Treasures, tapas and tapestries

This is authentic flamenco at the Corral de la Morería near the Palacio Real (Royal Palace). Tonight’s show begins with two guitarists, one of them Felipe Maya (above, right), a gypsy from Madrid lauded as an outstanding solo guitarist. Two flamenco singers – cantaores – also dressed plainly in black pants and white shirts, join them. Songs force their way up from their guts to lay bare their souls. You don’t have to understand the language to feel their longing or love. They begin clapping out a strong beat, changing the rhythm. Four women snapping castanets, swirling their long clinging skirts and stamping their heels bring the words alive. There’s every emotion, for flamenco is all about feeling. Everyone on stage is intensely involved – they would play, sing and dance without an audience. The tablao walls though, hold evidence of lots of spectators – photos of Richard Gere, Kim Bassinger, Hugh Grant, King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sophia of Spain, Mohammed Ali and Sting and long-gone luminaries such as Frank Sinatra, the Shah of Iran, Che Guevara, Ronald Regan and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway lived in Span in the 1920s and covered the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. “Hemingway ate here” seems to be the Spanish equivalent to “Washington slept here.” The awning of one small restaurant off the Plaza Mayor – the large former marketplace once described as the patio of Spain – provokes laughs and photo opportunities with the claim, “Hemingway never ate here.”

The graceful buildings surrounding the Plaza Mayor date from 1620, but they’re now sought-after condos. Spain is a nation of homeowners, not renters, and housing prices have been rising, fuelled by young people worried they’ll soon be unable to afford a house. Under graceful arches, pedestrians stopping for a drink gaze out at the equestrian statue of the Hapsburg king, Philip III (Felipe III). Small green olives, the tapas that come with my glass of wine, taste nutty and delicious, unlike the briny specimens commonly available in North America.

Sampling some of Spain’s most prized art collections is at least convenient in Madrid. Museum goers can get to three world-class art museums within a few blocks. The Museo del Prado houses the planet’s finest collection of Spanish paintings as well as Flemish, Italian, English and German pieces. Among its most beloved is “Las Meninas,” or “The Maids of Honour,” one of 51 paintings by Diego de Silva Velázquez in the museum’s collection. Velázquez himself and the tiny, blonde Infanta Margarita, daughter of Philip IV, seem to watch us from the canvas. In the background, a mirror reflects the king and queen, standing in front of the child and her servants, just as we do today.

A pair of 1797 paintings by Francisco de Goya always draws a crowd. Who was this woman reclining on a chaise, hands behind her head, looking boldly toward the viewer? The poses are the same, but in one painting she wears a white silk dress with a pink bow at her waist. In the other, she’s the “Naked Maja.” Even today the identity of the woman is uncertain.

“The Garden of Earthly Delights,” painted by Hieronymous Bosch in 1505, must surely have inspired surrealist Salvador Dalí. Painted in the 16th century, it is as fresh and strange as if it had been designed for a 1970s rock album. The left panel of the triptych represents the Garden of Eden and the right, Hell. All races cavort naked across the central panel amid weirdly large birds, fruit and fish in the world before the Great Flood, riding gryphons and cats, hiding in clamshells or dancing in water.

Across the Plaza de Cánovas del Castillo, with its Neptune fountain, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum houses more than 800 pieces, mostly paintings of a wide range of European, 19th century American and even avant-garde works. With only limited time, I opt instead to see Picasso’s “Guernica” in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sophia (Queen Sofia National Art Centre Museum), located in a former hospital building.

During the Spanish Civil War and with the assent of Francisco Franco’s nationalist insurgents, Nazi aircraft attacked the small Basque town of Guernica nearly 70 years ago. It was market day, and the town was crowded. After five waves of bombing, an estimated 1,600 civilians were dead or dying. The black and white oil painting, nearly 26 feet long and 11 feet high, fairly screams with anguish. Although cubist in form, there’s no mistaking the pain of a mother holding a dead child or of a horse dying in agony.

Walking north to my hotel, I cross the Plaza de Cibiles. Here the city’s most famous fountain celebrates Cybele, the goddess of fertility, in a chariot pulled by two lions. A charming froth of ornamentation lightens a massive and imposing building overlooking the square. Built in 1919, it turns out to be the city’s main post office, aptly named the Palacio de Comunicaciones. In the city at night, many lights show off plazas, fountains, public art pieces and important buildings and create dramatic nightscapes.

