open. The rest was simple – pick the times, hand over the money and collect the goods. The ticket agent even complimented us on our Spanish at the end of the transaction. One last bit of confusion on whether or not we had reserved seats and if so, what the numbers were, and we were once again on our way.

It was now pushing 2 PM and we decided to head back in the direction of our neighborhood. The route passed the Reina Sofia Museum so we figured in for a penny, why not – if we could persevere for another hour, we’d be done with this side of town. No lines here, just a really confusing and in my opinion a difficult to use museum. First of all it was very warm inside which is never conducive to spending time wandering and appreciating. Secondly, the design of the place layout has you wandering in and out of small rooms scattered between two floors. The third and fourth floors are home to temporary collections and were both closed today. Closed to the point where the elevator refused to take us there when I pushed the button for 4, but not so closed that the elevator told you why. You just stood there like an idiot in an unmoving elevator.

The collection is entirely 20th century art – Miró, Picasso, Dalí, Ray, etc. and so not one for deep contemplation if you are beyond 20 years of age. Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica is the center point of the museum and is considered the preeminent piece of art in Spain. I saw it once in New York when I was in college, before it was repatriated in 1981. Picasso demanded that it never return while Franco lived, and its conservators honored his wish. It is an incredible piece, due mainly to its size but I don’t get the horror and tragedy that is ascribed to it. The rest of the art was familiar to me mainly through the posters that were common in the dorm rooms of my college era. It was a quick tour and we headed back through the Las Huertas neighborhood in the direction of home.

Our apartment rental had come up short in the hair dryer area so we decided to solve that problem with a visit to El Corte Inglés, the giant department store of Spain. The information lady told us where to go and gave us a pass for a 10% discount. We found the department and considered a few options before settling on a travel unit from Phillips that seemed to be a very good price. A nice woman helped us but couldn’t explain the discount ticket so she handed us off to her associate who was in the middle of another transaction. She told us that all we had to do was ride the escalator to the 7th floor (we were on the ground floor), collect a pass and then come back. Given that the savings amounted to all of $2, we decided it wasn’t worth the wait. So we stood and watched as she slowly and methodically gift wrapped the two bottles of body lotion that the guy in front of us had purchased. I have never seen anyone tape flaps of paper more slowly, and so when the next counter opened up, we moved and got out of there.

All this walking and appreciating and buying had greatly diminished our reserves so before heading back we stopped for a cup of chocolate and some Churros, the perfect afternoon snack. This place had chocolate negro and chocolate con leche and we settled on the latter, based solely on taste. Sitting at a corner table, eating fried dough and watching the world go by was the perfect way to put a cap on everything we’d accomplished today.

The weather once again became threatening around dinner time so we left with umbrellas just in case. Rather than fall victim to the wealth of choices, we went straight to Plaza Mayor, home to many options whose prices generally reflect area’s popularity with tourists. One thing I will say about Madrid – it’s loaded with travelers. I don’t recall hearing English save once or twice in Valencia, here you hear it constantly and most restaurants offer bilingual menus and waiters. Rather than lose the practice opportunities, we try to stick to the local tongue and only revert when necessary. I had one place in mind, thinking a fancy dinner might be nice for a change but a review of the menu suggested that perhaps no dish was worth 30 € when there were dozens of places with interesting menus that would allow us to escape for far less than that. We went up and down a couple of streets and settled on a place that offered Paella, figuring it might be time to try the Madrid version. It was very hard to resist the hustler whose job was solely to bring in patrons. He had excellent English with sort of a chopped accent but his responses made you wonder if he really understood what was being said. He was also so up tempo that you really had to question if he could ever turn it off. We sat outside on the street even though there was a cold wind blowing through an arch on the edge of the Plaza. They had heat lamps that made it just about okay. An Australian couple sat next to us with their two kids who gobbled up their food and then stuck their noses in their phones, spending the rest of family dinner playing games. The floor show in the form of the strollers passing up and down the calle made our choice exquisite. We tipped a couple of guitarists who played out front and then stiffed an accordionist because I was out of change. Dinner came and it was pretty good, perhaps My Lovely Wife’s favorite in the paella challenge. We sat and watched and topped off a great meal with some coffee. It started to rain a bit on the way home so the umbrellas came to good use.





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