Madrid’s Museo Naval

Humbly situated near the Prado, Madrid’s Naval Museum barely stands a chance against the reputation and grandeur of its neighbour. It does make an effort, boldly claiming its space in large letters on its facade. Personally, I preferred the copper sign above its door.

Granted, the Naval Museum can’t compete with its other, more well-known brethren. However, for those who will set foot inside its walls, they will find a fantastic collection – over 10,700 of items– of scale models of ships and frigates from Columbus’s times on as well as original figureheads, instruments, maps and plans. The most interesting artifact is the original of a map, drawn by Juan de la Cosa in 1500 that shows, for the first time, America and other geographical discoveries made between 1492 and 1500. It is also the first time Africa was drawn in the north-south direction.

A large painting, titled “First Homage to Christopher Columbus,” begins the chronological order of the museum’s rooms, which end with contemporary vessels. The voyage through time makes imminent sense. As you move through the rooms, you get a sense of how Spain became one of the strongest powers in the world. You see paintings depicting hundred of naval vessels in a line, warring at sea. As impressive as it was, all I could think was how much wood had been used, how many forests decimated across Europe – Portuguese, English, Spanish monarchs pushing world supremacy over the waters and systematically razing entire ecosystems, in their own land and in those they conquered. That thought aside, the naval architects of the time were amazingly able, especially with the tools they used to design them and build them. Many ships models in the museums were used as architectural templates for the construction of the Spanish Armada, so they are infinitely detailed and everything is to scale. They were definitely a work of art in themselves.

So, too, the navigators of that time were able. With only a few landmarks, the feel of the sea and its currents and the direction of the wind, they could sail across oceans and find themselves where they wanted to go. Some of them started with only a few rudimentary tools, precursors of the sextant, navigating by using the sun, the stars, and the speed of their vessels. They had to be passionate and fearless adventurers, as well as leaders, to “go where no one has gone before,” to use a Star Trek analogy.

The museum also walks us through the advances of technology that not only facilitated sea voyages but made killing over and under the waters easier. It is a fascinating –and maybe a bit ghoulish– reminder that, regardless of the times, the human race will seek ways of defending itself but also ways of controlling others.

There were very few people in the museum so we could take a leisurely tour of the exhibits. We were surprised that we’d spent nearly four hours in there. This is one of the reasons we like to plan long visits: we can discover treasures that few know about and feel that we have begun to know the people who live in the country we are visiting a little more. Museums like these speak of history, of identity, of culture. It’s always a thrill to find that we’ve unearthed a little bit of it.

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Campo del Moro

It’s easy to combine a visit to the Templo de Debod with a stroll in the Parque del Oeste and get a photo opportunity to snap the Palacio Real with the Catedral de la Almudena in the background. The temple, set over a pond, is genuine; built in the 2nd Century BC, it was given to Spain by the Egyptian government as a token of appreciation for the Spanish engineers who helped save ancient monuments from floodwaters while the Aswan Dam was being built on the River Nile. The park itself is landscaped and quiet, with many benches. It marks the contrast with the busy, noisy Plaza de Espaňa, which looks on to Gran Vía and its incessant traffic. The plaza boasts an obelisk, as an homage to Cervantez, with bronze statues of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza on their respective mounts, moving toward another adventure.

But another park offers, to my mind, a more grandiose view than the Parque del Oeste: the Campo del Moro (Field of the Moor). On the edges of the Rio Manzanares, the park rises until it reaches the back of the Palacio Real. The park earned its name from history: in 1109, the Moorish Army, led by Ali ben Yusuf, set up camp there. Later on, it was used for jousts by Christian knights.

As a park it was originally laid out in the 19th Century, under the aegis of Queen Maria Cristina, and was designed according to the norms of English gardens of the time, which promoted nature as romantic. It has winding paths through thick woodland, and the heat of the day disappears there. It doesn’t take a lot of luck to happen upon a flock of peacocks, for which the park is known. You can also find the bright green, squawking, Quaker parrots, mourning doves, and the black blue and white magpie.

What the park offers more than any other if the most fabulous view of the Palacio Real. In the center of the park, rising steadily towards this brilliant white facade, is a long lane of grass, dotted with flowers and fountains.

