Caixa Forum Madrid opens major exhibitition on Eugene Delacroix

Madrid, Liberté
Caixa Forum Madrid has teamed up with the Louvre and several other museums and galleries to host a major exhibition on French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix.

Delacroix (1798-1863) is most famous for his painting Liberté, shown above in this Wikimedia Commons image. This masterpiece commemorates the revolution of 1830 in which French king Charles X abdicated and fled to Great Britain. Absolute monarchy was abolished and a constitutional monarchy was created.

This exhibition brings together more than 130 works of the French master from all phases of his career and explores how he was inspired by Spanish painters such as Goya and later influenced Picasso. Unsatisfied with the artistic life in Paris, Delacroix set off to see the world and paint it. He was an adventure traveler in an age when that really meant something and many of his best paintings are of (then) hard-to-get-to countries. The painting below, courtesy Wikimedia Commons, shows The Women of Algiers in their Apartment.

Caixa Forum Madrid is an amazing free art gallery with three floors of exhibition space, a large bookshop, and a cool vertical garden in front. Visiting it is one of the ten best things to do in Madrid. The show runs until January 15, 2012. It will reopen at the Caixa Forum Barcelona in February.
Madrid

Hikes near Madrid: a new guidebook shows you the way (in English!)

hikes near Madrid, MadridEvery year, thousands of English speakers visit Madrid on holiday or to teach English. Most never explore the many hikes near Madrid, and that’s a shame. The Sierra de Guadarrama offers some challenging and varied routes, and the lowland areas of the Comunidad de Madrid offer pleasant rambles. One of the best spots is La Pedriza, which can be a tough slog and easy to get lost in.

One of the reasons these hikes go unexplored by visiting Anglos is that there wasn’t an English-language book dedicated to them. That’s changed with the publication of Take a Hike: The Best 50 Routes in the Community of Madrid. The book is the result of two years of research and walking by expat hikers Beau Macksoud and Cynthia Blair Kane, who also founded Madrid’s only English-language hiking group, Hiking in the Community of Madrid.

I’ve been on several hikes with this book and I can say that it’s accurate and clearly written. Unlike the book I used to hike near Faringdon, Oxfordshire, the maps in Take A Hike are professionally done and easy to follow. They look like they were adapted from Spanish government topo maps. I’ve never understood why some hiking guides think they can get away with sketch maps. In Oxfordshire it’s annoying; in Sierra de Guadarrama it would be downright dangerous.

Take a Hike offers a variety of hiking experiences for all skill levels. It also touches on the history and culture of the area you’re walking through, mentions any local festivals, and even gives you a quick Spanish lesson with a list of hiking and sightseeing-related vocabulary in the margins.

So if you’re headed to Madrid, pick up a copy of this, put the tapas and vino to one side for a day, and go Take a Hike!

[Photo courtesy Ediciones La Librería]

Madrid day trip: a classic Spanish castle at Manzanares el Real

castle, castles, Spain
If you like a good castle, Spain is one of the best countries in the world to visit. One of Spain’s finest castles is at the town of Manzanares el Real and makes a good day trip from Madrid.

El Castillo de los Mendoza was built in 1475 for Don Pedro González de Mendoza as both a palace and fortress, although he never actually lived here. It shows an Islamic flair, as you can see from the pictures. Many Spanish buildings from this period do. Despite all the bloody battles of the Reconquista, the Christians, Jews, and Arabs spent as much time trading ideas as fighting.

The castle dates from near the end of the great castle-building age. Artillery was already becoming common in most armies and castles like this couldn’t stand a long bombardment. Luckily it never had to and it’s one of the best-preserved castles in Spain. One hint that it was at the cusp of the modern era are the arrow slits in the outer wall. They all have loopholes at the bottom to fire guns or small cannons out of. While the guns of the 15th century were less accurate and much slower than bows, they could punch through armor much more effectively.

You’d certainly want some artillery to blow a hole in one of the walls, because going in through the gate would be a very bad idea. The defenders could shoot at you from three sides and drop things from above through those charming favorites of castle architecture–the murder holes. While it’s commonly believed that boiling oil was poured through these, one medievalist and author I know says the story of using boiling oil in sieges is a myth. Apparently boiling water was just as good and much cheaper.

%Gallery-133714%
Inside is a beautiful courtyard surrounded by a two-story arcade. The rooms inside have been restored with period artifacts to show what the bedrooms, women’s quarters, and dining halls looked like. elegant tapestries adorn the walls, and there are interactive computer displays to tell you more.

Climb the towers for a splendid view of the strangely shaped rocks of La Pedriza looming to the north and the glittering modern reservoir to the south.

Just east of the castle is a 16th century fountain that refreshed hermits in days gone by. They were headed for two Renaissance churches in town, La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de las Nieves (The Church of our Lady of the Snows) and La Ermita de Nuestra Señora de la Peña Sacra (The Hermitage of Our Lady of the Sacred Stone). Both are worth a visit. There are also the remains of the Castillo Viejo (Old Castle) on the other side of town. Built in the mid-14th century, it’s little more than a crumbled ruin these days.

