The Madrid Fieldtrip
Queen’s University Belfast
School of History and Anthropology
Semester I, 2007-2008
For Semester I, 2007-2008, the School of History and Anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast sponsored a weekend fieldtrip to Madrid. The coordinator of this excursion was Danny Kowalsky, who accompanied twelve students to the Spanish capital, and is the author of this brief travelogue.
Students were responsible for their own transportation to Madrid, but most chose to travel together, catching the airport bus down to Dublin, whence they flew direct. Though perhaps the least challenging segment of the weekend, the bus transfer presented a curious challenge. As everyone knows, the Dublin airport bus that departs from the Europa Hotel-Belfast calls at several towns in south Co. Down, the last of which is Newry. On the vehicle transporting our hapless, Madrid-bound students, the luggage hold was jarred open south of Newry, just as the bus crossed the frontier. Improbably, one bag – but only one bag - fell out of the bus and onto the highway, unnoticed until it was picked up by Garda. This bag happened to belong to one of our first-years, a girl we’ll call Emma (which happens to be her name). That bag would eventually be handed over to the bus company in Newry, who promptly placed it on the next south-bound vehicle. When the students told me the story later that night at the hostel, I was gratified to learn what had happened when they arrived at Dublin airport and realized that one of their bags was missing. Though they had a minimum amount of time before they were due at their 16:00 flight, the entire group of eight elected to stay with Emma at check-in and await her lost suitcase. The next bus finally arrived at 15:45, and the Aer Lingus staff rushed the kids through security to the waiting plane.
Arriving prior to the students at our friendly, centrally-located hostel (“Los Amigos”), I set up a Vino Español in the common room, with various tapas and several decent wines laid out. We had Sevillian olives, slices of aged manchego, chorizo from Leon, a large platter of croquettes de jamon, and the ubiquitous tortilla española, a basic snack between meals, but one that few non-Spaniards will have ever tasted. Now the students drifted in, cheered by a familiar face in this foreign country, and eager for some refreshment at the end of a long journey. I inspected Emma’s bag, concerned by its unusual trajectory, its voyage on two different buses and in the boot of a Garda cruiser. I saw no visible damage apart from some pavement-induced scrapes. As I instructed the students on the names of the food we were eating, and told them something about the history of the Spanish tapa, I wondered whether the suitcase caper was a sign of things to come; an omen, if you will. In the end, my superstitions were unfounded. We had a minor mishap with a lost phone and pair of prescription eyeglasses on Saturday night, and a wallet went missing Sunday afternoon, but otherwise the entire weekend was trouble-free and everyone enjoyed themselves thoroughly.
Some food, a bit more wine and hostel Gemütlichkeit, the stowage of bags, passports and other valuables... and then we headed out into the crisp, clear Iberian night, alighting the streets of Old Madrid as the city was coming alive. Just that morning, municipal workers had finished stringing Christmas lights up and down the broad avenues that criss-cross the center. I have walked up and down Preciados – the principal north-south pedestrian high street that takes you from Gran Via to Sol - many times, but I have never seen it so resplendent with coloured lights, nor thronged with merry revellers. And now for the night tour, with a rapid stop first at Madrid’s famous meeting place, the tree-climbing bear on the north-central corner of Sol, then across the square to a plaque that marks the place where the city’s uprising against the Napoleonic occupation in 1808 reached a frenzy pitch. I asked the students to remember this spot, for the following day we would see Goya’s depiction of that event in El dos de Mayo. Continuing east across the plaza, we walked along the Calle Mayor, negotiating an onslaught of humanity which seemed to be growing in number as each minute passed.
