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Monumental Madrid (September 2013)

We caught the fast train (cruising speed 300kph) from Barcelona to Madrid - 2:45hrs to cover 500km. It was a smooth and comfortable way to get from A to B. If financially strapped Spain, France and Italy can build, operate and maintain such infrastructure, why do we still not have fast trains across Australia? Yes, I know it's a rhetorical question.

Bill was last in Madrid in 1952, but I'd not previously darkened Madrid's environs, so we caught the 'Hop On-Hop Off' bus to get our bearings.

Madrid is, in a word, monumental. The buildings along the Grand Via, on the drawing board since 1860, but only slapped up between 1908 and 1929, comprise an eclectic architectural combo of early 20th century architectural styles. The one thing the cityscape's components have in common is their size: massive. Add to the buildings the fountains, heroes on horseback or standing atop columns, Bourbon, Hapsburg and Baroque and Neo-classical edifi, Moorish relics, religious buildings, art galleries, palaces and parks - everything requires either a craned neck or head-spin to take in the item of interest, or a long march to get from one end to the other.

Human interest kicked in as we passed the Liria Palace, ancestral home of the Alba dynasty - Grandees of Spain. The current Duchess of Alba* is a favourite of 'Hola' (the original celebrity magazine, of which Britain's 'Hello' is a love-child), courtesy of her enormous wealth, numerous titles, multiple marriages, strange hairdos, weird clothing and disastrous forays into plastic surgery.

Her full name (concentrate, please) is Dona Maria del Rosario Cayetana Paloma Alfonso Victoria Eugenia Fernanda Teresa Francisca de Paula Lourdes Antonia Josefa Fausta Rita Castor Dorotea Santa Esperanza Fitz-James Stuart** y Silva. She's only the third woman to hold the title of Grandee of Spain in her own right, being the only child of the 17th Duke of Alba. She also has more titles than QEII, i.e. 17 Dukedoms, 1 count-Dukedom, 19 Marquessates, 22 Countcies, 1 Viscountcy, 1 Manorial, 4 Styles (the Most Excellent types), 4 Honours and 8 Honorary Appointments (constables and marshalls). So it's probably not a case of "Just call me Cayetana."

Cayetana was born in March 1926 - a month before QEII, and married Don Luis the son of the Duke of Sayomayor in October '47, a month before Elizabeth married Phil the Greek. Their parallel lives end there. Cayetana's wedding was the much more elaborate affair, reputedly costing 20m pesetas (i.e about US$7m at the time). Cayetana looked pretty good at the time, she was skinny, prettyish, wearing a beautiful lace number and secured her veil with the monumental (there's that word again) Alba diamond tiara.

Cayetana and Don Luis had six children - five boys, then finally a girl, Eugenia, who married a bullfighter. The first four boys married various suitable aristos and not-so suitable girlies and all divorced after a couple of offspring had been produced.

Somewhere along the line, Cayetana received a request from Pablo Picasso (via a bullfighter) to become his muse. I don't imagine her extraordinary wealth, or the fact that, if she had the inclination so to do, she could walk the length of Spain from north to south without stepping off her property, had anything to do with his invitation. She declined: "he would have worn me out". Good call.

Anyway, why bother sitting around posing for Picasso - just pop back home and cast a glance around any of the paintings lining the family walls - 250 masterpieces by Van Dyck, Rubens and the like, and when you feel in need of a lie down, pick up the Cervantes' first edition or the AD1430 Alba Bible. Keep it all in the family.

Don Luis carked it in 1972, and Cayetana's new soul mate turned out to be a defrocked, illegitimate, ex-Jesuit priest, one Jesus Aguirre. But it all progressed happily, with the kiddies and Jesus getting along spiffingly. Then Jesus dropped off the twig in 2001 and Cayetana was once more on the loose, at the age of 75.

Enter 'just a good friend' Alfonso Diez Carabantes, and this is obviously a true love match. He's 24 yrs her junior and a civil servant. Unfortunately, rumours abounded by 2008 that Cayetana intended to marry for the third time, whereupon the kiddies pulled out all the legal stops in an attempt to protect their inheritance. By 2011, Cayetana handed over their inheritance and immediately married Mr Right - even performing a rather unbecoming solo dance at her wedding, with skirts, teeth and turkey flaps flying.

We finished our bus circuit outside the Prado, and noticed that entry is free on Sunday afternoons between 5 and 7pm, so we popped in and decided to check out the special exhibition of Spanish Drawings from the British Museum, from the Renaissance to Goya. There were some stunning works on show, but suddenly Bill got the giggles. He was standing in front of a drawing titled "The Rest of the Holy Family on Flight into Egypt". Bill's question - how many of them were there? (Somebody's family was sitting around under a palm tree, so I guess the title made sense.)

A complementary glass of Perrier-Jouet rose champagne and simple dinner at the hotel's restaurant did for us to round out the day.

Monday morning, first stop, the Prado. It's a pointless exercise trying to describe its treasures, you just have to go there. But what a joy to finally see Las Meninas (the Infanta Margarita masterpiece by Velasquez) in the flesh. And Goya's black paintings are powerful but spooky. Add to these the collections of Velasquez, El Greco, Raphael, Tiepolo, Titian, 'normal' Goya, de Ribera, Rubens and my art-viewing went into overload very quickly.

