Monday, October 17, 2016

Spain 101, Part One: Entry

Here's the way I figured it: In September, I'd be promoting my Michael Bloomfield book (you do have your copy, right?). Come late October, and going into November, I'd be hard at work promoting my first new book in 33 years, The History of Rock & Roll Part 1. There would be a gap, and in that gap airfares would fall. I was getting mighty sick of America, between the horrific election, the lack of civility in everyday society, and all the rest of the stuff I don't have to tell you about. Google Flights informed me that I could afford a round-trip ticket to Barcelona, which seemed, as always, to be a great place to shake off the jetlag. But I've spent a lot of time there, and I have, since my visit to Girona this spring, developed an inexplicable fascination for that part of Spanish history where Spaniards (whoever they may have been in any given area of the Iberian Peninsula), Jews, and "Arabs" (more properly Maghrebis, since they, like most of the Jews, were from Northern Africa) lived together, not always peaceably, but... Of course, it ended in 1492, when Spain kicked out all of its scientists, physicians, mathematicians, philosophers and businessmen (ie, Arabs and Jews) and descended into 350 years of being a peasant society under the heel of the Inquisition.

Thus, I decided to read up on this history and go visit some of it. Lest the trip be too medieval, I also planned to stop in Madrid, a city that went up mostly in the late 19th and 20th centuries, to see the Prado and visit someone I knew there. After that, it would be a short train ride to Toledo, which has a fascinating history of the three-culture society, then back through Madrid to Valencia, up the coast to Tarragona, and back to Barcelona for a good rest before getting back on the plane. I had about two weeks to squeeze this in, and let me tell you in front, that wasn't enough in some of these places. Also, I've missed a couple of important sites, most notably Grenada, where the Arabs held on right up to the Expulsion. I mapped it all out carefully, chose some good looking hotels, and bought a Renfe Spain Pass, which entitled me to five trips on the Ave, the Spanish national railroad's high-speed network.

Pro tip: Do not buy a Spain Pass. Allegedly, Renfe lets you print out your tickets. In practice, negotiating their website is about as difficult as it can be, as we'll see. Renfe has now displaced '90s-era Deutsche Telekom as the worst-managed public utility in Europe in my mind.

Another pro tip: Wherever you may be travelling, if you use the Rough Guide series, there'll be a Kindle edition of it on Amazon. I bought the Spanish edition, and loaded it onto my iPad, and it was an unexpected joy: hot links everywhere to museum websites, local tourist info offices, and the like, as well as excellent maps which you tap twice and they blow up bigger than they are in the paper book itself. Highest recommendations.

Okay, I'm packed. Let's get outta here.

* * *

There's not much of Tourist Barcelona I haven't seen, but I do have a strong affection for the city, and love to start off my trips there. There were two museums I'd neglected, and they gave me an excuse to leave the hotel to do something besides eat. One was the MACBA, the Barcelona contemprorary art museum. Greil Marcus had just been there and seen a show dedicated to punk, which would be interesting because punk hit Spain very shortly after Franco was deposed, and my guess was that they'd have a very different take on it. I walked down there to discover that the show had closed on Sunday, and today was Thursday. Dang. But it was a lovely building, and what else was I going to do? Turns out the answer was not stay for very long: the ground floor was filled with an insufferable one-woman show by an artist whose work is criticism of the art world. I knew this kind of stuff existed, because a woman I know in Germany does it, but wall after wall of documents and videos of this woman complaining about minutiae can only be of deep interest to people deeply involved in it, which isn't me. Upstairs, the permanent collection also seemed to focus on conceptual and text-heavy work, never my thing. The one room I found fascinating, though, was a large one concerned with the Downtown New York scene of the 1970s, with a video by Vito Acconci, another by Gordon Matta-Clark, and, on a full wall, a documentation (perversely attributed to the woman who'd filmed it) of a Trisha Brown dance performance. I'd read a great deal about her, but of course never seen her in her prime. The word that fits is "furious." Not angry, just a phenomenal amount of energy channelled directly into the movement. It made the entire visit to the museum worthwhile. 

