Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Prado artworks and naval history highlight second day in Madrid

It was a dreicht day in Madrid, wet and windy but that didn't deter us as we headed to the Prado Art Gallery. Our metro stop was the Placa d'Espana, a majestic, large square, and popular tourist destination, located in central Madrid, at the western end of the Gran Vía. It features a monument to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. We stopped to admire the imposing building, the Palace of Communication which has  become a symbolic monument of the city. Originally the headquarters of the postal service, this impressive building was home to the Postal and Telegraphic Museum until 2007 when the building became the Madrid City Hall.

We walked down one side of the street towards the Prado. Dividing the street was a huge park area, which also served as a pedestrian promenade. On a sunnier day this tree lined walk would have been quite lovely. Finally, we reached the Prado, the main Spanish national art museum. It features one of the world's finest collections of European art, from the 12th century to the early 19th century. Founded as a museum of paintings and sculpture, it also contains important collections of other types of works. El Prado is one of the most visited sites in the world, and it is considered to be among the greatest museums of art. The large numbers of works by Velázquez and Francisco de Goya,Titian, Rubens and Bosch are among the highlights of the collection.

We saw several masterpieces but one of my favourites was the completed restoration of a work that was likely painted by one of Leonardo da Vinci's apprentices alongside the Renaissance master in his workshop. It is the oldest and most important copy of the Mona Lisa. For years the copy, which shows a younger and brighter version of the face that has captivated crowds for centuries, was believed to be one of dozens of replicas made long after Leonardo's death. The painting has belonged to the Prado ever since the museum was founded in 1819 with the Spanish royalty's art collection. It had a background covered in black and a frame believed to be of oak, frequent in the work of northern European artists. Experts began a technical study of the copy when the Louvre requested it two years ago for an exhibition opening next month. They found it had been painted on walnut, just like the Mona Lisa, and infrared images showed traces of background mountains just like in the original painting. Unlike the Mona Lisa, there were no crowds around the picture but it was still fascinating all the same. The picture is believed to be that of Lisa Gherardini, the Mona Lisa. We were lucky to see it today as soon it will travel to Paris to sit next to the Mona Lisa. More studies of the picture will be made there to try to determine which of Leonardo's students was responsible for the painting.

After a mediocre lunch in the Prado, we made a short walk to the Naval Museum that tells the story of Spanish Naval history. It is located in a building housing the Spanish Naval headquarters. I found the museum fascinating. Famous Spanish naval battles were displayed in pictures and maps. Various shipbuilding methods were displayed with many huge models complete with sails and cross sections of ships from 28 guns right up to 90 guns. There were some models of newer ships including aircraft carriers. Technological developments in navigation relating to astronomy, geodesy and cartography were displayed. Spanish expeditions and discoveries from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century including weapons and equipment illustrating what life on board was like. There was one very interesting display of the wardroom on a frigate. It actually looked nice and cozy.

There were some outstanding pieces including a map showing the American continent showing geographical discoveries between 1492 and 1500. It was probably used to show the King and Queen, who had sponsored the trip. I found it really fascinating and I'm sorry I didn't buy a copy of it. My favourite exhibit was a giant globe showing the world in the sixteen hundreds. It is quite accurate in some places but North America is still left fairly blank or at least open to some speculation. This globe was quite beautiful.

We tore ourselves away from the Naval Museum and walked toward Plaza del Sol admiring the truly grand buildings on our way. One building was topped with giant horses and charioteers. It certainly is a feast for your eyes walking in Madrid. Spain had such wealth at one time.

Finally we ended up at Placa Mayor, which we hadn't been able to find last night. The Plaza Mayor is rectangular in shape, measuring 129 by 94 metres, and is surrounded by three-story residential buildings having 237 breathtaking balconies facing the Plaza. It has a total of nine entranceways. The Plaza Mayor has been the scene of multitudinous events: markets, bullfights, soccer games, public executions, and, during the Spanish Inquisition, "autos de fe" against supposed heretics and the executions of those condemned to death. The Plaza Mayor also has a ring of old and traditional shops and cafes under its porticoes. Celebrations for San Isidro, patron saint of Madrid, are also held here.

Our evening finished at Botin, a restaurant founded in 1725 and according to the Guinness Book of Records, the oldest restaurant in the world. Originally it was an old coaching inn where muleteers and traders stayed. The painter Goya worked here as a server. It was quite special walking up the old, worn, wooden stairs to the restaurant. The rust tiles on the walls had loads of character, especially where they were losing their glaze. The Sobrino and its speciality of cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig) are mentioned in the closing pages of Ernest Hemingway's novel, The Sun Also Rises. Its other signature dish is sopa de ajo (an egg, poached in chicken broth, and laced with sherry and garlic). We opted for the roast suckling pig, which was quite tender and delicious inside with lovely crackling on the outside.

It was a cold walk back to the hotel in zero degree weather to plan for tomorrow. In fact we saw a few flakes of snow.

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