Monday, 11 June 2007

¡Hala Madrid! Part One.

On Friday, Fisher and I set off to Edinburgh to catch a Sleazy-Jet flight to the noble city that is Madrid. Brother and his wife, Gaura, have been there for 2 months, learning Spanish so they can hablar like los naturals, and we decided it would be foolhardy indeed not to take advantage. Armed with warnings about the horribleness of the food and the extreme heat, we packed our bags, arranged dog-sitters, and set off like the intrepid explorers we absolutely are not.

Sleazy were excellent, and Fisher vowed her intention to only fly from Ediburgh ever again. In fact, according to her we are not allowed to visit countries that don't have direct flights from the Scottish capital. This means we are doomed to holiday in Wick for the rest of our born days.

On the other hand, as far as I'm concerned we're not allowed to go anywhere you can't go to by boat. I really, truly hate flying. I don't get air sick, I'm not particularly frightened, but I simply loathe everything about airports, aeroplanes and the people who travel on them. I was forced to listen to my iPod at ear-splitting volume for the whole journey because the guy across the aisle from me had a permanent sniff. And I don't mean he'd sniff, wait 60 seconds, then sniff again - I mean it was constant. One after the other. If I'd had tissues I would have offered him one in a very pointed manner, but I didn't, so Fisher was saved the embarrassment of me acting, once again, like someone's mother. Also of me ramming the tissues up his nose after he inevitably declined my generous and subtle offer.

We landed at about 9.30pm, and after failing to find the metro station decided to take a cab instead. Baaaaad move. All my fears of plummetting 30,000 feet to my death were banished by the very real probability of hurtling into the back of another car at 110kph, as our driver ripped through the streets like Lewis Hamilton on some kind of hallucinogenic. I'm a terrible passenger at the best of times, but my infuriation with the awfulness of our taxi driver was only compounded by the fact I couldn't remember (or pehaps never knew) the Spanish for "SLOW THE F**K DOWN, YOU MANIAC!" or, indeed: "HAVE YOU NEVER HEARD OF STOPPING DISTANCES, YOU MANIAC??!!"

On the plus side, we made it into Old Madrid by 10. I think the cab ride took about 5 seconds - but I did have to go straight to the hotel and change my underpants.

Being a city based on the idea of siesta, the whole place was just gearing itself up for supper. We texted Brother to let him know we would see them at their flat - a mere 2 doors down from our hotel - and found our way from where the taxi dropped us to Calle Campomanes, which is a narrow little street just off Plaza Isabel II and right next to the Teatro Real. The main street leading to the Plaza is the Calle del Arenal, which is strewn with tacky souvenir shops but very little traffic, as around the Plaza is heavily pedestrianized. It had been very hot that day, which gave the night that thickness I so assosciate with Malta, being young, watching the fireworks on festa nights and fighting to stay awake. In fact, even in the darkness, Madrid felt immediately familiar to me - but I was too distracted with finding the hotel and Brother's flat to really take much in.

The hotel was easy enough to locate, since Fisher found Calle Campomanes so easily and its length - or lack of it - meant everything was pretty simple to find. We'd read some horror reviews online for the Gran Duque Hotel, and Brother's text giving me the name and adding "which is a serious misnomer, lemme tell ya" hardly filled us with anticipation - but we were in for a very pleasant surprise! For the bargain price of €55 per night, we were furnished with a sizeable double room, with an excellent bed, en suite shower, plenty of storage space and a telly. For a moment I was extremely concerned because the air conditioning wouldn't work - but once the man at reception showed us the controller we were supposed to take with us (it was optional) I relaxed. All was looking most, most rosy!

We went out straight away and walked the 10 steps to Brother's door. He came down to meet us, and we all went up to their top floor flat to bid merry greeting to Gaura. The flat was lovely - open plan, sizeable, and with a sweet little terrace balcony on which to drink café con leche and greet the morning, or bask in the afternoon sun. We have one at home outside our bedroom. When I bought the house, I had fond notions of doing similar things. A single Scottish summer soon shat upon that particular dream.

After admiring the flat, we were taken out to enjoy our first meal in Madrid.

The first place we went to was fully booked, so we wandered happily through the cooling streets to a fancy-pants looking place down a little side road and near a theatre. I wasn't very hungry after all the travelling, and was struggling against the usual ailments, so had only a simple main course of hake - which was far from interesting, as well as being undercooked. A couple of beers went down very easily, though, and while service took an extreeeeemely long time, they had at least warned us there was a problem in the kitchen. We were all very chilled, and the time passed most pleasantly.

