The 1997 opening of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in northern Spain threatened to steal the thunder from Madrid's museums. Bilbao's whirling dervish of a building, a titanium-clad fantasy designed by Frank O. Gehry, zoomed instantly to the top of every art pilgrim's list.
But after you've seen the building, you've seen the building. It's unlikely that Americans would make the return trip for the contents, most of which are packaged shows sent from the Guggenheim in New York.
Madrid is another story. The collections in the museums around the Prado, oldest and proudest of them all, are spectacular and singular, whether your interest is in 17th-century painting, cutting-edge contemporary, or, surprisingly, 19th-century American art: It's startling to come upon works by Winslow Homer and Fitz Hugh Lane in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.
The Big Three -- the Prado, the Thyssen and the Reina Sofia, which is Spain's largest contemporary museum -- aren't Madrid's only art museums, not by a long shot. Among the oddest is the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales -- the Royal Barefoot Franciscans -- which is still a working convent but allows visitors. Originally, the nuns had to be from the aristocracy, and had to come bearing art to serve as their dowries as "brides of Christ." The art, still hanging on the walls or ensconced in shrines, isn't the very finest, but the sheer idea of shutting yourself up for life with your paintings suggests the dour aspects of the Spanish stereotype.
But it's the trio of the largest museums that are the biggest draw for art lovers. They're an easy stroll from each other, and a good thing, too: There's so much to see inside that you won't want to do much extra walking. The museums are clustered around the Plaza Canovas del Castillo, whose central Neptune Fountain cools even the steamiest Spanish day.
A neoclassical masterpiece with a long granite colonnade, the Prado officially opened in 1819 as repository of the royal paintings collection. While not the largest national museum in the world (which is part of its charm), it is, painting for painting, one of the choicest.
Whatever else might be said of them, the Hapsburg and Bourbon kings who ruled Spain for several centuries shared what's called a great "eye." And their collections were only enriched with the suppression of the monasteries in the 1830s, which brought to the Madrid museum long-hidden masterpieces from all over the country.
Having neglected its physical plant for years, the Prado is planning an expansion. In 1996 it staged an architectural competition that ended in stalemate. Now, there's a designated designer -- Spain's reigning architect, Rafael Moneo -- and his expansion plans for the Prado are not without controversy.
Among other things, Moneo's plan involves moving the collections of the popular Museum of the Army to Toledo, so the Prado can take over the Army building. It would also join four existing buildings through an underground connector.
Much of the expansion is to be built underground, so as not to disturb the cherished look of the neighborhood. Still, there's opposition. An old church and cloister behind the present building would be incorporated into the scheme. During my visit, hanging from the balconies of pricey apartment buildings nearby were banners saying, "Save the Cloisters of San Jeronimo." Negotiations for the expansion continue.
Because Moneo also designed the Thyssen museum, which is inside the Villahermosa Palace, and redesigned the Atocha train station across from the Reina Sofia, this part of Madrid is becoming known as the Moneo District.
The Prado has never been particularly visitor-friendly, especially to English speakers. Most of the signs and labels are in Spanish only, with the occasional "You are here" in English.
I bought an extremely reasonable triple-ticket that cost under $8 and was good for one admission each to the Prado, the Thyssen and the Reina Sofia. For those who can't handle all three in a single day -- and it's a lot to take in -- the ticket is good for more than a year.
The Prado collections are ravishing. Among my personal painting favorites is a Fra Angelico "Annunciation," a radiant, golden picture still on its altar-base, which gives it a welcome context.
The great Bosch "Garden of Earthly Delights" is still shocking, despite being nearly 500 years old. It's full of bubble-gum-pink aliens, giant fruits that look genetically manipulated, animals fornicating, a menage a trois, sexual shenanigans unsurpassed since in their imaginativeness. It's one of the most complicated and mystifying paintings in history. And, fortunately, the Bosch room, which also holds other examples of the enigmatic master's work, is one where you can put a 100 peseta coin (about 53 cents) in a machine that dispenses an English-language gallery guide.
Other Flemish treasures include masterworks by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling and Antony Van Dyck. The Prado has the world's greatest cache of Spanish painting, including a clutch by Velasquez, the zenith being "The Maids of Honor," so complex you could spend days in front of it.
Then there are the Goyas: His "black" pictures are some of the most pessimistic ever painted. And Goya made the Spanish royals of his day every bit as homely as Velasquez made the Hapsburgs of his time.
Titian worked a great deal for the Spanish crown; hence a jaw-dropping array of his work, featuring ivory and gold figures of myth set against dark, gritty grounds.
