When Sharon Stephenson found herself unexpectedly stopped in Madrid, she escaped transit hell for the Prado - one of the world's biggest art galleries.
This was supposed to be story about Marrakesh: of exploring Jardin Majorelle's colourfully bonkers gardens, of haggling in the souk for carpets we don't need and eating fragrant tagines while watching snake charmers in Jemaa el-Fna Square.
I'm flying in from London, a friend I haven't seen for ages is coming from Berlin; it's going to be an epic weekend of gossip, wine and shopping. But the travel gods have other plans. Due to a baggage handlers' strike and thick skeins of fog that cover the Mediterranean like a dirty fur coat, the airline announces a layover in Madrid. For eight, maybe 10, hours.
In other words, almost a quarter of my weekend will be spent in overly lit, air-conditioned limbo, eating food the consistency of cardboard and trying on every lipstick in duty-free.
The blond dreadlocked woman next to me sums it up perfectly when she says loudly, and to no one in particular, "Well that's f***ed, innit?" We nod in agreement. Sure, we could stay in the airport, wearing the "get me out of here" expression familiar to anyone who's ever endured transit hell. Or we could fire up our search engines to see what there is to do in Madrid.
I've been to the Spanish capital before, an Easter break with four girlfriends, each of us balming broken hearts with cheap sangria and even cheaper blokes. If there was any sightseeing involved, I don't remember it.
Google tells me I could visit Mercado San Miguel, the spectacular art nouveau marketplace where locals have been buying jamon and queso since the 18th century. At the Plaza Mayor, the city's main square, I could eat dulce de leche so sweet it will hurt my teeth. A short walk from there, I could watch men torture bulls while crazed audiences cheer them on (that's a big no from me).
And there there's the art: Madrid is less a city and more a repository of artistic treasures. The Reina Sofia, for example, is a great slab of a building that houses more than 15,000 works, including Picassos, Dalis and Miros, while the Museum de America boasts Europe's finest collection of American art and artefacts. There's also the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, a private gallery with more consonants than it strictly needs but also a tonne of Old Masters.
The godfather of them all, though, is the Museo del Prado, known simply as the Prado, a behemoth bloated with more around 24,000 of the world's best paintings, sculptures, prints and photographs. What I know about art could fit on to a Post-it Note but, after visiting the Louvre a few years ago and realising the only painting I recognised was the Mona Lisa, I needed to lift my game. So I vow to use this layover to dash to the Prado and cram in as much as I can.
Others are also making plans: my sweary neighbour has tracked down a former colleague to have lunch with and asks if she can travel into the city with me. There's also an English woman of indeterminate age who appears to be an artist/musician (or maybe she just dresses like an artist/musician), Simon, a website designer from Cardiff, who wants to join me on my artistic odyssey and an Argentinian backpacker who's seen a lot of partying but very little showering.
Outside Madrid's Barajas Airport we make small talk and, by the time the airport bus shows up, we know each others' names, occupations, relationship status and how we're going to spend the next few hours. Forty minutes later – 10 and a bit Guns N' Roses songs played at volume by the bus driver – Simon and I arrive at Real Jardin Botanico (the city's impressive botanic gardens). This 8ha streak of green contains more than 90,000 flowers and plants, 1500 trees and a herbarium containing another million or so specimens. I'd imagine it would be the perfect respite from the heat and the crowds. I'll have to keep imagining, because our strict time frame doesn't allow us any stops. Ignoring the cranky old man who shakes his walking stick at us, we cut across the manicured lawns to get to the Prado.
Naturally, there's a queue, but we eventually throw 20 euros at a bored teenager who looks as though she fell head-first into her makeup bag. She reciprocates with our tickets and a guide that explains how the Prado started life as a place to stash the Spanish royal family's art collection. As such, it's a barometer of royal tastes and political alliances from the 15th to 17th centuries: when the Spanish were matey with France, Italy and Holland, the coffers swelled with works by Botticelli, Rubens and Rembrandt. But when relations soured with England and other Protestant states, so did their collection. Naturally, the Prado also contains the world's largest collection of Spanish art.
