Art and Soul: The creative side of Madrid
Written by Brian Johnston
Madrid has some of the world’s best art museums, but its culture also comes alive in its streets, theatres, and flamenco venues too, says frequent visitor Brian Johnston.
Spain has made mighty contributions to Western art, but it isn’t only worth visiting for El Greco and Goya. From stylish fashion boutiques to jazz bars, theatre performances to architectural delights, art in Madrid is everywhere you look.
Art is a living, breathing part of Madrid. You can see it in the gargoyles and curlicues of its historic districts, and in the bold metals and curved lines of its modern architecture. The patterns of its petunia-popping flowerbeds are Picasso abstracts, and bearded gentlemen straight from a Goya canvas sit gossiping on park benches. You can feel art in the atmosphere. Art here isn’t stuffy but alive in the streets: the drift of jazz music, the clatter of castanets, the stylish way of life. Late-night squares are shadowy cinematographic stage sets through which laughter flows.
Have the Spanish always been arty, or have its painters and writers and Carmen just made them seem so? Hard to tell. But if you want to trace its art influences, Madrid is a fine place to be. The city had a late start, only really getting going during the Renaissance, but its art quickly became magnificent. First there was brooding El Greco (who admittedly moved on to nearby Toledo), then came court painters Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya. Goya got his start with light-hearted rococo themes but became famous for dark portraits and anti-war paintings. A fourth painter, Bartolomé Murillo, painted Madrid’s street urchins, flower girls, and housewives. Today he’s considered sentimental, but he hugely influenced other European artists.
You can see all four Spanish greats (and more) at El Prado in the centre of Madrid. Wear comfortable shoes and focus just on Spanish art, because this is one of the world’s best art galleries, with exhausting choices. Its Spanish paintings are magnificent enough, from the unconventional and surprisingly modern-looking works of El Greco to cheery beauty from Murillo. Check out Velázquez’s Maids of Honour, which some say is Spain’s greatest painting.
Spanish art had a snooze in the 19th century, but hop over to Centro Reina Sofía and see what happened when it got going again. The ever-colourful Juan Gris flung himself into cubism, and Pablo Picasso into just about everything. The museum has some of his greatest works, including the huge 1937 anti-Civil-War canvas Guernica. What’s good about Centro Reina Sofía is that it displays paintings, sculpture, photography, and other media by theme, allowing you to trace the emergence of 20th-century art. Surrealist works by Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró are fascinating and peculiar. The kids will love them.
The third of Madrid’s outstanding art collections is Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, though it has less focus on Spanish art. The city also has dozens of smaller museums with more manageable collections, such as the gorgeous Museo de Cerralbo and Museo Lázaro Galdiano, where a whole room is devoted to Goya.
When museum fatigue sets in, however, there are other ways to soak up Madrid’s arty heritage and contemporary character. Some would argue that football is an art form here, not to mention café sitting and ir la marcha, literally ‘going on parade’, the nightly ritual of being out and about in the capital’s elegant squares and seemingly endless tapas bars. Though not for everyone, many in Madrid consider bullfighting to be an art too, regularly on show at the Plaza de Toros between mid-May and late October and on most Sundays during the rest of the year.
You can see art hanging in the chic fashion shops of Salamanca district and the quirkier designer stores of Chueca. La Latina quarter has shops featuring contemporary ceramics and modernist furniture that might well one day be in a museum. You can buy modern Spanish art in the galleries along Calle de Claudio Coello. Or just watch it at trendy Cine Doré, a pink art-deco cinema that screens international art-house movies and marvellous Spanish classics such as the 1947 Don Quijote de la Mancha or works by great Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar.
If you’ve had enough of the visual arts, there’s plenty of art to be heard in Madrid, too. For more structured versions, head to the ultra-modern Auditorio Nacional de Música, which hosts chamber, choral, and symphony music. The Círculo de Bellas Artes has concerts too, and dance performances and theatre and – this being Madrid – of course a good café, all pillars and parquet and frescoed ceilings. Picasso and Dalí were once students at this fine arts foundation, and the café made a notable appearance in the 1993 Almodóvar movie Kika.
