Christmas in Spain – Madrid

After a drizzly few months of autumn and winter in Amsterdam, nothing sounded better than Christmas in Spain. Axa and Raj get a whopping three weeks off of school, so we were able to take advantage of extra cheap plane flights to Madrid. We flew in Tuesday evening, and finally made it to our apartment sometime after one in the morning. Our host, Felix, graciously waited up for us to let us in. After three years of trying to understand Puerto Rican Spanish in Florida, I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I’d forgotten the Spanish I learned on my mission to Chile. So I was quite pleased to find that I could communicate perfectly with Felix. Strangely, from his lips, the accent of Spain seemed effortless for me to understand. Then he told me he was from Venezuela. Oh, well. At least I still speak South American Spanish.

The next day we got up and walked to the Prado, Madrid’s giant fine arts museum. On the way, we were touched to see this giant welcome to the refugees draped over the Palacio de Cibeles.

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I was last in the Prado in 2001, when I spent a week in Spain at the tail end of a six month study abroad in the Middle East. It was even grander than I remembered, and such fun to share with my favorite people. Axa and Raj are great museum troopers, and we spent two and a half hours and saw every floor of the museum, which to me was absolute nirvana. No photos were allowed, unfortunately, but just picture us drinking in Rubens and Titian, Velasquez and dozens of other Spanish masters, an entire floor full of classical statues, and even the relatively new Goya exhibit on the top floor, which I found myself enjoying more than I expected, since what I recalled of Goya from my previous visit were bloody photos of men being stood up against dusty walls and shot during the Spanish civil war. This new Goya exhibit was mostly pastoral scenes of whimsical games and animals. The children especially liked his droll paintings of dogs, songbirds, and other animals, often on oddly proportioned but wonderful canvases.

After the museum, we walked a few blocks up the hill (another revelation compared to Amsterdam’s persistent flatness: hills!) to the Parco del Retiro, Madrid’s largest and most impressive urban green space. There we had our first picnic in Spain—fresh bread, jamon, Iberian cheese, cherry tomatoes, and tangerines. One thing we’ve terribly missed from the Italy is the effortlessly delicious food, and Spain definitely reminds us of that. Even the simplest of meals are a culinary fantasy under the Mediterranean sun.

The highlight of our trip to Madrid, if you ask the children, was a boat ride on the little lake in the park overshadowed by the impressive monument to Alfonso XII.

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When we stepped into the boat, the operators handed both oars to Tony. But Axa and Raj demonstrated their prowess at rowing.

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We also visited the gorgeous Crystal Palace, an erstwhile greenhouse now housing a somewhat bizarre artistic experience involving dozens of random fossils suspended from the ceiling at various heights, along with the odd crucifix. Despite the corner occupied by the fossils, the palace was mostly empty, and expansive.

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The only way I could think of improving the space was possibly to fill it with the hauntingly erotic dancing of Russian dancer Sergei Polunin.

After dinner at home, we headed back out to see the Temple of Debod, a bona fide ancient Egyptian temple that rises improbably over the skyline of urban Madrid. The temple is part of a series of Egyptian temples from areas that were flooded by the construction of the Aswan Dam. They have been re-assembled in various corners of the world, including New York, the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy, and, to Axa’s interest, Leiden, just a few kilometres from home in Amsterdam.

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After we put the kids to bed, Tony and I went out for Spanish tapas, with which I was served the largest glass of wine I’d ever seen.

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We’d have loved to dance the night away (or at least he would have), but we’d gone to bed at two the night before, and we were tired. So we went to bed after closing our Persianas (the typical blinds used in Italy and Spain, that completely shut out the light) to shut out the sounds of the Madrid nightlife and the Star Wars pre-party going on down the street.