Mad riddles | Madrid, Spain

Madrid’s streets surfaces were not just a visual feast for the eyes, but also an excellent way to brush up on my rusty Spanish vocabulary.

Even the most mundane of maintenance shaft covers were educational and beautiful to look at.

Firefighters!

Public lighting! (maintenance hole cover boasts Madrid’s coat of arms, featuring the city’s symbol – the bear with madroño tree)

Telephone systems! (Alright, I didn’t actually have to look this one up.)

Covers of canals, named after former Spanish monarchs!

And my all-time favorite design – natural gas!

Some other street markings were more ornamental than functional, like the gratitude plaques installed by the municipality in front of some businesses:

Here, the one in front of Casa Mira, a cake shop specializing in turrón (Spanish nougat) since 1855.

…. and the one at the Lhardy restaurant, established in 1839.

Others yet, perhaps most perplexingly, called for a quick gender self-identification:

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All roads lead to… | Madrid, Spain

This is the figurative center of Spain – the precise point from which all of the country’s main roads radiate and are measured. Located in front of the former post office building at the Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, the design of the marking echoes the semi-circular shape of the square itself, which is meant to look like the rising sun, with the streets radiating from it as its rays. Historically, the square has been a place for madrileños to gather, meet, welcome in the New Year, protest and even carry out assassinations.

So, it is just as well that, to get onto the Kilometer Zero marking, I had to literally jump over some police barricades, which were set up in order to keep out the protesters camping out on the square amid the demonstrations taking place at the time.

There was a less permanent, and slightly more ambiguous, marking on the ground nearby:

Something old, something new | Madrid, Spain

Images of the ground in and around the CaixaForum building in Madrid can only barely begin to suggest how thoroughly impressive the entire space is. But even they, on their own, manage to hint at the broad sweep, thoughtfulness and consideration for consistency with which the turn-of-the-century former industrial building and space around it was remodeled and turned into the present-day contemporary art center.

Located in the middle of Madrid’s three most import art venues – the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza museums, the CaixaForum building – originally a power station built in 1899 in the industrial style typical of Madrid at the time, was redesigned by the Swiss architectural duo Herzog & de Meuron (who also designed London’s Tate Modern 2, which used to be a power station as well).

In the renovation process, the old brick structure was hollowed out on the inside, lifted up off the ground and additional floors, encased with rusted steel, were constructed on top. The reconstruction, which took place between 2001 and 2007, created an entirely new and thoroughly impressive space while still giving a nod to the building’s historical appearance. Next to the main structure, in stark contrast to its brick and rusted steel façade, now stands a 24-meter high “vertical garden” – a large green wall, on which 15,000 plants from 250 species grow.

The garden, designed in collaboration with the botanist Patrick Blanc, is supposed to establish a connection with the Botanical Garden, located across the Paseo del Prado from the CaixaForum, while the wooden railing along the staircase inside the building somehow seems to organically tie the otherwise industrial interior to the garden.

I suspect that I would have been slower to notice the inspired way in which the building was transformed and the thoughtfulness with which it interacts with its surroundings if it weren’t for my recent dismal visit to Sofia’s newly opened, hastily “brought up to date” and hugely disappointing Museum of Contemporary Art.

Women on the verge* | Madrid, Spain

After being on the verge of missing it on several fronts, through a series of mishaps and very close calls – brought on by my and my friend Krissy’s disastrous organizational skills and total lack of ability to plan ahead, in the end we miraculously made it to Madrid and to our lovely friend Guadalupe’s wedding (Congratulations, Lupita!).

The wedding was beautiful – from the stunningly radiant bride and charming groom to the tiniest details. I especially enjoyed the service in the church, which had every Spanish-speaking guest cracking up while I was tearing up and, later, the Argentinean guests’ enthusiastic explosion on the dance floor.

My only regret was missing what, as far as I can predict, was probably my once-in-a-lifetime chance to wear a fascinator, something that eating copious amounts of deliciously refreshing gazpacho every day could compensate for only in part.

Believe it or not, in the three short days we spent in Madrid, we not only attended the wedding (and consumed many gazpachos), but also managed to do, see and visit many other fun things, which was bad for my feet but very good for taking pictures of the ground beneath them (links will be activated as posts go up):

• we strolled around the charming Las Letras neighborhood, with its literature-covered streets;

•  we popped into the contemporary CaixaForum museum;

•  we came upon the massive protests near Puerta del Sol and the precise point from which all of Spain’s main roads radiate and from which all road distances within the country are measured;

• but throughout, I kept looking down at Madrid’s street surfaces, which – even when serving the most mundane of purposes, were surprisingly ornate.

* In the wedding spirit of “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue,the title of this post is, obviously, borrowed from Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Although in this case Im rather referring to being on the verge of other things, namely – in the case of my friend Guadalupe, married life. As fate would have it, another very dear friend of mine was on the very same verge on the very same day, but across the ocean, in New York. I would have loved nothing more than to be able to make it to both weddings, but unfortunately the time difference of six hours, which proved too little, and other annoyingly practical constraints with time, money and distance made that impossible. A few days later, however, my wonderful friend Ji Sun shared this picture from the wedding in New York:

Not quite what I had in mind when I said I would be there in spirit, but quite touching nonetheless.

La belleza de las letr¡ah!s | Madrid, Spain

As somebody who is obsessed fascinated with writing and words, on the one hand, and interesting ground surfaces, on the other, I know too well how rarely the two actually overlap. So, I was enthralled when I realized that we are staying in Madrid’s Barrio de Las Letras (Neighborhood of the Writers). The area used to house some of the great authors of Madrid’s 16th-century Golden Age of letters — Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Quevedo, and its pedestrian streets are now covered in brass-lettered poems, quotations and literary passages written by them and other Spanish writers.

¡Ah!, indeed.

I vaguely remembered walking in the area and being very charmed by the literature-paved streets the first time I was in the city over six years ago and, although I had no idea which part of Madrid they were in, I intended to find them again this time around. So, you can imagine my rapture when, on my first night out, while running around the city, I gazed down to find myself standing atop one such a brass-lettered passage. Adding to the glee was the charmingly obliging Spaniard who surprised me by throwing himself onto the ground and into the frame as I took a picture.

As I walked around the neighborhood the next day, I realized the poems and passages were everywhere, they were too numerous to read carefully, even if a better grasp of Spanish on my part could make that possible.

Some of the writing and writers were easily recognizable nonetheless.

But mostly, I enjoyed spotting interesting words (whose meaning I had to look up later). I especially loved ¡the inverted exclamation marks!

Here, la belleza = the beauty, made more beautiful when squeezed between ¡ and !.

Others, even without much punctuation, just looked beautiful, even though I had no idea what they meant:

(Turns out this is the first stanza from the poem “The dark swallows will return” by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer.)

For a while, I could not get enough! But eventually, I stopped snapping photos every few meters, put my camera away and just enjoyed walking on top of literature, literary.