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Posts tagged ‘Salamanca’

Salamanca: My Painting – Homage to a sandstone city in oil on canvas

It’s been two months since I returned from the golden glowing sandstone Spanish city of Salamanca. There was so much to inspire me when I walked those elegant historical streets. When I gazed, mesmerised through my hotel window onto the stunning baroque Cathedral, the sun setting upon its orange stonework, and cypress trees gently waving from side to side in the evening breeze before it, a painting came to my mind. I rushed to make a quick sketch which I still have on the back of a reservation print out for the restaurant we were dining at that night. My painting of Salamanca was to contain what to my mind was the essence of the city – a kaleidoscope of dappled, marbled oranges and golds in a landscape uniquely built from the local Villamayor sandstone, a city bursting with historical artefacts flowing from the dual powerhouses of church and university. It is a city which is elegant in its antiquity, and yet bursting with fresh new life from its greenery, its strong local life, the pull of tourism and the thriving university population which resides there. This was my inspiration and shortly after returning from Spain I set to work on a large 105 cm x 90 cm canvas. I finally finished  the work over the long Jubilee Weekend. And here, exclusively, is the result, as I present my first (non-Norm) painting of 2012…

Salamanca (2012 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, oil on canvas, 105 cm x 90 cm)

Dominating the centre of the canvas is a silhouetted skyline of the city, recognisable by the Cathedral spires and the intricate turrets, domes and baroque roofing of the nearby University. Rather than paint the detail of the buildings, I constructed the skyline out of a wall of villamayor sandstone bricks, in the same way that each building of the city is constructed. Those individual bricks act as a window onto different features of the city. On one brick you see the conch shells of the famous Casa de las Conchas, while on others, parts of the hand painted street letterings are featured, infamous for their historical use of pigs blood and olive oil.

In the meantime, out of the Cathedral and the university, the ironwork crosses become large mobile-like structures, inspired by the great maker of mobile art, Alexander Calder. On these mobiles hang various symbols of the city. The astronaut and the ice cream which are usually imbedded in the intricate plateresque facades of the Cathedral and the University’s famous sandstone frog are all featured, as well as the skull upon which the frog sits (my painted skull is inspired by the Mexican Dia de los Muertos celebrations for which houses and graves are adorned with beautifully decorated hand painted skulls like this one). Represented too is the tradition of learning at the University, embodied in the Orrery (one of which I bought while in Salamanca as a souvenir of the city) as well as the famous Plaza Mayor, represented by the infamous bust of Fascist leader Franco which can be found amongst the busts of Spanish rulers around the square, and the inclusion of which causes such controversy that it is regularly vandalised. My Franco too has been vandalised, but is that paint on his face or blood on his hands? Finally the painting is generously sprinkled with various groups of cypress trees, tidily placed in terracotta pots at various spots across the canvas as well as a curtain of clouds sweeping across a clear green sky. Ooh and look out for the little stork’s nest embedded amongst the spires of the cathedral – the storks are a customary feature of the city and do not appear to cause the residents any hassle – in fact some churches have baskets placed on top of their spires to aid the storks in building a safe and secure nest!

So there it is, and above, so you don’t miss the details, are more photos showing the various individual aspects of the painting. I hope you like the painting and, more importantly, let me know what you think! I’ve already started a new work, so look out for that over the coming months.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Salamanca – Restaurant Focus: El Alquimista and La Cocina de Toño

Ever since Salamanca placed itself on the European cultural map when it was named European Capital of Culture in 2002, the city has actively promoted itself as a capital of gastronomic prowess, advertising itself under the tag line “Salamanca para comérsela” which literally means “Salamanca to eat”. I’d heard about the frog, the glowing sandstone, and the brilliantly baroque Plaza Mayor. Nonetheless, for gastronomy, I would have told you to head up north to San Sebastian (which, by coincidence, will be European Capital of Culture in 2016). However, no sooner had I started investigating restaurant options using the likes of Trip Adviser before jetting off than I realised that Salamanca is jammed back with high quality, innovative restauranteurs, littered with menus degustaciones (taster menus), and brimming with pristine white hatted chefs with a fastidious attitude towards their picture-perfect cuisine. More than once I read that a Salamanca eatery had offered the reviewing diner the “best meal they had eaten in Spain”. Encouraged, I booked up the best of them and went along to enjoy the ride. Here are my two favourites:

