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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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
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