And if, after all this tranquillity and beauty, youre in need of stimulation, right beside the park is the Principe Pío train station and a huge, modern shopping center (they even have a McDonald’s and a Burger King). No quaint shops for tourists there: think more Bayshore than Byward Market.

That’s in part what I find so thrilling about Madrid: it’s a bustling, modern city that doesn’t cling to its heritage but respects what has been handed it down the years.

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Madrid’s Art Museums

Madrid has many art museums, and the most well-known is of course the Prado, which has one of the most important collection of paintings in the world. It possesses works from the two most influential geniuses of universal painting, Velázquez and Goya. It also houses other seminal paintings from the 12th to the 19th Century (Rubens,el Greco, Bosch, Ribera,Titian, Fra Angelico, to mention a few) in a building that was designed by Juan de Villanueva and commissioned by Carlos III; it opened as a museum in 1819.
While at least one visit is de rigueur, the Prado is daunting, even for someone who is in Madrid for more than a few days. There are so many works, spread over three floors and a basement, that it’s difficult to take everything in. When you limit yourself to the recommended works, you’re bound to be frustrated by all the magnificent art you’re passing by. Over four days, we spent more than 12 hours in the Prado and feel that we barely scratched the surface.
Yet, when you’ve spent some time in the museum, you realize that the collection is somewhat unbalanced. The museum has over 114 paintings by Goya, but only one by da Vinci and Caravaggio. Ironically, you’ll find the Mona Lisa among the works displayed. She’s a copy, of course, sanctioned by da Vinci and probably painted at the same time: she has the same mysterious smile but doesn’t hide between bulletproof glass like the real Mona Lisa in the Louvres. Talk about name-dropping.
Like many museums in Europe, the Prado’s inventory came from collectors – mainly the aristocracy, including various kings over the years. These collectors did not build their collection with variety in mind; instead, they found one or two artists they liked and proceeded to amass, through buying or commissioning, the works of those artists. Hence a collection heavily skewed toward the Spanish artists.

In the second of the three important museums of Madrid, the Thyssen-Bornemisza, you can find the amazing collection of the family of the same name, which was donated to the State and is now housed in the beautiful palacio de Villahermosa. The collection is much more varied, including American painters of the 19th century. Because the Baron and his son wanted their collection to be as complete an illustration of Western art as possible, you can find a greater variety of works, from Brueghel the Elder to Gauguin, and Edward Hopper to Picasso. You can find Impressionists, Expressionists, Realists, even Pop Art. The collection is organised chronologically into three well-lit floors.
Although it doesn’t have the prestige of the Prado, its contents were very impressive, and when I left I had the feeling that I’d taken a beautiful voyage through the centuries.

Unlike any of the two museums described above, the Reina Sofía is an ode to modern and contemporary art. Its claim to fame is Guernica, Picasso’s response to the bombing of the Basque country village in northern Spain in 1936. It’s a huge painting (11 feet high x 25 feet wide) and has its own room. However, the museum has much more to offer than one, albeit famous, painting. The museum is a sprawling structure that used to be the Hospital de San Carlos and has 23 rooms that show off paintings and sculpture of the 20th Century. Artists such as Picasso, in his early works, Solana, Juan Grís, Miró and Dali are well-represented. The museum houses also 21st Century temporary exhibitions and even displays works from the troisième art (third art): many films of the mid-twentieth Century are projected on the walls, sometimes without sound.
This museum may be more difficult to take in than the two others, but I found it fascinating, if only as an other cog in the evolution of art through the centuries. Art between the two world wars was dark and disturbing. Post WWII, it was even more so, and artists sought to express their anger, befuddlement, or despair through sometimes obscure, misshapen or basic works. These sentiments continue to this day, reminding us that the times of celebrating God, mythology, nature, etc., are past. When it comes to great art, artists must seek a different way of expressing what it is to live in this century.

