The Gombrich

I had my first exam here in Spain. It was for my Visual Culture class, and, as it covers The Story of Art by Gombrich it’s infamously called “El Gombrich” by current and former students. Now, I took an art history course in high school. I read the book in question. But the test swam in front of my eyes and both of the two choices always seemed right. Later, one of the students told me that they were both right, half the time, you had to pick the better one, and sometimes the difference hung on some minor point, some subtle linguistic shading. Lovely. And did I mention that it’s apparently common practice here for all the students to pass around the exams from the previous years? I’m glad they told me about that more than fifteen minutes before the exam’s were passed out…

But none of that really matters in the end. Either I passed, or I didn’t pass. That’s all that matters, because my grades here translate back as pass/fail. I didn’t really think about the possibility of failing anything, not before. I was actually shaking a little bit when I signed into ADI. The scale goes from 1-10, but it’s not exactly like our percentages. 5 or above is a passing grade. 5 or below is a failing grade. Either I passed, or I didn’t pass. Above 5, or under 5…

I got a 6,87. It’s nothing to be proud of. But I passed. And I did it in Spanish. 🙂 And some of the Spanish students didn’t, and I know because we all got an email informing us of the consequences for those students. And I passed. 🙂 I can do this.

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Published in: on October 21, 2010 at 22:04  Leave a Comment  
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A Weekend in Madrid – Part Two

The Palacio Real

Day two started with a tour of the Royal Palace, which looked nice enough from the outside (apparently it cuts a better figure if you approach it from behind, but that view was a bit of a walk from where we were, and it was a cold and blustery day.) Inside, though, the corridors seemed to go on and on, and the scale of the building started to become evident. We were told that the Palace had 2,800 bedrooms! If that’s true, it must include servants quarters and the like… but still!

The decoration was beautiful, if sometimes ornate to the point of ridiculous. There were clocks and tables and statues utilizing every sort of precious metal, jewel, and wood, paintings by Velazquez, Tiepolo, and Caravaggio, tapestries, and even entire walls covered in embroidery so thick it seemed carved. We also saw collections of china and silver, an incredibly rare set of instruments, and the royal pharmacy with its hundreds of drawers and glass bottles. I once again have to shamefacedly admit my surprise at the sheer opulence of the palace, at the riches that belonged to the Spanish monarchy. In the past I’ve been known to forget that Spain even has a King… I don’t think that will happen again any time soon!

Squid in their own ink at the world's oldest restaurant, Botin!

Before we knew where the day had gone, we were getting ready for the night. It was Sara’s birthday, and we were going out on the town. Our first stop was dinner at Botin, the world’s oldest restaurant according to the Guinness Book of World Records! It may have been the most expensive meal I’ll eat this semester, but it still could have been worse considering the combination of novelty and genuinely good food. I ordered baby squid in their own ink, a recommendation I’d carried around for several years, and absolutely loved it. I know it sounds a bit scary, but Sara’s friend Colleen tasted and loved it too – the flavour was mild but rich – and nothing like pen ink. 😉 Dessert was a slice of cake with a layer of egg-yolk yema and a topping of caramelized sugar.

Fire show in Chueca

Our bachelorette friends...

Next we headed to Chueca, Madrid’s gay neighborhood, for some people watching and pre-gaming, which sounds much more dignified in Spanish, as “Botellón”. We had fun laughing and drinking in the cold night and even saw a fire show in the street before we went down into the station to take refuge from the biting wind. We finally headed in the general direction of the Discoteca, following a bachelorette party on the way, but the line was at least an hour long, and we were having a lot of fun even without the club atmosphere, so we went for ice cream at McDonalds and chocolate and churros at San Gines. It was a fun night for everyone. I don’t think Sara or I would ever have imagined that we would spend her 21st birthday party together in Madrid, Spain, but neither of us were disappointed!

We slept in as late as we wanted the next morning, and finally woke to a little birthday surprise for Sara from her host mother, and a reminder that it was Sunday, the day of the Rastro. El Rastro is a huge open-air market that seems to go on for miles, and Sara and I spent a good hour wandering through. In the end, I escaped with only a new shirt and a new dress, which I ‘needed’ for the winter time anyway. I ate my final Madrid meal, a famous calamari sandwich, at a nearby bar. Then I had to head back home, sad to be leaving but very satisfied with my time in Spain’s capital city.

Published in: on October 20, 2010 at 19:13  Leave a Comment  
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A Weekend in Madrid – Part One

The bus from Pamplona to Madrid will cost you five hours of your life and 20 euros, every bit of it well spent. I went there this weekend, ostensibly to celebrate my high school friend Sara’s 21st birthday. This we did, and in fabulous style, but we also found the time for the more typical tourist experience. I have to say that I was extremely impressed.

