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The secret's out: 1992 Madrid is the happening capital of culture


With the Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, Expo '92 in Seville and a host of quincentennial celebrations throughout the land, 1992 is indeed the Year of Spain. Not to be upstaged by these events, the Spanish capital, Madrid, has also planned a rich agenda of events, activities and spectacles to fulfill its role as 1992 European Cultural Capital.

In many ways this honor marks Madrid's recent coming of age as a world-class capital. Not since Spain's Golden Age in the 16th and 17th centuries has Madrid been such a hotbed of cultural and commercial activity. In the freshly democratic 1980s, the movida madrilena, which loosely translates as the Madrid Happening, kicked off the capital's whirlwind comeback with a social renaissance that sparked the city's long dormant vitality and imagination.

Fashion designers, writers, artists, intellectuals and filmmakers emerged from seemingly nowhere to forge a dynamic cultural climate that thrust Madrid squarely into the ranks of Grand Tour capitals. Designer Adolfo Dominguez (who dressed "Miami Vice's" Don Johnson for one season), Pedro Almodovar (creator of the acclaimed film "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown") and Camilo Jose Cela (winner of the Nobel Prize for literature) spearheaded Madrid's leap from provincial, low-key municipality to sophisticated, high-profile metropolis.

Not that Madrid was at all a lackluster place before the eruption of the movida. It's just that its numerous charms and cultural treasures were the delectable, shared secret of a privileged few -- those of us who lived in the Spanish capital and the handful of visitors curious enough to venture beyond the Prado, Madrid's premier art museum, to find such jewels as the Museo Romantico or the Sorolla Museum.

For three years before the eruption of the movida, I lived in Madrid. Nowadays, on my frequent return visits, I am amazed at the city's rapid rise to international urbanity after the demise of the Franco dictatorship. Post-movida Madrid is fast-paced, choking on traffic, teeming with trendy clubs and restaurants, bursting with shopping malls and boutiques and studded with the shiny, new headquarters of multinational businesses along its broad avenue of commerce, the Paseo de la Castellana.

In short, Madrid is now on the savvy traveler's short list of world-class capitals, and its reign as 1992 European Cultural Capital promises to attract more visitors than ever with an ambitious schedule of activities grafted onto a cultural agenda that in any given year is already brimming.

Yearly happenings

First, let's take a look at what goes on every year in this fun-loving city. In the fall there is the Festival de Otono (Autumn Festival), several weeks of music, theater and dance performances. From mid-May to June there's the Fiesta de San Isidro (the feast of the city's patron saint), featuring a spirited round of bullfights, street fairs, concerts and theater events. Shortly after that is the start of Los Veranos de la Villa, a summer, all-arts festival lasting through August. Then, before you know it, it's time for the Festival de Otono again.

In the brief respites between these cultural binges are other annual events such as the ARCO contemporary arts fair, which for a week in February draws connoisseurs and collectors from ** all over the world; the International Jazz Festival in November; a year-round concert schedule ranging from rock to opera; and assorted crafts, antiques and book fairs.

But 1992 is special and calls for so much more. So Madrid is plan

ning a culture fest of huge proportions.

Culture fest

Here's a sampling of highlights: performances by Pavarotti and the Berlin Philharmonic; a compelling Velazquez Exhibition at the Prado; a series of concerts, exhibitions and lectures celebrating Spain (Jan. 21-27), Europe (March 16-22), the Americas (May 18-24) and the Latest Discoveries (Oct. 19-25); a series of presentations from Europe's previous cultural capitals -- Athens, Florence, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, Glasgow and Dublin; a series of theater performances in the Plaza Mayor, the city's beautiful, 17th-century main square; and a series of events spotlighting Madrid's own historical and cultural heritages.

Madrid first blossomed as a cultural powerhouse in the 16th and 17th centuries. Fueled by its New World colonies, the nation's Golden Age brought to the capital the greatest concentration of genius and talent to be found in Europe. Among its gifted citizens of yore were such men of letters as the playwrights and poets Lope de Vega, Calderon, Gongora, Tirso de Molina and the celebrated novelist Cervantes, all of whom lived near the Palacio de Medinaceli, which is now the elegant and animated Palace Hotel (my favorite Madrid lodging, by the way).

