All Very Malasana
A city of sunshine and colour. Of art and culture. Of people and cars and noise and life.
As first time visitors last weekend, looking at a guidebook it is easy to be overwhelmed with options. We decided to keep it simple, avoided all public transport, followed our instincts and took to the streets.
We started at the Passeo del Prado, right in the historic heart of Madrid, surrounded by grand monuments and buildings from the 18th century when this was the place to be seen. Wide, tree-lined streets, literally made for strolling and promenading, provide welcome shade and wonderful opportunities to people watch. Large fountains with classical statues at either end, the Greco-Roman goddess Cybele looking down towards another god, this time Neptune, both of them facing each other off in their respective chariots. The modern day irony is that neither can be easily approached due to their location in the centre of roundabouts, surrounded by aggressive locals in their own rather fast and unpredictable chariots.
This is also the centre of Madrid's famous art triangle with three world renowned museums within walking distance of each other. The best known, the Museo del Prado, is a stunning and massive neo-classical building, with works by Rubens, Velasquez and Goya. Just across the very wide street sits the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, home to another mix of masterpieces from the likes of Titian, Van Gogh, Gaugin and the Impressionists. Reaching the far end of the road, around the corner from the rather grand railway station, Estacion de Atocha, we found the Museo Reina-Sofia, a former hospital with a funky, modern triangular extension. Sadly this was the only one we managed to fit into our far too short visit, but we saw artwork by the surrealists including Salvador Dali and Picasso. The so-called “gem in the crown” of this museum is Picasso's most famous work “Guernica”, an anti-war and anti-fascist painting dating back to 1937 and the time of the Spanish Civil War. Far be it from me to pass judgement on such a revered artwork, but I have to say it left me with a distinct feeling of the “emperors new clothes” and I was completely underwhelmed.
Far more impressive in my opinion was “The Gathering” by Angelos Santos and “Adam and Eve” by Rosario de Velasco. I can also recommend the museum cafe, a delightful, hidden-away little place of urban peace and tranquillity.
I cannot write about this part of the city without mentioning the rather wonderful Retiro Park, just a short walk from the museums and a beautiful place to wander and while away an hour or two. Formerly part of the royal gardens, the park is blessed with lakes, fountains, monuments and statues and a fabulous building inspired by the original Crystal Palace at Hyde Park in London, the Palacio de Cristal. We took a seat and enjoyed the stunning view of the glass building across the lake and loved watching the slightly comical terrapins fighting each other over the best spots for warming themselves in the sunshine. We also enjoyed sitting by the boating lake on Sunday evening, admiring the large numbers of locals enjoying buskers and the cooler temperatures as the sun went down, with no sign whatsoever of the Sunday evening blues.
Impressively, Madrid seems to cater for all when it comes to art. Having tasted the more cultured option, we ventured out into the less formal side of the city and found places that positively buzzed with life. Tabacalera, an old tobacco factory reinvented as an art space, was holding an exhibition of outrageous but also sensitive images of transvestites, “En Plan Travesti”. It was also home to an industrial, Berlin-esque art installation called “Carmen // Shakespeare : Omens of Desire”, featuring a “fascinating polysemy of words, sounds and images as they are brought face-to-face with gesture”. Both were wonderful and light years away from the previous days viewing. A short walk from here was the famous weekly flea market, El Rastro, crowded, noisy, full of life, in a gritty and deliciously edgy neighbourhood. If you visit, take a walk down some of the quieter side streets for vintage shops, fascinating bars and wonderful characters.
But if you want cool, lively and authentic, the places to hang out seem to be Chueca, the gay district, and Malasana. Likened to London's Camden, and I can see why, Malasana in particular is a very laid back, eclectic mix of old fashioned buildings with a young, modern attitude and a fascinating place to visit.
We wondered along narrow, tree-lined streets, visited quirky shops and enjoyed the relaxed ambience.
We stopped for a break in a beautiful little square and absorbed the sounds of kids playing, students chatting, a lone guitar in the distance, down and outs muttering whilst searching for dog-ends and birds singing joyously in the trees.
We also found an exquisite little cafe with furniture from the seventies and a cool, jazz soundtrack from the fifties. And everywhere is street art. On doors, shutters, walls, even the planters in the streets.
All very cool.
All very Malasana.
I knew little about Madrid before this trip but I would return and, I guess, that's a pretty good recommendation for any place.