June 15, 2016
Yesterday 29 degrees, today 21; beautiful weather but mainly a wind of “mistral” proportions keeping it temperate. Pleasantville in the sun, coolish in the shade. We didn’t add on (or need, at this point) a hotel breakfast, so were two Nespresso's ready to hit the road well before nine. We did what many, most, or maybe what all tourists do in Madrid: We went to the Prado. The museum opens at 10; there was already a very long line up for tickets well in advance. But we had bought our tickets from the hotel, so we avoided the line. Phew. Instead, we joined the next line-up, the line-up of people with tickets, waiting to get in. Then, once inside, we waited in another line-up, to see the special "El Bosco" or Bosch exhibition. There are no pictures allowed in the Prado so the blog won’t be littered with Samsung repros of old masters, but if you are the rare tourist to wander into the adjacent wing and up to the cloister, probably no one will notice if you take a pic. To list the masterpieces, Rubens, Goya, El Greco, Rubens, Raphael, Velazques, Titian, and even more friggin’ Rubens, is perhaps more tiring than listening to the audio explanations, as we did, over three hours in the AM then another in the PM. How civilized of the Spanish: You can leave the museum for lunch, then return on the same ticket. The Cardinal, by Raphael, is one of those pictures that when you finally see it in person you need to just soak it in. But there are also curiosities, Caravaggio look-alikes by artists in his circle, a Mona Lisa (brighter, happier and more colourful) by a pupil of Da Vinci, a Rubens where he modified a finished painting by adding extra canvas—and you can see the seam, and a very quirky Cano, the Miraculous Lactation of St. Bernard where a statue of the Virgin Mary squirts milk from her teat across the plaza to St. Bernard. The size, of the museum, the size of the actual paintings, mammoth to be exact, added to the volume of art, show that the Spanish court had a very close and enduring relationship with the finest artists on the continent for a very long time. We took lunch just in behind the Prado, at a lovely small café called Murillo. We started with some local cheese, bread and quince jam. Very persistent and brave sparrows flitted below our table for scraps. Ever seen a sparrow gorge on cheese? We returned to the Prado to finish the bucket list. The absolute over the top most amazing blow away part of the visit was the special celebration, in honor of 500 years of the life of Jheronimus Bosch, a collection of the most Bosch paintings and drawings ever assembled. Probably every pleb and their dog has at some time seen a poster, a t-shirt, a tea towel, with a reference to his The Garden of Earthly Delights, but to see his work, even his nominal sketches, up close, was beyond description. One painting, through laser tech, shows how Bosch painted over the patron to whom he was under contract to paint for, with a flesh eating plant. Mid-afternoon we left the culture behind and wandered into the old city. Just regular non-allegorical plants on view. Streets without tourists; compared to Prague, Madrid looks like a ghost town. The street signs in the old town depict what the street or neighbourhood meant. We wound our way up and down a number of narrow streets, until eventually we reached Plaza Mayor. Mayor translating, roughly, to main square. The building here, on the plaza, was the principal bakery for the city of Madrid in the 1700s, then became the central guild for all bakers, then in the 1800s became offices. The original frescoes deteriorated to such a point that a competition was created to repaint the façade. The current pictures, zodiac imagery, date to 1992. From Plaza Mayor we followed some pedestrian boulevards back towards our hotel. SS saw some spectacular snow globes—always on the lookout for his mum’s collection. Alas, he was distracted by some beautiful fans. Neither globes nor fans left the display windows. My mind was elsewhere: Iberico ham. On our route back we passed by the Museum of the History of Madrid, which we didn’t have the energy to face despite the fact that it was a) free and b) has a superlative Goya, but we believe was originally a hospital then a municipal building and had, as you can see, a spectacular baroque entrance dating to 1721. Back at the hotel we decided to use the spa. For guests, for anyone not booking a “treatment” for 200 euros, you can access the exceptional steam room and an unusual pool. Step one, call the elevator. Step two, figure out how to get all three doors open and closed, then relax on the two-seater. Step three, press “-1” not 0, which is the ground floor, not B as there is no basement. What did Europeans do before adopting negative numbers? The pool, such as it is, while therapeutic, is really a glorified hot tub, with jets and molded beds at either end. But it is incredibly relaxing (although the ceiling mirror belied the fact that I've totally gone off the so-called diet). We went out to dinner to a Wallpaper recommended place called Lobby Market. We shared a smoked burrata cheese with basil and tomato, ham croquettes, and two delicious mains. SS had a cod crudo marinated in orange with orange segments and pickled spring onion and peppers and pork rind. Despite the late hour, the city was very lively. Who knows what this is. This shot was taken at 10 p.m. Don't you love the days approaching summer solstice?
