On a slow Monday in Madrid

There is little to do in Madrid on a Monday. Most museums are closed. The main exception is the Reine Sofia, but The Family and I had been there a couple of Mondays back. So I crashed a film shoot (see the featured photo).

I walked about aimlessly. From the Opera I walked the length of the pedestrian Calle Arenal to the Puerta del Sol, where a gay pride banner was being set up. Then I ducked into the Corte Ingles at the corner to buy a bottle of wine and some olive oil. I walked to the head of the Gran Via, and then on to Plaza de Espana. It was a pleasant morning. Last night’s rain had cooled things down.

At the plaza there was a crowd of Japanese tourists, and I was surprised to find them posing with someone who looked Spanish. Other passers-by had also stopped to gawk. I saw the microphone and camera and realized that this was a film shoot. The actresses spoke in English. I sent the photos to my nieces, and since none of them could recognize the actresses, I guess they must be Spanish. Can anyone recognize them?

That broke the monotony. I walked on to the Royal Palace and back to the Opera to find a place for a small drink and a tapa instead of lunch.

El Greco City

The choir of the cathedral of Toledo looked so much like something out of Harry Potter that I had to sit down to recover. I’d decided to make a day trip to Toledo from Madrid largely to see the city that El Greco made his own. My first introduction to El Greco, decades back, came in the form of a large format book where each plate seemed to have a picture of Toledo in the background. Not only does Toledo loom large in El Greco’s paintings, I found that El Greco looms large in Toledo’ history.

El Greco, The Disrobing of Christ, Cathedral of Toledo

The Cathedral of Toledo has a room full of paintings by El Greco. It is dominated by this painting of the disrobing of Christ before his crucifixion. The figures are the typically elongated ones that one expects in the middle and late period of El Greco’s paintings. There’s also the wonderful colours of cloth that are such a signature of his style. There’s so much to see in the Cathedral of Toledo that I did not grudge the 10 Euro ticket. The free audio-guide that you get with it actually made the trip very much more enjoyable. I found that it nudged me to see much more than I would have seen otherwise. I spent a full two hours in the cathedral, perhaps twice as long as I would have without this wonderful guide.

El Greco, Burial of the Count of Orgaz,

On the other hand, I did feel a twinge when the Church of San Tome charged me nearly 3 Euros to see the single painting by El Greco that they have. Its the magnificent painting called the Burial of The Count of Orgaz. El Greco painted this for his parish church, and my final charitable thought was that this could be thought of as a bequest by the painter. I wish though that they let you photograph the painting. Since they don’t, and I took one photo before I was told, I converted it to monochrome before posting it. In the roughly twenty minutes that I spent here, the crowds tripled. The church does well from this bequest. Did you notice that there is exactly one woman in the painting?

El Greco, Saint Bernardine of Sienna, El Greco Museum, Toledo

Nearby is the Museo El Greco. It is housed in an old Jewish house which was mistakenly thought to be one which he lived in. Nevertheless, the museum is worth visiting, because if the wonderful collection of about twenty original El Grecos that you can get to see. One of my favourites is this commissioned altarpiece designed and painted by the Greek, called Saint Bernardine of Sienna. This is one of his last finished paintings. You can see the extreme elongation of the figure here. Also notice that Toledo is worked into the bottom of the painting.

El Greco, View of Toledo, Mueseo El Greco, Toledo

I’ll end this post with a wonderful picture by El Greco of his city, Toledo. This alone would make the Museo El Greco worth visiting. Given the nearly twenty paintings by the master collected here, I would not mind paying as much as the entrance to the cathedral. The fact that entrance was free on Sunday was a bonus.

Looking for something to drink in Spain?

Soon after the late breakfast coffee is finished, people in Spain seem to begin to look for something to drink. In this season the heat begins to sap your energy already by noon. So a glass of Sangria is never unwelcome. There are as many recipes for Sangria as there are bartenders, so apart from the constant red wine and sour fruits, the proportion of triple sec, brandy and sugar vary widely. The Family had a large variety ranging from a nice bitter pre-lunch drink to a sweetish late-afternoon cooler. I tried the Tinto de Verano a couple of times. It is similar to the Sangria but seems not to have the sugar.

