Lands of the Setting Sun: The Garden of Earthly Delights

Unknown man at the Royal Palace

I was going to like Madrid no matter what. I fit in, spoke the language, liked the food well enough, and nobody looked at me funny for wearing a tie on vacation. I also liked it more because I arrived ready to hate the place.

Spanish companies– engineers mostly– do a lot of business in Los Angeles, and all of them are based in Madrid. I’d spent my childhood looking at pictures of their headquarters: soulless glass towers on barren modern streets. I later discovered that that is a new area of Madrid north of the old city– a sort of Castillian Courbevoie.

If Barcelona was Chilly, Madrid was well into the next ice age, a fact my mom and I discovered as soon as we went out the front door at Atocha station. A mile high and 200 miles inland, the city is subject to Europe’s hottest summers and Spain’s coldest winters. During our stay, the temperature hovered around -1º C, and it was only December. But who cares? I love the cold.

Madrid was also unimaginably crowded. It’s the size of Chicago, but instead of a grid, the entire city radiates out from the Plaza del Sol, where we got off the subway to find our hotel, which I understood to be on the Plaza Mayor. Struggling through packed sidewalks, we found ourselves in a vast rectangular marketplace, awkwardly placed in the medieval cityscape in 1576, and just as impassable as the city streets.

As it turned out, our hotel was on the Plaza Santa Cruz, a block away. We checked in and immediately I fell asleep. When I woke up, I was half-asleep and terrified of missing our dinner reservation, but got straightened out and we went to Sobrino de Botín, the world’s oldest restaurant and haunt of several historical figures. I don’t remember what we had for dinner, which is not the best of signs, but I got a picture of dessert:


Briefly getting lost in the winding streets, we returned to the hotel and, still suffering from jet-lag, attempted to sleep. It would have been easier if there hadn’t been dozens of drunken men singing in the plaza until 4 AM.

The next day, Mom and I took a stroll around the city, and everything looked oddly familiar. “This looks just like West London,” I said. “That’s exactly what I was thinking!” said my mom, who had never been to London. That isn’t a coincidence: in the mid-19th century, Queen Isabella II had all of Madrid rebuilt in classic Victorian style, with big townhouses and rigidly landscaped parks. Atocha Station was built during this time. Isabella’s reign was very similar to Queen Victoria’s, except that she was overthrown in 1868, replaced by an Italian King, who was replaced by a republic, who was finally replaced by Isabella’s son. It’s worth mentioning that all of this happened in the span of eight years. Spain had four civil wars in the span of a single century.

After visiting the outside of the palace, we took the subway to El Retiro, the massive park on the east side of the city. El Retiro was a welcome relief from the claustrophobia of the rest of the city; it’s a popular place for joggers and dogs, and every few meters there’s a massive monument to some element of Spanish history, a queen or an admiral or the War on Terror. It’s an excellent way to memorialize great national figures; Washington DC could learn a lesson from this place.

From here we had planned to visit the Prado museum, but it wasn’t open yet, so we repaired to the Reina Sofía, a newer museum named ostentatiously after the current Queen, and home to many of the great cubist works, culminating in Picasso’s massive Guernica. In addition to the paintings, the museum was full of articles and books from the early 1900s, detailing the birth of the cubist movement, including Picasso’s early sketches, The Dream and Lie of Franco, which seems to have inspired Guernica. I liked The Dream and Lie better. It was seeing these that made my mom a little weepy, but we were just getting started.

“Are you getting tired?” I asked my mom as we had lunch in a café with a door that kept blowing open.

“We have to see the Prado,” she said.

“I know,” I said, “I just need a little break. After a second coke I was ready to take it on.

All I knew about the Prado was that it had the works of Francisco Goya, but upon entering I discovered that that was but a footnote. My mom was overwhelmed. Fra Angelico? Bosch? Velazquez? All here. I’d seen hundreds of these paintings in my high school art textbook, but my mom had majored in fine art. She later told me, “I’ve been looking at these paintings my entire life and never thought I’d see them in person.” While I struggled to comprehend the massive c.1500 prog rock album cover that was The Garden of Earthly Delights, she stared longingly at the modestly-sized self-portrait of Albrecht Dürer.

“I had a crush on Albrecht Dürer,” my mom said. “I used to carry a wallet-sized version of this painting in my pocket.” My mom’s emotional roller coaster was just beginning.

Later that afternoon, I ran into some Norwegian girls who were also visiting for Christmas break. After a pleasant chat, they took the subway going the other way and I realized I’d forgotten to ask what they were doing that night. It wouldn’t have mattered. I was asleep before dinnertime.