Bullfights in Madrid, 2009


Where the Portuguese were essentially silent, the Spanish are not. Ever. Everything must be discussed endlessly, preferably at top speed and volume. At the exit of the station, taxis were lined up. I went to the head of the line, presented the hotel address to the taxi driver. The address was passed about and discussed by no less than 6 drivers, each of who knew a better way to get there. My own driver insisted he knew best, waved the others on with a scowl and helped me into the car. When we got out of sight of the others, however, he pulled the car to the curb, reached under his seat and pulled out a navigation system!  He punched in the address, winked at me, and we were off.

At the hotel, it was not yet 10am and my room would not be ready for another 2 hours. I really wanted a shower and a nap, but instead let them hold my bag while I went to orient myself. I take two precautions for my first excursion. I grab the hotel business card and I have the desk clerk mark on a map the location of the hotel. I am staying at the Hotel Lorenzo on the Calle Cavel, just steps from The Grand Via, Puerta del Sol and at least 2 metro stops. If I had known that (if I had bothered to check my Metro map) I would have skipped the taxi and used public transportation. In 20 minutes, I had bought a two day pass on the double decker tour bus system, my favorite way to get oriented. Despite occasional showers, I went around one full turn on the bus, seeing the main sites from the top. The audio guide is only fair, but better than the one in Lisbon. I find that I cannot take in all the information in on one round, so I plan a minimum of two. A second day ticket was only 3 Euro more, and the bus can serve as cheap transportation for Monday.

By the time I got back to where I started, I had time to grab a quick Jamon y queso sandwich (ham and cheese) and check into my room. To say that the room is “small” would be to risk over-estimating its dimensions. It is the size of a walk-in closet. I have to open the shower door to make room for my knees when I sit on the commode. But it is clean and I was grateful to shower and put on fresh clothes.

My plan was to get back on the tour bus, this time getting off at one or two stops. I grabbed my guidebook to help me decide which when I suddenly remember it was Sunday, the day Madrid has bullfighting!  The front desk confirmed this and I quickly got directions for the 7pm show. That left me with enough time to go one more round with the tour bus and then a nap.

I can’t tell you how very hard I sleep at times like this. I didn’t move, and I wonder it I even breathed. It took a cafe con leche (coffee with milk) before I was confident I could negotiate the subway. With the help of the desk clerk, I had practiced how to buy a ticket. “Por favor, un Metro-bus, de diez viages.”  (one Metro ticket with 10 trips). This is the best deal. But when I arrived, the ticket gate was locking up and I was pointed toward the bank of ticket machines. I must have looked mystified, because an older gentleman took me by the arm and walked me to them. I delivered my rehearsed line. “Bueno!”  He applauded. I felt like a good student. He pushed all the buttons for me, “aqui e aqui” (here and here). I handed him a 10 Euro note for the 7.50 fare—the man could have taken it—but he put it in the machine and out popped my ticket and change. “Voile!”  (OK, so that’s French, but it really is the perfect word and no other language has it.)  I was so thrilled I kissed him on both of his stubbly cheeks.

The metro ride was a straight shot and once I was sure I was headed in the right direction, I could sit back for the 20 minute ride and people watch. I have done a fair bit of traveling to Spanish speaking countries, but this is Castillian Spanish, the birthplace of the language. To my ears it is quite different, a combination that will take some getting used to. It is on the one hand a more expressive, expansive tongue. The addition of trills and rhythms not dreamed of in American English. But the Castilian “lisp” adds an effeminate touch and almost leaves me laughing, especially when I heard it from the lips of a bodybuilder on the train.

The bullfight area, Madrid, Spain
The bullfight area, Madrid, Spain

My faith in my ability to navigate a subway is restored. No trouble getting to the Venta Metro stop—Madrid’s Bullfighting Arena. This one was built in 1929 to hold 23,000 people. It is a Moorish design, of brick and trimmed in tile. I first had to purchase a ticket, but the initial price I was given was staggering—120 Euro. But I was prepared, “Caro!” (Expensive!) With a wave of my hand I was ready to walk, which was a fairly safe bluff since there were other ticket booths.  So he just kept showing me tickets until we came to a price I would pay, 22.50. But where was I sitting?  “Donde esta?” (Where is it?) Fortunately the man at the gate replied with one of the few things I could understand, “Puerta Proxima.”  Next door!  From there, you get pointed each step of the way, so I was safe, though I’d have never found it alone. But I have the same problem at a Braves game, so that doesn’t mean much.

