Wednesday 24 June 2009

The Spanish Way Of Death

By Richard Morley
I have no idea how many people die in Madrid each year. Neither the internet nor my local library can give me the figures. But however great the figure, the dead have to go somewhere.
From the thirteenth century the dead of Madrid preferred to be buried near or inside a church. Many churches in the city were actually built by wealthy families for that very purpose. It was considered that the further you were buried away from a church, the further away you were from God.

So you can imagine the shock of the populace when, in the eighteenth century, King Carlos III decreed that there should be no more interments inside religious buildings. The stink, he said, made attending church unpleasant. Besides, as the city started to grow there just wasn’t enough space. After time original occupants of graves were exhumed, their bones taken to a central ossuary, the rest of their remains buried in a communal grave, and their churchyard plot was given to a more recently deceased citizen.

At the beginning of the next century, his successor, Carlos IV, had built two cemeteries outside of the city, but no one wanted to be buried there. His successor, the French imposed José Bonaparte, (yes, I know about Ferdinand VII, but he only reigned for two months!) built more cemeteries outside the city walls, but they continued to be unpopular. Even Isabella II, a queen renowned for her public works and who passed a royal decree on the 28th of August 1850 that no cemetery could be built less than 1500 “Varas”, (an old Spanish measure equivalent to the English “yard”, or just under a metre,) from the city centre, could not really change the mind or the populace. It was also decreed that no cemetery could be built on the banks of the River Manzanares.

The Chapel of Almudena
So outside of this limit a number of small cemeteries were created. There was one near the Puerta de Toledo where, among others, executed criminals were buried. However, it was not well protected and, it seems, until they thought about building a wall around it dogs would break in and run off with dug up bones! There was one for those who had died during the war of independence and one for hidalgos, or knights, in the Retiro Park. No trace of this remains, but it is said it was near the present site of the stature of the fallen angel and the flowers in the rose garden nearby do grow well! There was also a Jewish graveyard in Embajadores and one for Moslems in La Latina.

It took a catastrophe to change the mind of the people and the church authorities.
In 1884/85 Madrid suffered an epidemic of cholera. More than fifteen thousand died and this would have over-loaded the existing cemeteries.
Fortunately, at that time, the authorities had sanctioned the creation of a new cemetery in the area known as Elipa, about five kilometres east of the city. This was to have the name of the Necropolis of the East. (There was already one in the west at San Isidro.)
The new Necropolis of the east was huge. Now known as El Cementerio de la Almudena, it has been expanded to two hundred and twenty hectares. That’s as large as the Retiro Park, and from 1885 until 1973 was the main last resting site for everyone in the city. More than five million Madrileños are buried there, which is actually more than the population of the present city.
Satallite's eye view

Intrigued by the satellite view of it on Google Earth, I went there one Sunday to explore. That was a mistake for a photographer manqué as photography is forbidden on Sundays and Mondays. A uniformed attendant politely explained that many people come to tend graves on Sundays and Mondays is a traditional day for burials. So, taking snaps on those days was considered inappropriate. So I had to return later in the week.

But that Sunday was strange for me. For the first time since living in Spain, I felt like I was intruding. I was brought up protestant, spent the last 35 years in Moslem countries, and now having no religion, I was unsure of what was considered polite and respectful behaviour is such a place. I saw no signs about smoking, but noticed, as the trained eye of a smoker does, that there were no discarded cigarette ends. I wasn’t even sure if it was appropriate to drink from my bottle of lemonade. Then I saw a family with bright umbrellas, folding chairs and with a plume of blue smoke drifting above their heads, as they enjoyed a picnic around grandma’s grave.

Cars were everywhere. In a place the size of a small town transport is essential. The final part of bus route 110 brings you deep inside the cemetery. There are signposts, speed warnings, speed bumps and one way streets. No dead ends, at least in the street layout, I noticed. A pattern of behaviour was visible. Cars would pull up to a grave. Someone would nip out and change the flowers and then pull away on their way to lunch somewhere.

I wished I had a car as I spent the next two hours wandering from place to place. It is said that death is the great leveller; that rich and poor will be as one come that day of reckoning. That may well be true, but where we rest awaiting that dreadful day can show that in death as well as life, some things are not equal.
Desirable Residences
My geologist’s eye recognised Granites and marbles as materials of choice for tombs. Not cheap! But I also noticed simple brick built constructions, and even plain concrete. There were single graves that commemorated many generations, double spreads for extended families, and great mausoleums to house the remains of dynasties. I peered into one. It was like an old English parlour with a table piled high with flowers, photographs of the dear departed hung around the walls, candle holders. There were large tombs set into the walls that took, I presume, entire adults, and smaller, locker sized recesses for urns of ashes.
Away form those des res for the departed were what I have discovered are called “niche” graves, which in much the same way that madrileños like to live in towering apartments, so they like to rest in peace. Set into walls, as much as six levels high, the earthly remains are inserted lengthways, like in mortuary cabinets, and a simple stone of remembrance is placed in the entrance. At first I wondered why there were ladders everywhere, but then realised they were for the grieving flower arrangers to reach the resting place of their late relatives.

