In this journal:
- a ghost metro station;
- gibberish “Chinese” words;
- a room made out of porcelain.
The fact remains that four thousand years ago, when we did not know how to read, they [the Chinese] knew everything essentially useful of which we boast today.Voltaire, Art de la Chine
As I have previously explained in the introduction section of L.A.S.T., I had to base myself in Madrid for a while in order to utilize the great sale Iberia had put on. Moreover, my parents would later join me in Madrid to enjoy some free flights as well, making Madrid a temporary home for me in March of 2019. You will see three journals dedicated to the imperial Spanish capital in this entire series, each featuring different niche aspects of this great nation that you would otherwise omit on a casual visit: it would be my 6th, 7th, and 8th time in the city after all! (see other times when I visit Madrid here)
The three sister journals are:
- Madrid Ⅰ (this journal)
- -before Porto
- -focus: foreign influences
- Madrid Ⅱ
- -after Porto/before Sevilla
- -focus: food in Madrid
- Madrid Ⅲ
- -after Marrakech
- -focus: city of Toledo
Clear as mud? Good, and here I present you the majestic shining jewel of West Europe: Madrid!
Villa y Corte
Many Spaniards would fondly remember Madrid by its nickname, Villa y Corte, but very few know that this metropolis is actually a literal “village and court.” Since Madrid’s establishment as a village in 1202, nobody bothered to change its status from town to city, and as a result, technically speaking Madrid is just equivalent to a rural farming center.
My laid back days in Madrid began with a nice stroll in my favorite park in town: Buen Retiro. This 350-acre piece of green heart breathed new life into the city as the hundreds of cherry blossoms heralded the arrival of me, and spring. In the clear morning, only a few dozens of joggers were sporadically seen on the premise, and all its slightly brown and dull beauty was for mine to behold. I am not sure how many times that I have visited the park, but the sensation was the same nonetheless regardless of the time of the year, the day, or the heart.
One of the rather peculiar points of interests in the park is this fountain dedicated to Lucifer himself. Unlike nowadays when Lucifer is the third sexiest name for a boy and the second sexiest protagonist in a TV show, Satan was generally considered a taboo subject to depict in public monuments, so this is very likely the only one in the world. Conveniently situated 666 meters above sea level, the fallen angel himself is surrounded by eight demonic heads and misjudged reptile heads, in a vivid display of betrayal and anguish. Probably inspired by John Milton’s Paradise Lost, sculptor Ricardo Bellever instilled a sense of empathy into every beholder ever since the masterpiece’s inauguration in the 3rd World Fair that took place in 1802.
Crystal Palace, another relic from the olden days when people fantasized about the world becoming a better place during the early years of World Fairs (ahhh how naive were we!), was the claim to fame for this popular park. A stunning imitation of the one built in London just 30 years prior, this mostly glass and brick structure inaugurated in 1887, first as a greenhouse to display exotic plants transported all the way from Vietnam. It was charmingly baroque yet still elegantly natural, thanks to the greenery penetrating the transparent walls.
However, quickly after establishment, this ornate structure displayed more art projects than actually greenhouse items. It turned out 19th century Europeans preferred artworks of elaborate sophistication rather than some stupid trees cultivated by an inferior race, who would have thought? The art exhibition swaps out from time to time, and the one I got to see was some kind of gigantic meshed wiring art piece that form semi-visible human heads. Not sure what the purpose of it is, just like all modern art to me, but I appreciated the setting nonetheless.
The north side of the park featured a gigantic artificial lake, which was unironically named Estanque Grande del Retiro, or as any Spanish reader would understand as “Retiro’s Large Pond”. Right at the side sat a gigantic semicircular colonnade, topped by an equestrian statue of King Alfonso XII. He is widely regarded as one of the best kings during the latter periods of Spanish Empire, as he not only successfully took over the mess leftover by the First Republic, but also quickly reinvigorated the domestic and colonies’ economy to stabilize the country. He visited many cholera-struck regions to comfort the ravaged people and eventually died of dysentery at the age of 28. Many historians attributed a stable Spain after the devastating war against USA later to Alfonso XII since without him the rebels would have likely taken over the government again, but his contribution to unify the country prevented that possibility from coming true.
The lakefront was especially romantic, as a lonely bastard like me stood next to the marble railings, leaning above the tranquil sky blue waters, while watching dozens of rowing boats chase away ducks swimming with hard-to-spot fish, reminiscing about that one time when a girl actually told me she was in love with me. The fact that it was an April Fool’s prank did not matter, what matters is that feeling, the good vibes as the saxophone street artist had up his sleeves, as he pumped out smooth jazz over the trickling water splashes made my large bronze maiden statues lined up along the eastern bank. Madrid may not have as iconic of a sight such as Paris with the Eiffel Tower, or Rome with that Colosseum, but it makes the shortcoming up with great feelings of being alive and slow, as it basks underneath the Iberian sun thanks to the warm temperate climate. That, however, is hard to replicate in the other cities around the continent.
Passing through the northwest exit near Puerta de Acalá, I exited the park and entered the National Naval Museum, which was unfortunately under renovation with a lack of display. However, I still managed to find this little gem featuring a Chinoiserie style, a ridiculous (at least to me as a Chinese) fashion trend that was all the rage in 18th century. It stemmed from the idea that China was way more advanced than the west ever since the dawn of humanity, as evidenced by the intricate jewelries, silk, china, and other products shipped over via the newly discovered routes, as well as the crazy tales told by Arabic merchants of an empire the size of 10 Frances with millions of people at the capital. These rumors fuelled a twisted sense of admiration that would eventually led to colonization a century later, kinda like a guy goes from admiring a girl, to talking to her, yet eventually stalking and raping her. However, at that time, China was still quite mysterious, so Chinoiserie style mostly tried to imitate what Chinese could do at the time, including portraying their society in paintings like the one above, even though there was very limited information about the east. Funnily, the “words” are complete incomprehensible as the artist had no idea what Chinese characters were supposed to look like, and he just allowed his imagination to fill the gap, similar to the church in the background: quintessentially Chinoiserie style.
Madrid first-timers might be excited to go to Prado Museum or Reina Sophia, but for me, a veteran Madrileño, it was all about the hidden gems on the museum scene, literally in this one’s case. Tucked away in a university campus building not too far from the center, this geomineral museum derives its roots from 1849 when geologists were tasked by the king to survey the entire empire, and they brought back samples to encase them in display boxes. In 1926, the entire exhibition was moved to the current building designed in beaux-arts style. The most impressive aspect of this new venue is its inclusion of an entirely translucent glass dome that allowed natural light to enter the grand hall. This made all the gemstones especially sparkling, which was always a plus in my plebeian eyes.
Four corners of spiral stair cases are now marked as “up” or “down” since they are too narrow for dual direction foot traffic. You could find literally every single kind of mineral you would discover in Spain, along with a plethora of prehistoric fossils ranging from trilobites to mammoths. What separated this museum from any other natural history museum even more was the detailed explanation in both lay man’s Spanish as well as professional geologist Spanish, neither of which I could fully understand, yet a great gesture nonetheless. Thus, I learned more than your stereotypical “Igneous rocks” in this museum and walked away with a sensation that I was just taught a great geology lesson by a knowledgeable professor with 200 years of tenure.
Whenever I took metro line 1, there was always a split second when I got a flash of an old station from 1900s as I passed between Iglesia and Bilbao stations. It was like a phantom, and sometimes words of old advertisements would pop up in my peripheral view. As usual, this idiot named Young attributed it to another hallucination episode, but for once in my life, I was not making it up in my mind. There was actually an old abandoned ghost station there. This is why I decided to pop down the street for what is now Anden 0 (Platform Zero), the newly restored Chamberí Station.
One of the original 8 stations on the first line in Madrid in 1919, the station sat very close to both Bilbao and Iglesia stations to its sides. Coupled with the fact that the station sat on a curve, so when Madrid Metro decided to lengthen the trains for added capacity, it was impossible to incorporate Chamberí Station into the mix. It was promptly abandoned in 1960s, after serving as a shelter for shell-shocked residents during the campaign against the Nationalists (Spanish Nazis). For decades, local commuters would see a flash of the past literally in front of their eyes, as the station fell into disrepair and crumbled away like a good apple pie, or a bad croissant. Only in 2008 was it reopened with cleaned-up facilities and renovated retro-decorations.
You get transported to the commuter life of post WWII the moment you step inside the “museum”. Original ticket offices, turnstiles, route map, and much more could be found in every corner, and the old design of the exit turnstile intrigued me the most. It was a teeter-totter design that the exit gate only opens when someone stands on top of a contraption on the ticketed side, so that nobody could sneak by the ticket office through the exit. The most beautiful attraction, however, was the copious amounts of local, original 1919 advertisements made with small colored ceramic tiles. The only thing interrupting my scrutinizing was the once-every-half-minute metro train at full speed, as these trains still run on the same track, just 40cm away and separated by a transparent reinforced glass barrier.
But this is not the only interesting train station in town, as you lay your eyes upon one of the major transportation hubs of Madrid: Atocha High Speed Railway Station. It hosts a gigantic botanical garden right in one of the wings of the station, with more than 260 species numbering 7000 strong in total. From Cuban royal palms to Tahitian coconut trees, Brazilian rubber trees to Philippine banana crops, critically endangered palm bottle trees to Madagascan traveler’s tree, all the way to South American cocoa, coffee, or even carnivorous plants, every tropical flora was fair game in this (let me remind you) train station! There used to be turtles in the water lily ponds, but sadly they loved it so much that overpopulation forced the station managers to relocate them to another habitat. Yes, you can watch a plant eat a bug while waiting for a high speed bullet train to Zaragoza, only in Spain.
And my last “attraction” that you can only find on my blog and not on any other run-of-the-mill cookie cutter is this statue dedicated to Ángeles Rodríguez Hidalgo. Widowed at the age of 41, she worked her butts off to raise the 5 children in Vallecas, a suburb of Madrid. Heavy metal was the shit during 1980s in this neighbourhood, so she accompanied her grandson to a heavy metal concert because why not. She fell in love with this art form so much that she would not miss one single concert for the rest of her life. Quickly, la abuela rockera, or as I translated, Rockin’ Granny, became a star of the local metal scene. She had radio shows, her own column in Heavy Rock magazine, and eventually was featured in the band Panzer’s album “Toca Madera”. On the cover, she struck the iconic pose you can see here, rocking the horn while donning the classic leather jacket. This is a statue about how anyone can change, and anyone can enjoy anything, so don’t you ever dare start judging.
However, nothing spells royalty more clearly other than the cities of Toledo and Aranjuez. I paid a visit to the tiny yet still the largest community in the metropolitan area other than Madrid, Aranjuez, on my last day before heading off to my first “vacation during a vacation”. A solid 45 minutes by train south of central Madrid, this city boasts the highest concentration of royal palaces, royal gardens, royal sculptures, and basically anything else royalty related, in the entire region.
This is thanks to its royal heritage. When Philip II moved the capital from Toledo to Madrid, he also created four separate locations to be the seats of the government during different season. Aranjuez is for spring; Rascafría in the summer; El Escorial during autumn; and finally, wintering over in Madrid. The monarchy would move from place to place during the change of seasons in order to best utilize their natural positions.
Until 1752, you were not allowed to stay overnight in town if you are not a member of royalty or was not serving one. The place was largely favored for games, as evidenced by its original purpose before its conversion into spring residence as a hunting ground for the royal society. Aranjuez is hugged by river Tagus on its north side, and its foliage of large trees also created a perfect area for unleashing your hounds to chase down hiding rabbits. You can still feel it now in the many large, forest-like parks that I will present in this journal.
Philip II died in 1598 before seeing the completion of his palace, and a few decades later, the end of the Habsburgs in Spain also marked the abandonment of this project. Philip V, the first king of Bourbon dynasty, decided to revive the project almost 100 years later so that Aranjuez could rival the marvellous creation of Versailles. Yet most of the current sights you could visit are from a reconstruction in late 18th century. During the many reigns, different monarchs put in many little items as their own touch to the exclusive city. A lot of them can be seen nowadays in the numerous gardens hugging the river.
Upon entering the palace, I felt a sense of familiarity. Yes, this large structure is as much handpicked by the enlightened absolutist Charles III as Madrid city. Everything felt like a handcrafted masterpiece by someone who was ready to embrace everything of the perceived future, regardless of consequences. Large, symmetrical arches marked the entrance to an even more impressive grand central staircase. After that, I would only be able to show you pictures from internet since I was not allowed to take any photo during the visit.
The throne room is a decorative clusterfuck, in a good way. The entire bottom was run by a stucco that tries to imitate marble lined with serpentine green gems. The king receives his formal guests here.
And here is what I believe to be the most impressive room of the entire palace, the porcelain room. Commissioned by Charles III during the height of the Chinoiserie movement, this room marked the epitome of his obsession with the almost-mythical empire. The Chinese’s insane techniques applied on the bone chinas imported from the east completely dumbfounded the Europeans, who began developing a sickly admiration to the then world-dominating country. This is a little corner of the result: large tiles of much inferior quality made in Madrid was plastered around every single corner, and the gaps were carefully concealed behind vines and branches. 6 mirrors greatly expands the visual depths of the decorations, trying to make the room seem way bigger than it actually is. All kinds of daily life scenes were portrayed in a strange style mixing white and Asian faces accompanied with a hodgepodge of eclectic items, culminating in a Chinese climbing the large chandelier with his pet monkey dangling in the middle of the room.
This is the most ornamental room in the palace, in a style reminiscent of the Mozarabs, a group of Christians even though they mostly spoke Arabic and followed Islamic traditions. This is due to the fact that a lot of them were simply dwellers of the cities under Moorish rule of the Iberian peninsula ever since early 10th century. This will be one of the dozens of pictures depicting more Islamic styles of arts in this journal series, as later on I would venture deep into regions where the Moors ruled for more than half of a millennium, and eventually, into their homeland across Gibraltar Straight.
Jardín de la Isla, or Garden of the Island, sits behind a branch of the river on an island next to the palace. It was gigantic, especially when it unfolds in front of you as you pass by the fountain dedicated to Hercules. It features him wrestling a lion, and Diana hunting with her deer. Made in 1659, this fountain was designed to face the palace as a way to pamper up the monarchy, trying to associate the king with Hercules, the mythical founder of Spanish monarchy. Yet, due to a huge number of inbreeding, (for example, Alfonso XII, the king featured on the monument earlier, married his cousin) they typically do not reflect accurately upon this ancestry.
The entire garden is absolutely humongous. Three tree-shadowed walkways enough to carry cargo trains radiate away from the entrance, leading to wilderness far enough that eyes could not see. Many smaller gardens sporadically interrupted the lines of vegetation, usually carrying a few fountains. These places used to be right next to the hunting grounds where the courtesans would perform dances while the royalties cheered on.
I spent nearly 2 hours walking along the large dirt high roads in the garden, and suddenly remembered that this was just a tiny part of the charming township. Moreover, my stomach had started demonstrating the mating call of a sperm whale, so it was time for me to go downtown to fetch some food. I encountered quite a few interesting locations on my way, including the traditional covered market of Mercado Asbastos.
After stuffing my stomach with a cheap local paella lunch, I proceeded towards the other famous garden in town: Jardín del Principe. It is the largest piece of greenery around, boasting an impressive 150 hectres in landmass. However, more than half of it was inaccessible due to the ongoing restoration project, and I had already exhausted myself walking kilometers within and outside the palace.
It was spring, and the ground was quite barren since it was barely the beginning. Long periods of drought had caused common dust waves scourging through the woods, but it did not diminish the charm of Aranjuez one bit. A lot of the fountains were turned off to preserve water, and there was barely any other visitor, which was a trade-off that I would gladly take. I slowly wandered around the perimeter, and saw a local family feeding birds.
“Mama, a Chinese!” The boy cried out in startled Spanish.
“Your delivery is here.” I said.
“But, but, do you have soy sauce chicken?” He answered coyly.
His parents busted out laughing while I pretended to frantically look for it.
I passed by numerous fountains, including the famous Narcissus Fountain, featuring him almost leaning into the water which reflects his enchanting complexion. Finally at the middle of the park sat the postcard-famous Chinese Garden, which, as you may have guessed, is another example of Chinoiserie movement in 18th century.
The original design featured a Chinese-ish temple drawn from a replica of a replica of someone’s impression of a model of a depiction of a Chinese pagoda. Along with it, sat a Greek pavilion topped with a golden pineapple with eight columns of golden dragon, talking about authenticity. There was also an Egyptian style mausoleum, in a large obelisk about 3 floors tall. Wait, why is this named Chinese Garden again?
However, the entire garden, along with many other important relics of the monarchy, was destroyed during the Spanish War of Independence, fought between 1808 and 1814, and finally the Chinese hut was rebuilt in a Turkish style with red and green finishes, which themselves were starting to fade. As a result, not one single part of the so-called “Chinese Garden” is actually Chinese.
Finally, on the far end of the park, quietly snoozed the star of the garden, Casa del Labrador. Ironically named “house of the labourers”, this exclusive royal premise for those who wanted to spend some time away from the cumbersome formalities was the opposite of a shepherd’s hut. The neoclassical structure had to have a lavish finish on the facade complete with dozens of busts featuring Greco-Roman personalities ranging from philosophers to generals. I had to pay a fee in order to access with a guide, who did not speak English at all, so I barely comprehended half of her machine gun speed explanations. Yet the beauty of the place is universal, as anyone could sense the house exuding elegance and luxury.
Again, I was not allowed to take pictures, so here are some artistic shots of the interior. The Great Hall is famous for its French pure gold chandelier that I accidentally hit my head against, while the ceiling decoration represented the known worlds to the Spaniards at the time. Four sides of the motif showcased the enlightened Europeans, the mythical Asians, the barbaric Africans, and the gullible Native Americans, all of whom these monarchs conquered.
Here you have another famous room, the Statue Gallery, which extends the palace collection of classical busts to ridiculous levels. The frescos depict day, night, and the milky way as guarded by their feminized counterparts, and the floor had an exquisite and the absolutely rarest collection of fragments of a real Roman mosaic found in Merida, south of Madrid. Even though I had to wear plastic shoe-protectors before entry, the guide still physically used her hands to prevent me from walking near that mosaic, saying it was their most important treasure in the entire palace.
I finally finished my grand tour of this seldom-visited town, and boarded my train back to Madrid. Absolutely exhausted after walking 40000 steps in 8 hours, I dozed right into sleep only to wake up merely an hour before my flight to Porto, Portugal. OH NO, I AM GONNA MISS MY FLIGHT BECAUSE OF MY STUPIDITY, NOT AGAIN! Not like C.A.T. or Voyager 3! NOOOO! I immediately rushed down to call a taxi, and stuffed everything into my little backpack: dammit! I will make it! I will fucking make it! I have to prove myself that I am not as stupid as everyone, including me, thinks! I huffed, and puffed; dashed around the check-in hall, almost dropping my wallet on the way.
Aaaaand, I actually got to the gate before they started boarding, what a miracle! Disaster averted! I sighed loudly while wiping down the profuse sweat drenching my collar. Young, oh, Young, why are you always so? But hey, let’s pretend nothing ever happened okay? Don’t you dare share this with anyone else who would be amused to see me almost miss my flight again!
Portugal, en guarde!
Maybe Spain became the powerhouse that it was because of its unique position: it was the last nation of the crowded European continent before it reaches Africa, so it had much more opportunities to interact with cultures outside Europe, whether willingly or not. Muslim conquest brought Spain a different set of values, and its fascination with the east also put a lot of minds further afield. Maybe that was why Spain was the chief colonizer of the world, resulting in almost every South American country speaking its tongue, because those conquistadors were loving the cultures from outside. You may even call they conquist-adore it! The palaces, the train stations, and the gardens, all showed me what a great decision it was to visit Madrid. Oh wait, a minor correction: they all showed me what a great decision it was to make Madrid my temporary home. See ya later, Madrid, I would be back home in a few days!
My flight gently steered away from the forbidding snow-peaked mountains, and flew towards west. There is only one European nation more westerly than Spain, and that is Portugal. There is only one city more westerly than any other city in Portugal, and that is Porto. Many had told me how beautiful this city is, and some went to great lengths to describe her enchanting harbor, marvellous streets, enriching culture, passionate people, and delicious wine. Well, I will believe it when I see it, or, in the case of the world-renown Porto wine, when I taste it. Truthfully, I could not have waited for one extra second. Here I come, city of ports, Porto.