This is before the seats filled up
This is before the seats filled up

The seats are concrete and so narrow that sardines in tins have more elbow room… if they had elbows. I had forgotten the word for “shade” so it was just luck that I ended up there; the sunny seats looked uncomfortable. The rain earlier in the day had cleared and now there was not a cloud in the sky. And I was glad I got there early since the arena was near capacity when the band struck up at 7pm sharp. Who knew anything started on time in Spain?

I can’t remember if the root word for “arena” is Latin or Greek, but I do remember it means “sand” and refers to the sandy floor of the coliseum. I also remembered why sand was used—to soak up the blood. Let me say this up front:  Bullfighting is cruel. Still, if you visit Spain, you should go. Once. Part of me hopes that it is a matter of time before the world becomes a kinder, gentler place where blood sports are outlawed. And part of me feels that it is a very special, very interesting sport and it would be a shame to see it pass into history. Since I won’t be the one to decide, I can stay conflicted.

Madrid May 2009 Bullfight 53

And now that I’ve been, I may never go again. I was rooting for the bull, the ultimate underdog, with absolutely no chance to survive. Six bulls will die in a two hour spectacle. Rome gave the people “bread and circuses” with each event more bloody than the last. Every day they had to come up with newer, more exciting ways to kill both man and beast, just to keep it interesting. I can see why. By 8:05p I’d seen three bulls die and I was a bit bored.

Madrid May 2009 Bullfight 42I should have studied the art of bullfighting before I went, so I’m sure I’m not using the correct names for things. The event starts with a parade of the matadors. All wear toreador pants and pink socks and most carry a two colored cape, yellow and pink. Only the main matadors carry a red one. And they all have sequins and that silly hat. I can’t decide if they are resplendent or dressed in drag. It strikes me that making them  wear so much pink gives them a chip on their shoulder, something that makes them have to prove their manhood, like naming them Sue or Jayne. At the back of the parade are those who assist, including men on horseback. I could see that the horses were covered with a thick blanket, like a quilted armor. I had no idea how important that would be.

Madrid May 2009 Bullfight 26The ring is cleared and the first bull is released, black and snorting, his horns look fierce. He has ribbons tied to his withers (the hump where his neck joins the body) which I thought were decoration. It turns out to be a target. First the bull is taunted by a half dozen matadors. At this point, the bull is fresh and the matadors must be swift to out run him. Just like in American rodeo, they have a partition they can slip behind for safety. One matador had to clear the fence to keep from being gored, but these are young, lithe men, high on testosterone, so there is little danger. This is all for show. Then the padded horses come out and I notice that the rider has a pointed stick. At first I think it is horrible that the bull attacks the horse, raising its front feet off the ground and almost knocking it over. I am relieved when the man with the stick uses it to “push” the bull away. Only later do I realize how much the bull is bleeding. This occurs with every new bull. It is all part of wearing him down, weakening the bull. I’m amazed at how calmly the horse takes the abuse. It’s the second bull before I notice that the poor horse is blindfolded.

This is a terrible sport.

Madrid May 2009 Bullfight 60Only now does the main matador appear. He is flashier than the others with extra sequins. He carries a red cape and all the bravado he can muster. He is the poster child for testosterone poisoning. Now is when it becomes clear that this is theater, and it is being played big for the cheap seats. There is a lot of strutting, arching of the back, wide sweeps of the arms.  The matador makes exaggerated expressions and movements. He laughs. He flounces the cape like a flirting woman’s wide skirt. The point seems to be to get the bull to charge the cape in tight circles 3 times or more while the crowd yells “ole!”. It’s a bonus of the bull turns so sharply that he falls down. Then the matador turns his back on the bull, as though he has no fear of the animal and struts away to applause. I notice the matador keeps the bull in his peripheral vision. He may be proud but he is no fool. Now the half dozen lesser toreadors return. Three of them are holding matched sets of short, decorated spears. They take turns taunting the bull. As he runs for them, they plunge the spears into the neck, again aiming at the withers where a major artery lies.  The crowd boos if one falls out. By now, the bull looks like a pincushion and the blood is pouring.

