Millions of Americans have come to Madrid, enjoyed themselves immensely and then departed. It’s a safe city, I tell you; it really is, despite what my friend said. The last thing to ever cross my mind here is that something fateful is going to befall me. But a few, a very few, mind you, have had a notably rougher time of it. The worst that comes to my mind was the time two young college students and Italian suffered a horrific death in a car on the Gran Vía. The Italian was at the helm of the vehicle and, from what I imagine had more alcohol in his body than the car had fuel. And he was also commandeering a car far too potent for the circumstances. Well, they came roaring up Alcalá from the Plaza de Cibeles and veered right onto the Gran Vía. That’s it; it’s not a sharp 90º turn but rather a wide curve will plenty of road to invite the Formula 1 pilot in you to pull all sorts of insane stunts. That’s what they did. But they failed; and the car slammed right into a street light. A thick one. I am sure they were having a blast up until that point, but things only got worse. The car burst into flames and the occupants were pinned inside. Unfortunately they had not been killed during the initial impact and unfortunately they were far from unconscious. The ensuing helpless screams for help and the helpless cries of helplessness from those who happened to be nearby and were trying to do something turn the tragedy into a horrific experience for everyone. The commotion woke up nearly half the neighborhood, many of the buildings themselves were hotels and the balconies filled with stunned tourists in pajamas and mouths agape and hands on heads and eyes turning away and ears seeking silence.
I wasn’t even there and I still never fully recovered from the thought. I recalled the film The Great Waldo Pepper, a 1970s movie about a famous barnstormer. In one scene, another pilot crashes his biplane and gets caught in a similar situation. Robert Redford, who plays Waldo, has to club him to death to put him out of his misery. I was about eight years old when I saw the movie. It must have made an impression on me. I don’t like flying biplanes, I don’t like being stuck in small places, and I have an aversion towards being burnt to a crisp.
Anyway, I hadn’t started this section of the guide to discuss stories about madmen and their flying machines nor young collegians who get charred alive beyond recognition.
I came to talk about the Prado Museum.
One great thing about the Prado is that you don’t have to go into it if you don’t want to. You can sit outside on the lush grassy hill and read a book or watch people go in and out.
Or you can go in yourself.
The Prado is no longer the low-priced bargain you used to be able to count on. Like most big museums in this city, a ticket will require dropping ten euros at the door. Some find this outrageous and an attack on common sense, democracy, freedom and the pursuit of happiness, but that is what many places are charging for a gin and tonic, and normally people have three or four, so I don’t really know what people are griping about.
You can also do what I sometimes do, which is go after six o’clock and get in for free. The Cheapskate Hour is perfect because I really take in art for more than an hour, hour and a half tops. After that my mind drifts, so what’s the point.
Still, there are times when you feel some moral pressure to contribute to the preservation of art, so there are times when forking over the cash is almost the humanly thing to do.
Regardless, if you go inside, and some people do, there are two themes you should be familiar with that will help you understand Spanish art better: One is Spanish history and the other Christianity. Many foreigners know neither so they sort of wander around the gallery admiring the technical style and the images but don’t really have any idea what they are looking at, nor who the characters are that are being depicted. But since going to the Prado for any visitor, you go, you see, and you go again. You can just use your eyes and other senses, sit back and enjoy the emotion. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always cut it with classical art. A little training in classical themes helps.
Las Meninas by Velázquez is the museum’s most famous work and considered by many to be the greatest work in the history of Art, which is ridiculous because there is no such thing. Still critics go to great lengths to analyze its fascinating look at perspective. I am no expert because, but it’s not my favorite painting by far. It is a technical wonder, no doubt, but is that art is all about? Is that what art all about? Don’t leave without seeing Goya, not the royal court stuff, but the dark works on the lower floor. Outstanding.
What the hell. I didn’t know anything about describing fine art museums. Just what kind of guide was I going to make this out to be? There I was, lounging about the grassy hill and thinking about going in. I had been in there dozens of times. You can go to the Prado. Just go and see it. You have to. It’s one of life’s experiences. I go from time to time. It’s healthy to roam within its walls and mingle with the paintings.
That day I spent much of the morning reading an American novel and thinking about going in, but I stayed outside and enjoyed the weather.