El Alquimista, Plaza San Cristobal 6, 37001 Salamanca Tel 923 21 54 93

El Alquimista's "urban" interior

I reserved a table at this very unique restaurant on the back of excellent trip advisor reviews which had placed the restaurant in second place out of some 100 restaurants in the city. When I turned up, I began to doubt whether this had been such a good idea. To say the restaurant is off the beaten track is an understatement. Up a steep hill, in a very residential square (surrounded on one side by some dubious looking flats), with a small arrow pointing the way – the restaurant needed this signage, as it could very easily have been missed – approaching the restaurant, one had to double take – it looked like a garage for the flats above. And upon entering, this illusion was not shattered as we were taken through to one of the most unusual restaurant interiors I have ever sat in – with exposed brickwork (newly built) trimmed with concrete slabs to form booths, over which industrial lights hung casting a somewhat unflattering and certainly unromantic harsh light. What was more, when we entered (at around 9pm) the place was empty. The face of my partner probably mirrored my own – concern – although I was trying to put a brave smile on things, not least because my personal pride demanded that my choice be a success, particularly as I boast of being such a good organiser of holiday dining experiences.

Verduras starter

They call the restaurant “the Alchemist” and at this point, it certainly looked as though some magic was needed. And as though the witching hour itself has come, we found ourselves becoming uncharacteristically merry. I think it was the wine we ordered – I wish I had taken a note of it – it was a Rioja with a mixed grape of around 90% tempranillo and 10% of something else – but it was so good that with one sip, the alchemist seemed to have cast his spell. It’s not that we were drunk – just merried, but certainly sober enough to appreciate the culinary joys which were suddenly to descend upon us, each dish one flurry of magic after another.

Tartar de salmon

We went for the menu degustacion which, at only €36 per person, was half the price of the sum we are used to forking out for a similar taster menu in Marbella (and far below anything you would pay in London). The first dish was verduras, brotes y hortalizas tibias con lascas de jamon ibérico y migas (Vegetables, sprouts and vegetables with warm slices of Iberian ham and crumbs). The dish was exquisite – the vegetables crunched to perfection, the ham providing a salty undertone and the crumbs a textural variant which provided all round satisfaction with every mouthfull. The dish was one of those perfectly simple but precisely executed why-haven’t-I-thought-of-this kind of dish that you just know you could never recreate so well at home.


Up next was the tartar de salmon marinado con citricos, chorizo y huevo poché (tartar of salmon marinated in citrus, chorizo and poached egg), a variation on a traditional dish, we were told, where an unlikely fusion of marinated raw salmon with minuscule chorizo pieces scintillated all of the senses with a fresh citrus splash searing lemony acidity through the smokey pimenton of the chorizo. Meanwhile the poached eggs – tiny things – possibly pigeon’s, were perfectly runny, creamy and sweet. Further scintillation was to be provided in the form of rape asado con puerros y polvo de aceituna negra (roasted monkfish with leeks and black olive powder), a fresh and succulent cleansing dish with a seductively rich dusting of black olive to import mediterranean piquancy onto the plate.

The fatty pork

Things went a little awry while the main course of pluma de cerdo ibérico con ragout de verduras y salsa de miel (iberian pig “pen” with vegetable ragout and honey sauce) which was a little too fatty for us. Some people like fat, and crackling and all that porky sinfulness – I’m not a fan, and, embarrassed by my meek attempts at consumption (and by this point being a little tipsy) I then spent the next 20 minutes trying to hide much of the fatty pork in my napkin so as not to offend the chef. In hindsight, he probably would have forgiven me. He may not, however, forgive the pork-filled linen napkin which he finds in the toilet later.

Back on track for piña a la piña con piña (Pineapple with pineappley pineapple), a dessert which presented pineapple three ways – sorbet, form and carpaccio. Not the most innovative dessert I’ve ever seen, but a welcome palate cleanser after all of that semi-masticated fatty pork.

Piña piña piña

La Cocina de Toñoc/ Gran Via, 20, Salamanca  Tel 923 263 977

Strawberry gazpacho

Number 1 on the trip adviser list is this restaurant, the kitchen of Toño, another location which, upon arrival, looked a little speculative – to get into the restaurant you first pass through a very local-looking tapas bar, with a TV, and plenty of old men chatting up at the Bar. Passing through into the restaurant, things get a little better, but the place remains very traditional – old wooden furniture, dark walls, dated decor and a few drinks refrigerators to boot. But the food, ahhh the food. Toño’s kitchen provided nothing short of a culinary spectacle, a carnival of flavours which danced upon the plate, a flurry of gastronomic fusion which was a pure festival for all the senses.

