The Irish Celts are supposed to have come from Spain, the Milesians setting out from that land of the dead to the fabled isle of destiny in the western ocean. It would not be the last time a great voyage of discovery initiated in Iberia. It is in a state of constant change, sending voyagers outwards, receiving the insanely talented too. Columbus, the Italian, sought out Spain to back his ambitions. El Greco found acceptance for his otherworldly paintings here. There were the Conquistadors, the doomed Armada of King Philip, poets, artists, and the ubiquitous Spanish student.
Madrid is central to this country, this fulcrum between Europe and Africa, stepping stone to the new world. The joining of the thrones of Aragon and Castille under Isabella and Philip brought Spain into being and the King chose Madrid as the capital for its central location. What had been little more than a small town on a bleak plateau became the capital city of the greatest empire of the early modern world. The city is built in overlaid layers, medieval lanes merge into grand boulevards, spacious squares are hidden amongst warrens of tiny streets, there are regular, elegant streetscapes in the European mode and sudden eruptions of art deco highrises in the American style. The stroller is rewarded with interesting shops and intimate taverns and the city plan is sufficiently confusing to make walking a pleasant adventure.
In terms of fine art Madrid ranks with the best. The Museo del Prado at the edge of is the most famous with an enormous collection of art from Spain and its colonies. The exuberance and hot colours of Spanish art are immediately addictive as is the passionate, baroque take on faith. The Cretan immigrant, El Greco, most captures the heart. Sinuous figures wave upwards like flames flickering in adoration. A more cautionary take on life is embodied in the work of Hieronymous Bosch, it is also more fantastical than one would think possible. My fevered teenage brain had been captured in a pocket-sized book on El Bosco, how great it is to stand before the original triptych of the Garden of Earthly Delights. Goya also spanned the worlds of horror and sumptuous wealth, his truth and disturbing vision reaching deep into the soul. To simply enumerate the other artists would fill this article and the Prado could sustain a whole week’s visit, but there is more too see.
The Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is the place to see modern art. The collection includes Dali, Juan Gris and Miro. Picasso’s Guernica is understandably a powerful magnet; passionate, rough hewn, it appears incomplete, as if it were an emergent apparition about to engulf us. He is otherwise not my favourite, I must say, but this is the real thing. That other Catalan, Salvador Dali, moves us in a different way, the landscape of madness that he depicts is within us, his stunning technique inspiring awe and making the impossible certain.
The Museo Thyssen Bornemisza is a private collection bringing both strands together. Eclectic and extensive it spans five hundred years of Western art, ricochets amongst cubism and surrealism, explores Russian graphics and dazzles with the American Hyperrealists. So, here I stand in a gallery in Spain looking in through the reflections in the window of a New York diner conjured up by Richard Estes.
There are other theatres of art. At the Santiago Bernabeu stadium we bear witness to the stoic resistance of Real Madrid to the wizardry of Barcelona FC. One hundred thousand passionate Spaniards are packed to the rafters, a sea of banners waving to the beat of drums, chants and songs. The great masters of the game, Messi and Ronaldo supply a goal apiece, honours are shared, the war goes on.
At night La Latina is the place to go. Narrow winding streets are packed with revellers, there are ornate bars and fragrant restaurants. We searched for Flamenco but found the blues instead at a hopping little club on the Calle de los Huertas. There are other delights to dip into. Deli food and wine are an excellent start to the evening at the lively Mercado de San Miguel. The Plaza Mayor is a signature for the city, but everywhere you emerge into magical plazas – Sol, Angel and Santa Anna thronged with diners, buskers, performers and hustlers. Art Deco architecture draws the eye upwards in delight. The Circulo de Bellas Artes is a particular gem – a slice of 1930’s New York containing a cultural foundation with a beautiful café. On our last morning we enjoy the ambience and watch the bustle of Gran Via and Calle de Alcala pass by.
Our Easter vacation started with the sombre gaiety of Holy Week. Processions redolent of medieval intensity mark the days, the bond of spirituality runs deep. Religion, art, sport and society are entwined. This is the land of Death but so full of life. You can be seduced to look at reflections in the glass of a shop window and pass through into a hyper-realist vision and see the possibilities of the whole world.