Late in the trip I discovered Cava. When you walk into a restaurant and they offer you a free glass of Cava, it is hard to refuse. Later, as I contemplated whether to ask for a glass of red wine, a waiter came by saying the bottle of Cava had to be finished. Again, an offer hard to refuse. Dry sparkling Champagne-like wines are not my favourite accompaniment to food, but the Spanish weather makes them more acceptable.

In a trip through Spain you will have to make a special effort if you want to miss sherries. I had an fresh tasting Manzanilla while watching the afternoon sun baking the walls of the Alhambra. In less exotic surroundings I tried out a nuttier Amontillado. I did put in an effort to avoid this and try the regular wines instead.

My trusty fall-back was the Vino Tinto, typically a Rioja or a Ribero del Duero. The ones I liked best used the grape known as Tempranillo (aka Tinto Fino), often mixed with small amounts of other varieties. A few places had Riojas made with Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz (Syrah), which also turned out to be interesting and worth trying. I was pleasantly surprised by Granada wines. They have recently been awarded the Designation of Origin (DO) status which protects their special local character. My exposure to Spanish wine is less than two weeks old. It has been a wonderful learning experience.

Interestingly beer is a common drink in Spain. It seems that Spain is the forth largest producer of beer in Europe. I found this surprising, given the deep roots wine has in the culture. The beer of Spain is light, and had in small quantities. I ordered my first beer on a blazing afternoon in Seville, and it came in a small 20 cl glass. San Miguel 1516 is a common brand, bitter and light. I was told to try the Alhambra 1925. It is very individual, and a little heavier. The bottle is very distinctive, as you can see from the featured photo.

I wish I had found good teas in Spain. There are many tisanes, but I love aromatic black teas. This is not a Spanish drink. I’m sure there’s much more to find. I cannot possibly have explored every drink in such a vast country within two weeks.

Beat the Heat

Spain can be hot. In the heart of Andalucia, in Seville and Granada, we regularly found that the maximum temperature during the day would pass 40 Celcius. This is hotter than Mumbai. The dry heat approaches the weather of Delhi.

However, Spain has found wonderful little ways of cooling off. We especially liked the covered street that you can see in the featured photo. The temporary screens shade the street from the hot sun, and allow people to walk about the street without getting hot under the collar.

"Why can’t we do this in India?" asked The Family when she saw this wonderful temporary structure. I couldn’t agree more. Notice the flowers on the lamp posts? Not only do they look good, they also hold water which drips down to cool the streets.

The rooftops of Granada

Few people mention the wonderful views of Granada which you get from the hilltop fortress of Alhambra. The city of Granada is surrounded by mountains, which is the reason for the fanciful name. Someone thought it looks like the crown on top of a pomegranate, called granada in Spanish. The picturesque town nestles in a large and fertile valley between them.

The medieval part of the town is called the Albaycin. We climbed through the twisty maze of little streets in this area. Behind high walls you can see gardens. We found that this kind of single house surrounded by a walled garden is called a carmen. It was hard to get a good view of these from the narrow streets. Closer to the river the houses ran into each other.

This ancient Moorish quarter is visible better from the Alhambra. The river Darro separates the Albaycin from the Alhambra. Since there was a medieval city, a Medina, within the fortress, I wonder whether there was an easily understandable difference between those who lived in the Medina and those in the Albaycin. In any case, the white walls, red-tiled patios and the fired clay tiles on the roofs of the houses in the Albaycin look immensely picturesque when viewed from the Alhambra.

Green, How I Want You Green

Federico Garcia Lorca is one of the most famous poets of Spain. The title of this post is the opening line of one of his most famous poems. The poem was written in 1928, eight years before he was murdered by the right-wing rebel forces of General Franco.

A visit to Garcia Lorca’s house in Valderrubio, a little outside of Granada, is worth doing, if you are interested in this charismatic poet. The featured photo is of the living room in this museum house. Romance Sonambulo, the collection of poems from which the title is taken was written while he lived in this house. It is recorded that he often wrote at this table. So it is possible that some of the lines of this remarkable poem were written here.

