Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Heroics in the Suburbs, with a View

Museum of Firefighters / Museo de Bomberos
12/27/11 – Calle Boada, 4
The weather this week, between Navidad and the holiday of Reyes, has been glorious.  On Tuesday morning, three generations (Grandpa, Dulcinea, Sons 1 & 2) set off by metro and emerged fourteen stations later at Buenos Aires.  I sense that few tourists make it out to see the free Museum of Firefighters, and that’s a shame.   

Fire truck, Museum of Firefighters
The location southeast of the city center is one of the attractions, we later learned.  As you walk north from the metro station, beyond a suburban superstore, a ramshackle courtyard on Calle Boada contains two old fire trucks and an unassuming entry door of corrugated tin.

Street view of the museum

Inside the dimly-lit but cavernous space, it smelled of gasoline and old machinery.  We were surprised to be greeted warmly by a fireman, who shook our hands in welcome.  He said that if we had any questions we should not hesitate to ask.  Another fireman was leading around a group of children and their parents. 

From a brochure I learned that the city of Madrid hired the first 24 firemen, then called “matafuegos,” way back in 1618.  The museum chronicles the history of firefighting in Madrid: old photos, vehicles, uniforms, communications equipment, extinguishers, ladders, helmets, nozzles and hoses of every shape and size.  Signage is minimal.


A chronology of nozzles
Practical, sculptural

The venerable FDNY, 1940s.
Red fire engines are the stars, with models from 1884 to 1949.  Several sported the distinctive, peaked "M" for Madrid on their front grills.

"M" for Madrid

Early vehicle, English-made, 1812

    The "Merry Weather," London, 1915
After our visit, the boys made a beeline for the steep, grassy hill across the street.  It turned out to be part of a vast park, the Parque del Cerro del Tío Pío. They quickly returned for the camera, and entreated us to follow.  

Grandfather and S1, ascending hill

S2, ascending lamp post
At the top, a spectacular view of Madrid awaited:

Skyline, sierra and smog
The Museum of Firefighters led us to this place, and we felt lucky to see both.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Money Shot

Museum of Currency / Museo Casa de la Moneda
12/16/11 – Calle Doctor Esquerdo, 36

My Pericles obsession. Vatican Museum.
(Cameras allowed)
I was in the Rome last week, on my first visit to the Sistine Chapel.  Photographing Michelangelo’s masterpiece is strictly prohibited.  I feared a Japanese tourist might be drawn and quartered after she chose to disregard this edict.  Instead a guard yelled at her across the chapel, “NO!” 

I understand the reasons for no-camera rules, but what accounts for variation from museum to museum?  Some allow flash photos; others permit photos but no flash.  Some make you check the camera at the door.  Some let you carry but not use it, trusting that you won’t betray their trust.  Some museums don’t have a guard in every room, but watch you via secret camera.  A guard runs in to stop you, politely, the moment you withdraw the apparatus from your bag.  

Museum of Currency entrance (right)

50 reales
At Madrid’s free Museum of Currency, housed at the National Mint (Fábrica Nacional de Moneda y Timbre), the objects on display are too small for amateur photographs anyway. If you are over 40, bring reading glasses. The panther's head on a Greek coin became a crab when I took a second look. A notable exception: silver, coaster-size fifty reales coins from 17th c. Spain.  The museum presents the history of money in 17 roomsItems are described in Spanish only.  A huge collection of coins, medals, paper bills, machinery, and postage stamps represents every era.  Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and Vandals all struck their own metal coins on the Iberian peninsula.  During Islamic rule in Spain, coins held large amounts of text but no images. For the first time I saw actual “pieces of eight”; a United States three-dollar bill printed in 1776 in Philadelphia; a 6-shilling bill from the same year, printed in New Jersey; paper money from the French Revolution and the early years of the Russian Revolution; and a treasure chest (disappointingly empty).   

The bland euro, Spain's currency for now, can't hold a candle to the gorgeous coins of yore. 
Until 12 February 2012, the Museum of Currency has a retrospective of Madrid artist Alfredo Alcain: “ALCAIN, MIRADAS SOBRE PAPEL. Retrospectiva gráfica 1969-2011.”  His work is both witty and accessible.  A poster is available at the information desk--no money needed.   

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Mousie from Madrid Will Take Your Teeth

House Museum of the Mouse Perez / Casa Museo de Ratón Pérez
12/10/11 – Calle Arenal, 8

The U.S. has a tooth fairy, but children in Spain and many parts of Latin America expect an elegant rodent named Mousie Pérez to collect teeth from under their pillows and leave behind a gift.  The legend of Mousie Pérez—el ratoncito Pérez—was created in 1894 by a Jesuit named Luis Coloma.  Coloma wrote the story as a gift and moral guide for Spain’s 8-year-old King Alfonso XIII, or “King Buby,” as his mother called him.  In the story, the mouse takes the young King along on a nocturnal visit to the poorest neighborhoods of Madrid, so that Buby can witness the lives of less fortunate children. It's more of an adventure than a treacly tale, and the character of ratoncito Pérez has plenty of appeal.

Cover of first edition, 1911

Mousie Perez lives with Señora Pérez and children (Adolfo, Elvira, and Adelaida) in a Huntley’s biscuit box in the basement of the Carlos Prast confectionery, at number 8 Calle Arenal.  The building still stands today, on a busy pedestrian street just steps from Puerta del Sol and the Royal Palace.  

Former Prast confectionery
In 2003, the city of Madrid paid homage to the mouse by placing a plaque and a tiny bronze sculpture just inside the doorway.  

Upstairs, a rather gaudy, one-room museum trades on the Mousie Pérez legend.  It sells trinkets, including a facsimile of Coloma’s book (8 euros).  For 1 euro, children and their parents enter a second room and gather around a cross-section of the Pérez family’s biscuit-box, to listen to a guide tell stories about the famous mouse.  

Pre-teen in front of House Museum of Mousie Perez
On this foggy Saturday morning a few weeks before Navidad, the stairwell was thick with families.  The museum allows 30 visitors at a time, and the next available tickets were for 7:30 p.m., a full seven hours later.  I’d brought along Son 2 for company. He's 12, and still has some baby teeth and an interest, albeit waning, in talking animals--though only when they are engaged in mortal combat. Still, I knew what I had to do in order to see the tooth of Beatrix Potter.  I sent my dear boy outside, and brazenly talked my way into the exhibit for a brief look around.  

My readers will be surprised to know that the teeth of several luminaries in addition to Ms. Potter are on display: Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, Edith Piaf, Louis Pasteur, Beethoven, Rosalia de Castro, and… Miguel de Cervantes.  I smelled a rat.  But no, the pleasant guide told me, “Ratón Pérez told us these are their teeth, and we can only take his word for it.”  She looked at me as if to say, these walls have ears.

Back outside in the throbbing heart of Madrid, the line to buy lottery tickets for El Gordo, the Big One, stretched across the Puerta del Sol.  A motley Sponge Bob, looking a bit unlicensed, tried to interest passersby in a photo with him, for a small fee. 

And then we saw a frozen flash mob, row upon row of people standing still, looking mournful, and holding the carcasses of small animals in their outstretched hands. 

The group Igualdad Animal, an animal equality organization, was holding a protest.  It certainly caught our attention.  Son 2 was thoughtful.  “I hope that’s not Ratón Pérez,” he said, with a glint in his eye.