So much art means more than 120 galleries. We pick our jaws up off the polished floor: we have no chance of seeing even a quarter of those. Even more confusingly, there's no suggested route and the galleries seem to have been numbered by someone with a marginal grasp of arithmetic. So, for example, Gallery 2 connects to Galleries 27 and 42. Or maybe 13. But not to Gallery 3. Or something like that. I get so confused I give up trying to make sense of it.
"Expect to backtrack quite a bit," says one online review with delicious understatement.
Which could explain the slightly manic vibe, the high-ceilinged rooms thick with confusion and desperation as visitors randomly ping-pong around the vast space.
Simon decides we need to be more strategic: what do we want to see most? I've no bloody idea and don't want to waste my dwindling phone battery but we're thrown a lifeline by a gay English couple we overhear speaking about their wish-list. They're all expensive cashmere, statement glasses and Amish-style beards; we figure they know what they're talking about. So we hover like stalkers, trying to memorise the names of artists, paintings and critiques they toss around like confetti.
Him: "We should start with the Italian Renaissance artists - especially Caravaggio and Raphael - and then move on to Velazquez, especially his wonderful Surrender of Breda work."
"Let's not forget the rooms devoted to Goya or the Treasures of the Grand Dauphin in the basement," chimes in his partner.
They may as well be speaking Urdu for all the sense it makes but Simon throws me a look: that's what we're going to do too. So we follow them, trailing behind like the pathetic philistines we are. The next few hours are a blur: there are oils and acrylics, enormous canvases and an alarming number of phallic objects crafted from metal and bronze. There's a colourful confusion of war, disembowelling, voluptuous naked women and grumpy-looking medieval blokes.
I spend 10 minutes I don't have trying to make sense of Hieronymus Bosch's famous Garden of Earthly Delights, a triptych supposed to represent history and faith. All I can make out is great splodges of of colour and weird, alien-like figures. Embarrassingly, a party of American school kids next to me is having an impassioned debate about whether Bosch intended it as a moral warning or a depiction of paradise lost. I stifle an urge to yell.
Somebody else does: "No flash photography!" screams the security guard at a group of giggling girls. They give him the best stink-eye I've ever seen before wandering off to no doubt do the same in another room.
By now, the museum is seething with people and we lose the English couple. Simon's iPhone has clocked almost 6000 steps, even though we've only seen a handful of galleries. I'm ready to swallow the pill of disappointment and find the nearest shopping centre. Not Simon. He thinks food will help revive my flagging attention so we head to the ground floor cafe where, over cuppas and ridiculously expensive eclairs, the ever-patient Welshman encourages me to stay.
It's hard to summon the energy; I was hoping this artistic speed date would deliver some kind of epiphany. But maybe I need to admit that art and I just don't get on. I also feel guilty about dragging Simon into my quest, although he seems like the kind of guy who'd be happy no matter where he was. As the tentacles of the clock squeeze harder, we decide to do a quick twirl around the Velazquez rooms. As has everyone else: the seven galleries are heaving with tourists and their annoying selfie sticks. We're squashed so close together I can almost identify people's brands of deodorant.
"Velazquez alone is worth the whole trip," wrote French artist Edouard Manet of his visit to the Prado in 1865. All these years later, he's still on the money. The man known as the "painter's painter", who influenced everyone from Picasso to Bacon, does extraordinary things with perspective and reality. The guide tells us Velazquez's most famous work, Las Meninas, is often described as the greatest painting in the world. It's a slightly hippie-trippy piece featuring the artist himself painting a portrait of the king and queen who, bizarrely, appear in a mirror at the end of the room. It's dark and brooding but also intriguing.
Although I'm being jostled by a United Nations of tourists, including an Australian woman whose child loudly and repeatedly tells her how to use her phone's zoom function, something clicks. I can't pretend to understand the nuances of Velazquez's creative impulses, or what he's trying to say about the relationship between the viewer and the painting's subjects but I'm finally able to breathe in a work of art that will stay with me forever.
We visit a few more galleries but nothing jumps out at me as much as that work. Plus, I remember I really, really hate crowds. It's also time to head back to the seven circles of hell that is airport security, so we retrace our steps and shuffle back on to the airport bus, tired and footsore but glad that we (slightly) expanded our artistic horizons.
As Simon says when we board our plane two hours later than expected: "It's as though we actually travelled somewhere, not just through somewhere. And had an adventure doing it."