Tuesday, April 08, 2014

One last day

Today is our last day here and so we decided to take it easy from the start, getting out around 10 and stopping at San Miguel for a coffee. Once again we had a parade of high school students although this bunch, French, had an assignment to make some notes about the place instead of just filling up chairs and taking selfies. Their parents might be getting a bit more for their buck (or Euro) than those of the kids yesterday.
Stopping by the newsstand I got the seller laughing when he couldn’t find the price on the paper and I told him “cada día, tres” or “each day, three.” He remembered me. We walked up Arenal to San Martin and took a left heading to the Monasterio de las Descalzas RealesMonastery of the Barefoot Royals, the little known museum we weren’t able to visit on Sunday.
The building is situated in a former palace that was the home of Carlos I and Isabel of Portugal and was donated and re-dedicated as a monastery in 1557 by their daughter Juana, she being the widow of the Prince of Portugal and mother of Don Sebastián, the future king of that country. She is buried in one of the chapels. As was popular in the time, many ladies of the nobility would seek seclusion at this monastery and paying a huge dowry to do so. For this reason the convent ended up with a very important collection of paintings, tapestries and religious images that rivals much larger European museums. Particularly important pieces include the tapestries woven from drawings by Rubens representing the Apotheosis of the Eucharist as well as paintings by artists such as Sánchez Coello, Brueghel and Luini, among others. A very important piece by Titian, Caesar’s Money is located a gallery dedicated to art from the Mediterranean School.
In spite the value of the endowment and the art, the Franciscan Sisters had taken a vow of poverty and were forbidden to sell anything to improve living conditions and by modern times were living very poorly amidst a priceless art collection. The Vatican ultimately allowed them to open the cloister to tours in order to generate some revenue and perpetuate the order. Today there are 28 nuns living on the site against the traditional number of 33, or one for each year of Jesus’ life.
We’re not big on tours, electing to never take them if we don’t have to. Arriving at 11:20, the guy at the door told us the next English version left in 10 minutes. I offered that we would prefer to wander and he said, “Impossible.” So we bought tickets and sat in the waiting room, sizing up the rest of our group. Two Japanese, 4 Germans, 2 Austrians and a few of indeterminate provenance. The door opened precisely on time and in we went.
It turned out to be a nice visit. The guide was the same guy who had stopped me at the door and he gave me an eye scold for accidentally leaning against the door frame that surrounded a 16th century chapel. From then on though he became my buddy and pretty much gave his ongoing art lecture directly to me and MLW. We ascended a staircase with walls lined in the most fantastic trompe l’oeil frescoes before leveling off on a hallway with chapels on the right and shuttered windows overlooking a simple courtyard in the Mudejar Plaza de Naranjas style – geometric brick work sidewalks with orange trees tucked into every corner – the same wonderful thing we’ve seen in mosques and cathedrals across the country. One room was dedicated to reliquaries, those little boxes and crates that hold the relics of saints. In this case, two silver arms holding the bones of St. Sebastian. Paintings of St. Francis of Assisi were most common, he being the patron saint of the convent. The Austrian woman broke into tears in the reliquary for some reason, stopping to wet her fingers in a font and crossing herself before leaving. One past more tiny chapels including one with a plaster Jesus from Mexico, bringing to mind Spain’s long reach in that era. New World things show up all over the place here, with wood and gold and silver from the forests and mines of Mexico being used to create the lavish religious art.
The tapestries were amazing, both in their size and condition. They were housed in a room that had been formerly been the sleeping area for the nuns. The guide pointed out small squares in the floor, done by a different pattern in the shiny waxed bricks. Perhaps 5’ x 5’ – “rooms” for the nuns.
Back downstairs and through a gallery devoted to Flemish art and into the one dedicated to the Mediterranean School where Titian’s masterpiece hung. His skill was just so obvious hanging there among the work of other masters. He had signed it “made by Titian” in Latin script inside the collar of the man trying to bribe Jesus. About this time the guide asked me where I was from and told me I looked like “William Katt.” I was kind of taken aback and thanked him, not knowing who he was talking about. We headed to the exit, where we stopped and asked him what that was about. He told us that William Katt was an American actor and star of a show that was enormously popular in Spain. From perhaps 30 years ago. He actually asked me if I was him. The three of us pondered it a bit before the light bulbs started to go off. William Katt was the start of The Greatest American Hero, a dram-com from the 1980’s featuring a mild-mannered high school teacher (Mr. Hinckley) who was given a suit with special powers by visiting aliens. Mr. Hinckley solved crimes and saved people abetted by a bunch of ne’er do well students and an overly cynical Robert Culp. I remembered finally because when President Reagan was shot by John Hinckley the producers changed his name to “Huntley” and went on as though nothing had happened. So, I have now jarred the memory of a guide at a convent.
With more mundane things in mind, we went into the back entrance of Cortes Inglés in search of dental floss. We’d run out and I thought it might be a grand adventure to try and find some. Locating it was easy, although picking a type was less so. Choosing to use the automatic checkout really made it an adventure, it might have been slower than standing in line, but how often to you get to self-check in a foreign country and pay with a pile of coins?
We left the store, making sure to use the correct door and thus avoid last year’s geography crisis (when we ended up in the opposite direction on Gran Vía near this year’s camera bag international incident,) crossed Puerta del Sol one more time stopping to take a photo of a suspended Jesus street performer using that cute technique that was popular last year with suspended monks. The suspension thing has propagated, we still get the monks, but now we have motorcyclists and basketball players too. Crossing Calle Mayor we headed back up to Las Huertas and stopped for lunch at the same place as yesterday, the cod fritters and Madrone jam were just too hard to resist and it’s not like we’re going to have them again anytime soon. Our gelato place was closed which forced us to seek dessert elsewhere, choosing to head back to the place closer to our apartment passing down a street that was new to us (hard to believe) and stopping to gawk at another watch store with a cool moving display up above the entrance. A cartoon watchmaker plying his trade joined by a crowing rooster, a working cuckoo clock and a spinning hourglass. Down below, the Africans had moved their counterfeit purse collections to this neighborhood, trying to stay ahead in their never ending game of cat and mouse with the police. 