Next we passed a strikingly arranged shop window which one student asked me about. The display included many hundreds, probably thousands of cured Spanish hams, the famed jamón serrano. What I didn’t tell them was that this cue had been anticipated, and in fact we were standing before our first watering hole on the night tour: the chaotic, and absurdly cheap Museo de Jamón, one the most beloved butcher shops and restaurants in the city. Several hundred people were milling about in the cavernous principal sala, drinking cañas of beer and munching on pieces of cured ham. Above the fray, I shouted at the nearest barman: “!Me pones unas diez cañas y dos tintos! !Y regalame un vaso de agua!” Moments later, certainly less than thirty seconds, a stream of cold Spanish beers were being passed hand to hand through the rabble, one by one until everyone had what they needed (in my case a red wine and a glass of water). Now the same bartender made a strong impression on the students by gifting us an overflowing platter of ham. The group wolfed down these salty morsels. Everyone but me, of course. I’ve eaten no meat since the end of the Vietnam War.
In this way we continued through Madrid, and through the night, winding our way along the streets of the old city to the Plaza Mayor. We stopped momentarily in the middle of the square so I could point out the 17th century equestrian statue of Felipe III. The students shrugged as if to say, “no big deal”. Well, I told them, if you were one of the tens of thousands of sparrows who inadvertently flew into the horse’s cast iron mouth, dying miserably in its belly, perhaps you would feel differently. For hundreds of years, no one was aware that the statue was a death trap for flying critters until a frenzied celebration in 1931 toppled the monument, causing the underside to burst, and revealing the pathetic mortal remains of uncounted tiny birds. Nowadays, the horse’s mouth is covered with wire mesh so as to prevent unnecessary loss of avian life.
On we went, through the Plaza Santa Ana and past the Cerveceria Alemana, where Hemingway liked to drink (where didn’t Hemingway like to drink?), eventually stopping to listen to a set at the Bar Populart; the band, oddly, if not eerily, was called The Bob Sands Quartet. Another omen? No, it wasn’t. I like listening to jazz in this club, though I warned the students not to order spirits or fashion cocktails at the bar, as these are overpriced to compensate for the free cover entry. One excessively generous first-year, David (also his real name), ignored my advice and insisted on buying a round for the entire group. I saw him fork over two crisp, fifty euro notes, and after a disappointingly small quantity of gin and vodka was passed to us, he was given as change exactly thirty euro cents. That was enough for me. I took my leave of the group and left them in the hands of the city.
Before I said goodbye, however, I did one more thing that was not planned. I had noticed earlier that Emma of the abused suitcase appeared somewhat shaken by her earlier ordeal. It occurred to me belatedly that perhaps the luggage caper had embarrassed her (even though I told everyone I was pleased that they had looked after her, and stayed together). Nonetheless, she appeared less happy than some of the others (though happier than the lad who was out a hundred euro for his small alcohol purchase). On the way out of the club, I handed Emma my map of the city, scrawled a metro station on the cover, and a bus number, and told her to make sure the group was assembled in front of the air force building up on Princesa at 11AM. Normally, our itinerary stated that for all events I would fetch everyone at the hostel, but suddenly I liked the idea of charging one student with sorting out the routing, and making sure the group left the hostel on time and arrived at point du rendezvous.
And so it was that the next morning, just after eleven, there they were, miles from the hostel but exactly where I asked them to meet me. They were following Emma off the bus 133. She had my map in her hand and she was beaming! Day Two, then, was devoted to an extensive city tour, on hoof, encompassing Hapsburg, Bourbon, Civil War and Fascist Madrid, though in an order that might be best described as “ass-backwards”. True to form, we began in reverse, devoting the morning to Franco’s Madrid, taking in that section of Moncloa that boasts the highest concentration of fascist triumphalist architecture, all assembled in the years that followed the end of the civil war in 1939. From our perch below the main steps of the Escurial-inspired Air Force HQ, we could see the triumphal arch completed in 1956, the rebuilt university clinic -- where the most brutal hand-to-hand combat of the civil war had taken place --, the fascist monoliths celebrating the caudillo’s brother, Ramon, and the cringe-worthy Moncloa borough hall, whose brick patterns formed hundreds of crosses, and whose windows were barred with garishly morbid medieval swords and lances. I must have gestured inappropriately towards this monstrosity, for moments later our party was being shooed away by a pair of menacing, M16-toting air force sentries.