I spent some time getting sort of lost in the surrounding neighborhood, relishing the street art and other weirdness before heading back to the tapas bar next to my hotel for a late lunch. 

Yes, this is an actual restaurant in Barcelona. 
No idea who this artist is, but they're all over town
Actual Barcelona bar. My kind of clinic, although who knows if it's my kind of bar
And so, armed with a ticket I'd printed out at home, I bravely walked, with my luggage, to Barcelona Sants station and boarded an Ave to Madrid. 

* * *

Jetlag is a nasty companion, so I dozed and missed some of the scenery between Barcelona and Madrid. I use the word advisedly: most of it isn't "scenery" at all, but, rather, sere brownness occasionally interrupted by what could only be called mesas, like in the American West, weird rounded hills with flat tops, made from sedimentary rock. Really bleak, really odd. But the train was on time, a cabbie whisked me to my hotel (an actual palace at one time, but Spain's so full of minor royalty a "palace" isn't quite as grand as it sounds), I checked in, and then went into the neighboring square for a late lunch. After that, I wandered around the vicinity for a while and tried to get a vibe. Back at the hotel, I contacted Miguel, my acquaintance there, and we made a dinner date. He's been living in Madrid for some time, so he knows the city, and later that evening (it's true: Madrileños eat late) we walked through some crowded plazas and down some streets and came to a seafood joint he likes. I never found out the name and have no idea where it was, but most of what we had was prepared the same way: broiled, doused with olive oil, sprinkled with paprika. This allowed the baby scallops, razor clams, and sardines to show off how fresh and perfectly cooked they were. Fine with me!

Sunday was devoted to the Prado. Now, what could I possibly say about the Prado, right? Well, here's one thing: in 2013, José Luis Várez Fisa and his family were kind enough to drop a nice collection of Spanish art from the 13th to the second decade of the 16th centuries on the museum, who stuck it in a fine set of galleries in the basement, which, if you enter the museum the way I did, can be the first thing you see. Since this is my favorite period of art history until you get to the 20th century, it made the visit totally worthwhile before I'd even gone anywhere. There was a bit more upstairs, but man, the ceiling they'd lifted from a church in León, painted with heraldic designs, Bible stories, myths, and a veritable 14th century kitchen sink of images made my day. 

Upstairs, the museum most people go to see begins, and I dutifully walked it, dodging tour groups, as one does, and hoping to see something that would catch my interest beyond what I already knew would do so. Thanks to Robert Hughes' magnificent book on Goya, I had a newfound appreciation for Velásquez, and thanks to the way the Prado is organized, I noted that Velásquez, Zurbarán, and a guy named Cano with whom I hadn't been familiar, all flourished at the same time. I'm very much into Zurbarán, and although I lucked into a clutch of his work many years ago in Castellón, the Prado has, predictably, loads of great ones. In fact, I got so numb wandering through gallery after gallery that I missed his still life with a cardoon, which was a kind of fuck you to the dominant still-life style of the day with its white streak of cardoon stalk sweeping across the picture as if to say "Oh, yeah? Watch this!" But basically, as time goes on and the 17th century goes into the 18th and 19th, my eyes glaze over. 

What saved the rest of the day was, of course, Bosch (whom the Spanish call "El Bosco," summoning up memories for those of a certain age of after-school chocolate milk), with the definitive collection of his work, and Goya. The Bosch room isn't big because it turns out his work isn't that big. It did have one work I'd totally forgotten about, a round tabletop depicting the seven deadly sins (and you can bet he did a great job of that), as well as the under-known masterpiece "The Haywain." And, of course, the tryptich of "The Garden of Earthly Delights," that enigmatic explosion of weirdness. There was an awful piece of bloviation about it in the New York Review of Books this year that added nothing to the world's knowledge of the painting except to note that in the very right-hand corner of the central panel, there's a little guy apparently giving a blowjob to another little guy, the only explicit sex act I could find in the painting, although there's some ambiguous male-female action and other weirder maybe-sexual stuff going on. I saw a great show in Rotterdam years ago, where just about everything but the Prado stuff was included, and it made a great case for some of the imagery in the "Garden" coming from pilgrim's badges, the tin souvenirs pilgrims to Santiago and other places bought to show where they'd been and pinned to their cloaks. But the great news is that the Prado has this thing close enough to stand and gaze at, and I did, for a long while. 

