In Madrid, running the gamut from Velazquez to Vino

By: David Love

By: David Love

By: David Love

Madrid has long suffered from the perception that the city is but a stuffy, starch-collared collection of museums. As Europe's fifth-biggest city, however, Madrid has as much to offer geriatric tour groups as it does the 20-something backpackers who flock there each year.

Before becoming a believer, you'll need a bed, and accommodation is as cheap or as expensive as you'd like. Madrid has a smattering of five-star hotels, but plenty of 20-euro-a-night hostels or 40-euro pensiones no less centrally located. After getting situated, my favorite way to shed jet lag is to relax in the city's main park, the Retiro, where the manicured lawns, towering evergreens and swan-stuffed ponds erase the memory of the surrounding city. Soon you fall into step with the Madrileños passing their time as they see fit — which is to say, slowly. "No hay prisa," or "there's no hurry," seems to be Madrid's unofficial motto, and the city's street musicians and easy-going sense of life suffuse the place with a lazy energy.

A few blocks from the Retiro are all three of Madrid's most important museums: the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen. The Prado is often mentioned in the same breath as the Met and the Louvre, but I've found that a great many of its paintings are lost on those not versed in Greek mythology or the Bible.

Many people seem eager to trade in Goya and Velazquez for Dali and Picasso at the Reina Sofia, home to the 20th century's most famous painting, Picasso's Guernica. As for the Thyssen, it's usually last on everyone's list, as it seems to hold one insignificant work by every significant painter – Rembrandt, Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Hopper – though it, too, is worth a visit.

My most enjoyable museum experience in Madrid, however, is not one of the big three, but the Sorolla House, the former home of Spanish Impressionist Joaquin Sorolla that houses the bulk of his free-flowing, light-infused work.

The museums don't offer quite the same rejuvenation as the park, and afterward it's nice to get off your feet a moment for a drink or a meal. Spain's main meal of the day is lunch ("comer," rather than simply "to eat," means "to have lunch" in Spain), which they take between 2 and 3 p.m.

Affordable menus del dia, where tipping is optional, are available on the calle Atocha near the museums. In the city's restaurants and cafes, you'll quickly notice the famous Spanish "life on the streets," in which people of all ages (nursing homes and day cares are rare in Spain) leave behind the privacy of their homes in droves to meet friends and family for a chat and a glass of wine or tapas. So much so, Spaniards claim, that Spain not only sleeps less than any other European country, but spends the largest percentage of its income entertaining with food and drink as well.

Madrid, having escaped destruction in both World Wars, is one of Europe's great strolling cities. The big three museums are all connected by the Paseo del Prado, a grand boulevard with an arborous median that is home to the famous Cibeles and Neptune fountains. Up the calle Alcala from Cibeles is the Puerta del Sol and the main shopping district, and not far from Sol is the Plaza Mayor where the tourists get into the act and sit for hours in the square with a drink. All along the way are dozens of cafes and tiny plazas, always full with good weather and people out, out, out; the early evening streets are usually pulsing with life.

For dinner (Spaniards take it between 10 and midnight), there's no shortage of choices, but the calle Huertas, a long pedestrian street, offers a heavy concentration of bars and restaurants in a bohemian atmosphere. Affordable tapas at 6-8 euros a plate is easy to find – everything from the simple tastes of croquets, calamari, and patatas bravas (potatoes in a spicy red sauce), to local specialties such as cow intestines and bull's tail.

After dinner, the easiest way to grasp the city's sense of life is to mix with the Madrileños over drinks — their preferred social activity, and one that floods the cafes and empties private homes. Alcohol is a part of daily life here and has no stigma, regardless of the hour, though it serves more as an excuse for conversation than an intoxicant. "Having a drink" usually means three or four glasses of wine spread over four or five hours of animated exchanges with strong opinions and wild gesticulations no matter the subject, but despite their relative sobriety, the intense back-and-forths often sound like drunken arguments to foreigners.

No closing time exists in Spain, and the bars stay open until the customers leave, which in many cases is first light. No matter what kind of early bird you might be, the pace of life is, if nothing less, an informative experience. Besides, little opens before 10 a.m. — plenty of time to get ready to do it all again.

David Love was born and raised in Champaign and graduated from the University of Illinois in 2008. He is teaching English in Spain.

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