After supper, Fisher and I were ready to return to the hotel and hit the hay. We were aware that the weather forecast wasn't looking favourable in any way, but as neither of us are sun-bunnies, it didn't bother us in the slightest. Reports of thunder storms did rather amuse us, in a dry way, because the night before we left we were wakeful witnesses to one of the loudest and most persistent storms we've ever experienced! It seemed to go on all night, circling omimously round the house, but actually only lasted between about 2 and 6 am - which was quite long enough! It was Baffie's turn to be on the bed, and unfortunately she was terrified out of her wits! I think we might have slept through it eventually had she not decided every rumble was a cue for her to trample over my head and attempt to crawl under the duvet in a bid to escape the angry gods above. At 5.30 she became so upset I thought she might actually void her terror all over the carpet. (I mistyped 'crapet' then, which seems a suitable malapropism.) She was wandering with that fast trot dogs get when they're about to lay one on the ground, and turning worrying cicles - so I had to get up and let her out. Naturally, the last thing she actually wanted to do was go outside in the torrential rain, so back upstairs I went and we tried to ignore her desperate attempts to dig herself a hole in the floor in which to hide. Poor Baffie.

Bridie, of course, was curled up in malevolent bliss in her crate. Her only contribution was to add her own thunderings when Baffie strayed too close to her crate.

It took a long time before we fell asleep again - so our journey did not get off to a good start - especially as Fisher discovered, to her utter despair, that the lightning had fried her computer. Mine was absolutely fine which, considering I don't have a surge protection thingy and she does, didn't exactly improve her mood. All her work is on her computer - all her client lists, her designs, her emails and her website - so she was extremely upset. All I could do was promise to do all the leg work for her when we got back - take it in to Edinburgh to Apple Core (who, for reasons known only to their snooty, self-satisfied and superior selves, do not take incoming calls from individuals), or to a private computer nerd who deals in Macs, or wherever she deemed fit, and get it fixed while she got on with work. Calmed slightly (or at least willing to put her troubles to one side) we nevertheless felt our holiday was off to a very poor beginning. Couple that with a long journey and it was no wonder we were ready to hit the hay straight after supper

Our second day in Madrid dawned fair and bright, putting our fears of foul weather to rest. We had a late morning, and wandered out into the sunshine to meet Brother and Gaura for breakfast and coffee at a little café on the other side of the square. They took their time in coming down, which gave us a chance to wander up and down the streets leading off the square. We weren't impressed with the shops, but in the light of day the sense of familiarity increased. I found myself likening Madrid so strongly with Malta that I felt completely unthreatened and utterly at home. It was a constant surprise to hear people conversing in Spanish, rather than Maltese or English. I also very quickly realised that the Spanish they speak in Madrid is mildly different to the Spanish Blarney is (supposed to be) teaching me. Nobody says 'shi' instead of 'si', they say 'mwee bien' rather than 'moy bien', 'grasias' rather than 'grathias', and I never once, the whole time we were there, heard the expression 'que te folle un pez.'

Ah well.

After our brief scout around, we had coffee with Brother and Gaura before setting off for the Prado. Fisher was terribly excited at the prospect of all Madrid's art, and I, too, was very eager to see Goya's works. He's one of the only artists I actually know something about, having once, when I was very young, seen a film about him - and since then always looked out for his pieces, while picking up details about his life that would have passed me by had it been about any other artist. Brother acted as guide, which was extremely useful. He'd done a tour with his class, which took in all the most important pieces (or at least, all the most famous pieces and therefore the ones we wanted to see!) and cut a swathe through all the oceans of other works. Had Fisher and I been on our own I'm sure we would have spent far too long finding our way, getting distracted by various other rooms, and wouldn't have had the opportunity to get straight to the point, as it were.