Goya, with Hughes' writing still in my mind (it was the last book I read before leaving), was great. It was interesting to note how small the two Maja paintings were (and Hughes is right: her head's on wrong! Not that I was noticing when I first saw a reproduction as a kid), and thrilling to stand in front of his revolutionary paintings, and the "black" paintings that he did on the walls of his house in his last years, which Hughes doesn't reproduce all of, for obvious reasons. (I also, like many people, really loved the painting Hughes calls "Head of a Dog" and wonder why the Prado decided to call it "Drowning Dog." It may be Goya, but not everything in his life at this point was dark and gloomy.)

A day in the Prado can -- and did -- exhaust one, so I limped home knowing both that I'd be back (hell, big museums don't faze me: I used to work in the Metropolitan!) and that I'd had a very full day. Miguel suggested a secret restaurant in another corner of town called Asturianos, where Madrid's top chefs enjoy authentic cuisine from Asturias prepared by an old woman and her two sons and is, as far as I can tell, nearly perfect. I didn't much like the ultra-dry sherry we were served initially -- it seemed to have a chemical taste I couldn't shake -- but the sardines, beef cheeks and sausage-and-bean stew that came later hit the spot decisively. 

One more day, two more museums, which, if I hadn't gotten lost, wouldn't have been enough to fill a day. Okay, to be honest, the Reina Sofia has a great collection of early 20th century stuff, and if you want Cubism, well, the Spanish sort of co-invented that. My disappointment was 100% not being in the mood, so I'll have to go back when I know what I'm getting into. Down at the other end of the big street connecting the Reina Sofia and the Prado is the Thyssen-Bornemizsa Museum.  I was lucky: Monday Master Card underwrites free admission for all, with the caveat that the museum closes at 4. The collection here is the result of a Hungarian billionaire with a taste for art marrying a former Miss Spain who likewise had a passion for collecting. What's wrong with the museum, I figured out when I snapped that the color coding of the captions indicated whose collection was whose, is that it was a case of unlimited funds and limited appreciation of what they were buying. There are hundreds of paintings in this museum, a couple dozen of which, at the most, are worth your while. With that much cash to sling around, you kind of have to get lucky occasionally. 

Hey, Baroness T-B: I think the kid's in on the joke
The acquisition was handled like a grocery-shopping trip: "Hey, we need Canalettos! Get some Canalettos!" And they did. There's a good reason why you've likely never heard of most of the painters here, as you'll see. Only just as they were about to close did I find a piece of the Baroness's collection when she began dipping her toe into contemporary art, with some decent pieces including two huge Richard Estes photo-realistic canvases -- hopelessly un-hip in the current market, but I thought they were pretty arresting. But, not wanting to get arrested any further, I allowed myself to be shooed out. 

Dinner that night was an amazing "tapas" restaurant. I put the quotes in there because the portions were so huge. The oxtail stew alone was worth the trip. I'm not naming the place, though, because a guy who looked like Gary Busey walked up to us (Miguel had invited his chef friend Pepe along, and I was describing Cajun food) and noted as how he never heard American accents. Turned out he was from Dallas and owned the building and there were four floors and a rooftop terrace devoted to a private club above the restarant. The view from the roof was amazing (and would have been more amazing had I known more about what I was looking at) but I found the denizens, including our host, just a bit creepy. We finally got loose of him and said good night. Tomorrow, I'd leave for Toledo, and looking at a map, I noticed that the taxi driver who'd take me to the hotel had "gone through the park," as we say in New York. But the short walk to the station on a morning that promised a fine day was a great adios to Madrid. 

Retail in the 'Hood I
Retail in the 'Hood II
Permanent residents of the Madrid train station gathering to say good-bye

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