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Spain: Madrid and the Nearby World Heritage Sites

Iberian Atmosphere

Madrid, a sprawling metropolis of more than three million people, might at first disconcert the visitor. Its calles, vias and paseos seem interminable. The monuments, and there are many, that give the city its distinct architectural form are as courtly and imposing as those in any western capital. But, Madrid, like the rest of the country, is also a city of intimate spaces, plazas where Spaniards congregate and tourists observe the country's customs. The true soul of the town is the 17th-century Plaza Mayor, a vast enclosed cobbled courtyard lined with shops, cafes and private residences. To capture the flavor of old Madrid, weather permitting, choose a table under the colonnades, order some refreshment and enjoy the conviviality that the plaza exudes. The famed hub of the city, La Puerta del Sol, the point from which all distances to the outlying areas are measured, is just a few blocks away. It is always crowded with people rushing through the streets that radiate outward like spokes from the square. The top museums and hotels are clustered around the Plaza Canovas del Castillo, a mere 20-minute walk from the Gate of the Sun. If asked to name several things for which Madrid is famous, the Prado is, of course, the inevitable number one. People used to fumble for the second, no less third attraction. That's all changed. The Spanish capital now has a Golden Triangle that includes, in addition to the Prado, two museums which opened in 1992, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Also gracing this superbly situated downtown location are The Ritz and the Palace hotels, which face each other across the Paseo del Prado.

Phillip II declared Madrid the seat of his throne in 1561 because it is in the geographic center of the country. His logic works in the traveler's favor. Avila, Segovia, Toledo and El Escorial, chosen by UNESCO to be on the World Heritage List of unique wonders marked for preservation, are all located no farther than 40 miles away from the square of La Puerta del Sol. Allowing several hours or a full day to see each one, visitors can comfortably commute to the provincial cities from the capital. But then they would miss the opportunity of staying in the paradors, a pleasure offered by no other European country, Portugal excepted.

Gate of the Alcantara


Thyssen Bornemisza Museum

At first it was merely a 10-year loan, but as of last year the deal was finalized. The Villahermosa Palace, the temporary Madrid site for the thousand or so paintings belonging to the Thyssen-Bornemiszas of Switzerland, is now a permanent home. The collection is one of the finest ever assembled by a family and second only to the holdings of Queen Elizabeth. The galleries are laid out around a central courtyard in a style similar to classic 19th-century museums. A visit to the museum, a subdued structure that does not overwhelm the masterpieces, is like a course in the history of Western art ranging from medieval to pop.

Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

Follow the suggested itinerary, beginning with the Italian primitives, and by the time you have wandered through all 34 rooms, you will have seen several works representing every major European and American artist. The father of the present Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, a Swiss banker and financier, began acquiring works of art after World War I. He preferred artists of the early Dutch school and the German Renaissance. The present Baron has rounded out this priceless collection by buying 19th- and 20th-century paintings–French impressionism, German expressionism, Russian constructivism, geometric abstraction and pop art.

More than 50 of the acquisitions are considered masterpieces of world art. The earliest of these are "The Virgin and the Child" by the Master of the Magdalene and "Diptych of the Annunciation" by Jan van Eyck. The collection moves through the centuries with works from Hals, Goya, Tinterello, Carravagio, Constable and Joshua Reynolds. Our own and the last centuries are represented by Renoir, Constable, Pissaro, Andrew Wyeth, Miró, Hockney, Rauschenberg and more.

Perhaps the most sensuous of all the paintings hanging on these walls is "The Duke of Orleans Revealing to the Duke of Burgundy His Lover" by Eugene Delacroix. Three cubist works, remarkably similar and hung near one another, also catch the eye. They are Braque, "Woman with a Mandolin", 1910; Picasso, "Man with a Clarinette", 1911-12; and Mondrian, "Grey-Blue Composition", 1912-13.

Thyssen Bornemisza Museum, Paseo del Prado, 8, Madrid 28914. Tel. 420 39 44. Open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Closed Mondays.

In Toledo the overwhelming sense is of unreality, an eerie mirage of medieval Spain. Its every corner speaks of history, Roman soldiers, Visigoth warlords, Moslem scholars, Jewish merchants and Catholic kings. Though layered by centuries of invaders, the Moors left the most permanent mark on the city's architecture, which profoundly influenced the most famous Toledan, the artist, El Greco. Toledo, like most provincial cities, is dominated by a cathedral. Its Gothic-style architecture is extraordinary and its sacristy is filled with the art of El Greco, Goya and Van Eyck. Cervantes described Toledo as Spain's "most precious jewel." There is, however, a minuscule flaw in the "diamond." On some streets the number of shops selling damascene ornaments detracts from the antiquities.

San Lorenzo de El Escorial, the monastery, church and palace built by Philip II, is so massive that it is best described by using numbers. The colossal bone-colored building of solid granite has about 300 rooms, 2000 windows, 1200 doors, 15 cloisters, 16 inner courts, 44 chapels, 88 fountains and 86 staircases. Although the royal apartments filled with fine furnishings, tapestries and paintings of the Spanish dynasty capture the visitor, the most compelling reason to visit El Escorial is to view the monastery's tomb rooms. Here in the Pantheon of Kings, reached by descending a long narrow staircase and located directly under the basilica, is an octagonal catacomb dripping with gilt and ornamentation. Twenty-six marble coffins born on carved animals' paws and stacked on marble shelves hold the remains of Phillip and his royal relatives dating back to 1500.