Madrid May 2009 Bullfight 54The main matador comes back and brandishes his red cape for the bull a few more times. Even in his weakened state the bull continues to be attracted. He charges it each time, but he is weaker, losing the battle. The matador points a sword at the bull and you realize the end is near. The bull is panting and blood is dripping down his forelegs and hooves. On the next pass, the matador stabs. Twice the blade went in so far that only the hilt was visible. The other matadors are close by to distract the bull if needed. The stabbing continues until the bull falls.  When he does, his throat is cut with a short knife. The crowd applauds. The matador soaks in the adoration. The sand soaks in the blood. The clean up crew bring in the draught horses. They tie leather straps to the horns and drag the bull’s remains from the ring. Then the crowd stands and stretches while men with rakes and wheelbarrows clean up the blood.

As most of you know by now, I was raised on a farm. I know there are patterns with animal behavior, and if you learn them, you can keep yourself safe most of the time. You can use these patterns against the animal, to make him do what you want most of the time. If you want to know what a horse is about to do, for instance, watch its ears. Forward means it’s attentive. Laid back against the neck means watch out!  You can keep a horse from bucking if you hold tight to the reins and don’t let it drop its head. A n animal’s actions are mostly predictable. Knowing this, it’s clear to me that the bull follows the cape, not the man. I have no idea why or how anyone figured it out, but if the bull has an ounce of fight left in him, he can’t resist charging the cape. All you have to do is wave it in front of you and then when the bull charges, step aside. My brothers could have done that. Heck, they probably did!  A matador has learned these rules and uses them to his advantage to keep himself safe. If he never breaks the rules, he is unlikely to get hurt. Let me stress “unlikely” because the audience is there to see bloodshed—the matador’s or the bull’s. It’s just like NASCAR. If no one gets hurt, it isn’t much of a race.

To avoid the crush of the crowd, I left before the death of the last bull. I’d seen enough.

Day 2 in Madrid, 5/11/09

It is such a thrill to wake up in a new city after a good night’s sleep—my first since leaving my own bed in Georgia. This hotel is quiet. With my open window, I could hear the snoring of the Frenchman from across the narrow courtyard, but this was nothing like the sirens and chattering from Lisbon. The weather is clear but cool, I can smell desayuno (breakfast) cooking down stairs. And Madrid doesn’t have nearly so many hills to negotiate so my walks should be easier. The only blot on the day is that since it is Monday, few museums will be open.

After the Desayuno Ingles (English breakfast) and cafe con leche (coffee with milk), I jump onto the tourist bus. I stop at the Templo de Debod—a real Egyptian temple. It was boxed up and sent to Madrid as a thank you for Spain’s contribution in the effort to save Abu Simbel from the rising damn waters on the Nile. Then the Plaza de Oriente (Eastern Plaza) in front of the Placio Real (The Royal Palace) and the Catedral de la Almudena (Cathedral). This is one of the few spots that is open and everyone visiting seems to be in line to see the palace. It is only 9am and the wait to get in is over an hour. My guidebook warned me not to try it on a Monday. It also warned to buy the MadridCard on the day I want to see the most popular museums. It’s expensive, but lets you breeze past the lines for over 50 museums. Looking at the line, I decide it is worth the extra cost. I’ll get one for later in the week.

Next the Toledo Gate (Puerta de Toledo) the gate to the city, the most recent, built in 1827, really a triumphal arch, and one of the symbols of the city of Madrid.