Rooms to let

This is strange and new to me. Laws were passed in Britain and in the US that human remains should be well covered, at least “Six Feet Under”. English graveyards are pleasant, if not happy places, but in the Cementerio de la Almudena I was very much aware of the scent of decomposition. I think I agree with Carlos III, it is not a nice smell. It hung heavy in the air and clung. I saw one family grave with the top slab removed, ready for yet another member to join those gone before. I noticed many graves, although covered with a memorial slab, were open at the sides or at the front. In the older part of the cemetery many of the brick sides had collapsed. Signs had been left to rust and corrode, broken cables left to hang lifelessly. It was as though it was not just the departed, but also their last resting places that were also decaying.

Not even the smoke of my cigarettes could mask its cloying scent.

The grounds are heavily wooded. When the land was bought by the city in the 1880s the documents reveal there were over 5000 trees on the site. It is high summer. The trees are full of leaf and the pathways well shaded. Even as the site was landscaped into its present tiered terraces and lawns, I am sure there are just as many, if not more, now.
Reading the Spanish double surnames on the graves, one becomes aware of the links between families. I noticed one family’s double names were Tendero Mercante and was amused that a shopkeeper and a merchant should join in holy matrimony. I saw many Aznars, Rejoys and Zapateros, but searched in vain for a family where these political named were united. It would have made an intriguing photograph.
And then I found a small garden where there are no names recorded at all. A simple slab reminded me that “Ante Dios Nunca Seres Heroes Anónimos”, before God there are no unknown heroes, and thought I had stumbled on a tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but than another plaque revealed this little plaza was in memory of the fallen of the Falange, Franco’s forces of the civil war. I did not find any Republican memorial.

I knew about a British protestant cemetery in Carabanchel, because even non- Catholics have to be buried somewhere, but I was unaware of the much smaller “civil” cemetery just across the road from Almudena. Here Madrid residents from other countries are buried. I thought at first I had found a purely German cemetery, but later found French and Greek names. Here a sign warns that photography is completely verboten, er, prohibited, but some of the graves are quite unusual, so I couldn’t resist.
There are hidden stories here. I wondered about the woman who was born in Buenos Aires in 1952 and died in Madrid. What brought her here? Was she the returning daughter of a fled Republican? Who were the all the Germans who died here? Some of their graves look very Tutonic.

Everyone I suppose has a story to tell. There are over five million of them in the Cementerio de la Almudena. Some are famous: Frank Yerby, the African-American novelist who died in 1991 is here, so is Olga Ramos, a Spanish singer whose recordings I enjoy, and several other musicians and actors.

Sadly, there has been some vandalism of graves. I watched a distraught couple collecting the smashed remains of a flower vase. And many of the graves have remained untended for a long time. So it is a sad, decaying place, with no pun intended, and it would rarely figure on anyone’s “must visit” list. But it is an important part of Madrid and as such should be recorded.

Enterprising businesses just outside the cemetery

I am not alone in my curiosity of the Spanish way of death. I found this interesting article from the New York Times, written, I judge from the odd reference, in the late twenties.
If you found this interesting, or just incredibly macabre, please leave a comment below.

Friday 19 June 2009

Grub for Guiris: A beginner's guide to not starving in Madrid

By Richard Morley
This post is directed at those who have never been to Madrid before. Purists and lovers of Spanish food should look away now.

Spanish food is very good. Fact!

Spanish food is not like English or North American food. Discuss.

No I won’t. There are plenty of websites that seek to educate potential visitors to the joys, and there are many, of Spanish Cuisine. On first arrival the experts will know exactly where to go and what to eat and will shun, with great distain, those ubiquitous golden arches and who’s to say they are wrong.

But you, like me, are not a gourmet geek. You’ve just got off the plane and want to eat – anything. But you look at some menus and don’t really know what to order and you wander from place to place looking for something you vaguely recognise as food. And you won’t know if the place you finally eat in is good or not.

Confession time: My first meal in Madrid came on a tray in Burger King, but I didn’t go to bed hungry. On my second day, after I had plodded the streets for a while, I found restaurants with English menus, or boards with sun faded photographs of their combinations, or combinados, which means a complete meal on one plate – something foreign to the one foodstuff at a time Spanish, but normal to us – and ate what I knew was not wonderful food. That, incidentally, in my humble opinion, means just about any restaurant inside the Plaza Mayor, where you will pay tourist prices for average food. A friend of mine recently described these places as “Quasi Spanish”, because they lure the unsuspecting traveller in with easily recognisable food in an exotic, to the traveller, setting.

