Fifty-four years ago, just graduated from college, I flew over the golden fields of Castilla into Madrid’s Barajas airport to begin my Fulbright year in Spain. Franco was in power, as he would be for another decade, stern Guardia Civil, with their twisted medieval leather caps, surveilled every highway intersection, and an air of repression pervaded the country.
Barajas itself epitomizes the changes that have swept across Spain. Once an aging outpost at the edge the city, it is now, with its breathtaking T4 terminal, one of the world’s most modern and easily negotiated airports.
I was accompanied on this trip by my wife Mary Jean and my sister Roberta (usually known as Bunny). Bunny was widowed last year, and this trip was an effort to help her recover some of her accustomed enthusiasm. Since Bunny had limited familiarity with Europe (traveling only once before, to Venice), Madrid proved a perfect destination.
From Barajas, it was a quick twenty-minute taxi ride on excellent roads into the city. We swept down the Paseo de la Castellana, Madrid’s major artery. This avenue was lovely during my Fulbright year, with its beautiful roundabout statues of Neptune and Cibeles. (Returning from a party at the university, where I had imbibed too much vino tinto, I remember tipsily circling my Lambretta motor scooter round and round Cibeles!). But its large center strip has been tastefully planted with trees and flowers, and the facades of its elegant classic buildings have been cleaned (while interiors have been gutted and renovated). Madrid, I thought, has become a green city, an impression reinforced as we later walked the network of pedestrian streets and plazas that mark the center. In my day, Madrid was a tired old lady. She has become a young seductress.
Our destination was the neighborhood of Chueca where we had rented an AIR BNB apartment for our stay. Chueca, like many of the neighborhoods off the Gran Vía was once a collection of seedy tapas bars and streets populated by streetwalkers. The whores are gone, replaced by trendy clothing stores, diverse restaurants, and gay-friendly cafes and bars.
Our apartment was as nice as advertised. Only ten minutes walk (down the Fuencarral pedestrian street) from the Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor, it provided an excellent base to explore the city center. Here are Mary Jean and Bunny in one corner of our two bedroom, two-bath apartment.
Chueca itself is the place to be. A step outside our apartment is the lengthy Fuencarrel pedestrian shopping street that continues across the Gran Vía into the city center. In the other direction was the Mercado San Antón. Like several such commercial centers around the city (including the top floor of the Corte Ingles department store) it boasts “the gourmet experience,” combining a diverse collection of eateries with colorful and enticing stalls selling Spanish and imported food specialties. We spent much time in its ground floor Supermercado, enjoying shopping for breakfast staples and afternoon wine, cheese, and sausage snacks.
Two views of the neighborhood. First, Calle de Fuencarral:
Second, the little plaza in front of our apartment at sunset:
Our first two days were spent in intensive museum-ing. Always a must is the Museo Reina Sofia with its galleries dedicated to Picasso’s “Guernica.” When I was in Spain the painting was across the ocean in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where Picasso had prohibited it from going to Spain until the nation was again a republic. Despite MoMA’s resistance (Spain, they argued, was technically a monarchy), the painting returned in 1981, and is now well displayed at the center of a series of galleries offering films and other artworks that depict its creation and inspiration in the terrible events of Spain’s Civil War. What I found most moving on this trip was the large number of elementary school children seated before the painting as their teachers lectured about it and its context. In my day, the full story of the Civil War was un-tellable. Now Guernica’s is helping shape a more democratic Spain.
A thumbnail of this marvelous tableau:
Our next day was spent at El Prado. Given its collection and manageable size, this is one of the world’s finest museums, and is always worth the visit. When I was a student, the museum always seemed dimly lit and dusty. No longer. Ongoing renovations have turned it into a beautiful showcase. Here is a glance at its main entrance, where, arriving promptly at ten in the morning, we avoided the long line and entered quickly.