The Plaza Major (may OR) has a rich history. The guidebook says it was built in 1619 to hold 50,000 people, but I doubt it would fit so many now with expanding waistlines. It has been the site of bullfights, open air theater, tournaments and religious executions of the Inquisition known as Auto-de-Fe’. The latter starts with a day of taunting and ends with being burned alive, so it really should change your definition of a bad day. The buildings around the square were the headquarters of important guilds such as the bakers, who controlled the price of wheat. It’s an interesting observation that the gallows stood beside the Casa de la Carniceria, the meat market. Ick. Today the Plaza Major is undergoing renovations. You can barely see the statue of Felipe III in the center for all the scaffolding. The street performers were mostly the silent, statue types. Available today: a white rabbit with heart shaped sunglasses, Darth Vader (very cheap costume), and Charlie Chaplin. My favorite was a man playing what the sign called a “Chinese violin” with had an eerie, but oddly soothing, sound. I tossed a few coins into his hat.

Next the Museo de Jamon. That’s right, if you remember your 8th grade Spanish, this is the museum of ham. Pork is a very respected meat here and thinly sliced ham is available in more varieties than you can shake a frying pan at. They are classed by the age and diet of the pigs, the highest prices going for pork fed on wild acorns. It is less a museum than a restaurant, though, and there are at least three around the city.

Then on to the Puerta del Sol. This was the site of the main gate to enter the city which is long gone. This busy intersection was the first to have electric street lights, trams (which are no more, sadly) and in 1919 Madrid’s first underground metro station.  Clearly it is undergoing another transformation. Most of it is inaccessible with massive construction.

This is also where I rejoined my tour bus, though I had to wait through 3 before one came by that was not already full. The buses move slowly, are overcrowded, and there aren’t enough of them through the middle of the day. The running commentary is recorded, often badly timed and after a second ride you can repeat it. On this particular one, I was shoved aside by a Frenchman and nearly knocked off my feet. But a very large Italian man simply stepped onto the bus, picked up the Frenchman by the collar, removed him from the bus. Then, without a single word, took my hand and helped me onto the bus. My hero!

You’ve heard of the game you play with kids, “Where’s Waldo”?  At the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, they play “Where’s the Guernica?”  For those who have forgotten their Survey of Art class, Guernica is arguably Pablo Picasso’s most famous work, certainly his most political. He painted the huge canvas in a space of about 2 months as a statement against the bombing of the defenseless civilian population in the Basque town of the same name during the height of the Civil War in 1937. The Reina Sofia is a huge art museum. Its four floors contain a staggering number of Modern Art pieces, mostly Spanish. Frankly, I’m not that crazy about Modern Art. I really just wanted to see the Guernica, and it was OK if I managed to stumble across a Dali or another Picasso. Clearly, this is the museum’s biggest fear. To guard against it they have no brochure to guide you and almost no floor layouts. The elevators only say whether a floor has a permanent or temporary collection. I followed the crowd to the second floor where I almost left when I saw all the construction and the huge line. The few English signs did not indicate until I had reached the entrance to the room whether or not the Guernica was available to view. Those who were leaving did not have a suitable “reverent” expression, so I was ready to bolt at any moment. Every time I was really to walk out, the line would move forward just enough to tempt me to stay. But suddenly an armed guard arrived and began waving people in. I usually see the opposite result when uniforms and guns are on the scene, but I moved forward with the crowd.

After passing two rooms of “postscriptos”, preparatory drawing for the final painting, I found my way to the masterpiece. Students sat on the floor in awe. People had sketch pads and were working frantically. No one made a sound. My reaction? Meh. I like the story behind the work. I appreciate what the painting did and what it represents. But I can take or leave the actual work of art. I did enjoy a quick perusal of the preliminary sketches, many of which were in color unlike the final work. Perhaps Picasso felt only black and white could convey the destruction appropriately. I also enjoyed the series of photos taken over a month long period as Picasso was working on the canvas. He made several major changes as he worked.

Then a late lunch at Casa Luciano. Since it was the house specialty, I ordered the national dish of Spain, Paella Marisco—rice with mixed seafood. Today that meant rings of squid, whole shrimp, mussels, and crab claws with peas and red peppers. In place of dessert, I order a horchata—sweetened almond milk with cinnamon.

To burn off the huge lunch, I took a stroll through the Jardin Botanic (Botanical Garden) where the iris was in bloom. The highlight was the old world rose garden. These may not be as perfect as the heavily cultivated varieties, but the scent of the air was heaven itself. Unfortunately, shortly after I entered the garden, I began to sneeze. I seem to be allergic to something in bloom at the botanical garden. It kept up until I exited the park and I was cured within 10 minutes of leaving.