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Madrid’s Royal Botanical Garden

With its 8 hectares, the Real Jardín Botánico is not the largest I’ve ever seen and strolled in, but it’s one of the most impressive. It contains a collection of over 5,000 species exhibited with scientific and aesthetic criteria in a series of terraces that go from the smallest (flower gardens and one of the most extensive rose garden in the world) to the largest trees such as plane trees, eucalyptus, pine, palm trees, cypresses. It also has a year-round garden with fruit and vegetables growing according to their season, as well as an impressive collection of bonsai, which was donated by the ex-president of Spain, D. Felipe Gonzalez, in 1996, and consists in the most important collection of Iberian species.

Originally, the garden was established near the banks of the Rio Manzanares by order of King Fernando IV in 1755. Twenty-six years later, in 1781, Carlos III ordered it to be moved to its current location on the Paseo del Prado (Prado Avenue); it has for neighbours the Prado itself and the royal park, el Retiro.

The garden was, at its starts, designed to nurture, study and preserve the different species that its scientists brought back from all corners of the globe. The work still continues today, although it suffered from a long period of neglect due to war and political unrest, but was rebuilt to its former glory in 1982. It has been officially declared a Historical Garden and inscribed into the Catalogue of Spanish Cultural Heritage.

If I’d had a wish, it would have been to visit this garden in the Spring, when the entire garden is bursting with flowers. Even now, with the trees showing signs that winter isn’t that far away, the garden is still beautiful and serene. The voices of the many tourists ambling around the various terraces are muted; here, you’re imbued with a reverence for the variety of nature and for the brave explorers who brought back seeds and seedlings for preservation.

The first terrace, nearest to the Paseo del Prado, is established like a romance-style garden, which has a variety of shrubs and small trees, protected by a wrought iron fence dating from 1786.

The second terrace is dedicated to ornamental, medicinal and aromatic plants arranged around fountains. You can still find, at this late date, the hardy dahlia in pinks and reds and purples and yellows, with all the colours in between. On the same level we found the fruit and vegetable gardens with carrot, lettuce, endive, squashes (including huge pumpkins), peppers and all sort of other vegetables that could feed a family at this time of year. The gardens here are watched over by a fantastic scarecrow.

The park is not only dedicated to beauty, style and research, but has continued its goal of educating people, especially school children, with a series of panels that explain the species, where they come from and what they are used for in their native land. It also has the oldest, living elm in the world, although it didn’t completely escape elm disease.

At the back of the garden, under the paseo that exhibits the bonsai, is the Villannueva Pavilion (seen above) fronted by a pond and one of the largest palm trees in Europe. As usual, the madrileňos love to mix art with nature: the pavilion is used for nature-related temporary exhibitions. The two artists showed currently both explored the continuity of plants and their ability to mix and grow in a milieu that is not necessarily theirs. With that same intent, panels point out the garden’s most emblematic trees, some of them having been planted in the 1800s. Additionally, as our own National Capital Arboretum does, every tree is labelled with its scientific and regular name. The garden also has a seed bank, an herbarium, and a library. It is a centre of research and public information as well as a delight to the eyes. For anyone who is a lover of nature but also has a curious — or even a scientific– mind, the Royal Botanical Garden is a delight.

