A day of high culture – and Gatwick

It’s funny how random acts of kindness often beget others. I took in a package for Maria our neighbour opposite. It was quite heavy so I carried it over the road into her hall. As we were talking I mentioned I was going to Spain and ending up in Madrid and she said she would contact her friend Jose who worked at the Reina Sofia certainly on my visit list. So this morning I walked through the El Retiro Gardens and eventually made it – sorry Jose a few minutes late – to the fabulous Nouvel Building which didn’t exist when we last visited, I think there was scaffolding and cranes.

We chat over a coffee – Jose doing that thing I’ve seen lots of Spanish people do – get a regular coffee and a glass with some ice cubes and then pour the coffee into the glass of ice – cafe con hielo. I guess it’s a DIY iced coffee. We got on very well – he works in the exhibitions department arranging the changing calendar of temporary exhibitions. I think I’d quite enjoy the challenge of deciding who to feature and then finding willing sources to lend works for the exhibition – forensics and persuasion in equal measure. Jose has kindly arranged a free ticket for me and provided me with a guide to one of the two exhibitions in the building Eusebio Sempere where we went first and then Jose went off to do his day’s work. He was most generous with his time and I hope to repay it in London on his next visit. On our way I couldn’t help but admire the magnificent library created as part of the extension.

I had noted in Cuenca on Sunday that one of Sempere’s works was missing from the museum on loan to the Reina Sofia so I did get to see it after all. Sempere is an interesting artist with a love of precise lines, geometrical forms but also innovated with illuminated cutouts and computer generated images. Then he made massive mobiles in chromed steel where the juxtaposition of two or three planes mean that the image ‘moves’ as the viewer walks past the object. Happy bunny – small scale intricate drawing, experimentation and massive sculptures with powerful effects. Equally happy bunny downstairs at the Russian Dada exhibition – who knew? I’ve just read A Gentleman in Moscow on this trip so there were lots of resonances in the works of anti-art produced by the Dadaists of Moscow and St Petersburg. There was a hilarious first film from Eisenstein and lots of other highly graphical works attempting to change the nature of art at the same time that Russia tried to change the nature of government. Eye-opening stuff that exposed another huge level of my ignorance.

While in the Reina Sofia I couldn’t not go to see Picasso’s Guernica again and I also enjoyed a lot of other works from the time of the Spanish Civil War. In another room was a Richard Serra installation called Equal Parallel – Guernica Bengazi inspired by the US bombing of Libya. It’s a room filled with cleverly spaced blocks of rust coloured Corten steel and as you weave your way between them you have time to think above motive, action and consequences – poignant after visiting Hiroshima earlier this year. Art and politics are hard to separate aren’t they?

With imminent eye glaze it was time for a museum break and a trip to the Atocha station which when Dee and I were last in Madrid together had just had its equivalent of the Kew Gardens temperate house installed and I was interested to see how it had gone. This is a sub-tropical forest inside a railway station approach. Some of the trees we saw just planted – already quite sizeable – are now trying to escape through the roof. It’s a green oasis to walk through on your commute into the city but inevitably time, millions of passengers, fag ends and gum have taken their toll. Can we ban chewing in public as well as smoking? Or at least better disposal?

I fancied a quick beer but there was a football team occupying most of the nearby traditional café and I’m afraid I don’t do Burger King or Macdonald’s, I did find a suitable bar a short distance away and sat and looked at a booklet about Open Madrid I’d been handed by a tourist office lady. This is about places not normally visitable like the Open Gardens and Open Offices in London and I now presume other cities. Might have to come back – it sounds fun. However the booklet also informed me that at the Teatro Pavan this evening was a performance of Yerma to mark 80 years since Lorca’s death. I know the play from reading it, the Juliet Stevenson performance in the Cottesloe in the 1980s and of course the recent Billie Piper vehicle although I’m not sure many of Lorca’s actual words were in that version exciting though it was. So I got the phone out, booked one of the last four tickets – is there a bot that tells you that whatever you’re after there’s only so much or so many left? I find it annoying on hotel sites, slightly less so here – it might even be true.

My trusty sandals have become a bit squelchy and are emitting rude sounds as I walk so I take a cab back to the hotel for a change of feet – I wish! Birkenstocks applied, I pop round to a local bar for a bite, They have, they tell me, an excellent ceviche with cod, sea bass and prawns so I am persuaded and have a beer and then a crisp young Rueda when the food arrives. Then it’s back through the Retiro Gardens to the Prado which is such a fabulous museum that I can’t be here and not enter. I decide against the special exhibition of Lorenzo Lotto and head for the main galleries.