The Prado has many spectacular paintings. Among them are Goya’s “Maja Vestida” and “Maja Desnuda” (“Dressed Beauty”; “Nude Beauty”) and the still politically vibrant, “The Second of May 1808.” But the one painting whose sight alone justifies an overseas visit to El Prado is Velasquez’s “Las Meninas” (1656). Standing before this painting with sparse crowds (given the early morning and weekday hour), I concluded that this is my favorite painting of all. The sweet infanta in her outrageously overdone dress at the center of the room, the solicitous ladies in waiting (las meninas), the reserved but wise jester/dwarf, the painter himself angling his glance to take the measure of his royal subjects (who are standing where we are and are glimpsed only in the mirror), and above all the dog, the dog, a calm symbol of the loyalty that is the painting’s theme—alongside that of the creation of art itself.
The following day was marked by a return to the vicinity of the Prado, and behind it to the beautiful El Retiro garden. Once a royal enclave, El Retiro was turned centuries ago into a public park, at whose center is the estanque (pond) where visitors glide about in small rowboats.
During the first few months after I arrived in Spain, I rented a room with half board in an apartment on Calle Narvaez, on the far side of El Retiro from the Prado, so I often crossed the Retiro each day to get to the Biblioteca Nacional on the Castellana where I worked. (When I bought my Lambretta, this half hour walk became a delightful quick scoot past Cibeles fountain). My landlady was an older woman named Susannah who it seems had been a moderately famous chanteuse in Madrid’s nightclubs decades before. Her walls were covered with photographs of her appearing onstage, wearing glamorous gowns that were as silver-toned as the photos themselves. On this visit I struggled unsuccessfully to remember Susannah’s last name (no Google search has yet turned it up), and I wondered to myself what she had done and on what side she had been during the Civil War, questions that in my innocence at the time I never asked her. In any event, by Christmas, Susannah and I had parted ways. The problem: my terrible belly cramps caused, as I learned from my fellow Fulbrighters, by “el aceite,” the cheap fifth-press olive oil routinely used in most humble Spanish kitchens of the day. Susannah’s food was excellent, but she was apparently more adjusted to el aceite than I was, and eventually I had to find lodgings where I could determine my own meals.
Visiting El Retiro we had a treat, taking seats in an open-air theater where a children’s puppet show was about to begin. The crowd was large and enthusiastic,
and the show was really creative. It was a simple story of a land-dwelling young man and a deep-sea mermaid who fall in love. Their union is doomed by physiological and parental (Neptunal) impediments, until they are aided by various friendly sorcerers. But what made the show so charming was the puppeteers’ use of prevalent household items, such as various sized water bottles, sponges, and plastic mops and sacks, to build the figures. I think the kids learned not only that love between different types of people can triumph (if between men and mermaids, why not between men and men or women and women?) but also that disposable items should be treasured and not carelessly jettisoned. Note the clever octopus in this photo:
We had selected the Friday of our visit to get out of Madrid, renting a car to visit El Escorial. I last saw this over half a century ago when the Fulbright group was taken on excursion there at the start of our program. I found unchanged the beautiful library and ornate marbled cathedral.
The Fulbright administrators were right: El Escorial embodies the austere and rigid spirit of post-Tridentine, Counter-Reformation Spain, a spirit that still endured in Franco’s era. If almost any Almodovar film reflects today’s Spain, El Escorial reflects the Catholic Spain whose waning days I was privileged to witness.
For lunch we headed to Segovia, where, bypassing the too-touristy Casa Candido, we went to the Mesón de José María. Suckling pig is a Segovia specialty and it’s nowhere better prepared than in this restaurant.
Here are Bunny and Mary Jean in front of the restaurant:
And here is a snapshot of the signature dish:
Our return to Madrid late that afternoon was complicated by a mammoth blockage of the Gran Vía as police accompanied crowds of supporters of the Madrid Atlético team celebrating a recent victory. At one point I found myself going repeatedly around the same array of streets, blocked by squads of police, and unable to break free. At least, I thought, the police are not wearing crinkly leather caps. But “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”: whether it’s Fascism or democracy, football rules.
