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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

29 September 2015

26th-29th September, Madrid

After stepping off the plane and getting into the terminal at Barajas Airport, it was a long walk to the Metro. I got off the plane at 22:14, eventually reaching the airport Metro station at 22:34. A ticket to Sol in the centre of Madrid cost me €5: you can pay with notes, coins or card from an automatic machine. Three languages are available, with Spanish, English and I can't remember the other one.

For Sol, start on the pink line (8) towards Nuevos Ministerios. Then at Nuevos Ministerios, change to the dark blue line (10), towards Puerta de Sol. Get off at Tribunal, then finally switch to the light blue line (1) for Sol. Note it is now called Vodafone Sol, randomly.

The only reason I had any interest in Madrid was the Prado, one of the world's greatest art galleries (€14 entry at present). Like the Louvre, it is so rammed with incredible art that the best approach is to decide on a focus before you arrive. Fortunately for me, many artists I love are well represented here: it's the pre-eminent collection of Goya and has some of Bosch's most famous pieces as well. Velázquez is the other major jewel of the Prado: while I don't enjoy him as much as the other members of the 'Prado Big Three', he's nevertheless an interesting painter, arguably one of the most technically accomplished of all time.

Other personal favourites were here too, on a smaller scale. There are four paintings from my long-standing Mannerist favourite, Parmiginanio, all adorning a corner of room 49. Dürer is nearby in 55b, as is Rogier van der Weyden, whose masterpiece 'Descent from the Cross' dominates room 58. The room I tried to reach as quickly as possible was 56a, where Bosch reigns supreme.

Unfortunately, as The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych is so famous, tour groups cluster noisily around it as soon as the Prado opens at 10am. I barely had 5 minutes of quiet before a tour guide was loudly declaiming her spiel on the panel in French. Still, I was able to stake out a good spot, to get in my first prolonged thirty minute stare. In general, the €3.50 audio guide is pretty good, but because I have crammed my head so full of Bosch (as well as Goya and Velázquez), I found that my cup was already so full that I was mentally correcting the voice blaring in my ear (it's a speaker rather than a headphone port, so the same minor discomfort as with the audioguide for the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Belgium).

The Prado guide subscribes to the common view of the Garden that it's all about sex. This is probably not the case, an assumption based on nudity. In fact, if you look closely, there is very little explicit contact on the panel: only in the fountain at the top, where a male figure gropes his female companion. One of the documentaries I watched provides an explanation: the nudity indicates these are souls, not that they are lascivious. Another commentator claims it's a last judgement scene, but that seems unlikely given the absence of a judge (i.e., normally the Christian god is somewhere in the picture when that's the theme).

I was disappointed that Bosch's 'Adoration of the Magi' triptych wasn't there (possibly on loan? The gallery steward I asked didn't specify), but getting to see Bruegel's 'Triumph of Death' at least partially made up for it. Bruegel presents an even scarier vision than anything Bosch ever produced, almost like that Game of Thrones episode featuring the army of zombies. Skeletons spill all over the canvas, slaughtering everything in their path, as well as chasing some other living victims into a huge coffin.

Alongside those two works, the third major masterpiece in this section was Rogier van der Weyden's 'Descent from the Cross'. I'm familiar with the painting from books and Professor Catherine Scallen's wonderful lecture series, but I didn't realise just how huge it is. The figures are virtually life size. I have to say I don't quite agree with the art history perspective that the pose of Mary Magdalen is particularly expressive: it's a bizarre pose that feels artificial rather than emotional to me, but that is most likely down to my modern viewpoint. After I had wandered around the Flemish and German section some more, taking in Memling, Cranach and typically expert draughtmanship from Dürer along the way, I headed for my initial exploration of Goya in room 67.

Goya's presence on the ground floor covers rooms 64 to 67, the most famous being the two large, related pictures, the 2nd and 3rd of May. Again, I didn't need the audio guide, as most of the Goya research I did mentioned those in detail. The highlight for me here was Goya's renowned 'black paintings', where he mixed his paint with dark printer's ink then painted it directly into the wall.

Breaking for lunch before heading upstairs for more, I took the opportunity to have a look through the bookshop. This proved to be the most frustrating part of my visit to the museum. While there were many books on Goya, they were all in Spanish. Just like the otherwise excellent gallery in Porto, that's a huge oversight, especially for a major international tourist mecca like the Prado.

Having said that, I realised later that you could buy pocket sized guides on individual artists and themes from vending machines dotted around the Prado (only €2). There are two just outside room 66, as your head to those stairs around the corner. They come in several languages, with a lot of Spanish as you'd expect. I was able to pick up most of the ones I wanted (Bosch and Goya), but I couldn't find an English version of the short guide on the black paintings (I'll check eBay when I get home).

Upstairs, I was hopeful of finding an Artemisia Gentileschi after seeing her in the guidebook app (well worth it, incidentally, despite misleadingly bad reviews on the Google Play store) but unfortunately that wasn't on display. Her father Orazio has two paintings, so a hint of Artemisia is there, but it would have been cool to see his rather more interesting daughter, given she is one of Artemis BJJ's namesakes. Caravaggio was the other Italian that caught my eye, before several rooms of the stylish and unique Mannerist, El Greco (starting with 8B).

Moving towards the heart of the Prado, Velázquez proliferated along the walls, until that most iconic of Spanish paintings, 'Las Meninas'. I find it somewhat overrated (I much prefer Goya), but it's an intriguing composition. Effectively, the viewer becomes the subject, as Velázquez has cleverly directed all his figures' gazes - most importantly his own - out of the painting and at the audience. Before continuing with Goya, I paused in front of the Prado's sole Rembrandt, a virtuoso Judith modelled by Rembrandt's wife, Saskia.

