¡Hola Madrid!


THIS IS GOING TO BE HARD. Not the traveling-alone part. And certainly not the drinking vermouth part. The no-shopping part (of which more later).

I left New York yesterday in yet another snowstorm and arrived today in a city where the sky is blue and the sun is casting long sharp shadows. I’ve been to Madrid once before and don’t know it at all well. When I was here five years ago, I walked elegant boulevards and visited major museums. In the few hours I had today, before setting off tomorrow on my monthlong Mediterranean Eurail trip, I wanted to see what was there was to see on some of Madrid’s old backstreets.


I took a bus from the airport to Madrid’s Atocha railroad station, above, which will be the launch point for my journey tomorrow. As long as I was there, I had my Eurailpass “activated” at a ticket window, which consisted of a stamp and took five minutes. Atocha’s original section has been transformed into an indoor tropical garden; what an excellent re-use for a cavernous skylit space (I believe the state-of-the-art business end of the station is where I’ll leave from tomorrow).


Exiting the station, above, I checked in to my hotel, the NH Madrid Nacional, practically across the street. It’s a business hotel, part of a large European chain. Its exterior (seen below at night, when I returned from my perambulations four miles and five hours later) is as beautiful as its guest rooms are bland and soulless. But convenience is what I was after for my first night. The lobby, below, is where I’ll have my morning coffee.


This afternoon I made a circuit, basically, of the neighborhood known as Cortes, central and very old, walking up Calle Huertas to the 17th century Plaza Mayor, heart of the city, and back along San Jeronimo, weaving in and out of labyrinthine streets, some pedestrianized. I saw tapas bars old and new, lots of old-school stores (upholstery, shoes, hats, fabrics), polished elegance and graffiti, the stylish and the homeless.






Here’s where I popped in for a break — a glass of sweet vermouth and the best olives ever (sorry, Sahadi) at Casa Alberto, two photos below, serving since 1827 from an onyx bar in the house where Cervantes wrote Don Quixote two centuries earlier.


Below, a historic patisserie on San Geronimo.


Eventually wended my way back toward Plaza Emperador Carlos V, around which cluster my hotel, the train station, and the Museo Nacional de Arte Reina Sofia, which I had missed last time around. It was by then 7PM and admission (normally 8 euros) was free. I headed for the permanent collection and saw Picasso’s Guernica, which used to live at MoMA in New York, and rooms full of studies and sketches illuminating the great work. I saw more Miro in one place than ever before, and spent a long time studying a large-scale model of Josep Lluis Sert’s 1937 Spanish pavilion for the Barcelona World Expo.

Had a catch-as-catch-can dinner (a potato omelette and a glass of wine) sitting at the bar in the museum’s cafe. Below, a Lichtenstein sculpture in the Reina Sofia plaza.


Now about the shopping. I’m already feeling I packed too much. My suitcase, below, weighed 24 pounds when I left New York, and a backpack probably another 20-25. They’re both crammed. Yet look at those espadrilles, in an infinite selection of colors (10 euros; could that be because they’re basically disposable?)

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I was sorely tempted, and this is only Day 1.


Airport Hotel That Doesn’t Seem Like One

DID YOU THINK “NICE AIRPORT HOTEL” was an oxymoron? I did. But I was determined not to stay in a soulless American chain hotel for my one-night layover in Madrid. That would have been depressing. I wanted to prolong my time in Europe, where the coffee is good, the pop music is bad, and the debt crisis is comfortingly familiar.


Before leaving the States last week, I made a reservation at the Hostal Villa de Paracuellos, above, in a small older building whose owners evidently decided to turn its location in a village a few kms from Barajas Airport to advantage.


I was picked up last night after my flight from Lanazarote by a van that shuttled me there in 10 minutes, and I found the design-y, recently renovated boutique hotel much to my liking.



The WiFi proved unreliable (I’m posting this from Brooklyn, having just arrived home) and there are no English-language channels on the cable TV. Boo! On the plus side: my top floor garret had two skylights from which I could see the village rooftops and a super bathroom with heated towel racks and a rainhead shower. Nice people, and a price reminiscent of the old days: 42 euros including breakfast.

SPAIN: Day 2 – Rambling ‘Round Madrid


Velasquez in front of the Prado

TRUE TO MY WORD, I did all that I set out to do today in Madrid – the flea market and Plaza Mayor in the morning, the Botanic Garden and the Prado in the afternoon. Everything came up a bit short. As Buddhist monks say, “Expectation brings disappointment.”


The Plaza Mayor, above, is a unified 17th century square of great architectural integrity but no great beauty. I’d rate Brussels’ Grand’Place, Paris’ Place des Vosges, Rome’s Piazza Navona, and Cracow’s market square far above it. Perhaps I’ve traveled too much and am jaded. Or maybe I’m just a crotchety old lady.

El Rastro, the flea market, had the same stuff you’d see anywhere in the world – mostly scarves and bags from Nepal, far as I could tell. Nothing handcrafted, nothing old. Unless I was in the wrong place.

The Real Botanic Garden – Real as in Royal – is probably much lovelier and more colorful and fragrant in a month other than January. It was peaceful, that I will say.


And how can I admit I wasn’t thrilled by the Prado, above, for godssakes? I visited the Goyas, Velasquezes, and El Grecos, and strolled through some of the rest. Because of the breadth of the holdings, I now have a good sense of what each contributed to the history of painting, and it was a quantum leap in each case. Velasquez in the 17th century did his share of aristocratic bread-and-butter portraits, and the only crucifixion scene I’ve ever actually liked, against a surreal black background. El Greco’s acid colors and elongated forms took standard Bible scenes and made them almost psychedelic – 400 years ago.

