Unlike most hotels in Austria, Spanish hotels do not seem to normally offer breakfast included in the price of an overnight stay. The Atlantico has a large buffet breakfast, but it seemed quite pricey. So we did the North American tourist thing: we went to the Starbucks a few doors down the Grand Via.
We decide to get to the Prado early to beat the crowds, then go to the Palacio Real in the afternoon. It turns out, though, that it would have been better to go to the Palacio in the morning, as it takes less time (well, you can spend a whole day there, but it’s not necessary), then take a more relaxed pace and thorough visit to the Prado until closing time. But finding out things like that is one of the purposes of this blog.
The museum is a 15-minute walk from our hotel, on a very pleasant, wide, tree-lined boulevard. Just walking along it is a worthwhile experience.
As we approach the Prado, a woman with an ID badge pinned to her jacket asks “Do you speak English?” She then gives us some information, such as opening and closing time of the Prado, the fact that the modern-art museum, the Reina Isabella, is less crowded, and all admittance is free after 6:00 p.m. Then she asks us for money “for charity.”
TIP: don’t respond to people who ask you questions near major tourist destinations in Spain. It’s a shake-down at best. I’ve read that some hustlers and pick-pockets use diversions like this to distract you while they rob you, but I never was robbed.
The line-up looks long, but not as long as it did yesterday evening. We wait less than 15 minutes before we’re inside. Another 5 euros in addition to the admission price gets you a thick, full-colour guide-book, so it’s well worth the cost. And if you want pictures, you’ll need it—the Prado is quite strict about not allowing any photography inside.
The Prado is huge. The initial gallery is lined on both sides with huge oils by Titian, Velazquez, Rubens and others. First is a portrait of Charles V, he of the long Hapsburg chin, the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella. Beside him is his son, Philip II. lAt the far end is an octagonal room displaying what Frommer’s guide describes as “Goya’s unflattering portraits of the royal family of Charles IV.” The authors are right: the King looks like a fool simpering on horseback, and the Queen looks like a bitter old lady.
We have to pause here to figure this out: Charles IV ruled in the early 19th century, Charles V during the early 16th. Right: he was Charles V Holy Roman Emperor, son of Philip the Fair of Burgundy and grandson of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian of Innsbruck, the Hapsburg who married his children to royal houses from one end of Europe to the other. Charles V of Austria was Charles I of Spain.
Now that we have that worked out, we can enjoy the rest of the museum. Well, not all the rest. There are rooms and rooms. We see portrait of Hapsburg after Hapsburg, Hapsburgs from Spain and Hapsburgs from Austria, all married to their uncles or cousins, or getting ready to marry a niece.
There are also paintings of mythological figures and scenes from the bible. The Spanish are much more prudish than the Italians: all the nudes are strategically covered by branches or falling cloth or something else. The Italians did not worry about covering male genitalia.
There is a room dedicated to Goya’s “black paintings,” so-called not just because of the dominant colour, but also because these were his drawings from the Peninsular War, when Spain fought for its independence from Napoleonic France. According to Goya’s depictions, this war was especially brutal. This room also houses a disturbing painting by Goya of Saturn devouring his children.
Thankfully, there is more cheerful art to see after this. We stop to see his painting of the Naked Maja, the first nude of a woman that was not excused by supposedly being a Greek goddess. Nope. Goya had the guts to just say, “I got this woman to take off her clothes, and I painted her because I think she’s beautiful.” So much for Spanish modesty. There is also the famous Clothed Maja, the same woman in exactly the same pose, lying on a bed with her hands behind her head, but it’s not next to the Naked Maja, as the guidebooks led us to believe. The museum is not informative about the Clothed Maja’s whereabouts. Maybe with the Naked Maja there, no one cares about the clothed one.
This was the last week for a special exhibit from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. A whole building is dedicated to an exhibit of paintings, sculptures, Scythian jewelry, pottery and other treasures from Russia, including a jeweled sculpture of a flower in a glass vase by Fabergé.
There is still much left to see: more by Goya, Murillo, Titian, Velazquez. You could spend days here. But we don’t have that much time in Madrid, and in the afternoon we regretfully leave the Prado for the Palacio Real across town.
TIP: If you leave the Prado before closing time, you can get your entry ticket stamped at the Educacion office for free re-entry later that day.
The Palacio Real
We walk from the Prado along the Calle Real, through the Puerta del Sol to the Palacio Real—the Royal Palace—in less than half an hour.
Some of the palace is still used by the Spanish government, although it’s not clear whether the royal family still lives there at any time. As you might expect, it’s very grand. It’s about as big as the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, the other Hapsburg palace, in Vienna.
Inside, “opulent” does not begin to describe the Palacio. The King of Spain had rooms to meet ambassadors, rooms for dining, a room about the size of my whole house for dressing in. He would stand with his arms outstretched and servants would hang clothes on him.
Much of the palace that is open to public tours seems to feature Charles III, the enlightened despot. There are paintings of Carlos and his very large nose. Mirrors and painting have frames in a riot of rococo decoration. Swirls, leaves, curves, cherubs and other motifs fill every available space. “Over the top” does not come close to describing the overabundance of decoration.
TIP: do NOT come here for interior design ideas.
The guidebooks say you can spend an hour to an hour and a half here, and while you probably could see more, I think you get as much as you’re going to get from this site in an hour or so. Don’t rush through it, but don’t linger too long. There is much else to see in Madrid. Tomorrow: the Plaza Mayor