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.