First up was the aperitivo de la casa, a new take on the traditional andalucian gazpacho, the cold tomato based creamy soup successfully fused in Toño’s imaginative kitchen with strawberries. It made for a tantalising combination accompanied by a delicate ricotta for added creamy indulgence. Next up was a bombon de foie relleno de higos (Foie gras bombons with figs), a starter of such flavoursome sophistication that I felt compelled to lose all of my well-bred english inhibitions and gorge upon the delicate creamy form in a few enthusiastic mouthfuls.

Foie gras bonbon

Ensalada de melon y langostinos

Pez mantequilla

Onto the ensalada de melon con langostinos y vinagreta de yogur (melon salad with prawns and a yoghurt dressing), a delicate but multilayered combination of sweet unctuous prawns and a thirst quenching melon with silky, salty fish roe and sharp strawberries. The fish course came next, a pez mantequilla con arroz meloso con setas, vinagreta de vinagre de trufa y chip de jamon (fish in butter with sticky rice, mushrooms, truffle vinaigrette and a ham chip), a moist perfectly seasoned piece of fish on a creamy risotto base, with a salty ham accompaniment and sticky sweet viaigrette.

The main course spectacular

But at the Cocina de Toño, the piece de la résistance came with the main course, a dish which, upon first presentation, I didn’t think I would be able to eat, so full was my stomach and so little my remaining appetite. But as I cut beneath a bed of rocket and a perfectly crispy roll of melted cheese, I found a piece of meat so perfectly seasoned, so sensationally juicy and tender, that I could not help but scrape the plate clean – yes, Toño’s presa ibérica con cigala, canelon de queso y melaza de vino (iberico steak with rocket, cheese cannelloni and a wine reduction) was a sensation, a waltz of salts doing a tango on my tongue with a red wine reduction that was a syrupy sweet seduction. Not to be outdone, this was followed by a yoghurt “digestive”, a shot of fizzy, sparkling, sherbety, foamy pink delight, which was like being a child again. It reinvigorated senses which have long lost grown bored by adult life, and tingled down my throat and throughout my body making me shiver with delight. This was real willy wonker magic.

Fizzy yoghurt digestive

One dish more – a dessert of cheesecake, a surprisingly light springy construct, cross-pannacotta and creme brulee with a cheesecake touch. Delicious. But it beat me. This meal was spectacular. I feasted like a king. But felt roundly stuffed like Humpty Dumpty. I nonetheless was so excited, so almost emotional about the fine quality of the food that we had received that I actually kissed the waitress on my way out! Who can ever say that the english are inhibited? (She could I suppose just assume that I’m a typical english drunk).

Oh well, hats off to you Señor Toño. You’re certainly my Salamanca no. 1.


So that’s it, my blog’s meandering journey through my trip from Madrid to Salamanca is at an end. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, at least as much as you can without actually sampling the gastronomic delights, the golden glow, and the distinctive smell of a town steeped in history at every masterfully stone-masoned house, church and lowly street corner. Time to start thinking about where comes next. Until then…

Salamanca – My photographs

You’ve read all about my trip around beauty-suffused golden-hued Salamanca, and now I’m sharing a few of the vastly numbered photographs (around 750 in total!) which flew out of my camera in response to the sensational sights which pleasured my eyes at every turn of this aureate city. From sun drenched cloisters and intricate stone masonry, to the city’s modern day junctions and its glowing facade at sunrise, these photos are testament to my adoration and admiration for a city which inspires from every elegantly carved facet of its kaledescopic cultural, historical and aesthetic offerings.

Once you’ve indulged on the visual delights which Salamanca’s offers aplenty, come back to The Daily Norm tomorrow, when the gastronomic delights and inexorable strengths of both Madrid and Salamanca will be my focus. Until then, enjoy…

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2005-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Madrid-Salamanca Part IV: Not so new – Art nouveau and the towers of the Catedral Nueva

Our second full day in Salamanca took us beyond the typical university-cathedral-scallop shell-plaza mayor tourist trail to the more niche offerings of the city – such are the benefits of spending a few days in a city rather than just one, thus enabling an escape from the same old tourist faces you see cropping up at every attraction with the inevitability of a bee seeking honey.