It took me a while to find my way around and learn about the local specialities, and whether I liked them or not. Again, that’s not what this post is about. You are here to see the sights or perhaps on business. You have other priorities, but you have to eat. I wouldn’t want you to leave this wonderful city saying you couldn’t get a good meal.

To begin with I should clear up a couple of common misconceptions. A “Spanish omelette”, as known to the British, is not a Spanish omelette. The visiting Brit expecting a thin, French style omelette with a vegetable filling will be disappointed. A Spanish omelette is a Tortilla. Ok, now we are confusing the North Americans who think that a “Tortilla” is a small disk of unleavened bread used for tacos and burritos. In Spanish a “torta” is a cake, and when the conquistadors arrived in Mexico and found the natives making small wheat or corn flat bread, they called them “Little Cakes” or “Tortillas”. The “illa” part of the word being used as a diminutive. In Spain a Tortilla is a heavy potato and egg, with optional onion, mix, fried into a thick, and to my taste, rather stodgy omelette. Just order a “Porción” or a “Ración”, you will never eat a whole one.

Así que, se ha cambiado la tortilla. So, the tortilla is changed, which is a Spanish expression that basically means that “That’s a completely different story”, or “That’s a horse of a different colour”.

I would also like to point out to North American visitors that, believe it or not, Spain is not Mexico. They might, almost, have the same language, but do not share common tastes in food. The Spanish do not do spicy food. I have a Mexican friend here who complains that outside of his apartment, he hasn’t had a decent meal in months!

You will quickly realise that McDonalds, Burger King, KFC and Starbucks are all over town, so there’s no need to starve. But if you don’t want to supersize yourself by the end of your visit, then perhaps that’s not a good option.

So first of all let me point you at a chain of cafés called Café y Té. For you, breakfast is no longer a problem. Their coffee is very good and if you order that, a glass of orange juice (zumo de naranja) and a croissant (pronounced here crow-i-sant ) then breakfast should be under three euros. Or you could order the Croissant “a la plancha”, which means it will be toasted and come with a little pot of jam or marmalade. That’ll probably cost you another euro.
A recent visitor told me that his hotel charged around ten Euros for breakfast, so Café y Té sound like a bargain.

Café y Té open early and stay open late. Like any other café they also serve beer during the day and do some reasonably cheap pasta meals for lunch and dinner.

Their menu, however, is a little limited. So let’s move on to VIPS, pronounced “Bips”. Again, this is a chain you will find nearly everywhere. Look for the big red sign. Their menu is lavishly full of photographs, so you can just point, or it’s quite likely they will hear your accent and give you their English menu. For some reason this has no prices on it, unlike the Spanish menu. The food is good, wholesome and tasty. Their salads are delicious and huge. Go for the “New Orleans”, which has ham, cheese, guacamole, nachos, tomato and tons of lettuce. They do sandwiches which they call “Fundys” for some reason, properly cooked hamburgers, fish and a couple of oriental dishes if that’s your choice. Trust me on this. I still eat at VIPS several times a month. The quality never diminishes and the service is excellent. Oh, if you patronise the same one all the time and the staff get to know you they are happy to correct your Spanish, but with a smile. They are open all day too.

Look around too for the yellow signs of “Pans and Company” who sell burgers and sandwiches and I can certainly recommend “Rodilla” who serve superb sandwiches and salads at very reasonable prices.
When I first came here there were not many places for vegetarians. Be warned, the Spanish don’t think ham is meat – it’s ham, something that holds a unique place within Spanish cuisine. If you order, as I did once, a vegetable stew, don’t be surprised if it comes liberally sprinkled with flakes of ham. If you comment or complain, the waiter won’t understand. Ham comes with everything!

But times have changed. Madrid now has some very good vegetarian restaurants, but they tend to be a little expensive. However, there is a chain called Fresc Co that has the most wonderful selection of buffet style vegetables and salads any self-respecting veggie could ask for. What’s more, it’s a set price menu and you can keep going back for more. During the day time €8.95 will get you a meal with a drink and dessert. In the evening this increases to €9.95. Their website says it’s even less, but that might be a special deal. Meat eaters can go there too as inside you will find a separate hot food counter with pizzas, roast meats etc. Excellent value.

Another place for vegetarians is Maoz. There are several branches around the centre of town and make delicious pita bread pockets of all sorts of tasty stuff. Quite cheap if I recall correctly, though I haven’t been in one for a while now.

But if meat definitely is your protein of choice then the Muslim immigrant population provides many many kebab, here known as kepap, shops. Some of them, I will admit, look a little dingy, but at €4 for a meal that will leave you stuffed I recommend them highly. They usually have one or two veggie kebabs on the menu too. I often go to one with a vegetarian friend and it’s usually his choice.

