Madrid, the proud and stately capital of Spain, is home to three of the finest collections of art anywhere: the Museo del Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, each of which would be the standout attraction in a city with less to offer, and a reason to visit in its own right. The three museums form a triangle of sorts around the Paseo del Prado, allowing visitors to walk easily between them.
Madrid has lately receded into the shadow of showy Barcelona, which gets all the buzz for being a European capital of style. And indeed, with its spectacular Mediterranean setting, whimsical, unique architecture and international fashion scene, Barcelona deserves its stylish accolades. But its museums are limited to small, idiosyncratic or single-artist collections; the greatest visual thrill is walking its streets.
Madrid is arguably less glamorous, more conservative, more closely associated with Spain's troubled past than its exhilarating future. It is also the guardian of Spain's wonderful aesthetic legacy, and serious lovers of art could easily get lost inside its museums for a week at a time.
Jewish travelers will find a flourishing community in today's Madrid. The freedoms of post-Franco Spain, combined with an influx of Argentine Jews who settled here in the wake of political and economic crises over the past 30 years, have contributed to an active, if small, Jewish community.
Observant travelers will want to acquaint themselves with the Jewish Community of Madrid (Comunidad Judia de Madrid), a nexus of Jewish life here for nearly 100 years. The community provides information, both online and in person, about Orthodox worship services, activities and Jewish resources throughout Madrid.
Bet El Synagogue is affiliated with the Masorti, or Conservative, movement and has a helpful Web site; there is also a Chabad center in Madrid.
On to the art: The Prado is a surprisingly small museum that can hold your attention longer than the encyclopedic Louvre. Rather than being vast and comprehensive, the Prado contains only the most exciting works by a small number of wonderful artists.
In one room you'll find virtually all of the greatest works of 15th- and 16th-century Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch, including his famous "Garden of Earthly Delights." Even if you're jaded by endless Madonnas, the soft, glowing religious portraits of Raphael will force you to stop and stare in admiration. Upstairs, many of Goya's most famous works -- from his "Maja" series to his controversial "black" paintings -- are grouped together, inviting contemplation. The collection also includes major works by the Spanish giants Velazquez and El Greco.
When it opened a decade ago, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum was a major event on the international art scene: the acquisition by the Spanish government of the personal collection of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, comprising some seven centuries of European and American painting, with emphasis on the Italian primitives and Renaissance, Dutch and Flemish masters, German expressionism, French impressionists and 19th- and 20th-century Americans like Hopper and Rauschenberg.
In 2004, the museum made waves again when it added the collection of the baron's widow, Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza. Together the two collections represent more than 1,000 works of art, mostly paintings, which have been called the 20th century's most significant private collection.
As with the Prado, nearly every work is stunning. But more importantly, the Thyssen-Bornemisza represents a perfect pan-Western complement to the Prado's smaller, more focused collection, and the more contemporary Reina Sofia. In fact, it was the availability of space in such close proximity to these other collections that motivated the Thyssen-Bornemisza family to choose Spain to house its legacy.
On view through Jan. 7 is "Sargent/Sorolla," an exhibition that looks at the parallel careers of John Singer Sargent, who is having a big year in the United States, and Joaquin Sorolla, his Spanish contemporary.
It's also a Rauschenberg year. On the heels of the fabulous Rauschenberg "Combines" show at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art this past year comes "Rauschenberg:Express," an exhibition of 1960s silkscreen print collages from the Thyssen-Bornemisza's permanent collection.
An apt metaphor for today's Spain, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia unites the aesthetic cutting edge -- modern and contemporary art, including some daring conceptualism and Picasso's famous "Guernica" -- with a historic 16th century formal national hospital building.
A very Madrid counterpoint to all this art is an evening of zarzuela, Spain's answer to opera. Culturally distant from the main currents of Western Europe for much of the last few centuries, Spain developed its own distinctive idioms, of which zarzuela, which is closer to what we think of as operetta, is one. (If you have ever wondered why there are no Spanish operas at the Met, this is why.)
The Teatro Lirico Nacional de la Zarzuela, on Jovellanes Street, presents a regular schedule of faithfully presented classics. Join the elegant evening crowd, draped in fringed shawls and diamonds, and go out afterward for a glass of sherry at one of the nearby tapas bars. If awards were handed out for cities least hospitable to kosher eating, Madrid would certainly be in the running. As in most of Spain, the main ingredients on Madrid restaurant and cafe menus are ham, shrimp, ham, calamari, ham, octopus -- and ham. Madrid even boasts a "Museo del Jamon," which feels less like a curated collection and more like a temple, with shrines and icons of hanging pork.
For advice on a ham- and shellfish-free visit, a friend recommended the Madrid listings on Kosher Delight's Web site.
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum: www.museothyssen.org
Museo del Prado: museoprado.mcu.es
Reina Sofia Museum: www.museoreinasofia.es