As often as we’ve been
to Madrid, the Plaza de Colon never fails to catch us unawares. We may
come upon it turning off elegant, shop-lined Serano Street. Or we may
approach it directly from the broad tree-lined Paseo de Recoletos. But
whenever the towering image of Christopher Columbus looms up before us,
it’s as if we’re seeing it for the first time.
Overlooking the white
Belle Epoque and copper-clad Art Deco buildings of downtown Madrid, the
statue stands high on a pedestal at the head of the square, arm extended,
finger pointed westward, in the direction of the New World the explorer
from Genoa discovered more than half a millennium ago. And once again, the
centrality of Madrid gets reinforced, how it sits in the middle of a
nation that once had been, and for a substantial world-wide population
remains, the heart of the world.
During our last visit,
the Biblioteca Nacional, less than a block from the Plaza de Colon, was
featuring an exposition of Peruvian art and artifacts. With objects dating
back as far as 3,000 years before the Spanish Conquest and continuing
through the first three hundred years of interaction with Spain, the
exhibit demonstrated the extraordinary range of artistic and
technological accomplishments of Peru’s diverse yet interrelated cultures;
it drew capacity crowds throughout a four-month stay before moving on to
equal attention and acclaim in Washington D.C. Yet the Madrid setting lent
the exhibit a historical resonance we can’t imagine it had in our nation’s
Before a showcase
filled with brilliant gold-hammered pre-Columbian neck and headpieces, we
spoke to a young naval officer who urged us to see the Naval Museum
located in the nearby Spanish Naval headquarters. It was just four blocks
to the south, a pleasant stroll down the Paseo de Recoletos past the Plaza
de Cibles where the Roman goddess of nature drives her chariot pulled by a
pair of lions through the gorgeous gushing fountain at its center. There
in splendid rooms of classical proportions, sailing instruments, model
ships, maps, manuscripts, and paintings depicting vessels, battles, and
prominent naval figures document the chronology of Spanish adventures on
the high seas and repeat the theme of the centrality of Spain and its
identity as paramount discoverer of new worlds.
Treasures from the New
World fueled the royal and ecclesiastical passion for commissioning and
collecting works of art, and over the centuries Spain produced a legion of
artists to fulfill the requirements. Their works form the legacy that
insures Madrid’s position as a world-class capital of art.
Which may explain why of
all the cities in the world, it was Madrid that the Baron Hans Heinrich
Thyssen-Bormemisza de Kaszon chose in 1993 to showcase his famed
collection of over eight hundred paintings and other objects d’art.
Considered the most impressive private collection anywhere, the Baron’s
treasures are housed in the 18th century neo-classical
Villahermosa Palace where each room focuses on a different chapter of art
history from the beginning of the 13th to the end of the 20th
century. Since the time of the Baron’s loan, the Thyssen-Bornemisza has
become a permanent fixture of Madrid’s museum scene. Its space has been
doubled, and significant Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works are
now part of its holdings.
A ten minute walk south
Thyssen-Bornemisza is the Reina Sofia Museum of Contemporary Art created
in 1980 out of an 18th century hospital also of neo classical
design. Eight years after the building’s transformation into a museum, a
pair of distinctive elevators in the form of glass towers at either end of
the façade were added. The trip between floors now presents an opportunity
to look out over the rooftops of Madrid.
There is much to look
at within the museum as well. Reflecting the evolution of Spanish art from
the end of the 19th century, through the years following World
War II, and coming up to present, the Reina Sofia houses one of the
foremost collections of contemporary schools from Cubism to Abstract
Expressionism and beyond. Dali, Picasso, Miró, Julio González, Arroyo,
Juan Gris, Tàpies – they are all here along with challenging contemporary
works by non-Spanish artists. The biggest attraction, however, seems to be
Picasso’s “Guernica” in a room all to itself. After it had sojourned in
New York’s MOMA for so long, there is a sense of rightness to see this
masterwork at home where it belongs.
