Half an hour of train and we found ourselves in Aranjuez, one of the sites the Spanish royalty liked to summer in. Going there, I expected the usual: a castle or palace at the top of a hill surrounded by houses tripping down to the flats.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sure, there is a town on top of a hill with houses running down each side of it. What it doesn’t have, is a castle at the top. The Aranjuez Palace is at the bottom, a ten-minute walk from the train station. There are several reasons for that. It wasn’t built in times of war therefore didn’t need to be defended. The palace was initially built as a hunting lodge and was far less impressive than it is now. Then Philip II moved the capital city from Toledo to Madrid and he needed a place to escape the heat in summer. But it’s only after it was almost destroyed by fire in 1748 that the king hired the great architect Francesco Sabatini to rebuild and enlarge. Thus we now have a main building flanked by two wing that form a “u”, surrounding in part a great plaza. Another reason for the situation of the palace was that later on, Isabel II had the train from Madrid stop at her door, something she couldn’t have done up on a hill.

The interior, including the main staircase, can only be qualified as grandiose. Silk wallpaper or rare Dutch tapestries cover the walls, damask and embroidered tulle or velvet and satin cover windows and seats, the furniture is gilded, the ceilings sport frescoes with allegorical or religious stories with the recurring theme of the monarchy’s good government, and marble floors designed by the best Italian architects.

One room is entirely covered with rococo-style porcelain from the Royal Porcelain Factory of Buen Retiro that Philip II had brought back from Italy. Even the walls are covered with porcelain plaques screwed into beams at the back. The room as a Chinese theme as was the fashion of the time and took its creator Giuseppe Gricci from 1763 to 1765 to create. Even the candelabra is porcelain: it is shaped as a palm tree under which there is a “Chinaman” with a fan and a monkey on his shoulder.

Another room of note is the Mozarab-style room decorated with muqarnas similar to those of the great Alhambra. Instead of the usual mosaics, it was created with plaster and painted. The effect is somewhat dizzying, as every inch of wall is covered with decorations in the Arabic style. It was the only place in the palace where men could smoke.

Isabel II, the last queen of Spain, put her stamp on mainly every room in the palace. Most of the rooms have been preserved as they were in her time.

If you go to Aranjuez, a visit to the gardens is a must. They surround the palace and the city has encroached on some of the 750 acres of gardens that are now maintained by the historical branch of the Spanish government. The grounds teem with working fountains (although they stop working after one o’clock to start again later in the day). Grand, straight alleys made for horseback riding are flanked with immense plantain trees, some as tall as 120 feet (38 meters) and more than 200 years old. As you walk away from the palace and deeper into the gardens, deep silence is broken only by the sound of the Tagus river flowing, the wind stirring the leaves and the chirping of birds.

I have always been fascinated by Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. The music tries to transport you to another place and another time. Rodrigo said that his music tries to capture “the scent of magnolias, the singing of birds and the water sounds of the fountains” of the Aranjuez gardens. They are truly an instrument of inspiration.

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National Archaeology Museum

Lodged in an imposing Palace that took 30 years to build, the Madrid Archeological Museum is a marvel of contemporary architecture inside, contrasting with the artifacts it shows. The cases holding the unbelievably old pieces — some as old as 5-8 millions years old– are well-lighted and informative, the arrangements of artifacts is pleasing to the eye and dust-free, and the progression from room to room is smooth and logical. The museum has virtual reality stations dotted throughout its time periods, giving the visitor an idea of how people lived during a particular era. It also has tactile stations for the visually impaired –and the curious– to get an idea of what the artifacts “looked” like to the touch.

The museum was founded in 1867 by Queen Isabel II of Spain, to represent Spanish history from prehistory to today. The museum offers a panorama of all the ancient civilizations that, at one point, lived in the country. Almost all empires, from the Punic to the Norman and beyond have conquered Spain and lived in its varied regions.

The visit begins with prehistory where there are truly amazing pieces, including skulls and bones of pre- Homo Erectus. What surprised me was that, as soon as the early people were confident they could survive, they began to make art, drawing on tools, making toys, painting caves. This happened way before a religion was established. The need for expression has been a force from our own beginnings.

Moving on through time, the museum has an impressive collection of Roman mosaics, extracted from Roman villas established in Spain, sculptures such as the luminous Dama de Elche or the superb statue of the Roman Empress Livia, a magnificent crown from the Visigoth treasure of Guarrazar, perfect examples of Mozarabic and Arabic sculpting techniques shown in ivories, inlays,arches, windows and ceilings, all installed in the museum itself.

The museum is a delight that seemingly never ends. It’s also fairly empty of visitors, which is a shame in a way but does let you take your time. I would carve out a good two hours if you want to visit. It is, by far, the best museum I’ve ever seen. It’s a must.