Lovers of more unstructured music will be happy in Madrid thanks to its many jazz bars, especially off Plaza del Ángel, where jazz musicians are just getting warmed up as the hot summer evenings cool down. Café Central is among Europe’s best jazz venues, and often features acts of international renown. If you know any Spanish, you could also try a half-dozen theatres for plays, or visit Teatro de la Zarzuela for a particularly Spanish variety of musical theatre, zarzuela, which combines opera, song, dance, and the spoken word.
But to me the living art form that shouldn’t be missed when visiting Madrid is flamenco. The Spanish folk music and dance form didn’t originate in the city – rather in Andalusia in the south – but Madrid has been instrumental in its recent revival. Theatres and night venues resound to the twang of guitars and the stomping of feet on floorboards, and the haunting songs of the flamenco float on the night air around Plaza del Conde. One of the best venues is the prestigious Corral de la Morería – don’t forget to check out the signatures of famous patrons on the walls, from Frank Sinatra to Omar Sharif.
Head to Las Carboneras if you want to catch Spain’s leading flamenco practitioners in action, or the shabby Casa Patas on Calle Cañizares, where rickety tables have patrons jammed knee to knee and décor is an alien concept. But when the flamenco starts, art and soul oozes and rattles and stomps. Old men in battered hats sing mournful tales of love betrayed, guitars tremble, dancers twist and clap. In the shadows, the faces of the patrons are as rapt as onlookers in a Goya canvas from the walls of the Prado.
If you’re itching for fresh air and open spaces after all those museums, Madrid obliges. El Retiro is formed from former royal gardens and is dotted with statuary, trees, and flowerbeds filled with roses. Beneath the royal palace, Campo del Moro has beautiful gardens spilling down to the Manzanares River. You could also head to El Capricho, a French-style park shaded by magnificent trees. Madrid’s parks will let the kids burn off their energy too. El Retiro is alive at weekends with buskers and puppet shows, has rowing boats on its lake, and permits rollerblading and cycling. Parque de Atracciones amusement park has 30 attractions, from a mini roller coaster to boat rides and flying chairs. You could also head to the 7km Madrid Río, created by sending a section of motorway underground. The riverbank stretch has slides, swings, and fountains – plus plenty of terrace cafés for the adults.
Sergi Arola Gastro
Sergi Arola, one of Spain’s best chefs, turns dishes into artworks with his reinterpretations of Spanish classics such as gazpacho and cod loin, and his international (especially Japanese) influences that reflect the flair of Madrid’s cutting-edge dining scene.
Calle de Zurbano 31, +34 913 10 2169.
Zoo Aquarium de Madrid
Madrid’s sprawling zoo features a great variety of creatures, including white tigers, anteaters, endearing lemurs, and two giant pandas. Kids will also be entertained by regular sea-lion, bird, and dolphin shows. The zoo sits in the greenbelt Casa de Campo, which also has play areas, walking paths, ponds, and a cable-car ride.
Casa de Campo, +34 902 345 014
If you’re looking to relax in the quintessential tapas joint, ‘The Trout’ provides whitewashed simplicity, blue tiling, and a wide choice of traditional Andalusian nibbles, such as oxtail stew, tender Galician octopus, stuffed peppers, and delectable fried fish.
Calle de Núñez de Arce 6,
+34 91 532 0890.
Silken Puerta America
Designed by 19 of the world’s leading avant-garde architects, including Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel, and Zaha Hadid, this art hotel is for those with bold tastes. Some rooms have no square angles, others are moulded plastic, and colour is everywhere.
Avenida América 41, +34 917 445 400,
Distance: 5,340 km
Flight Time: 7 hrs, 25 mins