The town of Manzanares el Real is very compact and all sites are within easy walking distance of each other. If walking around the medieval sights puts you in the mood for something more strenuous, the rocky hills of La Pedriza, with their rock formations, is just next to town. If walking makes you hungry, there are several good restaurants and cafes and the butchers sell excellent locally sourced venison.

To get to Manzanares el Real, take bus 724 from Madrid’s Plaza de Castilla bus station. The ride costs €3.50 euros one-way and takes about 45 minutes. Entrance to the castle is €3.

There’s another castle and Spanish Civil War bunker close to the center of Madrid and hundreds more scattered across the country. For more tips on what to see and do in Madrid, check out AOL Travel’s travel guide to Madrid.

Naval Museum in Madrid: an overlooked treasure

MadridAfter six years of living in Madrid, I’ve finally made it to the Naval Museum.

It’s overlooked by most tourists. In fact, it’s overlooked by a lot of madrileños. I’ve met some locals who didn’t even know it exists. Perhaps being so far away from the sea they don’t expect there to be a major naval museum downtown. It also doesn’t help that it’s tucked behind a modest facade that’s easy to miss.

Go inside, though, and you find yourself in a massive collection of paintings, cannons, uniforms, even parts of old ships.

Spain was one of of the leading naval powers in the Golden Age of Sail. It owned much of the New World and scattered colonies around the globe. It protected its interests with a large fleet of warships.

The museum skips lightly over the medieval period and gets really detailed starting at the Age of Exploration. Columbus is given his due, and many other lesser-known explorers are also covered. The maps are fun to study. The most important is that of Juan de la Cosa, made in 1500 and the first known map to show the New World.

The biggest section is for warships from the 16th-18th centuries, when Spain was a superpower. Here you’ll find uniforms, weapons, flags, and a nice collection of figureheads like the one shown here. One of the most interesting exhibits is the wreck of the Nao, which sank in 1600. Archaeologists donned scuba gear and excavated the wreck, bringing up a huge collection of porcelain from China as well as other artifacts.

The 19th and 20th centuries are also covered, although not in as much detail. By then Spain’s power was waning. There are some detailed models and paintings of ships that were making the transition from sail to steam. They had steam engines but kept their masts just in case those early engines broke, which they did regularly! The Spanish Civil War is only covered in passing. I’ve yet to see a Spanish museum that’s come to terms with this bloody conflict. It’s still in living memory, so the old wounds remain open.

The section for the modern navy is worth a look too. While small compared to those of the U.S., Russia, and UK, the Armada still packs a punch. It has two aircraft carriers, ten frigates, four submarines, and a host of smaller ships. This puts Spain way ahead of Morocco, its only potentially hostile neighbor.

The only downside to this museum is that the signage is all in Spanish. Don’t worry if you don’t speak the language; most of the exhibits are pretty self-explanatory. The museum is free. Because it’s in a military building, make sure to bring ID to get in.

%Gallery-133135%

Madrid day trip: the Alcázar castle in Segovia

Segovia
As I mentioned yesterday, Segovia makes a great day trip from Madrid. One of the highlights of any visit is the Alcázar, or castle. Rising from the highest point on the promontory on which Segovia is built, it dominates the town and looks impossible to attack. The architects cut away part of the bedrock to make a dry moat cutting off the castle from the rest of the town, so to get in you have to cross a drawbridge over a deep drop. Don’t look down if you’re afraid of heights!

There may have been a fort here in Roman times, and there certainly was one when the Moors controlled this part of Spain. The present castle was built in the early 12th century and was added to and remodeled several times. Several Castilian monarchs used the castle as their palace. Isabella was living here when she was crowned in 1474, and she married King Ferdinand II here. In 1492 they reconquered Granada, the last Muslim holdout on the Iberian peninsula. They also sponsored some crazy explorer named Columbus to sail across the Atlantic to find India that year, but the big news was capturing Granada.

Several rooms are decorated with suits of armor, including knights on horseback. Even the horses have armor, which was called barding. The walls are adorned with medieval and Renaissance paintings showing courtly and battle scenes. Check out the ceilings to see some intricate painting and relief work that shows Muslim influence. When the Spanish and Moors weren’t fighting, they were trading ideas and Spain was a melting pot of different cultures. The throne room and the chapel are the most impressive rooms and have been restored to their original splendor.

%Gallery-128521%Starting in 1896 and for much of the twentieth century, the Alcázar housed the Artillery Academy. There’s a large artillery museum here showing the development of artillery and the daily life of the cadets. Unfortunately the signage is all in Spanish, but a lot of the displays are self-explanatory.

Military aficionados will love the Armory, a long vaulted room filled with medieval arms and armor. There are numerous examples of early cannon from the 15th century. The first depiction of a cannon dates to 1326, and by 1375 they were being used in sieges to knock down walls. The days of castles were numbered. These cannons are pretty crude, made of long strips of iron welded together with loops around them like barrels (hence the name) to strengthen them.

If medieval warfare isn’t your thing, you’ll still appreciate the views you can get from the many windows and battlements. If you’re feeling fit, ascend the steep, winding staircase up to the top of the tower for sweeping views of Segovia and the surrounding countryside. This is an excellent spot to take pictures.

Love castles? Check out our posts on the ten toughest castles in the world and the ten best castles in Europe!