Art is the real gain in Spain

The joy of Madrid starts at its award-winning airport and just keeps going.


By Julia Weiner, November 13, 2008
Follow The JC on Twitter
Madrid’s historic Plaza Mayor is the hub of the city but in the 15th century it was the site for Auto de Fé

Madrid’s historic Plaza Mayor is the hub of the city but in the 15th century it was the site for Auto de Fé

The art in Madrid starts the minute you enter the new terminal at Barajas Airport. Designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership, it won the prestigious Stirling Prize for architecture in 2006. The building, which is three-quarters of a mile long, is a futuristic revelation, filled with colour and natural light.

It was so big that by the time we made it to the luggage carousel, our suitcase was sitting there waiting for us.

No new terminal glitches here. It certainly started my weekend away in the style I meant to continue. I was determined to glean every bit of pleasure from this visit since - despite working in the art world for almost 20 years - I had never managed to make it to Madrid before and was particularly keen to visit the city's famous museums.

We were staying at the city's InterContinental Hotel which is ideally situated on the shady Paseo de la Castellana in the city's business district.

The Paseo used to be a creek and there are still an abundance of trees growing on the street, making it one of Europe's leafiest boulevards.

We were enrolled into the Club InterContinental which allowed us use of the Club Lounge where we ate breakfast, read the papers and enjoyed an apéritif and nibbles in the evening before dinner.

Our room was wonderfully comfortable and spacious and equipped with everything one could possibly require, whether visiting for work or pleasure.

We found that getting around Madrid was relatively easy thanks to good underground and bus routes.
We took advantage of the Metrobus which allowed us 10 trips for 6.70 euros (£5.40), but you can also buy a single ticket for one euro. We also took a couple of taxis - nicely visible in white with a diagonal red stripe down the side - and found they were clean, efficient and fast.

Our first stop was the Plaza Mayor, Madrid's most famous square where, intriguingly, we found some references to Jewish history. The Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492 but a number chose to convert and remain in the country. Those who continued their observances in secret were, with other heretics, investigated by the Inquisition, tortured until they confessed, forced to undergo a ritual of public penance known as the Auto de Fé - or Act of Faith - and then punished. Incongruously, what are now the cellars of Moore's Irish Bar, just outside the Plaza, was the location for the torture, while Plaza Mayor witnessed four "acts of faith", as well as many public executions. Gruesomely, the beheadings took place on one side and the garottings on the other.

A macabre reminder of this use of the square can be found on the central lamp-posts which are engraved with scenes depicting life on the square in the past, including a carnival, a bullfight and a garrotting!

From the square, we headed off for our first art museum visit. The city's three main museums - the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemiza and the Reina Sofía - are close together on and around the Paseo del Prado, a 10-minute bus ride from the hotel.

We chose to visit the last first: a pilgrimage to view one of the most famous images of 20th-century art -Picasso's Guernica, painted to commemorate the terrible bombings inflicted on the eponymous Basque town by the Germans during the Spanish Civil War.

The painting is so much more powerful in the original than in reproduction because it is so huge, stretching to almost eight metres.

The painting is skillfully presented in a series of galleries, including an entire room of sketches that trace the development of the painting. It also highlights some of the ideas that Picasso rejected including, for example, having one of the screaming women wrapped in a traditional lace mantilla.

Well displayed photos of the painting's progress, taken by Picasso's lover Dora Maars, indicate the changes in its composition.

The Reina Sofia museum, which is housed in a converted hospital, contains much more than Guernica, including plenty that is of Jewish interest, including a whole room of photos by Robert Capa of the Spanish Civil War, and paintings and sculptures by many Jewish artists including Sonia Delaunay and Jacques Lipchitz.

Back at the hotel, the concierge, hearing I was an art critic, suggested we visit the nearby Museo Sorolla, which we would otherwise certainly have missed.

This small museum provides a welcome oasis from the traffic outside and in its wonderful gardens the gentle tinkle of fountains almost drowns out the sounds of city life.