First on the list was the very unique Museo Art Nouveau y Art Deco which is an unexpected treasure set within Salamanca’s old city walls. The real stand out is the house, Casa Lis, originally a small private palace built at the beginning of the 20th Century at the request of Don Miguel de Lis, a merchant from Salamanca who was in love with Art Nouveau. The resulting house, designed by architect Don Joaquin Vargas, is a sensational crystal palace formed of multi-coloured stained glass reflected within shiny marble floors creating a kaleidoscope of rainbow luminescence as multicoloured rays of light dance a foxtrot across the palace’s polished interiors. This house rivals the very best of Barcelona, and has the sophisticated stamp of Lalique and Tiffany glass all over it. A particular highlight was undoubtedly the Café Lis, where one can sit back in the owner’s original mahogany furniture overlooking Salamanca’s Tormes River through floor-to-ceiling stained glass, sipping coffee and palmiers to a soothing soundtrack of 20s jazz.

Casa Lis' art nouveau cafe

The Casa Lis

The museum itself contains an impressive collection of decorative arts from the art deco and art nouveau era. This includes a large selection of early 20th century toys, tin toys, wind up toys and the like, characterised ornaments which play on the new social class of the bourgeoisie which emerged in the 20th century, a number of paintings by 19th and 20th century Catalan artists, and some stunning examples of sophisticated art deco figurines, as well as glassware by Laliqu and Emile Gallé.  There was also a comprehensive collection antique dolls, but I did find these to be rather freaky, dressed in their elaborate costumes, all staring out from behind their glass cases with huge glass eyes, some distinctively sinister in their stares. There is no way I would want to find myself amongst all those dolls late at night…

Next door to the Art Nouveau museum was a small exhibition to another event of the 20th Century, but one with cataclysmic results – the Spanish Civil War. The Archivo General de La Guerra Civil Española is Spain’s primary Civil War archive, and it is appropriately hosted by the city of Salamanca, centre of learning and close to the History faculty of the great University which had been a hotpot of anti-war demonstration during the Civil War years, not to mention during the Franco years, when the intellectual advancement and spirited free thinking advocated by the university proved to be a relentless thorn in Franco’s suppressive traditionalist side. The exhibition, largely focusing on civil war propaganda, was a little sparse and hodge-podge, with no central organising themes and no translations for foreign visitors. However I gather that a larger, purpose-built exhibition venue is planned for the future, something to which I look forward with a high degree of excitement. In the meantime, the archive did, rather bizarrely, contain an additional exhibition of the rules and rituals of the Freemasons. This included the recreation of a typical Masonic Lodge, the likes of which had me thinking that I had turned up in a Dan Brown novel. I’m not entirely sure how this exhibition relates to the Civil War, although, since the Freemasons were actively persecuted during Franco’s dictatorship, I’m assuming that the various Masonic articles on show were gathered up by Franco’s men.

Towers of the old cathedral

From 20th century finesse and disaster to a cathedral whose foundations were laid some 900 years before, we headed next to the medieval cathedral towers of Salamanca’s old and new cathedrals, the likes of which are entered separately (and with a separate entrance fee) from the main cathedrals. Surprisingly, the tour of the towers is not just a climb up one big spiral staircase to the top of the bell tower and down again. Rather, the tour comprises a number of exhibitions reflecting various points in the cathedral’s history such as the Lisbon earthquake some 250 years ago which caused huge damage to the fabric of both cathedrals, and a focus on Jeronimo de Perigeaux who was a key figure during the Reconquista and who, as Bishop of Salamanca in 1102, laid the foundations for the construction of Salamanca’s first cathedral.

Cracks in the Cathedral...

The age of these buildings really showed, and I was particularly amused (as well as a little scared, admittedly) by the look of fear in my Partner’s face when we noticed, upon standing on a tiny viewing balcony VERY high up in the Catedral Nueva’s interior, how many huge cracks had formed in the walls of the building and how, at various sections of the balcony, its floor and very construct appeared to slump and sag dangerously downwards. I’m pretty sure that the UK’s health and safety officers would have closed this route off some time ago.

Out alive, and after late lunch on the Plaza Mayor, our final step into Salamanca’s historical past was a visit to the Convento de las Dueñas. Much like the Convento San Esteban visited the previous day, this convent provided sustained calm and an opportunity to slow down and reflect. Its cloisters were smaller than San Estebans, but the stone masonry far more elaborate, with a multitude of cherubs and devils, angels and monsters appearing to come to life, crawling and spiraling out of the villamayor sandstone as they overlooked the cloister and reminded contemplative visitors of mortality, morality and all number of useful life lessons.

