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Naval Museum in Madrid: an overlooked treasure
It's overlooked by most tourists. In fact, it's overlooked by a lot of madrileños. I've met some locals who didn't even know it exists. Perhaps being so far away from the sea they don't expect there to be a major naval museum downtown. It also doesn't help that it's tucked behind a modest facade that's easy to miss.
Go inside, though, and you find yourself in a massive collection of paintings, cannons, uniforms, even parts of old ships.
Spain was one of of the leading naval powers in the Golden Age of Sail. It owned much of the New World and scattered colonies around the globe. It protected its interests with a large fleet of warships.
The museum skips lightly over the medieval period and gets really detailed starting at the Age of Exploration. Columbus is given his due, and many other lesser-known explorers are also covered. The maps are fun to study. The most important is that of Juan de la Cosa, made in 1500 and the first known map to show the New World.
The biggest section is for warships from the 16th-18th centuries, when Spain was a superpower. Here you'll find uniforms, weapons, flags, and a nice collection of figureheads like the one shown here. One of the most interesting exhibits is the wreck of the Nao, which sank in 1600. Archaeologists donned scuba gear and excavated the wreck, bringing up a huge collection of porcelain from China as well as other artifacts.
The 19th and 20th centuries are also covered, although not in as much detail. By then Spain's power was waning. There are some detailed models and paintings of ships that were making the transition from sail to steam. They had steam engines but kept their masts just in case those early engines broke, which they did regularly! The Spanish Civil War is only covered in passing. I've yet to see a Spanish museum that's come to terms with this bloody conflict. It's still in living memory, so the old wounds remain open.
The section for the modern navy is worth a look too. While small compared to those of the U.S., Russia, and UK, the Armada still packs a punch. It has two aircraft carriers, ten frigates, four submarines, and a host of smaller ships. This puts Spain way ahead of Morocco, its only potentially hostile neighbor.
The only downside to this museum is that the signage is all in Spanish. Don't worry if you don't speak the language; most of the exhibits are pretty self-explanatory. The museum is free. Because it's in a military building, make sure to bring ID to get in.