Pablo Picasso once said, ‘The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.’ In many ways this is true, but sometimes, art not only cleanses, it transforms. Such was the effect his Guernica had upon a first-time visitor like me.
Many students go through school knowing little of the Spanish Civil War, the rise of General Francisco Franco the dictator, and the bombing of Basque town of Guernica by the Nazis and Italian Fascists. And while I had some idea of how devastating that attack on a civilian population was, I wasn’t prepared for the sadness that cloaked me when I saw the 3.5m-tall, 7.8m-wide oil painting of the incident.
Guernica’s size is breathtaking – it takes up an entire room in the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid – and people constantly mill around it, soaking in its impact. It’s disturbing and ghastly, and for a moment I visualise the destruction of the town – people and animals drenched in blood and writhing in pain.
Reina Sofia, dedicated to 20th-century art, ensures that the atrocities of the first half of that century remain in public memory for eternity. It makes a powerful statement – through video art, sculptures, multimedia installations and works by other artists from the end of the 19th century – about the ways in which art reflects the life and times of its age, and how it has negotiated modernity and postmodernity to evolve into an accurate expression of the trials of humankind over the past century and more.
The best part, however, is that I got to do all this soul-searching for free. Spain takes art and the necessity of its engagement with everyone so seriously that its most popular museums have free hours on designated weekdays for people to walk in without charge.
Not that I wouldn’t have paid the £8 (Dh33) fee for the Guernica, but when you’re a solo traveller on a shoestring budget (or even less!), free entry into one of the world’s most coveted museums for a leisurely exploration of its eclectic, 21,000-strong collection is a welcome luxury.
Travelling alone is challenging in many ways, especially if you don’t appreciate solitude, but its joys outweigh them all. I treat my vacation in Spain like one. I walk everywhere, eat when and where I want to, and just bask in those long days of quiet, where all I have to do is look, smell, see, feel or do without the need to express myself.
It’s warm and sunny when I arrive in the Spanish capital Madrid, and the unexpectedly long and complicated ride on the metro gives me little rest. But once I walk up the stairs of estación Puerta del Sol into Plaza de Celenque, I’m greeted by a crowded square of people, out in full swing on a bright Sunday evening.
The sky looks like a painting, brushed with plumes of white, smoky clouds and lined with brilliant hues of mandarin, with dusk nowhere in sight. I check into the Toc Hostel Madrid, and after dumping my luggage into my cosy dorm, I’m out in a flash, eager to see the Madrid I’ve always dreamed of.
If it weren’t for the people dressed in fashionably modern clothes, or the storefronts lined with haute couture, I would have felt I was in a time warp. Every building is centuries old, impeccably maintained with elegant domes towering into the sky, and every facade is a call to the past.
Madrid’s irresistible charm already has me in its thrall, but a wide variety of street musicians lend the evening an even sweeter air. While one group performs nouveau rock in a corner, a septuagenarian plays classical tango on a bandoneon an alley away. There’s even an Andean musician in Quechua clothing playing the pan flute, whose soulful tunes take me away to the Peruvian highlands.
With music on my mind, I head to a tablao late at night for a taste of authentic flamenco. The genre of the gypsies has so much passion at its core, it’s hard not to lose oneself in the music and dance. For an hour, I watch the performances transfixed and teary-eyed with emotion. There’s no microphone – the singing is so powerful, the sound of every foot tap travels across the room clearly, and even in the darkness, I can sense their fervour.
Flamenco developed towards the end of the Middle Ages as a continuous amalgam of Andalusia’s many cultures, but its Morisco roots are unmistakable. In fact, a significant part of Spanish history includes its domination by the Berbers, which is evidenced in numerous architectural elements. A fine example is the Alcázar of Segovia in the Castile and León region – a fort perched on a cliff that served as a royal residence for centuries once Christian rule was established in the country.
But Segovia’s most enduring feature is its Aqueduct, an architectural marvel that was built by the Romans to transport water for usage as far back as the 1st century BC. The city has grown around it, and past the granite blocks stairs lead into Segovia, towards tiny chapels and residences flushed a rusty tint. The burning afternoon sun doesn’t offer respite from the biting wind, but I lunch at a bistro just by the Aqueduct outdoors anyway because this is a European summer that’s too perfect to be true.
The day trip to Segovia and Ávila, another heritage town in the region about an hour’s drive from Segovia, is a memorable cultural experience. Ávila, in particular, is a historian’s delight, and the smallish town built on a hill more than 1,000m above sea level is straight out of period films. From a distance, the sturdy walls that fortify it dominate the horizon, and once I step inside, I feel like they want to speak to me, tell me tales of what they’ve seen and heard through the passage of time.
