Rome, Vienna, and Madrid were once the capital cities of vast empires. Each gathered within its confines the best artists, architects, thinkers, scientists, and chefs. All of them created deep roots in these cities, leaving treasures and pleasures often overlooked by visitors who spend their time in world-famous sites such as the Sistine Chapel, the Vienna State Opera, and the Prado. But it’s the off-the-beaten-track corners of these cities where unexpected gems await discovery.
Fred Plotkin, a popular Smithsonian Associates speaker on culture, history, and music, has lived in and visited Rome, Vienna, and Madrid over more than four decades. Join him for a richly illustrated series in which he looks at these places through the eyes of a flâneur—a French term for a person whose casual strolls through city streets produce delight in their chance discoveries. He shares what he’s found on his neighborhood walks: churches, theaters, specialty shops, restaurants, cafes, and unusual museums just a stone’s throw from world-famous landmarks.
April 30 Rome
Italy’s capital probably has more art than any other city, ranging from Etruscan times to the present. In addition to its famous museums, Rome has splendid collections such as the Doria Pamphilij, Colonna, and Accademia di San Luca. It’s also a city of more than 900 churches and boasts a district where priests and nuns can buy the latest ecclesiastical fashions. Rome’s small neighborhood markets provide a bounty of delicious foods that cannot be found in restaurants. Just outside the capital are EUR, a fascinating district built by Mussolini, and Cinecittà (Film City) the dream factory of Italian cinema.
May 28 Vienna
Founded by the ancient Romans, Vienna was the principal city of the Hapsburg Empire and home to musicians, painters, scientists, and spies speaking 15 different languages representing cultures from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. Native Viennese drew inspiration from these residents in their own creative pursuits. It became an unmatched center of design, reflected in furniture, architecture, and technology that was as functional as it was beautiful. The city is neatly organized in districts, with unusual museums devoted to butterflies, gravestones, and even the film The Third Man. Vienna’s Naschmarkt is an ancient food market that contains a theater where Beethoven lived and worked.
June 18 Madrid
Spain’s empire was infinitely larger than those of Rome and Vienna, making Madrid incredibly rich in holdings of art and artifacts. The Museo de América holds Europe’s finest collection of works of pre-Columbian civilization. Visitors can walk in beautiful districts pursuing any number of themes: literature, tapas, royalty, or the life or work of notable Spaniards such as Cervantes, Goya, the Duchess of Alba, or director Pedro Almodóvar. Madrid is a city full of splendid gardens, but few visitors know the Capricho de la Alameda de Osuna, created in the 1780s as a place where artists and aristocrats could commune with nature and exchange ideas. Madrid may be Europe’s finest late-night city, with restaurants, flamenco clubs, and the street scene called the movida in full swing until the wee hours.
Photo caption (upper right): Palazzo Doria Pamphilij, Rome (left), Vienna from St. Stephen Cathedral (right), and Egyptian Temple of Debod, Madrid (bottom)