The home of painter Joaquin Sorolla, who died, aged 60, in 1923, it is filled with his paintings and collections. A contemporary of Sargent and the Dutch Jewish artist Jozef Israels, he was known as the painter of light and his depictions of Spanish peasants in costume and of his family enjoying beach holidays, will delight all those who adore the Impressionists.

We stayed about two hours and saw virtually everything, which certainly provided a contrast to the vast Prado, which is so enormous it would require several visits to take in.

I was completely overwhelmed by the number of masterpieces housed in this huge building, many transferred from the Royal Collection.

The highlight was, of course, Velazquez's complex masterpiece Las Meninas - again much bigger than I had expected.

But we were also deeply impressed by Bosch and Brueghel's apocalyptic visions and Goya's famous late painting of a Witches' Sabbath.

At both the Prado and Reina Sofía, I would recommend picking up an audioguide which we found extremely helpful.

After three museums in two days, my husband declared that he could not take any more art, so we didn't get to the Thyssen-Bornemiza.

Instead, we decided to visit the Monasterio de las Descalzes Reales. A convent founded by the Spanish Royal Family, it is renowned for its riches. This was a big disappointment: tickets were difficult to get, tours were only in Spanish and the famous Grand Staircase was completely covered in scaffolding. Few of the rooms were adequately lit so we wandered down endless dark corridors though we did enjoy the magnificent collection of tapestries.

To finish our visit, we did something completely different - a self-guided tour of the famous Bernabéu Stadium, home of Real Madrid, and just two metro stops from the hotel.

We started with a panoramic view of the stadium, then visited the Trophy Room where the sight of six European cups and Three Champions League trophies side by side should impress even those with scant interest in football.

We sat on the team benches, walked up the players' tunnel and took in the dressing rooms and the press room. For truly dedicated fans, there is a bar terrace where you can enjoy an evening drink as you gaze out over the famous pitch.

Food can be a problem for kosher-observant visitors to Madrid, since most of the city's specialities are off limits, featuring meat - notably pork - and seafood.

Luckily, a number of vegetarian restaurants have opened in the past few years and the hotel recommended Isla del Tesoro in the lively Malasaña district. My vegetarian husband says it was the best veggie food he has ever tasted. We also had an excellent meal at the hotel restaurant El Jardin, located in a pleasant airy courtyard which we could enjoy, in warm sunshine, even in early spring. I ordered my salt cod without the shrimps whilst hubbie enjoyed a vegetarian paella. For lunches and snacks, we made do with vegetarian tapas options such as spanish omelette, potato based dishes, olives and nuts.

The only real problem with Madrid is that a weekend is not enough to take in the three great art museums. But then we have a reason to return.

Travel facts

Julia Weiner flew to Madrid with Iberia (www.iberia.com; 0870 609 0500).which offers a dozen flights daily from Heathrow and one from Gatwick). Lead-in price is £96 return, but expect to pay from £158 return. InterContinental Madrid (0034 91 700 7300; www.intercontinental.com) has double rooms from 214¤ (£165) per night staying in a Standard Room with breakfast but excluding VAT. Isla del Tesoro (www.isladeltesoro.net) Further information on Madrid from the Spanish Tourist Office: PO Box 4009, London W1A 6NB; 020 7486 8077. 24-hour information and brochure request line: 08459 400 180; www.spain.info/uk; info.londres@tourspain.es

Jewish Madrid

 Before the Expulsion in 1492, the Jewish community of Spain was the largest and most prosperous under Muslim or Christian rule.
 Madrid was once a thriving centre of Jewish life, but after riots in 1391, most of the city's Jews were murdered, fled or converted to avoid persecution.
 Jews began to return to Madrid during the mid-19th century to establish what is today - along with Barcelona - one of the two largest Jewish communities in Spain. 
 Today, there are some 3,500 Jews in Madrid. The main synagogue is Beth Ya'akov (0034 91 391 3131). To attend a service, register ahead by taking your passport to the synagogue office
 Kosher restaurants include La Escudilla (www.laescudilla.com) and Naomi Grill (www.naomigrill.com). Both can delivery Shabbat meals to your hotel. There's a kosher counter at El Cortes Ingles on Paseo de la Castellana

    Last updated: 3:55pm, March 11 2009