Spain, Part 1: Getting There/Madrid 2

Note: I’m linking to pictures individually as they’re relevant, but if you’re interested in seeing my full photoset for Madrid, please check out my Flickr. I may also do photo slideshow posts at some point, let me know if you’re interested.

Previously: The preface.


The flight. Oh, the flight.

Not one, not two, but THREE screaming children in the row behind me. They shut up for a while after dinner, but there aren’t enough sleeping pills in the world to have kept me asleep once the youngest woke up with a hideous coughing fit.

Fog at the airport when we finally made it to Madrid meant circling for half an hour, an aborted landing attempt, then circling for another half hour before actually landing.

And since there had been multiple international flights held up by the fog, passport control was a total shitshow. I also managed to pick the line in which everyone wanted to chat with the customs agent for 10 minutes apiece, so it was past noon by the time I finally got out of the airport.

Luckily, things improved vastly from there.


Got to my hotel, Hostal Santo Domingo, and was very pleased to discover how nice it was for the equivalent of about 80 bucks a night. Right outside was a big plaza with a holiday shopping area and a temporary skating rink.

The whole city was actually very nicely done up for the holidays, which attracted completely batshit insane crowds. Imagine Michigan Avenue during the holiday shopping season, then about triple it. It was absolutely bonkers.

Anyway, after dumping my backpack, I went to Palacio Real, the old Hapsburg era royal palace. It’s very cool – quite a bit less “let’s gild EVERYTHING!” than Versailles, but with every ceiling in the joint immaculately painted to make up for it.

There was an interesting temporary art exhibition comparing old world and new world art from the Spanish colonial period (surprise! Everyone loved painting religious iconography), and there was a very cool little tour of the Farmacia Real, but the highlight for me was the Armory.

Really, really amazing old suits of armor – I really wish they hadn’t been such sticklers for the no photo rule, because the detail work on these things was absolutely spectacular. Lots of old weaponry too, including the largest musket I’ve ever seen that didn’t require its own little cart to carry it.

After the Palacio, I walked up Calle Mayor to Plaza Mayor, which was, again, heavily decorated for the holidays, filled with holiday related vendors, and crammed with people. I realize it was a Saturday, but the crowd was so big it was a little overwhelming.

I kept walking for a while, past yet more crowds at Puerta del Sol, all the way to the Museo Arqueolgico, which I was somewhat disappointed to find was mostly closed for renovations. They had a good little selection of about 3% of their collection, though.

On the other side of that museum was the Biblioteca Nacional, which had a great little exhibit of some absolutely gorgeous 11th-18th century hand-copied and illustrated religious books, which was pretty cool.

Both there and at the armory, I became really grateful for what Spanish I know, because not a single sign was translated into English, and there wasn’t any sort of English-language tour material available.

At that point, I realized I hadn’t eaten anything but a granola bar and a croissant for hours, so I wandered around Chueca looking for a decent Tapas place. Found Vinoteca Barbechera, which had excellent food and decent wine. It was only about 6:30 when I got there so I was the only person actually eating, but the place was nice and crowded with locals having glass after glass of wine.

I went back out walking and realizing I probably wasn’t going to last too much longer due to jetlag, I went straight to Chocolateria San Gines. Well, as straight as you could via Puerta del Sol, which was even more obscenely crowded at night than it was during the day.

I got in the GIANT line and ordered some Chocolate con Churros. When I fought my way back outside and sat down to eat, I realized why the line was so long. It was so, so, so delicious. Probably also the best deal in Madrid in terms of calories consumed vs. money spent.

A young couple with a baby came and sat next to me, holding a Spongebob Squarepants balloon. Apparently Spongebob, who is called El Globo in Spain for some reason, is super, super popular here right now. Everywhere I went I saw guys in Spongebob costumes and/or selling Spongebob balloons.

The other popular character is Dora The Explorer, which is hilarious to me because in the US she’s used to help teach kids Spanish. Maybe here they use her to help teach kids English? More research is clearly required.

Anyway, after the chocolate infusion, the Jetlag caught up with me hardcore, so I went back to the hotel and pretty much passed out at about 9pm.

Miles walked according to my pedometer: 9.3


Woke up irreversibly at 5am since I’d gone to bed so early, so I wound up doing some reading, writing up some of this post, and booking accommodations for Seville before heading out for Art-O-Rama day.

