When life gets a bit too heavy around my shoulders, when daily existence feels so, well, daily, I begin to dream of that certain gold light in old paintings, and I know it’s time for Museo del Prado. I know it’s time for a hit of Velázquez. And El Greco and Goya and van der Weyden and Bosch—all chased by a single-malt Scotch at the bar of the Hotel Ritz.
There have been times when I’ve embarked for Madrid with no place to stay; when I’ve booked the next flight into Spain’s spangled air and boarded the plane with only a pack slung on my back so that I could head straight to the Prado and worry about room and board later, as evening fell.
I get lucky in Madrid. I count on that. It’s the faith of a devout believer. I leap into the void and know that not only will I be saved, I’ll be found. The spirit of the city is that of an aging courtesan, someone so secure in past conquests that she wears her age and diminished vitality with a grace that has at its core the certain knowledge that if she felt like it, oh if only there were time and libido, she could do it again.
I fall into the fantasy. I honor it. I, too, slip into an unreal life. I stay at the Ritz, which I can ill afford. It seems only right to sleep on linen sheets, to tread lightly over handmade carpets, to drink hot chocolate poured from a silver pitcher in a place commissioned by Alfonso XIII, who was embarrassed by the lack of comparable hotels to those in Paris and across Europe. The fin de siècle fantasy, supported by marble columns and festooned with crystal—crystal everywhere—is in line with what awaits across the backyard: a collection of paintings that has caused me on occasion to swoon.
The first Prado destination is always Rogier van der Weyden’s “Descent from the Cross.” And my first response is always the same, relief. It’s still there. I’ve been startled by my own voice saying loudly, “Phew! You’re still here!” Where did I think it would go? But that is the nature of love. One is deeply grateful for—yet amazed by—fidelity. Then onto Hieronymus Bosch’s tender triptych, “The Adoration of the Magi,” with its central panel capturing the essence of miracle: How it happens when nobody’s looking, when someone’s fighting a war or going to market. How something amazing occurs at just that moment when we avert our eyes. In the foreground the three magi pay reverent court to a naked, fragile child. Peasants scramble up a tree to get a better view from the stable roof. And in the distant countryside men charge into battle and wander to market and the sun shines as it has on any other day.
I visit Madrid by myself to diminish the chance of an averted eye. It is a city that requires my full attention. My full silence. It is a city that is known through taste and sight. I have spent three days in which the only words to cross my lips were, “Grilled fish, please.” Where the silence is so complete that my footsteps are the only sound as I return to the Ritz at midnight through narrow streets steeped in sleeping memories of a former vigilance, when the city served as a Moorish fortress in a no-man’s-land between the Christian north and the Islamic south.
At midnight the hot blood that once fired conquistadores, missionaries, and explorers sparks again in a lonely lament sung over a sole guitar in the smoke-filled basement of Café de Chinitas. Here, I take in the music and dancing of the Andalusian gypsy culture, powerful enough to conquer the human heart.
And then back to the Ritz, where I recline on cool linen sheets and the day goes into rerun—experiences caught forever behind closed lids.
New York-based writer BARBBARA LAZEAR ASCHER is the author of Playing After Dark and The Habit of Loving.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
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