Ávila’s tryst with mythology is legendary, having earned the name Town of Stones and Saints, and our guide from Julia Tours – Maria – ends up teaching me more than I could have hoped from the Internet.
Since I’ve decided to make this trip about art, over the next few days I queue up for hours to gain free entry into the museums that form Madrid’s golden art triangle – Museo del Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofia. I discover that it’s best to explore them in that order, as they form a timeline of sorts from the 12th century to the late 20th century.
The Prado houses some of the world’s most well-known European art, especially those painted by its old masters such as Velázquez and Goya, in addition to works by El Greco, Titian and Rubens.
Meandering through the labyrinth of rooms, I suddenly chance upon Las Meninas, arguably the museum’s most famous painting on display. It’s large and powerful, and as I spend several minutes admiring the brushwork, the clever use of colour and reflection, the play of light and shadow and the adeptness with which Velázquez has given its subjects – and indeed the painting – eternal life, I’m lost to the world. You don’t need expertise or intellectual insight to appreciate the beauty of art – if it captures a layman’s mind and heart, its work is done.
A skip away is the Thyssen, named after the baron whose private collection now makes up the museum. The middle child in the art trinity houses everything from the old masters to the impressionists, expressionists, surrealists and cubists. It’s an edgy repertoire, particularly because of the extensive range of works by artists like Salvador Dali, Edvard Munch, Wassily Kandinsky and Jackson Pollock.
Speaking of Dali, the eccentric genius is to Catalonia what Rabindranath Tagore is to Kolkata and Truman Capote or Elvis Presley are to America. Every amateur artist wants to be like him, while every art lover, young or old, spends years trying to analyse his works and find a pathway into his enigmatic mind. Naturally, no trip to Barcelona is complete without visiting Figueres in Girona, where Dali was born, and where he built his museum, Teatre-Museu Gala Salvador Dalí.
I’m confused and disturbed, but mostly amazed at everything I see. Every work is a double-edged sword with multiple layers and meanings, and as I navigate through the museum to make sense of it all, my mind is boggled. The theatrics are incredible. The lithograph, Lincoln in Dalivision, which hangs in the first-floor corridor and is clearly visible from the entrance foyer, shows, at close quarters, Gala (his wife and muse) gazing out over the Mediterranean. But step back 20m, and it becomes a painting of Abraham Lincoln! Equally astounding are his jewellery creations, gorgeous, surreal and true works of art. I leave, having had my fill of art, but do so fulfilled.
After the old-world moods of Madrid, I thoroughly enjoy the laid-back beachy appeal of Barcelona. One evening, I end up having a hearty Catalonian meal with a stranger who was about to leave for Dublin in a couple of hours, and then dance the salsa with the Cuban manager of that restaurant. Because that’s how the city is – open, friendly and youthful.
There are more migrants here and they all make the most of the good life. Another day, I sit to lunch at the café of a supermarket, and a Punjabi waiter breaks into Hindi with palpable joy. He hasn’t spoken to anyone in the language for days, and if he could, he’d probably have joined me for lunch!
Tackling Barcelona by foot is pure pleasure, and just walking through Las Ramblas and the surrounding neighbourhoods from Plaza Catalunya to the beach is interesting.
Las Ramblas, now a terribly crowded thoroughfare, is perhaps the city’s most popular hangout zone, and lined by innumerable hotels, restaurants, tablaos and shops. Just off Plaza Catalunya, I make my way to Santa Anna, an old church where I sit in a tiny cloister to enjoy a close-knit Fandango concert by virtuoso Joan Benejam in candlelight. I feel part of a wonderful secret as Joan works his nimble fingers, and decide that even Vicky and Cristina didn’t experience music so surreal and moving in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
On my final day, I land up at the beach on a dazzling afternoon after weaving through the humbling Gothic Quarter for hours. It’s a Saturday and there isn’t a square metre of sand that hasn’t been claimed by excited sunbathers – the sun has risen after several days of drizzling rain and cold. A band of Latin musicians set up portable speakers and their kit and soon people have gathered around and are dancing happily, as more cheer on. It’s idyllic, this feeling of total abandon, and you imagine that this is how Spaniards cope with the hardships of everyday life, a high unemployment rate and a fragile state of democracy.
But music has always been an escape as well as a way of making everyone feel at home. One of my dorm mates, a young Colombian girl with whom I speak in sign language because she doesn’t know English and I don’t know Spanish, is out every night dancing away and I marvel at her enthusiasm and energy. In fact, most of my dorm and hostel mates in both Madrid and Barcelona give me reason to believe that journeying alone is perhaps always best. For, every day as we troop in one after the other to have a bite and drink in the common room, it’s a party of strangers bound by a love for travel and individual experiences. I’ve returned a better person than I was when I left.
Emirates flies daily to Madrid. Return economy fares start at around Dh4,170.