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A Portrait of Madrid

by Sarah Shuckburgh

With its wonderful array of important paintings, the Spanish capital is ideal for a jaunt with a fellow art-club member, finds Sarah Shuckburgh.

Some people are members of book groups. I am in an art club. It’s a brilliant invention: each month, the three members agree on an exhibition, visit it independently and then meet. Our discussions are brief, but the discipline is effective – in a decade, we’ve seen about 100 exhibitions.

Recently Carol visited Madrid and loved it. Gila and I decided that, in the interests of the club, we too deserved a luxurious – and cultural – weekend away.

Conveniently, our bedroom at the Ritz overlooked the main entrance of the Prado. From soft armchairs, we carried out surveillance and made strategic plans about how to avoid mile-long queues. On Saturday morning, we were at the door as it opened. Luckily for us, the permanent collection was almost deserted. As locals swarmed into the brand new wing, designed by Moneo, with lofty foyer and two floors of galleries for temporary exhibitions (currently a marvellous collection of 19th century Spanish paintings), we made for Velazquez. Of his astonishing portraits, our favourite was the enchanting Dona Margarita, Philip IV’s daughter. She married Emperor Leopold of Austria and died aged 20, but her iconic face lives on, haunting, sombre and pale beneath a halo of hair. Philip IV liked to drop into Velazquez’s studio every day, and the painter celebrated this intimacy by including himself in his famous Las Meninas painting – which also features a young Dona Margarita.

The Prado also has dozens of Goyas – the luscious Maja (dressed and undressed), wonderful portraits, sketchy murals and weirdly grotesque black paintings. There’s too much to take in. Even limiting ourselves to Spanish art, we had to skim through El Greco, Murillo, Ribera and Zurbarán, but Gila made me choose, in each room, one picture I wanted to own, and one to burn.

After a restorative fruit juice in Moneo’s sleek black cafe, we left the Prado and hopped on an open-topped sight-seeing bus. The recorded commentary was hopelessly dull, with long stretches of background music. Gila’s headphones didn’t work, and an icy wind lashed our cheeks – but at least our legs had a welcome rest.

We alighted near the Royal Palace, and tucked into dos sandwiches calientes in the Café del Oriente, beneath an equestrian statue of Philip IV. Invigorated, we toured Charles III’s ornate and opulent state rooms. My favourite was the Salon de Gasparini, Charles III’s dressing room – a riot of rococo, with intricate chinoiserie walls, flamboyant marble flooring, and an incredible ceiling of tangled vines and lurid fruit. Gila’s favourite was the throne room, with carved lions, gilded mirrors, Tiepolo frescoes, acres of squiggly carpet woven by local craftsmen, and gigantic chandeliers dangling almost to the floor. In every room, baroque, rococo and neo-classicism combined to secure 18th-century Madrid’s status as a prestigious royal court.

We returned to the hotel at 5pm, an ideal hour for the Ritz High Tea, with silver teapots, tea leaves with strainers, and three-tier cake-stands piled with sandwiches, cakes, pastries and warm scones with jam and cream.

While a handsome harpist played, Gila and I discussed which king we preferred. Gila chose Philip IV, despite his unappealingly pallid face and jutting Hapsburg jaw. During his mid-17th century reign, Madrid replaced Seville as Spain’s cultural capital, and the city entered a golden age, with New World conquests, and the genius of Cervantes, Murillo, Zurbarán and Velazquez. I favoured Charles III, enlightened Bourbon monarch. He looked, according to Goya, like a ruddy-faced yokel, but he brought Madrid to a peak of splendour in the mid 18th century, founding the Prado and its botanical gardens, bringing the city street lights and sewage, and commissioning the spectacular Palacio Real.

We managed High Tea only once, but at 6pm each day we retired for a siesta. We undressed and got into our twin beds, between freshly-laundered sheets, immaculately ironed and with unbelievably high thread-counts. With the din of boulevard traffic silenced by quadruple-glazed windows, we slept soundly until 10pm. Then we bathed, dressed and set off for dinner.

One evening, we walked through the old city centre, past porticoed government buildings, and into the lively Plaza Puerta del Sol, which lies at the geographical centre of Spain. We skirted a political demonstration with armed police, and crossed the dimly-lit Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s 400-year-old architectural gem. We were not the only tourists at Botin, the World’s Oldest Restaurant (according to the Guinness Book of Records), but the beamed ceilings, patterned tiles and troubadours in doublet and hose made for a memorable evening. We opted for local specialities – gelatinous garlic-and-egg soup, a challenging hunk of fatty suckling pig and then tasteless junket.

More successful gastronomically was our dinner at La Barraca. Established a mere 70 years ago, this restaurant is unpretentious and friendly, and our mixed paella with squid, mussels, halibut, chicken and pork, was delicious.

Each night as we walked home at 1am, the streets still thronged with pedestrians – families with smartly-dressed infants, groups of teenagers and elderly couples in fur coats. Flamenco dancers in polka-dot dresses smoked on nightclub doorsteps, waiting to go on stage. When we reached our room, we found our crisp monogrammed sheets folded back and our scuffed shoes polished to an unrecognisable shine.

Like the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is within a few steps of the Ritz, and we got there as it opened on Sunday morning. Baron von Thyssen’s staggering private collection is arranged chronologically, starting with the early Renaissance, and an annexe houses further paintings bought by his Spanish wife. The 20th century galleries were full of Spanish masterpieces by Juan Gris, Picasso, Dali and Miro - but in every room hung works impossible to ignore, including a portrait of the Baron by Lucien Freud.

So much art, and so little time! We needed to get to the Museo Sorolla before it closed at 3pm. Joaquín Sorolla, who built this house in 1911 at the height of his fame, produced tender and loving portraits of his wife and three children; intimate open-air paintings of sunshine, water, wind and light; beach scenes with dappled sunlight, billowing white muslin and parasols, and portraits reminiscent of a latterday Velazquez. From the courtyard garden, three lofty studios lead to family rooms, all lined with his paintings, which the brochure describes as luminist, naturalist, orientalist, romanticist, impressionist and (a new one on Gila and me) costumbrist. After his death in 1923, Sorolla’s paintings went out of fashion, but Gila and I were smitten by both paintings and man – all those portraits of his wife and children a sure sign, we agreed, of a lovely husband.

Many galleries close on Mondays, but luckily the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia stays open. Sabatini’s 18th-century hospital has been rebuilt, with glass lifts whizzing up the outside, to house a mesmerising collection of 20th-century art, including sculptures and charmingly naïve paintings by Miro, Cubist collages by Madrid-born Juan Gris and surreal works by Dali. Walls of Picasso studies lead to his gigantic Guernica – a deeply disturbing painting, with curiously entwined figures, distraught women, dismembered men, daggers and eerie shafts of light.

Before heading to the airport, we had lunch at Café Gijón, the last of Madrid’s great literary cafes, meeting place of tertulia, Spanish forerunners of today’s book groups. The café opened in 1888, and in its heyday, Mata Hari, Garcia Lorca and Salvadore Dali were patrons. As we tucked into our fish soup, we eyed a group of dishevelled men, smoking and conversing intently. Were they members of a distinguished literary tertulia? And would they recognise us as members of a distinguished artistic tertulia?

Kirker Holidays
First published by the Telegraph

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