European capital fatigue is a real thing. We felt our first pangs after our Scandinavian tour back in August of 2016. I won’t say all the cities started to blend together (they’re all incredibly different and wonderful), but when juxtaposed to vacation spots where we could get out and hike or bike or experience more local/quaint aspects of a city, we opted for quaint/outside. This led us to avoid a trip to Madrid for entirely too long. It wasn’t until our second trip to Barcelona and quick trip to Figueres that we were convinced we MUST visit the Prado/Madrid. And then it was set – we’d be making a quick weekend trip to Madrid, and I am so happy we did as it is one incredibly gorgeous city.
Why did the Prado drive us to Madrid? Well, the Picasso Museum in Barcelona has Picasso’s Las Meninas on display (his take on Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas – which is AMAZING, easily our favorite thing on display there) and the Dalí museum in Figueres also makes many references to Velazquez and his works. You can see photos of all three below. Both museums stressed the importance of Picasso and Dalí visiting the Prado when they were young and it having a huge impact on them as artists. Since these are two incredibly interesting modern artists, we had to see what was inspiring them at the Prado.
Madrid makes for a perfect weekend trip from Toulouse. We were able to catch a 9pm flight, with us arriving in Madrid a little after 10pm and at our hotel around 10:30 or so. We checked in and then hit the streets in search of some small bites and big wines. At first walk, the streets of Madrid are large and crossing them can be tricky (aka not a lot of jay-walking opportunities as there are metal railings along many sidewalk edges), but the architecture is grand, perfectly lit up, and remarkably clean. We wandered about settling (finally) on a wine bar/restaurant (the name escapes me) not too far from our hotel. We opted for two glasses of local wine (mostly Riojas) and were surprised that the kitchen closed at 11pm (I thought that’s when dinner started in Madrid!), though our waitress did bring us some potato chips and roasted nuts, which were quickly consumed and appreciated.
We woke up the next morning and found a coffee/breakfast spot not too far from our hotel called Cafe de la Luz. I’d say this was a perfect spot for a quick bite (we both had the ciabatta with tomatoes/olive oil and jamon…a Spanish favorite) before hitting the Prado for a few hours.
Our walk to the Prado was gorgeous. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky (see first two photos above) as we walked along the Paseo del Prado. In the top photo above is the back of the Apollo Fountain. You see the birch trees in the foreground – these were lining the entire street. If it hadn’t been so sunny, I would’ve taken more photos. Not soon after that fountain we found the entrance to the Prado (the other two photos above are of other spots of the Prado, after we exited…you’ll see it got cloudy, fast)
Founded as a museum of paintings and sculpture in 1819, the Prado is widely considered to have one of the world’s finest collections of European art, dating from the 12th century to the early 20th century, based on the former Spanish Royal Collection, and the single best collection of Spanish art.
You aren’t allowed to take photos inside the Prado (a fact ONLY mentioned in fine print on the back page of the museum guide…which I found out the hard way), so I do not have any photos from the actual museum. But below is a sampling of our favorite pieces/artists. First on our tour we were introduced to Bosch’s Table of the Seven Deadly Sins, The Garden of Earthly Delights, and the Haywain Tryptic. While it was a little disturbing to learn of Bosch’s distaste for women (a theme that seemed somewhat common throughout our tour), his use of color and tryptics was pretty interesting.
From there we enjoyed many paintings from Raphael including The Cardinal and Madonna of the fish. This is also where we decided it is impossible to find a normal looking baby in any art from this time. The Cardinal is also just piercing and perfect. I thought it was wild how touchable his cloak appeared.
Then we saw some El Greco. When a large portion of his work is all together, you really do start to see that whole elongated face technique. The realism, again, was uncanny. Knight with his hand on his Chest looked so much like a photograph. In the gift shop you can also buy a t-shirt in his likeness.
One of Jim’s favorites was Zurbaran, who was known for his still life paintings and ability to provide texture in paintings and his use of the color white. We ended up purchasing a custom print (it’s pretty cool – you can get any work turned into a print within 20 minutes in the gift shop) of Still Life with Four Vessels, though you can also see his white work in Apparition of the Apostle St Peter to St Peter Nolasco.
And of course there’s Diego Velazquez – our reason for visiting the Prado and Madrid in the first place. There are full rooms dedicated to the leading artist in the court of King Philip IV. In addition to Las Meninas (and all the other paintings for King Philip IV) there are also a number of paintings of buffons (sort of like a court jester) including Buffon with books and the second one (name escapes me) as well as some very interesting paintings with double meanings like The Spinners. This one is especially interesting to me, as it is displayed in the same room as Titian’s painting (The Rape of Europa, which is see in the background of The Spinners while the foreground depicts The Fable of Arachne.
Which brings us to another of Jim’s favorites, which is Francisco Goya. There are a number of different periods of Goya’s career depicted throughout the Prado including the dark period with paintings like Saturn devouring his Child (the second painting on that topic in the Prado) and The Third of May 1808. The Third of May 1808 depicts the Peninsular War (fighting against Napoleon) and also served as inspiration for Picasso’s Guernica, which starkly contrast against his comic paintings like The Parasol as well as The Naked Maja and The Clothed Maja. These two paintings were owned by Prime Minister Manuel de Godoy, who was known as an avid womanizer, and originally hung in his home in such a manner that the Naked Maja could be revealed at any time with the help of a pulley mechanism (the clothed was in front of the naked). Hah.