June 14, 2016
Our last day in Prague. We were packed, then down to breakfast, then running up the Fitbit steps before nine, to get to the Old Jewish graveyard. It was used for over 300 years, 1439-1787, but the land allotted to the Jewish community was never big enough. In fact, the area was so small it resulted in burial upon burial. Some graves are twelve deep. The pictures don’t do it justice; it has a beautiful serenity, in the centre of the Old Town, despite the ghetto backstory. Jewish gravestones tell a story, different images may indicate the character of the deceased or their profession. But for a goy like myself, discerning who was a musician, cantor or physician was “nigh impossible” to quote one web citation. We had a comedy of errors at first, splitting up, I was first in line at one ticket office, SS lining up then not having enough cash on hand at a different ticket office, but through the miracle of something called texting we sorted it out. I actually went to the Spanish Synagogue first. There is, on Trip Advisor, a review that reads “You must experience this experience.” I really can’t improve upon that. It is the “newest” synagogue in the old ghetto built on the site of the oldest. The design, which references the Alhambra, is as striking as it is detailed. Plus, bonus, I was the first tourist in. I was alone for about 15 minutes, immersed in this magnificent building. The existence of an organ in the synagogue caught me off guard, but according to placards on site the use of an organ to “inaugurate the Sabbath” dates back to the 17th century. Even the "lesser" intricacies in the stained glass geometric windows were astonishing. Beginning in 1942, inventory from "liquidated" synagogues was transferred to Prague "for safe keeping" under the auspices of the Nazis. Amazingly, these pieces are still in Prague, in one magnificent collection, on display. Mainly Torah crowns, shields, and other intricately designed silverware. We were back at the hotel and checked out just before 11. Although we spent five days in Prague and never took a tram, taxi or the underground once, we had booked a car for the airport. A spanking new tinted window leather interior Mercedes showed up. The driver had a client in the EU for which once a month he had to chauffeur him to Strasbourg. I like to feel like a rock star. Today's flight is PRG to MAD on Iberia. It was either Iberia or Czech airlines, and CZE didn't fly to Spain today. We checked in without much issue then went to the “lounge” which was small and eerily empty. In fact, half of the lounge was cordoned off. Three shots from the flight leaving the Czech Republic. (We didn't meet one local who preferred "Czechia.") Flying over the Pyrenees. Madrid's airport, picture worthy and groovy in a Matt Helm sort of way. A Stirling prize winner, I believe. Motion shot on the people mover. SS is checking his Fitbit! Futuristic arrival carrels. We are arriving in Spain on June 14. That means we missed June 13, the only day of the year in which the Spanish make Panecillos de San Antonio, small rolls marked with a cross, and, wait for it, Suspiros de modistillas which translates to Needlewoman's sighs, meringues filled with praline. So our loss. We'll make up for it with our hotel. This is the first "real" hotel of our trip, with door staff and desk staff and marked up mini bar. It's located in a renovated palace. "Not us, we live in a palace" I hear from an earlier blog entry. Our lovely second floor room (third floor in Canada) has hugely high ceilings, comfortable appointments, and a narrow balcony. This shot of the giant French door/windows is through the privacy screen. The bathroom isn't huge, but it has three components, the toilet (with a door), the shower, the bath. The marble staircase wraps around the archaic but gorgeous lift; stained glass runs along the stairwell. We went out for a long walk in the late afternoon heat (a whopping 29 degrees). The concierge recommended a close by neighbourhood describing it as having "the best shopping in Madrid" but what he meant was the most expensive: Tiffany's, Tod's, The Kooples. The Kooples? Iberico ham, wine, cheese, olives and olive oil. Western Europe is calling me. Oh dear. When will designers finally stop trying to get men to wear a short pants suit? It's the uniform of an Australian postie. That is, in case you're uncertain, a necklace. Comes with a warning of dowager's hump. Immediately we ran into the problem of any tourist in Spain: Getting hungry before nine in the evening (when restaurants open). As it was we stopped for tapas and that was more than sufficient. With the solstice approaching, we ended up back at the hotel by ten in a lovely dusk. Man in an expensive suit cycling. You know you're in Europe.