Now we continued by metro two stops to Ventura de Vega, just adjacent to the wonderfully evocative Centro Cultural Condé Duque, where a major retrospective of Agustí Centelles, the Catalan photographer, had recently opened. Centelles was, along with Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, among the most important photographers to work in the Loyalist zone of the Spanish War. I was impressed by the serious engagement of the students with his work, and we tarried longer than I anticipated, not leaving the show until 13:00. From here, we walked across the Plaza de España, stopping to take pictures at the statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, two names which I regret to say rang few bells among members of the group. But I quickly brought them up to speed, performing the windmill number from Man of La Mancha (assuming both roles), then surveying four centuries of Iberian literature in the twenty minutes required to walk to the Plaza de Oriente, due east of the Royal Palace. Nearby, I lamely attempted to amuse the students with an anecdote about the missing bones of Diego Velázquez, but they had never heard of him either! I promised to point out his most important works in exactly two hours time, when we would rendezvous in the Prado, Europe’s greatest museum. I told them to find me in front of Goya’s Tres de Mayo. They were on their own for lunch, and so was I.
At 16:15, I found myself alone in front of Goya’s terrifying canvas depicting the executions by faceless French soldiers of the Spanish patriots who rose up in spring 1808. Where was everyone? A few text messages sent here and there clarified that the students were merely hung up in the long queue snaking around the front of the Prado. In short order, we were reunited. Now came a breathtaking baptism by fire in the glories of Spanish painting, from El Greco to Goya, with Velázquez, Ribera, Murillo, Sorolla and Zurbarán highlighted in between. The group especially enjoyed Velázquez’s famous deer in the forest, whose life-like eyes follow the museum-goer mysteriously, regardless where he wanders, and from whatever angle he glances back at the canvas. “Where’s Picasso?” someone asked as we finally left the Prado. “Just down the road,” I answered. But that would be the following day. Meanwhile, I had plans for Saturday evening with a colleague, and thus left the students to their own devices. What new discoveries they made in the Spanish capital that night I do not know and will probably never know (and would rather not know).
Day Three began at the Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid’s 20th-century gallery that houses the most famous anti-war canvas ever created: Picasso’s Guernica. This is typically a highlight for all visitors to Spain, and our group was appropriately impressed, and moved, by the enormous, staggering work, which depicts the Luftwaffe’s destruction of a Basque village in April 1937. We spent a good two hours looking at the paintings of Picasso and his contemporaries, before crossing the Paseo del Prado and walking up to the Retiro, the capital’s giant green lung, a favourite retreat on Sunday afternoons for strolling families and smitten lovers. After my quick orientation, the group spotted the row and paddle boats in the famous Estanque, the man-made lake in the center of the park. While I watched at a safe distance from the shore, the more intrepid of our party took to the murky waters and engaged in a spirited competition, whose purpose was to drench the occupants of opposing boats, or, failing that, innocent passers-by. We lingered a long while at the Retiro, for though this was early December, it was a brilliantly clear and surprisingly warm day.
As the sun set, we walked back up the Gran Via and west across central Madrid. We were retracing the steps of the International Brigades, who marched this route in the first days of November 1936, on their way to face the fascists in the Ciudad Universitaria, where our tour had begun on Saturday morning. “They were a rag-tag crew, poorly-trained, scarcely armed...” I told the kids, “...and no older than most of you.” The local population lined this avenue to welcome the brigadistas, handing out pitchers of wine and tortilla sandwiches, and whatever else was left to eat in the besieged capital. Off they went, walking this street, happily and bravely, and many to their deaths. Some still lie buried in unmarked graves not far from here, while others survived, sailed home, but returned again in 1996, and were presented by the Spanish state with honorary citizenship.
The city was dark already, and our fieldtrip was drawing to a close. We were a baker’s dozen: twelve students and their teacher, on our own, far from home, together for three nights and four days, exploring the history, art and cuisine of one of the great capitals of Europe. All that remained was our farewell banquet, a nocturnal pub crawl and the panicked dash to the airport.
15 December 2007