Kebabs are inexpensive food, but you don’t want a diet exclusively of fatty meat and you don’t want to be ripped off either. Be careful. Some places look cheap and then you find they charge for the bread rolls they casually lay on the table, or for the jug of water that they have just filled from the tap.
For lunch the best options are to go with that splendid Spanish institution, the Menu Del Día. Nearly every restaurant offers this for lunch. You will get a three course meal, with a drink, for around ten Euros. VIPS do one and change the menu through the week. I have had some excellent lunches at these budget prices. I remember a particularly good Cordero, lamb on the bone, at Ginger, in the Plaza del Ángel, that came with starter and dessert and a beer, for just €10.50. A few places will do a set meal in the evening, but it’s rare. And then, in the more select places, prices will shoot up.

Many of the restaurants I mention here are easily found in the city centre. If you venture a few stops out of the centre on the metro you will find Menu del Días a third less. My local bar does one for €7.50. I doubt I could buy the ingredients at that price to make myself. If you don’t want to wander that far afield then go a couple of blocks north of Gran Via to the Plaza Dos de Mayo. This little plaza serves the best pizzas in town, though the pigeons can be annoying.

While we are on the subject of cutting the cost of your meals, here is some news that will surprise you. The Spanish don’t tip. At most, they will just leave the few coins of unwanted change. I remember taking a couple of girl friends out to lunch one day. We each had the Menu Del Día and the bill for all of us came to €27.50. I gave the waitress thirty Euros and left the change on the table. One of my friends picked up the two euro coin and gave it to me. “Fifty cents is enough”, she said. Of course, if you want to leave a twenty per cent tip the waiters will love you, but walk away muttering about “These strange Guiris”.

So you won’t starve, and will actually eat quite well while you are finding your Spanish feet. I was going to write “pies español” there, but then realised it would seem I was writing about pastry encrusted food. But you should experiment a little. Get out your dictionary or phrasebook, (The Lonely Planet “Fast Talk Spanish” has a brilliant “menu decoder”,) and try “Huevos estrellados”, it’s just ham, egg and chips with an unusual name. There are lots more that you will find absolutely delicious, and a few you won’t, but that’s the fun of travel. And if you don’t find your way to that special restaurant, then you will be in illustrious company!
Restaurante El Cuchi. Famous for who they didn't feed.

If you like this post and find it useful, or can add more information for the benefit of Madrid virgins, then please feel free to comment below.

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Everyday English - In Madrid

By Richard Morley
Real Estate Agent's sign. Obviously they have more than one property.

I find it hard to imagine department stores and clothes shops in the UK thinking it would be a good idea to advertise in anything other than the native language. But I have stopped being surprised that their Spanish equivalents think it makes commercial sense to plaster their walls with signs in English. Would a London fashion house advertise its summer collection by putting a huge poster outside their premises with the single word “Verano”? Or would John Lewis, Britain’s largest department store chain, invite its fashion victim clients with the words, “Bienvenido donde la moda es arte”? Yet El Corte Inglés, Spain’s ubiquitous source of everything, thinks that huge placards proclaiming “Summertime” and “Welcome to where fashion is art” will pull the customers in.

While waiting for a bus recently I passed the time attempting to translate the words on a placard set in the window of a beauty parlour. I was doing ok except for a couple of words that had me shaking my head in bewilderment. It took a few seconds for my brain to register that these words floating amidst a sea of Spanish announced that the company offered, “Happy Prices”, in English.

At the time of writing, the perfume peddler, Diesel, has plastered the bus shelters of Madrid, and very likely all over the continent, with a hoarding proclaiming, “Only The Brave – The New Fragrance”. A whiskey distiller exhorts us to, “Leave an Impression”, Ray ban, advertising its sunglasses, tells us we can “Never Hide”, and a newspaper kiosk proclaims “We live in Financial Times”. Not a word in Spanish in sight. And I do not suppose the “Pink ‘un” informs the populace of London that “Vivimos en tiempos financieros”.

These are far from isolated incidents. A lawyer I mentioned this to told me that these shops like to appeal to the snob inside a certain sector of the public. That English has a certain “cashet”, in much the same way that some English like to prove their superiority by using French in their speech. See what I did there? In much the same way, he thought, using English make the esnob españoles feel exclusive.

Some of this might make sense in the parts of town frequented by the English speaking tourist, but I think I am the only guiri in my barrio and the area, as pleasant as it is, isn’t exactly posh! And I am sure they would, in these poor economic times, attract more buyers if they explained that “Nuestros precios son bajos”, our prices are low, as opposed to using a foreign language, even if the prices are “Happy”, whatever that means.

