For Dr E’s birthday, we had a little trip to Madrid. This was decided pretty much on the spur of the moment a few days before Christmas, a decision made partly at random and partly based on where we could fly to cheaply from Liverpool. Nevertheless, Madrid was perfect for a winter city break.
I forgot to get camera batteries before we went, so you’ll have to use your imaginations. Or google images.
We didn’t have the best of starts on 1st January, as I was suffering with a horrible hangover. I hadn’t had a wild night, my body just can’t take it. There I was, barely able to stop puking for long enough to pack a few changes of clothes and print out boarding passes, but at least it gave real impetus to my hitherto begrudging New Year’s resolution to stop drinking, at least for a while. This was my first experience of flying out of a UK city other than London, and it was lovely. Short, £1.90 bus trip and there we were, above us only sky. Another short trip on Europe’s (apparently) cheapest metro system and we were in the centre.
Not eating cheese or jámon (or drinking), we’re a waste of Spain’s currently-fashionable cuisine. But we did managed to feed ourselves. Sweet, juicy prawns, grains of sea-salt clinging to their shells. Crisp fresh salads. Plump yellow paella studded with seafood. Meaty tuna. Paprika rich patatas bravas. Tiny cups of intense coffee. Honey roasted almonds and – new to me – sunflower seeds (new to me honey-roasted, not generally. It might have been our imagination but we felt sunflower seeds taste better in Madrid). We also managed to find, of course, that universal veggie staple, falafel. Mainly though, we did culture. And mooching. We walked around a lot, hanging out in big squares and narrow streets. There’s a lot we didn’t do, but we did fairly well, for our energy and health levels.
We spent some time in art galleries which in Madrid are huge, and always seem to have queues regardless of the (reasonable) entrance fees. In the Centro de arte Reina Sofia, art, history and ideology are intimately entangled. Extensive chronological and stylistic arrangement show developing responses to modernity; artists were challenging and ways of representing as well as questioning the world being represented. Form and technique work to produce meaning in the big ‘isms’, from developing photographic techniques (the photos, including a room of disturbing Man Rays, were a highlight for me) to the cubist dismantling the physical world. There are some revealing juxtapositions – distorted shapes and absurd narratives are shown appearing in Buster Keaton films as well as cubist and surrealist painting. Of course, Guernica is ‘the painting people come to see’ which in a way seems arbitrary but it’s arresting – a tangle of limbs and horror – and the curation and context are done too cleverly here for it to feel disjointed, with progress pics and loads of sketches as well as war-time contemporaries. The Prado is a much more old-school set of old masters that doesn’t light my fire in the same way exactly (though I do have a soft spot for grizzly religious art). We especially wanted to see some Goya, particularly since having learned he lost his hearing and became deaf during his life and this inflected the bleakness of his social commentary. The black paintings in particular are extraordinary, gruesome and angry and expressive, and had been painted directly onto the walls of his house, which would have made for an incredibly dark living space.
The Parque del Buen Retiro was a short walk from our hotel and on the way into the centre. This huge, leafy space is full of grandiosity and, even in January, sunshine. Wide avenues, bombastic monuments, an extensive, global collection of trees and a lovely chilled out atmosphere. It’s dominated by a large man-made lake, and on Dr E’s birthday itself we even hired a rowing boat. It too is home to exhibition space and we were delighted to stumble upon the Palacio de Cristal, a 19th-century glass house in the style of Crystal Palace, currently home to Soledad Sevilla’s installation ‘written on the celestial bodies’. A dark blue plastic structure, modelled to fit snugly within the glass roof and walls, it transforms the room to a starry night sky-scape. The result of this disruption in atmosphere is a quiet, reflective space, On closer inspection, the ‘stars’ are made by sunlight coming through holes in the shape of punctuation marks. These give the impression of computer code, bringing together languages ancient and ultra-modern, both humbling to human observers. Emerging from this constructed planetarium to the view of a small lake, complete with fountain and black swans, and the sound of improvised jazz trumpet, will remain my perfect memory of Madrid.
We’ve also realised how little we know about Spanish history. Madrid was the centre of Franco’s authoritarian rule right up until 1975 – something I sort of knew, knowing a little about the Civil war in the ’30s. But from there the history seems to have evaporated, lost somehow among the global power-play of the cold war. This sort of repression and struggle doesn’t belong in our European narrative, although turning a blind eye to (even encouraging) nasty right-wing regimes if they help keep communism at bay is a familiar story for ‘the global south’. So that gives me something else to learn about.