The economy of this city of three million has vaulted ahead since Spain joined the European Union in 1986, and its skyline boasts an inordinate number of building cranes. Even so, long lunches with friends are the norm, followed by late office hours, then drinks and tapas – and even later dinners with families. No one, it seems, values sleep more than these close relationships.

Traffic starts early and seems incessant. “We have several rush hours,” one woman tells me. The first wave begins with public servants, followed by the rest of the work force. At 2:30 p.m., traffic ramps up again as those who still take a three-hour break head home for lunch. Then, there is an evening exodus. Traffic is also snarled because of tunnel construction, which will put some of the through traffic underground and off downtown streets – a pity for those drivers because Madrid delights with a mix of contemporary and historic buildings, and beautiful green spaces.

Although a controversial statue of the dictator Franco was removed, public policy in Madrid leans to preserving the historic.

In the Hall of Columns in the splendid Palacio Real (Royal Palace), two men on ladders are cleaning the eight chandeliers, carefully spraying and wiping each crystal. A blue canopy hangs underneath each chandelier to protect the red, yellow and grey of the elegant carpeting below. The palace was occupied by the royal family until the Second Spanish Republic was declared in 1931 and may be closed to visitors for state occasions. (The present king, Juan Carlos I, now lives in the Zarzuela Palace outside Madrid.) Built and decorated to impress by Bourbon kings, the palace dazzles with porcelain, paintings and rich tapestries. It also has the world’s largest collection of Stradivarius instruments, which includes a unique string quintet (two violins, two cellos and a viola), all played to keep them “alive.”

Day trips from Madrid offer respite from busy urban streets. Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial (Royal Monastery of St. Lawrence of Escorial), a World Heritage Site, is a 16th-century complex about 50 kilometres northwest of the city in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains. The granite exterior of its palace, monastery, library and royal mausoleum is graceful but austere, reflecting the tastes of the Hapsburg king, Philip II, whose own rooms are strangely spartan. Because St. Lawrence was martyred on a red-hot grill, the pious king had the buildings laid out in its shape.

The Hall of Battles connects his living quarters to the more sumptuous wing of later Bourbon kings. Its walls tell stories of victory, with scenes of colourful tents, rows of horsemen, archers and their commanders. Vibrant tapestries by Goya in the Bourbon wing enliven those rooms.

Frescoes by Tibaldi depicting the muses of arithmetic, science, music and the like draw the eye heavenward to the vaulted ceiling of the library. Bookcases hold 40,000 15th and 16th century books, one of the world’s great collections.

In the Pantéon de los Reyes (Royal Pantheon), reached by a marble and jasper staircase, repose the remains of most Spanish monarchs. The 26 ornate marble and bronze sarcophagi fit in stacked niches, the room lit by an elaborate Italian chandelier.

Far more eerie is the final resting place of General Francisco Franco, 13 kilometres away at the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) in a huge basilica he had carved in the peak of a granite mountain topped with a 150-metre cross. A private vault holds the remains of 40,000 killed in the Civil War. A vast plaza overlooking the valley completes the impression of a project more dedicated to power than mourning.

Franco also rebuilt the Alcázar in Toledo besieged by his forces in the war. The imposing fortified palace dominates the skyline of the walled city, a World Heritage Site since 1986. The Tajo (Tagus) River winds around three sides of this historic centre. From the Parador de Toledo (an excellent government hotel) across river its honey-coloured buildings look uniformly ancient.

Christian, Jewish and Moorish cultures prospered here in the Middle Ages. In 1492, however, Isobel and Ferdinand (the Catholic monarchs who financed Christopher Columbus) expelled the Jews. They also built an elegant monastery, Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes, which includes an ornate Gothic church admired for its delicate stone carving.

Far larger and grander is Spain’s first cathedral. Today the faithful and the curious wander past restoration work in the massive Cathedral built over a Visigoth cathedral and a destroyed mosque. This must be Toledo’s treasure house as well as the heart of the Spanish church. Its bronze main doors depict Hell and the Last Judgment. From there, the glorification of God and the saints becomes ever more elaborate. The enormous but minutely detailed carved altarpiece in the main chapel depicts the life of Christ. The sacristy, with its heavenly ceiling fresco, also has major works by Goya, Caravaggio, Bellini and other masters. A relics room off the sacristy harbours religious artifacts decorated with precious metal.