Not being a devout Catholic, the religious works, which make up most of the Prado’s holdings, don’t move me particularly. Much of the rest is military in nature — battle scenes, group portraits of militias, historical scenes of surrender and execution – dark, gory, scary, depressing. So my visit to the Prado wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as yesterday’s sojourn at the Thyssen-Bornemisza, amongst the pretty secular art.


Irvina and I had dinner at a fun place called Los Gatos (The Cats). It hit the spot. We had a huge salad with tuna, olives, roasted peppers, and tomatoes; langoustines in the shell; and a plate of manchego cheese, washed down with a white Rueda at 3.50 euros/glass. No complaints there.


“Living wall” spotted after I took a wrong turn out of my hotel

Tomorrow, onto Seville via the high-speed AVE train that will, I expect, put the American railroad system to shame.

SPAIN: Day 1 – Madrid’s Museums


THE RAIN IN SPAIN, forecast for Saturday, never happened. My first day in Madrid was overcast and in the 50s. I felt a little disoriented, as I always do my first jet-lagged day in a strange foreign city. But that didn’t stop me from going to two museums and filling my sleepless eyes and head with fabulous art.

I didn’t do the Prado. That would have been too much. Instead, I went to the unpronounceable but world- class Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, below, and was wowed. Does Italy know how many Canalettos they’re missing? Does Germany realize all the outstanding Hans and Lucas Cranach portraits in Madrid? Aren’t the Dutch lacking a few dozen important 17th century landscapes? There’s even a room devoted to the Hudson River School.


The Thyssen-whatever is like Jansen’s History of Art (the college textbook) come to life. The museum is arranged chronologically, which suits my linear brain, starting with 15th century gilded German religious paintings – beautiful, but not really my thing. My intention was to zip through those early galleries until I got to the Fauves and Impressionists, and then I would linger. Well. So much for intentions. I found the humanity and personality of the early Dutch and German portraits, with the eyes that seem to stare you down and the individualistic costumes, so arresting that I slowed to a crawl, and ended up spending the entire afternoon.


I also discovered Spain’s national decorative arts museum is right next door to my hotel in a five-story neo-classical mansion. The two lower floors are devoted to a temporary exhibition called “Fascination with the Orient” – a rich lode of 17th and 18th century material from China and Japan, blue-and-white export porcelain and other items, next to Spanish ceramics and textiles — showing quite directly how the East influenced the West.

The upper floors have period rooms and the permanent collection of furniture, pottery, and jewelry. My favorite was a 17th century tiled kitchen, the walls covered from floor to ceiling with trompe l’oeil ceramics showing hanging pots and pans, rabbits, pigs, and people.

The labels are only in Spanish. In fact, I heard no English spoken all day in either museum, though both were crowded with chic-looking people of all ages.


Madrid looks like what I expected Madrid to look like: low-rise late 19th century buildings with wrought iron gates and balconies, and architectural hedges everywhere – tall topiaries, big round boxwoods, stunning palms. There seem to be but four skyscrapers in the city, and they’re surprisingly unobtrusive – I saw them on my way in from the airport but haven’t noticed them since.

I’m in the poshest but not the liveliest part of town. Sunday I’ll head to Plaza Mayor, the oldest part of the city, and El Rastro, the famous flea market. And maybe squeeze in the Botanical Garden and the Prado.


This hotel, the Palacio del Retiro, above, is in a magnificent neo-classical mansion — until fairly recently, a one-family home — with curving marble staircases, elaborate plasterwork, stained glass windows, top, and wrought iron railings. Taken over by AC, a luxury boutique hotel company, four years ago, the 50 modern rooms carved out of the grand old space are high-ceilinged and trendily contemporary, but a bit cold (decor, not temperature-wise) for my taste. However, the service staff couldn’t be nicer.

My clever traveling companion, Irvina Lew, a professional travel writer, arranged this and other five-star accommodations to follow. She has several assignments on this trip, for a sailing magazine and others. I’m researching historic gardens of Andalucia for Garden Design magazine and will be posting on their blog (as well as on my own). On Friday, before leaving for JFK, I landed a last-minute assignment from Budget Travel magazine for a Seville shopping story. So this turns out to rather more of a working vacation than anticipated, but I can live with that, if it means five-star hotels.

Andalusia, Here I Come

Alhambra - Granda - España by Nino H.

LATER THIS MONTH, I’m heading to Spain for a week with a friend and a camera. This trip is a radically abbreviated version of a dream I’ve had for years: spending the entire winter in southern Europe. But ya gotta start somewhere.

I’m going first to Madrid, then taking the train south to Seville, Granada, and Cordoba. It’s mainly a vacation and not a press trip, and I’m thrilled about that (though I have to pay for it). Still, I’ll be researching historic gardens and taking lots of notes and pictures, because I just can’t help myself.

We’ll go to the Alhambra, of course, but it’s the intimate courtyard and patio gardens I hope will inspire me for my own backyard. No doubt I’ll be bummed I can’t grow orange trees and oleander here on Long Island, but I’m sure there’s much to learn from the structural elements of Spanish gardens, even in winter.

So far, even though the trip is only two weeks away, I’ve done little advance planning, and I’ve never been to that part of Spain before. So if anyone has suggestions for places to stay, eat, go, or see, please let ‘em rip in the comments, and gracias!

Photo: View of the Alhambra, from Nino H’s Flickr photostream