When the sun started to drop we went back out, heading for the Corte Inglés bookstore that we thought we’d been to earlier but discovered that we hadn’t when we took a look at the bag from the place we’d actually been to. Last year they had the coolest little children’s book in Spanish about horses and we wanted to see if we could find another.

The city is nice once the sun gets past the straight up position and the long narrow streets, bordered by tall apartment buildings, start to get shady. There was another Mariachi band playing in Puerta del Sol and we stopped and listened for a while, picking out corridas from MLW’s youth. The bookstore was off to the east side so we went in when we’d had our fill of norteaña and went upstairs. Sure enough, we found a second copy of the book from last year. Mission accomplished, it was back down Arenal and up the hill to San Miguel where we grabbed a chair at an outside restaurant and ordered wine, croquettes and a caña, my new favorite word. Thankfully and for the first time in days we didn’t have to depend on the wind to protect us from smoking diners. The cigarette smoke here is just obnoxious, and while we do set ourselves up by sitting outside, we get nailed even when there are no other people eating. The women walking by, cigarette in hand, provide a never ending supply. It’s tough, and you have to try to get used to it or else you’re going to find yourself sitting inside for every single meal.

Deciding that a last glass of wine was in order we went into the market and tried to find a place to sit. They have far less chairs than they need, and so it’s always a challenge. I got one right away and then wandered around looking for another and being turned down at every request. I stood for a bit until I saw two open up and arrived at a table with two free at the exact instant as another guy. He told me “I have more people” and I said “too bad, I need one,” smiled and took it. When we were done we handed ours over to an elderly British couple that had been standing next to us.

We wandered back home, I stopped to take a few photos of the great light, now topping the buildings. The temperature was lovely, and the square in front of our place was just beginning to awaken. We debated going back out for a walk, but we decided maybe not. It seemed we’d found the perfect way to end our last day here.

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