Saturday, 15 September 2012

Tocino del Cielo, Sky Bacon

Beautiful translucent Bacon from Heaven.
More foodie fun in Spain: Sky Bacon.  That's what the translator calls it, but it translates literally as Bacon from Heaven. After all, it was invented by a group of nuns in the Jerez region of Spain, when they needed to use up the tremendous amount of egg yolks left over when the whites were used for clarifying wine. The brownish color comes from caramelized sugar. This dessert was invented in the mid 1300's and may have been the forerunner of the famous Spanish dessert flan. Little dishes of Tocino del Cielo are found all over in practically every bakery, alongside beautifully decorated cookies, cakes and other pastries. Surprisingly, very few Spaniards are overweight. I'm not sure how they manage to have so many bakeries (obviously a good business to own) and still be svelte.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Toledo and the Ave

The big suitcase was a great idea, except that it holds so much, and therefore weighs more than any suitcase I’ve ever traveled with. It’s allowed me to bring many things I would otherwise have to buy or do without, but on the other hand, toting the thing down the antiquated staircases in the metro was awful. Thankfully, people are helpful and several big strong young men took pity and carried it down for me. Otherwise, its four wheels did an excellent job of wheeling itself with my other tote bag strapped to the top. 

Neptune's fountain, across
from the Prado Museum
Two weeks in Madrid and I finally knew what I was doing, where I was going, how to get there, and how to not overspend my deflated dollars. It would have been lovely to spend one Euro and think that I was spending one dollar, it would have felt normal, but knowing that one Euro was really spending $1.30 and that a simple bus ride was actually three dollars was not comforting. It didn’t help any that I’d spent six months of this year in Mexico where a bus ride was 5 pesos, less than forty cents. It’s all part of those innumerable calculations one must make while traveling.

As I write this, I am zipping along at about 270 kilometers an hour in the Spanish Ave, a high speed train to Sevilla. The countryside is whizzing past so quickly that I must look further into the distance, or nausea will descend. I don’t think I’ve ever gone this fast while on the actual earth, not even in high school when then boyfriend Tom liked to rev up his Camaro on the straight-aways.

The countryside is golden in autumn, wheat fields have been harvested, and lie in yellow strips across rolling hills. This part of Spain looks so much like eastern New Mexico with its farms and distant purple mountains. The music is an orchestral version of Aranjuez, lost entirely on my seat mates who are plugged into iPods. Occasionally a small pueblo comes into view with a tall church tower, but mostly the country is natural with fields planted where possible. The natural “stuff” is dry with a few sages and grasses, maybe even cacti. We’re going way too fast to focus on anything close. Off in the distance are many olive orchards with their dark gray-green leaves. Most of these are short newer trees, unlike the grand specimens in the Jardin Royal of Madrid. Short is probably preferable when it comes to harvesting.

The Ave tracks have been laid straight across the landscape, with cuts through hills and elevated over the valleys. It does not follow any existing road, but cuts its own swath across the landscape with barely a turn in direction. The pueblos we pass are compact and small, with brick or stone walls and tiled roofs. A couple of times, we’ve passed castle ruins on a hill. Once in while another train whizzes by in the opposite direction, our combined speeds make the passing nothing but a quick shake and blurr. It’s always startling though.

Yesterday, I went to Toledo, at one time the capital of Spain and still a beautiful Medieval city, on a high hill, surrounded on three sides by a river, and with strong thick stone walls. It was for a while in the 1500s, home to the famous Spanish court artist and innovative painter, El Greco. Prior to this trip, I had no real appreciation for El Greco, a Greek who had come to Spain after a sojourn in Italy where he learned painting. His personal style developed over his relatively long life, into what can surely be called early impressionism. I’d noticed that aspect when seeing how different his paintings were, compared to his contemporaries in The Prado, but in Toledo, there is a home and museum entirely dedicated to El Greco, and those painters most influenced by him.

El Greco's pre-impressionist style

Next door is a Synagogue with an interesting history. In the early part of the second millennium the Moors occupied much of Medieval Spain with one of their capitals in Toledo. There was a large thriving Jewish community that built a synagogue with the most dramatic tall ceiling, and lavish carved stone walls. In 1492, before the autumn when Columbus discovered the New World, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand managed to kick the Moors out of Granada to end the occupation of the Moors and their abominable tolerance for those who followed a different religion. As a result the Jews were also kicked out of Spain and their Synagogue was turned into a Catholic church. To the church’s credit, the beautiful carved walls and pillars were left intact, merely covered over with wooden retablos. The floor, the tile work, and the architecture remained the same. Now it is a museum to the legacy of the Spanish Jews and their history. Many of the Sephardic Jews left, and many more converted to Catholicism only to be ‘tested’ again and again by the Inquisition which used torture to reveal closet Jews, and inspire their conversion. I’ve often wondered what Jesus, whose entire life was about teaching people to love other people and accept them, would have thought of such horrors done in his name and of similar intolerance today as well.