After our tennis match on Monday, Happy had told me she was 'blown away' by Las Meniñas when she saw it. I was therefore expecting to have quite an emotional reaction to it - but that simply didn't happen. Yes, it's huge. Yes, it's very interesting in its composition, and yes I very much enjoyed hearing about it and examining it in some detail. However, I really didn't feel it the way I did Goya's Black Paintings. Now they truly did catch at my soul. This one, of Saturn devouring one of his children - is particularly chilling:
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Here's another, called The Pilgrimage of San Isidro:

These so-called 'Black Paintings' were painted directly onto the walls of his country house, which he bought in late life after spending his early and middle years at the court of Charles III and Charles IV. In a life which included severe illness, possibly mental but certainly physical, depraved bloodshed in the French Revolution, and long-term observations of court machinations, including the ignorance of the upper classes for the lives of the rural peasanty, I hardly find his Black Paintings a suprise. Take a look at this painting and compare it to the one above:
This is called Picnic at the Edge of the Manzanares River, and was done by Goya as a big, bold, brightly coloured design for a tapestry. In the picture above, the colours are very muted but either the photograph is poor or the painting has since been cleaned, because the one hanging in the Prado is full of primary colours. It's almost like an illustration for a children's book. It's a county idyll, with the classic ideal of merry peasant folk laughing and eating on a lazy sunny day. Either this was a young man's ignorant romance and Goya had yet to experience the hardships of life, or Goya was commissioned against his will into painting such tripe, but somewhere along the way he obviously snapped! When you look on the Black Paintings you get a gut-wrenching insight into a mind disturbed - and whether through illness or the bare reality of a vicious world really doesn't matter. What matters is the truth Goya tells in his later paintings. Just as Stanislavski would do in the theatre, so Goya does in art: strips away the posturing and posing and holds up a mirror to the world. His darkness is distressing to look upon, but, to me, is far more compelling than Velazquez, despite the respect I have for his work.

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This is Las Meninas - or at least, some of it. Blogspot doesn't give me enough room to show the whole thing, so the right hand side is lopped off. It's a vast and extremely striking painting, but not one I would have spent much time contemplating had Brother and Gaura not been on hand to explain a little. For a start - what is the true subject of this picture? It's hardly a typical portrait, after all. The Princess is surrounded by her servants rather than standing alone, or accompanied by family members. The servants are as important to the painting as the Princess herself - as is the painter himself. Velazquez has included himself in the portrait, portraying himself a good ten years younger than he actually was at the time and adopting a raffish pose. Extreme vanity! The red cross on his doublet is a sign of a royal award (Gaura didn't know which one) which he'd not yet actually been awarded. Legend has it that the king, an avid fan of art, painted the cross on himself, but this was pooh-poohed by Gaura as nonsense. I don't know. I don't think it's implausible that a king would be educated enough in the art of oil painting to place a simple red cross on a man's doublet.

Most interesting of all, however, is the mirror on the back wall. To any viewer of this painting, it's immediately obvious that the focus is not on the princess at all. The artist isn't painting her. He's looking out at something else - and so are several of the other subjects, including the princess, with a sidelong glance as if she's only just noticed someone walking into the room. Then we see the mirror, reflecting two people: the king and queen. Have they just walked into the room, thereby surprising the gathering? Or is Velazquez painting them? Are they the real subjects of his interest - and therefore who has captured the image we see? I like to think that Velazquez, rather than simply exercising pure vanity, is encouraging us to be the artists, to be the observers and to record what we see with memory as our canvas.

Those are just a few thoughts on Goya and Velazquez. There is one more painting that I really have to mention, though, and that's Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delight. For

I could have stood before it for a full afternoon. It is truly, ubelievably, awe-inspiring. For a start it's much bigger than I thought. Secondly, I couldn't believe it was painted in the 1500s. It seems so modern to me - like a Dali. It's eerie, almost hypnotic in its power. I'm determined to go back there one day and simply stand in front of it until I'm satisfied I've seen it. I'm sure it would take me hours.

Left Wing: The Earthly Paradise

Central Panel: Garden of Earthly Delights (Ecclesia's Paradise):

Right Wing: Hell

Bosch certainly has a very dark view of the progression of the world, beginning with the creation of the world, following through to Adam & Eve and ending with the bitter torments of an afterlife that holds no hint of salvation.

He's also, quite clearly, eaten a very dodgy mushroom.

I think that's enough for one blog. I'll write about the rest of the trip tomorrow, when my eyes aren't scratchy with sleep. Hey ho. It's nice to be home and sleeping in my own bed, with my own pooches!


Balovega said...

Hola amiga.. Me he permitido visitar tu casa con tu permiso. He de confesar que es muy interesante tu blog.. por lo que te felicito y deseo Salud y Suerte... Un abrazo desde Madrid (España).

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