Parque del Buen Retiro

A shameful admission: Although I’d learned some things about Spanish food and culture before coming, part of me hadn’t ranked it with the U.K., Germany, or France in terms of European high culture and prestige. As excited as I was to learn about Basque identity, or see the cultural influences left by the Moors, I didn’t realize that they could coexist alongside a strong European tradition. I knew tapas were famous for a reason, but I didn’t rank them next to French cuisine – I knew the Pyrenees were beautiful, but I didn’t group them with the Alps – I knew Prado was a good museum, but I didn’t really think of it in the same breath as the Louvre. And nowhere did I feel more mistaken than in Madrid – a city that can stand with pride next to Paris or London.

Arriving at 6:30 in the morning, I was a little bit nervous about making my way across such a big and unfamiliar city before dawn. I needn’t have worried. Enough of Madrid’s 5 million people were either up early or still awake from the night before to make me feel safe. City workers were out cleaning the streets and the fountains (it’s very clean for such a big city), and the cardboard boxes filled with homeless people were tucked out of the way and silent. Sara came and took me back to her apartment, where I slept for a few hours and woke up to a different city entirely.

By 10, the streets were packed with people. Sara lives close to the Plaza del Sol and the Plaza Mayor, both very popular with tourists and street performers. We saw all the usuals – mariachi bands, living statues, blow-paint artists… as well as some less common variants. My favourite was the man who hid under what looked like an enormous tinsel pom-pom, with a goat mask perched on top, who would baahh pitifully and shake a bell. There were actually two of these, and one had supplemented their costume with a wedding veil. We ducked into a bakery for a quick breakfast, and I ate a tasty Napolitana with chocolate.

Parque del Buen Retiro

Sara’s study abroad program includes several weekend excursions, and since I came on a weekend that included several, they let me tag along! I was happy enough to get a free tour guide, but for some reason the coordinator even covered my entrance to the different sites, a pleasant surprise.

These big metal tree sculptures move!

First was the walking tour of ‘the Madrid of the Bourbons”, which focused on the revolutionary way that the House of Bourbon, in particular King Carlos III, actually seemed to care something for the common people, building a good hospital (now the Reina Sofia art museum), the Prado, and the Royal Botanical Gardens “for the health and pleasure of the people”. I was really impressed by this entire area of the city, filled with green spaces and beautiful monuments. We spent some time wandering through the Parque del Buen Retiro, with it’s crystal palace and artificial lakes. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the park is known as “The Lungs of Madrid”.

The tour continued after lunch in the Prado art museum, where we spent two hours following Goya’s life and periods across dozens of his paintings. Sara went back home to study, and I stayed behind to see the rest of the Prado, and then hopped into the Reina Sofia to see Guernica. For dinner, we went to a street known for its prostitute traffic, and enjoyed the show while we ate Kebabs. Sara’s study abroad adviser actually recommended this!

Published in: on October 20, 2010 at 18:19  Leave a Comment  
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Museo del Prado

Madrid’s main art museum, Museo del Prado, was high on my list of things to see in Madrid. I’d heard so many people speak glowingly of it, and although I was arrogant enough (I admit!) to assume that it would house mainly Spanish art, it was still well worth a visit in my eyes. Even without counting the modern artists like Picasso or Dali, Spain was home to El Greco, Velazquez, and Goya, after all! I entered the Prado at 3 and didn’t escape its charms for nearly three hours – and I could have stayed longer. Just coming off a test in Art History, I was amazed by both the depth and breadth of the collection – there were rooms after rooms filled with Velazquez and El Greco, but I also found dozens of famous paintings from Italy, Flanders, and more – all jumping out as delightful surprises.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

The one that struck me the most was El Bosco – that’s Hieronymus Bosch to you! I blinked when I turned a corner and found myself face to face with The Garden of Earthly Delights – it’s not something I’d like to have hanging in my home, but it’s always fascinated me by how strange, how imaginative, and how modern it is… and it was painted 500 years ago! I also found pieces by Rogier van der Weyden, Durer, Raphael, Titian, Tiepolo, Caravaggio, Fra Angelico, Rubens, and others.

Some other surprises were a Mona-Lisa look alike by an unknown artist, and several large paintings from the life of Queen Joanna the Mad, which arrested me with their intensity.

Queen Joanna the Mad

Since I arrived with Sara’s school group, I went on their tour first. It was two hours of Goya, and such are the variety and intricacy of the museum’s 140 paintings by Goya that we had to move at a pretty good clip! Like Picasso, Goya went through different artistic periods, from his portraits of royals and happy depictions of idyllic life (always infused with just as much commentary as he could sneak in), to his depictions of the disasters of war, to the frightening and dark images, such as Saturn Devouring His Son, that he painted in his old age on the walls of his home.

Las Meninas

The most famous painting in the Prado, it’s own Mona Lisa, is probably Las Meninas by Velazquez. For this reason I saved it for last. Wikipedia has a longer article dedicated to this painting than to many cities! I love how, artistic mastery and commentary aside, what really seemed to amuse most of the people looking at it was the little game Velazquez has played with the composition – the painting within the painting, the tell-tale reflection in the mirror. As I looked at the painting, a bit startled, as always, to see such a famous icon in its material, fragile reality, a security guard hunched down to happily ask some children if they could find the king and the queen in the picture!

Published in: on October 18, 2010 at 09:25  Comments (2)  
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