I'm inside the National Museum of Prado in Madrid and am facing Don Rodrigo Vazquez de Arce, an imposing middle-aged gentleman with a high forehead and an almost imperceptible wry smile. He could easily be one of the higher-ups of the European Central Bank aristocracy in Brussels. But he's a Spaniard, the president of the Treasury Council and the Royal Council of Castile. And he's been dead for some 430 years.
It is the portrait of Don Rodrigo, in his inky black coat with white ruffles at the collar that seems like the 16th century equivalent of an Armani suit, that captivates me at the Prado. If it's the handiwork of some ledger-fudging Greeks who have added woes to Europe in general and Spain in particular, then it's a 16th century Greek by the name of Domenicos Theotocopoulos who has left a rousing impression on European art, quite notably by this portrait of a Spanish gentleman-aristocrat who seems relieved to be not around while Spain suffers from the triple whammy of an euro crisis, a financial meltdown and the effects of continuing global economic downturn.
Money and jobs have already started leaving Spain, a country in which Theotocopoulos, known more famously by his nickname 'El Greco', settled down after travelling from (not yet bankrupt) Crete and then Italy. Economists are already looking at the worst-case scenario in which much of Spain's $1.25 trillion in bank deposits will be moving out of the country.
History as usual
Going by the crowds inside and outside the Prado in central Madrid, one would have no inkling that an Apocalypse is round the corner. The tourists - both foreigners and locals from other parts of Spain - seem to be soaking up the sunshine and thronging the restaurants without any visible signs of dread. But this, I'm told, is Madrid.
"Go south and you'll find whole towns shut down with people left without jobs and livelihoods," I am told by Mauricio Macarron, a professional guide. He tells me, though, that there hasn't been much of a dip in the number of tourists visiting Madrid, adding that more and more Chinese tourists are coming here on specially tailored tours.
Macarron blames Spain's politicians for the mess it's in. He conducts a brief discussion on the Spanish civil war that raged between 1936 to 1939 explaining that it wasn't a war against fascism "as most people want to believe" but a war against communism. "Franco saved Spain from becoming a Soviet satellite," he says with conviction.
Spain's dictatorial leader General Francisco Franco, who ruled the country with an iron grip from 1939 to 1970 - and who also maintained a genuinely neutral position during World War 2 fobbing off invitations from Hitler to join the Axis forces - is being remembered by many Spaniards these days. Well, unlike the current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the conservative People's Party who came into power in December last year, General Franco certainly wore a super-heroic (military) costume.
Leaning or tottering?
I find myself in front of the imposing 'twin towers' at the Paseo de la Castallena, the business and financial hub of Madrid that to my untrained eyes seems more than just a bit quiet for things to be business as usual. The two towers appear from the ground as two black monoliths, with the eye-grabbing quality of leaning into each other at an angle of 15 degrees - which is more than twice that of the un-intended inclination of the 'leaning' tower of Pisa.
Designed by American architects Philip Johnson (who designed one of the most glorious structures in the world, the black steel-and-glass Seagram Building in New York) and John Burgee, the two structures, collectively known as the Puerta de Europa (Gateway of Europe), were built in 1996. The right hand tower bears the office building name of Spanish real estate giant Realia. But it is the left-hand tower that seems to be running the risk of toppling over as it bears the name of the discredited Spanish banking conglomerate, Bankia, which the government recently nationalised and bailed out by injecting about 20 billion euros, making it the largest banking bail-out in Spain's history.
Under the Bankia tower, Macarron tells me with palpable sadness, "This country is in a mess. We need a Franco today to make things all right." The leaning Bankia tower, I notice, doesn't cast any shadow.
Which is odd, considering I can see some tourists taking photos under the Realia building's shade.