Madrid, the bustling capital of Spain attracts more than 10 million visitors annually and offers an intriguing glimpse into a colourful tapestry of history and culture through its magnificent museums located in the area known as the ‘golden triangle of art’. Art lovers gather at the Prado Museum, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum gazing upon their glorious treasures including masterpieces by the supremely talented Velázquez.
Diego Velázquez was the leading artist in the court of King Philip IV and one of the most influential painters of the Spanish Golden Age. Born in Seville in 1599 Velázquez died in Madrid in 1660 and to view examples of his work I headed for the Museo del Prado, which dates back to 1785. At King Charles III’s command the striking building was designed by Juan de Villanueva to house the natural history collection and later, Ferdinand VII, the king’s grandson, decreed that the Spanish crown’s collection would be housed there and the museum duly opened to the public in 1819.
The Prado’s exhibits include paintings from the 12th to the early 20th centuries in addition to an extensive collection of classical sculptures, decorative arts, prints, drawings and photographs and the number of works by Velázquez, Goya, El Greco, Titian and Rubens ensures that this museum remains one of Madrid’s most popular attractions.
European masterpieces include The Descent from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden, The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest by El Greco, and The Second of May 1808 and its companion The Third of May 1808 by Goya, which focus on Spanish rebellion against French occupation. And of course, the highlight of my visit was the time I spent appreciating Las Meninas by Velázquez, which is quite simply intoxicating.
The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, which opened in 1990, is only a short stroll away and presents contemporary collections on an international scale including excellent works by Spain’s greatest masters Picasso and Dali. Another exhibition includes ‘Is the War Over? Art in a Divided World’, which covers the period from 1945 to 1968 and focuses on the artistic transformations during the development of tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States.
It is a fascinating collection and I was particularly drawn to the pieces displayed in room 425 under the title ‘Spain is Different – Tourism and aperture in the 1960s’, which capture the re establishment of relations between Spain and the United States following the alliance in 1953 and the rapid development of tourism, which remains Spain’s most lucrative industry.
More artistic masterpieces are on view at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and include works by Carravaggio, Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Mondrian and Carpaccio. I was most fortunate to spot the Portrait of Henry VIII of England by Hans Holbein the Younger. Painted in 1537, it is an absolutely magnificent work of art and reflects the king’s regal pose and bearing with expertise.
A trifle weary after my explorations I hopped on a local bus for the short journey to the Aloft Madrid Gran Via, located in a vibrant part of the city and steps away from all the hustle and bustle of the Plaza del Callao. Accommodations are spacious and feature contemporary furnishings including comfortable platform beds swathed in crisp, white linens ensuring a deep slumber.
I opted for a loft terrace king room, which affords an wonderful view overlooking the city and a spacious private terrace with sun loungers. After relaxing awhile I headed for the splash pool on the top floor of the property and following a refreshing dip I ordered an iced orange juice from the adjacent WXYZ Bar and reclined on a sun bed. I had every intention of studying my diary and promptly succumbed to an afternoon siesta.
Later, whilst surveying the meandering narrow streets off the Gran Via, I noted the abundance of little boutiques, thriving coffee shops and tapas bars and as I wandered along Calle del Pez I came upon the Teatro Flamenco Madrid, the only theatre of its kind in the world. ‘Emociones’; the twice daily flamenco performances, attract locals and tourists alike and I was instantly captivated.
The interior of the theatre resembles an intimate lounge with little tables scattered around and adorned with flickering candles and whilst the audience sipped on their drinks and nibbled on snacks the heavy curtains parted and the stunning performance began. The male and female flamenco dancers, accompanied by excellent singers and an acoustic guitarist, were all spellbinding.
The female dancers, dressed in elaborate colourful costumes, and the male dancer resplendent in a pristine suit, were passionate, exuberant, inspiring and overflowing with energy. This is a real cultural experience and when the show ended the audience were instantly on their feet demanding encores.
