A 7-Hour, 6-Mile, Round-the-Museum Tour of the Prado

Strolling the gallery, one feels the tug of creativity across a golden century. But halfway through it I felt pangs of hunger. It was 3 p.m. and I needed a break, a bite and someone to collect my kids from school.

I ran to the museum’s cafe, though on another day I would have headed to one of several worthwhile restaurants nearby, such as Café Murillo, a local joint that is popular with both stylish madrileños and Michelle Obama (who’s been twice), or Trattoria Sant’Arcangelo, a cozy Italian spot that often serves as the cantina for senior Prado staff. In warm weather the museum has a lovely outdoor cafe with yummy sandwiches and yummier sangria that might have kept me from going back inside to finish my mission.

When I did venture back in, I was lucid enough to focus on my quest for surprises. Several presented themselves in the form of a gallery with more than a dozen paintings by the French painters Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain that I never knew existed here. Ditto for another gallery of paintings by Anthony Van Dyck that I had somehow walked past for 17 years.

“Velázquez alone is worth the whole trip,” wrote the French painter Édouard Manet of his Prado visit in 1865. Velázquez, he noted, is the “painters’ painter,” so little wonder that the likes of John Singer Sargent, Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon would make similar pilgrimages to study the works displayed in Galleries 7 through 18. Artists of the Spanish “golden age” in the 17th century seemed to delight in manipulating paint on the canvas to create dazzlingly realistic effects, such as the light shimmering on silk gowns in Velázquez’s “Las Meninas,” or the churning clouds in the apricot-and-lavender skies of El Greco. Spanish ‘naturalism’ — painting objects and people as they actually appear — can have a deeper emotional impact, as seen in the candor and humanity of Velázquez’s portraits of buffoons or the austerity of Zurbarán’s nearly all black-and-white paintings, like “Agnus Dei,” which conveys the solemnity of Catholic Spain.

These galleries are the heart of my own Prado highlights tour, and even with my legs begging for rest, I spent more than an hour there.

By the dawn of the 18th-century, Spain had a new ruling dynasty, the Bourbons, but the pace of royal collecting and commissioning remained apace. The Prado’s large collection of Goya’s portraits — including one of King Charles IV and his family that features his already devious-looking son Fernando — remind me that the artist’s canny ability to reveal a subject’s hapless or sinister character speaks across the centuries.

Before heading to the third floor to delight in the frolic of Goya’s tapestry cartoons, I got a whiff of fresh coffee and, sensing I’d cut myself calorically short with that wee omelet for lunch, I followed my nose into the tiny new Café Jonicos and cookie shop tucked behind the central gallery. Sipping and chewing in surprising proximity to Rubens’s “Three Graces,” I mused on how much had changed since I had arrived in Madrid, when the Prado was among the most old-school of the world’s big-name museums, with surprisingly limited weekend and holiday hours, endless lines and a lackluster shop and cafe. Today, it’s a model of accessibility, open a minimum of nine hours a day (two of them with free admission), online ticket sales, hands-on exhibitions for the vision-impaired, a guide for the L.G.B.T. community, free online courses available to anyone, and now a coffee and cookie bar.

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