German art collector Helga de Alvear enjoys star status in Caceres, the small town in southern Spain where she has opened her own museum, which has been responsible for bringing thousands of culture lovers to the charming town.
Despite only opening in February, the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo Helga de Alvear has quickly established a reputation for itself as an international contemporary art hotspot counting some 70,000 visitors so far this year alone, despite pandemic restrictions placing strict limits on visitor numbers. Recently, Caceres even set a new record for visitor numbers this summer, thanks largely to the new museum.
The heiress to a German plastics fortune, de Alvear has spent years amassing one of the largest private art collections in Europe, which today includes over 3,000 separate works. Born in the Rheinland, de Alvear has lived in Madrid since 1957 where she founded and ran one of Spain’s most renowned art galleries for many years. Over the decades, de Alvear built up a contemporary art collection that is second to none.
Works by Picasso and Ai Weiwei
Entering the museum’s garden, a giant pink sausage by Viennese artist Franz West stands out among palm trees. Passing an almost 200-metre-long installation made by Fernando Sanchez Castillo from the remains of Spain’s former dictator Franco’s yacht, you reach an aluminium olive tree by the Swiss sculptor Ugo Rondinone.
The entrance area is one of the highlights: On the floor is the gigantic chandelier “Descending Light”, made with 60,000 pearls, with which the Chinese art star Ai Weiwei stages the decline of communism. Next to it hang works by the German photographer Frank Thiel, British art enfant terrible Damien Hirst and the Colombian Doris Salcedo.
The work of dozens more renowned artists can be seen on the four floors of the museum, ranging from Pablo Picasso to Louise Bourgeois.
With just under 200 works, the museum’s debut exhibition provides the public with just a glimpse into de Alvear’s collection.
Art museum awarded architectural prizes
Attaching great importance to finding the “right shell” for her collection, de Alvear eventually had the museum’s premises designed and built to her own specifications. Architect Emilio Tunon has already been awarded numerous international architectural prizes for his design, in which snow-white reinforced concrete pillars form the open skeleton of a cube-shaped building, which connects the medieval Old Town with the New Town some 24 metres below via a publicly accessible staircase.
Despite this modernist cube being a stark contrast to the rest of Caceres’ historic old town, the museum actually manages to blend harmoniously into its surroundings with its clean lines and light-flooded rooms.
Indeed, in architectural terms at least, Caceres is the polar opposite of modern, as a walk through its old town, which was given UNESCO World Heritage status back in 1986, will immediately reveal, being more like a journey back in time to the Middle Ages.
The thick city walls and the mighty fortress towers that soar above them date to the Arab rule of Spain during the twelfth century.
Behind the imposing star-arched city gate, the Arco de la Estrella, a labyrinth of narrow streets, stone staircases, arcades, old churches and convents spreads out before your eyes. More than 40 Renaissance palaces characterize what is known to be the best-preserved medieval city centre in Europe after those in Tallinn and Prague, and with its combination of Roman, Islamic, Gothic and Renaissance influences, it is certainly the most diverse.
Award-winning local cuisine
The alluring combination of centuries of history with contemporary art and culture moved Time magazine to include Caceres on its list of “World’s 100 Greatest Places 2021.”
But beyond the new museum, there are several other traveller draws in Caceres, such as the Mercedes Calles y Carlos Ballestero Foundation, a cultural centre and exhibition space, or the Provincial Museum in the Palacio de las Veletas, whose cellar contains the world’s second-largest Arabic cistern, which dates from the 15th century.
Gastronomically too, Caceres is no slouch, with some exquisite eating opportunities in the town, not least ham from the black Iberico pigs that graze in the forests surrounding the town.
In 2015, the Association of Spanish Hoteliers and Restaurant Critics even chose Caceres as Spain’s gastronomic capital, citing the Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish and Jewish influences that can still be found on menus today.