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Parque el Retiro

Despite the warm weather here in Madrid –it’s been between 26C and 29C since we arrived– we’re starting to see signs of Fall: days are shorter, it’s cooler in the morning, and the trees are turning a gorgeous rust colour before they shed their leaves. It’s a gradual thing: the zillion of chestnut trees throughout the city are going first and the ground is pebbled with what a friend used to call “horse chestnut.”
So we thought it might be a good idea to visit the El Retiro park, 125 hectares of land behind the Prado museum, with over 15,000 trees. Parts of the park are manicured land, with fountains and flower beds, others are made up of grass surrounded by trimmed hedges and shaded by trees in a labyrinthine series of paths that could make you think you’re lost since the foliage almost completely hides traffic from the avenues just outside the park.
The park was originally designed in the 17th Century for the sole pleasure of the royal family, but Carlos III, considered the best mayor of Madrid, opened the park for all citizens. Today, it is a cherished place for madrilenos to picnic with the children and play.
At the park entrance stands the Puerte de Alcalá on the Plaza de la Independencia. The Puerte (which is really an arch, similar to the Arc the Triomphe in Paris) was erected by the same Carlos III and has become a monument that is as important to the citizens as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or the Liberty Statue in New York.
Near the main entrance, you find a large pond (estanque) where you can rent rowboats. At one end stands the monumental monument to Alfonso XII (who restored the Bourbon dynasty in 1875). South of the pond you can find the Crystal Palace (Palacio de cristal) and the Velazquez Palace, both built by Ricardo Velazquez Bosco, a Spanish architect who was partial to the use of glazed, brightly coloured ceramics, which we find on both structures. Both buildings are now used for museums temporary exhibitions. The Crystal Palace was built in 1851, in time for the great London Fair.
Another special feature of the park is a sculpture (centred above a fountain) called El Ángel Caído (the Fallen Angel), from Ricardo Bellven. It is thought to be the only sculpture in the world to depict Lucifer. It was unveiled in 1878.
Facing the Calle Alfonso XII is the Paseo Parterre, a well-maintained garden with flowers, fountains, and trimmed cypress trees.
We spent over 2 and a half hours in the park and there was a discovery with almost every step. The air is fresh and unpolluted, you can barely hear traffic and it’s ideal for a picnic or to rest from visits to the museums: the Prado and the Reina Sofía almost line the park.

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El Palacio Real

With such a grand place, you’d think that the current King, Felipe VI, would reserve a portion of it for him and his family. In fact, he is following the custom of many other Spanish kings before him and lives in the more modest Palacio de la Zarzuela on the outskirts of Madrid. The Patrimonio Nacional department of the Spanish State owns and administers the Royal Palace.
The palace has 7 stories and faces the Almudena Cathedral (Catedral de la Almudena), a controversial architecture both inside and outside, which mixes the truly elegant with the gaudy or the frightful) as well as the Plaza de Armas. Its late baroque style was inspired by Bernini, who designed part of St. Peter’s in Rome.

The construction is made of Colmenar white stone and marble for reliefs and details. One of the important inside structure is its great two-story stairway above which the ceiling is decorated roccoco style depicting allegorical scenes.
Some rooms were decorated by Tiépolo and Mengs. Walls show paintings of past royalty realized by Goya, el Bosco, Velázquez and Caravaggio. One of the rooms is decorated entirely of porcelain walls (a truly frightful room).
The queen’s rooms have been transformed into an immense dining room: the set table sitting fifty guests barely took half the room.
On the North side of the Plaza de Armas you find the Armoury, which has the largest collection of medieval armors in the world. In the center of the first room, life-size, there are 9 armored horses with their armored riders, complete with lances. You can also find child-sized armors. It became evident, as you moved through the exhibition, that they had to start early to be able to fight with several kilos of metal on their body. The collection is truly impressive and thrilling: what young girl has not dreamt of a knight on a white charger?
The Royal Palace was designed to be a showcase of the way the monarchy lived. I have not seen a lot of palaces here in Spain but it seems that they did love gilding everything around them. The architecture itself is elegant and sober; the furniture, walls, mirrors, candelabras, etc. could have used a little more restraint, but it’s still quite impressive. I’m looking forward seeing other churches and residences to compare to what I’ve seen so far.

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Madrid – First Impressions

We arrived in Madrid around 8am on Saturday last. Our flight was surprisingly smooth and fast: 6 hours Toronto-Madrid instead of seven. New plane, greater speed. I’m all for that.

Nevertheless, we were tired and rumpled when we arrived but so far from the customs officers on, people have been warm, smiling, tolerant of mistakes, and just plain nice. They smile and wait while we try to explain in broken Spanish and often come to our rescue when we falter.

The architecture around Gran Via, the first street we walked along the day we arrived, is like the locals: opened and expansive, with fancy touches added to it, or again dramatic like a flamenco dancer, vibrant and brave like a torero.

The plazas, both Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor are always busy; they are places for meeting one another and one can hear as much Spanish as any other languages. From each square radiate many old streets, full of cafes, souvenir shops and restaurants. The effect is charming rather than frantic, even if you know that most Madrilenos wouldn’t be caught in one of those.

Even though Madrid seems to cherish its heritage–after all it’s been the capital of Spain since the mid-1600s — it is also a modern city that has kept up with the times. I can’t wait to start exploring.