There are brilliant Bosch and Bruegel rooms but I decide to restrict myself to El Greco – they have lots more here than in Toledo and some of even better quality, Velazquez and Goya. What I like about El Greco’s big set pieces is that each portrait in the crowd is of someone you’ve just seen or might meet in a bar. Christ carrying the cross with tears welling up is amazing. Moving on seeing Las Meninas again made me think of Laura Cumming’s excellent book The Vanishing Man which features a whodunnit art world adventure tracing a missing Velazquez – must read it again. He again pushed painting forward in many ways with some of the brushwork almost akin to Van Gogh. The Prado has lots of Velazquez but I recall being told on an Art Fund visit to Apsley House that they have even more as they were given as tribute to Wellington for ridding Spain of the French. I save Goya till last and end up with the two majas and then the awful, awesome 3rd of May which does actually make me cry.

Time now to leave and get those feet moving across the city to the theatre which is not marked on my map but is in Calle Embajadores which leads off from the Plaza Mayor. Appropriately I pass a statue of Lorca on the way – a good omen?

It’s quite a schlepp and my dreams of a pre-performance drink have to be passed up. They scan my ticket on my phone and send me past a main auditorium to a tiny space that was exactly like the old Bush theatre in the early 70s. Four rows of folding chairs in rows of 20 and mind the props as you cross the stage to your seat. No numbered seating meant I should have got there earlier but with a bit of craning and sliding I managed to see most of it. Oh and there was only one empty seat. It was a mixed version with modern dress, a refusing-to-turn-blue pregnancy test taken on the centre stage WC to emphasise Yerma’s longing for a child and some updating of the language. It was well acted with a good ensemble cast and a brilliant Yerma who is of course virtually on stage throughout. This actress is Alba José who looked vaguely familiar and when I got home I realised that she had been in the excellent Spanish TV series shown on BBC 4 last year I know who you are. A very happy couple of hours to round off a day of culture. So I take a post-performance glass of wine and haltingly discuss my impressions with a couple whose English is on a par with my Spanish but we have another round and all enjoyed the play and a chance to chat about it.

On my way back through Sol, there was a demonstration – well it’s Madrid, there will be won’t there? This one was calling for no indemnity for the perpetrators of Franco’s crimes and compensation for the victims. The dictator may have been gone for 40 years but what with plans to move his remains from his dreadful mausoleum and retribution for those who suffered he’s certainly not forgotten. Art and politics, people and politics and still several people I spoke to don’t (or can’t) believe Brexit will happen. I stop for some tapas – prawns in garlic and albondigas meatballs in a tomato sauce on this occasion in a great bar-restaurant called the Cathedral.

Another pit stop for a café y copa well it is my last night in Spain and back to the hotel – so different from my others but fun with its black and white décor and strange wood grain woven carpet in the corridors, Why? Actual wood strips in the rooms.

I spend Friday morning getting a few last minute items around the Salamanca area which was as I said in an earlier piece was new to me and very impressive. Plenty of places to eat and drink well but also little food shops, fruit and veg stalls and lots of antique shops – if I was driving home I might be in trouble. Check out is at noon and flight check in at four so I decide to drive straight on down Calle Alcala in the car. It goes on for ever and ends up in the town of Alcala de Henares of which I made a circuit but failed to find a parking spot. It’s an important musical and university town and has some impressive buildings housing those pursuits. Looked definitely worthy of another visit – maybe by train next time I’m in Madrid (if).

I took a circuitous country route back and found myself in Paracuellos de Jarama I’d read about this place in books on the Spanish Civil War as it was the location for many of the early mass shootings of the war with estimates of between 2000 and 10,000 massacred by Fascist forces. It does have a staggering view across the airport and away to the city of Madrid. Like so many of the places I passed through there are huge swathes of new build dormitory towns to serve the capital. But it still had a pleasant little square with a tall tower and a few bars. Down a zigzag route and into Barajas town where I had a couple of false starts including going into the taxis’ stacking compound before finding the tiny entrance to the rental car return zone. All sorted in good time, checked in by machine again – although a person did print the baggage tag – and then to the lounge to enjoy light refreshments and watch the aircraft manoeuvre. I stayed in the comfort of the lounge too long and had my hand luggage removed at the aircraft steps. Had put iPad in camera bag so able to blog during the flight. As we went for take off I snapped the village where I’d been two hours earlier – you can just make out the tower I think – the brick one not the airport Control Tower. Machines away now as on descent.

Swift flight, straight to an empty passport reader and only ten minutes to wait for my two bags followed by a struggle to meet with my Data Cars driver but eventually home after a very fine two weeks in the sun and it’s shining here although less warmly as I set off for the West Herts Sports Club for a beer with friends before Watford v Manchester United at 17:30.

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