Then a stroll through the cities largest public park, the Retiro. It is to Madrid what Central Park is to Manhattan—a green oasis in the city. Once only royalty was allowed in the gates, and it was where the king “retired,” hence the name. In 1757 it was opened to the general public as long as they were “washed and properly attired.”  Technically it is the Parque de Madrid, but no one calls it that. The oldest and most striking feature is the boating lake, The Estanque. According to my guidebook, when the lake is occasionally drained for cleaning 6,000 fish must find temporary home!

From here I road once more around the city on the tour buses, then back to my room to type all this up. Tonight an early night as I have plans that require me to be up early tomorrow.

Thoughts apropos of nothing:

My favorite building is the Palacio de Communicaciones (the Palace of Communications) Plaza de Cibeles. It is a palace, too—gleaming white limestone, four floors, ornate ionic columns, a tower and a stained glass roof. It is more prosaically known as the General Post Office.

I have encountered several Americans, but no Ugly American. This is a relief as I noticed several on previous trips, particularly in Italy. Based on this trip, the crown is being passed to the French.

I think I’m noticing changes to the language. I see the “la” and “le” being dropped on signs, menus and information plaques.

If you have to write or read a date in Europe, remember that they have a different order. May 11, 2009 is written 11/05/09.

Tuesday, Day three in Madrid 5/12/09

Today I am up by 7am. I’m dressed and in the lobby by 7:30am. I tried to book a tour last night, but the night clerk is a handsome young man who clearly is doing as little work as possible. He is very successful at it. So I’m early in order to catch another person and book the tour this morning, if I can. But the man at the desk speaks no English. It takes half an hour to book the tour and give me directions to the pick up point with my limited Spanish. Anther 5 minutes to make him write the address and name of the tour company down, which he clearly thinks is silly. He underlines three times that I must be there: 8:30a. It is now 8:05. I am not sure of the way and I’ve had no coffee. A very bad combination. I pass a Starbucks in the Puerta del Sol and it is not even open yet. This cuidad (city) starts late. I’m disappointed–not because I want Starbucks, I would prefer a local coffee shop–because this will be the ONLY place in Madrid that serves coffee to go, called “take-away.”  I need coffee.

After asking several very kind people “Donde est?” and pointing to my piece of paper, I find the place. I have time to spare and they point me toward an espresso machine. The day is getting better!

Fortified, I locate the woman I believe to be my tour guide, but when I show her my ticket, she says that no, she is leading another tour. “Esta perdida.” (I am lost)  She laughs and explains that I should use Estoy and not Estar. Estoy is for temporary things and Estar is for things that are permanent. “Si!  Estoy semper perdida!”  (Yes! I’m always lost!)  When you can joke in the language, even a bad joke, you are beginning to get the hang of it.

I get to the right bus!  But for some reason we don’t move. The Spanish loudly discuss everything. But if they get quiet, smile broadly and keep insisting that everything is OK, look out. Eventually the problems were worked out, though we never knew what they were. I suspect the tour came dangerously close to being canceled.

And I’m on my way to Escorial, the palace Felipe II (Phillip) built into the Sierra de Guadarrama Mountains. Felipe Secondo’s plan was to build a monument for his father, Carlos I (known to most of us as Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor–assuming you didn’t sleep through European history, or like me didn’t take that class because you were too busy with all that math and physics). Felipe was a religious nut. A Roman Catholic religious nut. He won his one great battle over the French on St. Lawrence’s feast day in 1557 and so this is the patron saint of Escorial. Lawrence was the saint who was cooked to death over a grill. He is reported to have told the guards to turn him over because he was already done on that side. Nice story. The Catholics are always ready with a good story. (In truth, Lawrence was beheaded. Lawrence is always shown holding a grill, so if you come across a statue or painting of a saint with a grill, you can show off your knowledge.) To honor how Lawrence died, the grounds are shaped like a grill, with the palace as the handle. The place is severe but majestic, built mostly from the granite of the surrounding mountains.