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Roaming in Palermo (Part Three)

Palermo’s Centro is not very big, maybe three square kilometers in all. Despite its size, it packs a lot of content. We’ve stayed there for a total of two months now and we feel we still haven’t seen half of what we could. It is, however, a bit embarrassing when you learn that one of the important churches in Palermo is right around the corner from where you’re staying (literally 3 minutes’ walk)… and you didn’t know. Continue reading

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Cefalu: La Rocca

castellobegFor some incomprehensible reason, my husband and I feel compelled to go up. We love to see things from above, to have a broad view of our surroundings. Maybe it comes from seeing so many monuments, great works of art on a grandiose scale that make us feel puny and insignificant and we want to recapture a sense of who we are in the world. Who knows. But we’ve been up and down many hills and set of stairs, from the dome of St Peter’s Basilica to the rocky ruins of Solunto. By far the most difficult climb we’ve done yet is the path onto La Rocca, the promontory that looms over the town of Cefalu and onto which Byzantine fortifications were once erected. Our goal was the Castello, at the very top, a climb of over 278 meter from sea level on mainly uneven, rocky terrain with barely any cover. Continue reading

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Solunto

bagheriastnOne of the things we’ve bemoaned in Sicily is that, outside Palermo, they don’t make it easy for tourists to see their treasures. The major ones are well advertised in guide books but, unless you are with a guided tour or you have a car, it can be extremely difficult to visit them. The public transit systems are efficient but difficult to figure out, many websites are either outdated, nonexistent or in Italian only, and even the provincial or city websites are incomplete or inscrutable. If you are long-stay travellers like us (one month or more), which means that the cost of renting a car becomes prohibitive, then there are gorgeous places that are extremely difficult to get to.

Unless you’re very motivated, which was the case for us and Solunto.

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Monreale Revisited

concaThere were two sites we wanted to revisit from our trip last year, and one of them was Monreale. Last year, we had wanted to get there on our own steam and ended up wasting so much time that we had very little left to look at the church, and none at all to walk the town. To add insult to injury, there were so many people and tour groups, the church resembled more a circus -and a loud one at that- than a place of repose and reflection. The grandiose aspects of the cathedral seemed completely lost on most people there, who were more intent on taking pictures for later than taking in the atmosphere, the artistry, the celebration of art and God. Continue reading

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Roaming in Palermo (Part Two)

There are so many fantastic places to discover in Palermo, one post wasn’t enough. In fact, two might not be enough. Every time we purposely get lost in the city, we discover other marvels. Here are some others: Continue reading

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Roaming in Palermo (Part One)

Palermob-wVisiting the major sites in any new city is always exciting and often awe-inspiring. We love to feel the weight of time, of tradition, of history. However, if you have time it’s good to give your brain -if not your feet- a rest and just explore the streets. There’s a surprise at every corner: a piece of architecture, a museum, a pretty balcony, a crusty old man and his dog. Over the past three weeks, we’ve enjoyed many of these days. It was a journey of discovery, not always successful but, in its way, enlightening, surprising, often delightful. This is a compendium of our several days of roaming around the city of Palermo.
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Villa Romana del Casale

Etna-sudAfter a three-day stint oceanside, we decided to return to Palermo by going through the island and stopping at one of the most impressive Antiquity sites of Sicily, the Villa Romana del Casale. We took the A18 south to Catania then the A19 west toward Palermo. As we turned west, the Etna showed itself again, maybe as a wink goodbye. The day was clearer and you could see furmeroles being lazily taken by the wind and merged with the clouds. Continue reading

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Messina and Capo Peloro

After our two days in Giardini-Naxos, and visiting the heights of the countryside with Taormina and Castelmola, we decided to stay at sea level and go around the most northeastern part of the island, the spit of land beyond Messina that straddles both the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian Sea and stares at the rest of Italy.

messinastraitIt is where you find the Strait of Messina, Strittu di Missina in Sicilian, the narrow passage between the eastern tip of Sicily (Punta del Faro or Capo Peloro) and the western end of Italy in Calabria. Continue reading

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