I think we spent around four hours touring all the rooms/exploring the works. Jim has positioned it firmly in second place as his second favorite museum (behind the Louvre in Paris).
After the Prado we decided to explore the Real Jardín Botánico as well as Parque del Retiro. It was a little cloudy, definitely windy, and a smidge cold. But these are absolutely GORGEOUS parks. We didn’t go into the Botanical Garden (there was a fee and a lot of it looked dead/under construction), but you can walk along the outside (there’s a large wrought iron fence along the perimeter) on your way to Retiro Park.
The park itself is HUGE. We walked around until coming up on Monument to Alfonso XII, which showed numerous folks enjoying a row on the little man-made lake within the park. I think this was one of the prettiest spots, and I know if we lived here, we’d come here often for picnics and reading.
From the park we walked back to our hotel, enjoying the architecture before taking a nap and hitting up Mercado de San Miguel for dinner.
I’d read about Mercado de San Miguel and was intrigued by the ability to easily wander and eat lots of tapas from different spots without having to duck into and out of multiple restaurants. The spot is gorgeous (and I believe newly renovated) and definitely hopping at night. Seating is at a premium and once we found a little spot at a table ended up tag-teaming to pick up more wine and food. I’d read this spot could be touristy (and it probably is), but I found many locals speaking Spanish. In fact, I met one older couple who helped me get two glasses of wine at the bar, recommended their dessert, and said hello two more times when we crossed paths in the market. We also got a little friendly with some French neighbors who wanted to know if the peppers were hot. They were surprised and delighted when we told them both to just try one (though unsure if they liked them…but confirmed they were not spicy). While Jim’s favorite story involved the Spanish family next to us that were sharing (and finished) a bottle of sherry. Jim said the grandmother chugged her final glass and then needed help getting off her stool. She was incredibly cute (while Jim was getting food I saw her topping off everyone else’s glasses every few minutes). In the end we drank some tasty reds, ate some yummy monkfish, burrata, pimientos de padron, patatas bravas, little tostadas/small sandwiches as well as some dessert sherry with house specialty desserts. I’d recommend this spot, but maybe order a bottle and try to get more portions at one place OR figure out when it’s not packed so you and your partner/friend can explore the market together instead of guarding a spot to eat.
After dinner we decided to walk around the area and explore the Royal Palace of Madrid, Puerta del Sol, Plaza de Oriente, and the Cathedral de la Almudena. There was something really peaceful and beautiful about this area late at night.
The next morning we woke up and started our walk to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. The Reina Sofía is Spain’s national museum for 20th Century Art. Easily the most popular piece of art here is Picasso’s Guernica. If you’re unfamiliar, Guernica was painted in response to the bombing of the city, Guernica, during the Spanish Civil War, bringing world-wide attention to the Spanish Civil War (you can watch a video here). The painting itself is an unreal size – it is 3.49 meters (11 ft 5 in) tall and 7.76 meters (25 ft 6 in) wide. Also known as one of the best pieces of anti-war art in the world. Jim mentioned a Rockefeller had wanted to purchase the piece, but when unable had a tapestry made it its likeness, which is displayed in the UN Headquarters in NYC. While the painting itself is amazing, in the room opposite the painting there are small photos which show HOW it was painted from beginning to end, which I enjoyed almost as much as the final product. It is a piece you can look at for an extremely long time, identifying something new with each viewing. Wildly powerful. All of this makes me incredibly interested to watch National Geographic’s TV Show about Pablo Picasso – Genius: Picasso.
While Guernica is (easily) the best piece in Reina Sofía, we were also introduced to the work of Juan Gris, who might be a new favorite cubist.
We didn’t spend as much time in the Reina Sofía as we had 1pm lunch reservations at Restaurante Sobrino de Botin. Botin is known/said to be the oldest restaurant in the world (lots of Guinness Book of World Records stuff inside). I can’t say if that is/isn’t true, but I will say it is an incredibly popular joint, and not necessarily with tourists as almost all the tables around us were filled with Spanish families eating a Sunday lunch. This spot is known for smoked meats. As such, we decided we’d order a local bottle of Rioja, two orders of fish soup (the most delicious, saffron-y soup I’ve ever had), one order of suckling pig, one order of smoked lamb, and then split a dessert of a chocolate mousse cake. I think this might be a better spot if you go with a larger party (then you can share small plates, tapas style) as I could barely eat half of my lamb. It was also incredibly salty, something we often joke about here in France (because it is NOT salty here), but still delicious. I was shocked to see the gentleman next to me salting his smoked pig. Regardless, this was a meal to remember as it kept us satisfied until we got home to Toulouse that night.
It was a quick weekend…perhaps too quick. We’ve tackled some of the main sights in Madrid, but it’s left us eager to return and explore this incredibly gorgeous city. Lucky for us, it’s just a quick plane ride away!