Camilo José Cela received the 1989 Nobel Prize for Literature. Following the death of Francisco Franco, he served as a senator in Spain and helped write a new Spanish Constitution. He is also the author of the recently reissued travel book Journey to the Alcarria.


Camilo José Cela tells a tale of a day in Madrid

“Madrid has so many things to see, you realneed a month to do it all — the Prado and the Parque del Retiro, the Palacio Real, Plaza Mayor, the old city, the many museums. But if I were to tell a friend what to see in a day, I would say to start with a breakfast of coffee with churros or porras pastries in your hotel. The morning is the time to make the obligatory trip to the Prado Museum. You could spend a week there, but if you’d like to see other parts of the city, you’ll have to restrict your visit to early in the day.

There is so much to see in the Prado. Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Raphael, Tintoretto, Hieronymus Bosch (whom we call ‘El Bosco’), Dürer, Breughel. And the Spanish painters! El Greco, Murillo, Zurbaran. But my personal favorites are Velazquez and Goya. You must see Velazquez’s Las Meninas and Las Hilanderas, and Goya’s La Maja Desnuda and La Familia de Carlos IV.

After leaving the museum, take a walk outdoors. A nice place close by for a paseo—a promenade—is the Paseo del Prado, a boulevard with lots of trees and outdoor cafés. Or, if you have time, go to the Parque del Retiro, behind the Prado. It is filled with beautiful gardens and has a large lake in the center where you can row a boat or feed the fish.

I suggest you have lunch at one of Madrid’s oldest restaurants, Lhardy, which still has its beautiful decor from the nineteenth century. You should have cocido madrileño, the house specialty. It’s the elaborate boiled beef and chickpea dinner of Madrid. Cocido ma-drileño is a three-part meal. The first course is a stew of bacon, sausage, chicken, beef, and ham. Then come garlicky meatballs. Those are followed by a plate of salted cabbage. Don’t worry if it seems like too much—we take a long time to eat in Madrid.

Around five o’clock, go to la corrida— the bullfight. You could go to Las Ventas—the largest bull ring in Spain — or one of the smaller ones. I love the bullfight. I have fought in three or four bullfights myself, and as a spectator I still thrill at the great ritual between man and beast. But you should understand what you are seeing. The best way is to do some research about la corrida before you go, and to bring a friend who can explain its various aspects.

By the time the bullfight and all its excitement are over, you’ll need to try another Spanish custom—the siesta. Go back to your hotel and have a nice nap.

You’ll probably still be full from your cocido madrileho, but if you’re hungry when you wake up, join the madrileños for some tapas, snacks served in little dishes at the bars. We have the greatest variety of them in the capital. They’re from all around the country—everything from mushrooms with garlic to sausages and seafood.

Then it’s time to go to the theater, which begins at about eight o’clock. The two most important theaters in Madrid are Teatro Español and Teatro Real. Both are very old, so they are interesting for the architecture and the interiors. Try to see a production of a play by our great Golden Age playwright Lope de Vega. Whether or not you understand the language, you’ll appreciate the visual pageantry. If you’re still hungry, there are a number of restaurants you could go to—Zalacaín, El Amparo, Luculo, and Club 31 are all places I would recommend.

The traveler has his own philosophy of walking; he believes that everything that comes along is always the best thing that could happen. It is best to go on foot, walking down the middle of the street, listening to the sound his nailed boots make as it rebounds off the houses. The windows of the houses are closed and the blinds are down. Behind the glass—who knows!—the men and women of the city are sleeping offtheir good or evil fortunes. There are houses that even look as though they shelter happy people, and whole streets that have a sinister stare, that seem to harbor men without a conscience, tradesmen, moneylenders, pimps, shifty bullies whose souls are spattered with blood. For all anyone knows, the houses of the fortunate people haven’t so much as a sprig of mint or marjoram on the balcony. But sometimes the houses of peoplesmothered by unhappiness, marked with the cruel brand of hate and desperation, are arrogant with balconies full of geraniums or overblown carnations as big as apples. The face that houses wear is a very mysterious thing; one could think about it for a long time.

from Camilo José Cela’sJourney to the Alcarria: Travels Through the Spanish Countryside.Atlantic Monthly Press, $8.95.

If you want to learn more about the playwright, you can also visit the Casa de Lope de Vega. It is his house, and he wrote many of his plays there. Besides being historically important, it is also typical of the period, the seventeenth century. But that’s for another day, since naturally the museum will be closed at that hour.”

interviewed by Dwight V. Gast