Cloister of the Convento de las Dueñas

Elaborate stonemasonry in the Convento de las Dueñas

Salamanca's branch of Zara

Enough of the history – now it was off to the shops for a well-needed dose of contemporary living and an escape from all that frog-based tourist tat. Our souvenir of Salamanca is a beautiful brass astronomy globe which reflects Salamanca as a centre of learning and will fit in perfectly with my vintage-chic theme at home. But even as we wandered from Zara, to Massimo Dutti, to H&M and all the other high street shops, we noticed how the historical character of Salamanca continues to infiltrate into the city’s contemporary life – Salamanca’s chain of Zara is a perfect example, comprising a multi-floored glass box, floating in the shell of a vast old church. But where an altar once stood, a catwalk of mannequins showcasing Zara’s latest collection now stands. Is this a savage misuse of a sacred place or testament to the role of religion in modern day society? I like to think of it as the preservation of history for the greater benefit of contemporary society and future generations. Even as a clothes shop, history looks great. And as a monument to a multi-layered historical and cultural matrix, Salamanca is surely King.

Madrid-Salamanca Part III: A frog, an astronaut, and a very cold ice cream

The souvenir shops of Salamanca are full to the brim with little green frogs, largely horrendously bastardised tacky creations with google eyes and a “thumbs up” gesture, frogs donning mortar boards, others wearing baseball caps. You get the picture. So what are all these frogs in aid of? It has nothing to do with the city playing host to a frog-friendly wetland habitat (the river is more likely to play host to the many fag ends and other detritus left over from the revels of Salamanca’s students who regularly gather on its banks in weed-smoking masses). Rather, the humble frog has become the symbol of the city owing to the very inconspicuous inclusion of a tiny carved frog in the stunning plateresque facade of the University. So inconspicuous in fact is the frog that it has long since become the subject of a traditional hunt for any student or visitor to the university: He who finds the frog will, tradition dictates, be lucky. Predictably the tradition has been repeated in every tourist patter, and large groups of tourists are frequently to be found staring up at the sensationally complex facade with strained faces.

The frog is in here somewhere - can you find it?

The astronaut on the Catedral Nueva

I found the frog straight away. The problem is, I had already visited the university shop, where its location was at least partially given away by the multitude of frog postcards sold therein. Not to mention the fact that all the Japanese tourists were pointing in one direction, which kind of gave the game away. I’m nonetheless hopeful that my quick witted discovery, based on deductions stemmed from postcard clues and the careful observation of tourist behaviour, will lead to luck of some sort. Or perhaps it just emphasises a point I have often made: you make your own luck in life. Well, you may as well try it out – I’ve included a photo above of the general area of the frog (thus giving you a head start) – see if you can find it! You never know what luck it may give you.

Ice cream cone on the facade of the Catedral Nueva

Sensing the potential profitability out of all this froggy fuss, the neighbouring cathedral has not allowed itself to be outdone. Within its equally complex facade, some cheeky renovators recently added an astronaut floating in amongst the pre-existing baroque foliage, as well as a mythical wolf like creature grasping an ice cream cone. I adore both additions, and love the humour which has been so readily embraced by the Cathedral authorities. Can you imagine a similar attempt by restorers of an ancient building in England? English Heritage would be all over them with threats and protestations quicker than an ice cream could melt. The only trouble is, you can spot the renovated pieces of sandstone quickly enough, and thus finding this cheeky twosome amidst the older, more eroded stonework can be done with a degree of ease. This does not detract from their charm however, and unlike the frog, they’re big enough, and sufficiently unweathered enough, to actually appreciate!

Whatever their contents, there is no escaping the stunningly elaborate and incredibly detailed building facades which literally choke the streets of Salamanca with their excessive virtuosity. These “plateresque” facades, so called because they are overtly elaborate, thus resembling silver work or “plata”, are synonymous with 15th and 16th century baroque architecture in Spain, but are all the more stunningly executed in Salamanca in the local Villamayor sandstone, the like of which enabled the stonemason to carve with even more precision, but which also gives a glimmering golden glow to the finished product.