Catacombs under El Greco Museum's patio,
 once part of a large Jewish home, with cisterns
and baths for ritual cleansing. 

One of the official gates to the city of Toledo,
I am guessing they never had much of a rush hour.

In two and a half hours, we have traversed a quarter of the country on the Ave, over mountains, through tunnels, past forests, and in and out of cities like Cordova. It’s greener closer to the coast, and many degrees hotter.  Now, to explore Sevilla!

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

La Reina Sofia

Taken in the Pinocchio restaurant that
has a panel of mirrors, across the
plaza from the Reina Sofia.

The last of the three great art museums I wanted to visit, the Reina Sofia, is devoted to modern art, and the modern Spanish artists that put Spain's art scene on the map: Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, and Salvador Dali.

Included in the definition for modern art is a series of small paintings done by Goya around 1810. In them, he used painting as a social commentary, a first for artists who previously were portrait and landscape painters, not philosophers. He used art to represent his horror at the consequences of war, where all sides are victims. They are sensitive drawings showing death and destruction, the helping hand for the injured, the loss of children and parents, exactly as he witnessed it, giving the viewer an opportunity to feel the same emotions. It was a big step forward.

Guernica is Picasso's most famous painting, and arguably the most important painting of the 20th century. For the first time, I rented the audio guide and listened to the background information on Guernica, as well as viewing photos taken as it was being painted. It had been commissioned by the Spanish Government, which later fell to Franco's forces. And at Picasso's request, the painting did not return to Spain until democracy was restored. In the ensuing years, the painting traveled all over the world, but now, due to the wear, tear, and inevitable damage to such a huge painting, it is permanently housed in the Reina Sofia.

A number of important Miro and Dali paintings are also on display, along with many artists of the cubist period that I didn't know about. Angeles Santos, at age 17, painted El Mundo, an impressively large painting of a square world surrounded by stars, the sun, and odd bald women with daughters. There is a room of Telluric paintings, a style I knew nothing about previously, and the interesting work of Juan Gris who moved the point of view to the inside of objects as well as outside. Modern thinking reflected in art.

I believe photos were not permitted, but people were taking them without bother, so I snapped a few too. Outside, in the courtyard a Calder mobile rotated in the breezes.

Note the way the woman's hair
gets reflected by the sculpture,
or vice versa....

A work of art, all by itself on a wall.

A Calder.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

It's a Sunday thing....

Last Sunday, I got off the metro at the Retiro Station to have a look at the playground of the once rich and famous. Retiro Park was the private recreation area of Spanish Royalty for most of its history, only opened up in the 1850s to the great unwashed of humanity. Actually for years after opening to the public, you could only get in if you were quite dressed up! Nowdays, any rif-raf is permitted and they do droves.

It's a Sunday thing to go to Buen Retiro Park with the family, maybe rent a row boat and row around on the formal "lake", a large rectangular pond graced by Roman columns, statues, and stone lions, a monument to Alfonso XII. During the days of the kings, the lake hosted mock naval battles. South of the lake is the Crystal Palace, a glass and steel construction used for exhibits. Another exhibit hall, the Palace of Velazquez, is named for it's architect and that of the Crystal Palace, Ricardo Velazquez Bosco. Several of the royal buildings are still standing and are used for various functions.

The monument to King Alfonso XII
The park is enormous, over 350 acres of formal landscaping, walkways, paved and unpaved roads, planted and maintained forests, fountains and statues. Most of the crowds center around the lake, the vendors, and the buildings, leaving the small pathways, all quite straight and intersecting, to people who want a quieter experience. Although it is completely maintained, some of the less traveled areas feel natural and 'unmanned'. On a walk through I came across two men playing guitars and singing Beatle's tunes with both Spanish and English lyrics. Benches in all the formal circles are a welcome relief from walking all day, and the shade is a nice break from a rather intense sun.

A portrait of Justice, directly beneath
the tail of King Alfonso XII's horse.
Could that have been planned??

One of many lions guarding the monument.

More Madrid Museums!

In addition to the CaixaForum, I have so far seen the Prado and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. My friend Linda pointed out that I actually met one of the sons of that family who was touring PureCycle, a company where I worked in Boulder back in the mid 70s.

The Thyssen-Bornemisza is housed in the family's original mansion, now completely revamped in its role as museum, with an additional large building for Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza's personal art collection. One single floor took two and a half hours to see, going at normal museum speed. The earliest works are mostly Italian religious art, but exquisite. I've never seen so many Madonna and child paintings. Most were oil on wood panels so they have survived for hundreds of years. In the Prado, the Madonnas were often nursing the baby Jesus, and in one painting her breast squirted milk across the sky to "create the milky way", and in another the milk dripped down onto the faithful, a group of grown men. Apparently a religious order was created out of a dream the founder had of suckling milk from the Madonna.