Madrid is not alone in having famous international names in its shopping districts, and several of their products have trademarked names. So, Spain has the Big Mac like everywhere else, and everyone knows what that is. But Burger King has a product called a “Long Chicken”, which does not describe what it is in Spanish. A “Pollo Largo” might not trip off the tongue quite so easily, but it would explain in the local language that the product contains parts of a dead bird. They seem to have no problem asking if you want “Patatas Fritas” with that?

I would bring Starbucks into this essay, except that that company uses its own language to describe its products. Checking their boards it seems they sell everything BUT coffee.

And what do shoppers feel about the names of shops in my pictures here. A sunglasses shop called “Sun Planet”, a clothes shop called “This Week”. I took these photographs in a Centro Comercial so snobby I almost got thrown out for taking them. However, the polite security guard just asked me to cease and desist. Do these names actually have any meaning for customers without a word of English? “Sol Planeta” and “Esta Semana” would surely have the same ring about them? Not that they still make any sense.

And why does a bookshop that sells mostly Spanish books bother to call itself “Top Books”, when it needs to describe itself with “Librerías” after its name. A shop which hires out tools calls itself the “Hire Shop” and would you buy some pretty bauble from a jeweller called “Trash and Soul”.

Many of the Spanish I meet are highly motivated to improve their use of English, but they need it to facilitate international business and contacts, not to improve their shopping experience in Madrid.

However, when I point this out to my Spanish friends, even the ones with little English, they look at me blankly and don’t know what I am talking about. You see, these snippets of English that appear in day to day Spanish life are regarded as perfectly normal. More, in some cases the English has supplanted Spanish in casual conversation. They leave their cars in a “parking”, exercise by “footing” or “trekking”. The national sport is Fútbol, not pelota de los pies. That's my translation, the actual real Spanish word is "Balompie".

And I expect this to increase. Schoolchildren are now taught English from year one. More than this, under an EU directive other subjects also have to be taught in English. I spent a couple of weeks earlier this year helping to improve the English of teachers in such diverse subjects as science, history and maths. It’s not just the subject, but the whole learning experience is in English, which means if the child wants the toilet etc, he or she must ask in English. If the teacher wants the kids to stop talking, she must tell them in English.

In fact, some schools advertise that they only use English in the classrooms. I am not writing about fee paid private schools here, although there are lots of those, but state funded government schools. I attended a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk a few months ago and I was convinced the children on stage, some as young as seven, were English or North American. But no, they were all Spanish. What a brilliant start these kids get in life. The Spanish friends I went with, whose English is very good, were envious of the children’s natural and fluent accents.

When I walk by the morose gatherings of teenagers in my local plaza I hear English happily mixed in with their native language. If only this happened in England where the teaching of foreign languages is a disaster.

I have a school teacher friend who last year taught a class of immigrant children. Most of her pupils were learning Spanish well, but she had a problem with two English children who just didn’t want to learn. They were brother and sister and would keep themselves to themselves and not want to mix with the other kids. One day while upbraiding them for their reluctance to learn Spanish the 8 year old replied, “Why should we learn Spanish when everyone else in Spain in learning English”? “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings”, as Shakespeare wrote. She said she had no immediate answer.

However, when those kids suddenly became motivated to learn Spanish in the summer term, because they realised they were missing out in all the games the other kids were playing, they went from fumbling to fluent in three months. Oh, I wish my brain was as nimble. There are children in Spain who were not even born when I arrived here who all speak better Spanish than me!

But back to English. I have a theory that in fifty years time nearly all of the Spanish will be speaking English. At that time, most of those who live in North America will be speaking Spanish!

And then someone will correct the meaning of this:
And they really tried! Sign at a metro station undergoing renovation.
Seen any other examples of English at work in madrid. Send me your examples to and I'll publish them if they are funny or interesting.
Otherwise, comment in the normal way below.

Thursday 11 June 2009

Pins and Pan - The Feria of San Antonio

By Richard Morley
Spanish women are all lovely, but sometimes I think they have a masochistic streak. For what other reason would they deliberately stick pins in themselves in the name of love? Let me explain.

This weekend sees the celebration of San Antonio. There are two saints called Anthony; one was Egyptian and lived around the forth century. This is not about him. This is Saint Anthony of Padua, 1195 to 1231, who among other things is the patron saint of lost things.

So, if you have mislaid the TV remote or your mobile phone again(!) then this is the prayer you must use:
St Anthony, St Anthony,
Please come down
Something is lost
And can’t be found.

The saint was born in Lisbon and was actually baptised Ferdinand. He went to school at Lisbon cathedral and at the age of fifteen joined the Augustinians as a novice. He was still near his family though, who annoyed the heck out of him by constant visits and so he asked to be transferred to Coimbra, about two hundred kilometres north on the way to Porto, so he could study in peace.