We strolled across to Plaza Mayor (very large), swung by the San Miguel market, then on to Restaurant Botin for lunch. Botin, founded in 1725, is reputedly the oldest surviving restaurant in the world. It's not a place that would normally whet the appetite, but the attraction of excellent suckling pig was too much. We started by sharing a plate of long beans sauteed with jamon, then tucked into the piggie. Oh, the guilt, but what a piggie - skin as crispy as a wafer-thin shard of toffee, flesh meltingly tender and sweet. It was simply served with the cooking juices and three roasted potatoes. I was a bit sad about having the little chap's curly tail on my plate, but I got over it.

We caught a taxi across to the San Antonio de Florida church to check out its Goya ceiling, but, being Monday, it was closed, so we headed on to the Malasana district to check out the shopping then walked home.

Tuesday, and first stop - Thyssen-Bornemisza for a morning art fix. The special exhibition was four decades of Hyperrealism - a post-pop-art movement that started in America, with a fetish for stereotypes - shop windows, kitsch iconography, gleaming cars and bikes, diners and massive cityscapes. It was wonderful. The Hyperrealists used photos as a starting point and transferred images into paint in extreme detail and gigantic proportions, and were roundly and unjustly condemned by the patronising art world in the late 60's before coming into their own as a genre.

Then it was upstairs for the main event. The collection sprawls across 800 years. I skipped a lot of the early stuff, starting with the gorgeous Retrato de Giovanna degli Abrizzi Tornabuoni by Ghirlandaio, Holbein's Henry VIII and Raphael's luminous Portrait of a Young Man before heading on through a couple of centuries of wonders - Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Vlaminck, Chagall, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, Lichtenstein to name a handful of the glorious collection. What a big day out in the joy department!

We stopped for a coffee and hot chocolate (the colour and viscosity of crude oil) heading back to the San Miguel market in search of lunch. San Miguel is an odd critter - it's not a market in the usual sense, having evolved by clever planning into a canopy housing providors of fruit-vegetables-smallgoods-fish-meat-chocolates-pastries-wine-beer-cider both to take home or, tarted up, to consume in situ. There are also a few wandering purveyors, for example a chap pushing around a giant cigar-shaped glass warming contraption and selling tortilla by the slice (€2.50). The entertainment was provided by a pickpocket who needed to smarten up his game, because he was caught red-handed in double quick time.

We were lucky enough to find a benchtop for two (with stools), so started with assorted olive sticks: green olives-smoked salmon-cheese/green olives-guindilla peppers-anchovies-sundried tomato/a pickled cucumber split lengthways and stuffed with tomato and tuna and secured along its length by two toothpicks, each with a pickled onion on one end and a black olive on the other. €10. Two glass of respectable Rosado -€6. Then a plate of paella each, sold with 30ml of red wine -€10. Perfect.

Suitably refreshed, we walked over to the Palace to check out how the other half lives. To great excess, as it turns out. The first three state rooms were quite attractive, with superb carpets and wall-silk matching the elaborately tassled and baubled window and door hangings. The decor then went upscale in gradiose excess and downhill in taste and human scale. By the time we reached the Velasquez-painted vault in the dining room we were in decor overload and crashed our way through the school children tour groups and into fresh air. But worse was to come. The chapel. It's huge, with three enormous cupola, all caked in gold. It made Monreale in Sicily and St Peter's in Rome appear models of restraint. I reckon a goodly part of the precious loot from the new world ended up in this space.

After all the glitz and glitter, the Real Jardin Botanica was a beautiful and soothing respite, its eight hectares featuring swathes of perfect peony roses and flag irises, with wide hedged pathways containing exuberant rose arches and towers; all shaded by the garden's 15,000 trees. Even on a rainy afternoon it was a delight.

The third major gallery in Madrid was the item of interest for Wednesday morning, but the forecast was such that we decided we should do the second 'hop-on, hop-off' bus circuit, which took in such highlights as the Real Madrid footy stadium, and a housing development that had been constructed to provide intensive middle-class housing, but had ideas above its station and is now an expensive place to live.

Time for coffee, and, as we hadn't darkened the doors of the Palace Hotel, we stopped by its beautiful central space which is filled with light courtesy of an enormous stained glass dome and gilded butterfly mobiles. Immediately, we decided we should dine here for our final evening together.

Back down to the National Museum de Reina Sofia. What an entry cock-up. Line up here. For Dali, only there. You are fine for general entry. Half an hour later, no, this is general entry plus Dali - get lost around the corner where you will find no queue. Success. Enter gallery. Suss out that entry to the gallery where Guernica lives is 180 degrees from the bag scanner. Get arrested by bag scanner. No ablo Inglese. Go through security again. Lordy lordy. By this stage I'm happy to stop by Guernica and nuke the rest, which is not far from what we ended up doing, although the contemporaneous French and Spanish magazine covers and articles were amazing, and the drawings/paintings of the Spanish Civil War extraordinarily powerful in their breakthrough portrayal of the impact of war on civilian life.

Dinner was superb. A beautiful location, perfect service, lovely food, wine, ambience, and all at a comparatively reasonable price. A perfect farewell evening.

Next morning, with an hour to fill in after we'd packed and were ready to check out, we went for a stroll around our vicinity. I'd come across an idiosyncratic shop the previous evening, full of arty, strange and lovely things including Montgolfier balloon mobiles, quilled pen sets, antique maps, limited edition prints of matador watercolours, mini bronzes and the like. And it was open! A mini toro bronze for me, and a bullfighter watercolour print for Bill meant our search for Madrid memorabilia was satisfied, after a lovely few days. Time to head north. Autumn 2013.

*Cayetana died in November 2014; aged 88.

**the reason there's an English epithet inserted into the lineage is because the Alba house directly descends from King James II through his illegitimate son, James Fitz-James, the Duke of Berwick)

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