Goya retakes control at the far end of the first floor, from room 34. The two versions of his voluptuous maja are probably what people know best here, though I think the group portrait of Charles IV's family is more interesting. Right at the top of the Prado is even more Goya, this time his early cartoons for a series of tapestries Charles III commissioned before his death. The ground floor's circuit of Goya is the climax, so it would make sense to start your Goya exploration from the museum's apex, both to leave the best until last and stay chronological.

The art continued the next day, beginning with a visit to the convent of the 'barefoot royals', Las Descalzas Reales, founded by royal women who can be seen posing in nuns' habits inside. They never actually took any vows, so that was just for the painting: however, thanks to our informative guide, I learned that the nuns' habit itself comes from widow's weeds. As the royal who founded the monastery happened to also be a widow, that gets confusing! ;)

Las Descalzas Reales is a short walk from Sol and €6 to get in, but note that you have to go on a guided tour. The convent has these every hour, but they fill up quickly. You therefore need to plan your visit in advance, arriving early in the day, especially as opening hours are only from 10:00-14:00 and 16:00-18:30. There aren't always English tours either: when we first tried to book on, the tours were not only all full but also in Spanish. Helpfully, a board at the entrance says when the tours are, what language and whether they are full. Also, no toilets, but you can find some in one of the many nearby bars and cafes (we had some tasty churros down the street).

Once inside, the splendid decoration is immediately apparent. If you've already been to the Prado (and I recommend you spend some quality time there before visiting the convent), you'll recognize the frescoed group sat on a balcony. It's Philip IV, looking a lot like the late portrait by Velázquez, sat next to his daughter (who appears to have stepped straight out of 'Las Meninas') and his wife/niece, plus another figure I didn't recognise. Unfortunately it is not known who exactly painted it.

Later on, after several alcoves with devotional sculptures and a choir with a fantastically well executed polychromatic woodcarving of Jesus's mum, we got to what I'd been waiting for. This was a room stuffed with glorious Flemish paintings, including an original by Bruegel and some copies of Memling and Rogier van der Weyden, probably by their workshops. The van der Weyden original is in the Prado, possibly the Memling too, though those might also be copies. It wasn't unusual for a popular painting to be copied many times by the workshop, given this was a time before easy mass production and photography.

On the other wall is an intriguing maritime scene. Descriptive text is woven throughout, in Latin. It transpires that this is a representation of the church (the galleon in the centre), offering salvation to the Christian mythical overworld, Heaven. The pope is in there somewhere, with some angels and the like peering down from a crow's nest, IIRC. Devils and demons beset the sinners failing to reach the galleon at the bottom, while the more fortunate float over from the right, free of infernal molestation.

In the next room, yet more masterpieces abound (this time Italian and Spanish), of which the highlight is probably an original Titian. Sebastian del Piombo is represented here too, as is a typically dark monk by Zurbarán. Another magnificent treasure of the convent is a large room hung with tapestries designed by Rubens. These were executed by the same workshop that produced tapestries by Goya a century later, visible on the top floor of the Prado.

It was Goya that led us to my next reason for going to Madrid, but before that we went to a nearby site my girlfriend wanted to see. As usual, she made an excellent choice, having also picked the Convent. This second girlfriendly triumph was the Temple of Debod, an ancient Egyptian edifice incongruously sat in the middle of a Madrid park. A few decades back, Spanish engineers helped to build the Aswan Dam, intended to both provide hydroelectric power and reduce the chance of the Nile bursting its banks.

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That resulted in a planned flooding of a large area, which would have submerged the Templo de Debod (as the Spanish refer to it), so instead the Egyptians gifted the whole building to Spain. It was brought back, brick by brick, then erected in a magnificent park setting, set off by a long moat. It's free to enter, but only from 10:00-14:00 and 18:00-20:00. On the ground floor as you go in, hieroglyphics decorate the walls on either side, with explanatory panels underneath. They are in remarkably good shape.

Further inside, there isn't much illumination as the Temple relies on natural light. You're not allowed flash photography, though normal photos are fine. Upstairs, you can see a model where the Temple used to sit by the Nile, along with some audio-visual displays and a few hieroglyphic slabs in vitrines.

Goya was up next, a slightly confusing walk away, but that uncertainty was mainly because we tried to circumvent going the long way around by the river. A guidebook had claimed it was an unpleasant river walk, but either that info is wrong or out of date. We went along the river on the way back and it's pleasant enough.

The building in question was the chapel of San Antonio de la Florida, containing some incredible frescoes Goya painted in 1798. After some late nineteenth century campaigning due to damage from incense and smoke, the chapel was designated a museum in 1905. A replica chapel was built next door, where services have been held instead ever since. Goya is also buried in the chapel he painted, having been moved there from his resting place in Bordeaux. Strangely, somebody nicked his head in the process, which has never been found.

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Goya did all the frescoes inside, including the wonderfully modern angels. In some cases, it looks like Parisian party-goers from an Impressionist painting have grown wings and flown to Spain. The main action is in the dome, featuring a trompe-l'oeil railing behind which a crowd of people are watching a miracle. Or at least, some are: two of the 'majas' are more interested in chatting to each other.

It has a refreshingly secular feel. The only note of typical religiosity a halo around St Anthony's head. He is busy resurrecting a murdered man's corpse, in order to exonerate his innocent father of the crime. A man in yellow with a wide-brimmed hat, his back turned as he begins to run away, is traditionally treated as the real culprit afraid of being exposed.

You can buy a guidebook for a mere €1 from the desk next to the entrance. Kindly, they've also provided mirrors to save you some neck-ache, angled up at the frescoes. There are plush benches too. I'm not sure you're supposed to lie on them for comfortable viewing, but I did regardless. Nobody told me off so I assume that's ok, but I could be wrong.

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