In 1623, Diego Velazquez came to Madrid as court painter. A little over a century later, Goya, whose body of work is a collective portrait of an enduring Spain, came to serve as official painter to the Spanish royal family for almost 40 years. To survey the works of these artists in the Prado today is to gain insight into the country and its character. While Goya's "cartoons" (painted as patterns for tapestries) evoke Spain's unbridled alegria or gaiety, his foreboding "Black Paintings" lay bare its dark, somber underbelly.

The Prado

Since its inauguration in 1819, the Prado has been the core of Madrid's cultural offering. Originally endowed with the fine collections of the Spanish Hapsburg and Bourbon monarchs, the Prado's tally of works today totals more than 6,000, among them exemplary works from almost all schools of painting and all the world's great masters. Most comprehensive, of course, is its collection of Spanish artists, including El Greco, Ribera, Zurbaran and Murillo. Other important collections include works

by the Flemish painters Memling and Bosch and the Italian masters Fra Angelico, Mantenga, Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto.

To this extensive artistic cache has recently been added the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (nicknamed "Madrid's MOMA," dedicated to contemporary art and boasting more exhibition space than New York's Museum of Modern Art or London's Tate Gallery. Important, groundbreaking works by Picasso, Juan Gris, Dali, Julio Gonzalez, Tapies, Chillida, Saura and Antonio Lopez headline the museum's heavily Spanish-accented collection.

Opening this year across from the Prado will be the new Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, containing more than 700 works from the collection of the Baron von Thyssen (second only to the Queen of England's). The addition of these two museums to Madrid's cultural fabric makes the Paseo del Prado between Plaza de la Cibeles and Plaza del Emperador Carlos V arguably the richest stretch of artistic turf in the world.

A store of artwork

If your tastes run to Old Masters, you'll find more works by Rubens, Bruegel the Elder and Titian at the Convento de las Descalzas Reales, a still-functioning convent which owes its sumptuous store of religious art work to the generosity and piety of a succession of aristocratic residents and patrons.

But there is still more top-notch art stashed away in several small and thoroughly delightful museums in the city's back streets. Two of my favorites are the Sorolla Museum (Calle General Martinez Campos, 27) and the Romantic Museum (Calle San Mateo, 13). The former, housed in the artist's home, displays numerous works by this turn-of-the-century Valencian impressionist. Most memorable are the vivid seascapes that actually appear wet. On the ground floor, you'll find the artist's personal collection of medals, precious metalwork and ceramics.

The Museo Romantico, quietly ensconced in an 18th-century baroque mansion, is a treasure-trove of mid-19th century furnishings, paintings and assorted objets d'art. Established in the 1920s, it is a warm and intimate place -- a perfect change of pace from Madrid's more monumental museums.

Upon the death of patron of the arts Lazaro Galdiano, his small, turn-of-the-century Italian palace and its vast art collection were bequeathed to the city. In addition to works by leading Spanish masters, you'll find at the Museo Lazaro Galdiano (Calle Serrano, 122) the creative hands of Tiepolo, da Vinci, Gainsborough, Bosch and Rembrandt. Beyond that are masterful displays of tapestries, textiles, embroideries, gold and silver work, fans, jewelry, engravings, weapons and a fascinating collection of enamels and ivories.

In my days as a Madrid resident, these little museums were grace notes of culture known to an enlightened few. Today, Spain is one of Europe's most vital nations and Madrid a vital capital, so the word is out.

When the visiting hordes descend upon the 1992 European Cultural Capital, I'll miss my quiet moments with Sorolla's seascapes. But my loss will be everyone else's gain.

If you go . . .

My favorite Madrid hotel is the elegant, old-world Palace Hotel (Plaza de las Cortes, 7) near the Prado. For information and reservations, call Ciga Hotels at (800) 221-2340. A standard double room costs about $265.

Another convenient choice in a more modern vein is the Melia (Princesa, 27), where a double costs about $270. For information and reservations, call Grupo Sol hotels at (800) 336-3542 or (305) 854-0990.

Those who favor small hotels with personality should consider the Hotel Arosa (Salud, 21), where doubles cost about $140. For information and reservations, contact Marketing Ahead, 433 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016; call (212) 686-9213; fax (212) 686-0271.

Hemingway devotees might want to stay at the Hotel Suecia (Marques de Casa Riera, 4), where the author stayed whenever he was in town. Doubles cost from $140 to $170. Again, contact Marketing Ahead.

For more information, contact the National Tourist Office of Spain, 665 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022 (212) 759-8822.

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