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Sorolla Museum

For our first outing in Madrid, we optedto go see the Sorolla Museum, somewhat out of the beaten trail. Having admired one of Sorolla’s painting at the Prado last year, we wanted more.The museum did not disappoint.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida was a celebrated Spanish painter of the twentieth century. His luminous paintings, many in large formats, are a delight for the eye. His mastery of light, of the vibrant colors under the sharp Spanish sun, is unequalled. You want to touch the slky skin of a nude shoulder, the satiny smoothness of bedsheets, or rub between your fingers a muslin scarf floating in the wind.

Sorolla, thought his art, is also a chronicler of his time. He paints the hard life of people in Spain, be they fisherwomen, immigrants, or beggars. He depicts the richness of local costumes,the indolence of a hot summer afternoon, or the innocent pleasure of naked children playing on the beach. (For a view of some of his paintings, click here. He found his family –wife, daughters and son– and endless source of inspiration; his depictions of normal family life are full of great affection and respect.

Once you’ve admired Sorolla’s paintings and the many objects he accumulated throughout his life, you can walk through the charming miniature gardens fronting his house, an oasis of calm in a bustling corner of Madrid. Sorolla designed them himself and took pleasure in painting parts of them at the end of his life.

Sorolla was prolific and enjoyed an immense reputation, both in Europe and the United States. At the top of his career, he had an exhibition of 550 of his works in Paris; the country was so enamored with his art that he was awarded the Legion of Honor. He received similar kudos when he showed 336 of his paintings in New York.

The museum is situated in the painter’s house and studio where he stayed in the last days of his life. Clotilde,his wife, donated the house and its contents to the Spanish government on the condition that it would be transformed into a museum dedicated to her husband’s works. It assembles the best collection of his works, including many paintings of the love of his life, his wife Clotilde and his children Maria, Elena and Joaquin.

We returned home with the white Spanish light in our eyes and a wonder that remains still.

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While shopping for a Talavera plate to add to our collection, the owner of the shop recommended the town of Segovia to us. We wanted to do something for our last week in Spain and follow his advice. It’s a more convoluted trip than the one for Toledo: suburban train to the north train station, Chamartín, 30 minutes Very Fast Train to the Segovia train station, twenty minutes local bus to the first plaza, the Plaza del Aqueducto.

And there it is. The 2000-years old Roman aqueduct transects the square that marks the beginning of the old town. Build at the beginning of the 2nd Century BC, it was used as the main source of water in Segovia until late in the nineteenth century. It originated in the Guadamarra mountains and spanned over 16 kilometers. It has 167 arches. It is a masterpiece of hydraulic engineering: the stone are not joined by cement or mortar. Yet it still stands today. It is breathtaking and takes over everything around it. You can’t see anything but this majestic structure.

We were short on time and, like in Toledo, could see only the most important sites. Armed with a map, we directed our feet towards the other side of town, a mere 20 minutes walk to visit the Alcázar (citadel). Hidden behind gates and a wonderful garden, we couldn’t see it until we were fairly close to it. What a delight! It looks like a Walt Disney castle with towers and turrets and a moat. The difference was that it was a “working” citadel and palace until the late 19th Century. Built in the 11th Century, it was a royal residence in the Middle Ages. As time and need went, the residents added rooms and towers. It became a state prison in the 18th Century. In 1882, large parts of it were consumed by fire. It was reconstructed between 1882 and 1896.

Having visited citadels and castles before (some Scottish ones come to mind) we expected little: a few miserly tapestries, a couple of swords if we were lucky, and pervasive dampness. We were in for a great surprise. The castle reconstruction was faithful to its original in a lot of ways. The added rooms were restored with azulejos (painted tiles), stained glass windows, rich tapestries to ward off the cold and damp, masterful paintings, and dazzling ceilings, six in total, the next more impressive than the last.

We also climbed the 156 steps of the tower, which gave us views of the Cathedral (our next stop) rising above the rooftops around it, as well as the countryside. Maybe due to the season or the abnormally dry weather, the country appeared seared, a moon-like terrain of grey dust. Still, I would like to see the fields in June, when everything is new and green. We’ve been in Madrid and the surrounding areas for almost 40 days and we had one day of rain. One wonders.

After a very satisfying visit to the Alcázar, we went back up the hill to the Plaza Mayor and the Cathedral. Its exterior is, to my mind, more appealing than the cathedral in Toledo, although it is less massive. Construction began in 1525 and was completed in 1768. Its stained glass windows are Flemish, with all the beautiful reds and blues and yellows that were produced at the time. In the centre is a large, gated choir that still has its stalls and is dominated by two massive 18th Century Baroque organs.

The walls and apse are lined with twenty chapels, and in almost all of them you find the immense altarpieces the Spanish seem to love so much. They’re mostly carved in oak or pine, a smorgasbord of gilded curves, filigrees, niches, and crosses, obscure paintings up to the roof of the chapel and plaster renderings of Jesus, Mary, angels, saints, and bishops, it’s a jaw-dropping mix.