Leaving my hotel at about 8:15am, I realized that it was definitely the Saturday Night factor that explained the crowds. Madrid was an absolute ghost town. Granted, the sun doesn’t come up until 8:30 in December, but it was still pretty ridiculous how empty the streets were well into the morning. It reminded me of a zombie apocalypse or something.

I’d decided this would be Art-O-Rama day for me, visiting the three major art museums in Madrid. I decided to start at the Reina Sofia, most famous for housing Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica”, since it was only open until 2:30.

Unfortunately, I’d written down the wrong opening time and thought it opened at 9 instead of 10. Luckily, the museum is right across from the main train station, so I took the opportunity to figure out logistics for my day trip to Toledo and then onward to Seville the next day, and also bought tickets since the line was so short due to the entirety of Spain still being asleep.

I still had about half an hour to kill so I went and got a cafe con leche at a nearby shop. These are basically a very small latte, but they come with a GIANT packet of sugar to kill the taste of the espresso instead of drowning it in milk the way Starbucks does. I’d guess it’s at least 4 or 5 American packets of sugar per Spanish packet.

Seriously, if you give less than a shit about art, you should probably skip a few paragraphs here.

Anyway, the Reina Sofia was pretty cool – mostly modern stuff, which is really my favorite. Obviously they have tons of Picassos, and “Guernica” is breathtaking in person. They also had a great selection of early to middle works by Dalí, which was interesting after catching a big exhibition of his late work when I was in Atlanta for thanksgiving.

There were also a couple good temporary exhibitions, one from a guy who was basically Spain’s version of Stan Brakhage, experimenting with all sorts of crazy shit on film, and another from a pop art sort of guy who had amusing little touches like having a room with a sign on it declaring “All art in this room is bad!”

I grabbed what was basically a giant omelette on a baguette and chowed down as I walked back to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, a museum dedicated to displaying what was one one of the world’s largest private art collections. Or really, two of them – the first belonging to a Baron and his son, and the second belonging to the son’s Spanish wife.

It was really pretty insane to consider how much incredibly valuable and important art these people had collected, and it covered a really vast timespan, all the way from Fra Angelico in the 1300s to Roy Lichtenstein in the 1960s. It’s good that it’s all on public display now, but holy hell, what an ego you have to have to collect all this stuff and think “Mine, mine, it’s all mine!” for years and years.

[Note from Jan 2011: The Thyssen-Bornemiszas also had two giant batches of art in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona, as well as an entire OTHER museum of art in Switzerland at the Baron’s old home in Lugano.]

Anyway, they also had a good little temporary exhibition on the impressionist fascination with gardens, with which they were indeed quite fascinated.

Finally, I went to the Prado. The Prado is huge, and I mean really fucking huge. They mostly stop before you get much beyond Cezanne, and their biggest collections are of Velazquez and Goya, but boy have they got an impressive collection of both of those artists. Goya in particular has multiple rooms on three floors dedicated to his work.

They’ve also got masters from all over the world – the base of the museum’s collection was the Royal collection, and the Spanish royals loved them some 16th century Flemish painters. There was also a big collection of Roman and Roman replica sculpture, apparently another favorite of the Spanish royals.

Including a visiting Renoir exhibit, it took me almost as long to go through the Prado as it did to go through both of the other museums combined.

By the time I finished at the Prado, I was arted out and exhausted. I wound up running across a restaurant that had been mentioned in one of my guidebooks as decent, and I wound up eating a ton of food from them then heading back to Chocolateria San Gines for more chocolate con churros.

Managed to make it until almost 10pm before passing out. Raised my hopes that by the end of the trip, I might be able to stay awake until midnight.

Miles Walked: 7.5, but it sure felt like a lot further to my poor legs.

Coming Up Next: Toledo.

2 thoughts on “Spain, Part 1: Getting There/Madrid

  1. Reply Maggie Jan 30,2011 8:21 am

    Sounds like an incredible trip so far! I would love to see the Guernica in person. How awesome. Also, there is just something wrong with a suit of armor worn by a child.

  2. Reply Ellen Jan 30,2011 9:59 pm

    Maybe a bit, but bear in mind that the suit of armor was almost entirely decorative. More of a spoiled child “Daaaaad! I want a suit of armor!” type of thing than anything actually designed to protect the Prince.

    And yes, the photos do Guernica no justice – the anger Picasso painted it with is palpable when you see it in person.

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