I have this theory about how books come to me when I need them, and I think it’s the same way with places. My first time in Spain I took a night bus from Lyon to Barcelona and hung out there for a couple of days. Which was nice. But there were too many tourists. Though I cried in the Sagrada Familia, on an authentic aesthetic experience, it came on so suddenly, I was just thinking to myself, look at this stained glass, the cranes outside—this motherfucker’s been dead for a hundred years and they’re still trying to finish building his dream. Which made me think that no matter how good I ever got at developing or writing poetry or memoir, no one would finish it but me. Which was humbling, to say the least. And maybe that’s what good art does, is just humble you and make you realize that when you die, no one cares, and people will just keep living, and that’s both sad and beautiful at once, which is why you can’t spend your life being unhappy with women who call your member demeaning names, even if it is bizarrely obtuse.
I took another night bus to Madrid and stood in line with the other miserables to see the Prado for free for two hours before closing. Behind me a couple of American guys jabbered, “The thing about the Prado,” said the one with dreads, “is that the quality of each painting is superb. Whereas in the Met, you get sort of a hodgepodge, a pretty good Hals, a great Rembrandt followed by an average Velasquez, here they’re all some of the finest in the world.”
What does he know, I thought. Fucking Americans, talking like they know everything. But the hippie was right. I should have asked for his number, he would’ve known where to buy the Spanish chronic.
Yeah, I was getting pretty into seeing all these “vaulting achievements of Western civilization”: paintings, cathedrals, palaces—the stuff that lasted. It was cool even hanging out in a royal city like Madrid, which in its own way was like a New York from the eighteenth century, preserved in time. Or, forgive me, my European friends, New York was kind of like it. And I mean that a city itself can be like a piece of art; it has its highlights and values, and it goes even beyond art because it continues to grow and pulse with life, whereas art only lives as long as it is admired.
I went back to the Prado a couple of days later to finish looking at the Goyas, because they start to usher you out like fifteen minutes before the museum closes, opening the cattle gates, driving the crowds of cheap-seekers out into the cool Madrid night.
I compared Velasquez to El Greco and thought of other privileged white men who had written about Madrid, Hemingway, Ben Lerner. Yes, Velasquez best embodied the Spanish court’s ideals—in Las Meninas, he holds a mirror up to life and shows himself in it. El Greco prioritized his personal ideal over the state’s and was forgotten for two hundred years.
The Met has one of his two landscapes of Toledo: the city lies under a swirling blue green sky and he has rearranged it to fit all of the important buildings into his square canvas.
The other I took a high speed train to see the next day.
A lot of people had already given me their perspectives on Toledo. An American who offered walking tours from my hostel said, “Try the tourist train. It seems like it’s for old people but it offers great vistas.” The dude at reception said, “The escalators are very good. They make it easier to climb to the old city.” And a lady from Leon-Castile’s outskirts, who I met at breakfast said, “The gastronomy is very special.”
I decided to avoid their recommendations entirely.
Packed with me I had a sandwich of salami and hard cheese on fresh bread with cherry tomatoes on the side. I was already hungry. But I will say—by this point I had lost some five kilos since I’d started my journey and I vowed that when I returned to the U.S. I would get into good shape, the body being a reflection of the mind, or something like that.
So I didn’t pant too hard in the June sun as I walked. I crossed the muddy Tagus where a father taught his boy to fish in the mud of the cat-tails. I avoided the Alcantara bridge, thronged with tourists, and saw the escalators the reception dude had mentioned. I noticed the ruins of a twelfth-century monastery, littered with broken beer bottles. A flight of nostalgia seized me; if only I lived here and could make the ruins of a twelfth-century monastery my drinking spot. And the city gate, with its human-sized Hapsburg crest welcomed me into the Old Town’s cobbled warren.
I didn’t feel like paying to go into the cathedral. Sometimes you just feel like it’s a scam, like the city is trying to milk you, and sure the church is good, but ten euros good? I don’t think so. Instead I sat in the plaza and ate my sandwich while I watched a wedding procession.
Two old guys held the bride’s train whileabove floated selfie sticks, phones and tables, like modern escutcheons. I cursed myself for choosing to come here on a Saturday, the busiest day of the week. When I popped the last tomato in my mouth I walked into the deserted Jewish Quarter, noting the exquisite doors—green lintels, brass rings, blue-and-white terra cotta tiles bearing the house numbers, behind which were murmurs of Saturday afternoon, cool corners and glasses of rioja, jamón.
The El Greco museum, a villa with manicured gardens, close to where the master once lived, lay ahead, a small crowd already there for the free entry beginning at two o’clock.
Down a hall of apostolic portraits was the painting. Three times the width of the one in the Met. A spectral figure—Greco’s son?—holds a map of the city in the lower right corner. The hospital, seventeenth-century symbol of modernity rests on a cloud beside a bronze statue. Annunciation fills the sky. Very weird painting. No wonder he never found acceptance with Phillip II. I stepped back for a better view, right onto an old lady’s foot. My apologies were met with a smile.
I admired the other paintings and then moved outside. I bought an orange in a bodega and followed an alley to a staircase with views of hazy umber hills. The Tagus encircled the city like a moat and a swan flapped its wings on the ruins of a Visigothic bridge. Olive trees baked in the heat, the scent of rosemary drifted in the air, and opposite me, across the river, a climber scaled a hundred foot rock face. His friends, miniaturized by the distance, shouted encouragement from below. I sat on the second step, shaded by the limestone wall, and wondered to what extent this hillside was once sacred, as I enjoyed my own view of Toledo.