And then, of course, in
the stately 18th century neoclassical palace that was meant to
be a museum of natural history and used as an army barracks during the
Napoleonic occupation of Madrid is the incomparable Prado with its 8,600
paintings (and drawings, sculptures, and other objects d’art). The world’s
largest collection of Spanish masterworks from the middle ages to the 19th
century is here. All the ikons are represented in abundance: El Greco,
Goya, Murillo, Ribera, Sorolla, Zurbarán, Velázquez. . . the sheer volume
takes the breath away. There is the ample Flemish and Dutch collection
including the largest collection of Rubens anywhere, a consequence of
Spain’s long occupation of the Netherlands, the wealth of Italian
masterpieces including the splendid Rafaels along the corridor beneath the
barrel dome and 36 Titans, as well as other great European works.
This trio of
world-class museums, all in the process of significant expansion, are
embraced by one of Madrid’s most beautiful neighborhoods bordered by the
big Baroque fountains of the Plaza de Neptuno, the Altocha Station from
which the fleet Ave departs to points all over Spain, and the shaded
byways of the Botanical Gardens down the hill from bucolic Retiro Park.
They are connected by a grand
Paseo del Arte
along the Paseo del Prado which comes right off the Paseo de Recoletos on
which we began our itinerary earlier that day.
To be in Madrid is to
feel the exhilaration of a democracy, that having begun less than thirty
years ago, is still relatively new. The streets seem refreshed, the mood
buoyant. As in every other modern metropolis there is concern over
terrorism. But the tyrannies of the last century seem to belong to a
distant past as this majestic and graceful capital enjoys its position in
the center of Spain and, in some new ways, the world as well.
Paseo del Prado, Madrid
Open daily except Mondays from 9 AM to 7
Admission: 3 Euros, seniors and under 18
free, students 1.5 Euros
Paseo del Prado 8, Madrid
Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 AM to
Admission: 6 Euros, seniors and students 4
Euros, children under 12 free
Reina Sofia Museum
of Contemporary Art
Santa Isabel 52, Madrid
Open Monday through Saturday (closed
Tuesday) from 10 AM to 9 PM and Sunday from 10 AM to 2:30PM
Admission: 3 Euros,
seniors and under 18 free
A Paseo del Arte ticket for 7.66
Euros covers entrance to all three musuems.
Café de la Ópera
We still get letters
from readers about the Café de la Ópera which we first visited six years
ago. One was from a tour operator who after reading our piece booked
tables for her entire group. She reported back: everyone loved it. It was
time for an encore visit.
We knew the routine.
From the street you enter an informal cafeteria-style restaurant, then
turn down a staircase to the bi-level nightclub-type space below ground.
We made our descent among the well-dressed, intergenerational crowd all of
whom had reserved tables for what was clearly a sold-out event. Our table
was the same we had last time around, at the foot of the little stairway
the singers mount up and down as they perform. Waiters, who like the
performers are opera students, busily flitted about taking orders, serving
drinks, getting things organized. The mood was one of happy anticipation.
First courses had been
were served when a flourishing arpeggio from Alberto Joya at the grand
piano announced the beginning of the evening’s entertainment and the
entrance of Akemi Alfonso, a feisty soprano from Cuba, who performed “Love
Is Fickle” from “Carmen” with great brio.
The rest of the little
company: baritone Jorge Paez and sopranos Cristina Redondo and Ma Teresa
Martinez joined Ms. Alfonso through the evening, strolling among the
tables as they sang solos and duets from “La Boheme” and “Don Giovanni,”
Zarzuela numbers, even the old Italian favorite “O Sole Mio.” All were
in excellent voice and enthusiastically received.
The evening concluded,
as it had the first time around, with the filling of champagne glasses at
each table and guests joining the talented young performers in a rousing
rendition of “Coro de Brindis,” the drinking song from “La Traviata.” The
principals were different but the routine happily remained unchanged.
We’ll count on coming back once again.
El Café de la Opera
28013 Madrid, Spain
# # #
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
about these authors.
You can contact the Frommers at:
This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights