Archive for Meet Madrid

Alpargatas, Spain’s rope-soled shoes

 


While August may seem late to think about alpargatas, most of Spain still has a month of nice weather – and the lines at the traditional shops are a lot shorter.

A tickle in your nose says you’ve arrived – it’s the distinctive smell of thousands of rope-soled alpargatas (espadrilles) in one of Madrid’s traditional stores.

What could be simpler? The classic alpargata is just a coiled rope sole and a cotton canvas upper. Nothing more than that – but this simple shoe is Spain’s favorite summer footwear.

Some history: The true origin of the alpargata is unclear. Some souces say Rome, some say Egypt, some say the Middle East – in any case, the most likely origin is somewhere in the Mediterreanean area, a very long time ago. What does seem clear is that here in Iberia, this simple footwear was already known in 14th century Cataluña.

Checking the origin of the word alpargata also shows differing opinions. The Real Academia dictionary (Spain’s equivalent of Oxford) shows the Basque word abarca as origin for alpargata – rather odd as this shoe doesn’t do well in wet climates like northern Spain, but interesting for the name similarity to the Menorcan sandal called abarca or albarca. People who know Spanish will have noticed the “al” that often indicates Arabic word origin; one source suggests alpargatas were adopted by Arabic speakers during the Middle Ages, and the original Spanish word changed through that contact to alpargata. The same source noted that there are dialectal variations of apargata and even pargata, without the “al”.

Originally alpargatas were worn mainly by country people, valued as inexpensive, lightweight, comfortable and for good traction on uneven surfaces. Today most country people wear modern shoes, but now and then you can still see shepherds wearing alpargatas. The rural tradition of using alpargatas survives in regional dance groups – many use this footwear as a colorful and authentic part of their costumes.

Today alpargatas can be found on many different kinds of feet all over the world. The styles have evolved as well – though the ever-popular classic style is still a solid-color cotton upper and a coiled rope sole. That sole is now made of jute instead of hemp, though Maxi in Casa Crespo remembers alpargata manufacturs with plantations of hemp to make the rope for the soles. For traditional alpargatas, the rope sole is hand-sewn to the two parts of the cotton upper but industrial models are creeping in. Laces can be decorative or functional depending on the style – some traditional styles are open at the sides and the laces keep the alpargatas in place.

Classic alpargatas can go just about anywhere – from the beach to most low-key social occasions, but if something dressier is needed, newer “fashion” styles take over where the classics leave off. Casa Crespo and Hernanz coincide that the classics sell well most of the year, with a boom between May and September, and the fashion models sell mainly in spring and summer. Both stores get new models every spring (usually in April) – different heel heights, different laces, different materials like leather or silk, patterned cloth, decorated with sequins or embroidery – the variations are endless.

Once you’ve tried these shoes yourself you’ll probably become an alpargata fan as well – and at the amazingly low price for the flat classic model, you can get a whole rainbow of colors to match all your summer clothes.

Tips on alpargatas

If you go to a traditional store in alpargata season, try to go off-hours (weekday mornings usually best) and be patient. It may take a while to get what you want. Be flexible, the shopkeepers might have suggestions.

Try on both shoes, and if the first pair doesn’t fit, try another pair in the same size. Since they’re made by hand, there may be size difference between pairs.

If you’re between sizes, get one that’s a little snug as they stretch, some styles more than others – the shopkeepers can tell you how much stretch you can expect in the model you want.

First wearing: For cotton canvas styles, to help your alpargatas mold to your feet, lightly spray the cloth uppers with a plant spritzer after putting them on – especially if they’re a little snug. If you got a classic style with no initial difference between right and left, you can use a marking pen inside one shoe to indicate right or left – after a few wearings they’ll take the shape of your feet.

Try not to get the rope bottoms wet as they may swell and disintegrate. If you get caught in rain, stuff them with newspaper, turn them soles up to dry and hope for the best.

To clean the cloth uppers, hand wash using nail brush, keeping the rope bottoms as dry as possible (this is easier than it sounds). Stuff with newspaper and let dry.

Where to buy: Getting alpargatas is almost a ritual, best done at one of the traditional stores. Both of Madrid’s traditional stores talk about multi-generational families who come together to get their summer shoes, or about people who first came to the store with grampa or gramma – and say that the place has barely changed in all those years. These stores are also a great place to people-watch – and of course to have an authentic Madrid experience.

Antigua Casa Crespo, calle Divino Pastor 29, Metro Bilbao. Classic alpargata store, founded 1863, family business in the fourth generation. Very crowded in season. Open Saturdays only May – September.

Casa Hernanz, calle Toledo 18, Metro Sol y La Latina. Classic alpargata store, founded 1845, family business. Also sells rope, baskets and many kinds of string for macrame. Very crowded in season.

Lobo, calle Toledo 30, Metro Sol y La Latina. Not a specialist in alpargatas, though that kind of shoe is one of their biggest lines (this is my own favorite). Also has Menorcan abarcas, flamenco shoes and desert boots. Very crowded in season, get your number and wait your turn.

Looking for something fancy or cannot manage the traditional stores? Go Fashion at Castañer (Claudio Coello, 51), or check out two stores just east of the Plaza Mayor (one on calle Zaragoza, another on calle Sal/Postas).

Thanks to the friends who suggested the idea for this post. You know who you are. 

Madrid by Metro

Happy Hundredth, Metro de Madrid!

Well, sort of. Construction started in 1917, but the actual opening was two years later.

Getting the subway project started wasn’t easy. King Alfonso XIII (great grandfather of current King Felipe) added a million pesetas of his own fortune to the kitty to get things going – and cut the ribbon on the first 3.5 kilometers of Line 1 in 1919. It was a revolution: Sol – Cuatro Caminos in under ten minutes, instead of at least thirty minutes by tram. Line 1 was lengthened to Atocha almost immediately, and Line 2 (Sol – Ventas) followed shortly thereafter.

Of course the original subway was different: only four cars per train, train doors that opened by hand and fares that varied by distance travelled. Not to mention the stylish tile decoration in the stations, created by Antonio Palacios to help travellers over the claustrophobia of underground travel (this architect also designed Madrid’s Central Post Office, Bellas Artes and Maudes hospital).

Except for a few slow periods, the subway has continued to grow since those first kilometers. Since the 1980’s the growth has been constant – record-breaking in the late 1990’s – up to current track length of about 294 kilometers and 13 lines, second only to more populous London here in western Europe.

Veteran Line 1 isn’t the longest of Madrid’s subway lines, but it links train and bus stations, shopping areas, cinemas, restaurants, well-known sights and some fun lesser-known sights, so it has one of the highest user rates of all the lines: over 100 million people / year.

 

Read on to learn how the central part of line 1 can help you explore Madrid.

Chamartin, history: Originally a village north of Madrid where the wealthy “got away from Madrid”; village annexed by Madrid in 1948. Today: Train station for long distance and commuter lines.

Plaza Castilla, today: Underground commuter bus station for many points north, many city bus lines at stops on the surface; “leaning towers” just north of the roundabout-square.

Tetuán, history: This neighbourhood started in 1860 as a military camp for the victorious Spanish army after a war in Africa. The camp ended up being semi-permanent and infrastructure and population sprang up around it. The metro arrived in 1929, which helped consolidate the neighbourhood. Today: Tetuán is one of Madrid’s multi-cultural neighborhoods, this one mostly Latino; South American restaurants and shops abound just off main north-south street Bravo Murillo

Estrecho, today: Fun, almost unknown museum at calle La Coruña 18: Museo Tiflológico. Run by the Spanish Blind organization ONCE, this little gem has models of monuments from Spain and other countries, and an amazing section of artwork by the blind.

Cuatro Caminos, history: Ever wonder about the name of this square? The “four streets” are Santa Engracia, Bravo Murillo, Reina Victoria and Artistas, as Raimundo Fernández Villaverde was created after square was named. Today: important metro transfer – with endless escalators for line 6. Maravillas market on Bravo Murillo is one of the city’s best.

Rios Rosas, today: Old Canal de Isabel II water deposit (brick tower built 1865-1876) is an exhibit venue, worth visiting just to see how the space is used. Don’t miss the very top floor. Geology fans: Geominero museum at Rios Rosas 23 – exterior of the building is gorgeous.

Iglesia, history: Original name of this station: Martinez Campos. Today: Sorolla museum at General Martinez Campos 37. Excellent pastry shops near this stop!

Chamberi, history: Chamberí station was closed in 1966; after that, this “ghost station” was barely visible in the tunnel between Iglesia and Bilbao. Today: Now a mini-museum, with original decoration and advertising posters in ceramic tile. Guided visit (free, in Spanish), video and station visit with trains whizzing by behind a glass partition. Fun even without great Spanish. Access: glass structure on corner of Santa Engracia / Luchana. Open Thursday to Sunday, get current schedules by searching Metro Madrid Anden 0.

Bilbao, history: Site of one of the gates in the last line of city walls, called the “Snow Pit Gate” for the pre-refrigerator ice houses nearthe square. Today: best access for eating and drinking around Dos de Mayo, nearby cinemas, and one end of fashion street Fuencarral (other end is Gran Via).

Tribunal, history: San Fernando hospital was built to attend 3,000 patients and functioned until 1922; gave the subway stop its original name of Hospicio. The building is a Madrid history museum since 1929. Today: Interesting museum with good permanent collection and temporary exhibits (don’t miss the model of Madrid).

Gran Via, history: This emblematic street is fairly new, built 1910 – 1931. Subway stop Gran Via (original name Red San Luis) is right next to Madrid’s first skyscraper: Telefónica building on corner of Gran Vía / Fuencarral, completed in 1929. Today: The Telefónica building has excellent temporary exhibits, and a telecommunications. Gran Via is another shopper’s street – but watch out for pickpockets.

Sol, history: Although outside the medieval city, Sol has long been the bustling center for traffic, pedestrians, “Kilometer 0” for Spain’s radial highways, and the first major transfer point for the subway (lines 1,2,3). Remodelled and reorganized more than once over the centuries; site of all kinds of historic events. Today: Pedestrian shopping area on Carmen, Preciados and Monter north to Callao and west on Arenal to Opera. Best subway access for Plaza Mayor and for Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Alcala 13), also for Santa Ana tapa area and movies in English at Yelmo Ideal Cineplex.

Tirso de Molina, history: Original name Progreso (old name for Tirso de Molina square); the name of square and metro stop changed in 1939, shortly after dictator Francisco Franco’s victory in the Civil War. Madrid lore has two ghost stories for this station: one story claims that the bones of monks who lived in the convent that used to be in this square are under the subway platforms, placed there by the workers who built the station (and the other ghost story is too creepy to tell here). Today: The recent renovation of this square created a pleasant space with outdoor cafés and a flower market. Access to the Rastro flea market.

Anton Martin, today: One of Madrid’s first movie theaters (Cine Doré, Santa Isabel 3) is now the “Filmoteca”, running several sessions of different movies every day. Great prices and even cheaper with their ten-punch deal. Rooftop movies in the summer. A must-do for movie fans!

Atocha, history: The old part of Atocha train station was inaugurated in 1892, serving as a station for about 100 years until the new station took over. Today The old station is a greenhouse – a good place to relax before traveling or after a visit to the nearby art museums. New train station for long distance (including AVE) and commuter lines. NOTE: Direct-access metro stop Atocha RENFE better for the station, as old Atocha stop is across many lanes of traffic. Near Atocha / Atocha RENFE: Art museums Reina Sofia, Prado, Thyssen. Anthropology museum, Botanical Gardens, Cuesta Moyana bookstalls, Retiro Park.

Menéndez Pelayo, today: access for Tapestry factory and museum (Fuenterrabia 2)

Pacifico, history: Opened in the early 1920’s on the edge of the city. The “Nave de Motores” generating station, created to guarantee electricity for the subway via a combination of huge engines and transforming power from electrical companies is nearby. Today: The electrical station is newly open as a mini-museum (see Chamberi). Pacifico is an important metro transfer, one stop from Mendez Alvaro (South Bus Station/commuter train station).

La Latina Like a Local

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The secret is out. La Latina is the best ‘hood in central Madrid.

Actually, the secret has been out for a while. La Latina Locals have known for a very long time, it’s just the non-locals who have discovered us recently. And while not native Spanish, as a thirty-two year resident of La Latina – and two additional years in nearby Tirso – I’m totally a La Latina Local. I’ve seen kids grow up; spry adults turn into creaky elders; and commerce appear and disappear, all in the heart of this fabulous neighborhood.

So what is so special about La Latina? Read on for the scoop from a local.

It’s super-central – about a ten minute walk from the Plaza Mayor – but mostly quiet, a village inside the city (except when non-locals arrive en masse to have fun).

It’s cool in temperature as well as vibe – we get cooler winds almost direct from the mountains by way of El Pardo, the Casa de Campo and Las Vistillas park.

It’s friendly – the locals know and greet each other on the street, in the stores and in the bar-cafés, striking up conversations on every imaginable topic.

It has everything that La Latina Locals need within easy walking distance, including access to Madrid Rio and Casa de Campo parks.

 

Visitors tend to stay in a few specific spots – so where do the La Latina Locals live their lives?

Bars / cafés: Muñiz (own churros in the morning, coffee, a quick beer and hanging out); old style Almacen de Vinos (Gerardo) and “Vinos” for beers and hanging out; all on Calatrava street. J.Blanco on Tabernillas street for aperitifs or beers. Paco on Humilladero is another traditional spot, now discovered by non-locals so in transition. All these spots are very authentic and very different from less-local spots around Plaza Humilladero – Tomas, Tomasa, El Viajero or designer tapa spot Juana La Loca which alas, took over the locale of a traditional tapa bar.

Food shopping: Best bread bakery in La Latina: Tahona del Capricho on Humilladero street. Best pastries at + Que Pan (More than Bread using plus symbol) on Plaza de los Carros (good bread, excellent pastries and cakes and a nice small coffee shop). Cheese and cold cuts at Los Andes on Toledo street (excellent selection of Spanish cheese, some foreign). Best wine and liquor shop: Vinomania on Humilladero, corner Sierpe (not huge but very good, varied selection of Spanish wine, including some nice surprises from places you would not expect). All the local mom-and-pop grocery stores have disappeared, but some of the Chinese, Latino or Moroccan-run places have strong La Latina Local support (Chino on Toledo corner Sierpe, Ay Madre la Fruta and two small supermarkets on Humilladero to name a few). And of course the La Cebada market: it’s ugly from the outside and a little sad inside with lots of empty stalls, but the overall quality and service is very good.

Other shopping: La Latina is not a destination for shopping-shopping, though there are two interesting jewelry stores (Ruda and Almendro streets) and some fun and useful traditional shops (candles, espadrilles, baskets), though many other traditional shops have disappeared (cork store, wine-barrel maker, etc).

Churches:  Three La Latina chures are special for the neighborhood and for the entire city: La Paloma (south end of La Paloma street). The real name is San Pedro el Real, but everyone knows this church as La Paloma, home to the image of the Virgin of the Dove (La Paloma), Madrid’s true if unofficial patron saint. This area is Where it Happens for the crazy fun La Paloma street party in mid August, and the church isstart and end point for procession on August 15. San Isidro (calle Toledo). Final resting place of Madrid’s male patron saint San Isidro; this is start and end place for May 15 procession and where the faithful can venerate San Isidro’s tomb. San Pedro El Viejo (Nuncio street). This church is home to the image Jesus Nazareno el Pobre, one of Madrid’s most beloved religious statues, used in the very popular Thursday procession during Easter week.

Other noteworthy La Latina churches: San Andres on square of same name and San Francisco el Grande on south end of Bailen street (see post on this church at http://www.bridgetospain.com/san-francisco-el-grande/)

San Isidro museum (The Origins of Madrid) on Plaza de los Carros. While less local, this is a must-do for visitors to see the model and map of old Madrid (including most of today’s La Latina) and to learn about Madrid’s patron saint San Isidro, who was an 11th century La Latina Local.

The Barley Field: our empty lot. La Latina neighborhood has a huge empty lot between La Cebada market and Toledo street. It’s the site of the old sports complex, torn down in 2009 after several inoperative years. Theoretically the lot and the spectacularly ugly market next door are part of an urban renewal program (new market and leisure center) – but Madrid is still emerging from the Crisis and until there is more money we have….. a hole in the ground.

That’s the un-cool part. The cool part is that the hole in the ground is also the Campo de Cebada (The Barley Field), named for the surrounding “La Cebada” square and the market. Operating since 2010, it’s a citizen-run outdoor cultural project, with concerts, story-telling, basketball, occasional circuses or mini-markets; the concept is a shared space where people can get together, chat, have fun, share ideas. Oh, and sometimes have August “pool parties” in protest for the delay in creating our leisure center – wear your swimsuit, bring buckets of water, squirt-guns and your towel. City Hall has given its OK on the Campo de la Cebada for now, though probably no funding for activities. It’s not clear when / if the urban renewal project will happen or what will happen to the Barley Field when (if) the project happens (go to http://elcampodecebada.org/ and “Agenda” to see upcoming events at The Barley Field).

Practical information:

Geographical limits: La Latina borders are more or less these: from Plaza Segovia Nueva (just south of Plaza Mayor) south along Toledo street, Estudios street and Ribera de Curtidores to Ronda de Toledo, then west to Glorieta Puerta de Toledo, north-northwest along Gran Via de San Francisco and Bailen to the Viaducto over Segovia street and Segovia street east back to Plaza Segovia Nueva. That’s the big picture: many locals would say that the part between Toledo and Ribera de Curtidores is Rastro, not La Latina, others would end the neighborhood at Cava Alta / Almendro in the north instead of Plaza Segovia Nueva. And take note: central Madrid La Latina neighborhood takes its name from the subway stop, and is completely different from City Hall administrative district La Latina, a southwest slice of the city, not in the center.

What’s in the name: La Latina metro stop takes its name from Beatriz Galindo, founder with her husband of Nuestra Señora de la Concepción convent. Beatriz was a writer and teacher, most notably to Isabel La Católica (who ruled 1474-1504) and Isabel’s children; Beatriz’s nickname was La Latina due to her skill in Latin from a very young age. The convent was founded in the early 16th century on Toledo street next to Plaza de la Cebada, outside the city center of that time and next to a small hospital. The original building was torn down in 1904 to widen Toledo, and shortly after that a new convent built in a neo-mudejar decorative brick style. Fiestas Paco party-ware store is at street level of the current convent, which bears a plaque explaining the founding of the original convent.

Metro stops: La Latina in the north, Puerta de Toledo in the south and Tirso de Molina a little out of neighborhood to the east.

 

Architects that Made Madrid

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Antonio Palacios building in Cibeles

 

Have you ever noticed a quirky detail under a balcony, a beautiful entranceway, an unusual shape building on a corner lot, and wondered who thought it up? Someone put it all together – an architect who by inspiration and planning created a building that was structurally sound, visually pleasing, with its own personality but also fitting in with its surroundings.

That’s the ideal situation and it’s a tall order, but it can be done. Madrid really does have a sort of architectural personality – or rather, as many personalities as neighborhoods – and lots of great buildings, especially in the older part of the city. Churches, convents, palaces, banks, all somehow fit together to make Madrid distinctively Madrid.

This article is a fast introduction to architecture in Madrid, highlighting several influential or prolific architects from 17th to 20th centuries. It’s interesting to note how architects first patrons were kings and nobility, later on City Hall, cultural organizations (Bellas Artes building by Antonio Palacios), real estate developers or occasionally wealthy people looking for a statement (Longoria Palace by Grases Riera).

Like most modern cities, Madrid has lost many beautiful buildings, torn down in the name of progress, destroyed by time, fire, or so altered by remodelling that they have lost their original character. But there’s still lots to enjoy! Take a walk in the city, look around you, become an architectural sleuth to see if you can identify buildings by these architects – or discover other architects who helped create the Madrid we can see today.

Juan de Herrera 1530? – 1597. Worked mainly for: King Felipe II. Work in Madrid: Bridge over the Manzanares at bottom of Segovia street. Important work outside Madrid: San Lorenzo de El Escorial Monastery (started by Juan Bautista de Toledo, altered and completed by Herrera); also worked on Aranjuez palace and Valladolid cathedral. Characteristic style, called herrerriano in his honor: symmetrical, geometric lines, very little decoration, sloped roofs usually in dark slate, square towers at corners of buildings with four-sided pyramidal roofs topped with tallish pinnacles. Quick summary: While only the Segovia bridge remains of his actual works, Herrera’s influence is visible in later buildings: Plaza Mayor (designed by Herrera, destroyed by fire late 18th century and rebuilt in same style), Old City Hall (Plaza de la Villa, Juan Gomez de Mora project, started around 1645), Foreign Ministry (Asuntos Exteriores, Plaza de las Provincias by Plaza Mayor, built as noble’s jail, Juan Gomez de Mora project started 1629), or the Escorial-like Air Force headquarters (Princesa street at Moncloa, built 1942-1951)

Pedro de Ribera 1681-1742. Worked mostly for: King Felipe V, nobles. His work in Madrid: Conde Duque barracks (Conde Duque street), Hospital for the poor (Fuencarral 78, now City History museum), various noblemen’s palaces around the city (current Chamber of Commerce on Huertas street, current Treasury building on Alcalá street, doorway of Filmoteca Institute on Magdalena street). Also worked on Montserrat monastery on San Bernardo street, San Cayetano church on Embajadores street, Mariblanca fountain (replica of statue now in Sol at start of Arenal street), urban planning for southwest side of city, Toledo bridge over the Manzanares river. Characteristic style: brick with stone decoration, very large, ornate carving around main entranceways. Quick summary: Though some buildings are fairly plain, Ribera is usually placed under the extreme rococo style called churrigueresco for a family of architects (brothers Jose, Alberto and Joaquin Churriguera) who were less favored by Kings and nobility.

Ventura Rodríguez 1717 – 1785. Worked for: Fernando VI, Carlos III. His work in Madrid: San Marcos church (San Leonardo street), interior of Encarnación monastery, various palaces for nobles (Liria palace on Princesa street, Altamira palace just off Gran Via, Boadilla del Monte palace). Designed important ornamental fountains like the Cibeles, Neptuno, Apolo, Alcachofa and others, all created by sculptors following his designs. Worked on Aranjuez palace, Royal Palace, San Francisco el Grande church. Important work outside Madrid: Santo Domingo de Silos monastery church, Pilar basilica in Zaragoza, Pamplona catedral facade, various city halls, jails, schools, urban planning and civil engineering projects around the country. Characteristic style: Baroque – neoclassic. A prolific and imaginative architect, but when Carlos III ascended the throne royal favor passed on to Francesco Sabatini.

Francesco Sabatini 1722-1797. Worked mainly for: King Carlos III, some for Carlos IV. His work in Madrid: Puerta de Alcalá city gate, Royal Customs house on Alcalá street, original layout of Botanical Garden, Marqués de Grimaldi Palace (Plaza Marina Española, also called Godoy Palace), rebuilt Comendadoras monastery. Participated in building of Royal Palace, San Francisco el Grande church (Bailén street), Hospital General (now Reina Sofia art museum), rebuilding Plaza Mayor after fire. Various projects for paving streets, creating and decorating promenades in south of city. Remodelled Cuesta de San Vicente (along one side of the Royal Palace), created waste water system. Characteristic style: Neoclassic, based mainly on Italian Renaissance instead of ancient Greece and Rome.

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Jose Grases Riera 1850 – 1919 Best known for grand monuments and for modernist style (he knew Antoni Gaudi). In Madrid: Longoria Palace (Fernando VI street, now Spanish Society of Authors and Editors), monument to Alfonso XII by the lake in the Retiro, triangular building at Alcala 14, originally for the Equitativa insurance company and now under scaffolding as part of gigantic rehab project – but if you can peer around fence you can see the elephants under the balconies (shown at left) .

Antonio Palacios 1874-1945: His work in Madrid: Communications Palace (Plaza Cibeles, now City Hall, photo above), Day-Workers hospital (Maudes 17, now a Madrid government building), Rio de la Plata bank building (Alcalá 49, now Instituto Cervantes), Círculo de Bellas Artes (Alcalá 42), design of first Metro stations (all changed except Chamberi stop on line 1, now a Metro museum), remodelled Hotel Avenida on the Gran Vía, various other buildings and urban planning. Important works outside Madrid: quite a few in his native Galicia. Characteristic style: Lots of big spaces, public buildings, style varies from very classic (Rio de la Plata bank building) to very ornate (Communications Palace).

Madroños

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Sign of the seasons for early November: madroño trees (arbutus unedo)

Here in Madrid this tree has a special meaning – or sort of.  Folk wisdom tells us that bear and tree statue in Puerta del Sol is a madroño tree and (word has it) a she-bear.  That’s what we all “know” – but the real truth is that the original city logo had only a bear.  The tree was added in the 13th century to show that Madrid’s forests belonged to the municipality, not to the church (that took a court ruling to decide), and it was probably intended as generic “tree” not any specific kind.  Why so? Well, madroños are not really frequent in Madrid or nearby (they like somewhat cooler and more humid climes)  AND…..  the tree was not mentioned specifically as a madroño until the 16th century.

But folk wisdom tells us that the madroño is as madrileño as the zarzuela musicals or the man’s checked jacket, so now all locals can identify the tree, or sort of.  When taking the photo above in the Retiro, two Spanish women stopped to watch and ask what kind of fruit it was, and immediately said oh yeah, bear and madroño, a tiny bit embarassed to not identify by sight something that an obvious foreigner (me) did know….

Non-locals are now wondering:  so what IS a madroño tree?

For some reason madroño is translated as strawberry trees, even though we all know that strawberries grow on vines, and that the madroño fruit doesn’t look like a strawberry. One very cool thing about the trees is that they flower and fruit at the same time – and now is their season. The flowers are a spray of little white bells/balls and when ripe the fruit is orangey-red and about the size of a marble, so seeing trees with both is quite pretty, as you can see in the photo above.

Where to see the tree? Though infrequent in Madrid these trees grow wild in the mountains in lots of north and north central Spain. Because of the bear-and-madroño story, they’re frequently used as ornamentals in the city: there are lots in the Retiro along the Paseo de Coches (the paved north-south street just east Crystal Palace) and some on calle Mayor near calle Bailen.

So what’s the fruit like? Hard to describe a taste, hmmm, a little tart and a bit grainy, no apparent seed so I’m guessing the graininess might be micro seeds. When ripe, this fruit can give a feeling of drunkeness (bear with a buzz?) but careful, too many will cause umm intestinal issues (poor bear) though the leaves of the tree can solve those issues (nature is wise). This fruit is sometimes used for jams, and there’s a madroño liqueur. Where to get the fruit: some upscale-ish fruit stores in Madrid (probably the one on Ayala near Serrano, some shops in La Paz market, maybe the Corte Inglés), or grazing while hiking if you are very lucky, though only if you know the tree (that’s the disclaimer). Season is very short, so if you are curious, start looking now.

 

A Saint for Desperate Causes

Door of Santa Cruz church

Door of Santa Cruz church

 

Got a big issue in your life? Something that looks almost impossible?

San Judas Tadeo is specialized in difficult causes. Maybe he can help.

This is one is one of Madrid’s favorite saint-statues, almost as popular as Jesus de Medinacelli (Plaza de Jesus 2, go on Friday).

And with good reason: Judas Tadeo is the saint of urgent, difficult and desperate causes, sometimes called “the lawyer of the impossible”. He’s a favorite in many Catholic areas, and Madrid is no exception: on his special days long lines form outside Santa Cruz church, and visits increase just before Christmas, possibly with people asking for a big lottery win.

Judas Tadeo is the “good Judas”, usually named in Spanish with a second name to differentiate him from Judas Iscariot, of the famous thirty pieces of silver. In English he’s usually called St. Jude, without the second name Tadeo used in Spanish (Thaddeus in English).

 

Judas was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles and probably first cousin to Jesus on both sides. Tradition tells us that after Jesus’ death, Judas Tadeo and Simon went to Persia with to spread the new religion. He was so convincing that an important general, the King and part of the court converted, but that very success caused their downfall. After yet another demonstration of their power over the forces of nature, priests to the sun and moon killed them by crushing then cutting off their heads with an ax. Tradition says their bodies were later taken to Rome where they are venerated in St. Peter’s Basilica.

So how to make a request to the lawyer of the impossible? There’s a specific ritual to ask San Judas Tadeo for special favors: recite his prayer nine Wednesdays (google “ Glorioso Apóstol San Judas Tadeo!, pariente y seguidor de Jesús” for full text) plus the Lord’s Prayer and Ave Maria, among other actions. Or maybe: just go to the church and light a mini-lamp in front of his statue.

Lest this suggestion sound odd to non-Catholics, let me clarify: I’m not Catholic and not terribly religious, but I do give thanks, make requests and send messages to loved ones far away or passed away. That might be in a forest or by a stream, but it’s frequently in churches that feel special. Lighting a candle is a nice way to focus your wishes and send them on their way.

Yes, I made a request to San Judas Tadeo. Will you?

Where: Calle Atocha 6, just east of the Plaza Mayor. Go in the door and turn right; San Judas Tadeo shares the first chapel on that side of the church, and is the first statue you see, with mini-lamps in front of the statue labeled with his name (take some small coins).

When to go: The special days are all Wednesdays of the year, and the 28th day of all months; San Judas Tadeo saint’s day is October 28, so 28th is a special day. The church stays open all day on Wednesdays, instead of closing several hours in the afternoon. For more information go to: www.parroquiadesantacruz.com

Statue: The statue is made of birch wood, dates from 1989 and holds an ax as a symbol of his martyrdom.

Santa Cruz church: Madrid lore tells us there was a Santa Cruz chapel nearby from very early times, in a neighborhood outside the walls at the start of the road southeast to Atocha country chapel and on towards Valencia. Historically the immediate predecessor of the current church was built late in the 15th c and torn down in 1868 after two fires in the 17th c. That church had a very tall tower known as Madrid’s Lookout, so perhaps the tall brick tower of the current church inherits that tradition (see plaque on the sidewalk on other side of Atocha street, corner Bolsa street for exact location of previous Santa Cruz church).

After the church was torn down, Santa Cruz parish moved across Atocha street to Santo Tomás church, a Dominican order convent and school built in the middle of the 17th century. Santo Tomás had bad luck from the start: fires in the 17th and 18th c, structural issues, expropriation by the state in the 19th century and finally two fires in the 1870’s that almost destroyed the building, which was torn down shortly afterwards.

The Santa Cruz church we see today was built 1889 – 1902 on the site of Santo Tomás convent. Like many churches in Madrid, the interior was mostly destroyed in the Civil War, though part of the parish records for births, marriages and weddings date were saved and back to the 16th century.

Tips for your visit:
If you want to visit the church, don’t go when church services are in progress (schedule on the website).

Walk around to see the other chapels and other saints. St. James (Santiago) is there wearing his pilgrim robe, and another Madrid favorite saint San Antonio de Padua “El Guindero” (the cherry-man). Both are on the right, Santiago a statue in a shared chapel and San Antonio with painted altar-screen instead of a statue. Most of the June San Antonio celebration is at San Antonio chapel on Paseo de la Florida (outdoor party on days around June 13), but part is at Santa Cruz church as home to the San Antonio brotherhood and owner of the painting telling the legend of the farmer, cherries spilled from a donkey’s saddlebags and the Franciscan monk (San Antonio) who helped him collect the fallen fruit.

Several of the chapels hold the pasos (statues on platforms carried in the street during Easter week). Santa Cruz has two Good Friday processions. The traditional routes are among the best in Madrid: one through the streets of the old city, including calle del Codo, Plaza de la Villa and return through the Plaza Mayor. The second route loops east through Puerta del Sol, calle Mayor and also returns through the Plaza Mayor.

Best Breads

MadridBread

 

What food is a part of almost every Spanish meal? The answer is……. bread. Although some people may consider bread just what goes under the cheese or ham, for many others bread is almost worthy of its own food group, or at very least an important part of the “vital miscellanea” food group that includes garlic, chocolate, cheese and wine.

Deciding what bread to buy has gotten more and more complicated in recent years. No longer just classic white in three classic sizes (barra, pistola y barrita), bread now comes in an astonishing array of sizes, shapes and colors. Not a serious bread-aholic myself (only at breakfast or under cheese), to learn more I visited a selection of neighborhood bakeries in the center city, asking questions to find out about the bread scene in today’s Madrid.

What makes good bread? All bakers agree on the basics: natural ingredients, no shortcuts, and daily baking. For these professionals, the frozen, pop-in-the-oven bread sold at gas stations and convenience stores is not really worthy of the name bread. “It’s all right while still hot, but inedible just hours later” sniffs one baker.

For great bread we enter the realm of opinion and trade secrets. Bread is just water, flour, yeast and maybe additional ingredients (malt, milk, seeds) for certain kinds of bread. The art is in the mixture, in the process of kneading, rising and baking; most good bakeries have their own recipes and techniques that makes their bread distinctively theirs. One employee told me that they re-trained even experienced bakers in their own way of mixing and baking, delicate processes that can vary depending even on the weather. Another baker says that the baker’s instinct on rising or baking time is just as important as the written recipe.

The baking business is not easy. Another truth mentioned in several places. Baking is physically demanding: lifting heavy bags of flour, heavy trays of bread, dealing with heat and hustle to get the bread out to the hungry, hurried public. To the physical difficulty add long, long hours: baking starts well before dawn to get the bread out the door for breakfast, then come long opening hours for the public. A tough schedule for any business, but especially for traditional family-run neighborhood bakeries with few outside employees. Many neighborhood bakeries have closed in recent years: to survive, a bakery needs to have a great location, good service, special products (pastries, empanadas, cookies) and great bread to bring customers through the door.

Is there really any difference between differents breads and different bakeries? Judging from the long line outside some bakeries, or people’s willingness to wait for the next batch of “their” bread, some bread really must be better than other bread. Just imagine: a neighborhood bakery  in the Moncloa area makes 600 standard barras every day during the week and more than double that number on weekends – that’s just one kind of bread and doesn’t include their delivery routes.

What’s the BEST bread? You decide!  White or dark?  Chewy or fluffy? Factor in the situation: what works for breakfast, for sandwiches, for stew or for grilled fish may not be the same. Factor in the all-important location: you don’t want to cross the city every other day to get something as basic as bread. Factor things in, but be bread-venturous. Try new kinds from new places, you never know when you’ll find something so amazing it belies the Spanish saying “Bread with bread, food for idiots”.

Bread vocabulary (and explanations)

Bread varies s lot in the grain of the miga (crumb, inside) and the hardness of the corteza (crust). The most classic shapes are barra (classic long, wide-ish loaf), baguet (long but narrower), barrita (individual serving), molde (rectangular loaf like packaged bread), hogaza (circular loaf), rosca (big doughnut shape), and a variety of names that vary between regions or even between bakeries.

Bread also varies in the kind of flour and rising process, creating very different kinds of bread from similar raw ingredients. A few kinds of classic bread are shown below, but as you travel around Spain you should watch for and try regional breads: Castilla-Leon is famous for good bread, Cataluña for rustic payés, and Galicia for cornbread.

Candeal : White, fine-grain bread made with a special flour, golden crust. Comes in a variety of shapes, in Castilla-Leon sometimes a flat, round loaf with designs on top. Not available in all bakeries. Keeps better than most white breads.

Chapata: Similar to Italian ciabatta. Usually made from white flour with a little rye. Loaf is crusty, oblong and flat, inside usually spongey open texture. This bread is more complicated to make than standard white, has a different rising process. Good toasted with oil and for sopping up sauces.

Integral: Whole-wheat. Most frequent shapes are barra, molde and hogaza. Varies a lot between bakeries in crust, texture and moistness, you may need to shop around to find one you like; available in health food stores as well as bakeries. Keeps well.

Centeno: Rye. Comes in a variety of shapes, varies in color from light to quite dark, some breads are mixture wheat and rye. Some dark ryes are made with malt (first cousin to malt in beer or malted milk). Can be moist or dry, usually quite dense. Keeps well.

Multicereal: Mixed grain, sometimes with seeds on the crust or inside (poppy, sunflower, linseed). Might also be called cinco cereales (o siete cereales, etc) Not all bakeries have this hearty bread, but if you see it it’s definitely worth a try.

Special breads: Good bakeries or bread boutiques have bread with nuts, raisins, olive bits or other treats. Around Easter you can usually find a fine white bread made with milk, used to make torrijas (bread soaked in milk or wine, fried and sprinkled with sugar).

Good bakeries in Madrid, just a selection

Mas que Pan: Plaza Puerta de Moros 3 (Metro La Latina). Independent and in my neighborhood, has a coffee shop. This will probably become my place, for now I’ve only had their carrot cake and empanadillas (closed covered mini-pizza), both excellent.

Pasteleria del Duque:  Plaza Duque de Alba (Metro La Latina). Also independent and in my neighborhood, has a tiny coffee shop. This place has more cakes than breads but their cakes are SO good that I’m including here assuming the bread is just as good.

Puntal: Santa Engracia 56 (metro Iglesia). Independent bakery in Chamberi neighborhood, has coffee shop. Newish so I have not tried personally, but it looks like they have a nice  selection

Mercado de Barcelo (calle Barcelo 6):  Panaderia Israel, lower level, stand 126 (across from the olives).  Good multigrain and rye breads. So far I have resisted their chocolate bread. Not terribly friendly, or maybe just having a bad day.

Mercado de Maravillas (calle Bravo Murillo 122): Horno Atanor (stand 223, a little to the left of main entrance, near the front). Unusual breads, over 30 kinds on weekends, including teff, rye, mixed-grain, cheesey or pesto rolls. They also used to have really unusual cookies and while those have disappeared, the classic cookies are highly recommended (double chocolate, yum!)  Other place associated to this one, same selection of breads plus beans and grains by weight and some dried fruits and nuts: A Granel, calle Comercio 13 in northern suburb Tres Cantos.

La Panaderia de Chueca: San Gregorio 1 (Metro Chueca). Small independent bakery with a wide selection of breads, including breads for people with special food needs. Also has pastries, a few other products and a small coffee shop. Website is quite informative.  http://www.lapanaderiadechueca.es/

Celicioso:    Hortaleza 3  (Metro Gran Via)  http://www.celicioso.es    Gluten free bakery with bread, cakes and brownies.  Also has a small cafe for enjoying your treats right there.

Bakery chains. A newish trend – most of these have coffeeshop attached to bakery, and lots of pastries as well as bread.  As sometimes happens in chains, some places are better than others; even if product is the same people are not.

Granier.  Excellent German style rye, multi-grain bread, olive focaccio, cheesy bread, onion bread etc.   This chain has expanded dramatically since first arriving in Madrid, so you may have one near your home. Website http://www.pansgranier.com

Panaria  Santa Engracia 45 and other locations. The website is not very informative, but the barkies I’ve see all look good.  http://www.panariapanaderias.es

Panishop. Lots of locations. Their multigrain “celta” is good, and they have other specialities I have not tried yet. Good muffins  http://www.panishop.com/

Vegetarian in Madrid

High on the list of priorities when new to a city is finding food – where to get best staples at the best price and where to find specialty items or treats. This can be a challenge in the best of circumstances, but for people with special needs, it can be downright daunting.

This article is a quick guide to vegetarian and ecological grocery stores and restaurants in Madrid. Most of these places can satisfy a wide range of needs – for vegetarian, vegan, celiac or lactose-intolerant cooking – or supply cooks with that specific kind of tofu, oil or grain not available at standard grocery stores.

In addition to the grocery stores shown here, look for smaller herbolarios in your neighborhood – most will have at least the basics and some a complete array of products. Ethnic grocery stores are another good source: oriental, Indian, Latino and Moroccan shops are scattered around the center of Madrid, with odd vegetables, different oils, noodles, rice, breads and tofu, sometimes in a fascinating cross-cultural mix.

Some of the bigger classic supermarkets have health food and ethnic sections. You may have to roam the aisles to find what you want, but once you do, you can read labels to be sure you’re getting what you want, and avoiding what you need to avoid.

 

Vegetarian grocery store (see restaurants, some have attached stores)

Salud Mediterranea Locations near Atocha and Manuel Becerra. One of Madrid’s biggest vegetarian grocery stores, has cosmetics and vitamins as well – they have an additional location near Cibeles that doesn’t have any food, only health and beauty products. Helpful staff. Website: http://saludmediterranea.com/

Ecocentro, Near Cuatro Caminos. Two grocery stores, one for perishables, other for staples; the grocery stores are among the best in the city, very large selection of products including cosmetics and vitamins. IMPORTANT NOTE: Esquilache street is split in two separate parts, Ecocentro is on the southern half just off Islas Filipinas.  Website: www.ecocentro.es

Biotika, Salamanca neighborhood store on Ayala street.  Website: www.labiotika.es

Planeta Vegano, Lavapies neighborhood.  Smallish but nice selection. Website: http://www.planetavegano.com/

Kiki Market, two locations:  metro La Latina and metro Tribunal.  The Tribunal location has a small deli, too.  La Latina (my ‘hood) store is smallish but has excellent selection including fruits, veges, cheese and some tofu products as well as all the non-perishables you would expect to find at a good health food store.  More info at   http://kiki-market.com/wordpress/

Veggie Room:  Vegan store on San Vicente Ferrer, near metro Tribunal,  not far from location of Madrid’s first real health food store (now extinct, alas).  Noticed when walking by, haven’t been inside but did notice they have energy bars for hikers including Cliff Bars.  More info at http://www.veggieroom.es/

 

Restaurants: Most of these places have lunch deals, and some may offer similar deals for dinner. Most have options for vegans as well as vegetarian, and can handle celiac or lactose intolerance, though it’s wise to check ahead if last two are super important for you. Some of the smaller places might not take credit cards. * indicates the restaurant has an attached store.

*Biotika, Near Santa Ana. A classic. Small restaurant with vegan as well as vegetarian food, grocery store next door. Good food and not expensive. Website: www.labiotika.es

*Ecocentro, Near Cuatro Caminos. Same as above, separated as their store is one of the largest in Madridso merits its own note. Restaurant/coffee shop between the two stores, they do converences around the corner on a wide variety of personal development and food topics. Also has a bookstore. IMPORTANT NOTE: Esquilache street is split in two separate parts, Ecocentro is on the southern half just off Islas Filipinas.  Website: www.ecocentro.es

*El Vergel, Near Metro Principe Pio, across from Casa Mingo chicken restaurant. Good food, nice décor. Large store upstairs has a good selection of everything including fresh organic vegetables. This is my personal favorite and where I do most of my shopping for special products. Their client card is a good deal and they’re open long hours. Website: www.el-vergel.com

VivaBurger:  used to be a semi-classic vegetarian called Viva la Vida but has evolved to have salads, vegetarian burgers, wraps, and some lighter dishes.  On Plaza de la Paja, one of the prettiest squares in central Madrid. Website:  http://www.vivaburger.es/

Al Natural Between Sol and Cibeles. Vegetarian and vegan, in the past this restaurant has also had a few non-vegetarian dishes but I don’t see them on their menu now. Good food and fun décor, more interesting than most other vegetarian places in Madrid. Al Natural is right behind Congress so you will notice more police presence and maybe more “suits”, probably politicians. Website: www.alnatural.biz/

Artemisa Locations just off Gran Via and near Plaza Santa Ana. One of Madrid’s first vegetarian restaurants, pared-down décor but good food and not expensive. Usually packed, they understandably don’t like you to linger after the meal. Menu in English is on their website. Website: www.restauranteartemisa.com.

El Estragon Vegetariano Plaza de la Paja. They call themselves the vegetarian restaurant for non-vegetarians. Nice décor, outdoor section in season. Website shows their menu, has (slightly fractured) English translation. Website: www.elestragonvegetariano.com/index.html

Fresc Co Calle Fuentes 12 (near Opera). Alas, this small chain used to have many more locations but they’ve all closed, a real shame because it’s a good salad bar with a few hot dishes at the back, usually soup, pasta or pizza. Good all-you-can-eat lunch deal. Website: www.frescco.com/

Yerbabuena  Two smallish places near Plaza Mayor, great for fast, heathy meal when you’re downtown. Website: www.yerbabuena.ws (note: the ws is not a typo!)

Vegaviana calle Pelayo 35, telf 91 308 0381. Metro Chueca. Good food and inexpensive. No website; Trip Advisor rates this place highly

Rayen Lope de Vega street near Santa Ana. Vegan and ecological. Smallish, pretty décor. They make their own bread and have a nice selection of craft beer. Website: http://rayenvegan.com/

Loving Hut Vegan food next to Plaza de España. Website doesn’t have a lot of information, does show their vegan restaurants in other cities. Website  www.lovinghut.es/

Distrito Vegano, Vegan food & art. Near Lavapies, allows non-human animals (dogs and cats and others?). Website www.distritovegano.com

Getting High in Madrid

Spain. Madrid

North Madrid skyline with partial view of Cuatro Torres at left center and Kio Towers (leaning) at right center

Want to get high in Madrid? If you want to get as high as possible you must go to Peñalara peak, at 2,428 meters (7,966 feet). That’s Madrid’s ceiling, even though it’s partly in Segovia province. (Sound fun? it’s an accessible hike for experienced walkers).

In the city, remember that high is relative. Plaza de Castilla is one of the highest parts of the city in altitude, as well as having the highest buildings. But getting high in downtown Madrid has its own charm – red tile roofs, pretty squares, rooftop cafés and much more. Read on to learn tips and tricks for getting high in Madrid.

Urban highs

Centro Centro / Palacio de Cibeles. Madrid’s old post office, designed by Antonio Palacios, inaugurated 1919, now City Hall and cultural center. Mirador observation deck on 8th floor, get tickets to the right of main door. Visits are timed due to limited space, first elevator does not go all the way up, you take a second elevator when your time is called. If your knees can take it walk all the way down to admire this fabulous building. Restaurant-café and cocktail bar on 6th floor. Where: Plaza de Cibeles, southeast side of square. More info on observation deck and ticket fees: www.centrocentro.org/centro/espacios scroll down to Mirador – but check out other things in this cool building.

Círculo Bellas Artes. Private cultural center, offers lots of things to general. Also designed by Antonio Palacios, inaugurated 1926. The CBA Azotea (rooftop) observation deck and bar has one of the best views in the city center. Where: calle Alcalá 42, entrance from side street Marqués de Casa Riera. Metro Banco de España. More info for observation deck and ticket fees: www.circulobellasartes.com/azotea.php

The Roof – Hotel Melia ME. Rooftop bar, fabulous views of Santa Ana square and surrounding area. One of Madrid’s see-and-be-seen scenes, complete with dress code and 25 euro entrance fee (at least last time I checked, that’s not on the website). Where: Plaza Santa Ana 14. Metro Sevilla or Sol. More info: www.melia.com/hoteles/espana/madrid/me-madrid-reina-victoria/the-roof.html

La Terraza del Urban – Hotel Urban. Rooftop bar on a five-star hotel, near Santa Ana square. Only open spring to fall. Where: Carrera de San Jerónimo 34. Metro Sevilla or Sol. More info about the rooftop bar: www.hotelurban.com/#!en/restaurants/la-terraza-del-urban-1-info/

Casa de Granada: A rooftop bar with a sliver of terrace, now partly glassed in. Good view of Tirso de Molina square, south part of the city and if you go at night and get the right table, a nice sunset. Not elegant, but a great location near Yelmo-Ideal movies in English. Where: Dr. Cortezo 17, 6th floor. Metro Tirso de Molina. Approximate hours: noon to midnight, creaky elevator NOT working all that time. Cannot find website with any decent info.

El Viajero: Good view of San Francisco del Grande church, great sunsets. Very crowded on Sunday afternoons with post-Rastro scene. Address: Plaza Cebada 11, metro La Latina. More info on location and hours: www.elviajeromadrid.com/#la-azotea

Gaudeamus: This used to be a well-kept secret but the word is out on a great rooftop café. Find it on top of the UNED (Distance Learning University), a modern building tacked on to a ruined church, converted into a gorgeous library. Views of the surrounding neighborhood, with  La Corrala and red tile roofs. There’s an elevator but be sure to walk up or down to see how the new and old buildings integrate – and peek into that library from the stairs. Where: Tribulete 14, 4th floor (UNED building), Metro Lavapies and Embajadores. More info: www.gaucafe.com   UPDATE: alas, this place has closed, apparently they were in a gray area license-wise and also made too much noise for nearby apartment dwellers.

Corte Inglés Gourmet Experience. Umm. On principal I rarely mention this department store, but the cafetería /gourmet shopping area on the top floor of Callao store has a truly fabulous view. Where: Plaza de Callao, 9th floor.

Moncloa’s Lighthouse (Faro), that strange spaceship next to Museo de las Americas. Inaugurated in 1992, closed for a long time after 2005 for rehab to bring it up to fire code. Now open, though they reserve the right to close down in adverse weather.  Fabulous observation deck over this edge of the city, the Complutense University and out towards the mountains. Visit length limited to 30 minutes.  How high: 110 meters (361 feet).  Website for info about hours, prices, etc: https://www.esmadrid.com/informacion-turistica/faro-de-moncloa

 

Higher and higher: Madrid’s Ten Tallest Torres (towers)

Metropolitan building from Bellas Artes rooftop terrace

Cuatro Torres / Four Towers Business Area. Four skyscrapers, mostly office space, built 2004-2009. Where: just north of Plaza de Castilla. How high: Torre Bankia 250 meters (820 feet) / Torre Cristal 249 meters (817 feet) / Torre Price Waterhouse Cooper 236 meters (774 feet) / Torre Espacio 230 meters (755 feet). The Cristal Tower has a garden on top, and the PwC Tower has a hotel and restaurant.

Torre Picasso. Madrid’s tallest for 30 years, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, same architect as the World Trade Center. Construction finished in 1989. Where: Azca business center, just west of Paseo Castellana near the soccer stadium. How high: 156m meters / 512 feet.

Torre Madrid. Classic white skyscraper, built for offices, apartments and leisure activities. Construction finished in 1957. Where: Plaza de España, corner Princesa. How high: 142 meters / 466 feet.

Torre Europa. Oval building with vertical metal columns and glass, clock near the top. Construction finished in 1985. Where: Paseo Castellana, across from soccer stadium. How high: 120 meters / 394 feet.

Edificio España. Massive red and white pyramid shape building, used to be office space, now empty. Construction finished in 1953, recently rehabbed. At last news, owned by a bank and for sale. Where: Plaza de España. How high: 117 meters / 384 feet

Torre Colon. Tallish twin buildings with a green thing on top that looks like an electric plug. Buildings hang from central columns (built from the top down), construction finished in 1976. Where: Plaza de Colon, corner of Genova street. How high: 116 meters / 381 feet.

Kio Towers. Two tallish buildings that lean towards each other on on both sides of the Castellana, sort of scary standing underneath looking up. Buildings hang from central columns (built from the top down), construction finished 1996. Now dwarfed by the nearby Cuatro Torres. Where: Plaza de Castilla. How high: 114 meters / 374 feet.

Madrid, Offtrack: M. Tiflológico

MadridTiflologico

Not far from Cuatro Caminos lies one of Madrid’s secret museums: the Museo Tiflológico.

Perhaps the tongue-twisting name has something to do with the unknown status of this place. Or maybe it’s the somewhat hidden location, several floors up from street level in a nondescript building, on a side street off Bravo Murillo, well away from the usual museum circuit, with very little signage in the street. Whatever the reason or reasons, even long-time local residents are unaware of this museum.

So what is this place?

The Tiflologico is run by the Spanish National Blind Organization (ONCE), which many locals know mainly from the telephone booth-sized kiosks selling ONCE lottery – or lottery sellers on street corners. Fewer people are aware of the large ONCE training center in the north part of the city or the other ONCE buildings in Madrid. Even fewer know that the ONCE organization also helps people who are not completely sightless, and some people with other kinds of disabilities.

The museum was inaugurated in 1992, with four main sections:

Reading, writing and teaching tools for the blind. Explains the raised-dot Braille system for reading and writing and shows the tools used over the years, plus other tools for learning to be functional in a sighted world (Braille typewriters, “talking” books, calculators…). Lots of exhibits of tools used as well as explanatory text. This section is actually the largest of the four sections, quite educational and gives the museum its name.

Temporary exhibits: Often quite interesting (I discovered this museum thanks to a temporary exhibit), usually artwork by blind or visually impaired artists. The museum often buys or keeps a piece on loan after these exhibits.

Permanent exhibit of art by the blind: With artwork that would be considered very good even among sighted artists, the quality and diversity of art in this section may change your ideas about the artistic capacities of sightless people. Some of my favorites are the blue tapestry, the chestnut seller sculpture, and a painting showing a rainy street scene – not to mention the sculptures in the entryway.

Models: Thirty-six scale models of major monuments in Spain and the rest of the world: Madrid’s Alcala gate, Santiago de Compostela’s Cathedral, Fromista’s Romanesque church share space with Rome‘s Coliseum, the leaning tower of Pisa and the Taj Majal. These models are partly a teaching tool for the blind, but are fascinating for the sighted as well, giving a bird’s-eye view of monuments that cannot be fully understood at street level or inside. A few models may be on loan out of the museum, but the majority will always be there.

All in all, a great place to see, for the artwork and the monuments, which are a fun “visit” to sights in other cities.

Museo Tiflologico (located in the ONCE bibliographic building)
website: http://museo.once.es/home.cfm Email: museo@once.es
calle Coruña 18 Metro stop: Estrecho
Usual schedule: Tues-Fri 10AM-2PM, 5-8PM, Sat 10AM-2PM, closed Sun+Mon
Note: Take your ID or a photocopy, you may be asked to fill out a short form before entering the museum.