The house originally belonged to his father, who moved here from the neighbouring village of Fuentes Vacqueras when Federico was six. It is an old style house, with thick walls that keep the inside cool even during a hot summer like this year’s. It is still painted a traditional white, with green doors and windows.

Today it is a quiet and peaceful place. I wonder whether it was as peaceful in those days when the radio was putting out news of a country in turmoil.

Puzzle mania

In Spain we tried to stray off the beaten path whenever we could. This meant that we would often get lost and tired. The hot sun would force us into a small and forgotten bar now and then. These places are either wonderful or terribly dispiriting. The featured photo shows two barflies nursing their drinks in the middle of a hot afternoon. It would seem we had wandered into a bar of lost souls.

Not exactly. Outside the bar were a couple of retirees engrossed in books of puzzles. On the metro we had seen a couple of other people equally deeply into puzzles, and wondered what they could be. They did not look like Sudoku or crosswords. At the cafe we discovered what they could be. The sachets of sugar we got with our coffee had these two puzzles on them. Presumably the old people we saw were trying to solve bigger versions of these puzzles.

I shoulder-surfed one of them as we left. He was solving an intricate word puzzle which was not a crossword. Maybe we could try to buy one of these books and try our hands at them.

Spanish bread

The 17th century Spanish painter, Murillo, caught the texture of his country’s bread perfectly. While looking at a large canvas, I saw this detail in one corner and took the featured photo. It seems that Spanish bread has not changed in three or four centuries.

If one is used to baguettes from France or the crusty broetchen of Germany, then this seems very different. But the main difference seems to be that the crust is very soft. It is possible that this bread is baked in an oven whose temperature is much smaller. The bread is a little more doughy, which could also be due to the same low temperature baking. As a result, this bread is perfect for soaking up olive oil.

The wonderfully fresh food of Spain

This lovely plate of fresh food was part of our dinner. Olive oil is drizzled over the toast. Then it is covered with avocado and topped with salmon in one case, and a base layer of tomatoes topped with Iberian black ham in the other. Some more olive oil is poured over everything. The taste of the food preserves the freshness of the ingredients. That is what I think of as Mediterranean food, and Spain has it in spades.

As for the olives, Spain has extended the variety of olives beyond what I’ve eaten before. The ones in the plate here are spicy (you can see a bit of bay leaf in the photo).

While we shared this plate The Family said, "They deal so effectively with the hot weather in their food. Why can’t we do the same?" I held my tongue. After all she insists on scalding hot tea irrespective of the weather. She thought for a while and said "Our tomatoes are not so tasty." That was something I could agree with.

The Spanish countryside

Spain is a large country, as countries in Europe go. Several hundred kilometers between cities is not unusual. We decided to take trains during our trip. There are the high-speed trains (AVE) which travel at about 300 Kms/hour and the slower regional trains which do one-third the speed. You need reservations to enter an AVE. Since we took trains, we saw a lot of the Spanish countryside.

Today, as we travelled on a regional train from Seville to Granada, we looked out at the usual flat landscape. In this season the temperature outside at 5 PM was around 44 degrees Celsius. Fields were dry and yellow. In the rest of Europe you see a mild powder blue sky. Here the sky was like India’s, a blinding blue-white. It looks colourful in the featured photo because I took it through a polarized filter. If I hadn’t, then all the colours would have been bleached out.

The Family looked out and said "The countryside is so flat." That it is, as you see in the featured photo. We’d seen this flat countryside between Madrid and Barcelona, and then again on our way to Seville. Now it looked like it was going to be flat all the way.

We had a little surprise about an hour out of Seville. An announcement on the train told us that there was work on the tracks, so our train would stop at the next station. We were to get out and follow railway staff who would take us to a bus. We’d noted earlier that changes are conducted very efficiently by the friendly staff who take special care of foreigners, even though they usually speak very little English. We came to some buses parked near the exit from the station. Someone told us which was the bus to Granada.

On the highway we finally saw some hills. You can see one of them in the photo above. Tomorrow we plan to climb one which stands at the centre of Granada to see the Alhambra.