Escorial is mostly a church and monastery because Felipe wanted to have a minimum of 30,000 masses said for his father every year. To make sure there would be plenty of monks to say the prayers, he included a primary school, secondary school, and seminary to train them, plus quarters for 100 monks and a retirement home for their old age. The “palace” is austere by royal standards. When the Bourbon line took over, they refused to live here and built new, posh quarters. Felipe had just three private rooms and his bedroom led directly to the high alter. Escorial was begun in 1563, shortly after Felipe had moved the capital of Spain from Toledo to Madrid. Our guide, Sofia, kept emphasizing that it was completed in only 21 years.

When I get home, I want to study more about this king, but according to the guide, he was a well traveled monarch who was prepared from a young age to take over the throne. He was the most important king of his day and met anyone who was anyone, including Michelangelo. He married 4 times. The first marriage led to a son who was deformed, Don Carlos, not suitable for the throne. At 27 he married Mary, Queen of England, aka Bloody Mary. She was 38 and past her childbearing years, a serious problem for both of them. When Mary finally died of a stomach tumor (not a 15 month pregnancy as she believed), Elizabeth I came to the English throne. She refused Felipe II, so he married another Elizabeth (Isabella?) but she died in childbirth. His forth marriage, to Anne of Hapsburg, finally gave him the heir to the throne he desired, Felipe III, plus 4 other infantes (royal children). After Anne’s death, it is rumored that the 70+ year old monarch proposed again to young princess, Anne of Austria, but she wished to become a nun and refused him. Wouldn’t you?  Felipe II’s kingdom included most of Europe in addition to parts of India, Africa, South America and the Philippines.

Our tour was probably truncated due to our late start. After checking my guidebook, I see that some sites were skipped. Entrance to the Basilica was barred due to construction which was only supposed to be 2 or 3 months, but has already lasted 6.

Highlights of the tour:

Felipe’s bedroom, including the bed where he died. It is said he died while listening to the children sing the dawn mass. From his bed he could see the high alter of the church to his left and the mountains from a window on his right.

The sedan chair that he was carried in on his last trip to Escorial. He was suffering from gout and could not ride a horse. A carriage (before the days of suspension systems) was too rough. So he was carried for 7 days from Madrid. He died of gout which has to be a bad way to go.

The Chapter House where the “lesser” paintings were hung. They include paintings from El Greco, Valazquez, Titian and Tintoretto. The “better” paintings now hang in the Prado.

The Pantheon of the Kings, a circular burial chamber made of marble where the royals are stacked directly beneath the high altar of the Basilica (i.e. LOTS of stairs). The rows of identical marble, bronze and jasper vaults are divided down the middle, like a wedding party. Monarchs on one side and consorts on the other–but only if they were the mother of a king.

The next stop was to Valle de los Caidos, The Valley of the Fallen, only 10km away. This is a monastery and basilica on a grand scale—the huge concrete cross on top of the mountain is 500 feet high and can be seen 20 km away. It was built by Dictator Franco, who is buried there (He died in 1975. I only know this because of the Saturday Night Live skit). The basilica is dug into the side of the mountain and feels like a bunker. The “fallen” are those who died in the Spanish Civil War, though since there is no list of their names and no individual monuments to them, it did not seem like much of a memorial to me. The dead are in the walls, in vaults covered by Flemish tapestries. (The originals have been replaced with copies.)   The basilica and crypts are one long tunnel cut into the center of the mountain, so that the altar is directly below the huge cross on the top of the mountain. Originally, the entire walkway was to be considered sacred ground, but that would have made it longer than St. Peter’s in Rome and the Pope would not stand for it. So a metal gate was installed about halfway down the passageway. The troops that were loyal to Franco are buried in the church section. Those from the opposition side are buried outside the gate, near the gift shop. Goody for them.

Lunch was back in Madrid, at a cafe overlooking the Teatro (theatre) that borders the Plaza de Oriente. I ordered what looked to be a simple dish, a concha, described as “seafood and fishes au gratin”. It was served in a large scallop shell on a bed of coarse salt to keep the shell from tipping. Yum.

Without realizing it, I had signed up for a Panoramic Tour of Madrid as part of my tour—one of the causalities of conducting business in a language you don’t speak. I decided to go anyway. It was only a fair tour, but did drive me through some of the newer sections of Madrid. It probably gave me a better idea of the size and feel of the current city, rather than only the history.