Segovia, a marvelous blend of different centuries, is a place of startling sights. Its Alcázar, which can be seen from afar on the approach to the city, rises up like a sheer cliff. All turrets and towers, the burnished colored walls glow as though they have been painted with sunlight. On weekend nights, when the city's monuments are illuminated, Segovia is transformed into an illustration from a fairy tale. The town's other marvel, the Roman aqueduct, is a double-tiered construction of 167 arches rising 92 feet into the sky and stretching almost 3000-feet long. Built in the first century it has maintained its solid stance for nearly 2000 years.The old section looks like a museum with small squares, carefully preserved houses and narrow streets with plaques listing the names of residents who lived there hundreds of years ago. At sunset the Calle Real, the main thoroughfare, which is lined with shops, becomes crowded with families. On festival days a small train takes children on rides up and down the sloping street. As the day wanes, the surrounding mountains are outlined in subtle colors and Segovia is bathed in many shades of mauve, peach, orange, pink and red.

Other Suggested Sites

La Granja de San Ildefonso is a small palace with outstanding gardens, sculptures and fountains. It was constructed by Philip V who was French and who wanted a miniature Versailles.

Avila is the birthplace of St. Theresa, one of the Catholic church's most important mystics. Her presence is strongly felt here as every religious monument has reminders of her life. Avila also has one of the most unusual looking walls in the world. Built in the 11th century by Raimundo de Borguña, it is rectangular in shape and reinforced by 90 stout turrets and nine gates.

Pedraza, an ancient town set into the side of a hill, looks like a deserted movie set inhabited by the ghosts of other times. However, it is very much alive in the sense that an active Patrimonio Real (preservation) group, maintains the castle, gardens, main square, narrow alleys and crested country houses. Two lovely stone inns provide lodgings for real guests.

By contrast the nearby village of Sepúlveda with a population approaching 2000 seems like a big town. Although traffic and activity dominate its cramped streets, there are some curious leftovers from bygone eras, such as manuscripts from the Middle Ages and remnants of the old city gates.

Where To Stay

The best values without sacrifice to service or accommodations are to be found in the state-run system of paradors. Spaniards have always stayed here. Although none are in Madrid and other big cities, there are several that are close to the locations mentioned above. Some are refurbished monasteries or castles. Others are new, but constructed in traditional style, often on hilltops with spectacular views. There are two paradors near Toledo, Chinchon and Conde De Orgaz, one in Segovia, El Terminillo, and one in Avila, Piedras Albas.

Madrid's Luxury Hotels

The stained-glass cupola and the extravagant chandelier in the lobby of the The Westin Palace Hotel makes for a theatrical setting in which Madrilenos gather for drinks and snacks. The hallways on the guest floors are also something to behold, all wood-paneled with fixtures in the turn-of-the-century mode, the time when the building went up. Ask for one of the recently redecorated rooms as they are more cheerful than the ones that are scheduled for a make-over.

Hotel Ritz is the only hotel in Madrid with a fitness center. The equipment was imported from the U.S. In addition to English-speaking personal trainers, the gym has two scheduled workout classes daily. Massages, sauna and health-conscious menus are available. Three outside jogging trails have been designed in nearby Retiro Park and a staff member accompanies joggers daily on a 10 a.m. jog.

For reservations at the paradors, contact Marketing Ahead, 433 Fifth Avenue, NY 10016. Tel. 212-686-9213 or 800-223-1356 outside New York. Westin Palace Hotel, Plaza de las Cortes, 7, 28014, tel. 429 75 51, 429 87 00 . www.palacemadrid.com Hotel Ritz, Plaza de la Lealtad, 5, 28014, tel. 91 701 67 67, sis a Leading Hotel of the World, 800-223-6800. Rates start at $237 for a double room. www.ritz.es

Where to Dine

At 2 p.m. Spain shuts down and everyone heads home or to a restaurant for la comida, the country's main meal. Throughout the rest of the day Spaniards break for small meals. It seems that grazing is a Spanish invention. Lucky for the tourists who because of the many different opportunities to snack get to taste the rich and complex variety of Spanish foods even during a short visit.

One of the easiest ways to tap into the Spanish food scene is to go tasca-hopping. Tascas, identified by the word taberna on the facade, are pubs that serve those tantalizing hot and cold nibbles, tapas, which are also offered family-style as starters before other meals. They include an array of olives, sausages, serrano ham, potato omelet called tortilla, smoked fish, cheese and more. Aromatic garlic or bean soup are famous appetizers, too. The special dish of Madrid, cocido or stew, comes in many varieties—every eatery has its own— but all include soup, cabbage and chickpeas as well as meats, sausages, vegetables and potatoes. Baby lamb and suckling pig, roasted in wood-fired ovens until they are fork-tender and falling off the bone, are specialties in Castille. Other favorites are partridge and setas (porcini mushrooms.)

Taberna del Alabardero, near the Royal Palace, was started by a priest and is part of a small chain, including a branch in Washington, D.C. Great tapas here! Dinner reservations necessary.

Alkadle 10, located near Calle de Serrano, Madrid's most fashionable shopping street, is an informal taberna-restaurant. Decorated in homey provincial style it offers a large menu and tasty food.

Meson de Candido, is housed in a charming 15th-century building across from Segovia's aqueduct. One of the oldest restaurants in Spain, it was founded by the royal innkeeper of Enrique IV of Castille. It is renowned for its soups, casseroles and roasted meats.

Taberna del Alabardero, Felipe V, 6, 28013, Madrid. Tel. 954502721, reservations 547 25 77. Reasonable. www.tabernadelalabardero.com

Alkadle 10, Jorge Juan, 10, 28001, Madrid. Tel. 576 33 59. Moderate.

Mesón de Cándido, Calle Azoguejo, 5, 41001, Segovia. Tel. 921 425 911, 921 428 102. Expensive. www.mesondecandido.es Flying To Madrid

To reach Madrid from the gateway cities of New York, Los Angeles and Miami, fly Iberia. 800-772-4642. www.iberia.com

Spring 1995