The Prado had every Spanish painting I'd ever seen in my Spanish class in highschool, when, as part of the fourth year program, we had to critique art in Spanish. Most of that language, I've long forgotten. But I never forgot the paintings themselves. The famous Las Meninas, which features the Infanta Margarita and the artist Velazquez painting a canvas, is the signature piece of the Prado itself. It is also one of the most analyzed paintings in the world, due to the strange relationships between the posed figures and the odd juxtaposition of the King and Queen in the mirror, as if they are standing exactly where you, the viewer, are standing.

An interesting aside....I was on the metro when a man about my age got on with his four year old granddaughter. She was curious, bright and so chatty. She also looked like the Infanta Margarita in Velazquez' painting. She had a big bow in her hair in the same place as the Infanta's flower. I told her grandfather that I saw the resemblance, and he said, yes, people have said that about her.

In the Prado, there are many rooms devoted to Goya, another of the great Spanish painters, and a couple more with El Greco paintings. I was so surprised to find that El Greco painted with such an impressionistic quality to his work, almost as if he were ahead of his time. Knowing little about such things, I wondered if his style influenced any of the Impressionists or not.

In the Thyssen-Bornemisza there are far more modern paintings by impressionists and more Flemish, German, French, and Dutch painters. Gauguin, Degas, Picasso, Van Dyke and many others were represented. It was overwhelming. I went outside for an hour or so, just to rest and close my eyes before going back to drift through the second floor. They had a special Edward Hopper exhibit in another part of the building, with an additional entry fee. Fortunately for me, it was sold out on Saturday. I may need to go back once more to see that as well.

The museums sell a multi-pass ticket to the three major museums, including the Reina Sophia. That one is on the plan for tomorrow, and since a pass came with the ticket, I will return to the Prado one more time to see what I missed before, and to linger on a few of my favorites.

Outside the Prado, a man played classical guitar, several pieces by Rodrigo, so beautifully, it brought tears. In many ways I've been disappointed that Madrid is not more "Spanish". It seems like a bustling modern city, not unlike New York or Philadelphia. To hear Rodrigo played beside the Prado created the Spain I had been longing for.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Public Art of Madrid

This small collection of photos hardly does justice to the massive amount of public art in the parks, plazas, and gardens of Madrid. They are just a few of my favorites.

Detail of pedestal in front of the Royal Palace. 
Detail of pedestal for a statue on Paseo Prado.

In the parkway on Paseo Prado

Statue in the Real Jardin Botanico

Top of the column above the Cervantes statue,
Plaza de Espana

Nymph in a pool at the Roseada,
Madrid's rose garden

Statue of Cervantes, with
Don Quixote & Sancho Panza
Plaza de Espana

The fate that befalls all statues....

Detail of a flamenco dancer and her admirers,
 on the Cervantes pedestal

When "Trickle Down" actually works.

Entry stairs in the CaixaForum
Madrid is "museum central". There must be 20 museums of various types scattered around the city, and that's not counting the marvelous parks, parkways, and botanical gardens which are artistic and "museumy" in their own ways.

Along the Paseo Prado are five art attractions: the Reina Sophia, the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Real Jardin Botanico which is filled with statues, and CaixaForum. In addition, the Plaza de Neptuno and the Plaza de Cibeles feature incredible oft-photographed sculptures and dramatic fountains.

The unusual and modern museum is the CaixaForum. Caixa is pronounced Cah-ees-ah. In Catalan it means box. There is a bank named Caixa too. I didn't see anything to verify this, but I would guess that the bank might have a lot to do with the museum's existence.

Inside, the CaixaForum is reminiscent of the Guggenheim in New York City, the way the stairs wind upwards. On exhibit currently are many works of William Blake and of subsequent artists whom he inspired. Blake worked mostly in tempura paints which have not withstood the test of time well. Many of his works are faded, but what sensitivity! He was interested in the religions of the world, philosophy, and ancient art, attributes that made him an artist and poet well ahead of his time. He formulated his own mythology complete with heroic stories as well as the occasional buddhist thought. One quote was "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is - infinite!"
Wall of living plants 

And on the outside, the building in front of the museum has been turned into a vertical garden. Concrete forms of various sizes with pools of dirt were built and then planted with a great array of different plants. The entire thing is watered with a system which trickles water down the wall, watering each plant as it makes its way down. The only reason it works is that no plant is denied in favor of others, and all the water trickles down, none of it is siphoned off at various levels. A good analogy for the economic trickle downers. The overall effect is a growing wall, lush with life.