Apparently he had the reputation of being nervous and tongue-tied in company, but when forced to make his first sermon, after a hesitant start, became most eloquent and discovered a facility inside himself to explain the scriptures. This led him in later life to be appointed by no less a person than Saint Francis to teach theology.
This miraculous conversion from tongue-tied young man to great orator was the first of many miracles attributed to him, and which the church has carefully catalogued. Several of these were a little mundane, and here I quote the Catholic Encyclopaedia, that while “preaching in the square des Creux des Arenes in Limoges he preserved his audience from the rain”, without giving any detail. Did he suddenly produce a large umbrella, or did the falling waters part, in the style of Moses at the Red Sea, to fall either side of his congregation? I am not a little underwhelmed.
Also, he is miraculously ascribed to have preached from the pulpit and sung in the choir simultaneously, to have predicted that a pulpit from which he would preach would collapse, but that no one would be injured, and that a fasting horse would not eat until the animal knelt and adored the blesséd sacraments that Saint Anthony held. I am still not that impressed.
However, he did restore an amputated foot to a boy. But the full story is that the boy kicked his mother and Saint Anthony decreed that the boy’s foot should be chopped off as punishment, but after the deed was done, the kindly saint reattached it. I find that quite heart-warming! There were those at the time who did not follow the ways of the mother church and were regarded as heretics. San Antonio’s special mission was to try to bring these wayward children back into the fold and he became known as the “Hammer of the Heretics”. One of his more famous deeds in that to impress the heretics he preached a sermon on the banks of the River Brent near Padua and the fish stuck their heads above the water to listen. Personally, I think the fish noticed a large crowd on the bank and though, “I wonder if someone has a bag of breadcrumbs?” But there are those who regard it as another of his miracles. However, the heretics thought that Antonio should keep his nose out of their religion and to make their point some of them offered the saint some poisoned food. Much to their disappointment the saint had no ill effects from eating the food and it was said that the mere act of saying grace and making the sign of the cross over the proffered dish “miraculously” removed the poison. I suppose my favourite miracle has to be when while returning from the funeral of Saint Francis he and his fellow travellers stayed at the cottage of a poor woman and although the exact circumstances are not given, somehow wine glasses got smashed and a wine barrel leaked its contents. Saint Anthony not only restored the barrel and refilled it, but also “miraculously” the broken glasses were made whole. That had to be a heck of a wake!

Whether you believe in miracles or not, the history of the saint is one of never-ending devotion to his God. He went and did whatever the church required of him. He was sent to preach to the heretics when no one else would go. He may be known as San Antonio of Padua, but that is only because that was where he preached the sermon to the fish. In truth, he spent his life travelling and seemed to spend very little time in any one particular place.
However, in Madrid he does have a place devoted to his memory. Actually he has two! In the Paseo de la Florida there are two identical Ermitas, or small chapels, dedicated to his name.
The first, built in 1768 replaced an earlier building dating from 1720. Official records just say the original was “destroyed”, but give no reason. So revered was the memory of San Antonio within the community that no less an artist than Goya decorated the Chapel. In 1905 the Ermita was declared a national monument.

Some people have called this Ermita, “Madrid’s Sistine Chapel”. The frescos are quite wonderful and painted in the cupola and on its supports, properly called the “pendentives”, is a scene of yet another of the saint’s miracles; that of the resurrection of a dead man in order that he can give evidence to prove the innocence of San Antonio’s father, who was accused of murdering him.
The regular use of the Ermita by the faithful began to have a deteriorating effect on the art works and, in 1929, the community built an exact copy, at least from the outside, to be used for daily services, and closed the original, although it is still possible to view the frescos. In this way Goya’s work will be preserved for future generations.

Goya’s opinions upset a few important people and so he went to live in France, near Bordeaux. He died there in 1828, but in 1901 his body was brought back to Madrid and buried near the Ermita. Across the road a statue of the great man, brush and palette in hand, gazes on the place where he did his best work.

If you venture behind the Ermitas and look across the railway lines along which commuter trains arrive at Principo Pio station, you will find four giant concrete slabs, each bearing a letter of the artist’s name. You will also, unfortunately, see a great deal of graffiti by painters who could learn a thing or two from the great man.
Goya has another connection with the area. It was near Principio Pio that the scene of one his greatest paintings took place, that of the French firing squad executing a group of Spanish patriots on the Third of May, 1808. The painting is called, “El Cuadro de Los Fusilamientos de Tres de Mayo”.
But what, I hear you cry, has all this got to do with sticking pins in señoritas.

June the 13th is the Saint’s Day and along the Paseo de la Florida, outside the two Ermitas, the residents will celebrate with a grand fair. This is another day when the people dress in their chulapos and chulapas and consume huge quantities of cholesterol filled meat and partake of a cerveza or two. At one time the district was famous for it tailoring and dressmaking and employed many young girls as seamstresses. Of course, these young ladies would dream of being married – but to who – and more importantly, when?

