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The Centrality of Madrid


As often as we’ve been to Madrid, the Plaza de Colon never fails to catch us unawares. We may come upon it turning off elegant, shop-lined Serano Street. Or we may approach it directly from the broad tree-lined Paseo de Recoletos. But whenever the towering image of Christopher Columbus looms up before us, it’s as if we’re seeing it for the first time.

Overlooking the white Belle Epoque and copper-clad Art Deco buildings of downtown Madrid, the statue stands high on a pedestal at the head of the square, arm extended, finger pointed westward, in the direction of the New World the explorer from Genoa discovered more than half a millennium ago. And once again, the centrality of Madrid gets reinforced, how it sits in the middle of a nation that once had been, and for a substantial world-wide population remains, the heart of the world.

During our last visit, the Biblioteca Nacional, less than a block from the Plaza de Colon, was featuring an exposition of Peruvian art and artifacts. With objects dating back as far as 3,000 years before the Spanish Conquest and continuing through the first three hundred years of interaction with Spain, the exhibit demonstrated the extraordinary range of  artistic and technological accomplishments of Peru’s diverse yet interrelated cultures; it drew capacity crowds throughout a four-month stay before moving on to equal attention and acclaim in Washington D.C. Yet the Madrid setting lent the exhibit a historical resonance we can’t imagine it had in our nation’s capital.

Before a showcase filled with brilliant gold-hammered pre-Columbian neck and headpieces, we spoke to a young naval officer who urged us to see the Naval Museum located in the nearby Spanish Naval headquarters. It was just four blocks to the south, a pleasant stroll down the Paseo de Recoletos past the Plaza de Cibles where the Roman goddess of nature drives her chariot pulled by a pair of lions through the gorgeous gushing fountain at its center. There in splendid rooms of classical proportions, sailing instruments, model ships, maps, manuscripts, and paintings depicting vessels, battles, and prominent naval figures document the chronology of Spanish adventures on the high seas and repeat the theme of the centrality of Spain and its identity as paramount discoverer of new worlds.

Treasures from the New World fueled the royal and ecclesiastical passion for commissioning and collecting works of art, and over the centuries Spain produced a legion of artists to fulfill the requirements. Their works form the legacy that insures Madrid’s position as a world-class capital of art.

Which may explain why of all the cities in the world, it was Madrid that the Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bormemisza de Kaszon chose in 1993 to showcase his famed collection of over eight hundred paintings and other objects d’art. Considered the most impressive private collection anywhere, the Baron’s treasures are housed in the 18th century neo-classical Villahermosa Palace where each room focuses on a different chapter of art history from the beginning of the 13th to the end of the 20th century. Since the time of the Baron’s loan, the Thyssen-Bornemisza has become a permanent fixture of Madrid’s museum scene. Its space has been doubled, and significant Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works are now part of its holdings.

A ten minute walk south from Thyssen-Bornemisza is the Reina Sofia Museum of Contemporary Art created in 1980 out of an 18th century hospital also of neo classical design. Eight years after the building’s transformation into a museum, a pair of distinctive elevators in the form of glass towers at either end of the façade were added. The trip between floors now presents an opportunity to look out over the rooftops of Madrid.

There is much to look at within the museum as well. Reflecting the evolution of Spanish art from the end of the 19th century, through the years following World War II, and coming up to present, the Reina Sofia houses one of the foremost collections of contemporary schools from Cubism to Abstract Expressionism and beyond. Dali, Picasso, Miró, Julio González, Arroyo, Juan Gris, Tàpies – they are all here along with challenging contemporary works by non-Spanish artists. The biggest attraction, however, seems to be Picasso’s “Guernica” in a room all to itself. After it had sojourned in New York’s MOMA for so long, there is a sense of rightness to see this masterwork at home where it belongs.