Looking up at the facade of the Catedral Nueva

Facade of the Convento de San Esteban

Cloisters in the Convento de San Esteban

Asides from the breathtaking examples of stonemasonry covering the cathedral and the university facade, another standout example is to be found on the facade of the Convento de San Esteban, our next destination. The facade is nothing short of extraordinary, rising like an altar over the southeastern corner of the city, depicting the stoning of San Esteban (St Stephen) as its central motif. The detail of the work is mind blowing – I just hope that it survives the sustained attack of natural erosion upon its delicate forms.

Past this beautiful facade and into the convent, we found an equally stunning Gothic-Renaissance cloister, a space of such tranquility that, with the sun streaming through the long gothic windows and only the sound of quiet birdsong emanating from the carefully tendered gardens, one finds the ability to think and reflect more clearly than ever before. This cloister was like a place of epiphany. I fell almost trancelike into uninhibited introspection as I walked around the cloister and around the magnificent adjoining church, feeling my mind, body and soul slowing to a different pace of life, all the buzz of city life left behind, and my eased spirit released into the tranquil empyrean all around me. It was pretty difficult to leave I can tell you. I felt bad that we had only paid €2 to get in. It seemed an insanely small amount of money for the benefit we had received in return, especially compared with the university, where a €12 admission fee was charged to look around a few dark old classrooms and a library which you can’t enter but are forced to view from behind heavily protective perspex.

Cloisters in the Convento de San Esteban

Back into Salamanca, yet more architectural gems lay in wait – like the Casa de las Conchas, one of the city’s most endearing buildings, named after the several hundred scallop shells which cling to its facade and are even wrought in iron onto the front door. Surely this house had to have inspired Salvador Dali when he went about designing his theatre-museum in Figueres? It is thought that the shell symbolism stems from the shell symbol of the ancient Order of Santiago, of which the house’s original owner, Dr Rodrigo Maldonado de Talavera, was an evidentially proud member. It certainly makes for a novel site in amongst the more complex facades which otherwise dominate Salamanca’s old town.

Casa de las Conchas

With the sun starting to fade and Salamanca taking on that familiar peachy hue, we took the opportunity to gaze at the architectural splendours from afar – walking over Salamanca’s ancient Roman bridge to the other side of the river. Not only were we greeted by the picture-postcard view of the city, we also found a guilty pleasure – an empty children’s playground and a pair of swings. We couldn’t resist squeezing our adult bottoms into those swings and setting off into the air, a feeling of unadulterated childlike pleasure in an adult world, memories of our youth flooding back as the wind swished past us and our stomachs lurched as the swinging motion took hold.

Frogs, astronauts, ice creams and swings – in a city where imposing and austere church buildings dominate, there is still an ascendant feeling of fun, a feeling augmented by the city’s thriving student population which breathes youth and vitality into the arteries of this historical monument to Spain’s rich architectural, educational and religious heritage.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2005-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Madrid-Salamanca Part I: Silk-scarf Chagall’s and perfect palmeras – Thyssen, Prado and a well-needed Retiro

I have got the travel bug again, a bug which generally manifests itself in an urgent need to revisit the country of my parallel existence, Spain. There are a great deal of cities which I have left as yet unexplored on the Iberian Peninsula, but following the recent recommendation of a good friend, whose excellent taste for all things art historical is like the unwavering role of Vogue as a navigator through the undulations of fashion, I settled my sights on a city renowned for its university, its unrivalled and elaborate baroque architecture, and an all-over golden glow emanating from its consistent use of the local “Villamayor” sun-dappled sandstone: the City of Salamanca.

The golden hues of Salamanca's sandstone cathedral

Salamanca, named European Capital of Culture in 2002 and a UNESCO world-heritage site in 1988, is an amber-coloured gem set deep within the rocky central plains of the Castilla y Leon region of Spain. Despite its renown, the city has no airport, and consequently a visit to Madrid was first deemed necessary (you can also fly to nearby Valladolid and take a train to Salamanca from there). We decided to take advantage of Madrid as a channel to Castilla, staying two nights in the Vincci Soho hotel on the Calle Prado within easy reach of the Madrid artistic tripartite: the Thyssen-Bornemisza; the Prado and the Reina Sofia. It’s my fifth time in Madrid, but who can turn down the opportunity to drop in on some of the greatest masterpieces in all the world?

