Madrid and Barcelona

Spain has been one of the world’s most influential countries. In fact, only Mandarin Chinese is spoken by more people as their first language than Spanish. This, of course, was a result of the colonial expansion to the “New World” started by Columbus. History has usually taught us that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella gleefully supported Columbus and certainly benefited from the gold extracted from native cultures in South America. (Columbus: The Four Voyages) However, recent scholarship is suggesting that Columbus was actually Jewish and his voyages were financed by Spanish Jews in response to their persecution under the Spanish Inquisition. (Christopher Columbus’s Jewish Roots by Amler, Jane Frances published by Jason Aronson, Inc. Paperback) So, while Ferdinand and Isabella may have thought Chris was helping to introduce Christianity to the heathens, he may actually have been looking for a new home for the Jewish Diaspora. Did he really think it would become Miami Beach? (The Spanish Inquisition: A History, and for a discussion of its impact in current events, God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World)

The wealth of Spain financed all sorts of wars. But, more important for current day visitors to Madrid, it helped to create one of the most intense concentrations of European artwork in the world. If you are an art enthusiast cruising in or out of Spain, it would be worth it to fly in or out of Madrid and spend a couple of days. Downtown Madrid is a beautiful city architecturally because it is fairly modern. Smack in the middle of the city is a complex of buildings, parks and promenades around the Paseo del Prado. Within a mile of the twin plazas of Neptune and Cortes are three spectacular art museums, the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza, and the Reina Sofia. For art aficionados, this is worth a two-day visit.

Artemisia by Rembrandt in Prado

You have to stand in front of the actual canvas to appreciate the astonishing detail in Artemisia’s gown. By Rembrandt, via Wikimedia Commons

The Prado is basically the national art museum. It has recently been expanded and more works are on display. They are, of course, very proud of their hometown team, Goya, Valezquez, and El Greco. (Goya, Velazquez: The Technique of Genius, and The Prado Museum) A concerted effort has been made to accumulate these Spanish masters. In addition, the Venetian school is very well represented, as Titian was a favored painter in the Spanish Hapsburg court. So, you’ll find Tintoretto, Veronese, and Bassano, as well. Philip IV liked Raphael, so he’s here in spades. There are a bunch of the canvases from Flemish giant Rubens. Some artists are represented with only one or two works, like Rembrandt. However, the particular painting, “Artemisia,” is breath-taking in its detailing. Like the Louvre in Paris, allow a lot of time to explore the halls of this amazing collection.

The Prado cuts off around the late 19th Century. You’ll find the modern era over at the intimate Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. The showstopper is Picasso’s famous “Guernica,” his response to events of the Spanish Civil War. (Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon) The collection has an extensive Picasso section. In addition, the other Spanish household name in modern painting, Salvador Dali, has some of his most recognizable works here. Think: melting clocks and leaping tigers. (From the modest man himself: Diary of a Genius) Most of the famous names in twentieth century modern art are represented. The museum is very small. You’ll linger longer over very famous paintings, rather than race through trying to take in the whole collection.

Finally, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is a private collection with its own incredibly rich collection of European masters, with an emphasis on 19th and 20th centuries. Any museum that displays four Rodin marbles and a major Tintoretto masterpiece before you even enter the turnstiles is just plain showing-off! Early works include Van Eyck, Durer, Titian and Rembrandt. Here is where you will find the French Impressionists in Madrid. The modern art, from Picasso on, is extremely good. Allow yourself a solid half-day. About the time your mind is hitting overload, the modern collection just continues to serve up recognizable works. Pace yourself. (See if you can find a used copy of the Thyssen-Bornewisza Collection book.)

If you are a cruiser in Spain, chances are excellent you are sailing to or from Barcelona. It has a long history, back to the Carthaginians and Greeks, followed by the Romans, the Visigoths and the Arabs. It is the capital of Catalonia, which has always thought of itself as a little distinct from the rest of Spain. The contemporary hero of the city is probably a 24-year-old soccer star named Lionel Messi, considered to be the best soccer player in the world. The Barcelona Football Club is a dominant champion. If you are in town for a match, it would be a great experience. Alternatively, buy a Barcelona Home Football Shirt 2012/13.

This is the nave of the Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona. By SBA73 from Sabadell, Catalunya, via Wikimedia Commons

The man who has placed an indelible signature on the city of Barcelona is Antoni Gaudi, architect extraordinaire. Though his biographers will tell you he was influenced by the study of many types of architecture and non-standard natural structures, his imagination has clearly synthesized all these inputs into a rare and unique expression. In Barcelona alone, there are six UNESCO World Heritage sites based on his creations. The most ambitious is the incomplete Basilica i Temple Expiatore de la Sagrada Familia, a complex name that deserves an equally complex edifice. Begun in 1882, it is still unfinished, as the design is so remarkably innovative and complex that it needs to proceed slowly to get it right. It would be very good to become acquainted before you arrive, Gaudi (Mega Square).

In addition to the Basilica, Gaudi has other UNESCO World Heritage residences and parks sprinkled throughout Barcelona, including the Park Guell, Palau Guell, Casa Mila, Casa Vicens, and Casa Battlo.

The other unique and notable architectural wonder of Barcelona is the Palau de la Musica Catalana, which is a concert hall designed by Lluis Montaner. Stunning both inside and out, it is worth the detour.

Alternatively, the city has great beaches right on its waterfront. If the weather inspires a lazy day in the sun, that’s okay too.