Madrid represents all of Spain—or none of it

Perhaps the best aperitif to the city is a morning stroll through the Plaza Mayor, the vast, cobblestoned square designed by Philip III in the 17th century.

Published: 17th June 2018 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th June 2018 12:41 PM   |  A+A-

‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso

Watching the rush hour traffic thunder past the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, the larger-than-life statue of Don Quixote might well be moved to get off Rosinante and, like a lost tourist, approach an immaculately uniformed policeman to inquire as to where exactly he was.  

The response would reassure immediately. For, with a sombre ceremony evocative of the matador’s arena or the flamenco floor, the official would turn, touch his cap and point out the way. This stylised ritual, so typically Spanish, fascinated us and sometimes even when we knew where we were, we would ask a policeman ‘Por favore, Senhor. Donde este…?’ just to see him do his bit as gravely as though it was something out of the last act of Carmen.

Smack in the centre of the Iberian peninsula, Madrid can be said to represent all of Spain—or none of it. According to Ernest Hemingway, it was the most Spanish of cities, precisely because it was such a hotchpotch, like a steaming platter of paella rich with a random harvest of seafood, or the tempting displays of bite-size tapas in the glass cases of the tascas, the cafe-cum-bars for which the city is justly famed.

Though that was a tale of another city, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast could as easily have been a title for Madrid. Perhaps the best aperitif to the city is a morning stroll through the Plaza Mayor, the vast, cobblestoned square designed by Philip III in the 17th century.

Framed by the classical symmetry of old grey stone buildings housing offices, shops and cafes, Plaza Mayor is like a painting slowly coming to life: cafe waiters setting out the round tables fringing the square; ancient duennas in black circles by the starling chatter of grandchildren; a wandering minstrel scattering casual notes from a guitar; office girls with the faces of Castilian Madonnas and staccato heels clacking counterpoint to a silent Bolero.

The crash of bombs, the screams of the mortally wounded, the roar of flames erupt in silence off the painted surface of ‘Guernica’, arguably Picasso’s greatest painting. The huge picture with its agonised forms takes up an entire wall in the special annexe to the Prado devoted to it.

Depicting the bombing of the village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, the painting is almost too painful to view for long, a livid cicatrice over a national wound, which though healed, can never be forgotten. But Guernica is more than a particular battleground; searing as napalm, its assault is that of apocalypse now.

After Guernica, the main building of the Prado—considered to be one of the finest art galleries in the world—is almost an anti-climax, for a moment. It takes a little while for perspectives to readjust, bruised senses to respond to other scenes, other faces of pain or joy. El Greco, Diego Velázquez, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Tintoretto, Peter Paul Rubens, Breughel and Jusepe de Ribera glow in the labyrinth of time.  

The Goya collection, beginning with cheerful pastoral scenes and becoming increasingly macabre, is like a fugue into madness, the final paintings as horrifying as ‘Guernica’. Born centuries apart, the two artists seem to reflect each other, with Spain bridging the chasm of years.

The early Goya is reflected in the great tapestries that drape the cold granite halls of the Escorial—the vast monastery-cum-palace built by Philip II to commemorate the Spanish victory over the French at Saint-Quentin in 1557. An hour’s ride by train from Madrid, the looming grey pile is often described as ‘the penal institution’ and imprisons the visitor with an almost claustrophobic sense of history.

Though the guided tour is in Spanish—which we don’t understand—the imagination weaves images as vivid as the famed tapestries that cloak the walls. Was it from this private chamber—as austere as its royal occupant—that Philip pursued his strict Roman Catholic policies which were to lead to a revolt in his Dutch domain? And was it in this chapel that he knelt in prayer when in 1588 he launched his great Armada against England with disastrous results?

If the Escorial is history petrified, the walled city of Toledo is a living museum-cum-souvenir mart for tourists. Some 90 km from Madrid, the rocky and brush-covered landscape heaves up into a hill on the crest of which soar battlements and towers, improbable as a Hollywood backdrop against which you expect any moment to see Charlton Heston materialise on galloping horseback in the avatar of El Cid. (To be concluded)

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