Foyer of the Madrid Vincci Soho

Upon waking in our spacious room complete with two balconies, one looking down to the Thyssen and the other angled towards the lively Plaza Santa Ana (we arrived late the previous night after a delayed flight and an even longer wait for luggage at Madrid airport) we headed enthusiastically into gallery land, stopping only for a sinful coffee at Starbucks (I know, and this coming from me, opponent of cafe chains – but you try getting a humble coffee in a zone of parks, monuments and gallery cafes).

Marc Chagall, Golgotha (1912)

First stop was the Thyssen-Bornemisza, a vast gallery which houses the collections of two respective generations of the Thyssen-Bornemisza family, the largest of which was acquired by the Spanish state in 1993. A temporary show offered a retrospective look at the career of Marc Chagall. I was pleased about this, having only previously seen odd pieces by the Russian artist, and having gazed unknowingly at one of his designs throughout my youth when I admired the bloody red window which brightens up one facade of Chichester Cathedral in my home county of West Sussex.

View from the window in Zaolchie near Vitebsk, Marc Chagall (1915)

The show started fairly well. Chagall experimented with the cubist genre before moving into a more uniquely multi-coloured abstractive approach, all the while retaining figures who are often suspended randomly upon a two-dimensional backcloth. I liked some of his early works. His painting of a crucifixion (“Golgotha”) upon a background of tumultuous green showed originality and a powerful sense of drama (despite being Jewish, Chagall made recurrent references to the crucifixion in his work which he saw as a symbol of persecution of the Jews). I was also attracted by his works illustrating his home town of Vitebsk, with their subdued colour palette. Thereafter I wasn’t so impressed. His works became fairly repetitive and quite cartoony. His paintings featured the same symbols obsessively: badly painted livestock and horses playing the fiddle, embracing couples, and haphazardly executed flowers, all set against a vivid blue or red background. For me, his works resemble the kind of tacky silk scarves you find in arts and craft fairs. Try as I might, I really struggled to connect with his works. This connection was also made slightly harder by virtue of Thyssen’s bizarre decision to split the exhibition between two sites, so that for the second half we had to traipse halfway across central Madrid to the Caja Fundacion.

Marc Chagall, The Blue House (1920)

Having done the Chagall, and the rest of Thyssen’s collection, we emerged into a sunny Madrid and feeling full of the joys of Spring, headed to the Retiro park for lunch. Our admiration of these beautifully laid out public gardens including a massive pleasure lake framed by the arms of a vast colonnaded palace was however rudely interrupted by the passing of a rainstorm and accompanying Icelandic winds which swiftly turned Spring into mid-Winter in a heartbeat. Our shelter under a big pine tree proved rather fruitless, to which our damp visage later played testament, but luckily it really was a passing shower. With the sun out again, we and a number of other tourists emerged from our hiding places in the greenery like fairies called to the command of Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and we headed for the Prado.

The Buen Retiro Park

The Prado is a must for any art lover. The collection is so vast and the highlights so important and and wide-reaching that it frankly tramples the Louvre’s Mona Lisa-centred collection and blows the UK out of the water. Here you find Velazquez’s Las Meninas as well as a huge number of important highlights from his oeuvre: his royal portraits, “buffoons”, crucifixion and so on. Just a few galleries away are some stunning works by my favourite of the old masters: El Greco, a man whose works were so startlingly modern for his day that they wouldn’t look out of place down the road in the Reina Sofia with the Picasso’s. Then there are Goya’s chilling black paintings, and his 2nd and 3rd of May 1808 masterpieces, Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, and vast canvases by Rubens and Van Dyke. But asides from the priceless masterpieces, there are also wonderful examples of 19th century art by lesser known artists, and huge historical masterpieces such as this one, The Execution of Torrijos and His Companions on the Beach at Malaga by Antonio Gisbert, a painting which is so big that it could easily eclipse the average family home.

Antonio Gisbert, The Execution of Torrijos and His Companions on the Beach at Malaga (1887-88) (390cm x 600cm) Prado Gallery, Madrid

Understandably exhausted by the breadth of works on show, we retreated to our hotel for a well-earned rest before heading out, into the evening sun, to explore the livelier side of Madrid. We particularly enjoyed a visit to the bustling Mercado San Miguel, where locals and tourists alike gather to sample seafood delicacies, wines, tapas and pastries. Being as ever the purveyors of all things sweet, we settled for a creamy coffee and two freshly baked palmeras (otherwise known as palmiers or “elephant ears”). Now that is what I call a rounded day of cultural appreciation.

Creamy coffees at the Mercado San MIguel (palmeras had been scoffed by this point)

¡Hasta mañana!