My forth and final full day in Madrid, 5/13/09

Let this be a warning to you: never leave something you absolutely must see for the last day. I got up early, walked to the Palacio Real (Royal Palace). It was 9am, when they should have been opening. My first clue that something was wrong was that the square was empty. I checked the signs which indicated in perfect English that the palace was open today. So I went to the information booth. The woman was surly, probably because she faced an entire day of turning tourists away. (Which would be better than accepting them, I would guess?)  “Affairs of State! Come back tomorrow!” But for me, there is no tomorrow.

Inconsolable, I took the Metro to the Atocha Train station, a 10 minute walk to the Prado Museum. I got there just as it opened and walked right in, no line. Along with a map and an audio guide, I spent the next 5 hours viewing rooms of art, mostly Spanish painters: Goya, El Greco, Titian, Tintoretto and Velázquez. Add, to those some Rubin, Bosch, Caravaggio, Brueghel and a Rembrandt or two. All amazing. Mostly over my head, I’m sure. Some explanations are in English, but mostly the descriptions are in Spanish. Without the English Audio guide this would not have been much fun. It is an impressive place, but not much to write about. Among the great paintings I saw: Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez; Both Maja (clothed and naked!) by Goya; The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch; The Third of May by Goya; The Knight with His Hand on His Breast, by El Greco and many more. I was in art overload for the rest of the day.

I ended my afternoon, before my siesta, at the Plaza de Espana with its statue honoring Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. To my room and a shower and brief nap. My feet almost feel fresh again.

This evening is proof that I should schedule less on trips and wander more. I found myself with a free evening and an empty stomach. I decided just to wander to the Puerta del Sol which is surrounded by pedestrian walking and shopping areas. It was 7pm and still light out.  I looked at the pastries in the windows, some from the Convent of the Sisters of Santa Clara who are so cloistered they are not allowed to be seen by the public. My guidebook says that they have a turntable in a door that they use to exchange sweets for money. But the money first!  (Trust in God, all others pay cash?)

I was searching for a small cafe when I turned the corner and into a parade. There were larger than life puppets of kings, senoritas, knights and matadors. They were followed by a brass band. Everyone on the street stopped to watch and take photos. Among the photographers was a man in a third balcony window, wearing nothing but tighty whiteys and a t-shirt several sized too small for his cerveza (beer) belly. I guess he thought no one would notice? The puppets were leading the way to the Plaza Mayor (may JOR) where clowns and face painters were waiting. A stage was set up around the scaffolding and the crew was still setting up, doing a sound check. It was an opera, Carmen, which is the only one I could have recognized by the singing. I took a full turn of the plaza to see all the street performers, even a Spanish guitar and flamingo dancer.

The parade band had kept moving through the plaza, stopping on a street corner on the other side of the plaza. They circled and started playing. First the children started dancing. Then they grabbed their parents into the ring. By the end of a single song the entire crowd was dancing. Even me. That’s what’s missing in my life—dancing!

I stopped at a Cafe & Te, a small string of shops serving, you guessed it, coffee, tea, pastries and sandwiches. I had a cafe con leche (coffee with milk) and a rombos (a small sandwich served on toasted baguette) filled with barenjena e quesos (grilled eggplant and cheese). It was just perfect. Why do we supersize everything in The States? This small sandwich cost 2.40 Euro, a bit over $3. It was perfect for a small appetite for dinner or just a snack. The Spanish eat small meals—this is the home of tapas—but they eat often.

This is a Wednesday night and the streets and pedestrian areas are completely full at 10pm.  Most of the shops are just closing and the restaurants and bars are just getting going. The air is cool, the sun is down and even with the crush of people it feels safe. I am sure there are pickpockets, but violent crime is rare.

I leave tomorrow morning. I will be very sad to leave this beautiful city. But I have to come back—I haven’t seen the palace yet!


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I’m a professional vagabond. I quit my cubical job in January 2014. Since then, I’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Camino, and taught English in Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Mexico and Peru. I’m exploring the world and you can come too!

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