Up with the larks the following morning and after a tasty breakfast I hopped on the Metro and made my way to Casa de Campo, the location of the Madrid Zoo and Aquarium, which covers 20 hectares and dates back to 1770.
Home to more than 6,000 animals, the zoo has embarked on several conservation programmes including successful breeding initiatives for giant pandas. In 1978 China presented Spain with two giant pandas and their cub, born in 1982, was the first panda born in captivity in Europe through the use of artificial insemination.
I was enthralled as I watched the adorable pandas consuming what seemed like a never ending supply of bamboo and I then went in search of the western lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, mandrills, orang-utans, elephants, rhinos and more. It is clear that each species is afforded space and opportunities for privacy and the overall experience was delightful.
In the late afternoon I headed for the Salamanca area, the most affluent part of the city, and for those seeking a spot of high end retail therapy there are designer shops galore including Chanel, Hermès, Louis Vuitton and Gucci. Resisting the urge to exceed my credit card limit I retreated to the Hard Rock Café located on Paseo de la Castellana.
I wandered around admiring the rock memorabilia, which includes a serviette signed by Elvis, a glittering jacket, once worn by Little Richard, a Roy Orbison guitar and a letter of complaint related to the photograph used on the record cover for Dream no. 9.
The letter, dated 1975, is from ‘disgusted of Bournemouth’ and is signed by the late, great, John Lennon. Tearing myself away I was then escorted to my table and opted for the succulent 340g New York Strip Steak topped with herb butter and, accompanied by the 2017 Prios Maximus, Ribera Del Duero, Crianza, it was perfect.
With so much more to see and do I decided to extend my stay in Madrid and strolled along to the newly opened Room Mate Alba Hotel located on Calle de Huertas. Reflecting a contemporary theme with a traditional Spanish flair and only a short walk away from the ‘golden triangle of art’, the property is surrounded by narrow streets crammed with independent boutiques, small shops, bars and restaurants.
I opted for a gorgeous deluxe suite, which measures 44 sq metres with plush furnishings, soft carpeting and an ultra comfortable bed. The level of comfort and service is exceptional and I was delighted to discover that the breakfast buffet is served from 07.00 to Noon.
After a long luxurious lie-in and a late indulgent breakfast I hopped on a local bus and made my way to the Retiro Park, which was owned by the Spanish Crown until it opened to the public in 1767. Covering 350 glorious acres this open air art museum features countless sculptures and beautiful fountains including the Fountain of the Fallen Angel, created by Ricardo Bellver who was born in Madrid in 1845. Bellver’s statue at the apex of the fountain, was inspired by John Milton’s Paradise Lost and depicts Satan’s fall from Heaven.
I took a leisurely stroll along the Paseo de la Argentina, also known as ‘statue walk’, and stopped to appreciate the many statues, which represent generations of the Spanish Royal family. I paused awhile beside a beautiful lake, admiring the towering trees and enjoying the heady fragrances emanating from the rose garden, which was designed to reflect the beauty of the Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne.
The Retiro’s elaborate buildings include a glass conservatory, which is next to the lake. Designed by the Spanish architect Ricardo Velázquez Bosco and built in 1887 the building was inspired by London’s Crystal Palace and is now used for art exhibitions.
With my time in Madrid was coming to an end I headed back to my hotel on Calle de Huertas and spotted Casa Alberto, a traditional Spanish restaurant, which is family owned and run and was founded in 1827. I joined the locals, some of whom were sipping on drinks at the bar and waiting patiently for a table.
I was soon engaged in conversation and learnt that the restaurant was frequented by the American movie star Ava Gardner and Vincente del Bosque González, the Real Madrid Coach and the manager of the Spanish national football team; recipients of the 2010 FIFA Cup. I ordered the succulent Iberian pork; marinated in mustard, and accompanied by the 2017 Emilio Moro it was an outstanding dining experience. I held my glass high in honour of Madrid and reflected on the words of Pablo Picasso ‘Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life’.
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