Should you need sustenance or a drink after a few hours in the Prado, you're better off not repairing to the museum's cafeteria, which is dingy and out of date in an era when some museums pride themselves on their restaurants almost as much as on their art.
Nearby options abound. The garden terrace of the Ritz Hotel next to the Prado is an outdoor delight if the weather's behaving. If it isn't, try the Palace, Madrid's other great Belle Epoque hotel. Across the street from the museum, the Palace boasts glorious public spaces, including a central lobby with domed stained-glass ceiling.
The Thyssen is housed in a neoclassical palace, but it is otherwise the model of a modern museum, which means you can eat well here, too, in a chic cafe with moderate prices and a friendly, English-speaking wait staff.
But it's the art that's the primary draw, and it's spectacular. In the early 1990s, the Swiss industrialist Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza sold his vast collection to Spain for $350 million. There had been plenty of competitors for the art, from the Prince of Wales, who lobbied on behalf of England, to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
But, because the baron's wife is an erstwhile Miss Spain, there the collection went. The baroness is buying more art, and it will be installed in two adjacent buildings the museum has acquired. The goal is to complete the expansion by 2002.
The existing museum, which opened in 1992, is sleek indeed, its most controversial aspect the shocking pink walls, said to be the baroness's choice. Otherwise, the building is pure Moneo. Light is the architect's signature, here pouring in through a dramatic double row of clerestory windows on the top floor.
The Thyssen has English-language labels and a clear chronological layout. In the hotel-like lobby are full-length portraits of the baron and baroness. The collection is vast -- a nearly complete story of Western painting.
The Reina Sofia
The Reina Sofia is a former 18th-century hospital opened in 1990 as a national museum for contemporary art, named for King Juan Carlos' Greek-born wife. Its severe spaces are hospitable to 20th-century work. One of the fun things about navigating the six-floor building is its external glass elevators, a theme-park-worthy ride. No wonder the Reina Sofia has become Madrid's most popular art museum for children.
In addition to its busy schedule of international temporary exhibitions, the Reina Sofia boasts a cache of 20th-century Spanish art. There are paintings by Gris, Miro and Picasso, room after room filled with them, giving the museum an identity unique among the world's modern art collections, just as the Velasquezes and Goyas do for the historical holdings at the Prado.
Until my recent visit to Madrid, I hadn't been in the Spanish capital since 1992. At that time, Picasso's great "Guernica," his huge, wrenching tribute to a Basque city bombed by pro-Franco forces, was ensconced in a Prado annex, the Cason del Buen Retiro. This most politicized of paintings, which had previously hung for decades in New York's Museum of Modern Art because Picasso wouldn't allow it to go to Spain until Franco died and democracy was restored, has now moved down the street to the Reina Sofia.
In the Cason del Buen Retiro, "Guernica" had been shielded by a thick wall of bullet-proof glass, so great was the fear it would be attacked. In the Reina Sofia, it is enshrined in a glorious gallery without the glass, a touching indication of trust.
WHEN YOU GO ...
Getting there: There are no direct flights from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Madrid, but there are direct flights from airports in Philadelphia, Newark, N.J., and New York.
Prado, Paseo del Prado, Madrid
Phone: 011 34 13302800
Online: www.mcu.es / prado / index_eng.html
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday 9 a.m., to 2 p.m.
Admission: 500 pesetas ($2.65)
Thyssen, Paseo del Prado, 8, Madrid
Phone: 011 34 914203944
Online: www.museothyssen. org / england / main2.htm
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Admission: 500 to 900 pesetas ($2.65 to $4.75)
Reina Sofia, Santa Isabel, 52, Madrid
Phone: 011 34 914675062
Online: http: / / museoreinasofia.mcu.es / e / default.htm
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Admission: 500 pesetas ($2.65)
Gran Hotel Reina Victoria, Plaza de Santa Ana 14
Phone: 011 34 915314500
Rates: 25,000 pesetas ($133)
At the top of Plaza Santa Ana, the hotel is one of Madrid's upscale lodgings and is said to be a favorite of bullfighters past and present.
Hostal Gonzalo, Metro Anton Martin
Phone: 011 34 914292714
Rates: 5,500 pesetas ($30)
Single rooms with private baths are available. The recently renovated 15-room hostel's best feature is its proximity to the museums.
Hotel Mora, Paseo del Prado 32
Phone: 011 34 914201569
Rates: 7,200 pesetas ($38)
Refurbished 62-room hotel near the museums
Phone: 011 34 9133789600
Provides information about lodging, attractions, transportation and dining in Madrid, and is organized by geographic location. Call for a tourism guide.
Tourist Office of Spain
New York-based tourism office offering information to plan your trip, including an introduction to Spanish culture and customs