And every one of those minutes spent in the moment. Immersed in the rich history, culture, and atmosphere of a fairytale city. Metro stations in constant flux, tapas bars filled with incoherent speech, and illuminated buildings that seem more alive at night.
Every morning I walk out of the hotel Regina, fueled by serrano and napolitana, under the gaze of massive statues that seem to guard the streets. The royal red and gold of the Spanish flag whip in the morning breeze, flanked on either side by immortalized soldiers riding horse carriages. I am reminded of this country’s deep history, and what I have set out to do here. To experience Madrid, the center of the Spanish Civil War, is my assignment. A tall order, for Madrid has no lack of landmarks and stories. With the clock ticking, I need to spend my time wisely
Sunday is spent at Madrid’s Royal Palace. A guided tour of this extravagant house of nobility sets the stage for Spain’s early history. Tributes to Charles III recur throughout the halls, his unmistakable giant nose setting him apart from the other majesties. Each room is dedicated to a single chore or activity you could conceive. A changing a room, a dining room, a bedroom, a throne room, a sitting room, the list continues. None of which have a single empty panel on the wall or ceiling. So much splendor for kings and queens only together for political partnership, what a shame.
Monday evening is spent in The Reina Sofia, Madrid’s premiere modern art museum. Accompanying the contemporaries are classics by Dalí and Picasso. On the second floor, in its own room stands Guernica, at 11 x 25 ft in all its brilliance. Scenes of suffering with cubist representation evoke discomfort and anxiety. Oil brushstrokes illustrate the chaos of Guernica’s horrific bombing on a massive canvas. Several pieces by Dalí depict vaguely familiar items in strange proximity with each other that tell a larger story. So much detail, but it hurts the brain to look at it for too long. Dream-like qualities to these images beg more questions the longer I stare. How can I begin to understand surrealism?
Tuesday is a field trip to the Valley of the Fallen. The enormous mausoleum, subject of much controversy in the country, holds a tremendous literal and figurative weight to it. Under the 150-meter cross stand giants, who mourn over the souls that rest in the basilica. Surrounding the esplanade in the distance are the mountains, which stand even taller than the statues atop the monument. This place is larger than life. The sheer size of it, and the story of its 30,000 corpses evoke a palpable reverence. Walking through it feels like a walk-through time and puts the bloodshed of the Civil War into a sobering perspective. Regardless of their side in the conflict, these soldiers paid the ultimate price for their country, and for that they are forever memorialized.
Thursday afternoon is spent at Plaza Las Ventas, home to Spain’s most glorious bull fights. What a sport, there is truly nothing else like it. This is the pinnacle of pitting man against wild. What more glory could an individual win than by slaying a 1,000lb beast of nature, hellbent on killing you, in front of thousands. It’s a death sentence to any normal individual. But to a matador, it is tradition. Swift movements, patience, and hyper focus are names of the game. How do you conquer a creature determined to see its horns in your dead body? Years of practice, and a tenacity unbeknownst to most, that’s how.
Friday is a long day. A day I’ve looked forward to for a long time. I embark on a journey to see the famous Cave of Altamira in Cantabria. With paintings dating back several millennia, Altamira is one of the first evidences of human art. At 1,000 meters long, the cave is an impressive display of how our ancient ancestors lived and expressed their relationship with nature. Paintings of bison, deer, and buffalo crowd the ceiling. Painted with careful craftsmanship, these animals tell a story of this land, and how the people regarded them with respect and adoration. The attention to detail would make you think they were painted today but it seems the artistic genius of humans’ dates back to our species’ conception. After seeing the Cave of Altamira, it’s no wonder Spain is home to some of the most impressive craftsmanship on the planet. Between the artists, architecture, and sports, Spain is a hotspot for human expertise. And it all started in this Cave. The legacy of these cave paintings inspires generations of artists and professionals perfecting their craft. As Picasso once said, “after Altamira everything is decadence.”
Saturday is spent in Toledo, the former capital of Spain. Even more of a fairy tale than Madrid, Toledo is littered with Roman and Arabic influence. Giant cathedrals, and a castle just above the River Tajo transport you to a more romantic time in human history. Also a major stage for the Civil War, Toledo has endured much, speaking to the resolve of the Spanish people and the incredible structures they are capable of creating.
And that’s all she wrote. My 11520 minutes are up. I accomplished everything I set out to do and did so in an intentional manner. I’ve only begun to reflect on this adventure and will continue to for a lifetime.