So a custom came into being. On El Dia de San Antonio, twelve dress-making pins would be tossed into the baptismal font in the Ermita. The seamstresses would then place the flat of their palms into the font and hopefully one or more of the pins would stick.

Now there are two versions of how the results of this painful exercise can be interpreted. The first is that the number of pins sticking into the palm would show the number of months that the young hopeful would have to wait until she found the man of her dreams. The other is that the number of pins would reveal how many lovers she could expect to have in the next year.
Strangely, the queue patiently waiting to enter the Ermita seems to consist largely of middle aged men and women. I expect they are just waiting to view the frescos.

It’s a public holiday here on today. (Yes, yet another!) So the celebrations will be spread out over the four days of the long weekend, assuming everyone takes the “Puente”, which I explained in another post.

The ninth of June has a special meaning in local folklore. There is a saying about the folly of removing one’s jacket until the “fortieth of May”, which by my calculations fell two days ago on the ninth. This does seem to be a good warning as we have had some excellent hot and sunny weather recently, but the past few days have seen the return of much needed rain and brought a chilly freshness to the air. But from the 10th onwards, we are expecting the clouds to disappear and the temperatures to soar. All that cold beer at San Antonio’s Fair will be very welcome.
If you found this post entertaining or informative please let me know by commenting below. The ladies looking for love are following a tradition. Don't try this at home!

Saturday 6 June 2009

A View of Madrid's Retiro Park

By Richard MorleyI have written in an earlier post that my very first evening was spent in the Retiro Park and that it was there that my love affair with Madrid first began. Since then I have visited those quiet wooded acres many times and I am as familiar with its shaded walks, sloping lawns, silent clearings and running waters as if it was my own garden. For us apartment dwellers, who can’t even claim a few square inches of window box as a back yard, that is exactly what the Retiro is.

I discovered the park that first evening purely by chance, I know, but it surprises me when returning visitors tell me they haven’t been there, or as recently related, “We went up the side of the Prado and found the Retiro”. That person’s serendipitous discovery was just like my own and yet I couldn’t help but feel wonder that this inveterate Spanophile had not been there before and not know it was so close to the centre of town. How you hide one hundred and eighteen hectares of parkland behind a relatively small art gallery is a mystery.

In a comment on a recent post, the writer had just never found the time to visit the park, but wished she had. The problem, I am sure, is the fault of those dreaded three Ps, the Prado, the Palace and the Plaza Mayor. Unless well instructed the short time visitor hardly ever ventures out of the centre. I can identify with this. Before I actually started living in the east of the city, the Retiro was the furthest in that direction I had ever travelled. It is as if the Puerta de Alcala, that massive arch that marks the ancient eastern access through the old city walls, rather than being a gateway, was in someway a barrier to further exploration.
Puerta de alcala
The Parque del Buen Retiro, ( literally, “Park of the pleasant Retreat”,) to give it its full and proper name, is just outside those old city boundaries, but is now completely surrounded by high rise apartments and offices on all sides. Yet to walk there is to forget the bustle, noise and pollution that encircle it. Away from the periphery, probably the loudest noises you will hear will be the chirping of birds, the crunch of roller blades on asphalt, or the laughter of children as they scream at the “Guiñoles”, the Spanish Punch and Judy shows.
It has been said that the Retiro is probably the last great creation of the Renaissance in Spain and was at the centre of the Habsburg court when Spain was the world’s only superpower.

The origins of the park go back to the latter half of the sixteenth century during the reign of Fellipe II, but by the end of that century Spain, following wars and losses in trade, some of that to English pirates, sorry, privateers, was almost bankrupt and the park remained a pleasant meadow, but not much more. The Spanish for meadow, incidentally, is “prado”. Ring a bell?
Cristal Palace lake
At the beginning of the seventeenth century king Fellipe IV built a palace on the grounds, which were now extended thanks to the generosity of the king’s favourite and all round sycophant the Conde Duc de Olivares who gave some of his land to the king and set about landscaping the place for his master.

Apart from three areas that have a definite plan about them, the majority of the park is a pastoral delight of rambling, meandering shady paths and lawns. On a sunny evening, one could imagine the ladies and gentlemen of the court strolling, taking a picnic or perhaps engaging in some romantic dalliance. But there were rules: Gentlemen had to be well dressed, capes, topcoats or hats were not allowed and hair had to be well combed. Ladies similarly: A parasol was acceptable, but they could not wear either a mantilla, that large fan-like comb stuck on the back of the head with a wisp of silk draped over , or a headscarf. This was a place for the sober and well-dressed higher classes.