And then, of course, in the stately 18th century neoclassical palace that was meant to be a museum of natural history and used as an army barracks during the Napoleonic occupation of Madrid is the incomparable Prado with its 8,600 paintings (and drawings, sculptures, and other objects d’art). The world’s largest collection of Spanish masterworks from the middle ages to the 19th century is here. All the ikons are represented in abundance: El Greco, Goya, Murillo, Ribera, Sorolla, Zurbarán, Velázquez. . .  the sheer volume takes the breath away. There is the ample Flemish and Dutch collection including the largest collection of Rubens anywhere, a consequence of Spain’s long occupation of the Netherlands, the wealth of Italian masterpieces including the splendid Rafaels along the corridor beneath the barrel dome and 36 Titans, as well as other great European works.

This trio of world-class museums, all in the process of significant expansion, are embraced by one of Madrid’s most beautiful neighborhoods bordered by the big Baroque fountains of the Plaza de Neptuno, the Altocha Station from which the fleet Ave departs to points all over Spain, and the shaded byways of the Botanical Gardens down the hill from bucolic Retiro Park. They are connected by a grand Paseo del Arte along the Paseo del Prado which comes right off the Paseo de Recoletos on which we began our itinerary earlier that day.

To be in Madrid is to feel the exhilaration of a democracy, that having begun less than thirty years ago, is still relatively new. The streets seem refreshed, the mood buoyant. As in every other modern metropolis there is concern over terrorism. But the tyrannies of the last century seem to belong to a distant past as this majestic and graceful capital enjoys its position in the center of Spain and, in some new ways, the world as well.

Prado Museum

Paseo del Prado, Madrid


Open daily except Mondays from 9 AM to 7 PM 

Admission: 3 Euros, seniors and under 18 free, students 1.5 Euros

Sundays free  

Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

Paseo del Prado 8, Madrid


Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 AM to 7 PM

Admission: 6 Euros, seniors and students 4 Euros, children under 12 free

Reina Sofia Museum of Contemporary Art
Santa Isabel 52, Madrid


Open Monday through Saturday (closed Tuesday) from 10 AM to 9 PM and Sunday from 10 AM to 2:30PM

Admission: 3 Euros, seniors and under 18 free

A Paseo del Arte ticket for 7.66 Euros covers entrance to all three musuems.            


 El Café de la Ópera

We still get letters from readers about the Café de la Ópera which we first visited six years ago. One was from a tour operator who after reading our piece booked tables for her entire group. She reported back: everyone loved it. It was time for an encore visit.

We knew the routine. From the street you enter an informal cafeteria-style restaurant, then turn down a staircase to the bi-level nightclub-type space below ground. We made our descent among the well-dressed, intergenerational crowd all of whom had reserved tables for what was clearly a sold-out event. Our table was the same we had last time around, at the foot of the little stairway the singers mount up and down as they perform. Waiters, who like the performers are opera students, busily flitted about taking orders, serving drinks, getting things organized. The mood was one of happy anticipation.

First courses had been were served when a flourishing arpeggio from Alberto Joya at the grand piano announced the beginning of the evening’s entertainment and the entrance of Akemi Alfonso, a feisty soprano from Cuba, who performed “Love Is Fickle” from “Carmen” with great brio.

The rest of the little company: baritone Jorge Paez and sopranos Cristina Redondo and Ma Teresa Martinez joined Ms. Alfonso through the evening, strolling among the tables as they sang solos and duets from “La Boheme” and “Don Giovanni,” Zarzuela numbers, even the old Italian favorite “O  Sole Mio.”  All were in excellent voice and enthusiastically received.

The evening concluded, as it had the first time around, with the filling of champagne glasses at each table and guests joining the talented young performers in a rousing rendition of “Coro de Brindis,” the drinking song from “La Traviata.” The principals were different but the routine happily remained unchanged. We’ll count on coming back once again.  

El Café de la Opera
C/Arrieta 6
28013 Madrid, Spain

Phone: 915-426-382

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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