After the elegant Basilicas of Rome, the majestic chapels and the starkly beautiful Oratories of Palermo, or the art deco paintings of Prague’s Vysherad, I can’t understand gilding everything. Instead of leading me to search for the divine in the elevated art dedicated to uplifting, if not my faith, at least my unbound admiration, I have to blink to tamp down on the glitter. Of course, I’m a total ignoramus when it comes to Spanish religious art and I probably sound like one. All I can say is that walking into those two churches was quite an experience.

And we didn’t have more time, although there is much more to see in Segovia than those three monuments. I’d like to come back one day and visit it properly. In terms of town, Segovia is much smaller than Toledo and more straightforward – they actually have straight streets. Not many, grant you, but some. Not the case for Toledo.

I can’t decide which town I liked best. They both have their charm, and are equally impressive. All I can say if that visiting one doesn’t mean you’ve seen the other. There may be some similarities but that’s all they are. What the heck. If we come back, we’ll have to do both again (and those who know me know it’s a distinct possibility).

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Although there’s still many things to see and do in Madrid, we decided to go further afield to Toledo. The trip is only 30 minutes by a fast train and the town is an easy twenty minutes walk – if you count going uphill easy.

Like most medieval town, Toledo was built on a steep hill that gave its citizens a surrounding view of the countryside and the Tagus River below, and guarded against invasions. Toledo, like many old European cities, was influenced by three cultures: Christians, Muslims and Jews, although you can also find remnants of the Romans and the Visigoths, who also resided on that hill, throughout the town. Once the Romans were installed, it was taken over by the Visigoth, and conquered by the Moors in 711 AD. To this day, Roman wells, baths and pipes are still used in the town and Mujédan (Muslims who did not convert to Catholicism and still lived within the walls) architecture is visible in many of the churches and synagogues.

Toledo was the capital of Spain until it was moved to Madrid. In the 17th Century, Toledo was a centre for literacy and writing and many illustrious citizens had their libraries there. After Alfonso VI of Castile conquered it from the Moors, Toledo remained a centre for learning and culture. Many members of the Jewish and Muslim communities translated texts for the Spanish from their own language into Castilian, which meant that all the knowledge contained in the Toledo libraries was made available to the Europe of the time. The painter El Greco was born and died there.

Toledo’s history is extensive and colourful, and the result is a labyrinthine city punctuated with Gothic churches, Jewish synagogues and many museums, convents and monasteries.

One of the most resplendent of these monuments is the Cathedral in the centre of town, rising above the rooftops surrounding it. It was built on the site of a 7th Century Visigoth church and the city Synagogue, and one of the reasons for its strange shape (a cross with many sprawling chapels sprouting from it). It took almost 300 years to build, and certainly spanned three centuries: the construction began in 1226 and was completed in 1493. Because of that span in time, many architectural styles fight for supremacy. The exterior is French Gothic while Gothic, Mujédar and Baroque styles adorn the interior.

I have never seen such a church before (you’ll have to excuse the superlatives that will follow). Purported to be the largest in Europe and the Spanish “opus magnum,”, it goes on forever in all directions. It measures 120 metres (390 ft) long by 59 metres (146 ft) wide. There are at least four massive organs some of their pipes jutting horizontally and forward as if to mimic the trumpets the angels used to warn of the sacred as they descended to Earth. At the centre of the church are two imposing “rooms” facing each other. They are each encased in a magnificent screen of stone, which act as gates.

In one, the Chapel of the Sepulchre has a monumental, five-storey high “reredos” (an altarpiece behind the altar that sits on the floor and rises toward the ceiling.) It is an extremely florid, gilded, piece that recounts, in vivid colours in separate niches, the life of Christ. All around are delicate filigrees of balusters, spires, and other things I don’t know the name of, by Joan Peti. This masterwork of five continuous panels took 17 years to create and required the cooperation of architects, gilding masters, sculptors and painters.

In the other “room” is the Choir, if not as impressive as the chapel, at least of jaw-dropping complexity. Carved saints line three sides of the choir above the benches for the singing monks. Every seat has a different wooden sculpted underseat and the armrests are also carved from a nearly-black wood.

Outside the Chapel at the back of the reredos, and strikingly different with its Baroque ornamentation, is an altarpiece by Narciso Tomé. Opposite it and in the dome you find an oculus with saints and angels looking down on the sculpture.

In the Sacristy are other treasures: fifteen paintings by El Greco, including one of his last, The Assumption, painted in 1613 and still in its original altarpiece.

We spent so much time in the Cathedral, we barely had time to see anything else. We got lost –and found, and lost again– among the streets, alleys and lanes that could barely fit a donkey and often ended in stairs. For some reason, we always ended going up them rather than down. We did find a local restaurant serving delicious tapas away from the tourist throng. I guess there are advantages to getting lost.

If we ever come back to Spain we intend to visit Toledo again to steep in the Medieval atmosphere and to marvel at the geniuses of the time who were able to create such magnificence.

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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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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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