Today it is a place for everyone, (and there is a more relaxed dress code!), to relax and literally smell the roses. The Rose garden is one of the few formally laid out areas and at this time of year is a joy to behold.
Designed in a large oval with a central pool and fountain, there are thousands of different breeds of rose to see and sniff.
A Rose by any other name!
Over the years much has been built – and knocked down. Much if this demolition attributed to the forces of Napoleon during the French occupation. The original palace has gone, as too has the zoo. What remains today is partly practical and partly whimsical.
The centrepiece is the lake, where you can rent a boat and watch the fish watching you, hoping you have a bag of breadcrumbs. On the eastern bank is a memorial to king Alfonzo XII, an imposing edifice of columns and carvings with the king mounted high on his horse. Today it is rumoured this behind this grand edifice one can buy something illegal to smoke, but I wouldn’t know anything about that.

At the gate of Felipe IV, opposite the Casson del buen Retiro, now part of the Prado, is the most formal of all the gardens laid out like Versailles, in the northwest corner, near the entrance at the junction of O’Donnell and Menédez Palayo, is a mountain with water falls and white water rapids. I did say, “Whimsical!” And in another part, near the old zoo, find the hut with the gnome on the top!

There is another, smaller lake overlooked by the Palacio de Cristal. It was built in 1887 by Ricardo Velázquez Bosco and based on London’s famous (at the time) much larger Crystal Palace. Its original use was to house exotic plants from the Philippines, but is now used for temporary exhibitions.
I was passing recently and heard the roar of wild beasts. My curiosity piqued I entered – to find it empty. I hadn’t actually been inside before and thought it a good time to take some photographs of the interior only to be thrown out on my ear for taking pictures of the exhibits. “What exhibits?” I asked. All I had experienced was animal noises coming from some speakers; not something easily photographed. My ejector pointed out a stuffed monkey suit and a large teddy bear tied high in the roof, which I hadn’t noticed. Apart from those two artifacts, the rest of the interior was completely empty, with the exception of similarly bemused members of the public, who I think had just popped in to use the loo, if the truth was known.
Cristal inside
In some ways the whole Retiro is an art gallery of sorts. Spread throughout the park is statuary ancient and modern, permanent and temporary, serious and amusing. I wrote recently of the exhibition by Ripolles, but throughout the year, there is always at least one art exhibition on display. Of course, being so richly linked to the high households of Spain, we can find statues of important political and military personages, inventors and artists. You never have to walk far to find a small plaza dedicated to the memory of one of the great and the good.
Fallen angel - Detail

Or the bad. Madrid’s Retiro Park has the only know statue in the world of the Devil. Satan, Lucifer, call him what you will, here he is known as the “Fallen Angel”, El Ángel Caído. The statue, made by Ricardo Bellver and inaugurated in 1885, is set on a plinth and part of a fountain, shows him as he falls after being thrown out of heaven by St. Michael. I can only assume that God was having a bad day. Together with Lucifer, at least a third of all the angels were evicted that day. (Rev.12:4,9 ) Around the plinth can be seen other demons, some holding snakes, the symbol of Eve’s undoing, to keep him company.
But if it’s raining another place to see art is at the Cow Shed, sorry, I mean the Casa de Vacas. This is at the northern end of the lake and last year I saw an exhibition of 18th century painting to rival anything seen in the Prado. The exhibitions change quite rapidly, so it’s worth going back.
Of course, the time of my imaging, with ladies in crinolines under parasols and gentlemen in frock coats, was when the park was much younger than today. The trees now are mature chestnuts, beeches and oaks. Under their shade you will find groups practicing Tai Chi, skaters skating, (lessons are given in the wider part of the Paseo de Fernán Núñez), readers reading, singers singing, and couples, er, well never mind. Once a place used solely for the pleasure and relaxation of the high and mighty, the Retiro was opened to the public in 1868.

On Sundays there are musical concerts. It’s a great place to come and relax, take a drink or a meal with friends at one of several terrace cafés or at the Florida restaurant. You can row on the lake, play tennis or Paddle on the municipal courts, watch a Punch and Judy show, have your fortune told, bring your children to play or slowly amble through the winding paths.

Or remember!
I wrote earlier this year about the garden of remembrance for those who lost their lives in the Madrid bombings in 2004. This is a beautiful part of the park. It’s almost on the edge, not far from the busy Calle de Alfonzo XII, yet it is possible to lose oneself in its silent and poignant construction.
I recommend the Retiro Park to any visitor who is jaded with the three Ps, tired of the noise and the traffic, the rushing from place to place because it’s “on the list”. But I warn you, The Retiro is Madrid in microcosm, it will pull you in and make you fall in love with the city and you won’t want to leave.
And the girls on Roller skates are well worth a second glance!!!!
The amazing thing is that this park is no more than 30 minutes walk from Sol, or just three stops on the metro if you are lazy! The Retiro park can be reached by three metro lines: Retiro (L2), Ibiza (L9), and Atocha (L1), although the latter will give you a little walk.

If you have enjoyed this stroll through Madrid's central park, then post a comment in the boxes below.