The next day was devoted to flamenco, for which we could only secure tickets for an 11 PM performance. This required an afternoon nap. If Mary Jean and I were on our own we might have skipped this touristy thing, but Bunny had never seen live flamenco so it was a must for our stay, and the performance by the small troupe, who enthusiastically clapped and shouted out for one another’s solos, was excellent:
Watching the show, I was reminded of an encounter with flamenco more than four decades earlier on an auto trip from France to Morocco, with an overnight in Sevilla. That evening, we took our five-year-old daughter Julie to a flamenco performance, which she watched intently. Afterward, I asked her how she liked it. “A lot,” she replied, “but where were the flamingoes?”
The next day, our adventure was Toledo, to which we traveled on one of the high speed Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) trains that now, along with the amazing array of new autoroutes and tunnels, bind together the country. When I was a student, a trip to Segovia took me two to three hours as I worked my way on my scooter up and down the switchback road that crossed the Sierra Guadarrama. On our trip to Segovia, we passed beneath the same mountains in ten minutes through a four lane pair of tunnels. Back in 1964, Toledo was an easier trajectory by scooter: perhaps an hour and a half to make the 90 kilometers on the Carretera Nacional (passing “norias,” donkey powered wells, that had watered the dry fields since Roman times). On today’s trip, it took just just 33 minutes on the AVE:
Despite its tourist fame, Toledo is not my favorite place in Spain (too much Toledoware!) But, next to “Las Meninas” it has one of my very favorite paintings. Tucked away in a side entry to the small Iglesia Santo Tomé is El Greco’s “El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz,” the “Burial of the Count of Orgaz” (1588). To me, this epitomizes Spanish Catholic faith at its fervid sixteenth Counter-Reformation century heights.
Here’s the count’s body, with its bloodless face, cradled by Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine. Though separated in time by four centuries, the two saints have descended from heaven to usher the pious count into eternity. A crowd of local notables looks on, painted from actual citizens of the city. El Greco includes himself (seventh from the left, just above and to the right of the open palm), as well, as his son, below, pointing to Saint Augustine. Above we can barely see a fetus-like form, the count’s soul, aided by an angel, ascending through a womb-shaped space to heaven where Mary, Jesus and Saint John wait to receive it. Behind Mary stands Saint Peter, who lest any wayward Protestant wander by, is shown holding the keys to the kingdom along with his papal successors. For years in Religion One I taught the concept of rites of passage as moments of death and rebirth. Here it all is, in one beautifully crafted painting.
Since we had to ready ourselves for the flight back, our final day was spent leisurely, marked only by another culinary high point. Paella is a Valenciano not Madridleño specialty, but Bunny had to try it, so we hiked down Fuencarral and through the Puerta del Sol to El Caldero, one of the city’s best paella restaurants. In fact, since the restaurant doesn’t want to misrepresent, it does not even call its excellent preparation “paella,” but merely labels it, “arroz Caldero,” “Caldero rice,” and serves it up from caldrons, two customers at a time. We arrived at 1:00 PM to dine and found ourselves alone in the dining room. However, by 3:00 PM, when we had finished, all the tables were filled, a testament to Spain’s late dining habits. Dinner would start for most of those having their lunch with us at nine PM.
Although everything in Spain was new to my sister, for me this trip constantly evoked the past. Behind the beautiful, prosperous, modern, and diverse Madrid of today, I recalled images from Franco’s era. At one point, driving up the Gran Vía, I asked our taxi driver when the name of José Antonio had been removed from the avenue. (José Antonio Primo de Rivera (1903-1936) was a martyr of the Spanish fascist Falangist movement. Franco’s renaming of the avenue after José Antonio signaled José Antonio’s pride of place.) Googling, I learned that José Antonio’s name was removed in 1981, but our middle-aged driver had no idea of what I was asking. For him, the Gran Vía was always just the Gran Vía.
This is good. We may not ever forgive, but we can forget. Spain has been actively forgetting its bitter past for over a generation. Fortunately, too, however, some of us are old enough to remember when political tribalism violently tore a society apart, with scars and traumas that endured for decades. I applaud Spain’s recovery and the beautiful city that evidences it. I hope that we in America can avoid similar tribalism and learn from Spain’s history.